There are many points of valid comparison between “Doctor Faustus” by Christopher Marlowe and “Othello” by William Shakespeare, both in terms of similar themes between the two plays as well as a more general basis of comparison in terms of characters. Furthermore, there are many recurring character types as well as motifs that tie in with these characters. More specifically, even a cursory analysis of these points of comparison in “Othello” and “Doctor Faustus” reveals strong connections between the themes and presence of the motifs of villains (evil characters who seem to live only to destroy the lives of others) as well as the constant presence of the idea of sin. In fact, sin as a concept or motif in both “Doctor Faustus” and “Othello” does a great deal to comment upon characters who are evil villains and the these two structures in both “Faustus” and “Othello” play off one another, thus making these two plays very similar and ripe for a comparison more thorough than one might initially expect could be possible with such different plots.
The seven deadly sins were a vital part of Elizabethian literature and if not personified directly (as in the case of Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus“) they at least comprised the more general structure of plot. In Shakespeare’s Othello, the central action of the play is based on the manipulation and acting out of the seven deadly sins by Iago, whose actions determine the final tragic outcome. One scholar posits the idea that Othello echoes “something of the structure of a morality play, with Othello caught between Desdemona and Iago, the good angel and the evil angel” (Hunter 163). While the idea about this play existing as a genuine morality play can be debated, the fact remains that the seven deadly sins all function differently within the text and the battle between good and evil is confused due to the unsure footing that both the reader and the characters find themselves treading upon. Much of the distortion of reality and subsequent revelation and action revolving around the seven deadly sins occurs as a result of the manipulative efforts of Iago and it is useful to both examine how this occurs and finally, how these elements of Othello can be placed into the larger context of Shakespearian and Elizabethian literature in general. It should be constantly kept in mind that the Church and sin were in the forefront of the public’s consciousness throughout the time of Shakespeare and Marlow, thus eliminating the seven deadly sins as a paramount concern would be inappropriate.
Part of what makes Iago Shakespeare’s most fascinating villain is both his apparent lack of genuine motivation to create such chaos combined with his position as a “puppeteer” who incites the victims of his deception to perform the actual acts of sin in which he himself is either too cowardly or too clever to dirty his hands with. Unlike other infamous archetypal Shakespeare villains such as the gluttonous and envious Lady Macbeth, for instance, Iago’s lack of clear motivation (other than an ingrained sense of pure malice) separates him from other characters encountered found throughout Shakespeare and other Elizabethian literature and presents the reader with a struggle to find the ways in which the seven deadly sins which are carried out under the direction of Iago, the ultimate “Satanic puppeteer” behind the action. Instead of being the primary instigator behind the seven deadly sins evidenced in the text, Iago successfully manipulates the sense of innate trust the other characters, Othello in particular, bestow upon him. Part of the play’s tragic pathos stems from the dramatic irony of having the designer of Othello’s sufferings immediately present and yet not unrecognized. The effect of this tragic pathos is further heightened by the fact that the audience is increasingly made aware and even implicated in Iago’s manipulations by the means of semi-comedic asides and dark revelations about the extent of his evil. While the seven deadly sins are key elements to play, what is most engaging is watching the ways in which Iago is able to coerce, by the other characters presumed trust, Othello and his comrades into their own sin while remaining virtually unstained by his own sin until the tragic end of the play. The play dramatizes Othello’s continued loss of trust and leads to the final act of murder—the culmination of the “effects” of the seven deadly sins, which is also embodied by the horrific acts of mortal sin.
Among the seven deadly sins functioning within Othello as a result of the cruel machinations of Iago, one of the most prominent is wrath. Unlike the other sins this is one of the most connected to Iago’s own actions (as opposed to him working though the vices and weaknesses of other characters) and can be the only sin most completely associated with him in particular. The problem with Iago’s wrath is that, as previously stated, it does not seem to stem from any clearly identifiable source nor does the extent of it appear to have been provoked. Although Iago clearly states his wrath in one of his many asides to the audience in one of the important quotes from “Othello” by William Shakespeare, “Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains— / Yet for necessity if present life / I must show out a flag and sign of love” (I.i.156-58) there is still no foundation for a hatred so powerful as to be likened to “hell-pains” aside from the petty reasons given that do not seem likely to warrant such potent wrath. To justify his wrath at Othello, Iago discusses briefly his anger at being passed over for the position of lieutenant in favor of Cassio, whom Iago describes as “A fellow almost damned for a wife, / That never set a squadron in the field” (I.i.19-21) and later implies without basis that Othello may have slept with his wife, expressing that he wishes to get even with Othello “wife for wife” (II.i.122). While these injuries to his pride (which is one of the complimentary seven deadly sins with wrath in Iago’s case) they are, whether real or perceived, hardly enough to justify Iago’s subsequent rage.
By the end of the first act, it is clear that Iago detests Othello with a passion greater than he expresses about any other character or event, but it is still not, nor is it ever, entirely clear why this potent wrath exists. One assumption could simply be that Iago is a victim of vice. Whereas other characters display their own distinctive set of vices (in the form of one or several of the seven deadly sins) perhaps it is fair to assume that Iago is a victim of baseless wrath just as Cassio is a victim of his “sin of choice” which is lust. The difference between the function of these particular vices and sins in characters besides Iago is simply that Iago is more skillful and perceptive manipulator with both an excellent understanding of characters and a keen sense of timing. His success with the timing of events is played out in numerous instances and while it could be a case of sheer luck, it is more likely the fact that this is coupled with his knowledge of how particular characters will react in certain situations.
Timing and a deep understanding of human weakness are keys to Iago’s own sin and those he sneakily incites others to commit. For example, it is clear that Iago is aware of Othello’s position as “other” in white Venetian society and he attempts to exploit this difference for his own malicious ends in Act I when he alerts Brabanzio to the “Moor” who is attempting to seduce his daughter. Iago is the one person who will most insistently call attention to Othello’s foreign status and blackness and ultimately, Othello will accept Iago’s convictions that physical and national distinctions matter greatly. Iago will make him forget he has other unique qualities, that he is descended from royalty and that his life is charmed” (121). While this is true, Iago even has the same effect on the audience or readers since before Othello is ever formally introduced into the play with dialogue, he his described in detail by Iago. Frequently, he is only referred to indistinctly as “the Moor” and the audience’s first impressions of the still-shrouded figure of Othello are expressed in the first scenes of the play. Aside from the racially based descriptions of Othello as a simple figure such as a “Moor” the implications of this racism in “Othello” by Shakespeare extend as a near riot takes place when Brabanzio is informed of his daughter’s possible defilement at the hands of a dark creature. The sinister perception on the part of both the audience and the other characters deepens as Iago, the evil puppeteer, chooses his words to invoke a sense of horror. Speaking to Brabanzio he states in a revealing quote on the theme of racism in Othello, “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, / you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, / you’ll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans” (I.i.113-16). With such a grotesque description of the horrors of races intermingling, both the audience and the characters have succumbed to Iago’s skill at manipulating reality and thus have an unfair and unfocused perception of Othello immediately.
It is worth noting that Iago’s second display of pride, one of the seven deadly sins is wounded in his attempt to seduce the audience and Brabanzio’s entourage into thinking the worst situation is reality. Once Desdemona’s father discovers it is Othello that is the “Barbary horse” in question the suspicions and rage subside. When asked about his winning of Desmonda, Othello merely replies, “[Desdemona’s] father loved me, oft invited me, / Still questioned me the story of my life / From year to year” (I.iii.127–129). Unsurprised by this tale of winning love, the Duke responds,” I think this tale would win my daughter too” (I.iii.170). Although Iago’s plans do not often backfire, this is one case in which they do and this makes him more determined to exact his revenge upon Othello. This is the last time throughout the play that Iago allows himself to make a mistake and from this moment in which his pride has been stung, all the way until the bitter end, he remains constantly aware of the movements and actions of the other characters. One senses that his pride could not withstand another blow such as this one and he is thus resolved to cause as much damage as possible. Instead of falling victim again to suffering from a wounded sense of pride, Iago takes the vice of pride and turns it upon the other characters. He skillfully exploits the pride of Cassio when encouraging him to drink, and in the end he also takes advantage of Othello’s pride by praising him through actions and dialogue so completely that Othello trusts him completely. In some senses, it seems as though this backfired event has made Iago more aware of he importance of pride in this aristocratic culture, thus he has learned that it can be his greatest tool in the manipulation of others.
Throughout the play, envy might seem to be a motivator for Iago’s wrath just as much as his wounded pride is. When examined more closely, however, one sees that envy alone is not explication enough for his unfounded desire for chaos. There is the imbedded sense that perhaps it is envy of Othello that sparks Iago’s actions, but this appears to be simple and it is impossible not to concoct more involved theories. Is it because Iago is jealous of Othello’s political and military power? Is it a more sinister reason such as a latent homosexual desire for Othello since Iago tries so hard to prevent Othello from enjoying a night alone with his new wife? Although there are opportunities to draw any number of conclusions about why and if Iago is envious of Othello, there are no direct answers within the text. Even so, just as with the other sins and characters discussed, Iago recognizes the importance of envious feelings and is successfully able to manipulate Roderigo by charging him a fee to win Desdemona. Envy remains one of the strong undercurrents in the play and of course, with the help of Iago’s deceptions, becomes the motivating action for the final moments of brutality. Emilia realizes the power of envy and remarks that it is a “monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.156-57). This is very similar to the comment made by Iago, in which he states that envy “is the green-eyed monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (III.iii.170-71). Even though Emilia is expressing this theme, even she is blinded to the extent in which it is functioning in the text, thus Iago’s words about envy echo through the reader’s mind as the conclusion comes together. Throughout the play, just as eventually the character of Faustus will be in Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”, Othello is the character most likely to fall victim to the sin of envy and greed. Eventually, he begins to view his wife with an increasing amount of suspicion. This is one of the few moments in the text when one wonders to what extent he is insecure about his status as “other” and how this might make him more vulnerable to such a vice. Even if Othello does not pick up on his own insecurities, Iago does, and makes certain to bring out the envy that lie dormant in the heart of Othello.