Faustian bargain defines a situation where one accepts to sacrifice something of high moral or spiritual value, such as the soul, in return for material benefits like riches, knowledge, or power. The idea of “Faust” developed from ‘Dr. Faustus is a popular character in German literature who accepted to give out his soul to the evil spirit so that he could be granted unique magical powers, which would enable him to enjoy all world’s pleasures. Faust brings out the attributes of a tragic hero because he can be perceived as a borderline between the evil and good that are repeatedly fighting his conscience.
The primary flow that Faust suffered self-destruction includes the fact that he perceived himself as excessively intelligent and that he could not be outshined. The “Othello” by Shakespeare is a fascinating, tragic story that articulately embodies the concept of the Faustian bargain as characters engage in a pact where they compromise their moral obligations to pursue their self-interests. The paper argues that the theme of the Faustian bargain is articulately explored in “Othello” because the story showcases various sacrifices made by characters to obtain power or revenge, which result in self-destruction and regrettable consequences for the entire community.
The story “Othello” was authored in a period where there was a flux of power and religious teachings in society. The story mainly revolves around the acts and decisions endorsed by the three main characters, Othello, Desdemona, and his colleagues and friends (Shakespeare). Othello explores the theme of power extensively and the significance of upholding moral acts as per biblical teachings. From a biblical perspective, ‘sacrifice’ is viewed as one important act of high moral value. This is evident in assertions such as the Lord sacrificing his life to redeem the world from sins, which affirms that sacrifice is the leading theme throughout the religious doctrine. Arguably, such biblical teachings transcended significant influence upon European literature, with most emphasizing values such as sacrifice as being a pact of notable moral and spiritual value. This is extensively captured in ‘Othello’ as the story gives an account of how characters are making sacrifices in various instances. However, most of these sacrifices can be perceived as Faustian bargains because characters are making them for their self-gain. For instance, Iago, led by her ambitions, manipulates Othello to murder his wife. The author of this play engages the virtue of sacrifice by clarifying the significance of reputation. From one perspective, one can argue that Othello, the protagonist contributed to his downfall due to his poor judgment, naivety, and insecurity (Khadka 647). Othello’s gullibility is evident at the beginning of the play as individuals around him question his ability and decisions. For instance, he concedes to having slept with his daughter, which affirms that he is a person who values moral acts such as honesty, although he is not a rational thinker. He fails to take the time to investigate himself with respect to the accusations made by Iago. On the contrary, he asks Iago to prove his allegations, which gives him a chance to conspire (Mehrotra 347). It can be perceived that Othello’s sacrifices are not also genuine and that he self-terminated himself due to his excessive urge to control everything, including his destiny. This is why he gets confused about how he should conduct himself when events get out of his control; thus, he ends up committing suicide.
It is arguable that Othello’s decisions and acts uphold the concept of Faustian bargaining because he sacrificed Desdemona’s life to safeguard his reputation. Following Iago’s manipulation, Othello believes that Desdemona is cheating on him; thus, he sacrifices her to stop her from embarrassing him. Othello believed that the only effective way he could employ to protect his dignity was by sacrificing her life, as that could prevent him from hurting further. Sadly, Othello only understood Iago’s true motive only after sacrificing her lover (Khadka 648). Othello’s Faustian bargaining aspect is evident in his words when he insists that Desdemona needs to die. Else, she would go ahead and betray more men. This implies Othello was motivated to kill Desdemona to accomplish his ambitions. He felt that by killing her, he would have granted justice to all those men with who Desdemona might have cheated. The author explored the significance of sacrifice further in society during the time as Othello sacrificed his life also to safeguard his reputation. This affirms that virtues such as “reputation’ were of high value when “Othello” was written. The assertion is well supported by Cassio’s lamentation that by losing his reputation, he has “lost the immortal part of myself” (Shakespeare, line 280). Reputation was valued as people believed then that it characterized one of their parts that would live forever. In this sense, Othello considered the idea of terminating his life and maintaining his reputation of being remembered for the good that he had committed, then went on living as a tragic hero. Accordingly, he committed the ultimate sacrifice by killing himself out of guilt.
The theme of the Faustian bargain is also well brought out by the acts of Iago, who appears as the mastermind of manipulating others. Iago also sacrifices all his moral values, thus engaging in dishonest acts with the primary aim of claiming the power that Othello holds. Iago passionately envies the social authority and privileges enjoyed by the people in the ruling and higher classes, which makes him develop a strategy on how to bring Cassius down after promotion (Shakespeare). He prioritizes his desires as he believes that he should be the one being promoted up the social ranks. Iago also has untamable bitterness against Othello because he has the control and influence which he craves. Othello is a renowned, iconic leader and brave fighter; thus, he can easily win Desdemona, which Iago is not happy about. Iago is sad because he comes out as a weak candidate, and his marriage with Emilia is crumbling. In this sense, Othello is the main focus of Iago’s envy, which explains why he plans to poison those around Othello to destroy him eventually. Iago’s most notable strength is his ability to understand human nature. Accordingly, he plays around with people’s nature, and he does not attempt to force them into doing anything that they are not willing to pursue. This makes him an excellent manipulator as he has the potential to predict how other characters are likely to respond to various situations— he ensures to use such responses to advance his plot.
For instance, Iago plays along and fools Roderigo into believing that Desdemona could be bought and traded like a possession. Notably, every character who interacts with Iago is eventually trapped in his/her weaknesses— they are all wrecked by vice. It did not matter whether one had much power as desired. Like Othello, Iago manipulates them all for self-gain by making them eventually susceptible to human nature or themselves (Mehrotra 347). Iago can be argued to be the most interesting villain in the story because he appears to lack a genuine motivation for creating the chaos and his role as a “puppeteer” who corrupts victims of his lies to engage in the actual acts of sin that he could not execute.
From another perspective, Desdemona also develops the theme of the Faustian bargain by sacrificing her dignity, thus remaining submissive to her father and husband. Desdemona sacrifices her dignity while hoping that he would be perceived as a ‘good’ and ‘pure’ woman as per society’s customs. However, her kindness eventually destroys her as she turns out to be perceived as an object. Initially, she is ‘owned’ by her father, who always wants to lock up, withhold, and possess her. When Desdemona is taken by Othello, her father laments that his only treasure has been stolen (like any other property). His sentiments are further captured in his claim when disowning her after she was taken by Othello when he indicates that he could not have a daughter who is ‘owned’ by another man.
The same agony continues when Desdemona gets married to Othello, who also sees her as his property. Arguably, Desdemona’s act of sacrificing her dignity to remain submissive to his husband contributed substantially to her death. Her husband is obsessed with the idea that she is pure and he is the only man destined to have her, the perception that Desdemona also seems to endorse. Accordingly, the problem came in once doubts started creeping into Othello’s mind that Desdemona could be having extra-marital affairs, which makes him plan to kill her (Shakespeare). It can be assumed that Desdemona could not have been killed if she had never sacrificed her dignity, thus ignoring her life welfare while focusing on pleasing her husband. Desdemona’s kindness also makes her fall easily into Iago’s and Emilia’s treachery plans. Iago stage-managed Desdemona’s kindness to prove his allegation that she was cheating Othello (Mehrotra 345). In this sense, Desdemona’s situation presents a typical example of a Faustian bargain because her act of sacrificing her dignity did not result in anything positive as she thought. Instead, this act doomed her because it made her turn out to be Brabantio and Othello’s property, thus resulting in self-destruction.
In summary, “Othello” is an educative play that explores the concept of the Faustian bargain comprehensively from diverse perspectives. Characters in the play, led by Othello, Iago, and Desdemona, sacrifice something of high moral value, which eventually costs them dearly. The Faustian bargain develops with a perception of authority that the bargainer acknowledges as being immoral or evil. In this sense, the Faustian bargains are mainly self-defeating or tragic for individuals who engage in them because what is surrendered is typical of higher value than what is gained. Othello is privileged to have both social and military power since he is a renowned general and has authority over the army. This position is what prompts Iago to engage in his plot to take Othello’s power. As such, Iago’s and Othello’s acts (sacrifices) are not genuine, and they result in destruction. On the other hand, Desdemona also suffers dreadful consequences for sacrificing her dignity.
Khadka, Prem. Critical Evaluation of ‘Othello’ Written by William Shakespeare. PalArch’s Journal of Archeology of Egypt/Egyptology, Vol. 18, Issue 4, (2021), pp. 643-655
Mehrotra, Vivek. Malignity and motive in Williams Shakespeare’s Othello. Journal of Critical Reviews, Vol.7, Issue 19, (2020), pp. 345-352.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. Chandni Chowk, Delhi, 1622. Print. https://shakespeare.folger.edu/downloads/pdf/othello_PDF_FolgerShakespeare.pdf