Base Instinct: Othello and the Inevitability of Barbarism

318 words | 2 page(s)

The character of Othello embodies a transfer, or devolution, from civilization to barbarism that takes place over the course of Shakespeare’s great tragedy. Many critiques have identified Iago’s Machiavellian manipulations as the source of Othello’s descent into barbarism and murder. Othello’s vulnerability to Iago’s exploitation led to what many observers have considered his predilection for violence and revenge. In Shakespeare’s age, and in the Venice of the story’s timeframe, a person of color would have been innately suspect, a character one could expect to give in to base instincts.

As such, Othello’s evidently civilized nature, even his nobility, as portrayed in the first half of the play, gradually crumbles beneath the undermining effect of Iago’s subversion. Othello does not “rise to the occasion” and resist the suspicion that Iago plants in his conscience but gives in to paranoia and a tendency toward violence, thus displaying a willingness to cast of the normative impact of civilization in favor of revenge and barbarism.

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This view “paints the Moor as a savage at heart, one whose veneer of Christianity and civilization cracks as the play proceeds, to reveal and liberate his basic savagery: Othello turns out to be in fact what barbarians have to be” (Kolin, 2002, 205). In other words, Othello becomes what the Elizabethans thought a “barbarian” should be: violent, untrustworthy, uncivilized and barbaric. Othello gives in to his native savagery because he was predestined to do so. According to this line of criticism, Iago is not the true villain because he simply pursues his nature. Othello, on the other hand, who played at nobility, was the true deceiver, a poseur who does not obey his nature. The Elizabethans were clearly susceptible to the prejudices of their day, and it is this that informs the criticism of Othello’s role.

  • Kolin, P.C., Ed. (2002). Othello: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge.

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