Examine Shakespeare's presentation of the changes of Othello's character in 'Othello'

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Visha Halai

Examine Shakespeare’s presentation of the changes of Othello’s character in ‘Othello’

        Othello is a tragic play based on a foreign yet eloquent man being manipulated into changing his perceptions of others. One of the most noticeable changes in the play is the apparent transformation of Othello’s character; from a “noble Moor” to a “blacker devil”. Shakespeare presents this change through a number of means, such as how other characters portray him, the words used to describe his character and his actions, and the jealous situations he involves himself in.

        Othello is absent in the first scene of the play, allowing Shakespeare to present his character through the words of others: specifically Iago and Roderigo. They use racist terms, and mock his military acumen to degrade him,

“The Moor…But he, loving his own pride and purposes”

They also often refer to him using animalistic terms, such as “old black ram…Barbary horse…devil”, presenting a negative view of Othello to the audience. Shakespeare purposely absents Othello from the first scene, to allow a character profile to be immediately conjured into the heads of the audience, thus creating an image of Othello’s character, before we meet him, to emphasise how different he appears in person later, and to pave a way for his later acts of violence.

Contradictory to earlier views presented to the audience, Shakespeare first introduces Othello on to the stage in Scene 2, as a man of standing and self-belief. The manner in which he speaks and the language he uses shows his education and ability to speak assertively. His confidence is exposed by his ability to stand up to his elders, by stating his point in respectful words, which is shown through the language he uses,

“you shall more command with years

Than with your weapons.”

By addressing his elders with “Good signor”, Othello shows respect to his elders, therefore,  Shakespeare allows the audience to gather impressions that Othello is a respectful man.

Othello’s status and poise is shown through his military acumen and his ability and confidence to relate beautiful imagery to himself,

“These arms of mine…till now some nine moons wasted…have used their dearest action in the tented field”

Despite this egoistic variance, he is also shown as a modest man when it comes to his ability in speech,

“Rude am I in my speech

and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace”

showing that although he is eloquent, he is ill-at-ease in Venetian society,

and has ‘doubts’ about his ability in speech. Shakespeare allows us to change our perception of him, from an ‘animalistic’ Moor to a modest confident man by effectively allowing others to portray him, initially, and then introducing him after to show the distinction, as well as the way he is able to control his situation and contradict his supposed characteristics.

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        Act 1 Scene 3 shows Othello as an outstanding soldier and inspiring leader, but also a compassionate figure. Shakespeare presents these traits to show Othello’s balanced character, which is however, later shown to be vulnerable to change. He is portrayed as a character who has control in the situations he involves himself with. This is shown in his soliloquy about how he won over Desdemona, through his military ventures,  

“Of moving accidents by flood and field…

Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch


It was my hint to speak – such was the process;”

Descriptive language, “moving ...

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