rewashed: An Essay on Moral Choice in Othello

In both Act 1 and 2, a crucial judgment is made and ‘justice’ publicly dispensed. Locate each judgment and its participants. Identify motive, evidence, and consequences of ruling. What key similarities and/or differences are there? Why do you think Shakespeare has chosen to structure the first two acts so they mirror each other in this way?

In the first two acts of Othello, Shakespeare sets up the major conflicts which drive the story by having each character be accused, explained, and given a verdict before the storm of passion and violence Iago creates in Act 3. In Act 1, Othello is confronted by his father-in-law about his elopement with Desdemona. In Act 2, Cassio is confronted by Othello for his dispensation of his duties for drink. Although Shakespeare does include two important political aspects to each Act, such as the attack of the Turkish fleet and the night watch on Cyprus, the focus of both Acts are on the personal accusations that drive the play. The mixture of political endangerment and the possible loss of respect and prestige for both Othello and Cassio mirror each other because they describe the faults in their armors as soldiers and men.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Othello is accused of “enchanting” Brabantio’s daughter to marry him. “But [Othello] loves Desdemona.” For this reason, he stands in the open for Brabantio and the Senators host a makeshift court in which Othello explains how “[he] won his daughter.” Brabantio claims that Desdemona is “of spirit so still and quiet that her own [desires]/[She] blushes at”.

Othello, before the Duke, the Senators, Officers, Brabantio, and Iago is found innocent of bewitching her, but guilty of stealing her away. Brabantio hears his daughter “confess that she is half the wooer” and goes on his way to leave Desdemona as Othello’s wife.

In Act 2, Scene 3, Othello “looks to [Cassio] to guard the night”, and warns him to remember his “poor and unhappy brains for drinking”. By Iago’s persuasion, Cassio drinks anyway and starts a fight with Roderigo, and wounds Montano. The alarm bell rings and Othello leaves his marriage bed to attend to Cassio. “How comes it [Cassio] that you are thus forgot?” That you cannot hold your liquor? He literally cannot speak on his behalf and is then stripped of his title while Montano, Iago and Roderigo look on.  Cassio cries out: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation…the immortal part of myself.”

Iago, “Thou art a villain.” How is it that one man may act loyal and “honest”, and yet have the worst at heart for both Cassio and Othello? In both situations, Iago’s role as the accuser causes both conflicts to reach their boiling point by Scene 3. In Act 1, Iago riles up Brabantio crying out “an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” and describing in horrifying details of all the ways “[Othello] will make a grandshire out of him”. He then seduces Cassio to drink a cup to many. Iago knows how to make him act out; so that he may call out to Othello in the same manner he did to Brabantio.

Both Acts start off in the middle of the action, and both Cassio and Othello admit their guilt in the act, going as far as to offer no self-defense on their own part, and attempt to show the valiance of their character by being accountable to the law. After all, they are both soldiers, then men.  Its should be noted that their crimes are not of the traditional sort, but rather forms the pattern of moral choice which Shakespeare continues to touch on throughout the play. They make a decision, they act on it, they stick by it, and then suffer the consequences.

However, both accused men claim that “[Iago] advises well.” The key difference between the two situation is that Cassio follows his advice wile Othello stays steadfast in his belief that his “demerits/ May speak unbonneted” for him. Cassio “cannot speak” and only prays for pardon from the hands of Desdemona whilst Othello is tells his side of the story, to which the Senator claims “Even my daughter would be [wooed by the stories Othello tells.]”

Shakespeare mirrors his movements for “Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used.” Iago’s motive to destroy both Othello and Cassio for a passed-over promotion seems trite. Even Iago tries to reason with the audience by claiming that Othello has bedded his wife, although we never hear of his accusation again throughout the play. His position as the devil’s advocate is purely based for his own rights and pleasure. I personally think it’s foolish to have such a blank motive. Why would Shakespeare not give Iago a legitimate reason, as he did for Hamlet’s anger at his uncle for murdering his father for the throne and his wife?

Maybe that was not his aim. Perhaps he was attempting to not play only on Iago’s guilt as an accuser. After all, in both situations, Iago was correct:  Othello did in his own way “conjured” Desdemona’s love, and Cassio was downright drunk during his night-watch. Shakespeare is known for structuring his two scenes of judgment makes sure that not one man is truly innocent. Just as in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo does eventually kill a rival in the name of a Montague, although this does not make the star cross’d lover’s affection for Juliet any less real. However, in Othello, the pattern of moral choice is the theme most centered upon.

And in what better way can choice be played upon, but by the temptation of the devil? Strangely, although there is an obvious absolute of evil in Iago, there is no counter absolute of good in either Othello or Cassio. Shakespeare explains this apparent in-balance: “ ’Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus.” And yet he admits to the fact that our wills are “corrigible”, or correctable, whether by our own will or by the influence of another’s. Iago represents that corrigible force to only Cassio in Act 2, and then to Othello from Acts 3 to 5.

In structuring the first two acts like this, Shakespeare creates the largest theme of Othello: moral choice. In every Act, Iago does not force anyone to do anything, similar to how Satan himself operates. Rather, he plays the devil’s advocate and lets man take his own fall as “the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.” Whether or not Othello and Cassio are strong enough as men and as soldiers to weather the storm is entirely up to them.

Nicole Ntim-Addae

Hey guys, can you believe it’s been a whole year since I started An Idea of Literature? It’s just about six more months until I write this paper!

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