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The Importance of Isolation in Shakespeare's Othello

Updated on January 21, 2011

Isolation in Othello affects the outcome of the tragedy because it causes characters to hear and believe whatever they are told. The reader can see that Shakespeare believes in using isolation to develop the tragedy by noting that almost the entire plot of Othello takes place on Cyprus: an island, symbolizing isolation in its truest form. On this Island, the three characters mostly contributing to the outcome of tragedy (through their own isolation) are Emilia, Desdemona, and Othello.

Emilia, a very worldly yet foolish woman, contributes to the outcome of the tragedy because of her own isolation as well as ignorance. Her job as Desdemona’s servant requires her to almost never leave Desdemona’s side; making it impossible for her to see her husband, Iago, manipulating the other characters of the play. In Act III, Scene 3, Emilia gives Iago Desdemona’s handkerchief. In the next scene, however, Emilia is ignorant and does not realize that Othello is angry with Desdemona for losing the same handkerchief. Emilia is isolated not only by her own ignorance, but by the jealousy of her husband as well. Iago states in Act II, Scene 1: “I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leaped into my seat” (2.1.317-318). Because Iago is so jealous, he tries to keep Emilia away from other men in the play, while treating her as plaything. Emilia’s ignorance in not realizing that Iago is using her as part of his plot is fueled by her love for Iago. “I nothing but to please his fancy,” she says (3.3.343). Emilia spends most of her time with Desdemona, who just happens to be just as isolated as Emilia.

Desdemona has Emilia to talk to, but with Emilia being her only source, it goes without saying that Desdemona is in trouble. Because Emilia is not as smart as the other characters, she misses several details that, if pointed out to Desdemona, could have saved her life. For example, in Act III, scene 4, Othello tells Desdemona, “Fetch me the handkerchief” (3.4.103)! When Desdemona tells Othello she does not know where it is, Emilia, who is in the room, does not realize that this is the same handkerchief she gave to Iago. Desdemona is so isolated, especially from Othello, that there is now way for her to defend her own chastity. Although she talks to Othello as much as she can and tries to profess her love for him, he does not accept it. She tells Othello her sins “are loves” she bears to him, but she becomes so isolated from Othello because of Iago’s word that he still does not believe her (5.2.49). This isolation is the main cause of her death as well as the other deaths in Act V.

Othello, being a black male among all white Venetians is isolated because he does not fully understand the culture. In Act III, Iago tells Othello, “I know our country disposition well. In Venice they do let {God} see the pranks they dare not show their husbands” (3.3.232-234). Because Othello is isolated to only Iago’s word, Othello believes it may truly be custom for the wife to cheat on the husband without telling them. He is also isolated because his experience on the battlefield is greater than his experience with women. “Were it my cue to fight,” says Othello, “I should have known it without a prompter” (1.2.102-104). Because Othello is a sort of misfit among the other Venetians, he isolates himself in believing the closest person to him- Iago. Iago’s lies to Othello lead to the tragedy of Act V all because of Othello’s isolation. Iago tells Othello in several instances throughout the play that he does not understand the culture of Venice, leading him to believe that Desdemona could actually be having an affair with Cassio. In addition to this, Iago later uses reverse psychology on Othello by rarely suggesting Desdemona’s innocence. Othello’s isolation in talking to only Iago transforms him into soft clay, waiting to be sculpted by Iago’s most ready and crafty hands.

Isolation in Othello ultimately leads to every characters downfall. Emilia, Desdemona, and Othello are all isolated, and their isolation causes the tragedy of Othello. Isolation eventually causes people to believe ideas, reasoning, and even lies that anyone tells them, and their misunderstanding leads them to their own tragic fate.


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      2 years ago

      Who is the author of this essay? I can't find the name anywhere.


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