The exact nature of Othello’s tragic flaw is a complex question. Although it may appear as if he is simply a jealous husband who is goaded into violence by someone who knows that they are able to manipulate this tendency, such a character trait does not fully explain the severity of his actions and neither does it explain the manner in which he reflects on them in his final speech. Rather, if one is to understand Othello’s flaw, it is necessary to consider his entire arc, including the time prior to his first meeting with Desdemona. If one does this, it is possible to argue that Othello is a person who lacks a firm sense of self-certainty and who is entirely reliant on the recognition of others, in particular those whom he admires, such as Desdemona and the Venetian state at large. Once the integrity of this recognition is threatened, Othello becomes beholden to a counter-narrative that ends in the murder of his wife. In this sense, Othello’s tragic flaw is not simply a propensity towards jealousy but a fundamental lack of confidence, and an accompanying cathexis to narratives within which he can recognize himself and be recognized in turn.
Othello’s discussion of his wooing of Desdemona is indicative of the manner in which he positions himself in the world and develops his own self-image. He tells the Venetian court that he essentially used stories of his own exploits in order to win her heart and that he fell in love with her in turn as a result of her capacity to pity the suffering that he had been through. Othello, however, does not simply tell stories regarding his experience, but he actively constructs a subjectivity for Desedemona and, therefore, for himself as well. It is Desdemona’s capacity to recognize this subjectivity and to affirm it through both pity and love that leads to Othello’s intense cathexis towards her, a cathexis which comes to bind his entire character.
Othello begins his defense in Act I by insisting that he is not eloquent in the manner of the Venetian nobles, something that is manifestly contradicted by the poetry of his speech, but that nonetheless reveals a deep insecurity within his character, one founded on the need for recognition from his surroundings and from his peers. While such recognition is maintained, Othello appears to be entirely secure and even supremely confident in his capacity to defeat the Turkish fleet, as well as his ability to defeat Brabantio and his companions in any confrontation. Once Iago begins to question the authenticity of Desdemona’s recognition, however, Othello’s world falls apart. He begins to revert to a primal state and, importantly, begins to find that older, more mythic narratives reenter his mind, as demonstrated by his obsession with his mother’s handkerchief and the belief that it contains some kind of magical property. Finally, Othello’s last encounter with Desdemona demonstrates the strength of the false narrative of her own infidelity, one which is now complemented by a belief in her ideal appearance, as if she were sculptured out of marble.
In conclusion, one should take Othello’s statement that he loved not wisely, but too well to be a key to understanding the nature of his flaw. This statement refers to a tendency to found his entire character on recognition. One this image is challenged by Iago, Othello proves unable to ground himself in the world and becomes easily manipulable. It is not the case, therefore, that the hero’s fall emerges from either his trusting or jealous nature, but rather from his incapacity to ground himself in the world outside of the recognition that he receives from others, most notably those whom he has unconsciously given the power to either validate or destroy him.
- Shakespeare, William. Othello. Norton Critical Editions: London & New York, 2016.