Humanity and Reason in Othello
In Othello Shakespeare probes deeply into the human condition by creating characters, who, by their inability to think rationally, surrender what sets them above animals. Before he succumbs to Iago's poisonous innuendoes, Othello himself expresses his clear understanding of this role of the human intellect. He initially refuses to listen to Iago's suggestions that Desdemona cannot be trusted, "Exchange me for a goat/When I shall turn the business of my soul/To such exsufflicate and blown surmises" (3.3.194-96). Othello feels that he would be acting like an animal if he became irrationally jealous because someone would say "my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company" (3.3.198). He tells Iago that he will not blindly fall into jealousy, especially when he never has had reason to suspect Desdemona, "I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;/And on the proof, there is no more but this--/Away at once with love or jealousy" (3.3.205-07).
Othello is at this point a confident man, both in his wife's faithfulness, and in his ability to think rationally. However, Shakespeare shows that this confidence is often not enough. In his Sonnet 129, Shakespeare describes lust as another force that destroys the ability to reason effectively. The poet depicts lust as desire that is
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad:
All this world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.
In his sonnet, Shakespeare laments that even when we know that lust is dangerously irrational, most people cannot resist falling under its spell. Othello finds the same to be true about jealousy. In the course of the play Roderigo, Iago, and Othello give in to irrational behavior, and thus are seen to lose their humanity. Each character also becomes associated with animals as a means to underscore this loss.
From the beginning of the play Roderigo has an irrational infatuation with Desdemona. He admits to Iago that "it is my shame to be so fond, but it is not in my virtue to amend it" (1.3.314-14). He has been rejected by her father as her suitor, and even when he learns that she has eloped with Othello, he does not want to abandon his hopes. By himself, Roderigo is merely a foolish gentleman with an adolescent case of puppy love. We are not to take him seriously when he threatens to drown himself at the end of act one. It is only as he becomes increasing under the power of Iago that he loses all power to reason for himself. This is Roderigo's main fault--he allows Iago to think for him and put him into situations he would normally avoid. Iago controls Roderigo by appealing to his sense of manhood, "Come, be a man. Drown thyself? Drown cats and blind puppies" (3.3.327-28). Iago encourages him to stop acting like a helpless animal and behave like a man. For Iago this means to go out and take...