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In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is presented as a man of stature and distinction, so much so that others oft precede his name with the word “valiant” (1.3.50). He is someone who, despite prejudices attached to his skin, is found worthy of love from the fair Desdemona due to the merit of his service to the Venetian government. He himself reiterates this in his defense of his marriage, saying, “I must be found. /My parts, my title, and my perfect soul/ shall manifest me rightly (1.2.30-32),” and he is ultimately accepted by the authority of Desdemona’s father and the Duke of Venice. From the beginning, Shakespeare establishes the importance that duty plays in Othello’s world. His devotion to the Venetian state is rewarded with the devotion of his wife and those that serve him. However, by the end of the play, Othello finds his life and reputation destroyed as a result of the skillful calculations of his duplicitous officer, Iago. The unfolding of Iago’s plan arouses confusion and conflict within all the characters, forcing them to mitigate between what they feel and their sense of duty in their respective roles and showing the consequences of deception—whether veiled or perceived. In Othello duty and love are invariably intertwined, and as the tragedy plays out, Shakespeare demonstrates love’s ability to pervert conceptions of duty.
The character perhaps most steadfast in her sense of duty is Desdemona. In her first lines in the play, Desdemona addresses the split sense of duty she faces between her father and her new husband. She says to her father, “My noble father,/ I do perceive here a divided duty./ To you I am bound for life and education/… you are the lord of duty/… But here’s my husband. And so much duty as my mother showed/ To you, preferring you before her father” (1.3.181-190). Using her mother as an example, Desdemona takes on the womanly duty of devoting herself fully to her husband. From the beginning of the play, Desdemona is extolled as the embodiment of feminine ideals. Brabantio, bragging of his daughter’s virtues, describes her as “A maiden never bold” (1.3.97). Despite her initial quandary between her duty as a daughter and new wifely duty, she is decisive and remains steadfast to this pledge until her death. The reader can trace her devotion from the beginning of her marital bliss in her desire to go to battle in order to stay beside her husband, all the way until its ultimate demise. Though she is innocent of wrongdoing, once he succumbs to the suspicion bred by Iago, Othello becomes increasingly cruel to his wife. However, after he repeatedly accuses her of betraying him with Cassio and cruelly labels her a whore, Desdemona arguably becomes more determined to stay dutiful to her husband, saying to Iago and Emilia: “And ever will—though he do shake me off/ To beggarly divorcement—love him dearly,/ Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much,/ And his unkindness may defeat my life,/ But never taint my love” (4.2.162-166). This response demonstrates that Desdemona’s love for her husband has distorted her sense of duty to the degree that she is willing to die for it. Furthermore, after being humiliated by her husband who strikes her in front of visiting dignitaries, she is comforted by Emilia who speaks out against the inequalities between men and women. Desdemona only responds by saying that she hopes to use women who speak out against their husbands as an example of how not to act (4.3.61-82). But rather than being rewarded, in the end, Desdemona is arguably punished for her unwavering love and sense of duty as the object of her tireless devotion becomes her eventual murderer. Desdemona is a character that is seemingly bound by the love she has for the male figures in her life. The only instance of her defending herself against the wishes of the men in her life is when she stands up for her marriage to Othello and transfers her allegiance from her father to her husband. It is this quality that ultimately clouds her sense of the worth of her own life—so much so that to the very end, in the final moments before her death, she still addresses Othello as “my lord” (5.2.88). Unlike Desdemona, Emilia’s sense of duty is much less tied to any man in her life. Emilia even makes a strong statement against the type of blind female devotion practiced by Desdemona as she says, “Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them. They see and smell/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour, As husbands have,” essentially saying that women have no greater responsibility than men to remain dutiful (4.3.70-74). Instead, as she is almost always at her side, Emilia focuses her devotion largely on Desdemona over her husband. However, despite her contentious relationship with Iago and his mistreatment of her, even Emilia experiences love’s ability to cloud one’s sense of duty. While being in love clouds Desdemona, Emilia is clouded by her desire to receive it. When she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief, she decides to bring it to Iago, dismissing her suspicions by saying, “What he will do with it/ Heaven knows, not I./ I nothing but to please his fantasy” (3.3.306-308). Emilia’s desire to receive love from her husband diverts her from her duty to her mistress, and results in her providing Iago with the final piece needed to carry out his scheme. This not only costs the life of her mistress, but also her own.
Meanwhile, through the character of Iago, Shakespeare demonstrates how actions are affected in the absence of duty or love. Ironically, Iago is the first character in Othello to bring forth the concept of duty, and in doing so, his duplicitous nature is revealed early on. After bitterly laying out his grievances over Othello’s authority and promotion of Cassio over himself, Roderigo replies that he would quit if he were in Iago’s position. However, Iago responds by revealing his true motives, saying, “I follow him to serve my turn upon him” (1.1.44). Iago’s belief that Othello has slighted him has obliterated any sense of duty and manifested instead in vengeance. In fact, he goes on to disparage those who, in his eyes, are blinded by their sense of duty to others, and instead extolls those who are self serving. He tells Roderigo, “Others there are/ Who, trimmed in forms of visages of duty, / keep yet their hearts attending on themselves/ And, throwing but shows of service on their lords, Do well thrive by them” (1.1.52-56). Iago expresses the belief that a feigned sense of duty can be used to his own benefit. As he tells Roderigo, “In following him, I follow but myself” (1.1.60). Iago is beholden only to himself, but he unequivocally understands the significant role that duty holds in Othello’s life and is able to use this knowledge to his advantage.
Iago effectively plants doubt in Othello over Desdemona’s devotion to him through the guise of a dutiful servant with only the interests of his master in mind. As Othello catches on to his contrived suspicions towards Cassio, Iago masterfully evokes his sense of duty towards Othello in order to use his master’s misplaced trust against him by assuring him with phrases such as “My lord you know I love you” and “I am bound to every act of duty” (3.3.123,139). In addition to betraying his duty to Othello, Iago also easily casts off any sense of loyalty to his wife Emilia—so much so that he does not hesitate to kill her when she exposes his true motives to all after Desdemona’s death. Unlike Othello, Emilia, and Dedemona for whom love plays a central role in their judgments, Iago shows little understanding of love. This is demonstrated not only in the heinous culminating act of him killing his wife, but subtly throughout the play in the way that he crudely talks about sex and disparages women in general. This is apparent early in the play when he informs Brabantio that Desdemona and Othello have married, telling him, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter/ and the Moor are now making the beast with two/ backs” (1.1.112-114). In these lines, Iago perverts an act of love between a man and wife into something bestial and iniquitous. Iago’s inability to understand love exacerbates his ability to cast of his sense of duty and carry out his wickedness seemingly without hesitation. In Othello Desdemona is most affected by the emotions of love and devotion, and also suffers the most tragic end. Blinded by her love for her husband, she is relentless in her sense of duty to an ultimately deadly degree. The reality of the danger of unbounded love is mirrored by her husband’s words after he realizes his grave mistake. He describes himself as “one that loved not wisely, but too well” (5.2.362). Meanwhile, it is the absence of love that allows Iago to so freely cast off his sense of duty to Othello for the sake of vengeance and self-interest. Though he is sentenced to punishment at the hands of Cassio, Desdemona is betrayed by her love, and Emilia and Othello die with the guilt of Desdemona’s death. Iago is a man with little to loose, and thus arguably faces the least tragic ending. Thus, it seems as if this tragic end serves as a warning against the folly of blind love and devotion. In a tale full of deception, it is ultimately self-delusion that proves most toxic.
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