AO5 requires you to ‘Explore literary texts informed by different interpretations’. This means you must explore how Shakespeare constructs the character of Othello, arrive at an interpretation, and be prepared to support it. It is important to read critics’ views, but examiners also want you to explain your own view and support it with a detailed knowledge of the text.
Shakespeare presents Othello as an outsider. He is often referred to as “the Moor,” and not just pejoratively; in her first public appearance with him Desdemona proclaims that she “did love the Moor to live with him.” Othello is audacious in marrying Desdemona without her father’s knowledge or permission. In defending himself, he calls on a past he has created with narratives of “Of moving accidents…Of hair-bredth scapes…Of being taken…sold into slavery;” (Act I scene iii) His oratory is mesmerising and rhythmic, the tripartite structure adding force and validity to his tales. Indeed, even Brabantio has repeatedly requested an audience with him just to hear these tales, something Othello is quick to remind him of when facing his rage: “Her father loved me, oft invited me, Still (continually) questioned me the story of my life…the battles, sieges, fortunes, That I have passed.” The listing in triplicate is used again as a persuasive device. He is defending himself in a hostile situation, but Othello creates a life and identity from narrative. His life is a ‘story.’
With such experience, why does he so quickly and easily become Iago’s puppet? Having taught this text for several years, my students are often exasperated by the apparent ease with which Othello falls into Iago’s trap. Iago utters the ingeniously suggestive but brief, “Ha! I like not that,” and the die is cast. Othello questions, Iago equivocates, and so the incessant echoing begins to poison Othello’s “perfect soul.” Just as Othello’s identity is created through stories, so it is through stories that Iago ensnares him. Othello’s love for Desdemona becomes his weakness, and Iago’s talent for turning “virtue to pitch” cynically evil; but perhaps we remain unconvinced by Othello’s collapse.
We can, however, consider the play a masterful exploration of the “the green-eyed monster.” Othello’s age and race make him an outsider; even he is mildly incredulous at having secured a marriage to the beautiful and youthful Desdemona. Upon their reunion in Act II scene i, he tells her, “If it were now to die, ‘Twere now to be most happy,” and then seems to hint at his own mistrust that life will continue to deliver such a blessing, in the words, “for I fear My soul hath her content so absolute That not another comfort like to this Succeeds in unknown fate.” This moment is “too much of joy” for Othello and is not lost on the opportunist and perceptive Iago; he sees this frame of mind as perfect for his plans. Othello is indeed “well-tuned.”
Iago controls events and actions through his shaping of false narratives. It is therefore fitting that Othello tries to set the record straight with his last words before killing himself. He insists on his audience telling the story his way, commanding them, “Set you down this:” He takes control of his ‘story’ by dictating yet another questionable narrative in asking them to speak of him as “one not easily jealous.” If Iago is the puppet master, it is perhaps because Othello is an unformed character with a past consisting of stories which are no more verifiable than Iago’s lies.Discuss!