The Fatal Flaw in Othello


At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice, he is the worst.Aristotle

In spite of the grief and sense of justice portrayed by Othello in the final scene of Shakespeare’s Tragedy, the killing of his wife was not an honorable killing. In fact there was no justice at all and without justice there can be no honor. In reality, suspicion was all that was needed for Othello to garner enough circumstantial evidence to warrant his judgment of guilty for Desdemona and further to carry out the sentence. Once Othello became suspicious, he fostered, somewhat reluctantly, all the evidence he needed to feed his insecurity and ultimately prove his deepest fear. It is his character not the circumstances that creates this tragedy. Aristotle decreed that tragedy must involve the fall of a great man through a fatal flaw and it is the stature of the man who falls from grace so swiftly that causes such an outpour of suffering. To understand how feeble this “valiant Moor” (1.3.49) was takes a closer look at the proceedings that led up to it.

In the beginning of the play, after Brabantio a high ranking Senator made it clear that the only way his daughter, who had turned down all the eligible young men in the city, would be with “a sooty bosom/ of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight” (1.3 71-72) would be through trickery or a magic spell. Othello tells the rulers of Venice that he won Desdemona’s heart but is not sure how. In a long speech he tries to explain why she fell in love with him. First he tells them that he is common and crude and then offers to tell them the story so they can see for themselves how strange it is that she would be with him.

Rude am I in my speech, . . . 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 unvarnish’d 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 83-95).

In other words he said that he was just an army man and didn’t know much about love, but somehow it happened.  And then he told the tale of long conversations with her about his journeys and battles and that is what she fell in love with as he said, “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / and I loved her that she did pity them. /this only is the witchcraft I have used” (1.3 169-172). Humility is present in his words but there is insecurity because it is her fascination that he saw in her and not love. His recounting of this story exposed a private belief that she may have married beneath her status which is confirmed by his willingness to believe that she could or would betray him later in the play. In fact it is her father that triggers his fear when he warns Othello. “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./ She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3 294-295).

Othello’s deeply hidden uncertainty was latent and not deadly in itself and could not bring about a tragedy unless an outside force stirs it up and employs it. Iago was the perfect outside force because he could gain the confidence and intimacy needed to reach this buried insecurity and use it against Othello. Iago is the perfect caricature of evil. There is no hidden agenda because he reveals it to Shakespeare’s audience carefully so we could watch his brilliance in action and be awed. And yet it is not his brilliance that we see, it is his treachery and treachery receives its own kind of justice.

It is the coming together of these two characters that allowed Shakespeare to show the complexity of human weakness and what it takes to exploit it. Once we understand the character flaw in Othello, we can see that he too was a victim and that is what ultimately leads him to carry out not justice but retribution. When Othello is triggered, he rides the emotional wave of condemnation and determines that she is guilty even without a hearing and therefore she deserves to die. “Damn her, lewd minx! Oh, damn her, damn her!/ Come, go with me apart. I will withdraw/ to furnish me with some swift means of death / for the fair devil” (3.3 492-495).

It is not lust that he felt for her because his sex drive was “defunct” (1.3 266), she was more of a trophy wife to him hence the lack of consummation. If he truly loved her, he would have given her the same consideration that he asked for upon being accused of a crime. He asked for a witness to speak for him in front of her father and the Duke. “I do beseech you,/ Send for the lady to the Sagittary,/ And let her speak of me before her father”(1.3 117-119). They did send for Desdemona and she absolved Othello of his wrongdoing.

Othello does not do the same for her. In the bedchamber before he carries out his sentence he tells Desdemona that he saw the handkerchief that proves in his mind that she is guilty of adultery. Desdemona asks for a witness “Send for him hither./ Let him confess a truth” (5.2 71-72). But Othello thought Cassio was already dead so therefore could not defend her. Besides, he had already decided that they both were guilty and therefore he murder’s her.

Justice demands a speedy and public trial in order for the sentence to be fair and just and that does not happen here. There were essentially two trials portrayed in this play. The first trial was in public where witnesses could be brought to testify and the second was in secret with one witness who was prejudice and a prosecutor who had a conflict of interest. Othello, because of a fatal flaw within him was complicit of a heinous crime against Desdemona. It may seem that his death was the just end to his guilt but instead it is tragic and empty because the catalyst Iago speaks no more and answers to no one. Whatever his punishment became, it did not justify the tragic end to so many innocent lives nor the undoing of Othello.


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