The Morally Good and Bad in Othello
William Shakespeare’s drama Othello is one concentrated contest between the forces of the morally good and the morally bad. Let us analyze this contest in detail in this essay.
Standing out like a dark silhouette on a white background is the sinister character and master of deception in the drama – the general’s ancient. Morton W. Bloomfield and Robert C. Elliott in Great Plays: Sophocles to Brecht highlight the dominant evil force in the play, Iago:
For critics, the chief problem in the play is the character of Iago. The debate usually centers around whether he had sufficient motives for his cruel actions or whether, on the other hand, he is an example of “motiveless malignity.” The question cannot be resolved here, nor is it necessary to try to resolve it. Iago, whether because of his disappointment at not having been given Cassio’s position, or because of his belief that Othello had cuckolded him, or because of his love of evil for its own sake, is nevertheless a man who has rejected all ties of morality and idealism. (39)
Totaling the lies which the ancient tells to everyone about him would require considerable effort and time. In Shakespeare’s Four Giants Blanche Coles comments on the lack of veracity in Iago’s speech:
The story that Iago tells Roderigo about the promotion of Cassio over him is not true, although it has been accepted by many discriminating scholars. Careless reading alone can account for this misapprehension, careless reading which for the moment dulls their alertness to one of the most essential requirements of Shakespearean character analysis. That requirement is that the reader must never accept, or must always be ready to challenge, the word of any character unless the veracity of that character has been established, or unless the statement is accepted by more than one person of confirmed honesty. (76)
Iago’s lying is a type of immoral conduct which the ancient practices from beginning to end of the drama. But is lying his chief motivating evil? Roderigo’s opening lines to Iago in Act 1 Scene 1 take us to the very root of the problem:
Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this. (1.1)
In other words, the wealthy playboy has been paying off the ancient for the soldier’s intercession with Desdemona on behalf of Roderigo. This payoff has been in progress before the play begins, and it continues even in Cyprus. Yes, it would seem that money is at the root of Iago’s moral downfall, and of all the tragic misfortune in this drama. In order to assure that Roderigo’s gifts, both in the form of money and jewelry, continue to himself, he initiates an intrigue which begins with the late-night storming of Brabantio’s residence, and ends with the deaths of Roderigo, Desdemona, Othello and Emilia.