The audience, having been introduced to Othello by Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity,’1 expects this man to be professionally ‘bombast’ and animalistic. In fact Othello is not named until the third scene, thus dramatising his blackness and bestiality. However this preconception of Othello is immediately undone when he successfully calms the angry Brabantio and satisfies the suspicious Duke and Senators.
Othello’s heroic nature cannot be doubted due to the solidity of his character in the first two acts of the play; as Rebecca Warren notes, ‘Othello possesses a mythical and monumental quality that cannot be denied; he speaks and acts powerfully in a way that inspires confidence in his character. ‘2 This essay will explore the extent to which Othello’s heroism is interdependent with his love for Desdemona, and what implications this dependency will have on the power of both.
Othello’s first action in the play is to convince Brabantio, the Duke and the Senators that he genuinely loves Desdemona, not that he has used ‘mixtures,’ a ‘dram’ or a ‘practice of cunning hell’ to seduce her. Shakespeare allows Brabantio to speak before Othello, immediately creating a confident and superior character in the latter. When Othello does make his case, he uses linguistic devices befitting a hero with great control over both himself and others, ‘Most potent, grave, and reverend seigniors… rude am I in my speech and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace.
Othello is polite to those who threaten to persecute him, and he is modest whilst also reminding the Duke of his services to Venice through military endeavour. This mixture of manners and cunning is reminiscent of great heroes in ancient literature, such as Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. 3 Shakespeare also uses small instances of black comedy to reinforce Othello’s heroic nature, ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them. ‘ The word ‘dew’ is ironic as it is in the place of blood, thus implying that Othello is mocking those who put up a ceremonial facade instead of facing genuine danger and threat.
This is suggestive of his heroic nature as traditionally heroes are weathered fighters in contrast to the cowardly noblemen and kings above them, such as the characterisation of Achilles as opposed to Agamemnon, to take another example from the Iliad. From this scene, it becomes apparent to the audience that, that which makes Othello a hero, is also what makes him a powerful lover. Even Iago admits in Act 2 Scene 1 that Othello ‘is of a constant, loving, noble nature’ which makes him ‘a most dear husband’ to Desdemona.
Shakespeare draws this parallel between heroism and love by using the same meter in both Othello’s attempt to resolve a fight between Cassio and Roderigo, and his greeting to Desdemona at Cyprus; ‘My blood | begins | my safe|r guides | to rule;’ and ‘My soul | hath her | content | so ab|solute. ‘4 Othello, through iambic pentameter, always gives the impression of being in control, as he is a hero in both love and discipline. This meter also allows the audience to compare expressions of love and heroism said in the same meter, ‘I do| confess | the vice|s of | my blood… How I | did thrive | in this | fair lady|’s love.
Othello poeticises himself to embody both leadership and love, as his ‘blood’ enables him to ‘thrive in this fair lady’s love,’ as well as to ‘rule’ with equal passion. Othello’s love for Desdemona is, in and of itself, an example of not only its power, but also his heroic character. Brabantio considers their relationship to be ‘against all rules of nature,’ and that Desdemona could not possibly be in love without being ‘deficient, blind or lame of sense. ‘ Despite societal conventions and pressures, Othello remains in love with Desdemona, and it is a mark of his heroism that he continues to pursue such a passion against all the odds.
Achilles risked an early death to transcend mortality’s ephemeral existence through being poeticised, just as Othello poeticises himself in order to transcend the societal limitations of his love and the baseness of language from the likes of Brabantio and Iago; ‘my services… shall out tongue his complaints… for know, Iago, but that I love the gentle Desdemona. ‘ Othello wilfully entwines his political and military identity with his love for Desdemona, thus risking both for what may be an attempt at the poetic remembrance which Achilles sought; an action both heroic and loving in its own right.
This essay will also explore the implications of Othello’s self-poeticisation. Therefore, as Othello comes to embody heroism and unconditional (and unconventional) love, his relationship is viewed by others to be the marriage between these two qualities, ‘She that I spake of, our great captain’s captain. ‘ Cassio refers to their love in military terms, on the one hand showing how much Othello respects Desdemona, whilst also giving him the heroic characteristic of being a ‘great captain. Shakespeare then uses linguistic and stage devices to portray the power of Othello’s love for Desdemona later in Act 2 Scene 1, ‘O my fair warrior,’ ‘My dear Othello! ‘ Othello’s choice of the word ‘warrior’ and Desdemona’s reply of ‘dear’ is representative of how the two have become one flesh, as if their epithets are now interchangeable. In terms of stage devices, after Othello is rendered speechless by his content at seeing Desdemona, the two are instructed to kiss repeatedly. In a formal situation surrounded by ‘Attendants,’ one kiss would be unusual, let alone multiple kisses.
Moreover, the stage direction, ‘they kiss,’ is atypical of Shakespeare, as it is normally, ‘he kisses her. ‘ This reinforces the idea that they are one flesh, as they are oblivious to those around them and are mutually involved in each other’s love. This leads A. C Bradley, among other critics, to conclude that Othello is ‘the most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes… [he] does not belong to our world. ‘ By extension I think Desdemona is equally unfit for this world, because she becomes possessed by the poetry of Othello’s vision (1. 3. 127-169), and in turn poeticises herself as a warrior.
As they both transcend in poetry, their love becomes vulnerable to Iago’s designs, because it is, by definition, unrealistic and unlikely. Therefore this interdependence between heroism, love and self-poeticisation results in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship being rather unconventional, and even unconvincing; ‘Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances… of hair-breadth scapes i’th’imminent deadly breach… she gave me for my pains a world of sighs. ‘ Desdemona is first attracted to Othello because of his promise of adventure, and his heroic encounters on his travels.
Being daughter to a Venetian Senator, she would have seen very little of the world, and so her refusal to be apart from Othello in Act 1 Scene 3 can be explained in terms other than unconditional love. Moreover, the quotation, ‘She loved me for the dangers I had passed, and I loved her that she did pity them,’ shows how Othello’s love for Desdemona can be seen to be derivative and shallow, like that of a comedian for an audience who laughs at his jokes.
This interpretation is supported by Iago in Act 2 Scene 1 with the words, ‘She first loved the Moor but for bragging and telling her fantastical lies. This is certainly a divorce from the common, clichi?? d convention of falling in love with someone for the same reason (that they are soul mates). Shakespeare thus encourages the audience to believe that Othello’s stories and poems are love, because he offers all that he is to Desdemona in their relation. Therefore, heroism and love must be intertwined. Without Othello’s heroism, his love for Desdemona cannot be realised, and it is his love for Desdemona which contributes towards his heroic nature.
Othello’s heroic nature allows Desdemona to decide between the ‘divided duty’ between Othello and her father, and ultimately accompany Othello to Cyprus against Brabantio’s wishes. However, it is also a result of Othello’s heroism that the tragedy is set in motion, as Desdemona’s reverence of Othello allows Shakespeare to reduce her from an archetype to a passive victim, subject to his form of justice just like all his other subordinates (such as Cassio). Othello’s heroism even compels Desdemona to encourage the audience to forgive him, moments before her death, ‘A guiltless death I die… ommend me to my kind lord. ‘
The interdependence between heroism and love is very interesting in the context of this tragedy. Othello concludes that to destroy Desdemona, he must also destroy himself because his identity and his love have become inextricably linked. However, the final kisses of the play prove that he never succeeded in destroying his love. This is the true indication of heroism; although Othello dies, the love he represents survives. Therefore he embodies the idea that poetry is part of love, thus achieving Achilles’ poetic remembrance.