Illusion and Reality

The theme of distortion of reality presented in Othello.

Shakespeare explores themes in Othello very ironic to the medium of the story. While he crafted works to be performed with words and actions, in this piece Shakespeare examines just how transient these tools of the playwright could be. Most every character in Othello is led to believe in entirely false happenings simply by a misconstruing of words and actions and the trickery of their own mind. The success of this drama and the successful working out of the ironic equation depends on the extent to which the audience fulfill the literary contract or partnership with the author of remaining in the world of reality and keeping their heads while one by one the characters in the play are losing theirs. In Othello, Shakespeare illustrates through their distorted visions of truth the illusory nature of reality and how easily it can be contorted in our minds. While all characters serve as some example of the theme to one degree or another, Iago plays the most striking and direct example of this warping of reality.

The antagonist of Othello serves a double purpose: as both an agent and victim of fallacy. First, Iago directly manipulates all other characters vision of reality with his twisted schemes. As Estelle Taylor says in her examination of irony in Othello, “Iago from the very start of the dramatic action becomes not only the representative, the symbol and embodiment of the dualism or the ironic equation, but also the real active controlling force that will motivate the other major characters or character types–including Othello, the hero–and determine the extent to which, and even the manner in which, each of them in turn will be so manipulated or, in modern terminology, so brainwashed or programmed as to be literally “fascinated” into accepting shadow for substance, appearance for reality.” Using only words, Iago is able to fabricate an affair between Cassio and Desdemona that doesn’t have a grain of truth, and yet is entirely convincing to Othello. More importantly, however, Iago, even while he betrays Othello, appears to be a loyal subordinate.

Indeed, Iago manages to deceive several other characters as well, and they continue to view him as a trustworthy and honest person. Roderigo gives Iago money, believing that the devil aids him in his quest to attain Desdemona, and all the while, Iago only uses Roderigo to serve his own purposes and pockets the rich fool’s money. Cassio as well believes Iago to be his friend when he is anything but. Iago fools Cassio into believing that he is trying to regain the young lieutenant his position under Othello, while all the time, he is using Cassio’s actions and his own shadowy insinuations to make it appear to the Moor that Cassio is cuckolding him. Shakespeare crafted the character of Iago as a textbook example of a wolf is sheep’s clothing, demonstrating how words, created to spread information, can so easily be used to breed misconception. From the very beginning, Shakespeare points out to the audience the purpose and symbolism of his antagonist. When Iago is speaking to Roderigo in the first scene, he tells him that all of his words and actions are a disguise and says, “I am not what I am.” “Thus, from the start of the drama Shakespeare carefully exposes the inner rage of Iago, his wide-ranging capacity for evil and destruction of others, to his audience through a number of techniques and patterns so that the ironic equation–appearances equal reality, shadow equals substance–becomes not only the powerful literary device but also the substantive force on which the drama will be built and around which all action will revolve (Taylor).” One of these devices, used by Shakespeare to develop the theme and by Iago to further his perverse agenda is Desdemona’s handkerchief.

The emblematic piece of cloth serves to develop the theme in several different ways. First, having been a wedding gift from Othello to Desdemona, it represents the couple’s vows to each other, which are voided in the course of the story, partially due to the loss of the handkerchief itself. So, this handkerchief demonstrates how easily vows can be broken and how shallow such romantic gestures can be. When Othello first speaks to Desdemona after she has lost the handkerchief he says, “The hearts of old gave hands, But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts.” With this phrase, he implies that the giving of hand in marriage is often a sham, because one or both parties involved do not give the other their heart. Secondly, by serving as evidence, in fact the only physical piece of evidence, of Cassio and Desdemona’s imaginary relationship, the handkerchief again illustrates how actions and words can misrepresent reality. Shakespeare points out the purpose of the handkerchief having Othello demand of Iago “ocular proof”. Iago ironically delivers this evidence in the form of the handkerchief, turning what was a symbol of Desdemona’s love into a symbol of her false infidelity. Now the thing has become “public evidence of the conspiracy which Othello wholly believes to exist (Burke, 42).”

Finally, the origins of the handkerchief, or rather, Othello’s explanation of its origin serve to once more emphasize how often words are used to distort truth. When the moor finds that Desdemona has lost the handkerchief, he tells her that the handkerchief was given to his mother by an Egyptian gypsy. He says further that there is magic in the handkerchief which ensures that Desdemona will stay true to him, only so long as she has it in her possession. Later, when Othello is recalling the story to Graziano, he calls the handkerchief “an antique token my father gave my mother,” disproving the original tale he told Desdemona. The cloth which already symbolizes nonexistent realities finds one way to represent fallacy.

While Shakespeare demonstrates how thin the connection between words and physical appearances and reality, he also focuses, on how the human mind uses the frailness of this connection to bend and distort reality. Othello is the most developed examples of this. Although these two are foils for each other, they share a very vital characteristic, intense jealousy. He becomes so consumed by their jealousy and the thirst for revenge that he allows his emotions to distort reality eventually leading him to his doom.

At the outset of the play, Othello is a quite level headed individual. Indeed, throughout the course of the play, appears to remain very rational in his thinking. However, he falls into an intense jealousy surprisingly quick. What’s more, Iago only insinuates Desdemona’s sins, never stating straight out that she is an adulterer, and Othello becomes consumed by suspicion. Further, Iago never even supplies Othello with any real evidence. D. R. Godfrey points out just this in his commentary on the role of jealousy in Othello, “Pesent in the initial reactions of Othello is of course that most encompassing of all the characteristics of the jealous man, a consuming irrationality. The presence of Iago with his diabolical insinuations tends somewhat to mask the insanity of Othello, to present him as a man reacting logically in the face of accumulating evidence, indeed of proof. By the end of the Temptation Scene, however, there is still no more than the slenderest of evidence, a handkerchief that Iago may have seen Cassio wipe his beard with, and Cassio’s alleged, and as Iago himself admits, inconclusive dream.”

So, the once reasonable Othello, now blinded by jealousy, derives the most unreasonable of conclusions from Iago’s misleading insinuations and false proof. Shakespeare teaches through the fall of Othello a valuable lesson. Because words and actions are so insubstantial, the human mind can warp their meaning completely according to what it wants. T.S. Elliot wrote, in a commentary on Othello, “I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”

“Indeed, the unifying element in Shakespeare’s Othello is that of the power of illusion, of what seems rather than what is, to determine the thoughts and actions of each of the major characters (Taylor).” By mistaking illusion for reality, the characters in this play, especially Othello, act as operatives of their own destruction. Shakespeare crafts a story, ironically with words, which demonstrates how transient words and actions. However, in doing so, he also proves just how effective and dangerous words can be.

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