Shakespeare’s Othello is a play wrought with the intricacies of the human mind. While Othello and Desdemona begin a life together in marital bliss, dissatisfaction from her father and allusions to an affair with Cassio soon taint the once perfect canvas of their marriage. As it becomes clear to readers that Iago has a vendetta against Othello due his selection of Cassio as lieutenant over himself, Iago’s deeds become dastardlier. As events unfold, the question of why becomes more prominent—why is Iago so determined to tear down Othello’s life? Shakespeare sets up a clear dichotomy of good and evil in Othello. Iago embodies evil, while Desdemona embodies goodness and purity.
Othello is torn between the two, and fulfills his role as a tragic hero with the fatal flaw of jealousy, ending the lives of several others before taking his own. The balance in this play should be clear, Othello is affected by his circumstances, and Iago controls the situation by his increasingly evil deeds, driven by his jealousy and hatred. However, the lines of intention become blurred when Othello is read in the context of the essays of Montaigne, “The Power of Imagination" and “The Inconsistencies of Our Actions" Once Othello is placed into the context of Montaigne’s essays, Iago’s actions because more understandable, and Othello becomes far less sympathetic, effectively turning one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies upon it’s head.
Montaigne’s “Power of Imagination" holds more answers to Othello’s actions than one may first believe. In his essay, Montaigne talks about the power of the imagination to make that which is imagined become reality. He explores the idea that the mind has great power over the body, citing examples of the man who died upon the scaffold due to another’s powers of imagination, and the man who dreamt of having horns on his head and awoke the next morning to find them protruding from his skull. He goes on to speak of even more unbelievable events, such as spontaneous gender reversal and induced hypochondria (Montaigne, Power of Imagination). With this definition of the power of imagination, Othello’s actions become more understandable, perhaps even unstoppable. Iago simply has to suggest that Othello’s marriage is falling apart, and the union that he was so happy in suddenly seems to become a disaster in his own eyes as he says “She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief must be loathe to her" (III.iii.271-272). In a matter of moments, his imagination takes over and completely dissolves his union with his bride. In this case, imagination does have quite an effect on reality, because the more distressed Othello becomes, the worse his marriage with Desdemona deteriorates.
As for Iago’s deplorable actions, Montaigne’s essay “The Inconsistency of our Actions" offers some words of advice. Throughout the text, Montaigne emphasizes that humans live their life from day to day, from moment to moment, and that their thoughts and actions are often inconsistent with the ones proceeding or following. This thesis is reinforced by his question within the essay that asks, “Don’t we see that man does not know what he wants nor what he constantly seeks?" (Montaigne, Inconsistency). According to Montaigne’s ideas, Iago is a man who is ruled by whimsy, someone who cannot control his own actions, nor relate on a rational level. Iago backs up this claim himself, when he states that, “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago. In following him I follow but myself…I am not what I am" (I.i.57-58; 65). Even Iago, being the villain that he is, cannot quite grasp the reasoning behind his own actions.
According to Montaigne’s “Power of Imagination" essay, it appears that Othello has complete control over his situation. If he could get his imagination settled and examine the world with the blinders of rationality as opposed to possibility, perhaps the entire tragedy would have been avoided. It is clear to the outside reader that Desdemona had no designs on Cassio, and that extra-marital affairs were not in character with her personality. However, Othello allowed his imagination to wreak havoc on his life, thus destroying that which was perfect in the beginning. Strangely, the opposite can be said for Iago in the context of Montaigne’s “The Inconsistencies of Our Actions" essay. In accordance, it seems as if Iago has absolutely no control over his villainous deeds, and perhaps is even a character that could gather our sympathy. Montaigne clearly has a very different perspective if he can make Shakespeare’s most evil villain draw on the audience’s heartstrings. If Montaigne’s essays can turn a world-renowned villain into a sympathetic character, and turn a favored tragic hero into a villain, the question arises—should he be trusted? Is Montaigne merely a man who had the insight to look outside of the boxes that society placed imagination and action into, or was he a man who was seeking to alleviate the duty of humanity to take responsibility for their actions? While the answer may never be known, what is certain is that with the help of Montaigne’s essays, the world can view the tragedy of Othello in a completely different light.