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The Problem of Perception in William Shakespeare's "Othello"

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In the way reality is theorized, the metaphysical has the potential to replace the empirical as the dominating approach to understanding reality. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago is intrigued by the fluidity of reality, particularly in how contradicting elements of perception such as truth and suspicion, and proof and conjecture, can be interchangeable. He applies this view of reality to become Othello’s puppet-master by preying upon Othello’s limited capacity to see beyond the tangible and as such, Iago enjoys watching the spectacle of Othello’s downfall come to life in his theatre. Throughout Iago’s soliloquies, it becomes clear that he approaches reality as something that he can design: the manipulation of reality gratifies his god-complex.

In order to understand Iago better, it is crucial to first discuss metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of reality that calls into question what reality is, how reality is perceived and interpreted, and how it is incorporated into human existence. This philosophy is arguably one of the most complex, dimensional philosophical lenses because it evokes the study of the abstract and its relation to the empirical, rather than the empirical alone. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some contemporaries of Shakespeare were exploring a style of poetry called “metaphysical poetry.” This style focused on methods of manipulating poetic style through complex, extended metaphors that were not only conveyed in the language of the poem, but were also extended to poem’s entire theme. As such, metaphysical poetry physically and literally attempted to transcend reality through the manipulation of words. Making the connection between “metaphysical poetry” and Shakespeare’s style is important to understanding how Iago in Othello is constantly engaged in the attempt to manipulate reality. Like the metaphysical poets, Iago too, is motivated by his ability to manipulate reality in order to achieve his ambitions, to the point that the manipulation of reality itself gives him the gratification of feeling that he has power.

The way Iago perceives reality as having many layers beyond what is observed, gives him the tenacity to impose himself on Othello. Iago’s fascination with the fluid nature of reality spawns his obsession with exploiting Othello, who, in contrast to Iago, cannot perceive further than what is presented to him: “I know not if ‘t be true, / but I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / will do as if for surety” (1.3.431-433). This quote illustrates that Iago’s ‘suspicion’ is as valid as truth; because he sees these two perceptions as malleable and interchangeable. Rather than accept reality for what he perceives, he actively constructs it by extorting Othello’s nature: “He hath a person and a smooth dispose / to be suspected, framed…[He] thinks men honest that but seem to be so” (1.3.440-441). This quote depicts how Iago consciously handpicks Othello to ‘frame’ because he is ‘honest’ and ‘smooth,’ and his empirical, credulous interpretation of reality can be taken advantage of by Iago, who knows he can manufacture proof to feed Othello’s doubt and jealousy. Just as Iago perceives truth and suspicion are interchangeable concepts, he realizes that judgment is also fallible “Yet that I put the Moor / at least into a jealousy so strong / that judgment cannot cure” (2.1.322-324). At this midpoint of the play, Iago plans to manipulate Othello to the extent that he can no longer trust his own view of reality, his own ‘judgment.’ With this loss of judgment, Iago banks on Othello’s irrationality to be his undoing. Therefore, Iago’s conceptualization of reality reflects influences of metaphysical philosophy—reality is something he can mold, and through this view of reality, Iago has the confidence to achieve his aim of ruining Othello’s life.

Iago’s pleasure indeed comes from influencing Othello’s undoing, but also from experimenting with ways to control and contort reality. As Iago finalizes the last touches of his plan, his god-complex reveals itself further: “Trifles light as air are to the jealous / confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ” (3.3.369-372). Here, this simile compares ‘light’ to ‘air’ and ‘trifles’ to ‘holy writ’, wherein Iago realizes that proof need not be honest or valid to be effective; that it is empirical enough to solidify Othello’s jealousy. Iago plans to plant the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona in order to confirm Othello’s certainty towards her infidelity, and clearly, Iago understands that a mundane handkerchief can, with the appropriate manipulation, be loaded with meaning and purpose. Two aspects are at work in this line: one, Iago conceives that reality can be changed, a ‘trifle’ into ‘holy writ,’ and two, he takes pleasure in the effort and process of manipulation as much as the outcome. That Iago believes in his capacity to turn a handkerchief into ‘holy writ’ illustrates his lofty self-assurance—from his language, it is evident that he has a god-complex. In particular, he engages terminology of alchemy: “Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons / …But with a little act upon the blood, / Burn like the mines of sulfur” (3.3.374-377). In this quote, there is a distinct tone of excitement in Iago’s voice towards ‘conceits’ and ‘poisons,’ which represent his manipulation. It is as if he refers to a chemistry experiment and he is the conductor. Othello’s life means little to him except as a subject or material that, like an alchemist, he can wield. Therefore, Iago’s gratification is not solely from achieving Othello’s downfall, but from manipulating reality and therein indulge his megalomania.

To conclude, Iago’s soliloquies offer significant insight into the motivations behind his character: he takes a philosophical approach to the world, as he is intrigued by the malleability of reality and the way that perceptions can be both merged and constructed. His treatment of reality proves his god-complex, in the sense that he delights in manipulating others through the manipulation of their reality, which clearly gives him a sense of domination and satisfaction. Despite all of his planning, designing, and constructing of Othello’s perceptions, the power and control that Iago feels when manipulating reality is also his perception

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The Problem of Perception in William Shakespeare’s “Othello”. (2018, April 23). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
“The Problem of Perception in William Shakespeare’s “Othello”.” GradesFixer, 23 Apr. 2018,
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