Shakespeare's Othello: Character's Failure to Distinguish Between Appearance and Reality

‘Certain, men should be what they seem.‘ Most of the complications in Othello arise from the characters‘ failure to distinguish between appearance and reality, Discuss, with reference to the parts of the play you have studied so far. In Shakespeare’s play Othello, the theme of appearance and reality is mainly characterised by Iago, who is driven by his jealousy of the role as Othello’s lieutenant Throughout the play, Iago constructs himself to appear as a loyal friend and servant to Othello, whilst showing his contrastingly vengeful character in certain scenes, and his soliloquies, Iago manipulates Othello into believing that his distorted version of the truth version is correct.

Thus, Shakespeare illustrates the importance of not relying solely on appearance, as it may be deceiving. Iago is a Machiavellian character, and he makes no effort to hide his true nature when he is alone, or with Roderigor In fact, he admits to being deceitful in the first scene: “I am not what I am”, alluding to his similarity to the devil.

In the same scene, Iago also denies his loyalty to Othello, and reveals that he is a self-serving malcontent: “In following him, I follow but myself”. The language used by Iago is also a clear indication of his artificiality, using words such as “seeming”, “forms”, “visage” and “shows”. Iago also makes many references to his belief in stereotypes, which leads Othello to believe that Venetian women are unfaithful, and that all women are deceivers. However, another stereotype that Iago often refers to is that of the lack of sophistication and barbarianism of a Moar.

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Thus, this shows how determined Othello is to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful, as he is willing to take part in an activity that has negatively impacted Othello. Throughout the play, there are several occasions in which characters such as Brabantio and Emilia comment on Iago’s villainous qualities: “What profane wretch art though?”, “If any wretch have put this in your head” and “Thou art a villain”.

However, Shakespeare uses dramatic irony, as these verses are said when the characters were unaware of who they were speaking of, thus proving how dangerously fraudulent appearances can be. The theme of appearance and reality is also explored in the effect it leaves on characters’ abilities to see things clearly. Once Othello begins to doubt Desdemona’s fidelity, he demands “ocular proof”, which Iago provides in the form of the handkerchief. Although it is not logical, it is enough to convince Othello, as he is being led by his emotions, rather than reason. In this way, Othello acts in the opposite way that the Duke does. When discussing the plan of attack, the Duke did not rely solely on appearance (“pageant”), and was therefore successful. When Othello asks Desdemona to “Let me see your eyes. Look in my face”, he sees this as further evidence of her infidelity, as he is so blinded by his emotion that he believes that she looks unfaithful.

Similarly, Othello misinterprets the interactions between Cassio and Desdemona, as well as that between Iago and Cassio, as that would strengthen his argument against Desdemona. In both cases, Othello is manipulated by Iago to see what he wants him to see, and not the reality. Thus, through the characters’ actions in the play, one can clearly see that appearance can be deceitful, as they can easily be misinterpreted The tragedy of Othello depends on Iago’s ability to mislead other characters, particularly Roderigo and Othello, by encouraging them to misinterpret what they see. Othello is susceptible to Iago’s ploys because he himself is honest and straightforward, and therefore expects others to behave similarly As Iago puts it: ”the Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so”. Due to the age and racial differences between Desdemona and Othello, as well as his blinded faith in Iago, Iago is quick to sow a seed of doubt within Othello.

However, to be convinced, he demands “ocular proof”. The physical evidence Iago presents is that of the missing handkerchief, which is in Cassio’s possession It could be argued that Othello is a victim of circumstance, as Iago exploited his vulnerabilities in his relationship with Desdemona. However, in the end, it is Othello’s intense jealousy and insecurities allow him to put all of his trust in the handkerchief, therefore believing that Desdemona was unfaithful. The theme of appearance and reality is a recurring one in Shakespeare’s plays, especially his tragedies. This is due to the fact that characters’ ability to appear differently to what they truly are can easily corrupt and bring about others’ demise. With the use of this theme, Shakespeare reinforces the fact that a person’s character cannot be judged by their appearance, as people are not always what they appear to be.

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Shakespeare's Othello: Character's Failure to Distinguish Between Appearance and Reality. (2022, Nov 11). Retrieved from

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