Othello: Not Wisely, but Too Well
Essay submitted by Joe Masters
William Shakespeare presents an excellent leader but a poor reasoner in Othello. The
eponymous hero has strength, charisma, and eloquence. Yet these ideals of leadership
do not bode well in real world situations. The battlefield and Senate are, at least in
Othello, depicted as places of honor, where men speak truly. In addition, the matters of
war and state are relatively simple; no one lies to Othello, all seem to respect him. He
never even has to fight in the play, with the enemy disappearing by themselves. This
simplistic view does not help him in matters of the heart. His marriage is based on tall
tales and pity and his friendships are never examined; he thinks that anyone who
knows him love him. Thus the ultimate evaluation of Othello must be that, although he
leads well and means well, he lacks good judgement and common sense. This becomes
most plainly obvious in his final two speeches, where even though the play ends
properly, and in a dignified way, Othello never fully realizes or takes responsibility for
what has happened.
These two last orations of Othello are noble in speech and purpose, but lack
comprehension. He uses the first to attack himself for his horrible deed; certainly this is
the first reaction of anyone who has wrongly killed his beloved. He delivers
condemnation upon himself with eloquence and anguish. The latter speech he gives in
his final role as a leader, directing the men who remain about how to deal with what
has happened and showing them he has purged the evil.
In his initial self-loathing and remorse at realizing the truth of Desdemona’s innocence,
Othello is genuinely anguished. This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And
fiends will snatch at it. (V.2.325-326) It is clear that he is in torment because of her
death, and because he himself did the deed. For the first time, it appears that Othello
is at a loss with what to do with his power: Do you go back dismayed? / Man but a
rush against Othello’s breast / And he retires. (V.2.320-322) Giving up is hardly
Othello’s style, but this is how a noble and true man should react when he has
mistakenly killed his wife. However, Othello’s words give a deeper insight into how he
still misunderstands the situation. Who can control his fate? he asks, which gives
pause to a theory of pure nobility. Placing responsibility in the stars – he calls
Desdemona an ill-starred wench – is hardly a gallant course of action. (V.2.316, 323)
It is beyond a doubt Othello’s fault that all of this wreckage befalls him, and his still has
not had a moment of recognition of his failures at reasoning and understanding.
Indeed, it is Othello’s final soliloquy that ultimately seals his fate as a man who lacks
critical thinking skills. This is because these are his final words, and they deal with fact,
not emotion. He addresses the reasons behind his downfall, and decides how he wants
others to see him, in terms of the story and how he takes responsibility for it. It is a
noble speech, and a dubiously noble ending, but still, like Othello, flawed.
The setting for Othello’s final moments onstage is critical to how it is perceived by
Othello, the other players onstage, and the audience. It lends credence to the nobility
of the situation, and adds to Othello’s misguided self-perception. The experience, in
itself, is perfect. The day is slowly breaking as the first strands of light are filtering
through the shutters on Othello’s bedroom windows. Othello has moved out of the
darkness he was sitting in when he began his first speech, and while standing in light,
speaks of how he has been enlightened of what occurred. He holds back the company
of men who seek to take him to prison or worse with a hand and Soft, you. With this
he also silences the sounds around him, and delivers a noble address, in the light,
standing tall. It is an ending suitable for the most dignified of men.
And yet, for all the splendor, glory, and excellence of tongue, his final words show that
he does not quite understand himself or what he has done. His goal is to tell the
emissaries from Venice what has happened, but he lacks insight in his articulation.
Every step of his short recitation reveals an inaccuracy or a blinding of a personal
problem. Othello says he loved not wisely, but too well. (V.2.404) It is true that he
did not love wisely, but neither did he love too well. His marriage is based on
storytelling and pity; he objectifies his wife at every point, and does not trust her in
the least. And while it might be debatable whether Othello is easily jealous or just
gullible, he does buy Iago’s tale of deceit based on a handkerchief and words. (V.2.405)
This is all Othello says in relation, besides a description of his tears – which, no doubt,
are real and genuine – and begins to set up his suicide.
Othello blames not his rashness or judgmental faults, but rather condemns his hand for
the sin he commits (of one whose hand, / threw a pearl away). (V.2.404) This idea
that his body is somehow possessed with evil, but not his mind, is perpetuated in his
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
Othello truly believes that a malignant Turk has taken over the good Venetian within
him. He still does not see that his faults are exploited by Iago and used against him.
Although he kills himself in such a dignified fashion, Othello is really thinking that he was
forced to do this by some unseen evil power. He never has any complete sense of
Shakespeare sets up Othello as his perfect leader: no one ever questions his ability to
conduct an army (because he does not engage in combat during the play, this opinion
must be drawn from the lack of negative sentiment from anyone in the play). He speaks
well, and is widely respected. But the skills that make a good general are only applied
with problem in his civilian life. Othello never asks questions of those who might be
against him; instead, he believes only what is told him by those who come to him first.
He believes men over women, and never thinks too deeply or critically about anything.
He must be decisive, and therefore he refuses to question.
It is possible to see Othello as a good man who never is betrayed until Iago, as a noble
and strong soldier who falls only because Iago is so cunning and evil. One might say,
because of this, Othello dies not as a tragic hero, but as someone destroyed by
circumstance and evil. But the superficiality of his marriage and the fact that if he had
only been honest to his wife and lieutenant he would have found out the truth point in
another direction. Othello could lead, but he could not reason.