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Othello: The Consequences of Knowing and Not Knowing

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Shakespeare has used deception throughout the vast majority of his work. In the well-known comedy Twelfth Night, Viola deceives everyone including her own family into thinking that she is a man named Cesario by changing how she dresses, acts and talks, all to benefit herself. In the tragedy Romeo and Juliet, Juliet secretly marries Romeo whom she truly loves and then fakes her death so that she never has to marry the other man who she was expected to marry, Paris. Lastly, the final example of great deception in a Shakespeare story is how Macbeth is deceived many times in his story, Macbeth. Macbeth is lied to by the witches who had told him that he would come into power and that no one could ever hurt him, this leads to Macbeth deceiving those around him. This chain reaction of deception and lies eventually leads to him and his wife being killed as well as another entire family. Similar to the deception in Shakespeare’s other tragedies, most of the characters in Othello die due to numerous lies that snowballed into most characters not knowing the real truth. Some did know as they were either smart enough to figure out or they were part of the cause. Nick Potter wrongly argues that “Othello is a tragedy of incomprehension…at the deepest level of human dealings. No one in Othello comes to understand himself or anyone else.” It can be shown that Nick Potter is wrong by how Iago does, in fact, know everything, how Emilia knows some of what is going on and how Desdemona really knows nothing. The entire story relies on the consequences of knowing and not knowing.

Nick Potter’s argument can be first proven wrong by how Iago knows everything that is happening around him as he is the reason for it all. When Roderigo and Iago are talking about how Othello has chosen Cassio to be his lieutenant and Roderigo starts asking about him. Iago says, “One Michael Cassio, a Florentine(A fellow almost damned in a fair wife), that never set a squadron in the field, nor the division of a battle knows more than a spinster—unless the bookish theoric, wherein the toged consuls can propose as masterly as he.”(1.1.21-26), this quote is said at the very beginning of the book and is showing that Iago knows a lot of excess information about many people. When asked about Cassio, Iago easily knew all of this information that really does not seem like common knowledge to those in Venice especially to someone who has never worked with him before and does not personally know him. It seems as though from the rest of the book that Iago can easily get information like this from anyone and everyone when he needs it giving him much knowledge on those around him. Iago also shows his strange knowledge and the amount of it all the way right to the end of the book. In the middle of the book, Iago and Othello are talking about Desdemona and Cassio. Iago is teasing him by saying that Desdemona has been around Cassio a lot and asking him if he noticed anything weird. Othello gets very defensive and asks why Iago is asking such things, he says, “She did deceive her father, marrying you”(3.3.211). Iago again is teasing and continuously planting more seeds into Othello’s mind that something is going on with Desdemona that she is not telling him about. The thing that makes this quote important is that it is not really said that many people knew about how Desdemona and Othello hid their relationship from Desdemona’s father Brabantio so Iago had somehow found out this information just so he could use it against Othello in some way which is exactly what he is doing. It would be more understandable if someone like Cassio knew information like this as he works so much closer to Othello but even if Cassio knew this, Iago is not close enough with Cassio to get information from him. So again, the question of where does Iago get this private information arises. Iago has created such a concrete title for himself within the community in Venice as such an honest man that everyone believes him and does not second guess him. Therefore, when Iago brings up private information about someone to their face, they are very unlikely to think about how he could have gotten that information.

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Nick Potter’s argument can be proven wrong yet again by how Emilia knows some of what is going on around her throughout the story. Emilia is not exactly described as smart yet when seeing how she figures out parts of what Iago is doing, she could very easily be seen as an intelligent character. At the beginning of act four, Othello and Emilia are having a conversation about Desdemona and Cassio, Othello is asking Emilia about if she has noticed if Desdemona has been flirting or unfaithful with Cassio. Emilia is defending Desdemona saying that she is always in the same room as them and has never heard them whispering or acting strangely yet Othello does not believe her so she says, “If any wretch have put this in your head, let heaven requite it with the serpent’s curse”(4.2.16-17). In this quote, you can see that Emilia knows that someone else has given Othello the idea that Desdemona has been unfaithful but she does not know who. Emilia never figures out that her own husband is the reason for Othello’s behaviour and the idea of infidelity. At this point in the story, this is really when you can see Emilia’s faith to both her husband and to Desdemona as she knows bits and pieces of the stories that have been created yet she is trying to defend both of them for the rest of the story. Later on in this act, Emilia and Desdemona are in Desdemona’s bedroom and Emilia is helping her get ready for bed like usual. The two of them start talking about husbands and how Othello has been so strange and controlling when Desdemona says that she needs to leave because Othello asked her to go to be right now and she does not want to upset him. Emilia says, “Ay. Would you had never seen him!”(4.3.17). Emilia clearly does not like Othello at the moment because of how he has been treating Desdemona and created her into this obedient wife. She wishes that her friend had never met him as he has caused so much sadness and confusion for Desdemona. It comes across like Emilia does not want to tell Desdemona about the conversation that she and Othello had recently. She has become closer and closer to Desdemona and it seems like because of their new friendship, she’s hiding what she knows about Othello and someone giving him strange ideas to protect her or until she knows more. Emilia is seen as a very trustworthy character throughout the story and is quite outspoken when she feels comfortable so it seems like no matter what she says, there is a good chance it is right because of her intelligence and good heart.

Nick Potter’s argument does align with how little Desdemona knows consistently throughout the book. Desdemona and Emilia standing together when Desdemona asks Emilia if she would have any clue where she could have lost the handkerchief that Othello gave her and how Othello is not a jealous being. Emilia asks surprised that he is really not a jealous person and Desdemona responds with, “I think the sun where he was born drew all such humors from him.”(3.4.21-22). This quote really shows how naive Desdemona is and how oblivious she is to everyone and especially the man that she is married and is so loyal to. She makes these strong statements on how much she trusts her own husband and how her husband is not jealous whatsoever yet most would say that jealousy is the largest motif in the book and all of that comes from Othello. Throughout the story, Desdemona also provides lots of dramatic irony as the audience knows all of the chaos that Iago has caused which has affected her relationship with her husband entirely yet she still is completely unaware of what’s causing her husband’s behaviour. You can still see Desdemona’s naive outlook all the way to the very end of the book. In the middle of act four, Desdemona, Emilia and Iago are talking about how Othello had been acting so cruel and saying such terrible things to Desdemona about her being unfaithful and calling her things such as a whore. Desdemona is very distraught and hurt by what’s going on with Othello and as known, is so easily influenced so she is starting to believe the things Othello is saying. Desdemona starts to go on this big monologue on how she does not know how he has fallen out of love with her and how she does not know what to do, she then says, “Unkindness may do much, and his unkindness may defeat my life, but never taint my love.”(4.2.164-166). She’s saying that his unkindness is powerful and that it may kill her but his unkindness will never destroy her love for him. This shows her naive and almost childlike trust for him more than ever as he is continuously more and more cruel to her yet her love and loyalty for him only grow alongside it. At some points in the story, it really does seem as though Desdemona is so unaware of everything constantly that it almost seems as though she is apart of Iago’s plan or that she knows more than she is saying. It is just that there are so many obvious things going on around her that she just cannot understand or pick up on. Desdemona is obviously very naive and never really knows what is happening so she is a prime example of how Nick Potter’s argument is somewhat valid.

Nick Potter wrongly argues that “Othello is a tragedy of incomprehension…at the deepest level of human dealings. No one in Othello comes to understand himself or anyone else.” but it can be shown that Nick Potter is wrong through the characters Iago, Emilia and Desdemona. Iago does, in fact, know what is going on throughout the story as he is either the reason it is happening or he has manipulated someone into doing it for him. Emilia knows some of what is going on as she figures some of it out on her own by the end of the book yet never finds out that her husband was the reason for it all. Lastly, Desdemona knows none of what is ever happening around her due to her naive and over-trusting nature. As most characters in the story never actually knew what was happening, it is interesting to think that so many people could have been so oblivious to the things so clearly in front of them. It could be that Othello is pointing at the tendency in today’s society to look past important things going on around us whether purposeful or not. Is Othello showing us that there is more to someone than just what meets the eye? That we never truly know anyone or their morals? You may not always know everything in life at all times but always know the consequences that come with both knowing and not knowing.

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Othello: The Consequences of Knowing and Not Knowing. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/othello-the-consequences-of-knowing-and-not-knowing/
“Othello: The Consequences of Knowing and Not Knowing.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/othello-the-consequences-of-knowing-and-not-knowing/
Othello: The Consequences of Knowing and Not Knowing. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/othello-the-consequences-of-knowing-and-not-knowing/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Othello: The Consequences of Knowing and Not Knowing [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 09 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/othello-the-consequences-of-knowing-and-not-knowing/
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