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The Animalistic Qualities Of Othello Essay, Research Paper
“What is left when honor is lost?” This question from the first century BC play, Othello, plays
a pivotal role. The question serves as a basis for the struggle between Othello and Iago. Both men are engaged
in a battle over Othello’s honor. Iago is intent on destroying Othello’s honor and reducing him to a beast
or animal like state. Iago views Othello as a beast masquerading in warrior’s uniform. Iago wants Othello to
returnto his “natural” animal being and Iago realizes that to achieve this goal he must fool Othello into violating
his code of honor. Ironically, as Iago tries to unmask Othello’s animal like behavior and being, it is the beast .
within Iago that is exposed.
From the beginning of the play, Iago’s view of Othello as a beast is obvious. Iago repeatedly
describes Othello in terms of animals. When Iago attempts to make Brabantio’s angry, he refers to Othello in
vulgar, beast like terms . He says to Brabantio, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tuping your
white ewe” (1.1.89-90). He continues with, “you’ll have your daughter cover’d with a Barbary horse; / you’ll
have your nephews neigh to you; / you’ll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans” (1.1.110-114). He
even exclaims to Brabantio that “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”
(1.1.117-118). Each of these animalistic phrases could be viewed only as Iago’s attempt to anger Brabantio if
it were not for the fact that Iago also refers to Othello as an animal when he is alone. In his soliloquy at the end
of Act 1, Iago says that Othello “will as tenderly be led by th’nose / As asses are” (1.3.395-936). He again
refers to Othello as an ass in Act 2: “Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me, / For making him
egregiously an ass” (2.2.302-303). Whether alone or accompanied, Iago’s views on Othello are clear; he
sees him as “an erring barbarian” (1.3.350) who can be fooled into committing murder.
Iago’s reasons for wanting Othello to murder Desdemona are never satisfactorily explained.
As Iago says, “What you know, you know” (5.2.306). He gives various reasons for wanting to destroy Othello,
none are really true. He is upset because of Cassio’s promotion over him. He suspects Othello of bedding his wife.
But why is he determined to have Othello murder Desdemona? His plot seems based on sport rather than reason.
Iago truly hates the Moor, but his hate is not grounded in any firm reason. As the play progresses, Iago’s motive
never fully crystallizes, but his determination to fool Othello into murder, thereby destroying his sense of honor,
grows stronger. Early in the play Iago realizes that Othello’s idea of honor is intertwined with his concept of justice.
Othello, more than any other character in the play, is obsessed with justice. Iago recognizes this and he realizes that
in order for Othello to become a “beast” he has to violate his sense of justice. With this realization, Iago concocts
his plan to have Othello murder Desdemona. He is convinced that in wrongfully murdering his wife, Othello’s
manhood will be destroyed and the beast within will be exposed.
Iago realizes that to destroy Othello he must convince him that murdering Desdemona is
justified and then reveal that the act is unpardonable. To accomplish this, Iago provides Othello with proof. Othello
repeatedly demands proof of Desdemona’s crime. He says to Iago in Act 2, scene 3, “No, Iago; / I’ll see before
I doubt; when I doubt, prove” (2.3.193). He then demands that Iago give him “ocular proof” saying, “Make me to
see’t; or, at the least, so prove it / That the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on” (3.3.368-370).
These lines illustrate that Othello is not a rash and violent man. He would not unjustly incriminate someone without
proof. Iago manipulates Desdemona and Cassio into providing this proof.
Once Iago arranges for Desdemona and Cassio to incriminate themselves, thus providing Othello with his needed
“proof,” he moves to the most important part of his plan. He convinces Othello to murder his wife with his bare hands.
Othello himself does not decide to strangle Desdemona, Iago plants the idea in his mind. Othello initially wants to
“chop her into messes” (4.1.196). He then decides to poison her: “Get me some poison, Iago–this night” (4.1.200).
Iago, however, convinces him to strangle his wife. This is the justice that Iago seeks. Since Othello will kill Desdemona
with his own hands, he is yet again turning into his beast like state of being. Iago wants no man-made instruments
to distance Othello from the act. To kill with a knife would be the crime of a man; to kill with the body would be the
crime of an animal. He believes that by convincing Othello to strangle his wife that Othello will cease to be a well
respected warrior and resort to his true self ,that of a raging beast.
Othello strangles Desdemona to death. By having Othello strangle Desdemona, it shows the brutal,
animalistic nature of the act. Othello is treading on a thin line between man and beast. Iago believes that by convincing
Othello to murder Desdemona with his bare hands that he will push Othello to the beast side of that line. Yet there is
one major flaw in Iago’s plan, Othello does not murder Desdemona for the sake of murder , but for the sake of justice.
A beast murders without reason and and as Othello shows a man murders with reason. Desdemona’s murder was not
one of instinct, like a beast, but one with intellectual reasoning. As shown throughout the story, Othello believes strongly
in the justice system and defends it through the rest of the play.Iago believes that by tricking Othello into murdering
Desdemona that he is guiltless in the crime. Yet the true guilt for Desdemona’s murder does lie with Iago. Iago sees
himself as bringing Othello back to his natural beast like state. Yet who is the true beast in this situation? Othello who
performs an animalistic act that he has been led to believe is justified or Iago who, at least psychologically, is the true
murderer of Desdemona?
The irony of Othello lies in the fact that by trying to expose Othello as a beast, Iago himself becomes a
beats Othello could never return to an animalistic state because he never loses his sense of honor. His murder of
Desdemona is an actof misguided justice. Yet Iago’s part in the murder is more fitting of a beast. Othello murders
with a reason; Iago murder without a reason. As the play progresses, the use of animal imagery as character
description shifts from Othello to Iago. In Act 5, scene 1, after being stabbed by Iago, Roderigo says, “O damn’d
Iago! O inhuman dog!” (5.2.288). Later in Act 5, Lodovico describes Iago first as a “viper” (5.2.288) and then as
a “Spartan dog” (5.2.365).
Iago can be viwed in two ways, he can be seen as a beast from the beginning of the play or as
an evil man who transforms into a beast. Early in the play, Iago’s confusion about what separates man and beast
is evident. He says to Roderigo, “Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change
my humanity with a baboon” (1.3.315-316). This line illustrates Iago’s belief that to love and to willingly sacrifice for that
love is absurd. He would rather live as an animal than be guided by love for another, and indeed he does just that. Iago
is guided only by self-love, which is the same as animals who are guided by self-preservation. He lives by the animalistic
saying “survival of the fittest”. Yet even if Iago begins the play as a beast, throughout the play he progresses even further
into a beast like state.Initially Iago sets out for revenge against Othello. Iago wants Cassio’s position as leutenient
and will do anything to get it. As the play progresses Iago’s motives begin to become less clearer.
Throughout the acts that follow, Iago behaves increasingly more like a beast. He loses his ability
(if he ever had it) to think and act justly. He becomes obsessed with destroying Othello’s life. Iago mentions through
out the play that he hates Othello and yet unlike most humans, Iago has no reason for his hate. His hatred of Othello
is beast-like, stemming not from rational thought but from animal instinct.As if in reaction to his pure animal instinct,
Iago seems to grasp for a human reason to hate Othello. At the end of Act 1, he says, “I hate the Moor / And it is
thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets / ‘Has done my office. I know not if’t be true; / Yet I, for mere suspicion in
that kind, / Will do as if for surety” (1.3.379-384). This line illustrates an important difference between Iago and
Othello. Whereas Othello demands proof of his wife’s adultery before he measures out justice, Iago demands no
proof. He is not concerned with justice. The mere idea of Othello bedding Emilia is enough for Iago to plot revenge
against Othello. If facts do not provide Iago with a reason for destroying the Moor, then he will simply create fact from
Iago’s belief that Othello has slept with his wife gains even more momentum in Act 2. He says,
“For that I do suspect the lustful Moor / Hath lep’d into my seat; the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral
gnaw my inwards; / And nothing can nor shall content my soul / Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife.” (2.1.289-292)
Iago, like Othello, is obsessed with serving justice for a crime that never happened. Yet, unlike Othello, Iago has no
reason to suspect his wife of adultery. Of these two men, Iago more closely resembles a beast. Othello at least has
reason to believe that his murder of Desdemona is justified. Iago, on the other hand, has no justified reason for
destroying Othello’s life. Iago’s inability to determine right from wrong is another example of his bestiality. Iago
cannot decifer between good and evil. He considers his destruction of Othello’s life justified even though he has no
valid motive or reason. In fact, the only valid motive Iago requires is his own sense of pleasure. As he says to Roderigo
at the beginning of the play, “If thou canst cuckold him, thou doest thyself a pleasure, me a sport” (1.3.365). Iago’s
motive of sport is synonymous with an animals’ motive of pleasure. Animals, like Iago, act solely on the basis of
self-gratification and self-preservation.
Iago also fits Cassio’s definition of beast. As Cassio says in Act 2, men “with joy, pleasance, revel
and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!” (2.3.284). Cassio is saying that men who act solely on the motive
of pleasure are actually not men but beasts. Iago, more than Othello, fits this description. Iago is guided purely by his
sense of pleasure; Othello is guided purely by his sense of justice. Ironically, as Iago becomes increasingly obsessed
with destroying Othello, his animal instincts take over whatever human qualities he possesses. When he says at the end
of Act 1, “Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” (1.3.397), he is referring to Othello’s
transformation from man to beast. Actually, this line more accurately describes the transformation that Iago undergoes.
He changes from revenge-seeking man into pleasure-seeking beast.
In Othello, this theme of man becoming beast is commonly interpreted as a transformation
undergone by Othello. Iago is viewed as the catalyst that initiates Othello’s return to a beast like state. However, the
opposite is actually closer to the truth. Othello is seemingly the catalyst that causes Iago’s return to a beast like state.
Both men play a role in the murder of Desdemona, but Iago’s motive is more befitting a beast. Othello kills out of a
misguided sense of justice; Iago kills without reason. With Othello, Shakespeare is answering the question, “What is left
when honor is lost?” His answer comes from the mouth of Cassio: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! / O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial” (2.3.254-256).
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