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Allegorical Interpretation of Shakespeares 'Othello'

In: English and Literature

Submitted By ryanperrin12
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Ryan Perrin
Research Essay
William Shakespeare’s Othello could be viewed as an allegory that represents the frailty of human reason and the ease as to which a person can manipulate rational thought through the utilization of skillful rhetoric and deception. In the essay Allegory and Irony in ‘Othello’ by Antoinette B. Dauber, she says “he [Shakespeare] is not committed to the maintenance of allegory, and so he freely dramatizes the internal weaknesses and external onslaughts that lead to its destruction.” The readers, or viewers of the play, then are meant to be able to apply the stories moral problems to everyday situations and realize the harm that can be done by using rhetoric and deception to manipulate others. Rhetoric, when used as a tool of deception, can lead others to come to “reasonable conclusions,” yet these conclusions may be based upon irrational reasons and emotion; which in turn makes such a conclusion irrational. In reality these irrational reasons are only as rational as a persuader can convince a person to believe. In Othello, Shakespeare shows that even in the minds of people that are most confident of themselves, there is a self-doubt that can be increasingly apparent by very simple means of ignition. Iago ignites, or maybe even re-ignites this self-doubt by leading Othello to believe that Desdemona would prefer Cassio over him, which could cause Othello to believe that he is not worthy of having Desdemona since he is black. This situation shows the vulnerability of rational thinking to being consumed by emotion and self-doubt. In the time of Shakespeare there was an increasing emphasis on the value of the reason in which human beings can produce. Shakespeare wanted to make a point against reason as a primary source of thought to show that there is more to the human thought process than reason can supply on its own. He also wanted to show how a dependence upon reason cannot lead a person to realize how irrational their “reasonable conclusion” actually is. Shakespeare would advocate that the governing aspect of choice in real-life situations would not be found in reason, rather it would found in faith and the understanding of emotions.
During the late 16th and early 17th centuries the educated people of the western world were learning about the newly discovered ideas of the mechanisms in which the world and the universe work. The establishment of modern science was happening during this time, which began with Copernicus and his revolutionary theory of the heliocentric planetary system. Afterwards, Johannes Kepler deduced mathematically that the suggested mechanism proposed by Copernicus was evidently true. The establishment of modern science led many philosophers of the time to depend heavily upon reason and experience as primary sources of truth. Othello was a tool used by Shakespeare to show the harm in relying upon reason and experience.
Shakespeare has been viewed by some as an early psychologist (Whitbourne) in that he is able to portray the interactions of his characters in a manner that makes them not only believable, but also shows them to be dynamic in their nature. He does this in a way that doesn’t make them seem to be characters in a play; instead they are portrayed as realistic human beings that have thoughts of their own and act upon these thoughts, as opposed to characters moving and thinking through life on a track set by the divine. In other words, he made an assumption that humans make choices every day that affect the outcome of their life and are not subject to a destined outcome. Shakespeare began to view theatre as a simulation of the real world before writing Othello (Oatley); in doing so, Shakespeare portrayed his plays as being real-life situations. In this can be found a basis by which he may have expected the reader, or viewer to take the play and apply it to actual real-life situations, thus the story being treated as an allegory.
In Act III Scene III of Othello, Iago begins his campaign of emotional warfare in the mind of Othello through the utilization of rhetoric, and by directing Othello’s attention toward the fact that Cassio had “so guilty-like,” slipped away after seeing the approach of Othello toward him and Desdemona (Othello, Line 39, Act III Scene III). The reason behind Iago’s supposed perception of Cassio’s guilt was to make Othello question Cassio’s honesty, because at this point in the story, Othello believes that Cassio is an honest man. After Desdemona leaves the scene, Othello and Iago speak of Cassio’s acquaintance to Desdemona and whether a man is actually who he seems to be. Othello tells Iago that Cassio had “went between us very oft,” meaning that Cassio had been a connection between Othello and Desdemona. Afterwards, both Iago and Othello come to the conclusion that a man should be what they seem (Othello, Line 96-127, Act III Scene III). During the conversation happening at this part of Act III, Iago keeps trying to bait Othello into asking him what he had found peculiar about Cassio’s sneaking away. By exclaiming “Indeed!” when Othello tells him that Cassio had been the medium between Desdemona and himself, Iago makes Othello wonder to himself what might make someone connect Cassio as a medium in their relationship to Cassio’s stealing away. After determining that a man should be what he seems, Othello has Iago tell him what it is that is bothering Iago about the situation. Iago embeds the idea of Desdemona preferring Cassio over Othello into Othello’s thought process. By doing this Iago has compromised the ability of Othello to be able to reason clearly, and his ability to sort through the situation with a clear distinction between Iago’s supposed reasons behind Cassio’s actions and what the actual reasons behind his actions were. During this scene though, Othello is level-headed and not worried about whether Desdemona and Cassio were having an affair.
Through the evaluation of Act III Scene IV, with the acknowledgment of the allegorical significance of the story, the actions of Iago and the reactions of Othello present a connection between Iago’s deception and the ambiguity of Othello’s ability to reason. When Iago gets Emilia to take Desdemona’s handkerchief, Othello begins to wonder whether Desdemona may or may not be faithful to him. Without doing this Iago would not have been able to make Othello convince himself that Desdemona was unfaithful. Othello was primarily using reason to determine why Desdemona would not have the handkerchief. Othello’s reasoning would have him believe that the Egyptian was right in saying that if the woman in possession of the handkerchief were to lose it, then it was a sign of the woman’s disloyalty. Here, if Othello was led by his faith in his wife, then he would think the opposite; that the handkerchief was simply lost and that the loss of the handkerchief had nothing to do with their relationship.
In Act IV Scene I as Othello is listening in on Iago and Cassio talk he finds reason to believe that Cassio will not marry Bianca because he is in love with Desdemona. He only finds these reasons because of the embedded idea of Desdemona’s disloyalty in his mind. When Bianca comes into the scene and tells Cassio that the handkerchief must have been left as a token of some minx, Othello immediately believes that the handkerchief must have been left in Cassio’s room by Desdemona. Once again if Othello had relied on faith, then the story would have turned out different. Since the story is meant to be allegorical though, it is necessary to show how Othello’s reason continually crumbles instead of having him take the situation on faith. Iago eventually tells Othello, “If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend, for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody.” Here, Iago is telling Othello to let faith lead him to the conclusion rather than reason alone. By doing this though, Iago knows that this will make him do just the opposite.
In Scene II of Act IV, Othello talks to Emilia about Desdemona and Cassio’s relation. Emilia tells Othello that she has no reason to believe that the two had anything between them more than friendship and implores Othello to ask her instead of thinking about whether she did. Thus, she implores him to be guided by his faith in his wife rather than relying upon his reason to come to a conclusion about the situation.
In Love’s Reason in Othello, Weedin says “He [Iago] disputes […] reason’s proper place as the natural and rightful head of a hierarchy in the man’s soul.” Obviously, Iago is the antagonist in the story, and since he is governed by reason, Shakespeare was relating Iago to reason; thus making reason the problem in the story. Throughout the play it can be seen that there is an emphasis on the fact that other characters honestly tell Othello to take Desdemona’s word and not believe that she is unfaithful. Othello, being that he is often guided by reason rather than by faith, begins to notice many “good reasons” to believe that Desdemona was unfaithful. In all these “reasons” can be found a deception of some sort. Whether it is Iago’s rhetoric, action, or skillful manipulation of a situation to benefit his own deceitful virtue, the resulting situation could have been averted if Othello had kept his faith in Desdemona as the woman he originally sought after, and kept his faith in her words as his wife. Shakespeare shows emphasis on the basis as to which it is found that faith can in some cases be much better in determining the truth than reason. While it may not suit every situation in the world, Shakespeare believed faith to be the dominant trait as to which we find truth. He saw that reason was taking over what was predominantly governed by faith for the last century and a half, and was afraid to see reason used against the virtue of man. Shakespeare wrote plays so that the problems of reason could be shown to the people of the world and he could persuade others that there are situations in which faith is the only tool that will determine the truth.

Works Cited
Dauber, Antoinette. “Allegory and Irony in Othello.” Term Paper Warehouse. 16 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Dec. 2013

Oatley, Keith. “Simulation of Substance and Shadow: Inner Emotions and Outer Behavior in
Shakespeare’s Psychology of Character.” College Literature 33.1 (2006) n.pag.
Humanities Source. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Weedin Jr, E.K.. “Love’s Reason in Othello.” Studies in English Literature (Rice) 15.2
(1975): 29. Humanities Source. Web. 9 Dec. 2013

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.” The Riverside Anthology of Literature. 3rd Ed. Dean Johnson, Magdalena Hernandez. Boston, MA: Houghton
Mifflin Company, 1997. Pg. 1103-196. Print.

Whitbourne, Susan. “10 of Psychology’s Best Quotes and Their Surprising Sources.”
Psychology Today. 24 Aug. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013

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