Study Guide

Othello Identity

By William Shakespeare

Identity

Act 1, Scene 1
Iago

For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so for my particular end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (1.1.61-71)

Iago is all about not revealing his true identity or intentions to anyone. Here, he tells Roderigo that he'll never allow his "outward action[s]" to show what's really going on inside of him because that would leave him vulnerable, kind of like allowing birds ("daws") to peck at his "heart." When Iago says "I am not what I am," he cryptically suggests that he's not what he appears to be. This phrase, we should point out, is an inversion of God's line, "I am what I am" (Exodus 3.14), which is in keeping with the play's alignment of Iago with the devil.

Brabantio

BRABANTIO
It is too true an evil. Gone she is,
And what's to come of my despisèd time
Is nought but bitterness.—Now, Roderigo,
Where didst thou see her?—O, unhappy girl!—
With the Moor, say'st thou?—Who would be a
   father?—
How didst thou know 'twas she?—O she deceives
   me
Past thought!—What said she to you?—Get more
   tapers.
Raise all my kindred.—Are they married, think
   you?
[…]
O heaven! How got she out? O treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds
By what you see them act. (1.1.178-189; 191-193)

When Brabantio learns that Desdemona has run off with Othello, he cries out, "Who would be a father!" and wonders "what's to come" of himself. Clearly, Brabantio feels as though his identity as a father and an authority figure have been compromised by Desdemona's elopement, which he interprets as "treason of the blood."

Act 1, Scene 2
Othello

OTHELLO
Let him do his spite.
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. 'Tis yet to know
(Which, when I know that boasting is an honor,
I shall promulgate) I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached. For know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhousèd free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth. (1.2.20-31)

At this point in the play, Othello is so secure in his value to the state of Venice that he says he does not care if Brabantio slanders him. Othello knows he's done nothing wrong in marrying Desdemona and that the Duke will support him, especially since Othello's a decorated war hero. What's interesting about this passage is how it reveals Othello's sense of himself as a military leader – his valuable "services" to the state of Venice have made him an "insider." At the same time, however, we know that Othello is also an "outsider" – he's a foreigner and his skin is black, which leaves him vulnerable to racist attitudes (like Brabantio's) in Venice.

Act 1, Scene 3
Brabantio

BRABANTIO
A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on!
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures powerful o'er the blood,
Or with some dram conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her. (1.3.112-124)

Brabantio doesn't seem to know his daughter at all, especially when he claims she is "never bold" and that she "fear'd to look on" Othello. As we know, Desdemona is bold – she runs off with a man her father doesn't approve of and defends her actions when confronted by Brabantio and the Venetian court.

Desdemona

DESDEMONA
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of duty.
I am hitherto your daughter. But here's my
   husband,
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord. (1.3.208-218)

Although Desdemona feels torn between her "duty" to her father and her husband (kind of like Cordelia in Act 1 of King Lear), she ultimately professes her loyalty to her husband. Here, we can see that Desdemona is tactful, respectful, and also pretty independent.

DESDEMONA
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honors and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him. (1.3.287-294)

There are a couple of things to notice about this passage. First, Desdemona says she fell in love with the way Othello sees himself, which, as we know, is as a valiant war hero. Second, we notice that Desdemona's pretty bold. She not only defends her right to marry the man she loves but also her right to enjoy Othello as a husband, which includes being with him when he leaves for Cyprus and sharing his bed. In other words, Desdemona's not afraid to express her desire for her husband.

Othello

OTHELLO
Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters:
That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her.
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace;
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious
   patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what
   charms,
What conjuration, and what mighty magic
(For such proceeding I am charged withal)
I won his daughter. (1.3.91-111)

Othello identifies himself with the roughness of the battlefield, in contrast to the gentleness or sophistication of civilized Venice, when he says his "speech" is "rude" and he's not been "bless'd with the soft phrase of peace." Yet Othello knows darn well that he is quite eloquent, as he demonstrates here in an incredibly well-wrought speech that he delivers as a defense of his marriage to Desdemona.

Iago

IAGO
Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or
thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our
wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles
or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme,
supply it with one gender of herbs, or distract it
with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or
manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible
authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance
of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise
another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our
natures would conduct us to most prepost'rous
conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging
motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts—
whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect, or
scion. (1.3.361-375)

Iago believes human beings have complete control over their actions and their emotions. Not only that, but Iago is also a figure who seems to have complete control over the actions and emotions of others, which we discuss in more detail in "Manipulation."

Act 2, Scene 3
Michael Cassio

CASSIO
Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have
lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation! (2.3.281-284)

After Cassio gets into a drunken brawl and loses his position as Othello's officer, he worries about the loss of his "reputation," which is tied up in his military service and his public behavior. Cassio feels that, without his "reputation" as an upstanding soldier, he's nothing more than a "beast."

Act 3, Scene 3
Othello

OTHELLO
By heaven, I'll know thy thoughts.
IAGO
You cannot, if my heart were in your hand,
Nor shall not, whilst 'tis in my custody. (3.3.191-193)

Iago emphasizes that his real thoughts and feelings cannot be known by anyone—not Othello and not even the audience.

Act 4, Scene 2
Desdemona

DESDEMONA
Alas, thrice-gentle Cassio,
My advocation is not now in tune.
My lord is not my lord; nor should I know him
Were he in favor as in humor altered. (3.4.141-144)

IAGO
What is the matter, lady?
EMILIA
Alas, Iago, my lord hath so bewhored her.
Thrown such despite and heavy terms upon her
As true hearts cannot bear.
DESDEMONA
Am I that name, Iago?
IAGO
                                  What name, fair
   lady?
DESDEMONA
Such as she says my lord did say I was.
EMILIA
He call'd her "whore." A beggar in his drink
Could not have laid such terms upon his callet.
IAGO
Why did he so?
DESDEMONA
I do not know. I am sure I am none such. (4.2.134-144)

At the play's beginning, Desdemona is strong, confident, and defiant but, after being victimized by Othello's physical and emotional abuse, she changes drastically. When Othello publicly abuses Desdemona, calling her a "whore" and even slapping her, Emilia is outraged. But Desdemona seems more confused and hurt than anything else. Here, Desdemona says she's "sure" that she's done absolutely nothing to warrant Othello's behavior, and yet we can detect a note of uncertainty. Soon after, Othello strangles her, and Desdemona blames herself for her husband's violence. When Emilia asks Desdemona who has harmed her, Desdemona replies "Nobody; I myself. Farewell" (5.2.125).

Act 5, Scene 2
Iago

IAGO
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word. (5.2.355-356)

Iago refuses to explain himself. He conceals his motives and his true identity to the very last.

Othello

OTHELLO
Soft you. A word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they
   know 't.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued
   eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this.
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.                             He stabs himself.
(5.2.397-417)

Just before he commits suicide, Othello emphasizes his identity as a loyal soldier, which is how he wants to be remembered. At the same time, he also sees himself as a "malignant and a turban'd Turk" (a hated outsider and war opponent). By stabbing himself with the same sword he often used to kill enemy "Turks," Othello suggests that he sees himself as an enemy of the Venetian state.

Lodovico

LODOVICO
O thou Othello, thou wert once so good,
Fall'n in the practice of a damnèd slave,
What shall be said to thee?
OTHELLO
Why, anything.
An honorable murderer, if you will,
For naught I did in hate, but all in honor. (5.2.342-347)

Yikes! Othello believes that murdering Desdemona was an "honourable" thing to do since he thought Desdemona was cheating on him. (Seems like Shakespeare is inviting us to disagree with Othello, wouldn't you say?) To the last, Othello wants to be identified as an honorable man but Lodovico asserts that Othello, the man who was "once so good" has "fall'n."

Othello

OTHELLO
Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days
To the very moment that he bade me tell it,
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances:
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hairbreadth scapes i' th' imminent deadly
   breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,
And portance in my travels' history,
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads
   touch heaven,
It was my hint to speak—such was the process—
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to
   hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline.
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. (1.3.149-174)

Othello presents himself as an exotic, exciting person who has travelled the world and seen "Cannibals," "Anthropophagi" (man eaters), and "men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." In his stories, Othello fashions himself into an adventurous and worldly man and it's this person that Desdemona fell in love with as she "devour[ed] up" Othello's stories with a "greedy ear."

We're also interested in what Othello's speech reveals about his new father-in-law, Brabantio. According to Othello, Brabantio "loved" him and "oft invited" Othello to tell stories about himself. It wasn't until Othello married Brabantio's daughter that the old man's xenophobia came to light.

Iago

IAGO
For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I'll pour this pestilence into his ear:
That she repeals him for her body's lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. (2.3.373-382)

Earlier, we saw how Cassio sees his "reputation" as being the sum of his public behavior and his military service. Here, we can see that Desdemona's "reputation" hinges on her fidelity to her husband. When Iago says he's going to ruin Desdemona's "credit with the Moor," he means he's going to tarnish her reputation as a loyal wife ("turn her virtue into pitch").