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The themes of jealousy, pride, and revenge have consistently interested scholars throughout Othello's critical history. With the development of psychoanalysis and its application to literary characters, twentieth-century critics have expanded on earlier interpretations of the play's three primary characters and suggested new explanations and motivations for their actions.

Interpretations of Othello's character are often negative, focusing on his pride and jealousy as fatal flaws. Robert Hapgood (1966) has described Othello as excessively self-righteous and judgemental and argued that the play should make viewers wary of their own tendencies to judge. Focusing his analysis on the play's structure, Larry S. Champion (1973) has written that Shakespeare's "economy of design" centers attention on the "destruction of character resulting from a lack of self-knowledge, … which is the consequence of the vanity of one's insistence on viewing everything through the distorting medium of his [Othello's] own self-importance." Othello's egocentricity, Champion argued, rendered him exceedingly susceptible to jealousy and fabrications concerning his wife. Other scholars have employed psychoanalytic theories in their interpretations of Othello's character. Stephen Reid (1968), for example, has suggested an unresolved Oedipus complex as the source of Othello's delusional jealousy. Reid argued that Othello's mother rejected him for his father and this "treachery" on her part led him to reject women. Similarly, Robert Rogers (1969) has viewed Othello as a composite character composed of conflicting tendencies and has identified the Oedipus complex as a primary factor in explaining Othello's behavior.

Opinion on the character of Desdemona has been sharply divided. While some critics have depicted her as an innocent, passive victim, others have described her as wanton, domineering, and at least partially responsible for her fate. Robert Dickes (1970) has contended that Desdemona is a domineering character who actively strives to achieve her ends and harbors an unconscious death-wish. As evidence of this nature, Dickes observes her wooing of Othello and her efforts to have Cassio reinstated and attributes the motivation for her actions—which ultimately lead to her death—to the Oedipus complex. Desdemona, he argued, "chose as a love object a man representative of her father. Forced by the prompting of her superego, she then atoned for this incestuous choice by behaving in such a way as to make Othello even more certain in his jealousy." W. D. Adamson (1980), however, has interpreted Desdemona's "ambiguous-looking behavior" as a sign of her innocence and positive moral standing. He maintained that Othello is the "tragedy of an unworldly woman calumniated and murdered by … a sex-obsessed tyrant who insists on thinking the worst as she insists on the best." Other scholars who have centered their attention on Desdemona have sought to shift interpretation of the play away from the tragedy of an individual. Julian C. Rice (1974) has suggested that Desdemona resembles Othello more than she transcends him and that the play is primarily a tragedy of human nature, while Irene G. Dash (1981) has asserted that Othello is a study of the complexities of marriage.

One of the play's most perplexing characters, Iago's actions appear to lack a clear sense of motive. A dominant theme in Othello criticism, therefore, has been an effort to explain Iago's motivations. Some scholars, such as Daniel Stempel (1969), have conceded that Shakespeare's text does not offer a solution to the question of Iago's motives and was never intended to do so. Stempel has maintained that "Iago embodies the mystery of the evil will, an enigma which Shakespeare strove to realize, not to analyze." Many commentators, however, have contended that simply labeling Iago as the personification of evil does not do justice to Shakespeare's skills of character development. Fred West (1978), for instance, has suggested that Shakespeare created a profound and accurate portrait of a psychopath in Iago. As such, West continued, "Iago's only motivation is an immature urge toward instant pleasure." Gordon Ross Smith (1959) has maintained that Iago's" actions and his hatred of Desdemona—whose marriage usurped his place in Othello's affections—are attributable to his repressed homosexual feelings toward Othello and Cassio. Other critics, such as Leslie Y. Rabkin and Jeffrey Brown (1973), have argued that Iago is a sadist who suffers from a sense of hopelessness and self-contempt and that he attempts to deal with these emotions by projecting his feelings onto others and working to destroy their sense of peace and joy. "Tragedy resides in the heart of character," Smith concluded. "Its inescapable quality is justified by what responsibility each person ultimately carries for what he has become, but its tragic qualities derive from the helplessness of people to escape from what they essentially are."


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15598

Robert Hapgood (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Trials of Othello," in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, edited by Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, 1966, pp. 134-47.

[In the essay below, Hapgood analyzes themes of judgment and justice in Othello, characterizing the play as a tragedy of self-righteousness that "warrants little confidence in human attempts at judiciousness. "]

Leonard F. Dean's collection of essays, A Casebook on Othello, has all too apt a title. For so much has been written about the play's justice theme and so many judgments have been passed upon its hero that recent criticism does read like a legal casebook, in which Othello is tried and judged—in this world and the next.1 In a way, Othello "asks for" such treatment by presuming to judge himself and others; and certainly a judgment of the hero is part of our response to his tragedy. Yet not, I submit, the dominant part. Overre-acting against the Bradleyan Othello, so idealized that his vulnerability to Iago could only be accounted for by colossal simplemindedness2 or by Stoll's convention of the "calumniator credited,"3 recent commentators have presented an Othello so culpably self-deceived that Iago becomes virtually superfluous—"merely ancillary," as Leavis puts it.4 Excessive identification with the hero has been replaced by excessive detachment from him.

One way to moderate this excess would be simply to recall in detail how much less often we are invited in the course of the play to judge than we are to admire, dread, grieve, laugh, marvel, shudder, pity, fear, and so on through a rich variety of responses. But that would take a much longer study than this one. Here I want to make a start by concentrating on a key area, the justice theme itself. Often taken as the occasion for severe judgments on Othello, analysis of it, rightly understood, carries a built-in warning. For if Othello's is in part a tragedy of self-righteousness, as I think it is, that should make us wary of our own self-righteousness. Moreover, the whole world of Othello warrants little confidence in human attempts at judiciousness. In this play, rough justice ensues when disputants confront one another openly and are restrained from violence. But would-be judges not only seem unnecessary to the process but often get in its way. The better we understand Othello, I believe, the slower we will be to judge. In support of this belief, I should like to look closely at the four main "trials" in which Othello figures: of Othello after his elopement with Desdemona, of Cassio after the brawl, of Desdemona, and of Othello at the close of the play.

The most extensive analysis of the justice theme in Othello is Robert Heilman's in Magic in the Web. Again and again, he recurs to the "hearing" in the Duke's court (I.iii), finding in the Duke's administration of justice a standard against which Othello's subsequent perversions of due process may be measured:

The drama may be said to begin with a successful formal court action, to advance by implicitly contrasting this with less adequate court actions that gradually shrink into simulations of the judicial, and to complete the series by a contrast of the quasi-courtly with brute action that supersedes the judicial. Justice: the imitation of justice: the negation of justice.5

I do not believe that the Duke's hearing will bear this stress as the exemplar of "Justice."

In various places, Heilman characterizes the process of justice in the Duke's hearing as formal, organized, institutional. Chiefly because of the Duke's passiveness, the scene does not fully answer this description. I would not, on the other hand, call the hearing "helterskelter" (as does John Draper) or compare the Duke's manner to that of Dogberry!6 The hearing is orderly, and legal traditions doubtless play a part in it (as the incidental legal terms in the episode bear out). Yet it is quite informal—as compared, say, with the impromptu hearing conducted by the Duke at the end of Romeo and Juliet. It is conducted not so much by the judge as by the participants themselves. The judge starts the hearing by asking the accused to testify, but thereafter he can hardly be said to "administer" justice. It is only when Othello suggests it that the Duke says "Fetch Desdemona hither," and even after she arrives, the judge has been so moved by the defendant's testimony that he advises the plaintiff to withdraw his charge. Brabantio must insist that the witness be heard.

Although Heilman does not go so far as to set up the Duke as an ideal judge, he does praise the Duke's poise and general manner of executing justice. To me, even though he presides over several processes in which just decisions are reached, the Duke seems notably injudicious—hasty, easily swayed, openly partisan, and inclined to abdicate his authority.

At our introduction to the Duke, in the brief passage in which the Venetian council is sifting conflicting reports about the movements of the Turkish fleet, the most that can be said for his sagacity is that he accepts a sound judgment when he hears it. He himself opens the scene with the remark that "There is no composition in these news / That gives them credit." It is the Second Senator who must point out that although the reports differ as to the number of ships they "all confirm / A Turkish fleet, and bearing up to Cyprus." As persuasive as the loquacious First Senator is in discounting the later report that a "Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes," his arguments do not warrant the positiveness of the Duke's conclusion: "Nay, in all confidence, he's not for Rhodes," and later "' Tis Certain, then, for Cyprus." These are minor matters, but they suggest that the Duke—as Heilman puts it of Othello—"cannot abide the temporary uncertainty which is essential to wise conclusions: he must have assurance now."

In the "hearing" of Brabantio's charge against Othello, the Duke obstructs at least as much as he advances the course of justice. His first response is to invite his friend the plaintiff to be his own judge:

                     the bloody book of law
You shall yourself read in the bitter letter
After your own sense, yea, though our proper
Stood in your action.

After he learns, however, that his general-of-the-hour is the accused, he appears to change sides. The part of his response to Brabantio's accusation which Heilman quotes as the Duke's "ruling" sounds admirably judicious: "To vouch this is no proof, / Without more certain and more overt test"; but the rest of his comment—with its concentration of weighted words, "thin," "poor," "modern"—is a good deal less than impartial:

Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him.
                               (I.iii. 107-109)

It might be thought that what seems injudiciousness in the Duke is, in a larger view, tact; that his positiveness about the Turkish fleet, as Stanislavsky has suggested,7 is the kind of assured leadership the crisis requires; that his apparent passivity is in fact a relaxed control, so secure in its authority that it can allow the antagonists, as it were, to settle their own dispute. Yet such a view supposes a degree of wisdom which would preclude the Duke's blunders later in the scene. His "sentence" to Brabantio—"The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief; / He robs himself that spends a bootless grief"—is no comfort to Brabantio and scarcely flattering to Othello. A little later, the Duke's proposed "disposition" of Desdemona "at her father's" is singularly inept, emphatically displeasing all three of the parties involved. His decision, after the pleas of Desdemona and Othello, to let her go to Cyprus—"Be it as you shall privately determine, / Either for her stay or going"—seems sensible enough at the time; later one wishes the Duke had been less ready to leave it to the judgment of a bridegroom whether his marriage would interfere with his military responsibilities. His haste might be attributed to a desire to get on with state business. Yet it is Brabantio in his grief who beseeches him to drop the private problem for "the affairs of the state"; and once the disposition of Desdemona has been arranged, the Duke leaves further problems till the next morning, says good night, and leaves.

The Duke, then, is not the poised administrator of justice that Heilman takes him to be. The key contrast between his conduct in this hearing and that of Othello when he "tries" Desdemona is that the Duke—whether from fairness of mind or mere weakness—is not so secure in his own sense of justice as to give his impulsive prejudgments full sway.

Brabantio provides the same contrast, a contrast that stands out amid the numerous ways in which he resembles Othello. Like Othello, he idealizes Desdemona and—using almost the same words as Othello—is appalled at the thought that such perfection "would err / Against all rules of nature." He, too, thinks that he has been wronged by his friend. He, too, learns of the "crime" from Iago and after some resistance takes over his formulation of it (theft). Almost as sure as Othello of his own capacity to determine what is just, he mixes investigation and condemnation in a way which epitomizes Othello's later methods (I.i.161-174). So strong is he in his own judgment that Gratiano feels that the sight of Desdemona dead would have made him "curse his better angel from his side / And fall to reprobation"—a surmise that comes shortly before Othello's own speech of self-damnation.

For all his rectitude, however, Brabantio does not rely on it as much as Othello does. He brings his case before the proper authorities and makes an open accusation. Brabantio is no model. With no more evidence than his belief that his daughter would never do such a thing voluntarily, he leaps to the conclusion that she has been bewitched. He takes the matter to the Duke, not because he is a law-abiding citizen but because he feels sure his friends will back him up. He does not follow through to confirm the whole truth of Desdemona's wooing. And once he sees the essential truth of Desdemona's true devotion to the Moor, he acknowledges it with a bitterness which prepares us for his subsequent "death of grief." Yet he does in fact, as well as in the Duke's fiction, judge his own case and arrive at a just decision, withdrawing his charge. If one compares him with other Shakespearean characters who judge their own cases—Angelo, Malvolio, Leontes, not to mention Othello—one sees what an achievement this represents. With none of the idealism which inspires Othello's sense of justice, Brabantio, like the Duke, has the willingness to submit his prejudgments to a full and open test of experience that Othello so fatally lacks.

The trial of Cassio presents another instance in which human injudiciousness is corrected by an open hearing. Heilman finds that "in contrast with the Duke's hearing in Venice" there is here a deterioration in the administering of justice, with Othello exhibiting less poise than the Duke. At the other extreme, Samuel Kliger finds in this incident a praiseworthy instance of Othello's "specific judicial capacity" for discriminating between official and personal loyalties.8

If there is a deterioration from the earlier trial, it is in the testimony. Iago tells less than the whole truth, and Cassio and Montano simply won't talk. I myself find little to choose between the Duke and Othello as judges; if anything, Othello seems somewhat the less injudicious. Certainly he is much more actively in charge of the proceeding than was the Duke. And, with Cassio visibly drunk while in charge of the guard, and making no defense for his assault on a ranking official, does Othello after all need further occasion for his verdict? Still there is no denying that he is abrupt and intemperate; and that, as a result, he fails to get at the whole truth: even Iago seems to have assumed that he would inquire into the cause of the quarrel.

His outburst—"My blood begins my safer guides to rule"—ominously exceeds the occasion. It is true that there was considerable difficulty in restoring order at his arrival and that although he has been elaborately courteous to each of the three witnesses, each one has refused to testify. The situation plainly calls for some assertion of authority, of the same sort that Henry IV employs when he tells the rebellious Percies, "My blood hath been too cold and temperate" (1 Henry IV, I.iii.1-9). Yet Othello's threat is so extreme ("if I once stir, / Or do but lift this arm, the best of you / Shall sink in my rebuke") and his estimation of the offense so exaggerated ("'Tis monstrous"), that a real, as well as rhetorical, passion appears to have "collied" his best judgment. His outburst anticipates his later explosions with Iago and Desdemona when they, like these witnesses, seem evasive.

His final disposition of the case seems to me remarkably fair. Kliger feels that Othello "has little choice but to dismiss Cassio from military office." Heilman, while granting that "some disciplinary action against Cassio" was inevitable, feels that Othello's "never more be officer of mine" is excessive: "We can imagine a more intrinsically assured Othello who might himself take part of the blame and discipline Cassio by suspension for a limited time." Puzzlingly, since Kliger quotes all but the last three lines of the passage and Heilman cites it in another connection, both leave out of account Othello's final position, as reported by Emilia to Cassio in the next scene:

                   all will sure be well.
The general and his wife are talking of it;
And she speaks for you stoutly: the Moor
That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus
And great affinity and that in wholesome
He might not but refuse you, but he protests
 he loves you
And needs no other suitor but his likings
To take the safest occasion by the front
To bring you in again.

This is perhaps a second thought, but it amounts to the "suspension for a limited time" which Heilman favors. This revised verdict has resulted, it should be noted, not from a fair-minded review of the case but from considerations of local politics and personal likings.

When, just before he kills her, Othello at long last tells Desdemona, the name of her supposed lover, her response is immediate and insistent: "Send for the man and ask him." She speaks for us, voicing the prime expectation that the preceding "trials" have helped to point up. For their primary function is not to emphasize Othello's injudiciousness, although no one in the play is less judicious than he at this point. Contrary to Heilman and Kliger, neither of the earlier trials embodies an ideal of judiciousness which by implicit contrast would underline Othello's obvious shortcomings here. Instead, they show how open, orderly hearings—even though imperfect—can correct just such gross errors as his.

Why doesn't Othello bring his suspicions to open trial?—a major question, yet one which to my knowledge only G. R. Elliott has given its due. Indeed, he seems to me to make too much of it when he writes: "The chief cause of Othello's downfall is not his jealousy but the fact that he conceals it from all concerned—except his evil other self, Iago—by reason of his pride. That is the main point of this story … "9 Certainly Othello's secretiveness—so striking in one noted for his free and open nature—is an important factor in this story, a necessary condition for the working out of the larger tragedy of trust and mistrust; but that is scarcely its main point. Elliott's preoccupation does, however, lead him to record very alertly the various opportunities which Othello has for expressing his suspicions and to explore searchingly the interventions of "shame, wrath, grief, and pride" which keep him from doing so.10

Especially pride. Over the whole play, Elliott sees Othello moving from right self-esteem at the beginning, to sinful pride (reaching its extreme when he repudiates Desdemona's dying forgiveness), back again to right self-esteem at the end; and he is very discerning about what is pridefully defensive and self-protective in Othello's secretiveness. But he neglects what seems to me Othello's most prideful quality, the trait that the justice theme in the whole play does most to bring out: an excessive assurance of his innate rectitude—both in judging himself and others—that makes open confrontation unnecessary.

This excessive assurance characterizes his self-esteem throughout the play. It is an aspect of his magnificent self-confidence in the opening scenes, first made explicit when he declares: "My parts, my title and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly." At this point, it is proof against Iago's bad counsel of concealment ("Those are the raised father and his friends: / You were best go in"); Othello answers, "Not I; I must be found." Again at the trial, confidence in his self-judgment prompts his advice to the Council that if they find him foul in Desdemona's report:

The trust, the office I do hold of you,
Not only take away, but let your sentence
Even fall upon my life.

And again it makes for openness; he promises: "justly to your grave ears I'll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady's love, / And she in mine."

Its first turn from openness comes at Cassio's hearing, where it contributes to the summariness of Othello's investigation. His confidence in being a "good judge of men" leads him to assume that Iago's honesty and love mince Cassio's guilt and thus to leap in the next line to his verdict. Thereafter, it repeatedly makes him vulnerable to Iago's deceit. Iago's innuendoes have all the more force because Othello is so sure that he knows the ways of a "man that's just":

     these stops of thine fright me the more:
For such things in a false disloyal knave
Are tricks of custom, but in a man that's just
They are close delations, working from the
 heart …

A little later, Iago is able to speak "with franker spirit" and warn "Look to your wife" because Othello has declared his own dispassionate judiciousness, as methodical as a machine:

I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,—
Away at once with love or jealousy!

Only momentarily does Othello waver in his assurance:

                         By the world,
I think my wife be honest and think she is
I think that thou art just and think thou art
I'll have some proof.

He is not used to such waverings and is the more easily gulled by the "proofs" Iago then offers because his habitual certitude makes him long "to be satisfied."

What Hardin Craig has called Othello's passionate rectitude"11 grows stronger as the play proceeds. Just before his fit, he identifies his own "good instincts" with the judgment of nature: "I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus." And in his "It is the cause" soliloquy, again as Craig puts it, he first takes on himself "the justice of god, the acme of tragic madness in both ancient and modern drama" (p. 204):

O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!
              … I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow's
It strikes where it doth love.
                                   (V.ii. 16-22)

To such self-righteousness, "proof is essentially a process of confirming a prejudgment. And with Othello this perversion of due process is further deranged by passion and Iago's practices, so much so that a number of commentators have thought him concerned merely with self-justification. Heilman, for example, has considerable difficulty in telling the difference between those two wife-killers Iago and Othello. All that Heilman can say for Othello is that he shows "an impulse to formal propriety," makes "an effort at legal good form." This view follows from his analysis of the death scene, especially of the actual killing of Desdemona, where he writes of Othello:

The synthetic role blows up: judge and priest are gone: what is left is the executioner serving the law of his own passion … The tension of his unsuccessful effort to ennoble his conduct is released in the act of violence and pushes him to the necessary haste: he can now depend only on the integrity of passion, he must act when it is quick and full, lest a dilution leave him with no assurance at all [p. 156].

But this is to resist the obvious difference between Othello and Iago: Othello, however deludedly, believes that killing Desdemona is an act of justice whereas Iago knows that killing Emilia is a piece of knavery. And Othello's violence does not betray his "desire to do and be right," as Heilman elsewhere calls it; it only completes this misled drive. Othello rejects Desdemona's final plea to pray because he is now functioning as the lawful executioner. In Othello's eyes there is no "haste" about his act; if anything, he is dilatory: "Being done, there is no pause." In a spirit of righteous indignation (Bradley's term), he inexorably does his duty.

The immense ironies of this "trial" are thus clinched. The least judicious verdicts of the play have been executed by the man who is most sure of his own (very considerable) rectitude. The grossest violations of elementary, practical justice have been committed by the man most devoted to ideal justice. The misjudgments most in need of correction by an open hearing have been formed, tested, and carried out—so sure is this judge of his own judgment—in private.

During the inquest at the end, we are so concerned with Othello's adjudicating that we scarcely notice Lodovico's. But it is worth noting that here is another impromptu hearing, presided over by another imperfect judge. For although Lodovico is a more active magistrate than his duke, largely controlling the questioning, there is tragic disorder in his court: one culprit, who won't talk, is wounded by the other, who later kills himself. Even so, a rough justice results. Given half a chance in an open confrontation, it seems, the truth—in Emilia's words—"'Twill out, 'twill out!"

Is Othello just in the judgments he makes upon himself in this world and the next? The question has received such a diversity of responsible critical answers as to suggest that Shakespeare deliberately did not make the matter clear, perhaps even invited our confusion.12 What is clear is that Othello's confidence is his own power of self-judgment is unimpaired, although he now distinguishes sharply between himself as culprit ("he that was Othello") and himself as judge ("here I am"). Indeed, he is never so presumptuous as at the end. For at his own hearing and Cassio's he was fully within his rights, and in his trial of Desdemona he had the right of dealing private justice that Elizabethans, though ambiguously, accorded wronged husbands.13 But at the end he clearly presumes on the authority of both God and the state, pronouncing his own damnation ("Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur! / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!"), defining his own guilt ("Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak … "), taking his own life.

Our response to this presumption is confused. Certainly, with Honor Matthews, we feel that "Even when he dies … he is still occupying the usurped throne of the only true Judge."14 Yet surely we would think less of him if he did not, as H.S. Wilson puts it, execute "justice upon himself, as he had measured justice to Desdemona."15 These confusions are further compounded by the alternative values suggested by the dead body of Desdemona, eloquently symbolic throughout this last scene. To Wilson, it seems that Shakespeare avoided any judgment concerning Othello's ultimate fate, remembering the text: "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Certainly, the Christian charity that Desdemona pleaded for and tried to practice must be in our minds at the finale. Yet her example is not compelling; we remember the way her all-excusing forgivingness blinded her to Othello's jealousy, the way her ill-timed pleas for mercy confirmed for him her guilt.

All of these confusions, it seems to me, are to Shakespeare's tragic purpose, which transcends doomsday distribution of either justice or mercy. Bradley puts the matter so well, and speaks so prophetically to the current condition of Othello studies, that I should like to quote him at length:

… the ideas of justice and desert are, it seems to me, in all cases—even those of Richard III and of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth—untrue to our imaginative experience. When we are immersed in a tragedy, we feel towards dispositions, actions, and persons such emotions as attraction and repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror, perhaps hatred; but we do not judge. This is a point of view which emerges only when, in reading a play, we slip, by our own fault or the dramatist's, from the tragic position, or when, in thinking about the play afterwards, we fall back on our everyday legal and moral notions. But tragedy does not belong, any more than religion belongs, to the sphere of these notions; neither does the imaginative attitude in presence of it. While we are in its world we watch what is, seeing that so it happened and must have happened, feeling that it is piteous, dreadful, awful, mysterious, but neither passing sentence on the agents, nor asking whether the behaviour of the ultimate power towards them is just.

I would feel happier with this statement if it were confined to the final effect of Shakespearian tragedy and if judgment were not altogether excluded but allowed a secondary place in it. Yet the main gist—the denial that judgment has a primary place among our responses to tragedy—seems to me true to the finale of Othello and to the implication of the justice theme throughout. For this theme is self-limiting: if I have understood the various trials of Othello correctly, the need to put him on trial in our own judgments is the last one we should feel inclined to fulfill.

When we finally do, the closer we come to Othello's self-estimate—"An honourable murderer, if you will"—the closer we will be, I suspect, to a just verdict. The trick is to keep both terms of Othello's oxymoron operative and evenly balanced; and that is not easy. He himself, in his various comments at the end, tips the scales now to one side and then to the other: if "fool! fool! fool!" is not stern enough an indictment for the murderer, "dog" is too harsh for the honorable man. But approval and disapproval of his successive judgments are only two, let me insist, among many reactions we are experiencing toward Othello during the finale. We may feel wonder at his poise in the face of such radical self-discovery, and dismay that—partly because of this self-assurance—it is still not complete: he never sees the presumption of his self-righteousness. When Cassio says, "Dear general, I never gave you cause" and Othello replies, "I do believe it, and I ask your pardon"—we must feel the poignance of their reconciliation (especially that Cassio should still call Othello "general"), made all the sharper by its brevity and mixed, perhaps, with a sense of protest that this long avoided confrontation did not take place much earlier. Most of all, of course, we feel the pity of it when Othello realizes and admits that he threw a pearl away, and yet we rejoice at his realization that Desdemona was, after all, a true pearl. Our shock when he produces still another weapon may be followed by a sense of consummation as he dies upon a kiss. And so on, our sense of justice being appealed to, confused, swept aside, returned to, clarified, again swept away—as part of an overwhelming sequence of responses. After Othello's suicide, I can't help feeling, with Nowottny, that "Justice now comes into its own." Yet as if to counter this reaction, Shakespeare brings the theme to the forefront one last time, as Lodovico puts Iago in the custody of Cassio:

                    To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!

Can we help remembering Othello's self-delegated authority to censure those who, as he believed, had wronged him? Or the Duke's rash offer to let Brabantio read the bloody book of law after his own sense against the thief who stole his daughter? We may feel that Iago deserves whatever torture Cassio may devise for him; but we cannot feel that the chain of human injudiciousness has been broken.


1 Of the studies which give particular attention to the justice theme, Winifred M. T. Nowottny's "Justice and Love in Othello," UTO, XXI (1951-2), 330-344, seems to me decidedly the best. It is reprinted in Dean's collection (1961). A fuller study than she undertakes of "the contention of love and justice" would find, I believe, that it cuts both ways. Not only the values of justice but also those of love are subjected to a searching critique: Desdemona's love is fatally lacking in judgment; the ultimate, loving trust that Othello fails to give Desdemona, he gives—to his disaster—to Iago. Other studies of the justice theme that are not cited in footnotes below include: Georges Bonnard, "Are Othello and Desdemona Innocent or Guilty?" ES, XXX (1949), 175-186; M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life (London, 1955), pp. 125-129, 153-158; David Daiches, Literary Essays (London, 1956), pp. 6-10; Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 123-135; C. J. Sisson, Shakespeare's Tragic Justice (Scarborough, Ont., 1961), pp. 28-51.

2 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1951), p. 189.

3 E. E. Stoll first formulated this idea in Othello (Minneapolis, 1915), and elaborated upon it in numerous subsequent works.

4 F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London, 1952), p. 138.

5Magic in the Web (Lexington, Ky., 1956), p. 134.

6 John W. Draper, The "Othello" of Shakespeare's Audience (Paris, 1952), pp. 28-29.

7 Konstantin Alekseev, Stanislavsky Produces Othello, trans. Helen Nowack (London, 1948), p. 50.

8 "Othello: the Man of Judgment," MP, XLVIII (1951), 222.

9Flaming Minister (Durham, N.C., 1953), p. xxvii.

10 Elliott has an eye, too, for the way Cassio's vain restraint from contact with Othello and Desdemona's innocent reticences contribute to the misunderstandings. For key passages, see pp. 95-99, 109, 126, 131, 144, 150, 152, 177, 183, 187, 216, 227. Like any important Shakespearian element, this restraint from "the whole truth" is refracted in many directions. Emilia is very much to blame for keeping quiet about the handkerchief, a fault she rectifies by her recklessly frank revelations at the end. Iago is, of course, from first to last a master of withholding the whole truth. His silence at the end—"From this time forth I never will speak word"—is thus particularly apt.

11An Interpretation of Shakespeare (New York, 1948), p. 206.

12 For instance, in Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1960), pp. 113-114, n., Irving Ribner polls scholarly opinion on the issue of Othello's damnation, finding: three scholars, counting himself, for salvation; four for damnation; one for ambivalence. In her book, Character and Symbol in Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge, 1962), Honor Matthews concludes that "The social-religious thought of his time marked Othello, the unrepentant suicide, inevitably for damnation" (p. 137).

13 See Edward M. Wilson's articles: "Othello—Tragedy of Honour," The Listener, June 5, 1952, pp. 926-927; and "Family Honour in the Plays of Shakespeare's Predecessors and Contemporaries," Essays and Studies, N.S., VI (1953), 19-40.

14 Matthews, p. 136.

15On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1957), p. 60.

Larry S. Champion (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "The Tragic Perspective of Othello," in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. 54, No. 5, October, 1973, pp. 447-60.

[In the following essay, Champion surveys the action of the play and contends that Shakespeare's central purpose is to depict the corrupting influence of pride, jealousy, and self-importance on Othello's character.]

In adapting to the stage Cinthio's 'Tale of the Moor of Venice' Shakespeare developed his principal roles along familiar lines. Like Richard III, Shakespeare's ensign is possessed of a bold audacity and devilish wit; pre-disposed to evil, he delights in sharing his machinations with the audience. The Moor, like Brutus, is heroic and noble, but naively egotistic; his tunnel-visioned idealism, based ultimately on conceptions of his own magnanimous forthrightness and self-importance, makes him susceptible to the schemes of clear-sighted men of evil intent and blinds him to the bestial side of his own nature which pride bides its time to reveal. Both characters are more powerful delineations than their earlier dramatic counterparts. Although Iago is more totally a single-dimensional creature of calculated self-control than Richard, Shakespeare manipulates him to give the appearance in the early acts of credible and intriguing character development. And Othello, far more so than Brutus, is provoked to the cruel and vicious consequences of pride and is forced more completely—and, to most spectators and critics, more satisfactorily—to experience the full cycle of the tragic wheel of fire.

By its very nature drama is inseparable from the reaction of the audience. As one critic has recently observed, the 'playwright's task is not simply to create an illusion: he must know how to control it too'.1 Otherwise, he continues (quoting Sartre), tragedy becomes for the spectators 'a means not to self-knowledge, but to self-indulgence'.Othello, of course, is conceded to be one of Shakespeare's best plays, though not perhaps his greatest work;2 'its grip upon the emotions of the audience', writes the Arden editor, 'is more relentless and sustained than that of the others'.3 The success is in large measure the result of Shakespeare's structural skill in creating, through the two principals, a perspective of double vision by which to accommodate a plot of mounting tension and of progressively restricted focus. On the one hand, the spectators are forced credibly and sympathetically to experience the protagonist's dilemma while, on the other, their more expansive perception of the values which control the stage-world forces them to sit in judgment on his decisions and anticipate the consequences. This type of perspective Northrop Frye presumes in his assertion that 'a tragic figure is fully tragic only to its spectators: heroes do not suffer except when they become objective to themselves'.4 Specifically, Iago, fully integrated within the narrative, functions as a tragic pointer through whom the spectators observe the forces which create Othello's situation and the values against which he must contend; and Othello is a protagonist with whom, through the devices of internalization, the spectators share fully the private agony of passion and also the insight to which he is led.

Iago, though deprived of even the momentary flashes of a live conscience which to a degree humanize Richard III, gives the impression of being far more alive. Like the Yorkist king, he is not merely the cold, calculating abstraction which critics delight in tracing from medieval drama; his soft underside is the burning inner hell of envy and unsatisfied ambition.5 He experiences, for instance, the same fear of cuckoldry which he implants in Othello: he suspects that the 'lusty Moor' ''twixt [his] sheets / … has done [his] office' (I, iii, 393-4),6 'hath leap'd into [his] seat':

                         the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my
And nothing can or shall content my
                            (II, i, 305-7)

He also fears 'with [his] night-cap' (316) Cassio, who 'hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes [him] ugly' (V, i, 19-20). Such fears arise largely from his own twisted personality. As his own comments reveal, he has no conception of love beyond its basest and lustiest connotations.7 Othello, married, dwells 'in a fertile climate' (I, i, 70); 'an old black ram / Is tupping [Brabantio's] white ewe' (88-9); the 'daughter [is] cover'd with a Barbary horse' (111-12); Othello, Cassio is informed, 'hath boarded a land carack' (I, ii, 49); '[i]t is a common thing', he tells Emilia, '[t]o have a foolish wife' (III, iii, 302, 304); a woman who has beauty but refuses to use it freely for self-advantage is fit only to 'suckle fools and chronicle small beer' (II, i, 161). On occasions when he feels rebuffed, his inner hell burns suddenly brighter. At the outset, for example, he painfully asserts, 'I know my price' (I, i, 11) in the face of Cassio's promotion, proclaiming that he must serve Othello outwardly, '[t]hough I do hate him as I do hell-pains' (155). Later the perceptive actor should not miss a similar cue when Cassio refuses to listen to Iago's song a second time, informing him: 'I hold him to be unworthy of his place that does those things' (II, iii, 104-5)—or when Cassio in his cups affirms that Iago is not to be saved before him: 'the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient' (113-14).

Along with this gnawing frustration, Iago possesses the cruelly fascinating wit which also characterizes Richard III; he takes a similar unholy delight in the machinations which contort in agony those who trust him unquestioningly. He gloats, for example, over his counsel to Cassio that Desdemona be persuaded to intercede in the lieutenant's behalf ('Divinity of hell! / When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows' [II, iii, 356-8]; so also he delights that the Moor, in the temptation scene, 'changes with [his] poison' (III, iii, 325); two scenes later he stands ecstatically over the collapsed general ('Work on, / My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught … ' [IV, i, 45-6]). In the final act he relishes the fact that, whether Cassio kill Roderigo, or Roderigo Cassio, he stands to profit. Some perverted sense of superiority prevails even in his assertion that Othello has not dealt him a mortal wound and that '[f]rom this time forth I never will speak a word' (V, ii, 304). In a sense the success of his scheming is more amazing than Richard's, since he operates, not from the base of a royal position which in itself commands obeisance, but from a relatively insignificant position of third in command in a Venetian military force. As a matter of fact, every character whom Iago manipulates into destruction or physical harm is his social or professional superior—Brabantio, Montano, Cassio, Desdemona, Othello. Even Roderigo, a 'fool' whom the ensign rightly claims to be his 'purse', possesses far more wealth, if not common sense.

Most significant in contrast with the characterization of Richard III, Iago from his opening lines consistently and progressively develops.8 Such development does not occur in terms of moral complexity (as Shakespeare attempted with Richard), and certainly there is no abortive attempt to force the audience to a sympathetic perspective. He does, however, become progressively more subtle and sophisticated in his ability to practice upon virtually everyone else in the stage world. At the outset he operates from the shadows, goading Roderigo to incense Brabantio against Othello. As the distraught father descends to the main stage and calls for a taper, Iago quickly exits in order to avoid identification, informing Roderigo: 'I must leave you. / It seems not meet, nor wholesome to my place, / To be produc'd' (I, i, 145-7). Throughout the first act Iago's double face quite literally must be concealed in darkness for its effectiveness. In the second act, after exhibiting his mental dexterity by bandying words with Desdemona and Emilia, Iago moves into the physical light in order to practice upon minds confused by alcohol: Roderigo, having 'carous'd / Potations pottle-deep' (II, iii, 55-6), is persuaded to attack Cassio: Cassio, 'drunk … full of quarrel and offence' (51, 52), as Captain of the Guard allows himself to become involved in a brawling squabble which disrupts the peace;9 Montano, having 'do[ne] … justice' in pledging the 'health of [his] general' (90, 88), gullibly swallows Iago's insinuations that Cassio is an alcoholic and bluntly charges that the captain is drunk.

In both practices Iago fails to achieve his goals, either of which would effectively have destroyed Othello's reputation, if not his life—(1) an annulment of the marriage and the provocation of Brabantio's party to an open attack (an attack which he personally strives to initiate by drawing his sword and mocking an assault upon Roderigo) and (2) the rousing of Cyprus to a general mutiny. If the ultimate goals fail, however, Cassio is displaced; more important, Shakespeare, through the progressive sophistication and complexity of Iago's methods, has both made the antagonist dramatically interesting and also prepared the spectators for the moment of his greater success.

The third act is the ensign's most glorious moment as the fires of insinuation and implication raze his most precious adversaries. In the great temptation scene, as before, the playwright achieves maximum interest through a successive delineation of the villainy. More specifically, Iago's manipulation of Othello in this scene involves three distinct phases. In the first (35-192), carefully avoiding any reference whatever to Desdemona, he subtly and unobtrusively plants the seeds of suspicion against Cassio which, as they take root in the general's mind, will suggest the possibility of his wife's infidelity. Iago like[s] not' that Cassio 'steal[s] away so guilty-like' from Desdemona, that he knew of Othello's love during the courtship; perchance Cassio is 'honest', but the ensign is not bound to utter his deepest thoughts; Othello must beware of jealousy—not (as one might expect to hear) because jealousy preys destructively upon the mind but because the 'cuckold' (how carefully the implication is inserted) 'lives in bliss' who knows not his condition. In the second phase (193-369), with the poison in Othello's mind taking hold, Iago's comments are marked by 'increasing insolence'10 as he slants his attacks indirectly against Desdemona: she must be observed with Cassio; she deceived her father; her refusal to accept the 'matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree' betokens a 'will most rank'. In the third phase Iago confronts the passion-ridden Moor with direct charges of his cuckoldry: he speaks blatantly of Desdemona's being 'topped', of her giving Cassio the handkerchief which had been Othello's wedding gift, and of Cassio's protestations of love in a dream.

Physical darkness, inebriation, spiritual darkness—each in turn serves as a basis for the increasing audacity of Iago's schemes; so also, from insinuations against Cassio, to indirect and direct charges against Desdemona, the spectator witnesses a carefully modulated delineation of the antagonist in action. And his fortunes have indeed reached remarkable heights. To be sure, he will continue to goad the Moor; he—with both Cassio and Othello disposed of—will even entertain thoughts of a command in Cyprus. His control of others for his own benefit, however, will never transcend this moment when in III, iii, Othello commissions his ensign to destroy Cassio and commits himself to the destruction of Desdemona.11 Nor is there any further progression in the complexity and perverse artistry of his villainy which to this point has given the impression of steadily developing characterization.

In this key scene, on which the play literally turns, Shakespeare shifts the major focus from Iago to Othello—and he does so primarily through the devices of internalization. To this point Iago has spoken five soliloquies and two asides (a total of one hundred and eleven lines); Othello has had not one such line. In this central scene Iago has one soliloquy (nine lines) and Othello delivers his first two soliloquies (twenty-two lines). For the remainder of the play Iago speaks only four further brief soliloquies (twenty-six lines) while Othello has six further soliloquies and thirteen asides (sixty-eight lines). Through the first half of the play, then, the spectators' attention is drawn sharply to Iago; the issues and events of the action—and, above all, Othello himself—they see through the ensign's eyes. All is colored by his hatred and envy. He establishes with unrelenting intensity the egocentric values which destroy man's judgment and will convert the Moor to a passionate monster of destruction. On the other hand, he does not in the final analysis force the protagonist to commit murder any more so than does the ghost in Hamlet or than do the witches in Macbeth. Like these forces the ensign is only a single and dreadful aspect of the environment which triggers the Moor's passion. Any assumption that the play is a 'pure melodrama' (as George Bernard Shaw would have it)12 disregards the fact that the evil culminating in Othello's destruction wells up from within him, from the same reservoir of pride which previously has generated the self-esteem that makes him a leader among men. Through Iago the spectators recognize how stupidly—yet how understandably—Othello has acted (or is going to act); through him they confront the brutal necessity in such a world of the self-knowledge which ultimately the Moor so painfully achieves.

As an arrant villain, the ensign is, of course, a single-dimensional figure about whom the spectators have no delusions and with whom—though they may sit in awe—they can develop no trace of a sympathetic rapport.13 Quite candidly he proclaims himself a creature of Hobbesian self-interest: he 'ever make[s his] fool [his] purse', spending time 'with such a snipe / But for [his] sport and profit' (I, iii, 389, 391-2); his honest appearance is but a facade (406); he is a devil deceiving with 'heavenly shows' (II, iii, 358). His conversations with Roderigo underscore this egocentricity: he 'know[s his] price'; 'trimm'd in forms and visages of duty', he '[k]eep[s] … [his] heart … attending on [himself]' (I, i, 11, 50-1). One has only himself to blame for failure to thrive at another's expense:

Virtue! a fig! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardners; … [T]he power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

(I, iii, 322-4, 328-9)

In his singular dedication to self lies his chief importance as a tragic pointer; so clear is his obsessive self-interest and so obvious is his hatred for Othello that his very detestation points the spectators to admiration for the Moor. Since, from the moment he appears on stage, there is 'no question about his essential character',14 the playwright through him develops our sympathy for the protagonist and at the same time, through dramatic irony, 'involve[s the] audience … in an awareness of impending and inevitable catastrophe'.15 Iago resents not receiving the promotion; he suspects Othello of cuckolding him; he loves the woman the Moor has wed; he detests Othello's military hauteur and greatly resents the high regard of the community for the commander. That time and again his remarks should underscore his leader's abilities reflects doubly to Othello's credit. Of the Cyprus expedition, for instance, Iago admits to Roderigo that the Venetians have not '[a]nother of [Othello's] fathom' (I, i, 153) to lead them. Even as in soliloquy his machinations take form, he observes that the Moor is 'of a free and open nature' (I, iii, 405), 'of a constant, loving, noble nature' (II, i, 298; see also ).

Various minor characters, in conjunction with Iago, firmly guide our response to the protagonist. In the first scene, for example, the emphasis is totally against Othello, to whom the spectators are introduced through the observations of Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio as a prideful general who has foolishly selected an inexperienced lieutenant and who with gross disrespect and possibly even with the practice of black magic has eloped with a daughter of a Venetian senator. This initial impression the two subsequent scenes totally reverse—in scene two by Othello's first appearance on the stage and in scene three by the additional minor pointers and by Iago's first soliloquy.16 The Duke and the senators welcome '[v]aliant Othello' (48), '[B]rave Moor' (292), to whom they will entrust their national defense (220-3); Desdemona lovingly acknowledges her husband in the face of her furiously irate father, and the Duke's reactions to Brabantio's charge is that his 'son-in-law is far more fair than black' (291); his tale could 'win my daughter too' (171). Additional pointers reinforce this perspective in Act II. Montano, the governor of Cyprus, describes 'brave Othello' as a 'worthy governor' who 'commands / Like a full soldier' (i, 38, 30, 35-6), a '[w]orthy' (iii, 197) and 'noble Moor' (143) of 'good nature' (138). Cassio, whose toast is '[t]o the health of our general' (88) and whose 'hopes do shape [Othello] for the governor' (i, 55), prays that the heavens will defend him against the sea (44-6) so that he 'may bless this bay with his tall ship' (79). The Herald proclaims the orders of 'our noble and valiant general' (ii, 1, 2) and invokes a blessing on 'our noble general' (12). Desdemona greets her 'dear Othello' (i, 184) with a love that increases even as the 'days do grow' (197).

Moreover, in the first half of the play Othello's personality (which we see only from the outside) affirms these opinions. In Act I he is a veritable paragon of reason in his ability to maintain self-control. He refuses to be ruffled by Iago's inflammatory remarks about Brabantio; he personally prevents an open battle between his party and his father-in-law's; he unhesitatingly offers to face Brabantio's charge before the Duke and at the counsel table maintains his dignity in face of pointedly insulting comments; he himself suggests that his wife be allowed to speak before the senators, after which he calmly describes the development of their love. Certainly, that the Duke would allow Desdemona to accompany him to battle is a powerful attestation to the general assumption that he is a man 'whom passion [can] not shake'.

Equally obvious from the outset, however, are the touches of incipient pride which blind him to an objective evaluation of those around him.17 He, to be sure, would be the last to admit to such pride, but his ego is at the center of his every thought. Thus, for instance, he asserts that his services to the state will 'out-tongue' (I, ii, 18) any of Brabantio's complaints to the Duke and that, moreover, his family is the social equal of that into which he has married (20-3). Above all, the love that he describes before the Duke is clearly a love of Desdemona for Othello; she has fallen in love with his tales of his past adventures, and he 'love[s] her that she d[oes] pity them' (I, iii, 168). In the sixty-one lines in which Othello describes their love, he refers to himself twice as frequently as he does to her (forty-six to twenty-three); in fifty-one lines he is specifically describing himself. Similarly, in Act II as Othello's first symptoms of passion appear, he demands a full report of the strife between Cassio and Montano:

My blood begins my safer guides to rule;
                     … If I once stir
Or do but lift this arm, the best of you
Shall sink in my rebuke.
                            (II, iii, 205, 207-9)

Similarly, in the peremptory dismissal of his lieutenant a few lines later, his magnanimity has a disturbingly pompous ring: 'Cassio, I love thee; / But never more be officer of mine' (248-9). Such self-righteous words again suggest more than a soldierly rebuke from the commanding officer. Cassio's remorse—although never developed significantly beyond a mere lamentation that he has lost the 'immortal part' of himself (his 'reputation') and that what is left is 'bestial'—does of course preplot the experience to which Othello's egocentricity is shortly to lead him.18

This pride is the fatal ingredient in III, iii, which makes Othello susceptible to Iago's machinations. His willingness to listen to insinuations about Cassio, couched subtly in terms of the ensign's love and regard for the Moor, soon lead him to demand a fuller version; and, as Iago turns his remarks against Desdemona, the spectators through soliloquy move directly within the distraught protagonist. The remainder of the play they will experience, not through the eyes of one who with burning joy intrigues to trap another, but through the eyes and soul of the victim who must bring himself to admit both the crime of passion against the fair Desdemona and also the stupidity and prideful naiveté which render him susceptible to jealousy. Questioning the prudence of marriage, Othello considers his age and his color, concluding with a touch of typical pomposity that marriage is 'the plague [of] great ones; / Prerogativ'd are they less than the base' (273-4). At this point the general is visibly disturbed, as Iago notes on three occasions within the scope of ten lines (214-24). By the end of the scene Othello has himself seized the initiative, agonizing—with his characteristic egocentricity—that his 'occupation's gone' (357). His

                    name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black
As mine own face.

It is the supreme irony of the play and the supreme act of hubris for Othello to kneel ritualistically and '[i]n the due reverence of a sacred vow' to 'engage [his] words' to 'yond marble heaven' (457 ff.). Iago's most precious moment must surely be the Moor's response to his request to let Desdemona live:

Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her! damn
               … I will withdraw

To furnish me with some swift means of
For the fair devil. Now art thou my

Once the spectators' vision has moved within Othello, comments on his nobility become painfully ironic, as in Desdemona's greeting her '[g]ood love' (III, iii, 54), her submissive obedience (88-9), her insistence that her 'noble Moor / Is true of mind and made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are' (iv, 26-8) and that his momentary rancor is provoked by '[s]omething, sure, of state': 'we must think men are not gods, / Nor of them look for such observancy / As fits the bridal' (148-50); the reference to Othello's being no god is especially ironic, of course, in that it is precisely such a role which he deludedly is assuming in his wife's execution. Desdemona later asserts to Emilia that her 'love doth so approve him, / That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns,—I … have grace and favour' (IV, iii, 19-21). Most painful of all, although it is to have a profound influence in convincing him of her innocence, is her dying remark to Emilia that she dies a guiltless death provoked by herself alone, a remark which carries not a word of reproach or recrimination for her husband's hideous cruelty: 'Farewell! / Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!' (V, ii, 124-5). Lodovico, who warmly greets the 'worthy General' (IV, i, 228) moments before Desdemona is slapped, best captures the amazement of all save Iago at the bestial change which has transformed Othello into the green-eyed monster:

Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?

The structure of the last half of the play is remarkably firm as, following III, iii, the spectators' attention is drawn toward Othello's private struggles with progressively increasing intensity. More specifically, in four successive waves Shakespeare repeats and intensifies Othello's commitment to passion, thus building the tension to a maximum peak just prior to the murder in Act V. Othello's fateful decisions are made, to be sure, at the end of III, iii, without the benefit of one shared of evidence; and nothing essentially changes between this scene and V, ii. What the spectators do see, however, is the progressive deterioration of Othello's mentality as he grows more determined to commit the action to which a moment of hot passion has already forced him to agree.19 The first such wave (III, iv, 32-98) occurs immediately after his decision, as he confronts Desdemona in the street, addressing her as 'chuck' and demanding the handkerchief which he believes she has given to Cassio. His pride again colors the scene with his fantastic claims of 'magic in the web', hallowed worm, and silk 'dy'd in mummy which the skilful / Conserv'd of maidens' hearts' (69, 74-5) and his pompous implication that, like his father, he will now loathe his wife and 'hunt / After new fancies' (62-3).20 As his anger waxes hotter, he for the first time becomes overtly disrespectful to his shocked and bewildered wife, stubbornly demanding the 'napkin' in threatening grunts that become almost bestial: 'Ha! Wherefore? … Is't lost? Is't gone? Speak, is't out o' th' way? … Say you? … How? … Fetch't, let me see't. … Fetch me the handkerchief; my mind misgives … The handkerchief! … The handkerchief! … 'Zounds!' (78 ff.).

In the second wave, which follows immediately (IV, i, 1-225), Iago is at further work upon the Moor's diseased mind. Far bolder now, he graphically describes Desdemona's liaison with Cassio, their kissing in private, their being naked in bed together, the handkerchief she has given him as a love token, Cassio's blabbing of lying '[w]ith her, on her; what wou will' (34). Othello's white-hot passion renders him literally incoherent ('Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.—Is't possible?—/ Confess—handkerchief!—O devil!' [42-3]) moments before, in physical collapse, he reveals to the spectators and to the immensely pleased Iago the extent of the inner corrosion. Following the ensign's clever staging of the scene-within-the-scene in which Cassio appears to brag anew of his amorous conquest and in which the fateful handkerchief passes from Bianca's hand to Cassio's, Othello's spiritual perturbations are graphically reflected in his whirling dialogue:

[L]et her rot, and perish, and be damn'd to-night; for she shall not live … O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! … Hang her! … O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear. … [T]he pity of it, lago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!

(191, 192, 198, 200, 206-7)

Within moments, however, Othello recommits himself to destroying Desdemona, blinded by hubris as he responds to the suggestion of strangulation with 'Good, good; the justice of it pleases; very good' (222).

The third wave (IV, i, 226-71) provokes Othello to strike his wife in public. Lodovico arrives with orders for Othello to return to Venice and for Cassio to replace him in command (an order which, assuming sufficient time has elapsed, sharply points up how ineffective the Moor's command and his communication with his home base have become). Again, when the orders remind him of Cassio, his speech becomes fragmented ('Fire and brimstone! … Are you wise? … Indeed? … I am glad to see you mad … Devil! … O devil, devil!' [238 ff.]); and, when he overhears Desdemona indicate pleasure that Cassio is to assume command, he strikes her impulsively in what amounts to a painful preplotting of the perversely contemplated deed he will shortly thereafter enact in the privacy of his bedchamber. Above all, this scene intensifies Othello's passion by forcing him to realize that his time and opportunity are limited and that, if he is indeed to move against the sinful lovers, it must be posthaste.

In the 'brothel scene' (IV, ii, 1-94), the fourth wave, both Othello's pride and his language are at their most extravagant. Openly confronting Desdemona with charges of infidelity, he brands her 'chuck' (24), 'strumpet' (81), 'weed' (67), and 'cunning whore of Venice' (89), guilty of deeds at which 'heaven stops the nose' (77), the 'moon winks' (77), and the 'bawdy wind … [i]s hush'd' (78-9); her honesty equates with 'summer flies … in the shambles, / That quicken even with blowing' (66-7). The source of his wrath is not a heart broken as a result of unreciprocated love, but an ego smarting from rejection and fearing the public ridicule which will result. He is incensed, for example, that she has transformed his heart into a 'cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in' (61-2). Above all, he is furious that she has made him '[t]he fixed figure for the time of scorn / To point his slow and moving finger at!' (54-5).

Othello, in his soliloquy in Act V, the spectators see as a man whose judgment has been literally destroyed by an obsession with his own importance. Presuming that his judgment is synonymous with God's, he avers with pitiful pomposity, as he enters Desdemona's bed-chamber:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—

 [S]he must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light.

Oh, balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!

                      This sorrow's heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love.
                         (ii, 1, 6-7, 16-17, 21-2)

His final conversation with his wife is replete with Christian terms: 'Repent', 'pray'd', 'unreconcil'd', 'Heaven', 'grace', 'spirit', 'soul', 'amen', 'confess', 'sin', 'oath' (10-54 passim). Beneath this verbal façade of piety, however, is the bloody passion which causes his eyes to roll (38), which prompts him to 'gnaw … [his] nether lip' (43), and which bursts forth in the cruelty of his 'strumpet! … strumpet!' (77,79) in defiance of her request for time '[b]ut … [to] say one prayer!' (83). The impact of the scene results in part from Desdemona's total innocence. Indeed, in her appearance immediately prior to her death (a scene which serves a purpose far more significant than one of comic relief) Desdemona has reaffirmed her determination to be faithful to her husband at all cost. Emilia, developed at this point as a foil to her mistress, coyly asserts that she would not 'abuse' her husband for a small price, but for the world—well, '[W]ho would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch?' (IV, iii, 75-6). After all, if one gained the world, would she not also gain the privilege of redefining 'wrong' and 'right'? (80-3). Even in this unguarded moment of levity and in the wake of having received from Othello a gross repudiation both public and private, Desdemona is unable to comprehend such an action: 'Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong / For the whole world. … I do not think there is any such a woman' (78-9, 84).

His tragic insight begins within seconds, as the shock of Emilia's call rings from him, 'My wife; My wife! What wife? I have no wife. / O, insupportablel O heavy hour' (97-8). And while in life she could not persuade him of her innocence, her dying word to Emilia (which, in returning love for hatred, makes no mention of his brutal act) apparently does. Confronted on every side with evidence of the stupidity and cruelty of his deed, his momentary reactions range from the painful 'O! O! O!' (198) to his 'why should honour outlive honesty?' (245). The significant feature is the purgation of his awesome pride, the removal of self from the center of everything he treasures.21 Indeed, a conscious self-debasement (not unlike Lear's, 'I am a very foolish fond old man') is involved in his admission that it is only a 'vain boast' that one 'can control his fate' (264-5), an assumption which had been at the very center of his earlier proclamations concerning 'the cause' and heavenly justice. So also it is deliberate humiliation which provokes him to assert that one look from Desdemona will 'hurl [his] soul from heaven' (274) and to call for the devils to 'whip' him from her 'heavenly sight!' (277, 278), to 'roast [him] in sulphur!' (279) and to 'wash [him] in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!' (280). In his most telling comment, he requests that the report of his deeds 'nothing extenuate', that he be set down as one who, '[p]erples'd in the extreme … threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe' (342, 346-7), as one, 'whose subdu'd eyes … [d]rops tears' (348, 346), as a 'circumcised dog' (355) whose only remaining honor was to destroy himself as a form of expiation for his murderous deed.

Christian apologists have argued at length that Othello's suicide is the ultimate act of pride and despair, that on the one hand his soul is saved and on the other hand that it is damned.22 It may well be either; without a sixth act in which Shakespeare might conceivably be interested in the protagonist's eternal state, the most one can say with assurance is that such a matter is not a concern of the play. The essential thrust is the self-knowledge concerning this life which the protagonist gains (though the acquisition may well cost his life) and the implications of such an experience for the spectators. And, for Othello, the spectators are made to feel that his death, whatever the church might say about it, is somehow ennobling, that it is an act of expiation which he is capable of only after he achieves humility and self-knowledge through agony and heart-rending suffering. At the very least he 'recognizes [his] utter lack of wisdom',23 and in his final rhetorical efforts to 'rise above the muddle and death' 'the audience … is released from antipathy and made able to react to the hero's demand for what is essentially sympathy … without the distracting necessity for moral judgment'.24

All things considered, Othello is probably the least complicated of Shakespeare's tragic plots. Once past the rush of events in Act I—which motivate the journey to Cyprus and also develop the spectators' perspective for the protagonist—very little actually happens. The action is simple, and, with the exception of Othello, the characterization is static. Yet, just such economy of design permits the playwright to focus the audience's attention intensely on the destruction of character resulting from a lack of self-knowledge, from a kind of monumental naiveté which is the consequence of the vanity of one's insistence on viewing everything through the distorting medium of his own self-importance. Such egocentricity in Othello renders him woefully susceptible to jealousy concerning his new wife, and the important thing is not what in fact happens, but what Othello thinks happens—not what he is told, but the monstrous fabrications which he allows to result from it.

Shakespeare's essential purpose, in short, is to force the viewers inside the mind of a man, noble and talented but incipiently proud and jealous, and (even as they observe the total sweep of the action) to confront them with the emotional impact of his destruction. If the dramatist is to succeed, the interest must arise from the ever-intensifying pressures mounting in Othello's spirit rather than from the external events of the plot itself. To this end he creates an antagonist whose soliloquies and asides in the early acts provide a rich perspective of dramatic irony and whose comments guide the spectators' attention to both Othello's present nobility and his potential weakness. These same structural devices of internalization are transferred to Othello in the last half of the play; and, in successive scenes which reiterate the situation of the protagonist's decision and intensify his spiritual agony, the spectators' interest is increased progressively to the climactic moments of the murder and the subsequent heartsick despair of tragic waste coupled with the self-knowledge which results from his suffering. The cosmological implications are still significant—the storm which provides a macrocosmic 'foretaste … of what is to happen in Othello's soul';25 the symbolic movement 'from the city to barbarism, … from order to riot, from justice to wild revenge and murder, from truth to falsehood';26 the universal nature of the struggle between the higher and lower faculties of the human spirit. But the focus is sharply limited: the time is condensed, too sensationally for many; and the action is single, permitting no diversion of interest. The action, in fact, 'narrows down … [to] a bedroom at night where two people … misunderstand each other disastrously'.27 Othello's agony—involving the actual murder and the recognition of his error—is more isolated than that of any other Shakespearean tragic hero. The structure of the drama, which forces the spectators' focus to become progressively more personal and progressively more intense, is the key to its power.


1 Maynard Mack, 'Engagement and Detachment in Shakespeare's Plays', in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia: U. of Missouri P., 1962), p. 276.

2 The occasional charges epitomized in Thomas Rymer's view of the play is a 'Bloody farce, without salt or savour' (A Short View of Tragedy, in The Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. Curt Zimansky [New Haven: Yale U.P., 1956], p. 150; see also attract attention largely because they are so anomalous.

3Othello, ed. M. R. Ridley (London: Methuen, 1958), p. xli.

4Fools of Time (Toronto: U. of Toronto P., 1967), p. 61.

5 At least one critic seriously assumes that Iago believes Othello has cuckolded him (J. W. Draper, 'Honest Iago', PMLA, 46 [1931], 736). Outwardly his veins seem to be filled with 'an icy fire' (H. C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare [Chicago: U. of Chicago P., 1951], II, 77); but he 'is, behind the mask, as restless as a cage of those cruel and lustful monkeys that he mentions so often' (Francis Fergusson, The Pattern in his Carpet [New York: Delacorte, 1970], p. 222). His revenge demands that Othello feel the 'same gnawing jealousy which is destroying him' (L. B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes [New York: Barnes and Noble, 1952], p. 160).

6 All citations of Shakespeare's text are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, eds. W. A. Neilson and C. J. Hill (Cambridge, 1942).

7 Iago is the apostle of self-love (Irving Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy [London: Methuen, 1960], p. 97), 'the champion of the absolute autonomy of the will' (Daniel Stempel, 'The Silence of Iago'. PMLA, 84 [1969], 258). Both Wolfgang Clemen (The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U. P., 1951], pp. 121-2) and Caroline Spurgeon (Shakespeare's Imagery [Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1935], p. 335) comment on his fondness for images of animals engaged in obscene activity. As Carroll Camden has pointed out, he makes extensive use of the 'traditional anti-feminist literature' of the period ('Iago on Women', JEGP, 48 [1949], 57).

8 His plot and his 'gambler's sang-froid' grow with his opportunities (A. P. Rossiter, Angel With Horns [New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961], p. 205). And the manner of his fall reflects his vulnerability: 'it never occurred to him that his wife might betray him with nothing to gain by such betrayal' (R. G. Moulton, Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888], p. 239). Joseph T. McCullen, Jr., observes that Iago's use of proverbs lends an air of increasing complexity to his machinations ('Iago's Use of Proverbs for Persuasion', SEL, 4 [1964], 261).

9 This scene revealing Iago's destructive manipulation of others may provoke a few apprehensive chuckles, but it hardly 'borders on slapstick' (Robert A. Watts, 'The Comic Scenes in Othello', SQ, 19 [1968], 349).

10 D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 142.

11 In 1937, following the lead of Dr. Ernest Jones, Lawrence Olivier as a homosexual Iago and Ralph Richardson as Othello played the exchanging of vows in III, iii, as virtually a love scene (Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello [Berkeley: U. of California P., 1961], pp. 175-84); see further, N. N. Holland, Psychoanalysis in Shakespeare (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964), pp. 246-58.

12Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. Edwin Wilson (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1961), p. 159.

13 Maud Bodkin labeled him the devil archetype (Archetypal Patterns in Poetry [London: O.U.P., 1934], pp. 211-18), and Bernard Spivack is one of the most recent to trace his descent from the Vice of the medieval moralities (Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil [New York: Columbia U.P., 1958]). The ensign is 'as nearly an absolutely evil character as Shakespeare created' (Marion B. Smith, Dualities in Shakespeare [Toronto: U. of Toronto P., 1966], p. 39); his mystery lies 'in the purity, the unmixedness of his terribly vivid acts' (Robert H. West, Shakespeare and the Outer Mystery [Lexington: U. of Kentucky P., 1968], p. 106).

14 John Robert Moore, 'Othello, Iago, and Cassio as Soldiers', PQ, 31 (1952), 190.

15 Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: Free Press, 1967), p. 60; see also

16 Such action 'serve[s] only to set in relief the magnificence of Othello' (Moody E. Prior, 'Character in Relation to Action in Othello', MP, 44 [1946], 226); it defines 'the supreme importance of the hero' (G. R. Hibbard, 'Othello and the Pattern of Shakespearean Tragedy', Shakespeare Survey 21 [Cambridge: C.U.P., 1968], p. 41).

17 Othello is 'both superior to passion and its slave' (Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1939], p. 192). He is 'magnanimous' but 'egotistic' (F. R. Leavis, 'Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero', Scrutiny, 5 [1937], 265); if he is 'one of the world's great lovers' (Othello, ed. J. D. Wilson [Cambridge: C.U.P., 1957], p. xxii), he is also 'too much of a romantic idealist' (Leo Kirschbaum, 'The Modern Othello', ELH, 2 [1944], 287). 'It is a reciprocal matter of motivation … in both victim and victimizer' (E. E. Stoll, From Shakespeare to Joyce [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1944], p. 302); in Iago Othello hears a voice that he would 'fain hear and fain deny' (J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare [London: Longmans, Green, 1949], p. 103). 'He is inexpert in simple intellectual judgement … [T]he intellectual confusion … gives … opportunity for his passion to break through' (H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Tragedy [Cambridge: C. U. P., 1952], p. 123; see also

18 On the significance of the theme of reputation in the play, see Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Columbia U.P., 1956), pp. 111-38.

19 Recently Othello has been described as a composite character: 'normal', 'romantic', 'psychotic' (Robert Rogers, 'Endopsychic Drama in Othello', SQ, 20 [1969], 213); he is transformed 'from a tender trusting lover into an insanely jealous murderer' (K. P. Wentersdorf, 'Structure and Characterization in Othello and King Lear', CE, 26 [1965], 647). G. Wilson Knight traces this degeneration in the 'two styles of Othello's speech' (The Wheel of Fire [Oxford: O.U.P., 1930], p. 119).

20 The obsession with the handkerchief is a symptom of 'the delusion which grips the hero in the middle phase of the tragic action' (David Kaula, 'Othello Possessed: Shakespeare's Use of Magic and Witchcraft', Shakespeare Studies, 2 [1966], 127).

21 At one extreme critics call this moment a 'sacrament of penance' (R. N. Hallstead, 'Idolatrous Love:

A New Approach to Othello', SQ, 19 [1968], 122), 'salvation' (K, 0. Myrick, 'The Theme of Damnation in Shakespearean Tragedy', SP, 38, 244), 'redemption' (Ribner, p. 91). At the other extreme it is 'the dupe's attempt at self-justification in an irrelevant pose' (Traversi, p. 148), Othello 'cheering himself up' (Eliot, p. 129), 'darkness with no gleam of hope' (E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey [London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1925], p. 224), a final prideful act of 'self-justification' (V. K. Whitaker, The Mirror Up to Nature [San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1965], p. 253) in which 'everybody loses' (Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966], p. 125). Whatever moral judgments one may draw (at his own risk), the spectators are made to feel that Othello in his final moments is restored to a kind of dignity (Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare [Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1946], IV, 116); if the Moor 'has not the self-knowledge' of the other Shakespearean heroes, 'he at least has a super abundance of vitality' (Clifford Leech, Shakespeare's Tragedies [New York: O.U.P., 1950], p. 39); in 'ask[ing] only that the truth be told about him' he achieves a kind of purgation, a 'swearing of the truth' (Madeleine Doran, 'Good Name in Othello', SEL, 1 [1967], 216); see also

22 Compare, for example, 'It is essential to the dramatic design that Othello think of himself as destined for hell' (Ribner, p. 112) and 'the audience knows that in his renunciation of evil … Othello has merited salvation' (Marion Hope Parker, The Salve of Life [London: Chatto and Windus, 1955], p. 126). See further J. A. Bryant, Hippolyta's View (Lexington: U. of Kentucky P., 1961), p. 140; John E. Seaman, 'Othello's Pearl', SQ, 19 (1968), 81-5. For the counterview, see R. M. Frye, Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1963).

23 Albert Gérard, '"Egregiously An Ass": The Dark Side of the Moor', Shakespeare Survey 10 (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1957), p. 105.

24 Peter Mercer, 'Othello and the Form of Heroic Tragedy', Critical Quarterly, 11 (1969), 48-61. By emphasizing the 'heroic intensity of the struggle, against the conventional background of the ars [moriendi], Shakespeare evokes great sympathy for the human Othello' (Bettie Anne Doebler, 'Othello's Angels: The Ars Moriendi', ELH, 34 [1967], 158).

25 Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York: Macmillan, 1942), p. 125.

26Othello, ed. Alvin Kernan (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. xxix.

27 Hibbard, p. 42.

Harry Keyishian (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Destructive Revenge in Julius Caesar and Othello," in The Shapes of Revenge: Victimization, Vengence, and Vindictiveness in Shakespeare, 1995, pp. 81-99.

[In the following excerpt, Keyishian centers on Othello's interpretation of love and revenge.]


Othello is in many ways an extended meditation on revenge. As we will see, Shakespeare gives us a full-scale portrait of vindictiveness in the figure of Iago; but he also shows us, in Othello himself, the emergence of vindictive trends in a character constitutionally devoted to affirmative goals. Once separated from those goals, however, and convinced Desdemona has betrayed him, Othello feels sullied by her very existence. He kills her both to avenge himself and to redeem the world.

Although the revenges practiced by Iago and Othello are both corrupt and destructive, they differ in their foundations, aims, and moral flavor. For Iago, to whom love represents an irrational, enervating surrender of self-interest, revenge seems a pleasurable means of serving oneself and validating a philosophy of opportunism. For Othello, to whom love is an act of voluntary, creative submission, revenge is a painful duty, requiring strict personal discipline, performed in the service of selfless ideals and in the name of justice.

In Iago we perceive a sharp distinction between what he pretends to be and what he is; using various poses of blunt cynicism and excessive skepticism to gain credibility, he presents himself as a man fundamentally, even compulsively, honest. In Othello the telling distinction is between what he understands himself to be and what he is. He thinks he is a man of inviolable integrity, master of his emotions, whereas he is, in fact, easily overwhelmed by his passions and most strongly under Iago's control when he thinks he is under his own.

Rhetorically, there are parallels between Iago's manner of seducing Othello and Antony's transformation of the crowd during the funeral oration in Julius Caesar. In both cases, a revenger is fashioned before an audience's eyes through manipulations that manufacture a sense of injury where there was none before. The manipulator does not inscribe the doctrine of revenge upon a blank slate but, rather, appeals to a particular personality's anxieties and vulnerabilities. The key to his success is to locate the basic psychological investments of the character being seduced, then make it seem they are being violated and abused by the target of revenge. We have seen how Antony did that with the Roman crowd. Iago uses some obviously similar strategies: he convinces Othello he is full of "love and honesty" (3.3.119), qualities Othello admires; he pretends to speak of Othello's wrongs only reluctantly ("It were not for your quiet nor your good / … To let you know my thoughts" [152-54]); he gets Othello to command him to say what he already intends to say ("If thou dost love me, / Show me thy thought" [115-16]); he gives Othello evidence both visual (mental images of adultery) and aural (Cassio's partially heard conversation); he plays on Othello's fears of seeming irresolute ("If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend, for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody" [4.1.197-98]); he appeals to Othello's blunt sense of justice ("Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" [207-8]). Othello's soul is composed of these investments, and it is Shakespeare's point that Iago, knowing his prey, can use them against him.


Soul is the word Othello uses when he wants to speak of the irreducible and inviolable center of his being, his essential identity. It is not only his "parts" and his "title" but also his "perfect soul" that put him beyond Brabantio's reproaches; and that soul is perfect because it is self-validating and autonomous. "Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it, / Without a prompter" (1.2.83-84), he tells his followers; he assures the Senators of Venice that no "light-wing'd toys / Of feather'd Cupid" (1.3.268-69) will keep him from his duty. He recognizes, and warns others, that should he lose self-control, he would become a menace to them all:

                    Now by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion, having my best judgment
Assays to lead the way. 'Zounds, if I stir,
Or do but lift this arm, the best of you
Shall sink in my rebuke.

Therefore, it is necessary not only for his own peace but for the world's that Othello's soul remain inviolable.

Othello serves only two masters: his reason and the Senators of Venice. To neither does he feel he has surrendered his independence: indeed, the faithfulness with which he serves them is his personal measure of value. But what Othello has done at the start of the play is, for the first time in his life, to share that intimate space, his soul, with another. For Desdemona he has his "unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine" (1.2.26-27). She has become his "soul's joy" (2.1.184); being with her, he declares,

My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

What she signifies to him, what she supplies in that secret inner space that defines him, is peace and harmony, conditions that apparently represent his chief happiness. As he says on his arrival in Cyprus after a stormy journey,

If after every tempest comes such calm,
May the winds blow, till they have waken'd

It almost seems that the point of enduring the storm is to enjoy such rest.

This precious commodity, integrity of soul, is important to his existence both as a soldier and as a man. Should he let his sensual pleasures interfere with his duties, he will deserve to "Let housewives make a skillet of [his] helm" (1.3.272); and should he "make a life of jealousy" and turn the business of his soul to such "exsufficate and blown surmises" as a jealous mind conceives, it would be appropriate to "exchange [him] for a goat" (3.3.177-80). That he had actually lived according to his principles is attested to by Lodovico, who, seeing Othello's violence against Desdemona, cannot believe it can be the same man he knew:

Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?

But independence of soul is just what Othello has given up for Desdemona. Love involves some degree of submission to its object: Desdemona commented that her heart was "subdu'd / Even to the very quality of her lord" (1.3.250-51). And for Othello, too, love is experienced as surrender: his mother, he said, had managed to "subdue his father / Entirely to her love" (3.4.59-60). By sharing his soul with Desdemona, Othello has made his integrity contingent on hers.

Iago thoroughly unsettles Othello by making him believe that Desdemona has betrayed that act of surrender and sharing. For Othello the situation is untenable and unbearable; as he says, he would rather

             be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon

Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses.

His confident faith in his "perfect" soul gives way to doubts about his color, his lack of social graces, his age, and his judgment: "If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself (278). His security in being the sort of person for whom "to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolv'd" (179-80) gives way to his realization that he really thinks "'tis better to be much abus'd / Than but to know't a little" (336-37). Each source of his pride and confidence seems contingent on the other; when one gives way, they all go:

                     O now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue!

Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.

Desdemona's betrayal not only makes forever unavailable to him his previous sources of pleasure and glory ("The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife" [352]); it also infects his inner identity (in F1):

              My name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black
As mine own face.

As with revengers generally, the integrity-altering injury seems in Othello to require an act of counter-aggression that will declare his potency and control over his own identity:

If there be cords, or knives,
Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,
I'll not endure it!

These are the stakes, then; these the elements of integrity and self-esteem that trusting another has cost him. When Othello turns against Desdemona, he ousts her from her privileged place and now fills his soul with violent hatred:

Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!
Yield up, O love, thy crown, and hearted
To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy
For 'tis of aspics' tongues!

He recognizes the terrible consequences of what he is doing, but it is beyond him to resist what seems, and is experienced as, a violent current outside and around him. His love of Desdemona was a powerful substance; when it vanishes, the vacuum it leaves must be filled by an equally powerful force, a violent propulsion toward revenge:

  Like to the Pontic Sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Nev'r feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont.

Surrender to it gives him comfort and confidence. In order to achieve what he thinks will assuage his pain and restore his sense of autonomous selfhood—"a capable and wide revenge" against Desdemona and Cassio that will "swallow them up"—he needs above all to be sure his "bloody thoughts" will "nev'r ebb to humble love" (457-60).

However, if we want to get to the heart of Othello's motive for revenge, to understand what is at stake for him, we must look beyond such melodramatic rant to a much sadder and more intimate moment. In act 4, scene 2, Othello, having humiliated Desdemona—and himself—by striking her before the Venetian ambassadors, directly accuses her of adultery. He has sworn revenge against her; he has demanded and received what he deems "proof" of her guilt—the handkerchief and Cassio's bragging; he has declared his heart turned to stone against her. And yet when it comes to making his most heartbroken declaration of what all that means to him, it is to Desdemona that he expresses himself: she remains the intimate of his soul, and it is to her that he explains what her seeming treachery means and what his pain is like:

                    Had it pleas'd heaven
To try me with affliction, had they rain'd
All kind of sores and shames on my bare
Steep's me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some place of my soul
A drop of patience; but, alas, to make me
The fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!
Yet could I bear that too, well, very well;
But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up: to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cestern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!

That is intolerable, the end of Othello's being—not just the "big wars" and military pomp he had earlier declared he had to surrender, but his absolute and deeply cherished integrity. When this moment of devastating pathos is over, Othello's mind turns quickly and completely to vituperation and bitter hatred; but in the meanwhile he has revealed the source of his agony.

But when the time comes for Othello to kill Desdemona, he cannot do it on the basis of his subjective pain. Because justice is so important to him, he must convince himself that he has transcended personal considerations. He becomes in his own mind the agent of justice, a benign sort of justice that aims to recreate the object of his adoration in her original purity by destroying her. Separating her vice from her beauty, Othello can say of the sleeping Desdemona, "Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee / And love thee after" (5.2.18-19). (His dismissal of Cassio earlier had expressed his capacity to separate his feeling for someone from his objective sense of that person's fitness: "Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be officer of mine" [2.3.248-49].)

Throughout the play, Othello displays an appreciation, sometimes witty, of what is fair and appropriate in his reciprocal dealings with others. To the enraged Brabantio he not only points out the folly of his attempt to intimidate a soldier by force of arms, but with kindness he suggests the values that should control relations between them: "Good signior, you shall more command with years / Than with your weapons" (1.2.60-61). Reciprocity of feeling had drawn him and Desdemona together: "She gave me for my pains a world of sighs" (1.3.159), he says, and concludes:

She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I lov'd her that she did pity them.

Thus, Othello's sense of self is invested not only in his feelings of personal inviolability, but also in the sense of decorum, appropriateness, and justice that governs his manner of falling in love. When his love turns to hate, he of course retains that habit of thought. "How shall I murther him, Iago?" he says of Cassio; "I would have him nine years a-killing" (4.1.170, 178). When Iago suggests he strangle Desdemona "in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" (4.1.207-8), he is delighted: "Good, good; the justice of it pleases; very good" (209-10).

In the soliloquy "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" (5.2.1-22), Othello takes up the question of justice. Consider Desdemona's outward beauty alone, he observes, and it would certainly be wrong to "scar that whiter skin of hers than snow" (4); but consider her character, and she must die, because if he lets her live, "she'll betray more men" (6). He must struggle against his senses—of sight, of smell; but justice in the end wins out, and he finds a point of personal harmony in the holding of oxymorons in suspension:

So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow's
It strikes where it doth love.

I that am cruel am yet merciful,
I would not have thee linger in thy pain.

Othello is reading his actions as issuing from a sense of justice and fairness: he is striving, while walking into strange and foreign moral territory, to keep the familiar guideposts of his personality in view.

And of course when it comes time to judge himself, he applies the same criteria. He thinks it appropriate that his weapon should be taken from him by Montano: "why should honor outlive honesty?" (5.2.245). He sees himself as deserving torment for his deed—being whipped from the sight of Desdemona, blown about in winds, roasted in sulphur, and washed in gulfs of liquid fire (277-80). And finally, of course, after having "read" himself, with a sense of balance and measure, as one "that lov'd not wisely but too well; / … not easily jealious, but being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme" (344-47), he judges himself to deserve the same fate as the "malignant … Turk" who "Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state" (353-54). When justice demands that he be punished, he, using the only means left him to act out his self-sufficiency, imposes his punishment upon himself. He does it with a characteristic sense of symmetry in his last flourish:

I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee. No way but
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

And in that self-imposed justice he seeks to restore his integrity by avenging Desdemona.

Antony, the Roman populace, and Othello seem to me to stand at the borders of vindictiveness. What holds them back, in my view, is the presence in them of a potential capacity—or at least a wish—to live for affirmative goals. In making this judgment in the case of Antony, I may be reading backward from Antony and Cleopatra and ascribing his skillful Machiavellianism too fully to his chagrin at failing Caesar; and in the case of the Roman populace, I may too easily exculpate them for their malleability in the hands of a master rhetorician. But … vindictiveness was seen as a more deep-seated evil, as a full-blown psychic disorder and the product of profound moral flaws. At his very worst moments—planning to poison Desdemona, cheering on the assassination of Cassio—Othello briefly occupies that mental territory, but he is finally as much a stranger there as he had ever been in Venice.


5 I here depart from The Riverside Shakespeare, which rejects the Folio text's "my name" (3.3.386) in favor of Q2's "her name." The emendation has a certain logic: Othello has just been speaking of Desdemona, whose reputation, here conflated with her beauty, seems sullied by her actions. However, I prefer (and my view of the play is better served by) the view of the Arden editor, M. R. Ridley: "I see little justification for accepting Q2's 'her name' as most edd. have done. Othello is maddened by the befoulment of his own honour; it is that which he will not endure, and which only revenge will clear." See M. R. Ridley, ed., Othello (London: Methuen, 1962), 117.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30973

A. André Glaz (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: "Iago or Moral Sadism," in American Imago, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 323-48.

[In the essay below, Glaz remarks on the play's organization and major psychological themes, including guilt, jealousy, and sadism.]

Wilst du der getreue Eckart sein
Und jedermann vor Schaden warnen
Es ist auch eine Rolle, Sie trägt nichts ein:
Sie laufen dennoch nach den Garnen

In psychoanalytic literature, as well as in belles-lettres, we find a wealth of details and descriptions of masochism. Sadism, on the other hand, is very rarely described in the literature in general, or psychoanalytic literature in particular. What is the reason for this paucity? The masochist speaks; the sadist is silent.

As is well known, the word 'sadism' was coined from the name of the writer who has described sexual sadism; i.e. when sadism is fused with sexual components. But sadism fused with sexuality is mainly attenuated cruelty. Not all sadism is mingled with sexuality.

Pure sadism is described more widely than is realized. As a matter of fact all criminology is nothing but sadism in its purest form; all mystery stories deal with it. A pure sadist never comes under analytic scrutiny simply because he seeks the acting-out of his sadism and not its cure. The sadist feels uncomfortable only when he does not dare act out his sadism—then he may come for treatment. The danger in such a treatment is that unless we are very careful, we may help a potential criminal become an actual criminal.

In this paper I have no intention of describing or analyzing sadism as such. My intention is rather to describe a type of sadism, which to my knowledge is not yet classified. I call this type "Moral Sadism". The moral sadist is rarely, if ever, uncovered. I use the word 'uncovered' purposely. The moral sadist has no internalized super ego. He is only afraid of being 'uncovered':

Their best conscience
is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown.
                      Othello Act III; Scene 3

In order not to be found out, he adopts an attitude of helplessness, pseudo-stupidity, or righteousness. This attitude is not a real defense mechanism, but a conscious mask or "seemliness". In order not to be uncovered, first he puts wool upon the eyes of the victim,

to seal her father's eyes up close as oak.
                                      Othello Act III; Scene 3

Second, no murder should be performed, no blood on his hands. To achieve that, he uses psychology. This kind of psychology, I shall name "Black Psychology". The use of black psychology is needed either to drive the victim crazy,

And practising upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness
                      Othello Act II; Scene 2

or to drive the victim to commit a crime, or make the victim commit suicide. Thus the sadist has achieved his purpose. It is clear that no sadist will come and 'uncover' himself. We can only recognize the sadist through his effects on the masochist. The sadist always performs his tricks on an unconsciously willing object, namely a masochist, and more often than not on a moral masochist. The latter finds in the moral sadist the stern and murderous super ego he is longing for. Outwardly it will look as if the sadist is the victim and the masochist is the brute. Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair. Often, much too often, even experienced psychiatrists, and to my greatest regret, psychoanalysts were fooled in such conditions.

I found it expedient to take a case history described by Shakespeare in the tragedy of Othello. Othello has to be looked upon as a pure psychiatric case and not as a stage tragedy. It is really too tragic to be a tragedy.

Shakespeare, in Othello, gives us all the details of how to recognize the moral sadist.

Let us make a supposition. Othello at one moment comes to us for treatment. Imagine we do not know anything about Iago's dealings and double dealings. Othello tells us; "My wife is unfaithful". No proof! "I want to kill my wife and then commit suicide." Who would not make a diagnosis that Othello is psychotic or schizophrenic or stark mad? And yet no one would say after reading the tragedy Othello, that he was schizophrenic. That effect Shakespeare obtained by presenting to us the dealings of Iago. We do not approve of Othello's reactions and yet we pity him. He has all our sympathy.

If the balance of our lives
had not one scale of reason
to cool our raging motions,
our carnal stings, our unbitted
lustsOthello Act III; Scene 3
                         Othello Act 1; Scene 3

I said before that the victim has to be a moral masochist. Does Shakespeare say it? Yes. Shakespeare knew exactly the difference between day remnants, latent material, primary or secondary elaboration, and symbolism. In order to produce his effect, he used indifferently one of the foregoing modes of expression.

We know that a moral masochist feels excessively guilty. In the unconscious mind, guilt is represented by the color black. Black in Latin is Negro. Thus Othello is a Negro. Guilt in the latent material, black in the primary elaboration, becomes Negro in the secondary elaboration. The description Shakespeare gives of Othello coincides to the iota with what we know to be the behavior of a moral masochist. He is frank, just, and naive. He has to live up to his super ego or destroy himself. It is enough if the balance between his super ego and his ideals is upset by an external event, to make him break down.

Furthermore, Othello is called the Moor. This quality of being a Moor comes from the day remnants, namely the original story by Cinthio. The latter, in his original story of Othello, makes it simply a story of jealousy. Therefore he makes a Moor out of Othello, as the Moors' jealous nature is proverbial. In French we say "Jaloux comme un Turc" and in his story Desdemona says to her husband:

You Moors are of so hot a nature that every little trifle moves you to anger and revenge.

To sum it up, Cinthio's Othello suffers from excess jealousy. He is a "Moor". Shakespeare's Othello suffers from excess guilt. He is a Negro—black.

Let me give examples of how the same phenomenon can be expressed in three different ways:

When we finish The Red and Black by Stendhal we do not know why the novel is called Le Rouge et le Noir. How shall we account for it?

Let us keep in mind that Dostoyevsky wrote a novel Crime and Punishment. We could write, let me say, a mystery story on the same theme and call it Blood and Guilt. The next step is easy. For Stendhal, Blood is Red and Guilt is Black. Thus we have Le Rouge et le Noir.

A further point has to be singled out and that is the fact that an adjective is applied to characterize the hero; the adjective being the color "black". A name or an adjective in the hands of a writer often serves to indicate the inner characteristics of the hero. As an example, I shall take the name Roskilnikoff. The word "Roskol" means "split". "Marmaladoff" means "made of marmalade", etc. Some people have outstanding characteristics. To them you can apply a name which is in of itself a definition. Others have neutral names. For instance, to indicate the average, you will say "the Joneses" or "the Babbitts". Certain names play the role of mere photography. They give only the external appearance. Other names are like portraits made by great artists. They give us the inner image of the sitter. Thus we may say that the word 'black' as applied to Othello gives us the inner characteristic of the hero and not the color of his skin. The word 'Moor', on the other hand, comes from Cinthio's original story. However, Shakespeare by the end of the play, says almost explicitly that Othello is not a Moor.

Since Moors are circumcised, how could Othello, if he were a Moor, say:

And say besides that in Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus

In conclusion we have to say that Othello is not really a Negro nor a Moor. He has the inner characteristics of black, namely guilt, and he is jealous like a Turk. Thus Desdemona says:

I saw Othello's visage in his mind
                                       Othello Act I; Scene 3

Before I go any further in the analysis of the play, I have to say a few words about the sources and the construction of the play.

Shakespeare's plays are generally constructed like dreams. Almost every dream has day remnants. The day remnants for a Shakespearean play are the sources from which he takes the plot. In Othello, it is Cinthio's story of paranoiac jealousy. This origin of the play is well known. However, when one reads the play carefully, one is struck by a very familiar note. A kind of "déjà vu". (Heimatsklaenge)

When one put all the "déjà vu" passages together, one finds oneself transported to biblical times.

Iago says "I am not what I am", and about Othello, Iago says "He is what he is".

"I am what I am" was said for the first time by Yahve to Moses in Exodus. Next to that I point again to a passage quoted above:

And say besides that in Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
and smote him—thus

Is that not exactly what Moses did:

… and he spied an Egyptian smiting an
Hebrew, one of his brethren.
And he looked this way and that
way, and when he saw that there was
no man, he slew the Egyptian and hid
him in the sand.
                         Exodus 2; 11-12

Let us now take another passage from Othello:

Are we turne'd Turks, and to ourselves do
Which heaven hath forbid to Ottomites.
                      Othello Act II; Scene 3

Compare this passage with:

And when Moses went out the second
behold, two men of the Hebrews strove
together; and he said to him that did
the wrong. Wherefore smitest thou thy
                            Exodus 2; 13


And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord,
I am not eloquent, neither
Heretofore, nor since thou hast
spoken unto thy servant: but
I am slow of speech and of a slow
                                Exodus 4: 10

Juxtapose the above passage to the lines in Othello:

Rude am I in my speech,
And little blesse'd with the soft
phrase of peace.
                   Othello Act I; Scene 3

In order not to overburden the paper, I shall refrain from quoting and I shall synoptically indicate the passages.

Does not the description of the drowning of the Turks and their fleet remind one of the fate which befell the Egyptians in the Red Sea?

The Venetians, like the Hebrews, passed through the Sea without any damage, and the Turks with their ships, like the Egyptians with their chariots, drowned completely. The similarity goes even farther. We know that Moses led the Hebrews in the direction of the Red Sea in order to disorient the Egyptians, or as we have it in Othello:

A pageant to keep us in false gaze.

Othello Act I; Scene 3

Finally, no sooner did Othello conquer Cyprus, than a delegation comes from Venice to tell him that he has to leave Cyprus … and give the Island over to Cassio. Venice could not have had even an inkling of what happened in Cyprus between Othello and Desdemona. All critics are baffled by this inexplicable detail. Let us turn once more to Exodus and we find that God said to Moses that he can only see the land but cannot enter it.

Furthermore, the discussion about Moses' origin is well known. Was he, was he not, of royal origin? That is so well known that quotations from Exodus or Freud's Moses and Monotheism seem superfluous.

Does not the same discussion apply to Othello? On one hand he is a Negro and on the other hand Othello says:

I shall promulgate, I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege; and my demerits
May speak (unbonneted) to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reached.
                        Othello Act I; Scene 2

After having juxtaposed these passages, one can hardly escape the conclusion that Shakespeare had consciously or unconsciously Moses in mind. To summarize, Shakespeare took his plot from Cinthio and from Exodus. Thus we already have two themes. One theme is paranoia. The other, the fate of the leader or the great artist who is never recognized in his lifetime.

Yet tis the plague of great ones
prerogatived are they less than the base
'Tis destiny unshunnable like death.
                    Othello Act III; Scene 3

To the forgoing two themes, we will add a third one which is entirely Shakespeare's. But for that later.

After having indicated the two main sources of Othello; I can resume the thread where I have left off.

I shall in this paper be little concerned with Othello, the moral masochist being known. I shall rather concentrate on Iago, the moral sadist. All critics down the line call Iago names. The moral indignation of the critics is so great that they forget to be objective. What does it do to call Iago a villain or arch-villain? Let us silence our indignation, let us silence our desire to tear Iago to pieces, and concentrate our faculties on the understanding of Iago's personality.

Als ich einmal eine Spinne erschlagen,
Dacht ich, ob ich das wohl gesollt?
Hat Gott ihr doch wie mir gewollt
Einen Anteil an diesen Tagen!
                  Goethe, Lyrische Dichtungen

The mountain lion eats the nice lovable deer. Do we hate the mountain lion? Don't we study the mountain lion in all impartiality? What not study the sadist, and especially the moral sadist, with detached reflection? True, Iago is not a mountain lion, but does he not behave like one! Othello is not a deer, but he seems to have less instinct for survival than a deer. What revolts us is the fact that Iago looks like a human being and yet behaves like a beast. What revolts us is that he looks like ourselves and yet he does not act as we would act. Or maybe he reminds us of our own cannibalism, cruelty and destructiveness, that we shy away from him. We do not like such a distorted image of our own inner self. Most probably that is the reason why we do not believe the masochists or the victims when they describe what has happened to them. I do not know if God was created in our image, but I am sure the devil is in our likeness.

I have in mind in the first place August Strindberg, Arthur Schopenhauer, Francisco Goya. We say Strindberg is psychotic, Schopenhauer is paranoic, Goya is cruel, and we let it go at that. Are we still the "key keepers" of bygone times? Is it not our task to try to solve the riddle of madness rather than call names and apply labels?

Maybe when we understand sadism, cruelty, somewhat better, we may solve, if not a chapter, at least a paragraph in madness.

Iago thus destroys Othello, Rodrigo, Desdemona, Emilia, and by a miracle, Cassio is spared. The whore Bianca is safe altogether. Has Iago any motive for his vandalism? In the first place, no reason would be good enough to justify such a massacre. If we apply to Iago our logical reason or we apply our emotional feelings, we remain baffled by the phenomenon. The only reason we can give is instinct.

Let us follow Shakespeare's exposition of Iago's deeds and relationships with his fellow men. As the play opens we are confronted with a scene which, in ordinary terms, is incomprehensible. Rodrigo accuses Iago of having

       had my purse
As if the strings were thine
                         Othello Act I; Scene 1

and Iago had not done what he promised. What did he promise? Iago had to procure Desdemona to Rodrigo for money. I do apologize to Honest Iago for calling him a procurer! I do not apologize to Rodrigo, for his stupidity is in any case monumental.

Let us turn to Iago. Either or—either the description of Desdemona is true and she is what she seems to be—then Iago could never deliver the goods; or she is not what she seems to be. What then? We shall see later that the whole play is filled with the dilemma of seems to be and to be, the mask and the inner self, the reputation and the reality. From the beginning, Iago bleeding Rodrigo of his money has to kill Rodrigo in the end if he is to retain his reputation of "honest" Iago.

One can immediately see that we are dealing with a criminal—a cruel sadist. We, the spectators or readers, do not ponder too much about Iago's dealings with Rodrigo. We are used to the fact that certain people kill for money. Why should this kind of crime be so self evident is a problem in itself. I do believe that we do not try to reflect, but move the easy way—the way of our habits. The Talmud says:

Ein adam choté veló lo
                                             Baba Meziah 5B

A man does not steal if it does not profit him. It is customary in our criminal code, when a crime is committed and the murderer be unknown, to follow the rule "cui bono"—whom did this crime pay. In other words, we understand murder only in relation to profit. As a consequence, We try to make people understand "crime does not pay". Thus we naively believe to keep them from killing. Neither the Talmud nor the Roman Code foresaw the thrill-killing. The killing is the thing. If we disabuse our minds of our routine thinking and we admit that Iago is a killer and no other motives are necessary to explain his killings, it would be easy for us to study pragmatically the characteristics of thrill-killers. There is nothing to understand; there is only to observe. We may say the thrill is sexual in nature. It may be so, but that does not make us understand the thrill-killer any better.

Let us now examine the relationship of Iago to Cassio. It would seem as if Iago had some reasons for killing Cassio. The reasons Iago gives or implies are: first, competition. Cassio got the lieutenancy which Iago believed should have been bestowed on him. Second, he suspects Cassio of having slept with Emilia; in other words, jealousy. Coleridge very penetratingly says:

the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity

One may argue that Iago himself did believe in the motives he puts forward. But this is flatly denied by Iago himself. After he succeeds by his cunning in making Cassio and Rodrigo fight, he confesses that he wants them both to die. Rodrigo, because he will thus get rid of his creditor. Cassio, however, because:

He has a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.

Gone are the pretences, gone the lieutenancy, gone Emilia. Iago wants to kill because he wants to kill.

To sum up. Iago wants Rodrigo's money and he gets it. He gets it without even using any skill, as he says himself:

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse
For mine own gain'd knowledge should
If I could time expend with such a snipe

All Cassio has is good looks and worldly behavior. Iago wants to be Cassio and therefore he tries to kill Cassio. To achieve Cassio's downfall, he already uses his masterly conniving. I believe all his principles can be reduced to one major phrase. Iago himself says:

I am not what I am

The phrase is clear in itself. I act as if I am somebody else. We will see that Iago is an "as if" personality.

The main characteristic of an "as if is to want to be somebody else or at least to appear as somebody else. That is only half of their properties. The second important characteristic is to make their victims appear other than they are. That is clearly shown in Iago's dealings with Cassio. Cassio never drinks. Iago makes him drink and then insinuates that Cassio is a habitual drunkard. Cassio is not a fighter. Iago gets Rodrigo to provoke Cassio into self-defense. As soon as Cassio is engaged in the fight with Rodrigo, Iago calls the whole city of Cyprus to see Cassio drunk and pugnacious, and thus shows Cassio different from what he really is. Cassio, by this stragagem, appears as Iago wants him to appear. Cassio is "not what he is".

Were it true that Iago wanted money or the lieutenancy or both, he should have stopped his manoeuvres then and there. He had Rodrigo's money and Cassio's place. But Iago forgets his booty and goes on destroying as if propelled by an inner irresistible force. Thus we come to the 'plat de resistance". Iago versus Othello. Shakespeare shows here the full extent of his craftsmanship and his unequalled understanding of human nature and mental structure.

What we see here is a psychological struggle of two giants, giants in different fields. One is extreme honesty, the other extreme wickedness.

The divinity of hell against the divinity of heaven. Christ and antichrist.

In this struggle Othello becomes Iago and Iago becomes Othello. This change of identity is described by Shakespeare almost step by step. I shall only indicate two landmarks.

First: he echoes me
Second: Iago becomes me

True, in the modern editions we do not have "Iago becomes me" but "Iago beckons me". However, in the original text as it is reproduced in the Furness edition, the line is "Iago becomes me".

Presumably the editors, not knowing psychology as Shakespeare did and not understanding the phrase "Iago becomes me", have cut down the phrase to their size and thus the modern editions have the more generally understandable phrase "Iago beckons me".

This phenomenon, as described by Shakespeare, can easily be verified under hypnosis. It is enough to give a post-hypnotic suggestion in the form "from now on you are me and I am you". The hypnotized, after being awakened, will echo the hypnotizer. That is the meaning of "Iago echos me".

Granville-Barker hits very near the mark when he says: "One way and a swift one, to the corruption of the mind is through a perverting of the imagination. Othello is, even as his nature is full powered. But he has exercized it in spiritual solitude, and for that it is the less sophisticated and the more easily to be victimized by suggestion. It is a poetic practice bedeviled and Iago is expert in it."

After having studied Iago's dealings with his male protagonists, it is necessary to present all the cast, male and female. But before doing that, I still must speak about the technique Shakespeare uses to present and to conceal, to expose and cover up his Personnae Dramatis.

The technique Shakespeare uses is the technique of the opposites. For the clarity of the exposition I shall not define the word Opposites. I shall rather use it in its everyday meaning.

The Talmud uses extensively the technique of the opposites under the name of: Lashon sagi nahor

Sagi means abundant
Nahor is light

Thus instead of saying a blind man, the expression goes "a man rich with light". We still have the same implication when we speak about the "lighthouse" for the house of the blind. By extension, the expression became:

Belashon sagí nahor

or the language of the opposites. I shall give only two examples of its use in biblical times:

Barech Elohim vamét

The literal meaning is "Bless God and Die". The real meaning is "Curse God and Die".

The second example is:

Lo tiye kedeshah mibenot Israel

"There shall be no harlot of the daughters of Israel". However, the word for harlot is: ZONAH. The word which the phrase employs is: KEDESHAH which comes from: KADOSH and means Holy; Blessed.

So much for the Biblical usage. Let us have a look at Shakespeare's writings in Romeo and Juliet:

Juliet: O Serpent heart hid with a flowring
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical
Dove-feathered raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound.
O that deceit should dwell
in such a gorgeous palace.

Let us leave Shakespeare for a minute and turn to Freud. Sigmund Freud states that if in a dream one element has to be reversed, all the elements have to be reversed. Let us boldly apply that rule to the tragedy Othello.

We see that Iago is called a million times—Honest Iago. Honest as applied to Iago is manifest nonsense.

The text forces upon us the reversal from Honest to Dishonest. So we have to change Honest Iago to Dis-honest Iago. No other alternative is left but to say Black Othello is White Othello; in other words Guilty Othello is Innocent Othello.

We may leave out the two minor male characters—Rodrigo and Cassio—and go haste, post haste, to the female cast. The most important is Desdemona. She is called many times Virtuous, Honest Desdemona. If we stick to Freud's rule, we come to Whore Desdemona.

Once again I have to interrupt the logical sequence and turn my attention in a different direction. Let us leave Desdemona for a while and go to an incident in the play which craves analyzing.

The Handkerchief

Take away the incident of the napkin and the entire play falls to pieces. The handkerchief seems to be a corner-stone of the edifice. The same napkin incident is differently presented by Cinthio. Iago trains his child to steal the napkin. In Othello, Emilia steals the hand-kerchief. We have two versions of how Othello's mother got the famous napkin; once Othello says that his mother got it from an Egyptian who "was a mind reader" and the napkin had magic in its web. Later, Othello changes the story and maintains that his father gave it to his mother.

One cannot escape the impression that the napkin is a symbol and not a real napkin.

It is customary in Spain and among Orthodox Jews to hang out through the window the blood stained sheet after the consummation of the marriage. This custom has for its purpose to prove that the bride was a real virgin. She had her honor. She was innocent. More than that, in Othello the napkin had a pattern, and behold, strawberries. It is well known that berries stand for virginity.

Thus we have to understand that Othello on the night of the consummation of marriage, found Desdemona lacking in the attributes of virginity. Here, to my mind, Othello's tragedy begins.

Othello comes to Cyprus and in the first night the consummation of the marriage takes place. Othello:

Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue
that profit's yet to come tween me and you
Good night.

Behold, Desdemona is no virgin. Othello found a "slight alteration",

That love is not love that alters when it
 alteration finds
                                  Sonnet 166

Once that happened, Iago has an easy time to insinuate and Othello, sponge-like, absorbs the venom Iago distills and takes in even Iago's way of looking at the event and Othello becomes jealous according to Iago's patterns.

That Desdemona must have been promiscuous long before she even knew Othello was discussed by many critics. They failed to exploit this point out of sheer prejudice. To make this point clear, I shall once again quote Granville-Barker:

Other explanations have been offered: one, that Otthello is driven to suspect Desdemona of fornication with Cassio before her marriage. But this is frivolous.

Does a thing or a deed stop existing merely because it seems frivolous? Is there a better example of magic thinking?

Is it easier to admit that Othello suspects adultery when adultery was a physical impossibility? Indeed the outburst of suspicion takes place 24 hours after Othello's arrival in Cyprus. All the 24 hours Othello is with Desdemona, he is with her even between 5 and 7. Then how can he suspect her of having slept with Cassio "a thousand times"?

Most critics chant Halleluja to Desdemona's virtue. It is bewildering how we are drawn to false gods. Yet here and there a critic is bold enough to look through the white bridal veil and see a "blessed" one; a "perfumed" one. So the critic Pye after the passage:

My lord shall never rest
I'll watch him tame and talk him of patience
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shift
I'll intermingle everything he does
With Cassio's suit

makes the following comment:

This strumpet-like resolution of Desdemona's takes off much from the interest we should take in her fate.

Shakespeare, if he does not say that Desdemona is a nagger, describes her as one. Read carefully the scene in which Desdemona is after Othello and harrasses him to obtain favors for Cassio. It is despairing indeed if this should be a loving wife's behavior.

Does not Desdemona herself say: "I am not merry; but I do beguile the thing I am by seeming otherwise"; and all the conversation which takes place between Iago, Emilia and Desdemona in Act II; Scene 1.

I cannot help it if my perverted or prophetic ear tells me that such a conversation can take place only between people of the underworld. Yes, let me state it bluntly—the conversation sounds to me as one between a pimp and two whores, or a pimp, a madame and a whore. No, a house is not a home and a whore is not virgin. Indeed, when Iago says to Desdemona:

You rise to play, and go to bed to work

is he speaking about a virtuous lady? And since when does an "ancient" (ensign) speak thus to the wife of his commander-in-chief?

To make it more spicy, Iago says to Rodrigo, speaking about Desdemona:

Blessed fig's-end! The wine
she drinks is made of grapes
If she had been blessed, she would
never have lov'd the Moor.
Blessed pudding

What is the meaning of "The wine she drinks is made of grapes"? The phrase does not seem to make sense. The phrase means that Desdemona uses the "grape vine" technique—in other words she is a gossip and a malicious gossip. She is a slanderer.

So traurig, dass in Kriegestagen
Zu Tode sich die Manner schlagen
Im Frieden ists dieselbe Not
Die Weiber schlagen mit Zungen tot
                Goethe—Lyrische Dichtungen

And "blessed pudding"? We have seen above that "blessed" stands for harlot, the word "tart" is a known term to denote a whore. "Pudding" is a substitute for "tart". Thus we have

blessed pudding.

Mark, those are not Othello's accusations. It is Iago speaking.

One has to read without wool upon one's eyes and the scenes become crystal clear and the plot makes sense. Before I leave Desdemona, I must say a few words about her name.

Desdemona is the only name which Shakespeare took from Cinthio, who calls her Disdemona. It may be worth noting that in Othello she is called five times Desdemon. If I take the liberty to disjoin the word, we have Des Demon. The fact that the Russian title to Dostoyevsky's novel "The Possessed" is literally "The Demons" (BIESI), furthermore Anski's "Dibuk" is the "Demon", gives us leeway to say that Desdemona or Desdemon means possessed, bewitched, bedeviled. Her father says:

Is there not charms
By which the property of youth and maidhood
May be abused? Have you not read Rodrigo
Of some such thing?
                     Othello Act I; Scene 3

or later:

If she in chains of magic were not bound.
                                Othello Act I; Scene 3

If Trilby was bedeviled by Svengali into becoming a great singer, Desdemona was bewitched by Iago into becoming a great whore.

Now, after having put Desdemona in what I believe is her true light, we can go back to the themes of the play.

As I said before, one theme is jealousy and comes from Cinthio. One is the tragedy of the spiritual leader or Moses; the third theme is a sordid story of a procurer—Iago, a bawd—Emilia, a wore—Desdemona, and a naive customer taken for a good ride.

I shall say nothing about Emilia. Her role becomes clear in the new setting.

However, for more clarity, a few words about Bianca may be necessary. Bianca means "white". The opposite is "black"—whore. Besides being a whore, she is a "professional virgin". A "professional virgin" is a whore who plays the offended virgin with each successive man. Shakespeare indicates this quality of Bianca by making her copy the pattern of the famous napkin many times. If what I say about Bianca is correct, we can easily understand the famous line which has puzzled the critics. The critics gave up hope of finding the meaning of the following phrase: (Iago speaking about Cassio)

A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife.
                                     Othello Act I; Scene 1

The phrase should read.

A fellow damn'd in an almost fair wife.

Bianca, so to speak, is faithful 23 hours a day. "Almost Fair". Shakespeare, out of poetical license, could displace the "almost" in order to save the harmony of the line.

Shakespeare blends these three themes in his masterly fashion. His writing is an orchestration as opposed to chamber music. One sits at a play and believes to hear De Falla's La Dance de Feu. One studies the play and finds himself confronted with La Dance Macabre by St. Saens.

Words, words, words, will never render the grandeur of Shakespeare. Papers, papers, papers, will never tell the splender of Shakespeare. We may say we have analyzed Shakespeare. The truth of the matter is, Shakespeare, from his remote past and everlasting present, has analyzed us. It was easy for his genius to perform such a sleight-of-hand trick. Shakespeare knew that no matter how many washing machines and univacs we may invent, our inner nature remains the very same as it ever was. It is not out of micromania, that I confess I never had Shakespeare on my analytical couch. In a sense, I may proudly say I was on Shakespeare's analytical couch. But the couches in Shakespeare's time were not built like nowadays. You could not lie down comfortably, gaze at the ceiling and speak freely. No, you had to kneel down and be dazed by his shining face. "Mets toi a genoux et tu croiras" said Pascal. Go on your knees and Shakespeare will guide you like Virgil guided Dante in this infernal world.

Before you may become Shakespeare's pupil, you have to make preliminary studies and you have to make them well. Do not learn the rules; grasp the spirit. After Freud's couch you may sometimes go to Shakespeare's pew. Go there after Freud has broken your narcissistic iron-lung. Go there with scars on your body and with a bleeding heart. Go there to learn and not to teach. Take with you Freud's way of thinking. Do not make the mistake of taking with you Freud's catechism or Freud's Bedaeker. Freud has never propounded a Weltanschaung. After well digested preliminary studies, go in all humility, go in all sincerity. Never forget Freud's advice to look at the evergreen observation and look and look until it dawns on you. I am no periwigpated fellow or town-crier to believe that I have analyzed Shakespeare.

After this intermezzo in which I have tried as best as I could to express my admiration for and devotion to Shakespeare, we have to go back to our cast. While the curtain is up and the public is applauding the artists for their performances, let me summarize the characters they have portrayed.

Let me speak about Iago first. He had the hardest and the most unbecoming role. His performance is magnificent and true to life. He really holds the mirror up to nature and shows scorn of her own image. He portrays the conscious schizophrenic. For him defence mechanisms do not exist. He sees in his victims their motives and acts on them. Already Dante Aligheri warns against such people:

Ah! how cautious ought men to be
with those who see not only the deed, but
with their sense look through into the
                          Inferno, Canto XVI

Iago knows it and says it:

Virtue a fig. It is in ourselves that we are thus
 or thus.

He increases the inner pressure of the victim and virtue is gone. For Iago, love is nothing. He has sex for sale. Love is but a sect or a scion, and a weakness of the will. Iago skillfully performs vivisection on his victims. He is a surgeon and at the same time a butcher. He disects with art and cuts his victims into pieces.

Othello lives by a code. For him the spirit is the thing. He can be a murderer but an honest murderer. He can kill only when the idealistic self dictates. The dictate comes exclusively when he identifies with the victim and takes its defence. He did not suspect that killers exist. He paid with his own life for it. A love object for him carries the shadow of himself. Thus the faults of the love object are his. By killing Desdemona he kills part of himself. When one part of himself is gone, the other part has to follow. With a bare bodkin.

Iago knows how to put Othello's seamy side out. Iago forces his identity on Othello by assuming Othello's identity. Already in the first act we can see Iago at work:

Iago: Though in trade of war I have slain men
Yet do I hold it very stuff o'conscience
To do no contrived murder. I lack iniquity
Sometimes to do service. Nine or ten times
I had thought t'have yerk'd him here under
  the ribs

Iago says that to Othello. Is it not rather Othello's way of thinking? This speech is Othello in a nutshell. Thus to this speech Othello only says, as if musing to himself:

'Tis better as it is

Iago's lines plus the line of Othello sound like an inner reflection of Othello. Thus Othello gets the feeling that Iago is a mirror of himself and little by little Iago first echos Othello and finally Othello becomes Iago.

I cannot in my two dimensional paper give more clarity to my three dimensional thoughts. Dostoyevsky said that he always succeeded to give only one third of what he intended to write. Dante in his Comedy gives the advice:

Always to that truth which has an
air of falsehood a man should close his
lips, so far as he is able, for, though
blameless, he incurs reproach.
                          Inferno, Canto XVI

Desdemona has no identity at all. She is never herself. It follows that she can never collapse. Her identity shifts chameleon-like. Thus her father can say about her:

A maiden never bold
of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blush'd at herself—

The very same young girl could answer in the presence of the duke and senators:

But here's my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show'd
to you, preferring you before her father
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor My Lord

and in her speech to the senators a martial trumpet would have been the best accompaniment.

Later her underworld conversation with Emilia and Iago, and again her attorney-like pleading for Cassio. And finally a sudden and total regression to the willow song of her old nurse.

Her changes are not adaptation to environment. She is histrionic. The changes are sudden changes of identity.

Before finishing the paper on Othello, I noticed Dostoyevsky beckoning me. Dostoyevsky opened his Brothers Karamazoff and I read:

Jealousy! 'Othello was not jealous, he was trustful', observed Pushkin. And that remark alone is enough to show the deep insight of our great poet. Othello's soul was shattered and his whole outlook clouded simply because his ideal was destroyed. But Othello did not begin hiding, spying, peeping. He was trustful. On the contrary, he had to be led up, pushed on, excited with great difficulty before he could entertain the idea of deceit. The truly jealous man is not like that. It is impossible to picture to oneself the shame and moral degradation to which the jealous man can descend without a qualm of conscience. And yet it's not as though the jealous were all vulgar and base souls. On the contrary, a man of lofty feelings, whose love is pure and full of self-sacrifice, may yet hide under tables, bribe the vilest people, and be familiar with the lowest ignominy of spying and eavesdropping.

Othello was incapable of making up his mind to faithlessness—not incapable of forgiving it, but of making up his mind to it—though his soul was as innocent and free from malice as a babe's. It is not so with the really jealous man. It is hard to imagine what some jealous men can make up their minds to and overlook, and what they can forgive! The jealous are the readiest of all to forgive, and all women know it. The jealous man can forgive extraordinarily quickly (though, of course, after a violent scene) and he is able to forgive infidelity almost conclusively proved, the very kisses and embraces he has seen, if only he can somehow be convinced that it has all been "for the last time", and that his rival will vanish from that day forward, will depart to the ends of the earth, or that he himself will carry her away somewhere, where that dreaded rival will not get near her. Of course the reconciliation is only for an hour. For, even if the rival did disappear the next day, he would invent another one and would be jealous of him. And one might wonder what there was in a love that had to be so watched over, what a love could be worth that needed such strenuous guarding. But that the jealous will never understand. And yet among them are men of noble hearts. It is remarkable too, that those very men of noble hearts, standing hidden in some cupboard, listening and spying, never feel the stings of conscience at that moment, anyway, though they understand clearly enough with their "noble hearts" the shameful depths to which they have voluntarily sunk.

Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Modern Library pp. 402-403

While reading Brothers Karmozov, I overheard Coleridge saying to Dostoyevsky:

Though I have seen and known enough mankind to be well aware that I shall perhaps stand alone in my creed, and that it will be well if I subject myself to no worse charge than that of singularity; I am, therefore, deterred from avowing that I regard, and ever have regarded the obligations of intellect among the most sacred of the claims of gratitude.

Principles of CriticismColeridge

And Coleridge went on:

For jealousy is a vice of the mind, a culpable tendency of the temper, having certain well-known and well defined effects and concomitants, all of which are visible in Leontes, and, I boldly say, not one of which marks its presence in Othello; such as, first an excitability by the most inadequate causes, and an eagerness to snatch at proofs; secondly a grossness of conception, and a disposition to degrade the object of the passion by sensual fancies and images; thirdly a sense of shame of his own feelings exhibited in a solitary moodiness of humour; and yet from the violence of the passion forced to utter itself, and therefore catching occasions to ease the mind by ambiguities, equivoques, by talking to those we cannot, and who are known to be able to, understand what is said to them—in short, by soliloquy in the form of dialogue, and hence a confused, broken and fragmentary manner; fourthly a dread of vulgar ridicule, as distinct from high sense of honour or a mistaken sense of duty; and lastly and immediately consequent on this, a spirit of selfish vindictiveness.

Quoted by Furness, P. 168

While Coleridge was speaking to Dostoyevsky, the Witch of Endor came in riding on her well-known broomstick. She sarcastically said, as if speaking to nobody, the trickster Shakespeare took all the spectators for a ride. For a four hundred year ride. The spectators did not see that Shakespeare does to them what Iago does to Othello. Othello on the stage believes that Iago is honest and the groundlings believe that Desdemona is virtuous. How many priceless but useless tears were shed during four centuries. The Witch of Endor, or maybe she was one of the three wierd sisters, went on saying: "I would rather spell the spectators by the costumes." Nobody dared interrupt the witch and she went on:

I would dress Iago in raven black and Othello in snow white. Above this first costume I would make them wear a second suit of removable parts but of opposite colors. Namely Iago in white; thus we will have honest Iago; and Othello in black, so we will have black Othello. When the real battle of the giants begins, they strip the superficial suits. At the moment when Othello says "Iago echos me" both Iago and Othello would be half stripped so that they look like clowns, each one half white and half black. At the moment when Othello says "Iago becomes me" the last piece of the superficial suit falls and Iago is in black and Othello is in snow white.

She went on explaining:

Don't you see that Shakespeare could not have written a role for a Negro knowing that he has no Negro in his cast to play the role. He knew that a white man will have to put on a mask in order to portray a Negro. Yes, black mask on a white face. And Babeuge, who was the first to play Othello, had a mask of a Negro.

I kept my eyes closed to better concentrate on what the great ones were saying. When I reopened my eyes the curtain was down for good, the stage was empty. The echo was still vibrating:

The pity of it Iago

and as if another echo, much fainter, replied:

Thou shalt not kill.

Works Cited

Adler, Polly: A House Is Not A Home. New York: Rinehart, 1953

Bacon, Francis: Essais. New York: Ed. Van Nostrand, 1948

The Bible: Genesis. The Oxford Self-Pronouncing Bible

The Bible: Exodus. Idem

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor: Principles of Criticism. Boston: D. C. Heath, 1895

Deutsch, Helena: Ueber einen Typus der Pseudo-affektivitaet ("Als ob") Wien: Internationale Zeitschrift fuer Psychoanalyse, XX, 1934

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: The Brothers Karamazov. New York: The Modern Library; Random House, Inc. 1950

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Crime and Punishment. Idem

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: The Eternal Husband and Other Stories. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1949

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: Raw Youth. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1916

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor: The Possessed. New York: The Modern Library; Random House, Inc., 1950

DuMaurier, Daphne: Kiss Me Again, Stranger. New York: Doubleday and Co., Inc. 1953

DuMaurier, Daphne: My Cousin Rachel. Idem 1952

DuMaurier, George: Peter Ibbetson. New York: Harper and Bros., 1891

DuMaurier, George: Trilby. London: Everyman's Library, J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1951

Fitzgerald, F. Scott: Tender Is The Night. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951

Flavius, Josephus: Jewish Antiquities. New York: World Library Ed., n.d.

Flavius, Josephus: The Jewish Wars. Idem

Freud, Sigmund: Civilization and its Discontent. London: The Hogarth Press, 1930

Freud, Sigmund: Interpretation of Dreams. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1942

Freud, Sigmund: Moses and Monotheism. New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1939

Freud, Sigmund: New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1933

Freud, Sigmund: The Problem of Anxiety. Idem, 1936

Ghiselin, Brewster, Editor: Creative Process—A Symposium, New York: Mentor Book, 1952

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Faust. Leipzig: Insel verlag, 1920

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von: Lyrische Dichtungen. Idem

Granville-Barker, Harley: Prefaces to Shakespeare. Vol. II. Princetown University Press, 1947

Greenacre, Phillis: Affective Disorders. New York; International Universities Press, Inc., 1955

Jacobson, Edith: Contribution to the Metapsychology of Psychotic Identifications. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. II, No. 3, April, 1954

Lea, Henry Charles: A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages. Vol. I, II, III. New York: The Harbor Press, 1955

Machiavelli: Discourses. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950

Machiavelli: The Prince. Trans. & ed. Thomas G. Begin. Crofts Classics, Crofts, 1947

March, William: The Bad Seed. New York: Rinehart, 1954

Plutarch: Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. New York: The Modern Library, n.d.

Reich, Annie: Narcissistic Object Choice in Women. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol. I, No. 1, 1953

Shakespeare, William: Othello. De Variarum Shakespeare Othello, Ed. Horace Howard Furness, 11th edition. Philadelphia: J. B. Lipincott

Shakespeare, William: Othello. Ed. Thomas M. Parrott, Ph.D., New York: The Macmillan Co., 1928

Sharpe, Ella Frieman: Collected Papers on Psychoanalysis. Ed. Marjorie Brierly. London: The Hogarth Press, 1950

Steinbeck, John: East of Eden. New York: Bantam, 1953

Stendhal: Le Rouge et le Noir. Paris: La Pleiade, n.d.

Strindberg, August: Confessions of a Fool. New York: The Viking Press, 1925

Wang, Martin: Othello: The Tragedy of lago. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. XIX, No. 2, April 1950

Leslie Y. Rabkin and Jeffrey Brown (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Some Monster in His Thought: Sadism and Tragedy in Othello," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, 1973, pp. 59-66.

[In the essay below, Rabkin and Brown argue that feelings of helpessness and hopelessness exercise a deciding influence over the behavior of both Iago and Othello.]

The character and motives of Iago have long been a source of contention and bewilderment among the commentators on Othello. Hazlitt suggested that Iago's "gaiety, such as it is, arises from the success of his treachery; his ease from the torture he has inflicted on others," and noted his "desire of finding out the worst side of everything."1 Coleridge extended this observation through his suggestion that Iago's need for berating others is rooted in his fear that others will berate him.2

Lacking, however, in the analyses of Hazlitt, Stoll, Shaw and the many others is a satisfactory explanation for Iago's admitted irrationality,3 for his being the apparently "motiveless villain."4 There are those who dismiss Iago as "unnatural" and attempt to ignore the issue, and those who have fallen back on an "instinctual hypothesis"5 or moral allegory and a "myth of evel"6—all of which remain "substitute(s) for analysis of the individual."7 An explanation hinted at by Heilman and Kirschbaum8 may help to rationalize Iago's irrational behaviour, and to understand how and why his behaviour arises logically out of the given conditions of the play.

The key variable here is sadism. We suggest that by examining this aspect of behaviour, and exploring its apparent roots, both Iago's and Othello's characters and the atmosphere of the play can be illumined in new ways.

Sadism is, as Horney9 notes, ultimately rooted in the sadist's feelings of helplessness. She writes: "nobody develops pronounced sadistic trends who has not a profound feeling of futility as regards his own life."10

This sense of hopelessness itself arises out of the unconscious realization of an unbridgeable gap between the individual's actual self and his falsely elaborated view of what "he believes himself to be, or what at the time he feels he can or ought to be."11

The sadist could conceivably relieve his feeling of hopelessness, at least on the conscious level, through a process of moderating his idealized self-image. But this would involve a set of compromises with the self-intolerable to the sadist's ego. Instead, the sadist may seek some way of ignoring or lessening the conflict between his ideal and real selves, to rid himself of hopelessness and self-contempt without undermining his precious idealized image. In short, he endeavours to curb his anxiety by a refusal "to face reality,"12 through his "talent … for self-deception."13

One such avenue of escape lies in the sadist's being able to successfully project his self-contempt. He will "blame, berate, and humiliate others" to avoid having to do the same to himself: "the more he despises others, the less he is aware of his own self-contempt." In fact, "to strike out against others becomes … a matter of self-preservation,"14 for if the sadist does not strike first, others may lash out at him, despise him, and make him face his short-comings.

These defensive maneuvers explain why Iago has "the dread of contempt habitual to those who encourage in themselves and have their keenest pleasure in the feeling and expression of contempt for others."15 Similarly, these underly the compulsive nature of Iago's plan "to deliver blow on blow, and never to allow his victim to recover from the confusion of the first shock."16

Just as he may project his self-contempt onto others, the sadist can find relief from his conflicts by projecting his feelings of hopelessness, thus destroying the peace of others and killing their joys.17 For seeing them as miserable as himself, by bringing others into his own world of suffering and self-contempt, his pain is assuaged. This is why Iago is driven to cause Othello to suffer through making him realize the discrepancies between his own false and true selves, why he must

Make after him, poison his delight …
And though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies; though that his joy be
Yet throw some changes of vexation on't
As it may lose some colour.
                                 (I.i. 68-73)

Further, this projection of his own warped values helps explain why Iago attempts to convince Roderigo that "self-love" must come before all (I.iii. 312-388),18 that he should think of "moral feelings and qualities only as prudential ends to means,"19 and why he must make Othello believe that he who "filches" from him his "good name" makes him "poor indeed" (III.iii. 160).

If, however, this defense is frustrated the sadist may resort to drastic measures in order to preserve his insecure inner balance. Iago must prove to himself that everyone is as he is, or else he will have to face the agonies of introspection. He must consider Cassio, like himself, to be one who is "no further conscionable than in putting on the mere form of the civil and humane seeming for the better compassing of his salt and most hidden loose affection" (II.i. 243-244). But he cannot convince himself that Cassio is "a devillish knave" (II.i. 248); in fact, he realizes that "he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly" (V.i. 19-20), a beauty which threatens to negate the fruits of Iago's compulsion for "proving himself an overmatch for appearance,"20 so "he must die." (V.i. 22).

Iago similarly senses that he will never be able to corrupt the "divine" Desdemona, and so must also dispose of her. That he is finally able to do so provides him with a double joy—that of seeing this threat to his Satanic rationalization of his own helplessness destroyed, and of knowing that he, still the self-deceived "Divinity," was directly responsible. So Hazlitt is right; in this case, his "gaiety, such as it is" truly arises "from the success of his treachery." Iago is thus happiest when the height of his Satanic power, when his diabolical "medicine" appears to be having the proper effect, when

Thus credulous fools are caught,
And many worthy and chaste dames even
All guiltless, meet reproach …
                             (IV.i. 45-48)

This double joy leads to an understanding of a third defensive maneuver of the sadist, that of exploiting and triumphing over others. For when the sadist defeats others, "he wins a triumphant elation which obscures his own helpless defeat. This craving for vindictive triumph is probably his most intense motivating force."21 That is, in victory the sadist imagines he is realizing his goals, destructive as they are, by virtue of his "superiority."

Furthermore, the sadistic individual does not care how he justifies his self-deceptive conceit; the only thing that matters is the necessity of his being God of something. Iago chooses to be the "Divinity of Hell" (II.iii. 356), the God of Ungodliness, the omniscient, omnipotent tempter who can "tenderly" lead all his simple victims into damnation "by the nose."

Iago remains locked in his megalomania, obsessed with the unearthing of justifications for his vision of himself as the Prince of Darkness. He constantly acts this out, offering his victims, in true Satanic fashion, a plausible rationalization for the evil he proposes, while manipulating, for these purposes, the sinner's own "black thoughts."

That is, Iago does in fact succeed in consummating his desire to

Make the Moor thank me, love me, and
 reward me
For making him egregiously an ass
And practicing upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness.
                           (II.iii. 317-320)

but, and this is all important, he can only do so and be most malignantly effective when he brings Othello to say

O brave Iago, honest and just,
Thou has such noble sense of thy friend's
                                 (V.i. 31-33)

In other words, Othello is not an innocent victim. Iago, Shakespeare's Devil, no more forces Othello to "fall" than Milton's Satan does Adam. Even more, as Kirschbaum22 says, "by stressing Othello's innocence, modern critics have robbed the character of what the Elizabethans considered man's highest dignity—his own responsibility for his own life and character."

The question here is why Othello is "so easily deceived, so easily taken in by appearances and the false physician and the honesty game,"23 what is the "tragic flaw" which causes him to abrogate his integrity to precipitate his tragic fall? Kirschbaum, as does Heilman, suggests that Othello's prime fault was that "he had such a talent, and even a need, for self-deception."24 Furthermore,

It is this, the refusal to face reality, this, the trait of self-idealization, which makes of Shakespeare's Othello a psychologically consistent characterization, and which explains why he falls so quickly into Iago's trap, why he alone on Iago's instigation believes Desdemona a strumpet.25

And so, Othello is even more like his nemesis than we would like him to be. Is Othello's character perhaps even tinged with some of the sadism which colours Iago's?

But if we are to grasp the similarities, as well as the important differences between Iago and Othello we must look at the process of the play's unfolding. At the outset of the play Othello is in a far happier situation than Iago. He has the glory he craves: as Iago is to be Evil, Othello begins as Nobility, Honour and Virtue. He, and nearly everyone else, sees himself as the "valiant Othello" (I.iii. 47-48), the only one who can save Cyprus from the Turks, the glorious romantic26 who is willing to give up his "unhoused free condition" and kingdom for the love of the "glorious Desdemona" (I.ii. 18-27), and he manifests the utmost self-confidence that, when put on the spot,

My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
                                   (I.ii. 31-32)

The fact that Othello has all this fame, glory and confidence does not, however, make him a noble figure: nobility implies selflessness, and unselfish he is not. Even his "noble" bravery is, like Macbeth's, based on selfish ambitions—wars to him are situations "that make ambition virtue" (III.iii. 350).

Even his love is largely egotistical. For him, as for Iago, "every love must confirm … self-love."27 He loves Desdemona because the attachment to her feeds his idealized self-image, because she sympathizes with his troubles, because she gives him what he wants: "I love her for she did pity the dangers I had passed" (I.iii. 167-168); "She gave for my pain a world of sighs" (I.iii. 159). He loves her because of the ego gratification she gave him by the very act of being "conquered"—Othello is proud that he could win the affections of such a "divine" person, that he could "beguile her of her tears" (I.iii. 156).

The point is that "Othello loves Desdemona so much that it is questionable in human terms he loves her at all. He loves not Desdemona but his image of her,"28 which he then internalizes and makes his image of himself. Desdemona becomes "not a woman but the matrix of his universe,"29 a universe which Othello, out of his own weakness, must completely identify himself with.

Othello's jealousy, then, can be seen as a spontaneous reaction to a threat to his self-esteem. For all his "self-idealization" (Kirschbaum) he cannot convince himself that he is irresistable enough to keep his wife faithful (III.iii. 264-266). He is confronted with a variety of threats: to his self-love, the threat of realizing he is not "good enough" for her, the threat of recognizing that his attempt to lessen the discrepancy between his real and idealized images through consciously idealizing his real one has been a failure.

Initially, Othello cannot accept this fact and the destruction of his delusive heavenly hierarchy it implies:

If she be false, O, then heaven mocks
I'll not believe't.
                              (III.iii. 278-279)

But then he is able to "cheer himself up,"30 to cope with this threat by shoring up his idealized image: "This destiny unshunnable, like death"—the "plague of great ones" (III.iii. 273-277).

We must bear in mind that Othello cannot comprehend Desdemona's love because he himself does not know what unselfish love is. He is not jealous for her, he is jealous for himself, like the child who does not want a toy until it is taken away from him. Othello even admits that

I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet

So had I nothing known.
                              (III.iii. 345-347)


I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses.
                              (III.iii. 270-273)

Because he feels that Desdemona is exploiting him, ruining his reputation, he has the characteristic sadistic reaction of "an almost insane rage."31 He screams, "I'll tear her all to pieces!" (III.iii. 432) "I will chop her into messes!" (IV.i. 211) when he "realizes" Desdemona is giving Cassio the kisses he never really enjoyed. He is especially incensed by the thought that Desdemona would insult him by giving away his "precious" handkerchief at first chance—and to his now suddenly hated rival, Cassio. But this is not the worst degradation. Cassio does not even want the handkerchief, or, symbolically, Othello's woman—and he gives it "to his whore" (IV.i. 185-187).

Importantly, Othello, who, like Iago, is an exploiter,32 paradoxically has a real need to feel exploited himself.33 For feeling exploited allows one to express his self-contempt but, in letting him attribute this to his weakness in dealing with others rather than in dealing with himself, allows him to exchange feelings of persecution and attacks on his attackers, for the untenable self-accusations he would otherwise have to face.

This is why "jealousy is the most important affective manifestation of sadism"34 : jealousy allows one to blame the exploiter and not the self. It furthermore lets the jealous person discharge his own self-hatred through hating the other person who is seen as a danger. And, finally, jealousy lets him adopt a cynical view of a hopeless existence which is highly consonant with his own projected feelings of worthlessness. Jealousy has the effect of purging one's feelings of helplessness and hopelessness by crystallizing the "poisonous mineral" of self-doubt and affording its elimination through assertive, if destructive, activity. Jealousy enables one to undergo catharsis.

We now see why Othello must kill his bride. For, as he himself says, "I am abused, and my relief must be to loathe her" (III.iii. 267). In killing her he is killing what has become for him the embodiment of all his consuming self-contempt, for the old, stupid, "black devil" he despises for not having "the soft parts of conversation that chamberers have" (III.iii. 263-265). The fact is that Othello considers Desdemona to be his personal Saviour, the one who will remove all his sins by dying—sacrificing herself—for them.

So when Othello, like Iago, is faced with the possibility of having to confront self-doubts arising from the discrepancy between a too idealized self-image and a too depreciated real self, he solves his conflict (like Iago) not by summoning up the strength for a new, more realistic self-evaluation, not by substituting "realistic self-confidence and realistic pride" for his idealized image,35 but rather by looking upon Dante's "Gorgon of despair" and choosing a "frigid", maladaptive course instead. That is, Othello's tragic flow "is his refusal to face the reality of his own nature," a flaw which, alas, "all flesh is heir to."36

The question which still has not been answered is: why sadism? Or, given the conditions of the play, why do both Iago and Othello choose an exploitative defense?37 For the fact remains that although the concept of sadism helps us get to the root of fear of helplessness underlying Iago's and Othello's conflicts, this does not necessarily mean that another concept would not work as well. As Horney herself notes, sublimation, apathy, alcoholism, whoring, and even a fixation with hobbies may serve as nuclei around which "persons without hope" can attempt to reconstruct their disturbed lives. And so we must again ask, why the conflict here between real and idealized images out of which sadism ultimately arises?

The answer lies in understanding the fact that, in the Weltanschauung which guides Othello's Venetians, there is much too great an emphasis on "reputation." As Cassio cries

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial! My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

(II.iii. 262-265)

And Iago says, when he is tempting Othello:

Good name in man and woman, dear my
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis
 something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
                            (III.iii. 155-161)

The point is that if one's normal need for others' esteem is over-driven, through personal need or societal emphasis, what these others think of him may be experienced as more important than his own view of himself. The alienation of personal from social self may in the end lead to a loss of self or the feeling that there is no self apart from what others think one to be.38 The power of such a Weltanschauung is enormous. For now one is trustworthy if others trust him, honest if others think him so, lovable if others can love him—whether or not he himself thinks so.39 More importantly, the substitution of judgement from without for judgement from within, of opinions of others for self-awareness, can spiral out of control and ironically destroy the person using it as a shield.

Othello begins his fall, which ends with his elaborating a meaning behind his losing his now "magic" handkerchief, as soon as he permits Venetian Iago to convince him that his match with Desdemona is "unnatural" because—and only because—of their superficial differences, because he is not of her "own clime, complexion, and degree."40 That is, Othello begins to fall when and only when he begins to deny his own intrinsic self-worth, when he chooses Iago over Desdemona and Iago's arguments over her rebuttals.41

Once this Venetian weltanschauung successfully tempts its adherents into forgetting "the realities of their own natures," it diabolically provides the rationalization for maintaining this self-blindness. That is, by finding emotional release in the exploitation, mastery, and control of others, the Venetian sadist can successfully subdue the anxiety he experiences over not being able to control himself.42 Finally, the fact that Iago can succeed in his exploitation through discovering that his sadistic philosophy resonates enough with that of his society to enable him to go out and cause a foreigner to fall into and share in his own web of suffering, provides a powerful compensation for his deep feelings of loneliness, ineptitude, and self-isolation in a way which "hobbies" or apathy never can.

One more point must be made, however. Othello himself is not a tragic hero but the play is, paradoxically, a tragedy nonetheless, and this statement relates to the previous discussion perhaps more deeply than at first apparent.

To see why, let us examine the Macbeths and Oedipuses who can be said to form one end of the tragic hero continuum. They are ones who are noble, "restless, intense, probing and questioning the universe and their own souls."43 They are, in short, ones whom we admire and, to the extent that they conform to the description above, we would like more to resemble. They are men who can be seen as our own "idealized images." We even give them some of our faults, notably pride, and hope that these "ignoble" qualities will not affect their nobility.

But they do. That pride and ambition which we fear will get out of control in ourselves does in fact do so with these heroes and is that which causes their "tragic fall." Or, to put it another way, Oedipus and Macbeth, like many tragic heroes, are our own whipping boys, our Saviours, our sacrificial Lambs—they die for those projected sins we can now guiltlessly deny in ourselves and we are purged; catharsis is achieved.

To put this in still another way, we ourselves get a sadistic pleasure when we see a great man destroyed, a pleasure just as real as that which Iago experiences when he witnesses Othello's downfall. It is, as Blake perceived, that in

… pitying and weeping as at a trajic scene
The soul drinks murder and revenge and
Its own holiness.44

We get no such sadistic joy when we see Othello destroyed, however, because he is not noble enough.45 He is not "restless" or "intense." He is, rather, "quite free from introspection," very much "not given to reflection."46 Othello reminds us too much of our real selves and not of our idealized images, or rather, arouses too much of the unconscious conflict going on between them and not enough of possible defensive maneuvers. For we also share his hopelessness, his search for identity, and his tendency to fall victim to the temptations of a "marketing society."

And so we cannot pity Othello or Iago, cannot pity the "suffering human beings behind the apparently inhuman behaviour,"47 precisely because, in the end, they are still blind to their conflicts and are still suffering.48 In other words, we cannot pity them because then we would have to admit we are all suffering, that "we all have a touch of paranoia in us."49 The sad fact is that we all share Othello's flaw of "refusing to face the reality of his own nature."

The tragedy of Othello is personal, and this is why the play is so "difficult." The realizations which the hero cannot come to we must achieve ourselves. The truths behind Othello are acquired by the pain of self-revelation rather than by the specious pleasure of self-deception. To understand that Othello's and Iago's desire to remove their feelings of helplessness and hopelessness is a driving force in their lives, the reader must be willing to see that the same may be true of himself.

In sum, when we read the play we have a choice: to dismiss Othello as "peripheral" tragedy because we will not let it touch upon more than the periphery of our response, or to face its challenge, scrutinize ourselves in the play's light, and obtain all the self-vision it has to offer. This is the choice of calling the play "a bloody farce"50 or a simple "melodrama,"51 or of courageously facing the humanity in Iago's and Othello's natures.


1 William Hazlitt, "Othello as Tragedy and the Character of Iago," in Leonard F. Dean (Ed.) A Casebook on Othello (New York, 1961), p. 131. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes refer to the Casebook.

2 See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "The Motiveless Villain," p. 126.

3 Hazlitt, p. 131.

4 The only objective point of contention is Cassio's promotion. But that this "slight" is insufficient rational motivation is clear if we follow Iago's own blind attempts to explain himself and his hatred of Othello and Cassio to himself. In quick succession he tries to convince himself that he is jealous of Desdemona (ILL 300-302); that he is jealous of Othello's leaping into his own "seat," Emilia (304-305); that he is jealous of Cassio for also sleeping with Emilia (316); until, in the end, he drops all pretense of rationality, of their being a moral justification for what he plans, and adopts the supreme contradictory role of the "Divinity of hell" (II.iii. 356), of literally casting "good" or "God" or "superego" to the Devil and letting his own hostile impulses take complete control.

5 Hazlitt, pp. 131-133.

6 See E. E. Stall's "Othello: Tragedy of Effect," pp. 147-152.

7 Robert B. Heilman, Magic in the Web (Lexington, Kentucky, 1956), p. 42.

8 Leo Kirschbaum, "The Modern Othello," pp. 156-168.

9 Horney's concept of sadism is particularly pertinent in that she takes account of the "sadistic patterns in everyday relationships" and attempts to fit her formulation into a larger theory of human nature.

10 Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts (New York, 1945), p. 201.

11 Ibid., p. 96.

12 From Kirschbaum's description of Othello, p. 160.

13 Heilman, "Othello: The Unheroic Tragic Hero," p. 189 (in Dean).

14 Horney, p. 204.

15 Coleridge, p. 126.

16 A. C. Bradley, "The Noble Othello," p. 145.

17 The image of destroying peace takes many forms in the play. Note the war, the breaking of peace between nations; the storm, the destruction of the peace of nature; the brawl, the shattering of peace between individual men; and Othello's self-doubts, the ruining of his "peace of mind."

18 Yet, as Erich Fromm notes in his The Art of Loving (New York, 1956), pp. 48-53, the labelling of selfishness as self-love is a mistake, and thus Iago's "self-love" is not love at all.

19 Coleridge, p. 127. Iago lives for the moment when everyone will finally say "I am changed" (I.iii. 388).

20 Hazlitt, p. 132.

21 Horney, p. 207. Also see Fromm's "exploitative orientation" as outlined in his Man For Himself (New York, 1947), pp. 64-117.

22 Kirschbaum, p. 157.

23 Heilman (in Dean), p. 189.

24 Ibid.

25 Kirschbaum, p. 160. See pp. 158-159 (and, in the play, ILL 220-225; II.iii. 20-28; V.ii. 156) for the explanation of Kirschbaum's statement that "Iago tells four of the characters that Desdemona is unchaste—and the only one who believes this accusation is Othello!" On p. 160, Kirschbaum goes beyond Hazlitt when he connects self-idealization and "refusing to face reality," a relationship which, however, he does not really explain.

26 Bradley, pp. 139-140.

27 Wilhelm Stekel, Sadism and Masochism (New York, 1929), II, p. 129. See footnote 18.

28 Kirschbaum, p. 163.

29 Ibid.

30 See T. S. Eliot's "The Hero Cheering Himself Up," pp. 153-155, with his comments on Othello's final speech.

31 Horney, p. 159.

32 Although Othello's sadistic impulses are not as overt as those of Iago, we must take note of their existence. Othello, like Iago, has his role to play, and this role is that of being "the noble Moor whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient," "the nature whom passion could not shake," the one "whose solid virtue / The shot of accident nor dart of chance / Could neither graze nor pierce" (IV.i. 275-278). To preserve his noble "reputation," Othello must suppress his sadism, and only once are these impulses released. And it is then that this sanity and reputation are doubted (IV.i. 244-293). Meanwhile, Iago is called an "inhuman dog" (V.i. 62) and a villain in many places and by many different characters, his wife included. There are subtle clues to Othello's sadism, however, which Shakespeare has set before us. Consider, for example, how when his destructive drives break through his control Othello uses Iago's terminology—"Fire and brimstone!" (IV.i. 243), and "roast me in sulfur!" (V.ii. 279).

33 See Iago's speech in I.iii., especially 392-396, which foreshadows his mad wish-to-be-exploited speech in II.i. (see note 4). Note that in the former speech Iago actually admits, "yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety" (I.ii. 395-396).

34 Stekel, p. 128.

35 Horney, p. 100.

36 Kirschbaum, p. 165.

37 Kirschbaum never attempts to show why Othello's peculiar flaws exist.

38 Fromm, Man For Himself, pp. 107-111 and 188.

39 Cf. Fromm's "marketing orientation" as outlined in Man For Himself, pp. 67-82 and pp. 70-90 in The Art of Loving. In his pre-occupation with this underlying "marketing orientation" Shakespeare exercises his most subtle art. Note the shades of meaning of the two key words, "love" and "honour," as used by the different characters. Iago, for example, used them to justify his exploitation of Roderigo (I.iii. 307) and Cassio (II.iii. 147-149), as well as Othello (II.iii. 178, 225-227). Or just how spurious "honour" and "love" are as self-justifications for Othello's later sadistic behaviour (especially V.ii. 294-297 and 344-347). Emilia sees through this spuriousness in her summary comment that Desdemona was true because "She was too fond of her most filthy bargain" (V.ii. 155-158).

40 Cf. Brabantio's accusations in I.ii. and I.iii., and note that, at least before his "fall," Othello has enough self-confidence to deny the potency of the magic in which he later puts his faith (see I.iii. 169-170 and compare with III.iv. 54-75).

41 See, in particular, Desdemona's speech, "I saw Othello's visage in his mind," etc. (I.iii. 253-260).

42 Or, rather, the anxiety arising from wanting to control himself and realizing that his real self is unable to do so.

43 Richard B. Sewall, "The Tragic Form," p. 128.

44 William Blake, "Jerusalem," in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne and the Complete Poetry of William Blake, ed. Robert S. Hillyer (New York, 1941), p. 942. "Holiness" and "superiority" are synonymous here.

45 Iago does so because Othello's destruction is symbolic to him of his sadistic personal success.

46 Bradley, p. 141.

47 Horney, pp. 215-216.

48 Othello and Iago never realize the real reasons for their sadism. Iago says "Demand me nothing … " (V.ii. 294-295) because he really cannot explain. But at least he realizes he is being destructive and calls himself a "devil." Othello does not do so, and this makes his self-deception an even more destructive act. Iago admits that he wants to destroy everyone (ILL 300-315; II.iii. 365-368), while Othello can only say "For naught did I hate, but all in honour" (V.ii. 295).

49 Kirschbaum, p. 160.

50 Thomas Rhymer, "Othello: A Bloody Farce," pp. 107-125.

51 G. B. Shaw, "Othello: Pure Melodrama," pp. 135-138.

M. D. Faber (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Othello: Symbolic Action, Ritual and Myth," in American Imago, Vol. 3, No. 2, Summer, 1974, pp. 159-205.

[In the following essay, Faber asserts that Othello's development from joyful bridegroom to murderer can best be understood in terms of the hero's attempt "to resolve the mystery of maternal ambivalence "a trait which the critic contends is common to Western tragic literature.]

The following discussion is grounded in specific theoretical and critical propositions which should be stated clearly at the outset: I believe that western tragedy, whether it receives narrative or dramatic expression, invariably presents us with characters who undergo a traumatic reactivation of infantile feelings. Tragedy's inner chaos, tragedy's inner disruption expressed through the character of the hero, is always a chaos, is always a disruption, grounded in reactivation. What is reactivated? Basically, the unconscious ego, the repressed introjections of very early experience during which a splitting of the maternal image takes place.

The hero discovers himself in a situation that reactivates the bad maternal object, which is but another way of saying that the hero confronts within himself a constellation of repressed desires; the introject is an expression of the forbidden aim.

The splitting of the maternal object is prompted by maternal ambivalence; I regard it as a primitive defensive maneuver whose intensity will vary in proportion to the ambivalence expressed toward the subject. Where the mother harbors truly annihilative inclinations the splitting will be radical. Where the mother's ambivalence is minimal the splitting will be minimal. In most instances splitting results from the mother's confusional behavior, rejecting at times, accepting at others. This can be particularly destructive. The ubiquity of maternal ambivalence is grounded in a patriarchal social organization, a social organization which all of western literature reflects. The male child is both the mother's phallus and an exemplification of her inferiority. The male child is something to cherish and seduce on the one hand, and to abuse and destroy on the other. To be raised at the hands of an ambivalent western mother is to undergo a confusing, damaging experience which creates in the male child—who is at the level of artistic expression captured in the character of the western tragic hero—a primal anxiety over loss, mutilation, abandonment, betrayal (catastrophic death complex), and a deep, regressive predilection that is ultimately oral in nature but that can receive expression at the genital level as well: incestuous inclination results from early trauma. What all of this means is that western tragic heroes will be vulnerable to female influences or to the power of women who are able to reawaken through their behavior the anxiety of the early period, anxiety that is invariably bound up with the split-off bad object which, in turn, is expressive of forbidden aims. The deepest urge of the western tragic hero is to resolve the mystery of maternal ambivalence, and the quest to resolve that mystery is often given disguised expression in western literary works, works such as Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Othello, Werther, Pierre, The Sound and the Fury, and countless others. The male western belief, often given literary expression, that woman is a mystery, is also rooted in maternal ambivalence.

Because the western hero experiences an emotive crisis bound up with the reactivation of early affect, and because this affect is integrally associated with maternal power, and because the western literary work invariably brings about such reactivation through the hero's involvement with a female (actual mother or mother substitute) who confuses and betrays (either in actuality or through loss), the western tragedy achieves its conflict, its artistic tension, through a partial regression to matriarchy. The hero moves toward the female realm, is absorbed into the dreaded maternal environment, exemplifies the motive power of woman and the danger inherent in her subjection. It is artistically and culturally significant, then, that the hero is always destroyed by patriarchal forces, by male forces which represent a hierarchial order that is ultimately patriarchal in nature. Such destruction is enacted either from within by the suicidal hero who obliterates himself in deference to the introjected father (superego) and in remorse for his oral, incestuous defection to the mother, or from without by the representatives of the patriarchy, such as Macduff who is, as we all know, of no woman born. In his life, the western tragic hero is the transgressor who threatens the patriarchy. In his death he is the scapegoat who reestablishes and reaffirms that patriarchy. The conflict of western tragedy is ultimately the conflict of male and female control. Its heroes are overwhelmingly male and its secret, enigmatic, confusional influences, are overwhelmingly female because the culture is patriarchal. This macro-cosmic model expresses the conflict within the western home, the western family, the microscosmic unit in which the western hero is bred.

All of this, needless to say, is based upon phenomeno-logical as well as analytic grounds. The literary work is the artist's fantasy expression of the reality factors which stand behind his development as a person and which drive him to seek a positive, enlarging solution to his own human dilemma through his own work. The characters he creates—the vulnerable hero who undergoes reactivation, the enigmatic female who seduces, betrays, and thereby catalyzes reactivation—behave upon the stage or upon the page in such fashion as to call to our minds the kind of early experience that would perforce stand behind the "present" character. In a word, the text allows us to complete the picture in our heads.

Having set forth these critical and theoretical propositions, I would move on to Shakespeare's play.

For the clearest, most striking instance of a Shakespearean character undergoing upon the stage the reactivation of repressed affect bound up with the dynamics of the mother-infant interaction one looks to Othello, and only Leontes, hero of The Winter's Tale, challenges this claim. Within fifty minutes of dramatic time we witness the transformation of the Moor from solicitous, doting bridegroom into frenzied cuckold plotting the strangulation of his bride. Nor can one fail to notice as he moves through this section of the play the extent to which the hero's sense of having been betrayed and tricked is significantly connected with the problem of self-esteem. Desdemona's "defection" and the implicit rejection of Othello that resides therein takes from the man his "occupation," his function in the competitive military world from which he derives his grandiose conception of himself. In this way, the events which trigger the reactivation of infantile materials and the aims affectively associated with them reveal the essential fragility of Othello's ego, as well as the primitive, regressive manner in which he responds to the re-opening of the early wound. What must also be stressed, is that while the actual mother is virtually absent from Othello, the few mentionings of her which do occur are of crucial analytic significance in that they enable us to grasp the nature of the hero's projective re-creation of Desdemona into a version of the original parent. In Othello, we have not only an abundance of associative materials that clarify the manner in which Desdemona is fated to succeed to the mother's role in the hero's fantasy world, we also have an explicit connection between the actual mother and the mother substitute, a connection that is established through something we can regard, in Winnicott's terms, as a transitional object, namely the all-important handkerchief with which, as Iago announces to Othello, Cassio wipes his beard. But I must be careful at this juncture not to anticipate the substance of future arguments.

That Othello has "abstracted out of the living Desdemona a virginal but maternal idol to worship,"1 that there is something child-like about his conception of their union, that he brings to it a personality virtually incapable of supporting ambivalent feelings toward the love object, all of this has been well established by analytic critics, particularly Shapiro and Reid. I want to present briefly the gist of their views in order to establish a general orientation and then proceed to discuss at some length the hero's behavior during the middle and final acts.

Shapiro contends that Othello presents us with a hero who is "physically impotent," who is fated to debase, indeed to hate the heroine because she ultimately inhibits the full expression of his instincts, and who is therefore eager to hear Iago's news when Iago steps forward to present it.2 The tragedy contains, of course, numerous passages which offer substantiation of Shapiro's view, and Shapiro makes the most of them, as anyone who cares to read his work will see. But what is important for us to stress in preparation for a discussion of the reactive significance of the play's middle and final acts is the kind of genetic and economic development which stands behind the psychically impotent male that Shapiro describes, a development which is invariably grounded in a defensive splitting of the mother into good and bad object, a splitting which arises in an interaction of mother and child where the child's demands combine with maternal seductiveness to produce a potentially dangerous situation, and where the child represses not only his objectionable aims but the knowledge of his mother's seductiveness as well; needless to say, such a development leads to the formation of a personality that is apt to experience anxiety in the face of situations that reactivate the repressed wishes, anxiety which Freud associated exclusively with castration at the father's hand,3 but which should be associated also with the child's awareness of maternal hostility coming either directly from the mother or projected defensively into the mother by the angry child who is unable to have things his own way. When a man retains such development into maturity he is prone to regard women dichotomously, and as long as his sexual urges are expressed exclusively toward the "bad" ones—prostitutes, promiscuous servants, etc.—, as long, in other words, as the original split is maintained, a kind of psychic equilibrium holds. When, however, circumstances provoke the fantasy of sexual expression in association with the good maternal object, profound anxiety results, anxiety that warns against the lifting of the repression. Now let me stress that my purpose here is not to make a case for Othello as the tragedy of a psychically impotent protagonist, or to see this particular pattern as the answer to all the many problems that the play poses; I want only to stress that Shapiro has touched upon something that can be regarded in a general way as true of Othello; the impression of the hero that Shakespeare creates in our minds is of an individual who has split women into good and bad objects in accordance with the initial splitting of the mother. Othello's reaction to Desdemona's "defection," a reaction that transforms her in his fantasy world from chaste and perfect wife into loose and lustful whore, as well as the huge anxiety, indeed panic, that he evinces in the midst of the crisis, bears this out strikingly. But let us look more closely at specific occurrences in the first Act in an effort to pinpoint the behaviors that stand behind Shapiro's view.

When Othello denies in himself "the young affects of heat" (I.iii.264),4 when he announces that his attraction to Desdemona arose from the "pity" she expressed upon learning of his adult life, when he declares that he relinquishes the joys of his wedding night gladly, without disappointment, we feel ourselves in the presence of a personality that is grounded in the repression of certain impulses and aims, and this is, as we shall see, confirmed by Othello's behavior in subsequent scenes. Nor can we overlook in this regard the significance of Othello's confident, supremely confident, appearance before the Fathers of Venice. I mean that Othello is convinced of his acceptability as good son and good servant because he has, after all, done nothing that would be unacceptable to the introjected father in uniting with Desdemona. At the unconscious level Othello has married a version of the good object, the virginal idol, and the aims which might arouse castration anxiety are simply "not there." Which means, of course, that they are still firmly repressed, not so firmly, however, that they cannot be awakened, for this is precisely what Iago, in a later scene, does.

We appreciate from this perspective the irony of Brabantio's vociferous presence throughout the early scenes, particularly during the time in which Othello defends himself before the Senators. Brabantio reminds us that Othello has taken a real woman away from a real father, that the father's affection for the daughter is genuinely grounded in the oedipal situation. But Othello, lost in the illusion that his attraction to Desdemona is purely spiritual, and that her attraction to him is spiritual too, simply misses the father's anger and grief; he cannot say anything meaningful to Brabantio because he does not understand. Convinced of his incorruptibility and of the "purity" of his intentions toward his bride, he calmly wins over the members of the Signiory, who are, for military reasons, eager to believe in Othello anyway. Still, Brabantio's grieved, sensual voice is heard for a final time; the subject is betrayal: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see," he says to the hero; "She has betrayed her father and may thee" (I.ii.293). Othello's reply is, "My life upon her faith." When we realize that Othello's Desdemona exists as a psychological projection, a fantasy product of the hero's mind, and when we recall the suddenness with which the split-off version of the mother image can undergo transformation into its opposite, when we reflect, in short, that everything depends upon Othello's immature, radical personality, we feel a definite chill in these words. It is not Desdemona we doubt from the start, but the pure, all-confident Moor whose grandiose self-image makes us wonder about what lies beneath it.

Reid's conclusions move us in a different direction, one that not only accords the problem a fuller, more useful treatment but that raises an interesting phenomenological question as well. Proposing that Othello "offers a case of delusional jealousy in a man in whom the 'homosexual solution' (as Ernest Jones put it) to the mother's rejection has not 'gone far,'" Reid constructs a hypothetical history of the hero's development. Othello's attachment to his mother, Reid maintains, was very strong, and "very early she must have sensed this and rejected him. That is, after a period of loving attention. Othello's mother changed. This change was felt by Othello as treachery, and it stirred him to a 'jealous rage' against her. He turned in a passive, feminine way toward the father for love. But, for reasons we cannot determine, this, the 'homosexual solution' … did not 'go far.' The treachery and anger it evoked, however, quite obliterated for him his earlier, intense fear of castration by the father as punishment for his love of the mother. This he could then afford to ignore because all real danger had been removed by the mother's rejection. This anger against the mother fell victim to repression, for he still needed his mother's protection and the limited love she still offered. The anger was transformed into nonerotic idealization, and the image of the father as a retaliatory, castrating figure became significantly weaker. Othello, the adult, retained the same complex of responses: an idealization of women which masked unacceptable anger at his mother's treachery and a singular lack of fear of men." In this way, Reid maintains, Othello is prone to avoid women, to feel an "uncomplicated ascendency over men (insofar as was socially possible, and due in part to the fact that, having avoided women, he automatically avoided the essential anxiety that dominates competition among men)," and to experience considerable narcissim, "a high degree of self-consciousness," about "his value as a soldier." Why, one then asks, should Othello have responded to Desdemona? "The answer is not difficult," writes Reid; "their relationship reproduces all too perfectly the situation Othello had longed to experience with his mother after rejection. Desdemona is, first of all, inaccessible. Not only is she of a different race … but she has held herself aloof from all suitors (the 'wealthy curled darlings' of Venice). This inaccessible woman makes the first advances—that which the child Othello had longed for his mother to have done and, most significantly, the advances are made in response to Othello's tales of adventure—tales of heroic exploit that are the typical fantasies of a little boy… . This is the fatal combination—the inaccessible woman who believes in and accepts the heroic fancies of the boy—that destroys Othello. It is fatal because it unleashes quite suddenly the castration anxieties that he had never faced quite fully in childhood, anxieties which had been effectively quieted by the mother's putting herself out of reach. And it awakens as well the long buried rage at the mother for her rejection." It is the meeting on Cyprus that betrays this anxiety directly, says Reid. "After proclaiming his joy in their reunion—a joy whose hyperbolic exaggeration warns us—Othello says:

   If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

It is the anxiety of impending doom in this speech and not its declaration of love that Desdemona catches:

    The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should
Even as our days do grow.

Then comes the hint of infidelity and he breaks down completely. Up to that moment (twice postponed) of the consummation of the marriage, this anxiety had been under control. But now the guilt is overwhelming. He cannot deny it (the entire military community on Cyprus is pointedly aware that the marriage is being consummated), but he can attempt to relieve the guilt by deflecting it. The mental process is this: She has betrayed me (as well as her father), and so I am an innocent wronged one, along with him. His idea that he must kill her to prevent her from betraying more men is an announcement to his super-ego: You see I am serving your interest, not my own. He announces to his introjected father: "I have not really done you a disservice, she has, and to protect your interests, I will prevent all future betrayals by killing her. You therefore will not need to punish me." Reid then goes on to elaborate his thesis in considerable detail, by demonstrating the manner in which the hero's interactions with Iago, Desdemona, Cassio, and with the other characters confirm the basic pattern of delusional jealousy with precisely the emphases Reid has given in his theoretical exposition.5

What should be stressed first of all in response to this material is the phenomenological ground that supports Reid's interpretation but that rejects the manner in which the interpretation is stated. In other words, the childhood history of Othello which Reid constructs is ultimately an expression of the response that Othello's "personality" is awakening in the critic. Othello, upon the stage, manifests a character that would have perforce undergone a development similar to the one Reid describes had Othello existed in real life. Thus the audience, which does exist in "real life," projectively fills in with its affective responses the "real life" aspect of the hero. There is no need, then, for the critic to construct real histories when parts or aspects of character are sufficiently rich to enable us to understand the developmental forces that had to give rise to that particular kind of personality.

Reid touches upon, as does Shapiro, aspects of Othello's behavior which are of crucial importance; Reid is particularly convincing when he analyzes Othello's courtship of Desdemona, its child-like quality, its regressive implications, its "fatality." Reid also introduces us to the significance of the superego in this play, something we will explore fully when we come to the drama's final scene. Nor can we overlook the problem of Othello's self-esteem as it is presented here. Othello turns to the father when rejection at the mother's hands occurs; he strives to compete successfully in a masculine, military world that offers compensation for the mother's loss and that protects the wounded one from the recurrence of early damage. Finally, Reid's remarks emphasize Othello's tendency to split females into good and bad objects, to view women in a way that recalls the original splitting of the maternal figure and the concomitant repression of aims. We are allowed, through Reid's work, to picture Othello precariously committed in marriage to a version of the good mother and, hence, precariously close to the situation he has sought to avoid at all costs. Reid tells us that Othello breaks down when the hint of infidelity comes, for such a hint forces the hero to fantasy the good object in a way that calls forth the repressed, split-off version of the mother and the sexual aims bound up with that version. Othello's fantasies contain his drives, his mind and his body go together. This is what Othello does not realize, this is what he cannot understand, as witnessed by his reliance upon a spiritual interpretation of the union, an interpretation grounded in his repressed, sublimated inclinations. Thus Reid is correct in suggesting that the slightest mixing of the split images will undo the hero who is now actually united to the one who corresponds to the original object and into whom can be projected the entire content of Othello's unconscious ego forged in the early relationship with his mother. There is nothing surprising, then, about the rapidity with which Desdemona becomes "another" in Othello's mind, for she never had any secure foundation there to begin with, any solid, established indentity which a man might not easily alter. We are reminded here of the masculine capacity to alter good object to bad in a matter of moments; it is the retention of the splits for defensive purposes that shrinks the capacity for ambivalence and obliges one to crudely substitute objects, the one for the other, when anxiety provoking situations occur. However, it is when Iago presents the hero with a fantasy version of the primal scene that the full collapse takes place. I would look closely at this section of the play, keeping in mind everything that has been said thus far.

His own suspicions of Desdemona's "honesty" having been awakened by Iago, Othello asks his "ancient" to gave his "worst of thoughts" his "worst of words" (III.iii.132). In truth, of course, it is Othello's own "worst" thoughts which are pressing toward the surface as he internalizes the doubts about Desdemona's honesty with which Iago presents him. We see here the limitations inherent in Shapiro's idea that the hate mobilized by psychic impotence stands behind the sudden change in the hero. While Othello is certainly "impotent" in the sense that he regards women dichotomously as good and bad, the play gives us no evidence of his ability or inclination to perform with prostitutes; and even his willingness to forego his wedding night, his tendency to stress platonic union, and the symbolic interruption of the love act upon Cyprus which comes shortly before the breakdown, while all suggesting incomplete masculinity do not when taken together on the dynamic level of the action point toward frustration of desire and resultant aggression as the cause of Othello's violence. There simply has not been time, realistic or imaginative, for such a reactive development to have occurred. What is imaginatively and artistically understandable is the dynamic inherent in Reid's view of the action and the extrapolation upon that view made in preceding paragraphs. Othello experiences profound anxiety as he listens to Iago and it is this anxiety which calls forth his primitive defenses of projection and anger. The marriage to the good object has brought him affectively close to the constellation of feelings originating in early interaction with the mother and resulting in separation and loss. The whole complex has been brought to life with the marriage; the repression of the unacceptable aspects of the early experience has, in this way, been weakened so that when Iago offers his insinuations Othello, who is, after all, joined now with a version of the good mother and thus affectively closer to the repressed mother figure who lurks in his endogenous world, finds himself unable to ignore his forbidden aims. He must, therefore, project those aims as swiftly as possible, affirm their existence in the other, and in this way deny their existence in himself. His fantasies about Desdemona, about "what she has been doing," race on because they are projective translations of his own fantasies of his own behavior. Needless to say, this does not occur as patently as I am suggesting in my effort to get at the essence of the hero's defensive strategy; on three or four occasions his flexible repressions harden and he asks Iago for more proof; in other words, he makes an effort not to see that which he unconsciously wants to see but which mobilizes so much anxiety that he must deny his own aims at the sight and attribute the desiring totally to the object with whom he longs and dreads to be in sensual contact. The effort not to see fails for two reasons. One is the radical splitting that Othello has done in relation to women, or to put it another way, the vulnerability of his personality to the pressure arising from this radical split. "Oh, the curse of marriage, / That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites," cries the hero (III.iii.269) completely separating the idealized image, "delicate creature," from the notion of sexual urge in lines which argue an almost total lack of integration. When the one aspect of woman is called into doubt, the other aspect takes its place.

The second reason is, of course, Iago's persistent presentation of forbidden images to the Moor, images which ultimately constitute counterparts of his own repressed impulses, most notably the primal scene images mentioned earlier: Having pricked the repressed complex life, having awakened Othello's "worst" thoughts, Iago asks, "You would be satisfied?" (III.iii.393), to which the Moor responds, "Would! Nay, I will." "And may, but, how?" persists Iago; "Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? / Behold her topped?" "Death and damnation," cries Othello, and then "Oh!" What Iago has accomplished here is extremely important to the progress of his plan; he has obliged Othello to entertain the primal scene in his mind, to image the good mother to whom Othello is now united in a posture which catalyzes in the hero precisely those aims and impulses that have been long repressed and that are contained in the fantasied behavior of the anxiety-provoking object. Iago does this again when he recounts the dream of Cassio, a narration which begets from Othello the deep cry, "Monstrous!" (III.iii.427). Thinking upon the primal significance of this word, namely to show, reveal, expose, one "gets the feel" of what Othello goes through as he actualizes in fantasy forbidden aims associated with the good mother figure. The point is, what Iago has done is quite sufficient in terms of the personality Othello has; there is no need for the Moor to actually behold what would be the equivalent of the primal scene. So vulnerable is the hero to the anxiety aroused by apprehending in himself aims which have been attributed to the bad object that he turns almost automatically to those primative defenses (protection and rage) through which he will strive to maintain the repression and to propitiate the superego. Wounded, profoundly depressed, without self-esteem, Othello will, as he says, tear Desdemona to pieces; this becomes, as a matter of fact, his sacred "cause." Understood analytically, Othello's "cause" comprises his attempt to enact revenge upon the rejecting object and, at the same time, to remain the good son. It is his own aims in Desdemona that Othello will destroy for his conscience's sake; his murder of the bad mother into whom he transforms his wife is in reality a twisted, defensive murdering of himself, a murdering that is completed by his suicide.

In this way, while Iago proceeds in ignorance of those psychological factors which make Othello such a "simple" victim, while he does not know exactly why it is so easy to topple the Moor, to awaken his capacity for "chaos," he does proceed with a kind of sensitivity to the hero's underlying insecurity; like all great villains he can intuit weakness; he has, as the saying goes, a "nose for evil."

Again, Othello's tragic development within the drama's middle acts calls to mind Winnicott's work on the development of the capacity for concern, the degree to which this capacity arises from early integration of the ego, and the manner in which its lack is grounded in the traumata of early experience. "The word 'concern' is used to cover in a positive way a phenomenon that is covered in a negative way by the word 'guilt.' A sense of guilt is anxiety linked with the concept of ambivalence, and implies a degree of integration in the individual ego that allows for the retention of good object-image along with the ideal of a destruction of it. Concern implies further integration, and further growth, and relates in a positive way to the individual's sense of responsibility, especially in respect of relationships into which the instinctual drives have entered. Concern refers to the fact that the individual cares, or minds, and both feels and accepts responsibility. At the genital level in the statement of the theory of development, concern could be said to be the basis of the family, where both partners in intercourse beyond their pleasure—take responsibility for the result. But in the total imaginative life of the individual, the subject of concern is at the back of all constructive play and work. It belongs to normal, healthy living, and deserves the attention of the psychoanalyst. There is much reason to believe that concern—with its positive sense—emerges in the earlier emotional development of the child before the period of the classical Oedipus complex."6 Winnicott further declares that concern develops out of the baby's ability to "combine erotic and aggressive experience, and in relation to one object," the ability to reach "ambivalence." When, for whatever reason, the child is unable to make reparation for its aggressive aims toward the mother, when, in short, he undergoes a confusional and depriving development, he fails to get the good and bad mother images together; he remains unintegrated, deficient in the ability to see women as whole and real objects toward whom one might feel conflicting urges and about whom one might feel concerned when one's aggression has been vented. The point is, Othello feels no concern for Desdemona in the midst of everything that happens; he does not worry about what has become of her; he has no desire to help her, to investigate matters for her benefit. Having failed to achieve personality integration, having failed to achieve the ability to integrate the love and the hate that are affectively correlated to the split version of the mother which obtains at an early age, the thought of saving Desdemona never occurs to Othello. In this sense, the Moor, like all tragic heroes, evinces a personality arrested in its growth, especially as that growth relates to the mother-infant interaction. It is their arrestation that is the ground of the play's disorder; it is this arrestation that predicates the swift mobilization of primitive defenses in the face of awakened aims bound up with the fantasied betrayal by Desdemona and the fantasied primal scene. Indeed, Othello's only concern during the course of the play's third act, at which we have been looking, is to save himself.

The reactivation of early dangers precipitates at the deep unconscious level the mobilization of the catastrophic death complex that lurks in all men. Revenge for Othello is grounded in projection, and projection is a way of avoiding aims that threaten one's annihilation by a superego which is comprised of projected and subsequently re-introjected impulses ascribed ultimately to the mother and father, or their equivalents; revenge is also a way of compensating for a loss of self-esteem so severe as to constitute a kind of death. But for Othello the arousal of forbidden aims harbors not only punishment and loss of identity, it harbors the loss of the good object as well, the good object who would reject the son were he to actualize such aims, or even acknowledge them, a kind of actualization. Othello is thus concerned not only with castration but with abandonment, abandonment by the mother image that has merged with paternal introjections to comprise the superego. With regard to the text of the play, the implication of this is, as we have said, that events proceed on a number of levels at once, levels which touch upon all the developmental phases. A good way to demonstrate the need for multiphasic criticism and to highlight the pregenital dimension of the tragedy, particularly its oral dimension, is to investigate closely the destruction of Desdemona, a destruction that results from the hero's frantic attempt to stave off the contents of his unconscious. I have in mind here discussing the analytical significance of the strangling, a key problem and one that will help us to grasp fully the manner in which oral outrage, outrage rooted in the infantile nature of Othello's attachment to the heroine, as explored by Reid,8 underlies the drama as a whole.

It is of considerable interest that Othello's mind touches upon four ways to deal with Desdemona immediately before Iago makes his suggestion about strangling her, and that all four of these ways attest to deep oral pre-occupation at both the primary and secondary levels. Notice, for example, the manner in which Othello dwells on Desdemona's "fairness," "fineness," "sweetness," until Iago interrupts him with, "Nay, you must forget that" (IV.i.189-190, italics added). "Aye," says Othello, "let her rot, and perish." Returning a few seconds later to the subject of the woman's "sweetness," Othello is once again interrupted by Iago who says, "Nay, that's not your way," a statement which prompts Othello to cry out, "Hang her!" (198). Othello's ambivalence, however, causes him to return yet again to the subject of his wife's attractiveness, to the "pity" of her fall from chastity. Reminded by Iago yet again of her "iniquity," of her terrible "offense" against him, Othello exclaims, "I will chop her into messes" (211). Othello then goes on to propose the poisoning of his wife: "Get me some poison, Iago, this night" (216), are his words. It is at this point that Iago steps in with his suggestion: "Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" (219-220). Othello's reply to this is as follows: "Good, good. The justice of it pleases. Very good" (221).

Othello's initial fantasy of Desdemona's death is, then, entirely passive. Desdemona will be left to "rot," to become something which offends the olfactory and gustatory senses; the betrayer will be destroyed simply by being left alone. Rapidly regressing to pregenital levels, the hero imagines that the mere withholding of his attention and affection will bring about the rotting, the decay, the death of the object. This narcissistic fantasy is, of course, based upon primary identification, for it was Othello who was left to "perish," to "rot," by the withdrawal of mother's narcissistic supplies, and now he would exact a similar punishment upon the maternal substitute who has reopened the old psychic wound. Othello's next fantasy of destruction is not only more active, it moves considerably closer to Desdemona's breathing apparatus, closer to her mouth, closer to her breath. Indeed, I would maintain the thought of Desdemona "hanging" awakens the emotions that ultimately cause Othello to follow Iago's suggestion (and Iago to make the suggestion in the first place). We will say more about the primary significance of hanging very shortly. Othello's next exclamation, "I will chop her into messes," actively balances his earlier passive gustatory notion of Desdemona being left to "rot." In other words, the emotionally concomitant inverse of the orally sadistic desire to retaliate by withholding narcissistic supplies, by denying the denier all nourishment, is the orally sadistic desire to retaliate by devouring the object, by enacting upon the frustrating mother the terrible version of the fantasy of incorporation. The "sweet" Desdemona, who has rejected Othello, who has refused to take him unto and into herself, will be chopped into messes in obvious preparation for a cannibalistic feast. There is no sensationalism here. Shakespeare is not titillating his audience by allowing them to imagine the black man devouring the white woman. He is sensing the extent and the nature of Othello's emotional injury and he is presenting what he senses in a remarkably accurate dramatic depiction. Othello's fourth fantasy, embodied in his command, "Get me some poison," not only reveals the manner in which he has progressed in the space of about thirty lines from fleeting meditation to implementing behavior, it also completes the movement toward Desdemona's mouth, the movement adumbrated earlier in the exclamation, "Hang her!" Othello will destroy Desdemona by feeding her poison, by putting into her mouth, and throat, and stomach, a death-dealing substance—presumably liquid—which exacts a "suitable" revenge for the withholding of the life-giving "nourishment" which is associatively connected with the mother's breast.

From one perspective, Othello accedes to Iago's suggestion because Iago has become a kind of superego figure for Othello. He speaks with the voice of Othello's own conscience, in line with Reid's formulation of the mechanisms at work in Othello's delusional jealousy. But Othello does not simply accede to Iago's suggestion: he is taken with it. "Good, good," he says, "The justice of it pleases" and then again, meditating deeply upon the notion, "Very good." At the secondary level, of course, Othello wants to strangle Desdemona in bed because it is in "the bed" that she has betrayed him. Too, the implicit genitality in Othello's incestuous fixation, the genitality bound up with the internalized father who wants Desdemona punished for her adulterous betrayal, also discovers an opportunity for expression in Iago's plan and reminds us of the primary genital significance of Othello's murderous inclination. But the most important primary significances here are oral; they follow consistently from the developing oral imagery which informs the scene as a whole, and they oblige us to recognize that the murder of Desdemona is chiefly a matter of oral retaliation. In preparation for the pinpointing of these significances I would briefly take up a crucial analytic paper which deals with the related topics of choking, strangling, sexual perversion, and self-inflicted death by hanging.

Attempting to clarify the underlying dynamics of what he terms "eroticized repetitive hanging," Resnik, in a meticulously researched contribution, begins by citing the mechanisms operative in masochistic perversions, namely fear of the loss of the object or its love, castration fear, and superego anxiety, and then goes on to postulate the activity of these mechanisms in the hanging syndrome. "Because of castration anxiety," he writes, "libidinal and aggressive impulses directed at forbidden (incestuous) objects may be turned against the self as punishment. The feminine posture of passivity and helplessness, as exemplified by bondage, places the subject completely in another's power, removing responsibility for any sexual gratification derived. The bondage can also exemplify a wish for unity with mother … or the fear one cannot separate from her. The anxiety can be determined by viewing the gamble with death as an index of the forbidden wish itself… . To anticipate actively what one passively fears or wishes is not unusual."9 Proceeding to the heart of his thesis, Resnik continues, "The fundamental underlying conflict … in / the / treatment / of males / is anxiety at separation from the mother. Weisman has reported … case material of a patient who attempted suicide by hanging, which behavior was later followed by subjugation, suffocation and overtly sadomasochistic sexual behavior. The patient was able to recover an early memory associated with smothering and the patient's wish for … mother's breast. The finding of smothering probably associated with breast feeding and associated with a diffuse feeling of well-being … was also observed in a patient of ours. Although this man did not clinically demonstrate hanging behavior, nonetheless hypercathexis of his head and neck revealed clinical material which appears related to it… . This patient was struggling with his own oral incorporative wishes toward the nipple and breast. A slip of the tongue revealed his sadistic fantasies were of biting off the nipple."10 This author continues, in a passage which bears importantly on the behavior of both Iago and Othello, "At the oral level, the conflict is over separation from the mother. Immobilization and asphyxia contribute to the fantasies of feeding, reunion and rebirth. The male infant while feeding … has been observed to develop erections. The neonate may experience a relative asphyxia in association with the sense of well-being derived from feeding; these sensations may then be accompanied by a gastrourethral reflex resulting in erection. The continued choice to be learned while feeding may be one of feed and remain somewhat short of breath at the risk of letting go of the nipple, or breathe completely and lose the good visceral feelings—and the associated erection. Mothers may often interpret the child's relinquishing of the nipple as a personal rejection rather than a very real choice against strangling."11 And finally, "Blos has characterized adolescence as the second separation phase. We would agree and suggest that the original conflict over separation, smother, or experience sexual feelings again becomes reawakened. The eroticized hanging behavior allays the anxiety thus engendered. Whereas the nursing infant concludes, 'I'll strangle a while and feed,' the hanging masturbator concludes, 'I'll strangle a while and get sexual.'"12 As we shall see momentarily, Othello bears witness to the persistence of this syndrome into adulthood, with the emphasis upon the sadistic rather than the masochistic end of the continuum.

Striking clinical evidence for the primary significance of strangling, this time directly expressive of sadistic aims, may also be found in the work of Harold Searles. There, of example, is a passage from his 1955 paper on vengefulness, a paper which stresses the close connection between the desire for revenge and problems of early maternal separation. Referring to one of his male patients, Searles writes, "When I then suggested for association, 'something you couldn't do anything about,' he replied, 'Well, ther've been so many things, of course that I've felt for so long that I couldn't do anything about, like wanting to get people by the throat and strangle them till they're black in the face … ' This last statement he made in the vengeful spirit which had been so characteristic of him throughout the analysis… . Here it seemed reasonably clear that his vindictiveness was serving a defensive function, to ward off the awareness of some degree of his anxiety about separation—from, originally, his mother early in his childhood."13 I believe we are now in a position to fully understand Othello's attraction to Iago's scheme.

When he hears Iago speak of strangling Desdemona in her bed, Othello, who has already cried out, "Hang her!", who has already evinced his interest in attacking Desdemona through the mouth, suddenly "recovers" in his unconscious early memory traces associated with smothering and with his desire for the mother's breast. To "stifle" Desdemona is to retaliate with perfect accuracy by enacting upon her a lethal version of the primary union he wished for in his marriage, the primary union that Desdemona has denied him by her betrayal, by her defection to the "other," to Cassio. Thus, in planning to strangle Desdemona Othello does not simply prepare to placate the internalized father, to expiate his attempt to secure narcissistic supplies through objectionable means, in line with Reid's formulations; he also prepares for the enactment of his oral rage upon the mother for having rejected him, for having withheld narcissitic supplies in the first place. "The justice of its pleases" both the introjected superego figure and the rejected son; in one ambivalent gesture Othello is able to satisfy a longing for vengeance that is rooted in his oral as well as in his genital development, a longing for vengeance which derives its essential energy from two deflected drives.

Instrumental in bringing Othello to the verge of revenge is, of course, the handkerchief, and while it functions importantly as "evidence" of Desdemona's guilt, it functions even more importantly as a symbol, a symbol which expresses not only the nature of Othello's union with the heroine but the nature of his union with his parents, the union upon which his marriage preoedipally rests. Again, as we shall see when we examine the murder scene, the handkerchief lights up the tragedy's oral dimension through the over-determined design that is sewn into it and that becomes linked at a crucial moment with the rival's (Cassio's) mouth. Finally, and most important of all perhaps, the to-do over the handkerchief, the search for it, underscores through its explicit connection with the mother the tragedy's crucial formal disguise, a disguise that aligns Othello with Oedipus Rex and with Hamlet and that differentiates it from a play like Ajax. I mean that the handkerchief serves as the basic mechanism through which the quest for the mother, the attempt to find the mother by going, as it were, behind her ambivalence, is displaced; the quest for the mother is disguised as another quest at the secondary level and in such a way as to draw us into empathetic involvement with the primary material.

The play announces in Acts Three and Four that the truth of the handkerchief's whereabouts is a central preoccupation, a mystery that the hero must solve; but this mystery is explicitly related to the mother, and even more, to the mother as she figures into problems of fidelity, loyalty, trust, and betrayal. The handker-chief is thus analytically significant in the same way that the search for the father's murderer is analytically significant in Hamlet and in Oedipus Rex; it is an indication of the manner in which Shakespeare must distance the play's deepest interest, the interst in the maternal mystery, the riddle of the mother's ambivalence, the problem of her inevitable betrayal, by substituting one quest, the basic quest, for another related quest which keeps the audience "on the track" but not directly or undisguisedly so.

The displacement of the basic quest is weaker in Othello than it is in Hamlet and in Oedipus Rex; the deeper significance of the quest for the handkerchief is closer to the surface than the deeper significance of the quest for the father-killers; this is because Shakespeare, with the actual mother absent, can approximate the crucial issue very closely through a reliance upon the audience's awareness of the projective nature of the action, its awareness of the degree to which the hero's fantasies create the "situation." Ultimately this is a powerful technique, one that mobilizes far more anxiety than might be expected at first glance; and in a later section we will explore the analytic and formal reasons for this. Our business here is to concentrate upon key lines surrounding the handkerchief in order to round out the suggestions we have just made about its multiple significance.

His suspicions aroused, Othello asks Desdemona to let him see the handkerchief (III.iv.52); Desdemona no longer has the thing, of course, and so replies, "I have it not about me." "Not?" asks Othello, who then goes on to describe for his wife the handkerchief's origins and the "mythology" associated with it. He says:

That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while
 she kept it
'Twould make her amiable and subdue my
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should
After new fancies. She dying gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me
To give it her. I did so. And take heed on't,
Make it a darling like your precious eye.
To lose't or giv't away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.

To this remarkable speech Desdemona replies, "Is it possible?" to which Othello responds in an even more remarkable series of lines:

    'Tis true. There's magic in the web of it.
A sibyl, that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sewed the work,
The worms were hallowed that did breed the
And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.

One notices, first of all, the manner in which Othello's employment of his charm argues underlying insecurity. The handkerchief is explicitly connected not only with the mother but with the idealized view of the parents' marriage. The marriage was perfect as Othello defines perfect: the mother did not lose the handkerchief and so the father never strayed, nor did the mother, who held fast to the father. The progenitors of Othello were faithful, and such a view Othello uses, of course, to maintain his psychic equilibrium, for "father" is the simplified, unalloyed model of superego formation, and of the ego ideal, and "mother," being "true," poses no threat of incestuous involvement, as one able to "stray" might pose. The point is, Othello has used this objectthe handkerchief—in an effort to achieve a similar union with his wife; he has depended, through the object, upon his parents to help him forge a marriage which he himself does not feel able to forge without the parents' aid. This becomes doubly clear when we recall the immediate dramatic context in which Othello reveals the secrets of the handkerchief to Desdemona; he has sided with Iago in that he believes Desdemona to be false, and so he can use the handkerchief to reproach her for failing to approximate the perfect union which the handkerchief was magically supposed to bring about. There is, then, an aggressive intention in Othello's revelation of the handkerchief's "magic." What this all boils down to is that Othello has employed the handkerchief as a "transitional object," an object that would enable him to separate himself from one psychic position,—associated with the good mother introject, with the repression of sexual aims, with castration anxiety, with a brittle, compensatory self-esteem, with a rigid ego ideal, and with buried anger at the mother for her betrayal—and to move toward another position. In marrying Desdemona Othello relinquishes the isolation that protected him so thoroughly and embarks upon a course that mobilizes unconscious fears bound up with the mother whose place is now being taken by the wife. Thus the separation and reunion that Othello is undertaking in the play is primarily maternal, and he relies upon the handkerchief's power to ease him through this separation and into a new arrangement which will be safe insofar as it will preserve the kind of relationship to the mother that is expressed by the handkerchief, a relationship in which the good object governs, in which the idealized parental marriage obtains, in which repressions are maintained in both the husband and the controlled spouse. "The transitional object represents not only the mother's breast and body but the total maternal environment as it is experienced in combination with sensations from the infant's body. It serves as a support and 'convoy' during that period of rapid growth which necessitates increasing separation from the mother. The infantile fetish, although related to the transitional object, is the product of marked disturbance in infancy and is a defensive measure in response to great need stemming from early inadequate object relationships. The fetish is more concretized in its form and use, and tends to be permanently incorporated into the individual's life, constricting further development of object relationships. The transitional object which arises at about the same time (the end of the first year and early in the second year of life) is chosen and created by the child as a 'faithful protective escort.' Its softness and pliability are useful at a time when the infant's perceptions and physical relationships with the outer world are changing and when speech is in the process of formation. Thus it lends itself to symbolic representation. The transitional object plays a role in promoting illusion formation. By relating new experiences back to earlier ones, it lends illusory support to new experiences and helps the infant to investigate and widen his interests. The fetish represents a replacement of breast and penis and may gain anal-genital significance. By its solidity and durability of form, it may consolidate the illusion of maternal supplementation to the body in children whose early relationship to the mother has been 'not good enough.' The transitional object aids growth."14

In this way, Othello is not simply separating from the internalized mother and using the handkerchief as a "convoy" to the new mother; he is attempting by its use to "relate his new experience back to his earlier one," to preserve the acceptable "maternal environment" in which, with regard to his inner world, his inner presences, he has dwelled for so long. That the strawberry design upon the handkerchief signifies the maternal environment, and more particularly, the breast and the nipple,15 further underscores the oral substructure of the action, the manner in which the hero's deepest anxieties are grounded in pregenital fixations and stresses, the manner in which the reactivation of the early wound and of the defenses associated with it is largely bound up with the object relation between mother and infant, the object relation that governs the course of later development through the anal and phallic stages.

But if we look at these lines more carefully we spy further analytic significances. In spite of the use to which he puts it, in spite of what he insists upon making it out to be, what Othello says about the handkerchief ironically belies his idealized views. Notice, for example, that the story of the handkerchief underscores the splitting of the maternal object in which the entire play is grounded; the handkerchief comes from the hand of an Egyptian, a kind of gypsy in Shakespeare's day, and it contains, as Othello reveals inadvertently, a strong sexual charm insofar as it prevents the father from straying, from fancying others; because the mother must not innately possess the sexual power to hold the father, because that would be unthinkable in her nature, she gets it from the outside, from one who is in reality a version of her own unacceptable sexuality, the side of her that is not supposed to exist. In this way, the Egyptian and Othello's mother are but divided images of the maternal figure, in Freud's words, "the divided images of a single prototype," and Othello's reliance upon the handkerchief to forge another false, idealized union is doomed to failure: the handkerchief expresses, over Othello's head and to the audience, the very lack of integration, the very inability to reach and to maintain ambivalence, that ultimately causes him to succumb to the seductions of Iago. The "magic" in the "web" of the handkerchief is ironically the magical thinking that Othello has attached to it, a magical thinking that repeats, again ironically, the magical thinking of his own mother who used the "napkin" in such a way as to deny the realities of her own nature. We have here a striking insight into the generational passing-on of similar marital difficulties, a certain kind of mother moulding a certain kind of son who becomes a certain kind of husband. It is in this sense that the handkerchief is slightly sinister or weird; it speaks for reliance not upon true feeling, integration, personality strength, love, to forge a marriage, but upon outside influences (in this case the maternal influence) to preserve defenses which permit the maintenance of a psychic equilibrium that is grounded in splitting, repression, the denial of one's full humanity and one's strong erotic aims. The "hallowed" worms and the blood of maidens' hearts which provide the materials for the handkerchief give magnificent expression of this. Through sympathetic magic the object that is to preserve the idealized marriage, maintain the repression, support the original split is composed of "stuff that signifies in a prototypical fashion the idealized object and the idealized mother. Finally, through a simple replacement by the opposite we are able to spy the negative significations of this magical, fantastic handkerchief: As its purpose is to preserve the idealized union, it is also to prevent the supersedure of another kind of union; it is there because the problem of betrayal is such a pressing one; the idealized objects are human after all; the threat of the straying husband is particularly great because the mother is alienated from her sexuality; the perfect marriage, in a word, is grounded in self-deception and repression. As Othello remarks, to lose the handkerchief is "perdition," for to lose it is to loose the repressed energies that lie behind the idealized union that is based, in turn, upon splitting. The "napkin" lost, mother is no longer what she is supposed to be and father does what he is not supposed to do, and this is, of course, precisely the threat that Othello confronts in the now of the action; Desdemona is upon the verge of transformation from good to bad object and Othello is about to experience aims that he is not supposed to harbor. Everything the handkerchief protects against exists; everything the handkerchief protects against is viable. In the last analysis, then, the handkerchief attests to the persistence of repression grounded in the mother-infant interaction. Perhaps this is best expressed by the manner in which the loss of the handkerchief is dramatically associated with the rival, with the one for whom Desdemona has ostensibly betrayed the hero.

When Iago confronts Othello with the handkerchief's loss, suggesting that Desdemona bestowed it upon Cassio, he does not simply state that he has seen it in Cassio's possession; in a moment of magnificent villainous intuition he touches upon Othello's tenderest spot, upon Othello's oral wound, by claiming that he has recently spied Cassio wiping his beard with the thing, and this immediately after calling the hero's attention to the strawberry pattern, the symbolic significance of which we have already examined. The notion of the handkerchief at Cassio's mouth (III.iii.439), the notion, to express it in terms of primary process, of the rival at the mother's nipple, is almost too much for Othello to bear. "If it be that—" he says chokingly, and a moment later he goes on in one of his most regressive, frenzied, and revealing utterances:

Oh, that the slave had forty thousand lives!
One is too poor, too weak for my revenge.
Now do I see 'tis true. Look here, Iago,
All my fond love thus do I blow to Heaven—
'Tis gone.
Arise, black Vengeance, from thy hollow cell!
Yield up, O Love; thy crown and hearted
To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy
For 'tis of aspics' tongues! …
Oh, blood, blood, blood!

It is this "blood" that is associatively and symbolically linked to the maidens' blood in which the handkerchief is dyed. Thinking, then, upon Cassio's mouth, upon the betrayal which, through the handkerchief, probes the Moor's psychic wound down to the early oral level, we better appreciate the analytic significance of the manner in which Othello informs Desdemona of Cassio's supposed death. After reminding Desdemona, who is in her bed and about to be murdered, that Cassio is in possession of the handkerchief, and after listening to her deny that she gave it to him, Othello tells his wife that Cassio will never be able to deny the adulterous betrayal because, as Othello puts it, Cassio's "mouth is stopped" (V.ii.71). Othello's revenge upon Cassio is, then, largely a matter of stopping Cassio's mouth, of stopping his usurpation of narcissistic supplies which derive from the maternal breast, and which fill the infant's void, apprehended gastrointestinally by the primitive body ego, and later, apprehended existentially by the miserable, vulnerable adult who transposes the neglected stomach into cosmic symbols: "the meaningless universe," "the abyss," "the emptiness of the world," etc. "Had all his hairs been lives," says Othello moments after he has told Desdemona that Cassio's mouth is stopped, "my great revenge / Had stomach for them all."

But let us take up the murder scene from its inception in an effort to fit it into the tragic pattern we are developing, in an effort to disclose its analytic significance, its connection with Othello's regressive defense against the reactivation of his early wound, the lifting of his repression, the arousal of what Rheingold would call the Moor's catastrophic death complex, remembering as we proceed that murder, especially matricidal murder, is a way of protecting the self from intolerable injury and unbearable anxiety, a proposition that is vividly exemplified in Oedipus Rex.

We might notice, first of all, the numerous oral images and behaviors that surround and accompany the act of strangulation, the oral significance of which we have previously noted. Approaching his victim as she sleeps in her bed (a place for feeding the infant as well as gratifying the husband), Othello is interested primarily in smelling his wife, in breathing her breath, in getting close to her mouth, in touching her lips with his lips. It is the pregenital quality of this behavior that allows Othello to derive sensual gratification from the homicidal moment without offending the introjected father. Snuffing the flame of the candle he holds in his hand—an obvious anticipatory symbolic gesture—the hero says,

     When I have plucked the rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither. I'll smell it on the
Ah, balmy breath, that dost almost
Justice to break her sword! One more, one
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill
And love thee after. One more, and this the
So sweet was ne'er so fatal.
                     (V.ii. 13-20, italics added)

It might be wise to recall here the extent to which Othello has used a similar "mouth-breath imagery" in the immediate dramatic context. "I found not Cassio's kisses on her lips" (III.iii.341), he cries as Iago awakens his doubts; "I had been happy if the general camp, / Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known" (345-347, italics added). And again, from the same scene,

      No, to be once in doubt
Is once to be resolved. Exchange me for a
When I shall turn the business of my soul
To such exsufficate and blown surmises,
Matching thy inference …

      If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear
I'd whistle her off and let her down the wind.
           (179-183, 260-264, italics added)

There is simply no stopping this. Here, for example, are passages which we have looked at in another context and which we might profitably glance at again now:

Oh, that the slave had forty thousand lives!
One is too poor, too weak, for my revenge.
Now do I see 'tis true. Look here, Iago,
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven
'Tis gone.
                      (443-446, italics added)

A moment later:

Yield up. O Love, they crown and hearted
To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy
For 'tis of aspics' tongues.
                          (447-449, italics added)

Lie with her! "Zounds, that's fulsome! Hand- Kerchief—confessions—handkerchief!—To confess, and be hanged for his labor. First to be hanged, and then to confess.

(IV.i.35-39, italics added)

From the next scene:

          What committed!
Committed! O thou public commoner!
I should make very forges of my cheeks
That would to cinders burn up modesty
Did I but speak thy deeds. What committed!
Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon
The bawdy wind, that kisses all it meets,
Is hushed within the hollow mine of earth
And will not hear it.
                     (IV.ii.72-80, italics added)

Returning to the murder scene and still with oral imagery in mind, we must note that Othello, after making it clear to Desdemona that she is about to die, commands:

    … confess thee freely of thy sin,
For to deny each article with oath
Cannot remove nor choke the strong
That I do groan withal.

                       (53-56, italics added)

But Othello's behavior toward Desdemona harbors even deeper meanings than those uncovered by connecting his oral images with the reactivation of his repressed desires. Commentators have long recognized that Othello appears to be acting like a priest or sacrificer as he goes about his business during the murder scene, that he seems to be involved in some sort of ritual, and indeed, Othello himself remarks at one point in the scene that Desdemona's exclamations are transforming his "sacrifice" into a "murder" (V.ii.65), something that distresses him profoundly. With this in mind, let us examine this scene closely as one that contains sacrificial behaviors, using Hubert and Mauss' definitive exploration of sacrifice as a guide to the underlying analytic significances. I would make clear at the outset, however, that I do not regard Othello's murder of Desdemona as a sacrifice and that my close adherence to the actualities of sacrifice is designed to point up the manner in which Othello's conduct shares with real sacrifices specific affective goals. In other words, Othello is attempting to accomplish through his destruction of Desdemona those emotive aims which are accomplished in actual sacrifice.

Hubert and Mauss begin by informing us that "sacrifice always implies a consecration; in every sacrifice an object passes from the common into the religious domain; it is consecrated. But not all consecrations are of the same kind. In some the effects are limited to the consecrated object, be it a man or a thing. This is, for example, the case with unction. When a king is consecrated, his religious personality alone is modified; apart from this, nothing is changed. In sacrifice, on the other hand, the consecration extends beyond the thing consecrated; among other objects, it touches the moral person who bears the expenses of the ceremony. The devotee who provides the victim which is the object of the consecration is not, at the completion of the operation, the same as he was at the beginning. He has acquired a religious character which he did not have before, or has rid himself of an unfavorable character with which he was affected; he has raised himself to a state of grace or has emerged from a state of sin. In either case he has been religiously transformed."16 The point, of course, is that we must regard Othello's behavior during the murder scene as ultimately egocentric or narcissistic. Every motivation which drives him is designed to afford him a specific gratification. Thinking upon this from a multilevel perspective, and calling to mind once again the quotation from Hubert and Mauss, we might say in a preliminary manner that Othello's deed—the murder of Desdemona—has the purpose of allaying his anxiety in the face of his internal persecutors, the maternal superego which threatens him with retributive annihilation and the internalized father—represented in the play by Venice—which threatens him with withdrawal of approval; the internalized authorities, female and male, are outraged by Othello's fantasy participation in the primal scene and by his proximity to the object of his repressed, unacceptable impulses. Othello, as we have suggested earlier, turns the matter the other way around through projection: It is Desdemona who is bad and Othello will destroy her so that she will not, as he says, "betray more men." In other words, the hero will serve his internalized moralistic agency by retaliating upon the object that has caused him to betray his own conscience: It is Othello—and here again are the words of Hubert and Mauss—who is in a "state of sin;" it is Othello who would "rise to a state of grace," who would "rid himself of an unfavorable character," and recapture a former identity, by destroying the sacrificial victim. Thus the defense of projection which creates the hero's entire fantasy world—sparked into life by the probing of Iago—stands finally behind the killing of Desdemona. Needless to say, such a defence is an integral part of all sacrificial behaviors and is epitomized in the very notion of victim or scapegoat, the animal who bears the sin of the other, the animal into which one has projected his own unacceptable or "evil" aims. Hubert and Mauss highlight this unconscious signification when they write of the ambivalence and guilt experienced in relation to the sacrificial victim: "While the victim was being led to the place of slaughter, some rituals prescribed libations and expiations. Excuses were made for the act that was about to be carried out, the death of the animal was lamented, one wept for it as one would weep for a relative. Its pardon was asked before it was struck down. The rest of the species to which it belonged were harangued, as if they were one vast family, entreated not to avenge the wrong about to be done them in the person of one of their number. Under the influence of these same ideas the instigator of the slaughter might be punished by beating or exile. At Athens the priest at the sacrifice of the Bouphonia fled, casting his axe away. All those who had taken part in the sacrifice were called to the Prytaneion. They threw the blame upon each other. Finally, the knife was condemned and thrown into the sea."17 It is precisely because the victim of the sacrifice is always an unconscious representation of one's own relative or loved one that this ambivalence and guilt obtains. The projective defence is, while adequate, not perfect.

Further light is shed upon this matter by Hubert and Mauss when they write that the thing consecrated "serves as an intermediary" between the one who is doing the sacrificing—note that Othello has taken on the role of both priest and layman, a symbolic departure from religious sacrifice—and the divinity "to whom the sacrifice is usually addressed. Man and the god are not in direct contact. In this way sacrifice is distinguished from most of the facts grouped under the heading of blood covenant, in which by the exchange of blood a direct fusion of human and divine life is brought about."18 We are reminded here that Othello is concerned with reestablishing contact with his moral center, in this case with the punitive superego that has resulted from his early experience with the mother, his splitting of her image into good and bad representations, his strong repressed impulses, his unconscious anger, and his turning to the father as a substitute object, which may have harbored a guilt-inducing element of retaliation toward mother (she betrayed me, so I'll betray her and go to father). To put our first and second major points together by way of partial summary, we can say that Othello's need to approximate a state of grace and to emerge from a state of sin by consecrating his victim is a need to avoid self-rejection, or rejection by all the significant presences of his endogenous world, a need to reaffirm contact with the part of himself that issues compensatory narcissistic supplies, supplies that gratify the idealized self-image that substitutes for genuine self-esteem, the kind that emerges from a gratifying mother-infant interaction. When Hubert and Mauss point out that in sacrifice there is always an element of expiation and an element of communication, that we would "seek in vain for examples of an expiatory sacrifice into which no element of communion is interpolated, or for examples of communion sacrifices which do not in some respect resemble expiatory ones,"19 they remind us of something which Shakespeare effectively captures for us in Othello through the reactivation of the hero's early experience and the murder of Desdemona, namely that guilt and separation go together, that in the former there is always the threat of the latter. Othello's "sacrifice" would obviate the threat of separation from his customary source of narcissistic supplies by re-establishing contact (communion) with Good Mother and Good Father, by restoring Desdemona to them, and the need for such contact is rooted in his guilt, guilt attendant upon his "descent," his participation in primal materials.

As the hero goes about his business we note his frequent references to light, to heavenly bodies, stars, heaven itself (V.ii.1-83); psychologically, he appears to be rising off the ground, moving up, extending himself toward the sky, as if he were above what he is actually doing. This is, of course, an aspect of Othello's desire to offset his descent into the pit, the cistern of foul toads, hell, damnation, darkness, the metaphorical equivalents of the mother's forfended parts, her engulfing, terrifying power. He will rise toward the heavens, toward the divine image of the Good Mother, the "chaste star." This upward psychological movement calls to mind specific aspects of Renaissance thought, highlights the analytic significance of the "chain of being," the notion of hierarchy, the universal order which projectively affirms the order of the family and of society, particularly the boundaries that must be fixed during the parent-child interaction, the boundaries that ultimately create the order of the inner world. Othello provokes "chaos" or "disorder" as he falls under the influence of maternal power; he gravitates psychologically in a direction that offends the Father and that threatens the patriarchal establishment. During the murder scene Othello binds his aggressive impulses through a ritual that ostensibly affirms order but that actually masks his longing to revenge the oral outrage. We will pursue this more thoroughly in a moment; to be stressed at this juncture is the degree to which the hero's "heavenly" imagery (V.ii) constitutes exemplification of his need to expiate his own undivulged fantasy crimes. As Hubert and Mauss express it in a passage dealing with actual practices, "sacrifice is a religious act that can only be carried out in a religious atmosphere and by means of essentially religious agents. But, in general, before the ceremony neither sacrifier nor sacrificer, nor place, instruments, or victim, possess this characteristic to a suitable degree. The first phase of the sacrifice is intended to impart it to them. They are profane; their condition must be changed. To do this, rites are necessary to introduce them into the sacred world and involve them in it, more or less profoundly, according to the importance of the part they have subsequently to play… . As soon as the priests have been selected, a whole series of symbolic ceremonies begins for the sacrificer. These will progressively strip him of the temporal being that he possessed, in order to cause him to be reborn in an entirely new form. All that touches upon the gods must be divine; the sacrifier is obliged to become a god himself in order to be capable of acting upon them."20 Othello, then, is attempting to strip himself of his own profanity, to touch the gods as it were; however, as we have suggested, his usurpation of the religious place, his attempt to become both priest and sacrificer, violates the order he claims to uphold and makes a travesty of the ritual. Indeed, Othello simply uses his power of fantasy, the power that has guided him all along, to achieve his state of grace. If he must "move upwards," then he will do so by affirming one aspect of his intrapsychic world and negating another. The murder scene is ritual gone mad in the arbitrary projection of regressive, hysterical fantasies. Othello "passes from the world of men into the world of the gods;" he eliminates "the imperfections of his secular nature, cutting him off from the common life," and introduces himself into "the sacred world of the gods."21 Ordinarily, say Hubert and Mauss, this introduction to the gods is accomplished through the priest, through the "minister" who stands "on the threshold of the sacred and the profane world."22 This, in a tragic sense, is precisely where Othello stands.

The Moor's association with actual fire has precisely the same significance as his association with "heaven." In sacrifice "the fire is the slayer of demons. It is even more than this: it is the god, it is Agni in his complete form. In the same way, according to certain Biblical legends also, the fire of sacrifice is none other than the divinity itself, which consumes the victim, or, to put it more exactly, the fire is the sign of consecration which sets it on fire. What is divine in the fire of the Hindu sacrifice is thus transmitted to the place of sacrifice and consecrates it. This site consisted of a fairly large rectangular space, called the vihara."23 The quenching of the candle ("Put out the light") realizes symbolically the absence of this divine element from the scene as a whole. With one mortal breath the fire disappears, "put out" by one who believes it may be rekindled at any time, that is, by one who misses its deeper significance, who regards the "flaming minister" as his own servant to be employed at will. Thus does Othello take upon himself the function of the godhead, with his wilfulness and sense of omnipotence constituting an integral part of his generalized regression to earlier psychic stages.24

We said some moments ago that Othello strives to reestablish positive contact with his internalized presences by returning Desdemona to the maternal and paternal superego, by employing her as a sacrificial bridge to what he projectively regards as "heaven," the symbolical counterpart of his puritanical conscience. To explore this aspect of Othello's behavior is to confront a difficult problem, one that points up the complexity of Othello's motivation, its basic confusion; the problem to which I refer is resolved dramatically through the mechanism of splitting, a mechanism that has characterized Othello's behavior all along and that directs us toward the aggressive and sexual drives which operate "beneath" the hero's ritualistic, sacrificial action. Dealing with the moment of death, Hubert and Mauss maintain, "For the most part it was wished that death should be prompt, and the passage of the victim from its earthly life to its divine one was hastened so as not to leave evil influences time to vitiate the sacrificial act. If the animal's cries were held to be bad omens, an attempt was made to stifle or prevent them. Often, in order to avoid any possible deviations once consecration had taken place, the attempt was made to control the effusion of the consecrated blood. Care was taken that it fell only on a favourable spot, or things were so arranged that not a single drop of it was shed. Sometimes, however, these precautions were considered unnecessary."25 And again, "Through this act of destruction the essential action of the sacrifice was accomplished. The victim was separated definitively from the profane world; it was consecrated, it was sacrificed, in the etymological sense of the word, and various languages gave the name sanctification to the act which brought that condition about. The victim changed its nature, as did Demophoon, as did Achilles, as did the son of the King of Byblos, when Demeter, Thetis, and Isis consumed their humanity in the fire. Its death was like that of the phoenix: it was reborn sacred. But the phenomenon that occurred at that moment had another aspect. If on the one hand the spirit was released, if it had passed completely 'behind the veil' into the world of the gods, the body of the animal on the other hand remained visible and tangible. And it too, by the fact of consecration, was filled with a sacred force that excluded it from the profane world. In short, the sacrificed victim resembled the dead whose souls dealt at one and the same time in the other world and in the corpse. Thus its remains were treated with a religious respect: honours were paid to them. The slaughter thus left a sacred matter behind it, and it was this, as we shall now see, that served to procure the useful effects of the sacrifice. For this purpose it was submitted to a double series of operations. What survived of the animal was attributed entirely to the sacred world, attributed entirely to the profane world, or shared between the two."26 With these remarks in mind we begin to grasp that Othello is attempting to heal the divisiveness in his own personality, to reintegrate himself, by destroying Desdemona in such a way as to satisfy in one ritualistic act both aspects of the split version of the mother which inform his mentation and which stand behind his enormous anxiety and his enormous rage. At one level Desdemona will be consecrated, sacrificed, restored to the pristine condition which preceded her fall, the only condition acceptable to the internalized parents. Othello must "lay his hands on the victim" but in such a way as to leave her "perfect," unmarked, unblemished; no evidence of violation, of outrage, will exist: "I'll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow." At another level, of course, Othello lays his hands upon Desdemona in order to vent his oral outrage, to release his aggression, to revenge the betrayal, the deception, the trickery of the "strumpet." This we explored throughly in the earlier section on the analytic meaning of the strangling. Thus, it is not simply that the ritualistic sacrifice is employed as a rationalization for the murder, rooted in oral outrage; Othello feels a deep, genuine need to act in a manner that will appease the internal persecutors who are outraged by his activated aims. He protects himself by projecting these aims into Desdemona, and finally, by destroying them through her; he obliterates his wife to placate inner voices; in this way, his destruction of Desdemona is a destruction of himself, a defensive annihilation of forces in his own personality which he cannot master, an act of partial self-destruction in homage to the conscience, an act that is completed when he actually suicides at the play's close.

When we view these conflicting aims together—revenge for oral outrage and placating the superego—, aims which mirror the hero's early development, particularly with regard to the splitting of the maternal object, the withdrawal of cathexes from the mother, and the turning to the father's world, we better understand the manner in which Othello's punitive superego and the anxiety generated therefrom determine the kind of sensuality he displays toward Desdemona as he goes about murdering her. I mean that the obviously erotic aspect of Othello's behavior takes an entirely pregenital form. Othello smells his wife, he touches her with his lips while she sleeps, he looks at her, takes her in with his eyes and nostrils; not only is all of this acceptable to the hero's internal guides, it is, in one particular sense, encouraged by them; Othello can love orally with minimal anxiety because oral love expresses pregenital desire, the desire of the child; any other kind of love on Othello's part would not be acceptable to the maternal and paternal superego. We apprehend here the origin of Othello's tension in the murder scene as a whole; we see how the "higher" forces of conscience go hand in hand with the "lower" forces of oral eroticism. Specifically, these so-called higher forces check the hero's genital sexuality, arrest it, impede its expression; while this occurs, the hero's oral aims emerge in all their intensity; the orality, then, "cooperates with," indeed reinforces the controlling influences of conscience which, in turn, reinforce or encourage the orality. In this way, Othello is able to love Desdemona, to murder Desdemona, and to sacrifice Desdemona at the same time. However, when we explore Desdemona's behavior in the murder scene, her response to Othello's "sacrificial intention," her own unconscious attitude toward her victimization, we will grasp more thoroughly the full significance of Shakespeare's ritualistic intention.

Thus far we have been dealing with sacrifice in which the victim is consecrated, in which the victim is magically transformed by the priest into an object fit to serve as an intermediary between man and god, and we have seen how this relates to Othello's conflicting aims, his desire on the one hand to destroy Desdemona and on the other to leave her unmarked, unviolated, perfect. We have also pointed out that in reality the victim had to be made perfect because it "carried" the projected version of the sacrificer's guilt, and that the function of the priest was in reality to "remove" this guilt from the victim through the consecrating ceremony so that the victim would be acceptable to the god. The victim, in short, is the scapegoat of the sacrificer's troubled conscience and the priest is the magical remover of projected taint. In Shakespeare's tragedy, where Othello is both sacrificer and priest, the one who benefits and the one who purifies, this consecrating action is never accomplished, or accomplished only abortively; because Othello projects his aims into Desdemona, and because there is no way for him to stop doing this and have at the same time cause to destroy her, Desdemona is simply made as "perfect" as possible, acceptable as possible to the "heavens" of Othello's private world, by remaining unmarked in her death. But there is another condition in which the victim might find itself at the time of sacrifice, a condition that further illuminates observations made previously, that helps us to understand the relation of Desdemona's conduct to Othello's, and that brings us to a perspective from which the affective, unconscious unity of all sacrifice clearly emerges.

Briefly, the victim in sacrifice may not be made perfect, may not be consecrated to the divinity in a purified state. On the contrary, the victim may quite explicitly take on the sins of the sacrificer and in the act of sacrificial destruction bear them away so as to cleanse the sacrificer's soul. When this occurs the victim does not go to the gods but is simply destroyed, and the gods are pacified not by the arrival of the intermediary but by the removal of the sinfulness from the sacrificer.27 Here, of course, the role of victim as scapegoat, as the bearer of the "sinner's" impulses and deeds, is obvious; we understand that in the first kind of sacrifice "sin" is projected into the victim and then removed by the priest, and that in the second kind "sin" is also transferred from sacrificer to victim through projection but that it is then "left" there to be obliterated in death. Clearly, projection is the basic mechanism upon which all sacrifice is based, and projection is ultimately grounded in social restrictions; we project aims and impulses which we have been trained to consider unacceptable. Sacrifice thus removes the tension within the individual who is unable to follow the rules perfectly; sacrifice allows the individual to preserve a social and intrapsychic equilibrium; it allows societal restrictions to continue effective; it is the institutional counterpart of psychological flexibility. Now when we think on Desdemona's behavior in this scene after she is taken by surprise and strangled, when we think of her attempt to shield Othello by claiming to have killed herself—"Oh, who hath done this deed?" asks Emilia; "Nobody, I myself," replies Desdemona—we realize that the murder scene offers us two versions of the victim, one Othello's and one Desdemona's. Othello strives to consecrate Desdemona in line with his conscience and pregenital sexuality, and Desdemona strives to bear away the sin, to become a scapegoat in the immediate and obvious sense. The murder scene, in a word, is based upon a conflict of rituals surrounding the victim, and it is from this conflict that the scene's emotive power proceeds. That Desdemona's struggle to become another kind of victim aligns her quite obviously with the martyrs, that it is rooted in her powerful self-destructive impulses, impulses which emerge during the play's third and fourth acts, I have delineated in detail elsewhere.28 Here it will be enough to say that Desdemona, in her attempt to shield the hero, exudes the atmosphere of the sacrificing maternal figure, the archetype of the Good Mother whose shelter does not entail the terror of engulfment and regressive libidinal aims but succor, nourishment, protection. That Othello is eager to annihilate such a creature, and to call her "strumpet" in the process, measures with tragic irony his blindness, his total immersion in projective fantasy.

Having came this far, one realizes that what Othello is striving for as he destroys Desdemona is not simply the gratification of his oral outrage and the pacification of his conscience but the reestablishment of his former identity, in a way, the rebirth of the Othello who existed before the "descent," before the reactivation of forbidden aims. To a degree, the murder of Desdemona is an act of undoing. As Hubert and Mauss make clear, the rebirth of the sacrificer is the cardinal aim of sacrifice. "We have seen the symbols which identify the dikshita with a foetus, then a Brahmin and a god. We know the importance of the doctrines of rebirth in the Greek mysteries, the Scandinavian and Celtic mythologies, the cult of Osiris, the Hindu and Avestan theologies, and even in Christian dogma. Now very often these doctrines are linked distinctly with the accomplishment of certain sacrificial rites: the consuming of the cake at Eleusis, of the soma, of the Iranian hoama, etc. Often a change of name marks this re-creation of the individual. We know that in religious belief the name is closely linked with the personality of him who bears it: it contains something of his soul. Now sacrifice is accompanied fairly frequently by a change of name."29 And again, "This vitalizing power of sacrifice is not limited to life here below, but is extended to the future life. In the course of religious evolution the notion of sacrifice has been linked to ideas concerning the immortality of the soul. On this point we have nothing to add to the theories of Rohde, Jevons, and Nutt on the Greek mysteries, with which must be compared the facts cited by S. Lévi taken from the teachings of the Brahmanas, and those that Bergaigne and Darmesteter had already gleaned from the Vedic and Avestan texts. The relationship that connects Christian communion with everlasting salvation must also be maintained. However important these facts may be, their importance must not be exaggerated. So long as the belief in immortality is not disentangled from the crude theology of sacrifice it remains vague. It is the "non-death" (amritam) of the soul that is ensured by sacrifice. It is a guarantee against annihilation in the other life as well as in this."30 Clearly then, Othello's "sacrifice" of Desdemona is proof to his internalized gods and goddesses, the pregenital introjects of mother and father, that he is, after all, what they have taken him to be all along. What is the upshot?

When it becomes clear to Othello that Desdemona is innocent, that he has destroyed one who did indeed reflect the perfection of Good Mother, the hero is confronted once again with annihilation, this time at the hands of those to whom he turned for support upon experiencing the original rejection, namely the Fathers, those who came to mould his paternal superego as well as his ego ideal. At the same time, Othello, through the destruction of Desdemona, has lost the maternal object with whom he recently united or, from a stricter psychological angle, reunited, and he is faced again with a loss that recalls the early trauma of maternal separation. In this way, the murder of Desdemona ironically causes the old and terrible pattern to repeat itself. The hero experiences an abandonment—"O Desdemona! Desdemona! Dead! Oh! Oh! Oh!"—and a loss of self-esteem—"O fool! Fool! Fool!"—that leave him virtually without resources. That he longs to turn to Father in this crisis is clear from the way in which he refers to the strawberry handkerchief seconds before the full truth is out. "It was a handkerchief," he says to Gratanio who represents the Venetian Senators, "an antique token / My father gave my mother." This is not a slip on Shakespeare's part (Othello earlier claimed that an Egyptian gave his mother "the napkin"). Othello is now using the very same transitional object as a means of making contact with the Father, the Father he wants frantically to substitute again for the mother's loss. However, what Othello does not experience here is the realization that his version of Desdemona was grounded entirely in his own projections, that he bears the aims he ascribed to her. This never occurs to him. When commentators claim, as they often do,31 that Othello fails to really understand the forces which drove him to the murder, that he dies ignorant and unchastened, they mean, to put it in precise analytical language, that Othello never gets at the projective nature of his accusations against Desdemona; he never sees himself as the morally corrupt agent of destruction; to an extent he blames Iago, and rightly so; but in the hour of his suicidal death—as witnessed by his final speech—he is concerned overwhelmingly with the reestablishment of his former greatness, with his after-death reputation, with the way in which Venice, the Father, will think of him, and not with his own error and guilt; these, in fact, are ancillary matters. Hubert and Mauss point out that many gods are said to have died by their own hand; without going into considerable detail, we may suggest that "in these sacrifices the god and the victim are especially homogenous," and that the sacrifice, "of itself, effects an exaltation of the victims, which renders them directly divine."32 These authors go on, "There are numerous legends in which these apotheoses are related. Herakles was not admitted to Olympus until his suicide on Oeta. Attis and Eshmun were animated after death with a divine life. The constellation of Virgo in none other than Erigone, an agrarian goddess who hanged herself. In Mexico a myth relates that the sun and moon were created by a sacrifice. The goddess Toci, mother of the gods, was also presented as a woman whom sacrifice made divine." And finally, "The sacrificial apotheosis is none other than the rebirth of the victim. Its divinization is a special case and a superior kind of sanctification and separation. But this form hardly occurs save in sacrifices where, by localizing, concentrating, and accumulating a sacred character, the victim is invested with the highest degree of sanctity—a sanctity organized and personified in the sacrifice."33 The point is, Othello's initial failure at rebirth, a failure contained in the murder of Desdemona, is followed by a second attempt, an attempt contained in the destruction of himself. Let us look at the final speech:

   Soft you, a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then, must you
Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous, but, being
Perplexed in the extreme, of one whose hand
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe—of one whose
 subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Bet a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him, thus.
                                 Stabs himself

Othello is making an appeal here, an appeal directly related to persons within his environment, for the reestablishment of a former symbiotic relationship. He will destroy the Moor of Venice so that the Moor of Aleppo may live on in the hearts and minds of the Venetian state the metaphorical Father. The wayward son, having fallen into the clutches of maternal power, power residing in his own character, makes amends through his voluntary death, his self-sacrifice to the ego ideal forged in the patriarchal, military world.

Thus Othello, in the end, becomes the sacrificial victim that he sought to make his wife; in this way, he participates in the magical powers of transformation associated with the sacrificial act and with the concept of divinity. Hubert and Mauss explore the suicide of the god along these lines: since the victim in sacrifice brings about rebirth (of the sacrificer), the victim has a god-like function; a single god, then, may become both the begetter of renewed life and the victim by condensing, as it were, the divided ritual into a single behavior that speaks for death and life at the same time. The notion of undoing will allow us to understand this along analytical lines; that is, to undo is to negate (destroy) a behavior and the identity associated with it; thus, to undo is to reestablish (resurrect) an identity that existed before the enactment of that behavior. It is in this sense that suicide constitutes undoing, and through undoing, reborning, starting afresh. Because these "two" occurrences transpire in one event, one god can constitute divinity and victim; in other words, the victim and the divinity are in reality the split halves of the single mind (need) that stands behind the sacrificial act.

That Othello's magical appeal to the Venetian fathers is finally successful, one cannot with certainty say; Shakespeare seems to reckon here upon a wide latitude of response in the audience. Cassio's reaction to the Moor's self-destruction goes thus: "This did I fear, but thought he had no weapon. / For he was great of heart." Yet Gratanio, a Venetian elder, exclaims upon watching Othello take his own life, "All that's spoke is marred." What is worth stressing, however, is the manner in which Othello's final moments attest to the ultimate power of The Mother figure. Immediately after having stabbed himself the hero turns away from the men and toward the body of his dead wife. "I kissed thee ere I killed thee," he says, keeping the play's oral imagery at the forefront of our minds; "No way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss," and he falls upon the bed where Desdemona lies. The point is, Othello's relationship with the father and the father's world is, in the last analysis, substitutive and compensatory; he gravitates toward the men when he discovers himself "out in the cold," separated from the all-important mother. To put it in a nutshell, the father of Othello's emotive world represents at the deepest level a kind of avenue backward to the maternal figure. By the end of the play Othello is where he wanted to be all along, although not in the condition he desired. He is lying next to "Mother" on the bed. But perhaps the condition of death is the only one in which the grown person can fulfill his regressive wish for the symbiotic union of long ago.

As we have suggested already, the Elders of Venice speak for the patriarchal order that Othello, in his regressive madness, his "cannibalism," his infantilism, threatens. Having fallen under the sway of maternal influence, worshipping the matriarchal goddess of his twisted world, Othello, who has introjected the standards of the Father, removes this threat himself when he truncates his own existence. The last words of the play touch upon the necessity of reporting the debacle to the "state," of restoring order upon Cyprus, of punishing Iago who has been so instrumental in catalyzing the reactivation of Othello's repressed emotions. However, it is precisely this patriarchal order that engenders the ambivalence of the mother-infant relationship, that breeds the familial tensions which, in turn, produce the tragic characters, the characters who are vulnerable to the power of women, the characters who are apt to create havoc in the world around them. The wheel may come full circle at the close of Othello, but the wheel continues to turn; it is not "Fortune" that spins it; it is a specific pattern of culture, a specific method of rearing children, a specific kind of mother who is herself trapped.

Finally, from a purely formalistic standpoint, we should note that the absence of the actual mother in the play, along with 1) the crucial role of projective mechanisms in manufacturing the fantasy version of the mother, and 2) the presence of Iago as catalyst, make the aesthetic experience of Othello strikingly different from that of Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Othello's power to draw us in derives, of course, from our own ambivalence, our own splitting of the maternal figure, our own fascination with betrayal, the bad object, sadism, revenge, not to mention our own desire to explore through identification the mystery of the mother's feelings, the actual quality of the early time. In this sense, Othello is like the other plays. What differentiates it, however, and what explains its enormous power, is the manner in which, through the mother's absence, through the role of projection, and through the character of Iago, the play engages our fascination with the testing of reality. We know that Othello's version of Desdemona is chimerical; we know that it is called into life by Iago; to this extent we can enter into the fantasy world with assurance; at the same time we can experience the very basic pleasure of reality testing by reminding ourselves that we know what is real and what is not. Hence, identification with Othello is relatively harmless; why not identify? Why not peer at what Othello peers at? Continually able to test reality, we are not threatened by these primal materials. Thus the absence of the actual mother in Othello offers us the opportunity to examine the purely fantastic mother of the hero in such a way as to repudiate her and participate in her at the same time. In addition to this, Iago, by constantly reminding us of Othello's victimization, and by contributing himself to the fantasy of the bad object, further distances the audience from the primal realities and makes participation morally acceptable at the secondary level. In this way, Iago helps us to test reality and to know where we stand in relation to the version of the bad object which emerges during the middle acts. Thus the impression readers often get that Iago is a realist, an impression that is wrong,34 derives from the play's defensive or distancing techniques and not from what Iago says and does, which is quite passionate and even mad. Iago allows us to test reality, to be realistic, by reminding us of the fantastic nature of the projective version of the mother which informs the play as a whole. Essentially then, it is the mother's absence that permits us to gaze intensively at the central fantasy (primal scene) and to enjoy in a very basic way our own ability to test reality by opposing it to Othello's inability to do so. In other words, an adaptive strength combines with an affective drive to create the play's dynamic power.

Consideration such as this clearly reveals the degree to which the hero of Othello functions not only as victim, but our victim, the one into whom we project our forbidden aims and impulses, the one who, through suicide, pays the price for our indulgence, the one for whom we mourn because he has taken on the godlike function of our purgation: the tragic theater of Othello is a secular version of the old religious sacrifice, the ancient ritual in Renaissance dress. In one way or another, all tragedy shares this characteristic.


1 Stephen Shapiro, "Othello's Desdemona" (1964), in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, ed. M. D. Faber, New York: Science House, Inc., 1970, p. 187.

2Ibid., pp. 185-192.

3 See Sigmund Freud, "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life," in Creativity and the Unconscious, ed. Benjamin Nelson, New York: Harper and Row, 1958, pp. 173-186.

4 I am using the G. B. Harrison edition of The Complete Works, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1952.

5 Stephen Reid, "Othello's Jealousy," The American Imago, XXV (1968), pp. 274-293.

6 D. W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, New York: International Universities Press, 1965, p. 73.

7Ibid., p. 75.

8 See my presentation of Reid's work toward the inception of the Othello section.

9 Harvey L. Resnik, "Eroticized Repetitive Hangings: A Form of Self-Destructive Behavior," pp. 8-9. This paper is currently in proofsheets at the American Journal of Psychotherapy. I am working with a manuscript version.

10Ibid., pp. 10-10a.

11Ibid., pp. 20-21.


13 Harold F. Searles, Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects, New York: International Universities Press, 1965, p. 188.

14 I am quoting Vivian Fromberg's report of Phyllis Greenacre's paper, "The Transitional Object and the Fetish: Special Reference to the Role of Illusion." See the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, XL (1971), pp. 384-385.

15 Martin Wangh, "'Othello': The Tragedy of Iago" (1950), in The Design Within, op. cit., p. 166.

16 Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function (1898), trans. W. D. Halla, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967, pp. 9-10.

17Ibid., p. 33.

18Ibid., p. 11.

19Ibid., p. 17.

20Ibid., pp. 19-20.

21Ibid., p. 22.

22Ibid., p. 23.

23 I bid., p. 26.

24 Othello's primitivism throughout the play calls to mind the kind of primitivism Freud explored in Totem and Taboo, particularly in the chapter on Anamism, Magic, and the Omnipotence of Thought. Freud' s pre-occupation with projection in that essay and his attempt to link the projective tendencies of the "savage" and those of the "neurotic" are salient.

25 Hubert and Mauss, op. cit., p. 34.

26Ibid., p. 35.

27 See Ibid., pp. 55-57.

28 See M. D. Faber, "Shakespeare's Suicides: Historic, Dramatic, and Psychological Reflections," in Essays in Self-Destruction, ed. Edwin S. Shneidman, New York: Science House, Inc., 1967, pp. 30-58.

29 Hubert and Mauss, op. cit., pp. 62-63.

30Ibid., pp. 63-64.

31 See Robert B. Heilman: Magic in the Web, Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1956; Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy, Columbia University Press, 1956; A. Gerard: "Egregiously an Ass: the Dark Side of the Moor," Shakespeare Survey, X (1957), pp. 98-106. Negative views of Othello's character are summarized in Ronald Berman, A Reader's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays, New York: Scott Foresman, 1965.

32 Hubert and Mauss, op. cit., pp. 78-79.

33Ibid., pp. 79-80.

34 M. D. Faber, "'Othello': The Justice of It Pleases," The American Imago, XXVIII (1971), pp. 243-246.


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Stephen Reid (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Othello's Journey," in American Imago, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1968, pp. 274-93.

[In the following essay, Reid contends that Othello suffers from a delusional jealousy that springs from "castration anxiety aroused by his marriage to Desdemona."]

Freud's conjectures on the origin and meaning of sexual jealousy1 have been the basis for psychoanalytic explanations of all manifestations of jealousy—real or fictional. His distinctions among three "layers or grades of jealousy" are well known: competitive or normal, projected, and delusional.2 It is the third of these that has attracted the most attention, and it is this "layer" or "grade" of jealousy which has been seen as the source of Othello's unfounded belief in Desdemona's infidelity. Freud's explanation of delusional jealousy is as follows:

It too [like "projected" jealousy] has its origin in repressed impulses towards unfaithfulness; but the object in these cases is of the same sex as the subject. Delusional jealousy is what is left of a homosexuality that has run its course, and it rightly takes its position among the classical forms of paranoia. As an attempt at defence against an unduly strong homosexual impulse it may, in a man, be described in the formula: "I do not love him, she loves him!" In a delusional case one will be prepared to find jealousy belonging to all three layers, never to the third alone.3

Abraham Bronson Feldman, in an article, "Othello's Obsessions," makes the case that Othello's jealousy is of this nature:

That Othello's jealousy is for love of Cassio cannot, of course, be demonstrated by overt testimony… . The Moor's unconscious hides his true feeling for the Florentine by a trick of ambiguity, compelling his ego to couple the love with his honorable sentiment for Desdemona. His superego allows him to think lecherously of Cassio under cover of righteous horror at his wife's alleged guilt.

It should be obvious by now that Othello's love for Brabantio's daughter was a makeshift passion, the device of a mind in terror of a certain chaos to save itself. The chaos feared by the Moor can be defined as a madness resulting from a revelation of his inner lack of manliness. This fear of unvirility springs from a deeply repressed homosexual impulse, manifested by his passion for Cassio.4

I have never felt that the text really bears out this reading. But I do think that the text points to another, a different "mechanism" for his delusional jealousy (for that it certainly is, however we attempt to explain it) than that offered by Feldman. If so, it will not have been the first time that a poet has offered the basis for a new psychoanalytic insight.

In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Leontes' jealousy of his wife fits, point by point, Freud's description. This is widely acknowledged. W. H. Auden states that "Leontes is a classical case of paranoid sexual jealousy due to repressed homosexual feelings."5 And Bernard Shaw was moved to say that Leontes' jealousy was the "real article … an unmistakeable study of a jealous man from life," in contrast to Othello's jealousy, which was "pure melodrama."6 Othello's jealousy, needless to say, is not "pure melodrama," although it is, I suggest, something other than a delusional jealousy based on an unconscious homosexual impulse. His jealousy can best be explained, I believe, as a more elementary defence against the castration anxiety aroused by his marriage to Desdemona. Now, the castration anxiety that lies behind Freud's formulation of delusional jealousy has a different meaning. It is the dread of castration as the price of being loved by the father—a secondary construct resulting from the boy's wish to be loved by him. In Othello (as I shall attempt to demonstrate), it is the older fear of punitive action by the father for the crime of originally desiring the mother. In both cases, the starting point is the same: deep resentment toward the mother for her rejection of him in favor of the father. The following passage from Charles Brenner's An Elementary Textbook of Psychoanalysis concludes his exposition of the central oedipal conflicts:

The situation is complicated by the fact that the little boy is also stirred to a jealous rage against his mother for her rejection of his wish for exclusive possession of her caresses and her body and this either reinforces or gives rise to a wish to get rid of her (kill her) and to be loved by the father in her place. Since this too leads to the fear of castration, once he has learned that to be a woman is to be without a penis, these wishes also must eventually be repressed.7

This passage describes the typical pattern in general terms. It is inevitable that the boy will be stirred to a "jealous rage" by what he feels is his mother's rejection, and it is inevitable that he will turn, in a feminine way, to his father for love; it is also inevitable that he must repress both these feelings. But each case is individual and will exhibit a unique outcome depending (among many things) on the amount of seductive love shown by the mother before the inevitable rejection, the degree of that rejection, the age at which that rejection takes place, the degree of masculinity of the father—to say nothing of the innate strength of the boy's instincts. Suffice it to say, the intensity of homo-sexual dread that lies behind Freud's formulation of delusional jealousy, although common, is not inevitable, even though we grant the universal fact that the mother does indeed reject her young son and that the son, in turn, rejects her by submitting in fantasy to the homosexual love of the father. I am proposing that Othello offers a case of delusional jealousy in a man in whom the "homosexual solution" (as Ernest Jones puts it8) to the mother's rejection has "not gone far."

I will present first a hypothetical reconstruction of Othello's development, and then look at his behavior in the play as dependent upon it. (I put the following in definite terms for the sake of simplicity and clarity. It is, as I stated, a hypothetical reconstruction.) Othello's attachment to his mother was very strong, and very early she must have sensed this and rejected him. That is, after a period of loving attention, Othello's mother changed. This change was felt by Othello as treachery, and it stirred him to a "jealous rage" against her. He turned in a passive, feminine way toward the father for love. But, for reasons we cannot determine, this, the "homosexual solution" to the mother's rejection, did "not go far." The treachery and the anger it evoked, however, quite obliterated for him his earlier, intense fear of castration by the father as punishment for his love of the mother. This he could then afford to ignore because all real danger had been removed by the mother's rejection. This anger against the mother fell victim to repression, for he still needed his mother's protection and the limited love she still offered. The anger was transformed into nonerotic idealization, and the image of the father as a retaliatory, castrating figure became significantly weaker. Othello, the adult, retained the same complex of responses: an idealization of women which masked the unacceptable anger at his mother's treachery and a singular lack of fear of men. Othello rejects women and has (in part at least because of this rejection) little cause to elicit hostile impulses in men. Lodovico's summary of the Othello that was is a very good one:

Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?9
                               (IV, i, 275-279)

Othello's absolute barrier against love is the secret of this "admirable" personality. Now, an absolute barrier against love is not the usual thing in cases of delusional jealousy based on unconscious homosexual drives. In these cases, jealousy develops after a certain time in the love relationship. The jealousy of Leontes in The Winter's Tale is a good example: it comes after many years of marriage. At bottom, the greatest weakness that men display is rooted in their attempts to resolve the oedipal conflicts. Othello had not attempted to resolve them—to find an acceptable love object—and hence was not subject to the irresolutions, doubts, disappointments, and jealousies that account for so much in the lives of most men. Coleridge's pronouncement that Othello's was not a jealous personality is correct. To Emilia's question, "Is he not jealous?" Desdemona answers in astonishment: "Who? He? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humors from him" (III, iv, 29-31). Such a personality is most open to danger. Freud opens his article on "Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality" with the following statements:

Jealousy is one of those affective states, like grief, that may be described as normal. If anyone appears to be without it, the inference is justified that it has undergone severe repression and consequently plays all the greater part in his unconscious mental life.10

The three factors that Freud finds in the psychical eteology of homosexuality—attachment to the mother, fear of castration, and narcissism—are all to be seen in Othello. But these have not led to a significant homosexual orientation. They have led to the following characteristics: an avoidance of women, an un-complicated ascendency over men (in so far as was socially possible, and due in part to the fact that, having avoided women, he automatically avoided the essential anxiety that dominates competition among men), and a high degree of self-consciousness—a display of narcissism—about his value as a soldier. One might see this group of characteristics as typical of the latency period. In particular, Othello's loyalty to the Venetian state can be taken as the normal latency reconciliation with the positive oedipal father. This is, as we know, a temporary and unstable posture, one which is destined to be disrupted in adolescence.

Such is the noble Moor, in middle years and at the height of his career, when he is confronted by Desdemona's love for him. (In this paper, I am expressly avoiding analysis of both Desdemona and lago.) "Fate," as Freud would put it, catches Othello at his weakest point. Why, one asks, should Othello have responded to Desdemona? The answer is not difficult: their relationship reproduces all to perfectly the situation Othello had longed to experience with his mother after her rejection. Desdemona is, first of all, inaccessible. Not only is she of a different race (the force of which Othello acknowledges when he says of Desdemona that her choosing him was a case of "nature erring from itself III, i, 227), but she has held herself aloof from all suitors ("the wealthy curled darlings" of Venice, I, ii, 68). This inaccessible woman makes the first advances—that which the child Othello had longed for his mother to have done and, most significantly, the advances are made in response to Othello's tales of adventure—tales of heroic exploit that are the typical fantasies of the little boy, tales of masculine success designed to impress the mother with his superiority to her husband. This is the fatal combination—the inaccessible woman who believes in and accepts the heroic fancies of the boy—that destroys Othello. It is fatal because it unleashes quite suddenly the castration anxieties that he had never faced quite fully in childhood, anxieties which had been effectively quieted by the mother's putting herself out of reach. And it awakens as well the long buried rage at the mother for her rejection.

Consider what happens the moment he accepts Desdemona's love. Instead of confronting Brabantio, he elopes with Desdemona. When the Duke states that Othello's story of his exploits would have won his daughter also, we can assume that from the viewpoint of a Venetian Senator, Othello's marriage to a Venetian daughter was at least a distinct social possibility. But Othello assumes that Brabantio will oppose the marriage, and instead of facing that opposition he chooses to avoid it. Only Iago knows that he is spending the night at the Sagittary Inn. The noise of the Senate's emissaries arouses Othello, and although the marriage is as yet unconsummated, he goes to the Senate chamber. To the Senate and to Brabantio, Othello calmly tells the story of the courtship, but he nonetheless says that he has taken away Brabantio's daughter, as though father and suitor stood in the same relationship to the woman. And, when he gains permission of the Duke to do as he pleases about Desdemona, he sends her on a different ship to Cyprus. As a result, the consummation of the marriage is once more postponed—this time for the length of the voyage to Cyprus. We are justified in seeing here motive, not chance. The reasons for his postponement are clear: the idea of marriage to Desdemona suddenly releases the long buried oedipal anxieties, and he behaves as though he had indeed succeeded in having his mother reject his father for him. He is afraid. He tries to deny that fear, to reaffirm his "all in all" sufficiency. To Iago's statement that "You were best go in" (when it appears—mistakenly—that Brabantio and his armed men are approaching), he says: "Not I; I must be found" (I, ii, 30). But, despite the fact that his elopement is a declaration of guilt, he now asserts his right to have her: "My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly" (I, ii, 31-32). We know from countless examples that the man who is moved to proclaim his innocence ("my perfect soul") announces a guilty conscience. It is not necessary to recount the overly calm dignity with which he faces the Senate and the father. It covers the anxiety.

The meeting on Cyprus betrays this anxiety more directly. After proclaiming his joy in their reunion—a joy whose hyperbolic exaggeration warns us—Othello says:

                 If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

It is the anxiety of impending doom in this speech and not its declaration of love that Desdemona catches:

                   The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should
Even as our days do grow.
                                  (II, i, 192-197)

Then comes the hint of infidelity and he breaks down completely. Up until that moment (twice postponed) of the consummation of the marriage, this anxiety had been under control. But now the guilt is overwhelming. He cannot deny it (the entire military community on Cyprus is pointedly aware that the marriage is being consummated), but he can attempt to relieve the guilt by deflecting it. The mental process is this: She has betrayed me (as well as her father), and so I am an innocent wronged one, along with him. His idea that he must kill her to prevent her from betraying more men is an announcement to his super-ego: You see, I am serving your interest, not my own. He announces to his introjected father: I have not really done you a disservice, she has, and to protect your interests, I will prevent all future betrayals by killing her. You therefore will not need to punish me.

Because of the strength of his guilt, he is widely open to Iago's insinuations. To Iago's statement, "She did deceive her father, marrying you," Othello answers with a surprising promptness and simplicity: "And so she did" (III, iii, 206; 208). Earlier, before the consummation of the marriage, when the anxiety was under control, Othello had answered Brabantio's warning, "She has deceived her father, and may thee" with the brave affirmative: "My life upon her faith!" (I, iii, 294-295). That Othello now accepts Desdemona's love for him as a fault in her indicates clearly enough that he has shifted all blame from himself to her.

We must now assess Cassio's role in Othello's anxieties. What is the evidence the text offers, up to the "temptation" scene, of an idealized homosexual love that Othello has for Cassio? He has chosen him, above Iago, as his officer, and, in dismissing him, he says: "Cassio, I love thee; / But never more be officer of mine" (II, iii, 248-249). There is nothing else. As to Iago's superior qualifications, we have no way of knowing. But in any case, we know better than to trust him. And the statement of his continued "love" for Cassio is certainly more than offset by his prior statement:

                      I know, Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio. Cassio, I love thee;
But never more be officer of mine.
                              (II, iii, 246-249)

This is not the statement of a man whose fondness for Cassio was abnormal (or he would have accepted Iago's whitewashing job) or that of a man whose anxieties about an unconscious homosexual attraction was significant (or he would not have added the phrase: "I love thee"). These lines by Othello are those of a man quite untouched by deep feelings for the man he is addressing. The outburst of Leontes' jealousy could not be more different. The subject matter of the conversation that issues in the jealousy is simply that of the love between Leontes and Polixenes—a love that goes back to childhood and which was an exclusive passion. Polixenes has spent nine months at the court of Leontes and Hermione—after a long separation—and is about to depart. Leontes tries to persuade him to stay longer, unsuccessfully. Leontes then asks Hermione to persuade Polixenes to stay longer, and at her bidding he complies. It is at this point that the jealousy quite spontaneously enters Leontes' mind. The dynamics of Leontes' conflicts may be described in this way. He had struggled with his repressed love for Polixenes for many months. He has wished him to remain, but the anxieties his presence aroused caused Leontes to wish him gone. Now, that Polixenes is about to depart, the danger is past, and all that Leontes wishes is that he stay. When that wish is unexpectedly realized (at the bidding of his wife), the anxieties suddenly flood back in the form of delusional jealousy. It is a startlingly clear picture and remarkably different from the content of Othello's anxieties in the first half of the play.

What follows Iago's insinuation? There are some half dozen references by Othello that he wishes to see Cassio dead. I shall return to them in a moment. I have deduced that the oedipal anxieties which were released in Othello upon his marriage to Desdemona caused him to deflect his guilt by accusing Desdemona. This is the irresistible solution to his anxieties. But this solution in its turn creates another, equally painful anxiety. That is, to face the actual position as a betrayed husband—to be sneered at as a cockold. The conflict that Othello faces in the last half of the play is between his overpowering need to find Des demona guilty and the resulting fact that his is now an unendurably humiliating position. I believe that the back-and-forth expostulations that Othello produces in the last half of the play can be laid to this very simple fact. At one moment, Desdemona is an angel; the next, a devil. The pain of humiliation is so great that it causes him to find her innocent ("I'll not believe it." III, iii, 279); but then the pain of the reawakened castration anxiety is so great that he must find her guilty.

Now, in so far as he finds her guilty and accepts his position as a cuckold, it is to be expected that this new pain would find a scapegoat—naturally Cassio. But—and this is the central point—his aggressive language concerning the murder of Cassio is, when contrasted with his rage at Desdemona, bloodless. The language is weak because Cassio is not the primary cause of his anxiety. For example, Othello says:

Within these three days let me hear thee say
That Cassio's not alive.
                             (III, iii, 471-472)


Not Cassio killed? Then murder's out of
And sweet revenge grows harsh.
                          (V, ii, 115-116)

The only time that Othello's anger toward Cassio reaches fever pitch is in the following line: "I would have him nine years a-killing!" and this is followed at once with a reference to Desdemona: "A fine woman! a fair woman! a sweet woman!" (IV, i, 188). But when we compare Othello's statements about Cassio with those about Desdemona we are aware of being in a different sphere: "Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!" (III, iii, 475); "I'll tear her all to pieces!" (III, iii, 431); "I will chop her into messes!" (IV, i, 211). Finally, when the error is revealed at the end, Othello's apology to Cassio is perfunctory, uncharged with any kind of feeling:

Cassio. Dear General, I never you cause.
Othello. I do believe it, and I ask your
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and
                           (V, ii, 299-303)

Were the essential cause of Othello's jealousy an anxiety created by an unconscious homosexual love for Cassio, surely the relief that the truth afforded would have shown itself in a more significant statement. Once again, one has only to contrast this with the heartfelt repentence and penance of Leontes after he learns the truth about Polixenes' innocence. We understand this repentence, this remorse, as the renewed expression of love for the man he had wronged. There is nothing like this in Othello. Rather, Cassio becomes through projection the positive oedipal son. Othello, particularly while witnessing the by-play about the handkerchief in the fourth act, sees in Cassio the successful oedipal son. By a series of displacements (Desdemona-EmiliaBianca), Othello vicariously and safely enjoys the consummation of the oedipal sins. His attitude toward Cassio, then, is essentially the resentment of an unsuccessful evil-doer towards a successful evil-doer. As such, it is similar to Hamlet's hatred of Claudius.

In his study of Hamlet, Ernest Jones raises the following point: if a man is moved by jealousy to murder, whom does he kill—his wife or her lover? It is, as Jones puts it, a "nice question." But his answer is simple. The man will kill the one who gives him the most anxiety. If the love is genuine—that is, not fraught by anxiety—he will kill the lover who threatens to take the wife from him. A number of reasons might be advanced for the more abnormal case in which the husband murders his wife. It is clear that it is Desdemona, and not Cassio, who gives Othello the essential anxiety. I have adduced that Desdemona's love for Othello reawakened in him two logically incompatible feelings: the intolerable oedipal anxieties (which had effectively been quieted by the mother's rejection) and the old rage at the mother for that rejection (which had been transformed into a non-erotic idealization). These feelings, as I have said, are logically incompatible, but are perfectly compatible in the unconscious. And it is the combination of these feelings which, I believe, leads him to the murder of Desdemona.

Nonetheless, psychoanalytic theory insists on the presence of decisive homosexual tendencies in delusional jealousy. There are two mechanisms to be considered: first (in time) the boy attempts to ward off the initial castration anxiety by placating the father—by acting in a feminine way with him, and second, the boy attempts to revenge himself upon his mother for her rejection of him by offering himself to his father—by acting in a feminine way with him. The first is an attempt to reduce the fears of castration, the second (what I have called the "homosexual solution" to the rage at the mother's rejection) creates the anxiety of a self-imposed castration, since that is the price of being loved as a woman by the father. I have already dealt with the second of these mechanisms, and I have found no evidence of this mechanism in Othello. It is of interest now to examine the first. In his article on jealousy, Jones states:

Whether this anger [the protection against fear and guilt] will be directed more against the woman or the man depends on the level to which his psychosexual development has proceeded. If the inhibition is a deep one, so that the homosexual development has gone far, then he will turn on the woman and in certain cases will even kill her. If he has proceeded further along the normal line of development, his fear of the father is less and his aggressive opposition to him will be allowed to express itself against the rival.11

Now the flight to this earlier homosexual solution—the homosexual solution of the primary oedipal anxieties rather than the homosexual solution to the (later) rage at the mother for her rejection—is put by Jones as follows:

The ultimate source of the fear and guilt that lie behind all these reactions is the relationship to another potential man and it is derived from the boy's attitude towards his father. So long as there is an unconscious fixation on the childish attitudes it is hard for him to picture a woman quite apart from another man to whom she secretly belongs; this is simply another way of saying that he cannot refrain from reproducing the situation of childhood when the woman he loved belonged to another man who was never far away. The homosexual tendency we noted is really an impulse to placate this 'other man'—i. e., the father—by identifying himself with the woman, by replacing his masculine attitude towards the mother by a feminine one towards the father. In his love life he needs, as I indicated formerly, a certain masculinity in the woman; this is the father she carries about with her. The woman's love protects him from his guilt and the fear of the father. If this love is unsuccessful he has to reproduce a triangular situation, often delusionally, so as to deal along homosexual lines with the father.12

The intolerable anxiety that can develop then turns, according to Jones, into a murderous hatred for the woman: "He reproaches her with not loving him enough. Psychologically this means a reproach that she no longer by her love protects him from the feared and hated father."13 When the repressed homosexual impulses are reawakened "often in response to some new stimulation, some change in the environment, or perhaps some diminution in the woman's attractiveness,"14 the anxiety will vent itself in murderous hatred of the woman who had previously protected him from the feared results of these impulses. Hence, this victim of delusional jealousy will kill his wife.

But again, the text of Othello, in which a victim of delusional jealousy does indeed kill his wife, will not corroborate this particular analysis. The central point of Jones's analysis is that because the wife is no longer felt to protect him against his original oedipal fears, the man "often delusionally" will "reproduce a triangular situation" in order to have an object, another man who stands for the father, which he can try to placate. Now, this hypothetical step taken by the husband implies in fantasy a submissive posture to this other man or, in reaction to the new castration fears this submissive posture creates, intense hostility toward that man or, perhaps, both in rapid alternation. Of the first, a submissive posture toward Cassio, there is not a hint. Of the second, intense hostility toward Cassio, there is as I have indicated, little evidence. And it might be noted that the hostile feelings Othello does produce against Cassio are all in response to suggestions of Iago: they do not arise spontaneously. Furthermore, Desdemona is hardly the woman of "a certain masculinity" that Jones describes—a woman who could by her masculine strength protect Othello from his oedipal fears. Hermione, in The Winter's Tale, is a very strong woman. It can not be said that Desdemona's love protects Othello from anything. It is the very idea of her love that unsettles him. In Cinthio, Shakespeare's source, the Moor and Desdemona have been married publically, although against her parents' wishes, and have lived together in harmony and peace for some time. This Shakespeare changed quite drastically, and the wildly implausible fact that Othello murders Desdemona within twenty-four hours after the consummation of the marriage makes no psychoanalytic sense if we must assume that it is the wife's eventual failure to protect him from fears of the father that drives Othello to murder.

Othello's idealization of Desdemona is the heart of the tragedy. This idealization can be demonstrated throughout the play. I cite three statements. In the midst of his agony, and spliced between statements of his hatred for her, we find this:

O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! She might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks.

(IV, i, 195-196)

So delicate with her needle! an admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear!

(IV, i, 199-201)

And at the end:

                 Nay, had she been true,
If heaven would make me such another
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I'd not have sold her for it.
                              (V, ii, 143-146)

Such idealization may be taken as a combined defence against his own too dangerous incestuous impulses and against either a) the bitter resentment that the mother did not, after all, prefer him to the father, or b) the intensified anxiety induced by an overly demonstrative mother. In both cases, the result is the same: idealization as a safeguard against anxiety and hatred. But there is a critical difference as well. Hamlet is instructive at this point—and perhaps it is no accident that the two plays are close together in point of composition. We know a great deal about Hamlet's mother, and we have assumed with all justification that Gertrude lavished a great amount of love on her young son for a long time. And we have assumed that this reinforcement of his own incestuous love for her resulted in Hamlet's idealization of both parents. The resolution of his own dangerous wishes and the encouragement of them by Gertrude was as follows: Hamlet neutralized his own incestuous longings by repressing them and he neutralized Gertrude's "infidelity" with him by transforming her into the opposite of what she appeared to him—he made her to be a loving wife to her husband. The idealization of his father was the result of an excessive fear of him—the fear strengthened by his mother's behavior with him. Othello's case was different. He wished to punish the mother not because she reinforced his oedipal anxieties but because she so frustrated his erotic wishes. In Hamlet's case, the reawakening of the buried feelings (occasioned by his discovery of Gertrude's incest and adultery) was the reawakening of an anxiety that had been extreme in childhood, and it results in a loathing of the woman who had done this. This loathing, it is important to note, implies no small degree of tolerance of the anxieties which his mother's behavior had occasioned. In Othello's case, the reawakening of the buried feelings (occasioned by Desdemona's love for him) is the reawakening of anxieties that his mother had originally reduced by her rejection of him, and it results not in the more mild feeling of loathing—which involves a certain acceptance of his own feelings (Hamlet experiences bad dreams, not Othello)—but in the more absolute mechanism of deflecting the guilt entirely on to the woman who had suddenly betrayed him into a dangerous situation. In other words, Hamlet had had more to repress than Othello. Hamlet's mother encouraged his incestuous yearnings; Othello's mother had discouraged his incestuous yearnings. The reawakening in Hamlet, therefore, stirs him to a hatred for his mother—but a hatred which says this: You, whom I had always thought a wonderful woman, who loved my father, now show yourself to be common. You make me sick. The reawakening in Othello, however, stirs him to a hatred for the mother surrogate, Desdemona—but a hatred which says this: You are guilty for betraying your (my) father, not I. The eruption of oedipal guilt in Othello is that of a sudden and dramatic confrontation of frightening drives and frightful punishments which Othello had not had to face strongly in childhood. The eruption of oedipal guilt in Hamlet is that of a renewed struggle against those drives and punishments which he had at one time faced strongly in childhood. Othello faces for the first time the enormity of oedipal guilt while Hamlet faces a renewal of his awareness of that enormity. Othello is altogether unable to cope with his feelings and denies them by accusing the now seductive mother with absolute guilt. He blames her now as before—before for withholding love, now for giving it. Hamlet is more able to cope with this renewed onslaught by ranting at her. He blames Gertrude now as before—before for having offered her love, now for offering it once again.

Before "fate" had caught both Othello and Hamlet at their weak points, they had been as follows: Hamlet had withdrawn from active competition with men, but had established a love-relationship with Ophelia. Othello had engaged very handsomely in active competition with other men, but had never established a love relationship. These patterns are understandable from my hypotheses about their very different mothers. Hamlet had registered to the full his oedipal fears of his father, and his defence against those fears was an avoidance of competitive activity by the safety of feeling his father a god—above competing with. However, the path to a certain kind of love object was not barred, and he chose as a love object Ophelia, a girl very different from his sensual mother.15 Othello had not registered to the full his oedipal fears of his father and hence was better equipped to enter the competitive world. However, the rejection by the mother sealed off for him any possible relationship with women: his resentment had turned into an all but insurmountable safety of idealization.

In contrast to what we know of Gertrude and the elder Hamlet, we know almost nothing of Othello's parents. But this lack of knowledge is instructive. Except in one connection—the handkerchief—Othello makes no important reference to his parents. He was not apparently given to thinking of them. Now this in itself proves nothing. But the handkerchief is important. He had apparently kept it carefully and continually for all these many years—in battle, in slavery. He must, therefore, have been continually aware of what it means—that it takes charms to keep a husband from loathing his wife. In other words, he was always aware that marriage was a danger. The handkerchief was known to Emilia, as it was of course to Desdemona herself, to have been Othello's first gift. Very clearly, such a gift has its significance. But until it is lost, the extreme and deadly nature of its significance is known only to Othello. When he gave the handkerchief to Desdemona, Othello did not tell her of its essential significance. We do learn from Emilia that Desdemona

                          so loves the token
(For he conjured her she should ever keep
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to.
                           (III, iii, 293-296)

Its magical properties she learns only after the jealousy is at work. She is then told that it was given to Othello's mother by an Egyptian and that its possession would ensure the continued love of his mother's husband, while its loss would occasion the husband's loathing. From Desdemona's response—"Then would to God that I had never seen't!" (III, iv, 77)—we must assume that she never suspected the awful import Othello now tells her the cloth carries. After the murder, Othello says that it was his father who gave the magical cloth to his mother. Now, we are left with several interpretations of the story of the handkerchief. Either the story of the magical properties was true and that Othello chose not to reveal it to Desdemona when he made her a gift of it, or it is a fabrication which Othello produces at the appropriate moment. And, if the story of the magical properties is true, it was given to Othello's mother by the Egyptian charmer or by her husband. Let us assume the story he tells Desdemona in Act III to have been actual. Othello's giving her the gift without warning her of its full significance puts her in more danger of being careless with it than she otherwise might be. But, whether she knows it or not, her possession of the handkerchief places—in Othello's mind—all responsibility for the success of the marriage in her hands, and it absolves the giver from any responsibility. This, of course, fits very well the anxiety he feels when he marries her and the need to find her singly guilty after the marriage is consummated. The somewhat altered story at the end—that his father gave it—represents his real feelings: that the father himself places all responsibility for the happiness of the marriage in the hands of the mother. It reduplicates Othello's blame of Desdemona for having betrayed her (his) father. It exonerates him completely.

Othello's solution to his conflicts is to convince himself that his killing of Desdemona is a sacrifice, not a murder. It has frequently been pointed out that legal terminology dominates the final scene. Two articles in particular explore the meaning of that terminology—"Justice and Love in Othello" by Winifred M. T. Nowottny and "Othello: The Unheroic Tragic Hero," by Robert B. Heilman. I cite a summary passage from the latter:

Though some of these lines [V, ii 25-57] might be spoken by a Christian judge, they belong rather to the Christian priest, especially the priest in the role of confessor. This, then, is Othello's climactic means of placing himself on a pinnacle of assurance and of blinding himself to the true nature of what he does there. Though he has already inclined to assume the role of priest, only now does he invest it with a brief air of dignity, which Shakespeare uses skillfully to dramatize the horror of Othello's conduct: to the coolness, the prayerfulness, the almost gentle calmness of the priest is added the frankness of the killer: "I would not kill thy unprepared spirit. / No, heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul" (31-32). Repeatedly Othello talks of "killing" her—his voice quiet and controlled—at the same time that he urges her to save her soul. The shock is that of a murder by rite, of an exotic depravity in which the selfless spiritual concern and the wholly selfish violence are confounded. The priest as killer is a remarkable dramatic conception: an ultimate violence is expressed by doing violence to all our preconceptions. This strategy is used doubly: the priestly role is worked out alongside the judicial role, so that we have the judge as killer. But the judge, we recall, is also the plaintiff and the prosecutor: and he now becomes also the executioner—as well as the confessor bent on the spiritual salvation of the criminal. In this merging of incompatible roles is the apex of Othello's self-deception.16

Plaintiff, Prosecutor, Judge, Executioner, Priest—it is indeed a formidable grouping of roles. But it fits the situation exactly. Plaintiff: he is the wronged party. Prosecutor: he (notwithstanding his position as plaintiff) acts on behalf of the other wronged party—the father. Judge: his "solid virtue" which was not open to temptation entitles him to this. Executioner: he will demonstrate that even though he is susceptible to her beauty, he will not (did not) yield to it ("I'll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again" IV, i, 216). Priest: he will make her, above all, admit her guilt. When she denies it, the priest becomes indignant:

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in's hand!
O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart,
And mak'st me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.
                                (V, ii, 62-65)

The entire tragedy is in these lines, and the key to them is a passage some twenty lines earlier:

Othello. Think on thy sins.
Desdemona. They are the loves I bear to
Othello. Ay, and for that thou diest.
                                (V, ii, 39-41)

Othello here speaks more accurately than he knows. It is precisely Desdemona's love for him that drives him to murder her. The painful irony of the situation is that every declaration of love by Desdemona serves a fresh charge to Othello's guilt and so reinforces his need to find her guilty. And so Desdemona's final words—her answer to Emilia's question, "O, who hath done this deed?"

Nobody—I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!
                           (V, ii, 123-125)

can only elicit from Othello a last charge against her: "She's like a liar gone to burning hell!" (V, ii, 129).


1 Sigmund Freud: "Some Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality." The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XVIII.

2Ibid., p. 223.

3Ibid., p. 225.

4 Abraham Bronson Feldman: "Othello's Obsessions." American Imago, IX (1952-1953).

5 W. H. Auden: "The Alienated City: Reflections on 'Othello.'" Encounter, August, 1961, pp. 3-14, p. 11.

6 Bernard Shaw: "Othello," in Shaw on Shakespeare, ed. by Edwin Wilson (New York, 1961), p. 159.

7 Charles Brenner: An Elementary Textbook of Psycho-analysis, (New York, 1957), p. 121.

8 Ernest Jones: "Jealousy," Papers on Psychoanalysis (Boston, 1961), p. 339.

9 All references are to the text in A Casebook on Othello, ed. by Leonard Dean (New York, 1961), which contains the line numbering of the Globe text.

10 Freud, op. cit., p. 223.

11 Jones, op. cit., p. 339.

12Ibid., pp. 338-339.

13Ibid., p. 339.

14Ibid., p. 339.

15 This, of course, is a frequently debated point.

16 Robert B. Heilman: "Othello: The Unheroic Tragic Hero," in A Casebook on Othello (New York, 1961), pp. 188-189.

D. R. Godfrey (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Green Eyed Monster," in Neophilologus, Vol. LVI, No. 2, April, 1972, pp. 207-20.

[In the essay below, Godfrey discusses the interplay between jealousy and evil in Othello.]

To proclaim Shakespeare's Othello as a tragedy of jealousy is but to echo the opinion of every critic who ever wrote about it. The jealousy not only of Othello, but of such lesser figures as Roderigo and even Bianca is surely self-evident enough to be taken for granted. And yet, though the jealousy of Othello in particular is invariably mentioned and assumed, it cannot be said that any over-riding importance has on the whole been attributed to it. While Othello may deliver judgement on himself as one,

 not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme,
                                 (V. ii. 346/7)1

critical opinion has hardly gone beyond admitting that jealousy itself has been a contributing factor, of far less importance, for example, than the diabolical "evidence" manufactured by Iago. Until we are left with the conclusion, or at least implication, that had Othello not been jealous, the tragedy would still have occurred. This taking for granted or even belittling of the factor of jealousy in Othello, is the more surprising in that Shakespeare through Iago and Emilia has taken pains to identify for our benefit the special nature of jealousy, and to call particular attention to the element of irrationality that accompanies it. Jealousy, warns Iago, in order to awaken it in Othello,

… is the green-ey'd monster, which doth
That meat it feeds on.
                                 (III. iii. 170/1)2

And the same essence of irrationality is later confirmed by Emilia when, in response to Desdemona's pathetically rational "Alas the day! I never gave him cause", she bluntly retorts:

But jealous souls will not be answer'd so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous: 'tis a
Begot upon itself, born on itself.
                              (III. iv. 157/60)

The coincidence of view is remarkable, and presumably intentional, and clearly reflects more than the individual judgement of Emilia or Iago. Moreover the truth of the judgement is demonstrated again and again throughout the play wherever jealousy is manifest. The jealous person, whether Othello, Roderigo, Bianca or, as we shall attempt to show, Iago himself, is revealed as one who, from the moment that jealousy strikes, divorces himself or herself from rationality. Jealousy, once awakened, becomes self-perpetuating, self-intensifying, and where no justifying evidence for it exists, the jealous person under the impulse of an extraordinary perversity will continue to manufacture it, inventing causes, converting airy trifles into "confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ." Any attempt, in other words, to interpret jealousy rationally, to look for logic in the mental processes of a jealous person, will be unavailing. For we will be dealing invariably and in at least some measure with a monster, a form of possession, an insanity3 .

Before considering the manifestations of jealousy within Othello, it would be advantageous to look briefly at another famous Shakespearean example of jealousy in action, one in which the element of insanity is particularly pronounced, the jealousy, namely of Leontes in The Winter's Tale. The jealousy of Othello appears to us somewhat more rational than it actually is because of the part played by Iago in precipitating it, but Leontes is his own Iago, the sole deviser of his own manifest insanity; and whereas Othello's jealousy is worked out in secret with Iago, Leontes from the start proclaims his fantastic inventions openly, before the astounded eyes of the whole Sicilian court. In The Winter's Tale therefore, even more nakedly than in Othello, the essential characteristics of jealousy and the self-deluding capacities of the jealous man stand revealed. The first, and not the least astonishing, of such characteristics is of course the extraordinary suddenness with which jealousy begins. So suddenly indeed does jealousy strike Leontes, that some critics, in an attempt to rationalise the irrational, have searched for textual evidences of an already existing jealous state before it is unequivocally revealed4 . The evidences, however, are speculative, the impression of overwhelming suddenness paramount, and Shakespeare, had he intended otherwise, would surely have made that intention clear. An onset therefore, irrational in its swiftness and that the merest triviality can precipitate—in this case Hermione's success in persuading Polixenes to delay his departure—is presented to us as jealousy's initial characteristic. And from this moment, on the same continuing irrationality, amounting in Leontes' case to raving, murderous madness, relentlessly prevails. The stubborn insanities of Leontes, "these dangerous, unsafe lunes i' th' King", as Paulina correctly identifies them, need not be specified in detail. However, certain aspects of Leontes' behaviour may be adjudged typical, and such as may be found in varying degree wherever there is jealousy, and the first of these is the imperviousness of the jealous man to any form of rational persuasion. Leontes confronted with the shocked incredulity of his entire court, with the dignified denials of Hermione, the impassioned rationality of Camillo, Antigonus and Paulina, and even ultimately with the divine judgement of the Oracle, remains unaffected and inflexible, perceives himself as the one clear sighted man at the centre of a villainous conspiracy. Without a shred of real evidence to go on, he distorts the past, falsifying its remembered innocence with diabolical ingenuity:

  Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh? (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty)? housing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more
                                 (I. ii. 284/9)

Present happenings also will be ingeniously misinterpreted. Camillo, fleeing with Polixenes, has not only betrayed his master, but is now proclaimed as pre-employed, a pander to the lovers, united with them in a conspiracy against his life.

No less remarkable in Leontes' case, and thus in the case of all those deprived of reason by jealousy, is the extent to which the former state of love is cancelled out by hatred. Here indeed in The Winter's Tale calculated vindictiveness could hardly be taken further. Leontes proceeding to a public denunciation of his wife, speculating as to whether her death would ease his mind, haling her to prison, condemning her and her new-born babe to the fire and relenting, at the instigation of the kneeling court, only to the extent of ordering the babe exposed in the wilderness, is manifestly responding to a positive frenzy of hatred5 . Jealousy, it might be argued, originating in the agonizing experience, real or imaginary, of rejected love, is no more than a continuing protest against that rejection, a witness in fact to love's continuation; and to this extent Leontes, the supremely, jealous man, may yet be in love while striving through an induced frenzy of hatred to kill that love whose rejection, so real to him, is the source of an intolerable pain. In any event, the frantic desire of the jealous man to replace former love with present hatred and to avenge on the loved one his present torment, would seem to be typical.

Finally, and in itself perhaps a further indication that throughout the madness of jealousy love does continue to exist, there is once again the phenomenon of suddenness—the suddenness this time with which the jealous fit, so suddenly started, comes to an end. Even beyond the point of divine intervention, the voice of the Oracle, Leontes is prepared to extend his defiant madness, but, almost immediately, the news of his son's death, which he attributes to the anger of Apollo, shocks him at last into instant realisation. In a single stride, total sanity returns. So complete and instantaneous is Leontes' recognition of all the simple truths he has for so long and so frenziedly denied, that we may feel inclined to question Shakespeare's psychological insight, to argue, for example, that he is here telescoping time for purposes of dramatic effect. Some such artistic heightening of human reality may in fact be present, yet the essential truth of the sudden ending of jealousy must clearly be accepted. The whole example of Leontes presents jealousy to us as a self-contained experience, beginning and ending with itself, a fantastic interruption of the relationships and processes of the sane, everyday world.

With such an example before us, we can now refer back, for confirmation as it were, to Othello, in whom those characteristics of the experience of jealousy which we have identified should, by definition, also be found. First then, we would expect to find in Othello the same rapid onset of jealousy so evident in Leontes. Perhaps here the immediacy of impact is less dramatically apparent, so that A. C. Bradley, for example, argues that until Iago leaves him alone to the insinuating thoughts he has planted in him (III. iii. 261) Othello is not jealous at all6 . However, Othello's immediately ensuing soliloquy (262ff.) clearly indicates how deeply his faith in Desdemona has already been undermined, and though at the sight of her he rallies,

If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself,
I'll not believe it,

recovery is momentary, and when he reappears only minutes later, Iago does not need his "Ha, ha, false to me, to me", to recognize the symptoms of a consuming jealousy that all the drowsy syrups of the world can never alleviate. Othello may appear to be resisting insinuation, to recover from the shock of Iago's "Ha, ha, I like not that", and the sight of Cassio stealing away "so guilty-like", but it is soon evident enough that he has not recovered, that the possibility of Desdemona's infidelity has already invaded his mind. And once again, as with Leontes, the passage from initial doubt to the madness of absolute certainty, is incredibly rapid. The action of the whole "Temptation Scene", as it is sometimes called, is continuous, perhaps some twentyfive minutes of stage time, and by the end of it Othello is a man utterly possessed, calling out for blood and vengeance, authorizing Iago to murder Cassio, and resolving "In the due reverence of a sacred vow", himself to do the same for Desdemona:

 Damn her, lewd minx: O, damn her!
Come, go with me apart, I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of
For the fair devil.
                            (III. iii. 482/5)

Already present meanwhile in the initial reactions of Othello is of course that most encompassing of all the characteristics of the jealous man, a consuming irrationality. The presence of Iago with his diabolical insinuations tends somewhat to mask the insanity of Othello, to present him as a man reacting logically in the face of accumulating evidence, indeed of proof. By the end of the Temptation Scene, however, there is still no more than the slenderest of evidence, a handkerchief that Iago may have seen Cassio wipe his beard with, and Cassio's alleged, and as Iago himself admits, inconclusive dream. Leontes, only after a considerable interval of time and after sending to the Oracle for confirmation, puts Hermione on trial for her life. Othello, however, with nothing but Iago's word to go on, and without even seeking to confront either Desdemona or Cassio, passes sentence of death. Later, it is true, circumstantial evidences multiply: Desdemona's tactless pleading for Cassio, Iago's statement of Cassio's confession, Bianca's returning of the handkerchief to Cassio before Othello's eyes; but it is strangely apparent that Othello's conviction of Desdemona's guilt is confirmed rather than established by such "evidences". In the exchanges between Iago and Othello at the beginning of Act IV it is revealed that the handkerchief had become so incidental to his conviction that he had actually forgotten it (IV. i. 10/22). In the same way, when at length confrontation comes between himself and Emilia and subsequently with Desdemona, it is apparent that no rational enquiry, no seeking out of evidence is to be undertaken. Emilia's indignant denials are met with:

She says enough, yet she's a simple bawd
That cannot say as much.
                                 (IV. ii. 20/1)

And Desdemona, assigned the horrible role of a whore in a brothel, is not to be rationally interrogated but rhetorically denounced, on the assumption, of which there is not the slightest sign, that she is fully aware of her guilt. Perhaps in no other scene is the impregnable insanity of Othello so fully evident.

Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidences are certainly there and must be allowed to provide in some measure a logical justification for Othello's "case" against Desdemona. Against that case however must always be set one unanswerable factor the effect of which is to demolish it utterly, the factor of time. With Desdemona dead, Othello can proclaim calmly and positively,

'Tis pitiful, but yet Iago knows
That she with Cassio hath the act of shame
A thousand times committed,
                               (V. ii. 11/13)

Whereas it is obvious to anyone not wholly bereft of reason that the time for one single act of infidelity, let alone a rhetorical thousand, has simply not existed. "What place, what time, what form, what likelihood?" (IV. ii. 140) demands the practical Emilia, and of course the questions are unanswerable.

This very problem of the time factor in Othello has been greatly debated. Since Othello and Desdemona left Venice immediately after their marriage, and since Cassio and Desdemona were on different ships, and since but one night had passed on Cyprus, a night that Othello and Desdemona had spent together, when indeed could the thousand adulteries have occurred? And how could the sheer impossiblility of Desdemona's multiple infidelities never have presented itself to Othello's mind? Various familiar explanations have been attempted: that the text as it has come down to us is incomplete and that the indication of an interval of time after the arrival on Cyprus has been lost: that Shakespeare in effect is playing a trick on his audience on the valid assumption that they will not notice the time discrepancy anyway: that Shakespeare deliberately adopted a double time scheme, involving a background of 'long time" against a foreground of "short time", the latter to accommodate the inconsistencies in Iago's plot against Othello, and his need to bring it to a speedy conclusion.

The respective merits of these various explanations have been copiously debated. Common to all of them is the reluctance of critics to assume that Iago, a supremely clever man, would ever have allowed his whole plot to depend on Othello's unlikely failure to realise the obvious, namely that the infidelities of which Desdemona stands accused could not have happened because there had been no time for them. Iago, it is argued, would never have taken such a risk; and so we, as well as Othello, are being required to assume that in some way or other time for a thousand shameful acts had in fact existed. I would suggest, however, that we cannot so assume, and are indeed not being asked to do so. For Iago knew, and we should realise, that by the time he felt it safe to proceed from hints and insinuations to firm accusations of infidelity, Othello would no longer be himself, but a quite different person possessed by the eclipsing madness of jealousy. Certainly we must agree that there are two time schemes in Othello, a long and a short, but equally each must be seen to operate within its own distinct world: on the one hand the long time world of everyday normality, on the other a short time, indeed a timeless universe, in which jealousy, divorced from reality, through distortion, falsification and sheer invention creates a nightmare reality of its own7 .

It may still be argued, of course that the degree of Othello's irrationality manifest in his blindness to the time factor, is excessive, unrealistic, and that Iago for all his insight and daring would not have taken so great a risk. We must assume however that Shakespeare as always, knew what he was doing and presenting, and that art, the art of the theatre in particular, must concern itself with the archetypal, the universal, with that which is necessarily larger, more extreme than in life. And surely we must take into account that elsewhere in Othello, in the case of Bianca, the refusal of the jealous person to be bound by the rationality of time is once again drawn to our attention. Bianca, whose jealousy over Cassio motivates her every word and action, reproaches him on her first appearance with an alleged seven days and nights of neglect:

What, keep a week away? seven days and
Eightscore eight hours, and lovers' absent
More tedious than the dial, eightscore times?
                                (III. iv. 171/3)

The time here could hardly be more specifically stated, and yet, if we do not postulate the impossibility of an interval of almost a week between scenes three and four of Act III, the alleged duration of Cassio's neglect cannot be accepted. Act II begins with Cassio's arrival on Cyprus, and from this point to the moment of his encounter with Bianca the action on stage is continuous, and no more than a night and two days have elapsed before us. Once again it would seem that the irrationality of jealousy extending even into the reckoning of time is being demonstrated8 .

No less irrational, and no less typical of extreme jealousy, is the determination of Othello, as of Leontes, to destroy love through the anodyne of a deliberate cultivation of hatred9 . Here we must recognize that Othello, newly married, overwhelmed with relief to find Desdemona safe on Cyprus, has attained to an intensity of love deeper than that of Leontes for Hermione:

    O my soul's joy,
… If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute,
That not another comfort, like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
                                 (II. i. 189/93)

Without hesitation, when jealousy strikes, Leontes achieves the transition from love to hate, but for Othello the process will be long drawn out, intermittent, subject to agonizing oscillations. The climax comes following the scene of final "proof", when Bianca has thrown the incriminating handkerchief back at Cassio, before Othello's eyes. The proof is not needed, for Othello's assumption of Desdemona's guilt has long been absolute, unassailable. On the other hand, love, or some remnant of it, still remains, and the moment has come, as Iago realises, for its final obliteration. Again and again, as Othello swings away in the dying agonies of love, Iago savagely recalls him:

Othello: … a fine woman, a fair woman, a sweet woman!

lago: Nay, you must forget.

Othello: And let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight, for she shall not live; no, my heart is turn'd to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand: O, the world hath not a sweeter creature, she might lie by an emperor's side, and command him tasks.

Iago: Nay, that's not your way.

Othello: Hang her, I do but say what she is: so delicate with her needle, an admirable musician, O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear; of so high and plenteous wit and invention!

Iago: She's the worse for all this.

(IV. i. 174/187)

Iago, the very voice of jealousy itself, would appear to succeed. Desdemona is smothered in the bed she had contaminated, and hatred's consummation is achieved. Yet it could be argued in Othello's case, in contrast to that of Leontes, that love is never wholly obliterated. The insane grip of jealousy is such that Othello can no longer doubt his wife's guilt, but he can act against it finally only by assuming the mask of impersonal justice:

Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
                                                 (V. ii. 6)

And we may even wonder whether Othello, still agonizing over the beauty he must destroy, could ever have sustained his assumed and precarious role of just executioner, had not Desdemona's bewilderment and terror, interpreted as prevarication, provoked him to one last paroxysm of rage and hatred.

For a while, beyond the point it had set itself to achieve, jealousy continues to sustain its victim. But the instrument has served its deadly purpose, and can be discarded. As suddenly and totally as Leontes, Othello is abandoned to the hideous and incredulous realisation of what he has done. One moment of explanation, of truth, from Emilia is now enough. The handkerchief—

She gave it Cassio? no, alas, I found it,
And did give't my husband.
                                 (V. ii. 231/2)

Othello, in the full vortex of jealousy, had already heard the truth from Emilia and facilely rejected it, "She's but a simple bawd that could not say as much", but now the vortex is past, the possession ending and truth, with the completeness and instantaneousness that is jealousy's final characteristic, once more assumes control10.

While Othello and Leontes, and also Bianca, present jealousy in its most characteristic form, it must be recognized that other forms and manifestations of this most devastating of human emotions are possible. At least two such variations on the play's basic theme of jealousy are to be found in Othello, the first of them presented by Roderigo. That Roderigo is jealous first of Othello and then of Cassio cannot be doubted, and Iago, before using him against Cassio, is careful to heighten in him the motivation of jealousy:

Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of
his hand? … Lechery,
by this hand: an index and prologue
to the history of lust and foul thoughts:
they met so near with their lips, that their
breaths embrac'd together.
                                   (II. i. 251/6)

Thus primed and sustained by Iago, Roderigo overcomes his native timidity to the point of provoking the drunken Cassio on guard duty, and later of undertaking his murder. Only the irrationality of a jealous man, we might infer, could explain behaviour so savagely abnormal, could account also for that ludicrous readiness to go on accepting Iago's word, all evidence to the contrary, that Desdemona might still be his. It could perhaps be objected that Roderigo is not so much jealous as simply and deeply in love, as witnessed in particular by his uncritical idealising attitude towards Desdemona, his impregnable devotion. Surely, if jealous, he would have availed himself of the jealous man's most characteristic anodyne, a saving hatred. Need we in fact go any further than Iago in his assessment of Roderigo as one turned wrong side out by love? The answer must undoubtedly be that whatever Roderigo's love may have been at the outset, it has, thanks chiefly to the machinations of Iago, deteriorated, taken on elements of the irrational and ultimately of the diabolical; and to this deterioration jealousy has in large measure contributed. Roderigo, clutching at the straws of hope reached out to him by Iago, to the extent of selling all his land and following the Cyprus wars, has clearly ceased to act and react sanely. And when, quite definitely now under the compulsion of jealousy, he nerves himself to secure Cassio's dismissal and eventually to attempt his murder, he has reached a lower moral level than Othello, who can at least persuade himself that he is the instrument of justice. To the extent, then, of his irrationality and ultimate diabolism Roderigo is at one in jealousy with an Othello or a Leontes. On the other hand his jealousy, unlike theirs, proceeds from a love that has never been requited, and the form of his madness is to persist in hope of an ultimate possession. For him the cuckold's simple anodyne of hatred and vengeance is not available.

The second and final variation on the play's central theme of jealousy is to be found, it is suggested, in Iago. The traditional association of jealousy with sexual passion or possessiveness, must not obscure the fact that other kinds of jealousy, no less virulent in operation, are to be found; although sexual jealousy, his suspicion of the involvement of both Othello and Cassio with his wife, is also a factor in Iago's motivation. Far more, however, than suspicion over a wife he clearly does not love or value very highly, are obviously at work in Iago and must be reckoned with if his extraordinary and diabolical behaviour is to be understood. The problem of Iago's motivation is certainly a major one, no less baffling than the problem of Hamlet's delay. A whole spectrum of explanations has accordingly been attempted, ranging from the famous "motiveless malignity" of Coleridge, to simplistic assertions that Iago's motives, sexual jealousy and envy at Cassio's appointment, are perfectly adequate to explain him. That Iago is indeed a jealous and envious man has of course been generally recognized; such recognition, however, can certainly be taken further, in particular in terms of those special characteristics of jealousy we have been attempting to establish.

That certain recent events have precipitated a state of jealousy in Iago is revealed to us in the first act of the play; he is jealous of Cassio over the lieutenancy which he considered his due, jealous of Othello whom he suspects of having had a liaison with his wife. We can assume that the effect of these experiences, and especially the former, has been devastating, to the point of working a profound and sudden change in Iago, a virtual metamorphosis. That he is indeed villainous becomes clear to us by the end of the first act, but we can hardly believe that he has always been so, and that his universal reputation for honesty has been based over a long period of time on calculation and bluff. That a great change has been involved is further indicated to us by the particular way in which Iago is made to announce his age: "I ha' look'd upon the world for four times seven years" (I. iii. 311/2)—a statement that would reveal, at all events to a Shakespearean audience, that here is a man arrived at one of the great seven year climacterics, a time especially liable to crisis and change. A far reaching change, precipitated in particular by Cassio's appointment and to a lesser extent by the apparently malicious evidence presented to him of an affair between Othello and Emilia, can certainly be postulated11; and thus a new Iago confronts us, jealous, embittered, vengeful, viciously repudiating the honesty and loyalty that have led him nowhere12.

It is clear, however, that the jealousy by which Iago stands possessed, as totally as an Othello or a Leontes, is of a special, a more comprehensive kind. It contains elements of sexual provocation, but it is directed also and even more powerfully against all those whose lives continue to be motivated, as his had once been, by the conventions of love, trust, honesty and goodness, and who continue on such a basis to be happy and successful, where he himself has suffered and failed. Upon them he will proceed to avenge himself, creating out of their now hated and envied love and goodness "the net that shall enmesh 'em all".

Once the fact and comprehensive nature of Iago's jealousy has been established, all his subsequent thoughts and acts become, by reason of their very strangeness and irrationality, intelligible. Many attempts, for example, have been made to explain in rational terms the curious "motive hunting" of Iago displayed in his first two soliloquies. Here he conjures up, or so it would appear, motive after motive for proceeding in his plot against Cassio and Othello: desire to get Cassio's place, suspicion of his wife's infidelity first with Othello and then with Cassio, his own love for Desdemona. Yet there is an element of strangeness in his way of formulating his motives, as though the motive itself rather than the degree of his belief in it were at issue. What could be stranger, for example, than the irrational combination of belief and disbelief contained in his statement on the affair between Emilia and Othello:

 I know not if't be true …
Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do, as if for surety.
                                 (I. iii. 386/8)13

Also, it is hard for us to suppose that Iago really did suspect Cassio with his "nightcap," or that he was really himself in love with Desdemona. And no less strange is the fact that Iago, having formulated all his motives and proceeded into action, presumably on the strength of them, never once refers to any of them again14. The irrational element in the motive hunting is certainly evident, and this, rather than the validity of the motives themselves, is what must concern us. Iago, enumerating his motives and persuading himself to believe them, only to demonstrate their irrelevance by forgetting them later, is certainly not thinking as a rational man; on the other hand, and ironically, he is reacting entirely in accordance with his own remarkable understanding of the nature of jealousy15 . Jealousy, as he later informs Othello, is that green eyed monster, mocking the food it feeds on. And where there is no such food, what must the jealous man do but persuade himself of its existence, endowing trifles light as air, if need be, with all the certainty of holy writ. The truth or otherwise of the reasons Iago dredges up to justify his jealous hatred of Cassio and Othello is quite irrelevant; they are the food his jealousy needs and that his intellect must provide.

Equally irrational, we must inevitably conclude, is the totality of Iago's behaviour, the way in which, with incredible persistence and ingenuity, he carries out his lunatic plot against Cassio and Othello. By way of rationalization, it is sometimes suggested that Iago starting out with no more than a vague spiteful desire to create mischief, underestimates the passions he is to awaken, and so becomes the unwilling victim of his own machinations. Certainly he is soon caught up in his own web, committed to the lies he has disseminated, unable to retreat; on the other hand he betrays no sign of ever wanting to do so, and views his own successes first against Cassio and then Othello with uninhibited satisfaction. Never once does the intrinsic insanity of what he is doing break through to him, the realisation, for example, that all the witnesses against him, Cassio, Desdemona, Roderigo, Emilia, Bianca, must somehow be killed if he himself is not sooner or later to be confronted with the awakened wrath of Othello. The truly astounding cleverness of Iago must not be allowed to blind us to the absolute stupidity, indeed the madness, of what he is attempting to do.

Iago, we must conclude, even more so than a Leontes or an Othello, confronts us as the very archetype of the jealous man. For here is an all encompassing jealousy directed not only against sexual love but against love itself in all its manifestations. In this connection it is pertinent, by way of conclusion, to consider jealousy as in fact the antithesis of love, as containing within itself the very essence of evil. Iago in the list of actors in the Folio is described as a villain, and in the first act of the play he fully reveals himself as such. However, we have suggested that by reason of his universal reputation for honesty he could not always have been evil but had become so quite suddenly under the impact of jealousy. As a result a consuming, envious hatred of the goodness and love in those who had, as he saw it, betrayed him, takes possession of his soul. Evidences of Iago's hatred of love are everywhere in the play, as for example in his bitter reaction to the outpouring of love between Othello and Desdemona at the moment of their reunion on Cyprus:

 O, you are well tun'd now,
But I'll set down the pegs that make this
As honest as I am.
                                  (II. i. 199/201)16

Or again there is the extremely revealing moment when he recognizes in Cassio the continuation of all those qualities that he himself has irrevocably lost:

 If Cassio do remain,
He has a daily beauty in his life,
That makes me ugly.
                                 (V. i. 18/20)17

That Iago is a villain, perhaps the most completely villainous character in all literature, is only too evident, and that his villainy originates in, is indeed synonymous with jealousy must also be recognized. By definition the supremely evil man appears as one in whom hatred of love and goodness is carried to the point of containing within itself the desire to reach out and destroy the loving and the good. Not all men of course, fortunately enough, surrender to jealousy with the absoluteness of an Iago, but the implication of Othello is that there are such men bearing latent within themselves as a kind of fate a terrible capacity for evil. "God's above all", declares Cassio in a moment of drunken insight; "and there be souls that must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved". To which Iago with tragic irony replies, "It is true, good Lieutenant". (II. iii. 96/9)

That Iago is indeed a damned soul, one predestined by his own intrinsic nature to eventual damnation, is made manifest to us in a number of ways, most frequently by what we might call his conscious diabolism. Iago, in reaction against his former honesty which has failed and betrayed him, dedicates himself in a spirit of jealous revenge to honesty's opposite, evil. Consciously and deliberately he allies himself with the powers of darkness, invoking Hell and night in his first soliloquy and later, after mocking his own "honesty" in advising Cassio to seek Desdemona's help, coming right into the open with devastating explicitness:

  Divinity of hell!
When devils will their blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now.
                                 (II. iii. 341/4)

A Shakespearean, witchcraft-conscious audience would have no difficulty in accepting such diabolism as fact, in recognizing Iago as one possessed, glorying in his identification with evil spiritual powers. For them, as he must be for us if we are to understand him, Iago is indeed a "demi-devil", one who can, rhetorically at least, be thought of as possessing the cloven hoof. Equally indicative of diabolism, of the way in which Iago serves and is in turn assisted by the powers of evil, is the disturbing and consistent "run of luck" that he is made to enjoy in carrying out his plans. He causes Roderigo to provoke Cassio on guard, but could not foresee that Cassio in his rage would attack and severely wound Montano. He could advise Cassio to seek the intercession of Desdemona, but could not anticipate her naive importunity or the luckless moments when she should manifest it. Nor could he anticipate that the fatal handkerchief would come into his hands, or that Bianca in a jealous fit would throw it back at Cassio while Othello watched. All this would be sensed in some measure by Shakespeare's audience as indicating the involvement of evil beings, ascendant for the moment, and possessed with a jealous hatred of love and goodness just as their instrument, Iago, is himself possessed18.

The close association between evil and jealousy is a dominant issue in Othello, almost what the whole play is about; until we are left with the conclusion that there can scarcely be an evil act for which envy or jealousy is not in some degree or wholly responsible19. The outcome for love and goodness and innocence in Othello is almost unendurably tragic; yet tragedy, as always in Shakespeare, is never allowed the final word. Iago the destroyer is by himself destroyed. Jealousy, self-harming, irrational, demonstrates once again the intrinsic instability of evil, the ultimate impotence of the jealous gods.


1 Textual quotations are taken from the Arden edition of Othello (ed. M. R. Ridley).

2 The exact meaning of this passage has been much disputed (see New Variorum Shakespeare, 175-180). As it stands, and assuming that the word "mock" is correct, and not "make" as some contend, two interpretations are possible. Either the monster jealously is seen as mocking its victims as it devours them, or the jealous individual mocks the "evidences" with which he feeds himself. In either case, and the former seems the more plausible, the irrationality of the jealous condition is being indicated. Irrationality is also involved if "make" is substituted for "mock".

3 The irrational, self-destructive aspect of jealousy is also indicated in The Comedy of Errors (II, i, 102 & 116) when Luciana warns her jealous sister, Adriana, "Self-harming jealousy! fie, beat it hence", and late comments, "How many fond fools serve mad jealousy?".

4 J. H. P. Pafford in a footnote in his introduction to the Arden edition of The Winter's Tale (p. lvii) has summarized the arguments for the "Jealousy from the start." theory.

5 The absurd fantasies of the jealous husband are more frequently treated in literature at the level of comedy or farce than of tragedy. The farcical aspect of Leontes' accusations against Hermione is hinted at in an aside by Antigonus when he speculates that if Leontes makes them public people will be raised to laughter (II, i, 199-200).

6Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1950, 194.

7 Othello's irrationality in relation to time is especially evident in the scene (IV, ii, 1-23) where he questions Emilia as to whether she has seen Desdemona and Cassio together. Since Emilia's association with Desdemona only began at the time of their departure together from Venice, it is clear that Othello's questions must refer to supposed meetings between Cassio and Desdemona on Cyprus. Unless we attempt to rationalize by postulating an indication of a time interval on Cyprus lost from the play, the questions must be seen as totally irrational.

8 No evidence in the play supports the suggestion (see Donald C. Miller's "Iago and the Problem of Time", English Studies, XXII (1940), 97-115) that Cassio knew Bianca in Venice, that she came to Cyprus as camp-follower, and that the "seven days and nights," refer to Cassio's neglect of her on board ship. Bianca is referred to by Iago as a "housewife" and is clearly a citizen of Cyprus.

9 Othello's early realization of the need he will have for hatred is indicated in his lines:

She's gone, I am abus'd, and my relief Must be to loathe her.
                              (III. iii. 271-2)

10 H. Sommerville in his Madness in Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1929, 69-97) recognizes that Othello passes through a state of temporary insanity culminating in the murder of Desdemona. However, he attributes Othello's outburst of madness, not to jealousy (which he hardly mentions), but to the intrinsic abnormality of the marriage he has entered into.

11 Emilia confirms that this happened:

 Some such squire he was,
That turn'd your wit, the seamy side without,
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.
                              (IV. ii. 147-9)

12 Iago's outward honesty up to the time of the play could very well have masked a latent subconscious capacity for evil.

13 The dependence of jealousy upon suspicion should be especially noted. Once suspicion is confronted with proof, jealousy ceases—as Othello realises:

    No, Iago,
I'll see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove,
And on the proof, there is no more but this:
Away at once with love or jealousy.
                               (III. iii. 193/6)

14 It is interesting to note on Cassio's appearance after Othello has hidden himself (IV, i, 103) that Iago greets him with the words, "How do you now, lieutenant?" Cassio of course is no longer the lieutenant and so Iago's "mistake" has to be accounted for. It is possible that he made it deliberately out of malice. On the other hand the whole business of the lieutenancy, including the fact that he himself was now the lieutenant, may simply have slipped his mind. (Othello's comparable forgetting of the handkerchief has already been noted.)

15 It may seem implausible that Iago who can with such insight detect jealousy in others should fail to recognize it at work in himself. It is however something of a psychological commonplace that we tend to criticize most strongly in others what are in fact our own defects.

16 Hatred of love is also strongly manifest in his speeches to Roderigo (I. iii. 311ff) when he equates love with lust and speaks of it with cynical contempt. There is also the extreme cynicism of his exchanges with Desdemona on the subject of women (II, i, 109ff).

17 Any assessment of the character of Iago must take into account the analysis put forward by Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy, 207-237), in which he interprets Iago as a man essentially incapable of feeling and only incidentally jealous, but diabolically intent on subjecting others to his will. The Iago in the play, however, is clearly moved by the violent and vindictive emotions peculiar to jealousy, and though he certainly imposes his will he does not do so coldly.

18 The presence of evil in Othello is indicated not only by the conscious diabolism of Iago but through the extensive use of imagery. See S. L. Bethell's "Diabolic Images in Othello", Shakespeare Survey, V, (1952), 62-80.

19 It is perhaps not too far-fetched to consider the supreme betrayer, Judas Iscariot, as one motivated to the ultimate degree by jealousy. Is it just coincidence that an anachronistic reference to Judas, "my name Be yok'd with his that did betray the Best," is introduced into The Winter's Tale (I, ii, 418-9)? Also there is the critical support given to the contention that the "base Indian" in Othello's final speech should in fact be the "base Iudean" and that this in turn refers to Judas.

Sexual Conflict

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16023

Stephen A. Shapiro (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Othello's Desdemona," in The Design Within: Psychoanalytic Approaches to Shakespeare, edited by M. D. Faber, 1970, pp. 183-92.

[In this essay which first appeared in Literature and Psychology in 1964, Shapiro concentrates on the relationship between Othello and Desdemona in his exploration of Othello's character.]

The last scene of Othello poses a difficult but crucial interpretive problem. Does Othello achieve self-awareness before he dies or does he remain the victim of his tendency to dramatize and deceive himself? This question cannot be answered in such a way as to remove the possibility of the alternate solution, but a psycho-analytic exploration of the conflicts within Othello will tend to strengthen the argument that Othello remains blind, that he is the object of irony at the end.

The critics who have considered Othello from a psychoanalytic view-point have, in general, followed two lines of reasoning. The first, exemplified by Dr. Martin Wangh1 or Professor Gordon R. Smith,2 explores Iago's homosexual attraction to Othello. The second, represented by Dr. A. Bronson Feldman,3 Professor John V. Hagopian,4 or W. H. Auden,5 traces Othello's doubts about his virility, or his insecurity as a black man in a white world, and shows why Othello is an easy prey to Iago. All of these writers concentrate on Iago. Their points of view should, it seems to me, be supplemented by a third one which focuses on the relationship between Othello and Desdemona.

When Othello claims that Desdemona has committed "the act of shame / A thousand times" (V.ii.212-213) with Cassio, we know that he is deceiving himself, that his exaggeration is a desperate and wild attempt to justify his own actions. But when Othello speaks of himself as "one that lov'd not wisely but too well" (V.ii.344), reactions and interpretations are mixed. Some critics accept Othello's description of himself as an accurate one. But F. R. Leavis insists that "Othello's Othello" must be distinguished from Shakespeare's Othello.6 And R. B. Heilman suggests that Othello loved "not wisely, nor enough."7 A third possibility, that Othello is an ironist lacerating himself, does not seem to be supported by the lines—despite the savage twist at the end of the speech. And Othello's final speech.

I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee, no way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss

indicates that whether "pride is purged"8 or not, Othello believes that he loved Desdemona as he killed her, just as he loves her now. What Othello never sees or admits is that he hated Desdemona. No critic could maintain that Othello lacks dignity as he punishes himself with death. But he does lack the kind of dignity conferred by insight into the black heart of human motivations. The question whether we ought to expect this kind of insight from Othello, or whether it is necessary to a tragic effect, is outside the realm of this essay. I am primarily concerned with the textual evidence that gives us insight into the reasons for Othello's failure or refusal to acknowledge the hate in his love for Desdemona, the hate that surges out of his love and submerges it.

Several critics have commented incisively on the incompleteness of Othello's response to Desdemona. In Act I Othello seems quite tepid for a lover on his wedding night. He begs the Duke not to suspect

I will your serious and great business scant
For she is with me. No, when light-wing'd
Of feather'd Cupid seel with wanton dulness
My speculative and offic'd instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation!

Othello's language, his associations, are quite revealing. He equates sensual love with "light-wing'd toys." There is scorn in his use of the terms "disports," "corrupt," and "taint." Othello is clearly more concerned with his "reputation" than with loving Desdemona.

Even if we grant that war is a serious business, and must take priority over private matters, Othello still remains curiously "detached." Desdemona is emotional:

           … if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft
 me, …

Othello asks that she be allowed to join him, but not

To please the palate of my appetite,
Nor to comply with heat, the young affects
In me defunct, and proper satisfaction, …

He is not confessing impotence; he is simply asserting that he is not a passionate sensualist. But his "tone" is quite strange. Whereas Desdemona's speech is pregnant with her love of Othello, his is full of formal posing. Even more striking, however, is his response to the First Senator's "You must away tonight" (I.iii.279). What can one say of Othello's "With all my heart" (I.iii.279) except that he seems eager to be separated from Desdemona on their marriage night (though he is, of course, unconscious of this feeling).

In Act I Shakespeare has exposed Othello as a man concerned more with the "serious business" of war and with ceremony than with loving Desdemona. The absence of passion in Othello in Act I is connected to his attitude toward Desdemona, an attitude expressed in the following lines:

She love'd me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I lov'd her that she did pity them.

Othello loves Desdemona for the purity of her sympathy for him. He delights in the fact that, "She gave me for my pains a world of sighs" (I.iii.159). Othello has abstracted out of the living Desdemona a virginal but maternal idol to worship.

An examination of the connection between idealization and psychic impotence will illuminate the character of Othello. Psychic impotence results from the radical separation of affection or reverence and sensuality in the lover. Of the psychically impotent, Freud has written, "Where they love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love."9 We have already seen that in Act I Othello reveals his profoundly divided psyche. His love for Desdemona seems naked of sexual desire. We need only turn to Antony or Benedict to see how "pure" Othello's love is. He displays no erotic awareness, beyond a kind of contempt for the corrupt and animal-trivial nature of sex.

However, Othello is a sex-drenched drama. Heilman has discussed the voyeuristic elements in the play, noting that what Iago, Othello, and Roderigo have in common is a tormenting but morbidly exciting vision of Desdemona having sexual intercourse with "another."10 Clearly, Othello does not remain the statue of moderation that was undraped in Act I. In Act II Othello's suspicions outrace Iago's suggestions:

                   … he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought,
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost means

And didst contract and purse thy brow
As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain
Some horrible conceit.…
                      (III.iii. 106-108, 113-115)

Is the horrible monster in Iago's mind or in Othello's? Why is Othello so readily convinced that Desdemona is a whore? A psychoanalytic explanation of Othello's behavior will illuminate some of the dark and unexplored areas of his character.

Othello wants to debase Desdemona. His instincts must hate the virginal-maternal idol he has created because it inhibits their expression. Freud has explained that the main defense utilized by men threatened by psychic impotence, by the split in their love, "consists in a phychical debasement of the sexual object… . As soon as the condition of debasement is fulfilled, sensuality can be freely expressed … ,"11 because the inhibiting fear of incest has been evaded. The inevitable complaint that psychoanalytic criticism "imposes a pattern" can be forestalled by a detailed examination of the text. Freud was not paying an idle compliment when he said that the poets discovered the unconscious.

The horror of the "brothel scene" (IV.ii) arises from Othello's reduction from a person to a repulsive animal. And, as we shall see, there is a vital connection between the brothel scene and the murder scene. In the brothel scene we can observe the intimate relationship between Desdemona's debasement and the awakening of Othello's sexuality:

                … O thou weed!
Who are so lovely fair, and smell' st so sweet
That the sense aches at thee, …

"Sense" still aching, Othello calls her "public commoner" (1. 73), "impudent strumpet" (1. 81), "whore" (1. 87). Of course, Iago has told Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio. But Othello is inventing elaborate variations on the adultery theme when he transforms Desdemona into a "public commoner." Only a very simple conception of man's psychological constitution could deny that Othello's fury is compounded partially of relish. Othello has created the brothel and the whore. He luxuriates in the fantasy he has woven out of his own perversity.

In the last scene of Othello, Desdemona says, "That death's unnatural that kills for loving" (V.ii.42). She thus prepares us to reject Othello's estimation of himself as "one that lov'd not wisely but too well." And Othello's protest that "nought did I in hate, but all in honour" (V.ii.295) is nothing but an evasion of self-knowledge. In Professor Heilman's terms: "Othello does not know how close hate is to love, and he has forgot the intensity of his passion to destroy."12 The "passion to destroy" is a much more accurate description of Othello's behavior than his own self-deceiving formulation of his motivation.

Professor Brents Stirling has examined Othello's ritualization of his passion in this final scene and has indicated how Othello has fortified his delusion by transforming violence into impersonal ceremony.13 Othello refuses to see himself as a maddened, lusting animal. He masquerades as a self-controlled priest, as a judge. This "trial scene" in which Othello is prosecutor, judge, and jury is an inversion of the fair hearing of the Brabantio claim against Othello in Act I. Similarly, Othello's strangling of Desdemona, a symbolic enactment of sexual intercourse, is an ironic consummation of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona.

Let us recall that Desdemona has ordered her "wedding sheets" (IV.ii. 106) placed on the bed she is to die in. I doubt that this is a detail added simply to heighten the pathos of the murder scene. Shakespeare is deliberately identifying the marriage with the murder. But it is quite significant that before Othello kills Desdemona in bed, and dies by her side, one condition has been manufactured by Othello. He has transformed Desdemona into a whore, and has staged their chambers as a brothel. It is not psychoanalytic theory, but structural irony, that we are dealing with here.

In Act I Othello vindicates his marriage in a trial scene. He reveals little passion for Desdemona and betrays a desire to leave her on their wedding night. By the middle of the third act, Othello's moderation in love has given way to an erotically intense jealousy, made possible by the degradation of Desdemona. In Act IV he acts out a fantasy that establishes Desdemona as a whore in a brothel. This, in turn, makes possible the consummation of their marriage in death. Othello's last words,

I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee; no way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss,

seem full of a sense of reconciliation. But we must realize that this reconciliation has come only after Othello has expressed his desire to degrade and destroy Desdemona. The fact that he kisses Desdemona before he kills her (let us remember that "kill" is a metaphor for the sexual climax) is not to be accepted in a simple sentimental sense. The Desdemona that Othello kisses and kills is to him a whore. Love, hate, degradation, and death are fused in Othello.

However, if we return to our original problem—Othello's recognition of his responsibility for the tragedy—we are forced to observe that Othello has no awareness of the destructive elements in his being. He speaks right to the end like an innocent man who has been at worst a fool, at best the victim of Iago's diabolism. His symbolic self-transformation into a "dog" of a Turk certainly lends him the dignity of a willingness to undergo punishment. But sandwiched as it is between his conviction that he loved "too well" and his final kiss to Desdemona, it is inadequate to give one the sense that Othello realized that one does not kill because one loves. Othello dies blind to the fact that his fear of Desdemona's being a whore is also his desire.

But Othello is not blind alone. Roderigo is blind. Emilia is blind. Cassio is blind. Desdemona is blind. Even subtle Iago is blind to his own motivations. Othello, like Shakespeare's other tragedies, presents man as a creature groping in the darkness of self, misconstruing the motives of others, stumbling over unforeseen, fatal consequences. Othello says, "Certain, men should be what they seem" (III.iii.128). But he cannot see either Cassio or Iago. And he cannot distinguish between Desdemona as she "seems" to him, and Desdemona herself. When Othello "put[s] out the light" (V.ii.7) before he kills her, the darkness is deeper than he knows.

Suspicion or fear that something may come to pass is also ambiguously a desire for that thing to occur. Othello offers us not a simple warning against unfounded jealousy, but the opportunity to purge ourselves of the desire to degrade and destroy where we love. If we accept Othello' s version of himself instead of the whole play's comment on Othello, we are, I fear, revealing that we, like Othello believe ourselves innocent of all desire to degrade and destroy.


1 Martin Wangh, "Othello: The Tragedy of Iago," Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 19:202-212, 1950.

2 Gordon Ross Smith, "Iago the Paranoiac," American Imago, 16:155-167, 1959.

3 Abraham Bronson Feldman, "Othello's Obsession," American Imago, 9:147-163, 1952-1953; "Othello in Reality," American Imago, 11:147-179, 1954.

4 John V. Hagopian, "Psychology and the Coherent Form of Shakespeare's Othello," Proceedings of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 45:373-380, 1960.

5 W. H. Auden, "The Alienated City: Reflections on Othello," Encounter, August, 1961, pp. 3-14.

6 F. R. Leavis, "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero," Scrutiny, 6:624, 1937.

7 Robert B. Heilman, Magic in the Web (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1956), p. 168.

8 Brents Sterling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), p. 135.

9 Sigmund Freud, On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love, Standard Edition, Vol. XI (London: Hogarth Press, 1957), p. 183.

10 Heilman, op. cit., p. 208.

11 Freud, op. cit., p. 183. Emphasis in the original.

12 Heilman, op. cit., p. 184.

13 Stirling, op. cit., p. 126.

Robert Rogers (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "Endopsychic Drama in Othello," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 205-15.

[In the essay below, Rogers examines attitudes toward sexuality and women in Othello and maintains that the conflict between Othello and Iago represents an "antagonism between two inseparable components of a single psychological configuration. "]

The poet whose characters make a thousand sly jokes at the expense of cuckolds wrote a charming spoof on pastoral love in which he has two of his "country copulatives" say:

Audrey: Would you not have me honest?

Touchstone: No, truly, unless thou wert hard-favored, for honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey a sauce to sugar.

Audrey: I am not a slut, though I thank the gods I am foul.

Touchstone: Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness! Sluttishness may come hereafter. But be it as it may be, I will marry thee… .

(As You Like It III. iii)

Awareness of the light, frolicsome manner with which Shakespeare treats sexual honesty in As You Like It and elsewhere serves to deepen our interest in the tragic, terrifying construction he places on marital infidelity in Othello, where fair seems foul and foulness—or the mere suspicion of it—has a peculiarly prurient fascination for both the hero and villain alike.

In accounting for this fascination and in attempting to explain why Othello deals at such length with two fundamentally different conceptions of the nature of womankind it will be helpful to review some of the more significant pronouncements about Othello and Iago. A. C. Bradley's conception of Othello as one "not easily jealous" and altogether noble has been disputed by a number of commentators, among whom T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, R. B. Heilman, and Leo Kirschbaum may be taken as representative.1 They argue with some force that the man who loves not wisely but too well is really given to self-dramatization, or "cheering himself up" as Eliot puts it, and that in his last great speech Othello does not arrive at anything like a just estimate of his own folly. Views of Iago differ widely. Those who hold them might be grouped as follows: the Apologists, who regard Iago as a much-wronged and rather good sort of fellow; the Diabolists, who see him as a fiend incarnate or a stock Machiavel; and the Realists, who find him evil enough yet a man withal, neurotic or psychotic perhaps but essentially mirroring a real human being and not an evil spirit or stereotype.2 The Apologists are rare and feeble. The Diabolists, most common of all, may be represented for the moment by Coleridge, who speaks of Iago's "motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity" and of his "passionless character" which is "all will in intellect", and by E. E. Stoll, who sees Iago as simply a stock Machiavel embodying the convention of the credible calumniator.3 The Realists may be represented by A. C. Bradley (p. 151), who finds in Iago a power-loving egotist, bent upon executing his intricate, dangerous design in an ecstatic "joy of artistic creation", and by Marvin Rosenberg, who regards Iago as a man plagued by an ulcer.

Anyone approaching Othello from a psychoanalytic point of view—as I do—must take his stand with the Realists even if he is dissatisfied with the specific views of Iago just attributed to Bradley and Rosenberg. He will look at the drama as a whole in human as well as artistic terms, subscribing to the statement that "if the play is to be anything more than a parable, we must feel that it represents conflict between, and within, actual human beings."4 In taking this position my paper stresses the presence of conflict within, as distinct from between, human beings. It explains the necessity of understanding the opposition between Othello and Iago as the dramatic portrayal of what is fundamentally an endopsychic conflict.

Earlier psychoanalytic studies have shown much insight in apprehending the play in terms of inner conflict.5 The best effort in this vein, later supported with additional evidence by Gordon Ross Smith, was made by Martin Wangh. As Ernest Jones does in the case of Hamlet's procrastination, Wangh discounts all of the reasons Iago offers for his revenge. Wangh argues that where so many are given, none is likely to be true. Specifically he says (p. 203), "If the first motivation [that of being passed over for promotion] is the true one, then the play should end in the second act with the displacement of Cassio. If the second motivation [that Iago suspects Othello and Cassio with his "nightcap"] is the true one, why is it not present at once?" According to Wangh the real reason why Iago seeks revenge is an unconscious one: he is a paranoid personality suffering from repressed homosexuality who unknowingly regards Desdemona as a rival for the love of Othello. Thus Othello's marriage precipitates the action of the play, not the promotion of Cassio. The plan of revenge itself stems from the basic paranoid defense mechanism, projection: Iago's jealousy of his own wife, a defense against repressed homosexuality, is projected onto Othello.6 From a strictly psychoanalytic viewpoint, this analysis fits Iago like the skin on a snake. The only serious limitations to Wangh's contributions are, first, that in his eagerness to analyze Iago he almost ignores Othello and, second, he does not explain why it is Othello who is involved rather than some other chance person. In other words, the particular traits and values of Othello as an individual do not enter into the equation which Wangh sets up, so that Othello figures only as a handy victim. But surely Othello and Iago are bound together by more than a fortuitous predator-victim relationship.

One cluster of critical opinion contributes a partial explanation of the special relationship between Othello and Iago and at the same time depicts the conflict of the play as "inner" in a more profound way than Wangh does. According to this view the conflict subsists not simply within Othello or Iago as separate individuals, or between them, for the reason that the two characters taken together constitute a single psychological entity; in other words, Othello and Iago are doubles or decomposed parts of a single self.7 The relevant equation takes the form: conflict between = conflict within. What appears on the stage as conflict between two persons depicts endopsychic warfare. The main action of the play represents an antagonism between two inseparable components of a single psychological configuration.

Perhaps the honor of being the first to record this insight belongs to Joyce, who has Stephen Dedalus say of Shakespeare, "In Othello he is bawd and cuckold… . His unremitting intellect is the hornmad Iago ceaselessly willing that the moor in him shall suffer."8 Several academic scholars echo this general idea. Maud Bodkin regards Iago as "a projected image of forces present in Othello" and "the shadow-side of Othello, the devil-shape that the resistant clay, 'moving awry,' generates from the imposition of that too single-hearted ideal which Othello as a hero represents" (pp. 215-239). Unhappily the Jungian strain in Miss Bodkin's archetypal criticism beguiles her into stopping short with a formula too generalized to be valuable: "The devil is our tendency to represent in personal form the forces within and without us that threaten our supreme values." Simon O. Lesser, who remarks in Fiction and the Unconscious (pp. 116-188) that Iago succeeds in convincing Othello "because the doubts he whispers in Othello's ear are Othello's own", supports Miss Bodkin's assertions, though without refining them. Thomas F. Connolly, who regards the "double man" as a common feature of Shakespeare's plays, sees the pair as reflecting the "day and night" sides of man (pp. 30-33). Two other critics take much the same position in non-psychoanalytic terminology: F. R. Leavis contends that what we must see in Iago's prompt success "is not so much Iago's diabolic intellect as Othello's readiness to respond. Iago's power, in fact, in the temptation scene is that he represents something that is in Othello… . The essential traitor is within the gates" (italics added); and J. I. M. Stewart remarks that "Othello is the human soul as it strives to be, and Iago is that which corrodes and subverts it from within."9 While all of these views share the valuable perspective of discerning the conflict between Othello and Iago to be endopsychic in essence, they share the common weakness of being too broadly formulated in terms of such grand antimonies as good and evil, day and night, with the result that at their lowest common denominator the exponents of these views belong more in the camp of the Diabolists than in that of the Realists with respect to the character of Iago.

The psychoanalytic study of A. B. Feldman constitutes an exception to this oversimplification. Like Wangh (though independent of him), Feldman perceives in the intensity of Iago's hatred for Othello the fury of an outraged homosexual love, but unlike Wangh and like the others just mentioned Feldman considers Othello and Iago to be doubles:

I have suggested that Iago's devotion to the Moor is the outcome of unconscious lust. Possibly there is another reason for their sinister alliance, a reason springing from the unconscious tendency of Shakespeare's art in creating characters. Dr. Ludwig Jekels once argued (in Imago, V, 1918) that the poet frequently split his characters in two, converting them to separate personae, each of whom appears not altogether comprehensible until combined again with the other. Macbeth and his Lady, according to Jekels, presented the dramatic poles of such a schism. I believe that Othello and Iago offer a more reliable proof of his theory. … We might describe the ancient as the Moor's evil alter-ego. When Iago observes the encounter of Cassio and Desdemona he utters a noncommittal sentence or two and repeats the questions his master flings at him. At once the Moor declares: 'By heaven, he echoes me, As if there were some monster in his thought Too hideous to be shown.' (III, iii) There is no hint of a monster in Iago's words; the hideousness hides in Othello's own heart. (P. 156)

Worthy of note as this passage may be, most of Feldman's paper must be rejected on grounds of inconsistency of logic and lack of sensitivity to and respect for the work of art. Having set up Iago as an alter-ego of Othello, Feldman makes the lamentable error of confusing one "self with the other and the part with the whole in that he attributes all of Iago's failings and cravings to Othello. As a result he arrives at such untenable conclusions as these: "It should be obvious by now that Othello's love for Brabantio's daughter was a makeshift passion, the device of a mind in terror of certain chaos to save itself [sic]"; this chaos which the Moor fears, Feldman defines as "a madness resulting from a revelation of his inner lack of manliness. This fear of unvirility springs from a deeply repressed homosexual impulse, manifested by his passion for Cassio." Feldman argues that Othello's "sentiment" for Desdemona constitutes a defense-mechanism "against the pull of his barbaric past, the return of the repressed. The magnetic spell of barbarism in Othello's id functioned indivisible from his craving for sodomy. His martial exterior deceives nobody outside the play; the essence of Othello is effeminate" (pp. 158-159). The embarrassed literary critic who is psychoanalytically oriented must repudiate such balder-dash.

A satisfactory account has to be rendered of the precise psychosexual relationship between Othello and Iago if the pregnant suggestion that they are doubles is to bear fruit. When given, such an account will reveal the play as being not so much an Aristotelian fable, an imitation of an action, but rather the representation through action, character, and poetry of an attitude or series of attitudes towards sexuality in general and woman in particular. The drama may be regarded as portraying intrapsychic rather than interpersonal conflict, the specific tension involved being between competing sexual orientations. The dynamics of this tension are in part reflected in the dissociation of personality manifested by Othello and Iago, and the outcome of the tension is symbolized by the action of the play.

A glance at two other plays composed within a couple of years or so of Othello will help to clarify the nature of these competing sexual orientations. Both All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure deal extensively in masculine attitudes toward marriageable and unmarriageable women. In All's Well Parolles' words of advice to young Bertram depict the supposed drawbacks and imagined perils of connubial sex:

He wears his honor in a box unseen
That hugs his kicky-wicky here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high
Of Mars's fiery steed.
                                (II. iv. 296-300)

As compared to Othello, who takes his bride with him to the wars, Bertram leaves his marriage unconsummated and his wife behind (or so he thinks). This frantic flight from Venus to Mars can be conceived—without offering conclusive support here—as representing a dualistic attitude toward women born of an unconscious incest prohibition, for we recall that Bertram entertains no inhibitions about enjoying the favors, as he supposes, of Diana (whom he regards as no better than a prostitute), and we know that his physician wife, Helena, can almost be said to be his sister.10 As for so strange and problematic a play as Measure for Measure—one peopled by hot bawds and cold saints, prurient pimps and sexual hypocrites—no more can be said at the moment than to call attention to the fact that the fantastic, Lucio, gives clear evidence of a sexual double standard when he declares with apparent earnestness to Isabella that, "though 'tis my familiar sin / With maids to seem the lapwing, and to jest, / tongue far from heart", he holds Isabella herself

     … as a thing enskied and sainted,
By your renouncement, an immortal spirit,
And to be talked with in sincerity,
As with a saint.
                            (I. iv. 31ff.)

This same Lucio is sentenced by the Duke at the end to marry the whore he got with child, a cruel and comic punishment for this idealist who pretends to cynicism.

When we survey Othello with the subject of masculine attitudes toward the fair sex in mind it seems astonishing how great a proportion of the play is devoted to their exposition.11 The inquiry may well begin with Cassio, who presents the sexual double standard in classic form. Do not the mannered speeches of the handsome cavalier to Desdemona bear a striking resemblance to the elaborate rhetoric of Lucio just quoted? Cassio tells Montano that Othello has married

Most fortunately. He hath achieved a maid
That paragons description and wild fame;
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
And in th' essential vesture of creation
Does tire the ingener.
                                           (II. i. 61ff.)

Shakespeare allows Cassio an overelaborate verbiage in speaking of Desdemona which Cassio does not customarily use elsewhere in the play, one distinctly artificial as compared to Othello's sublime yet controlled passages about Desdemona. We encounter hyperbole again when Cassio declaims at the news of her arrival in Cyprus:

Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling
The guttered rocks and congregated sands,
Traitors ensteeped to clog the guiltless keel,
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures, letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona.
                                      (II. i. 68ff)

The style of these passages reveals the exaggerated nature of Cassio's respect for Desdemona, though the well-bred courtier would presumably treat any lady of Desdemona's station to similar speeches; he even extends his "bold show of courtesy" to the lower-caste Emilia a few moments later by kissing her hand. Cassio gives further evidence of his idealization of women during Iago's futile attempts at the beginning of Act II, Scene iii, to arouse in Cassio an erotic interest in Desdemona: to Iago's suggestive "man-talk" speculations about how voluptuous Desdemona may be in bed, Cassio—the perfect gentleman—responds primly with polite compliments about the "exquisite lady". Yet Cassio, like Lucio, has his whore, and he shows no reluctance to indulge in persiflage with respect to his mistress in the scene where Iago pretends to Othello that he and Cassio speak of Desdemona. Cassio laughs about Bianca's passion for him, and when Iago mentions marriage Cassio responds, "I marry her? What, a customer? Prithee bear some charity to my wit; do not think it so unwholesome" (IV. i).

Thus in view of the sexual double standard that Cassio entertains the suggestion here put forth for the first time that he functions as a psychological "double" or component part of Othello acquires special point. That this relationship obtains seems at least tentatively indicated on the grounds that Cassio was present at Othello's wooing of Desdemona; that he stands as Othello's "second" or lieutenant; that he takes Othello's place as governor of Cyprus; that he takes Othello's sexual welfare to heart, hoping that he will survive the storm to make "love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms"; that he shares Othello's idealization of women; and that just before Othello dismisses Cassio from his position he declares, "He that is approved in this offense, / Though he had twinned with me, both at a birth, / shall lose me" (II. iii. 211-212; italics added). In a sense what happens is that just after Othello cashiers Cassio he jettisons—by calling into doubt—the worshipful attitude toward women he has in common with Cassio, his psychic twin in many respects.

The trouble with the plaster-cast conception of Desdemona which Othello shares with Cassio is that it is so friable. Othello's conscious worship of his "cunning'st pattern of excelling nature"—however noble and admirable—betokens an unrealistic and therefore precarious assessment of womankind. The audience knows that the beautiful, honorable, devoted Desdemona is only human and hence fallible: she is evasive if not mendacious about the handkerchief when straightforwardness might have saved her, she peevishly charges that Othello's insistance about the handkerchief is "a trick to put me from my suit", she grovels in the face of death ("Kill me tomorrow; let me live tonight"), and she is doubtless a bit devious with her father concerning her love for Othello. Leo Kirschbaum remarks (p. 292) in calling Othello a romantic idealist who overvalues Desdemona, "He loves not Desdemona but his image of her." Perhaps it should be said that he loves both but cannot distinguish between the two. Although there is only one Desdemona involved, there are at least two psychic dispositions of Othello to contend with. One of these, represented by Cassio, is that of the manly warrior whose arms have heretofore found "their dearest action in the tented field" and whose bed has been "the flinty and steel couch of war"—a man who if he knew women at all must have known them either politely and remotely or else in passing dalliance, as Cassio has. As opposed to this double standard, another disposition is that of the normal, sensual, integrated Othello, that of a man able under ordinary conditions to combine the currents of affection and eroticism, a man who can say to Desdemona without any romantic claptrap, "The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / That profit's yet to come 'tween me and you" (II. iii. 9-10) and who reveals that "the young affects" in him are not entirely defunct when he cries in the brothel scene, "O thou weed, / Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet, / That the sense aches at thee… . "

What has just been described as the sensual side of Othello obviously contrasts more sharply with the component represented by Iago than that by Cassio. Wived or not, Iago hates women. At the very beginning of the play he speaks, in that puzzling line, of Cassio as "almost damned in a fair wife." The animal imagery he typically uses in sexual contexts, and which Othello employs after succumbing to Iago's medicine, betrays the anti-feminine in him which is but the obverse of his latent homosexuality. "Plague him with flies", he tells Roderigo as he incites him to approach Brabantio in Act I, and to the latter he says, "An old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe", "You'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse", and "Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs." But the truest words Iago speaks against women (true for him) are spoken in seeming jest in Act II, scene i, where he is indeed nothing if not critical:

        You are pictures out of doors,
Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended,
Players in your housewifery, and housewives
  in your beds.

Following this speech Iago presents his series of clever paradoxes in mock praise of Desdemona. All of them besmirch women for infidelity. Still another jest betraying Iago's subterranean attitudes occurs when he says, in response to Emilia's "I have a thing for you" (the handkerchief), "It is a common thing—"; when Emilia gets angry, Iago softens his joke by adding, "to have a foolish wife" (III. iii. 301-305). Equally un-amusing but even more expressive of Iago's latent homosexuality is the anal fantasy he articulates in an aside upon watching Cassio kiss his fingers to the ladies: "Would they were clyster pipes for your sake!" (II. i. 179).

That most of Iago's scatalogical remarks denigrate women is no coincidence nor simply a matter of dramatic and thematic relevance. Allardyce Nicoli recognizes Iago's anti-feminism but attributes it to his cynicism (without considering the psychological roots of cynicism, which is a defense against anxiety) and presumes that Iago "had experience of frail women", arguing with quaint logic that because Iago's nature is essentially masculine he despises or ignores the women he encounters.12 Quite the contrary, his behavior reflects that of a paranoid personality whose repressed homosexual tendencies have erupted under stress in the form of delusions of persecution and jealousy, as Martin Wangh's sound analysis reveals. With the paranoid's marvelous ingenuity he converts his delusional system into a plan of revenge. That this plan singles out Cassio as the cuckolder of Othello is over-determined. Consciously Iago wants revenge on Cassio because of the promotion. Unconsciously he wants revenge because the characteristic envy of Cassio he experiences: "He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly" and "The knave is handsome, young, and hath all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after." This envious antipathy masks the sexual desire he has for Cassio, reminding us of the similar "pale ire, envy, and despair" which Melville's Claggart experiences with respect to Billy Budd for similar reasons. Wangh suggests that, as both dreams and lies embody wishes, Iago's "dream-lie" about Cassio further substantiates his latent homosexual tendencies:

And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my
Cry "O sweet creature!" and then kiss me
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and
Cried "Cursed fate that gave thee to the
                                     (III. iii. 421-426)

But Wangh's assertion that Iago unconsciously yearns for Othello and identifies with Desdemona, whom he regards as a rival, must be called a misleading over-simplification.

Why this is so can be understood if Othello be conceived of as a composite character with certain conflicting tendencies of the composite represented by Cassio and Iago. Better yet, let there be a paradigm of three Othellos. One may be called the Normal Othello, a man more gifted than the average, but normal and healthy psychologically in that he possesses control ("Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them"), awareness of reality, and self-respect. This is the "noble Moor whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient", the man "Whom passion could not shake" (IV. i. 275ff.). He is good and trusting, "of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so" (I. iii. 405-406). He is a manly, masculine man, the man called to mind by G. Wilson Knight's description of Othello as "a symbol of human—especially masculine—'purpose, courage, and valour'"; Knight further says, "Othello is essential man in all his prowess and protective strength" and Desdemona is "essential woman, gentle, loving, brave in trust of her warrior husband."13 This is the Othello described earlier as the integrated, sensual man who is able under ordinary circumstances to combine the currents of affection and lust. Next there is the Romantic Othello, more refined, sensitive, idealistic, whose impulses in these respects are exaggerated in Cassio, especially in the matter of the sexual double standard for women. Finally there is the Psychotic Othello, personified by Iago, who can experience neither affection nor lust except in perverted form.

Confusing as this multiplication of Othello may seem at first, it makes perfect sense from a clinical point of view when seen in terms of the origin of the sexual double standard. If Freud's formulation of the Oedipus complex has any meaning and validity, then the male child must at some time both experience a possessive lust for his mother and eventually deny that lust. He must also both recognize that she has sexual appetites and as a defense against this unbearable fact deny that she has any such appetites and attribute a false sexual purity to her. During the course of psychosexual maturation he comes eventually to accept a substitute for her in marriage and to resolve the dual view he has had to entertain of women as sexual saints or sinners by dropping the distinction altogether. When so-called fixation on the mother occurs, with its attendant incest fear, or when because of father-son hostility too much castration anxiety is mobilized, then the reconciliation of the two views of women either never takes place or else is resolved in a negative fashion by flight into homosexuality. In application of these matters to the play, it is argued that the sexual double standard is perceptible in Othello, obvious in Cassio, and symbolized in extreme pathological form by Othello-Iago. One trifle light as air, the handkerchief, tends to confirm because of its history and multiple symbolism that Desdemona enjoys the (natural) position of a surrogate of Othello's mother.14 Intimations of conflict with the father are also present in the play. Brabantio says to the Moor, "She has deceived her father, and may thee" (I. iii. 294). Since psychologically speaking Brabantio and Othello are father and son as well as father-in-law and son-in-law, the oedipal overtones are discernible. Thus, as previously mentioned, the true precipitating factor in the play is not the promotion of Cassio but the marriage of Othello; in contrast to Wangh's contention, however, the reason lies not so much in the mobilization of jealousy on Iago's part as in the flood of excitation aroused in Othello by the marriage and the simultaneous conflict with the father. This conflict in turn promotes confusion with respect to sexual role and makes Brabantio's threat to Othello that Desdemona may deceive him too seem a real possibility, particularly when Iago reminds Othello of it later.15

The significance of considering Othello as a composite character and the play as an endopsychic drama whose action symbolizes certain conflicting possibilities of sexual orientation seems considerable. Perhaps now the unanswerable plea, "Demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body", has been answered. And Iago's reply, "Demand me nothing. … / From this time forth I never will speak word", makes peculiar sense in that when Othello kills himself Iago may be said to expire with him (so that in terms of formal resolution of the dramatic conflict, the artist at this point silences the voice of divisiveness, which no longer has any power to create a split in Othello's soul). The interpretation offered helps to highlight many minor aspects of the play, such as the parallel that both Othello and Iago murder their own wives; the profound significance of the brothel scene; the ease with which Iago succeeds in tempting Othello; the attendant "echo" effect of the temptation; the implications of Iago' s cryptic and ambiguous "Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago" (I. i. 57); the narcissism which Othello and Iago share (cf. Othello's "my perfect soul" and Iago's "I know my price"); their complementary masochism and sadism; the deeper function of Emilia's earthy sexual realism at the end of Act IV as a foil to Desdemona' s naiveté; the castration overtones of Othello's closing "I took by th' throat the circumciséd dog / and smote him—thus."

One special gain of regarding Othello as a composite character is that of having resolved to some extent the disagreement about his nature. This discord exists in large part because critics must find it difficult to distinguish among the various guises or facets of Othello; hence they are generally right even when they differ with each other. As Heilman suggests (p. 138), "There is no master term for Othello." Certainly there is room for both A. C. Bradley's noble Moor and for T. S. Eliot's escapist from reality. In the light of the present paper perhaps Kirschbaum has passed the most accurate and comprehensive judgment on Othello in saying that "It is the close interweaving of the great man, the mere man, and the base man that makes of Othello the peculiarly powerful and mysterious figure he is" (p. 295).

As for the measure of tragic insight Othello attains, it may be argued that at the end he comprehends that he loved too well and that this adoration was unwise but not why it was unwise. His talk of "one not easily jealous" and his choice of metaphor in saying, "threw a pearl away", suggest that he has not yet grasped how his idealization of Desdemona betrayed him into the strategy of employing all his troops in conducting an external defense against an imaginary danger instead of attacking the real, internal enemy—the one within the gates, as Leavis puts it.


1 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (New York: Meridian Books, 1955), Lecture V; T. S. Eliot, "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca", Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1932); F. R. Leavis, "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero", Scrutiny, VI (December, 1937); R. B. Heilman, Magic in the Web (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1956); Leo Kirschbaum, "The Modern Othello", ELH, II (1944), 283-296.

2 Marvin Rosenberg gives a good account of the many views of Iago in his "In Defense of Iago", SQ, VI (Spring, 1955), 145-158.

3 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Shakespeare Criticism: A Selection, ed. D. Nichol Smith (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1946), pp. 266 ff.; E. E. Stall, Othello: An Historical and Comparative Study (Minneapolis, 1915) and Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (Cambridge at the University Press, 1934).

4 Frank Prentice Rand, "The Over Garrulous Iago", SQ, I (July, 1950), 157.

5 A list of the psychoanalytic commentary on Othello consulted follows: Martin Wangh, "Othello: The Tragedy of Iago", Psychoanalytic Quarterly, XIX (1950), 202-212; Gordon Ross Smith, "Iago the Paranoiac", American Imago, XVI (Summer, 1959), 155-167; A. B. Feldman, "Othello's Obsessions", American Imago, IX (June, 1952), 147-164; Stephen A. Shapiro, "Othello's Desdemona", Literature and Psychology, XIV (Spring, 1964), 56-61; Robert Fliess, Erogencity and Libido (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1956), pp. 65-69; Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), Part V; Thomas F. Connolly, "Shakespeare and the Double Man", SQ, I (January, 1950), 30-35; John P. Emery, "Othello's Epilepsy", Psychoanalysis and the Psychoanalytic Review, XLVI (Winter, 1959), 30-32; Simon O. Lesser, Fiction and the Unconscious (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), pp. 116-118; A. André Glaz, "Iago or Moral Sadism", American Imago, XIX (Winter, 1962), 323-348. Rosenberg's article might well be included in this group.

6 Wangh uses Freud's distinction among three types of jealousy (competitive or normal, projective, and delusional) as a point of departure; he shows that Iago suffers primarily from the last type; and he quotes Freud as saying that delusional jealousy "represents an acidulated homosexuality and rightly takes its position among the classical forms of paranoia. As an attempt at defense against an unduly strong homosexual impulse it may, in a man, be described in the formula: 'Indeed I do not love him, she loves him'"; and Wangh adds, "the sufferer suspects the woman's relation to all the men he himself is tempted to love."

The most relevant papers by Freud are "Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia and Homosexuality", Collected Papers, II; "Psycho-Analytic Notes upon an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia", CP, III; and "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life", CP, IV.

7 The considerable body of psychoanalytic literature on the subject of decomposition begins in 1914 with Otto Rank's Der Doppelgänger. Two notable applications to Shakespeare are Ludwig Jekels' "The Riddle of Shakespeare's Macbeth", reprinted in Psychoanalysis and Literature (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1964), and chapter 12, "Prince Hal's Conflict", in Ernst Kris's Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: International Universities Press, 1952).

8Ulysses (New York: Random House, Inc., 1934), p. 210.

9 Leavis, "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero", Scrutiny, VI (December, 1937), 264; Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London, 1949), p. 108, quoted from Rosenberg, pp. 145-146.

10 Both his mother and father have Helena under their protection; moreover, the Countess says, "You know, Helen, I am a mother to you", at which way of putting the relationship Helena balks, saying, "Or were you both our mothers, / I care no more for than I do for Heaven / So I were not his sister" (I. iii. 144 and 169 ff.).

11 Most of the first two acts (apart from the more perfunctory portions such as the details of the war with the Turks) deal with the matter, directly or indirectly, not to mention many later portions of the play such as the brothel scene.

12Studies in Shakespeare (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), pp. 97-98.

13The Wheel of Fire (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1949), pp. 109-111.

14 For discussion of the handkerchief symbolism, see items by Feldman, Fliess, and Smith mentioned in note 5.

15 The same complex of factors presides in Cymbeline: the conflict between Cymbeline and Posthumus Leonatus (who resembles Othello in many ways) is that of father and son (for the King raised him as a son); an unsanctioned marriage precipitates the conflict; and the wife of Posthumus is a mother-substitute. All of these features appear in the lines spoken by Posthumus after he is led by the deceitful Iachimo (cf. Iago) to believe that Imogen has been unfaithful:

          We are all bastards,
And that most venerable man which I
Did call my father was I know not where
When I was stamped. Some coiner with his
Made me a counterfeit. Yet my mother
The Dian of that time: so doth my wife
The nonpareil of this.
                                  (III. i. 1-8)

Marilyn French (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Late Tragedies: Othello," in Shakespeare's Division of Experience, 1981, pp. 204-19.

[In the excerpt below, French centers on Othello and Iago in her examination of masculine values and behavior, focusing in particular on their relation to women and feminine qualities.]

Nowhere in Shakespeare are relations between males and females more searchingly, painfully probed. Othello is the last play in which this occurs; with it, the concerns that are central in Comedy of Errors, Taming, Much Ado, and All's Well are finally laid to rest.

The dominant culture of the play is that of Venice, which is shown here as similar to the Venice of Merchant, but in a more positive light. Venice is worldly, powerful, moneyed, and mannered. It is not just a place but an influence, and its mores are implanted in all the characters, even in those who, like Othello and Cassio, are not native Venetians. Venice is civilization, a civilization the characters carry with them to primitive, wild, wartorn Cyprus.3 The graft is as uneasy as the overlay of civility on any basic human core.

The scenes in Venice present the masculine principle in two aspects. The Senate scene shows it at its finest, possessed of honor, lawfulness, decorum, knowledge, and power, yet "feminine" in its protective and consolatory inclinations. The city is dominated by reason, and the council scene (I, iii) exemplifies reason in action, whether the issue is a set of conflicting reports of an enemy's movements or a father's hysterical attack. Reason is a form of control, and it is control above all that is the ideal of this culture. Control is essential to a culture which views natural humanity as depraved and vicious: thus Hamlet values Horatio, and Polonius lectures Laertes. It is also essential to a culture which views natural humanity as bestial and voracious, which is closer to the view of this play. The shocked Lodovico laments:

Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose
 solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?
                              (IV, i, 264-268)

Control over others is power. Control over self is invulnerability, transcendence over nature and the contingencies of natural life. In "Venetian" cultures, control is an absolute good. But belief in the existence of control is belief that reason, which leads to control, can be separated from and dominate feeling.

From a Venetian perspective, self-control is desirable in all people, necessary in males, and most valuable in soldiers, who must frequently undergo physical discomfort and danger. Othello must sleep on "the flinty and steel couch of war" (I, iii, 230), and survive "disastrous chances" (I, iii, 134) of battle, accident, and capture. Othello shows a strong self-control from his first appearance in the play. He is ideally calm, reasonable, and rooted in a sense of legitimacy. He does not fear Brabantio; he knows his lineage to be more royal than and as wealthy as that of the Venetians. He remains calm and in control even when suddenly encompassed by naked swords. Attacked in the Senate, he speaks mildly, moderately, and brilliantly, never responding to Brabantio's wild charges. Although when during his wedding night, a melee breaks out in Cyprus, he warns that "passion, having my best judgment collied, / Assays to lead the way" (II, iii, 206-207), he remains calm throughout the disruption. Othello represents an ideal control.

Iago too is controlled, although his self-control is used for dissembling, as he announces in the first scene and repeats frequently. Loss of self-control makes Brabantio appear a fool in the council scene; it causes Cassio to lose his lieutenantship. Important as this quality is, every major male figure loses self-control at some point in the play except Iago.

The values of Venice are shared by all of the characters. The values most important in this play are power (of various sorts), control (which means believing in the possibility of the supremacy of reason over emotion, and thus in the control, or repression, of emotion), and possession.

There is, however, inevitably in a culture that respects control, an "underside" to the Venetian culture. It is Venice unclothed, lacking ermine robes and gold seals of office. This sphere has the same values as the world of senator and aristocrat, but its members lack some of the cushions legitimacy grants. It is occupied by males with lesser legitimacy, but it is foreign to no male figure. It is rawer and cruder than Venice; the assumptions which can be sugared over, or spread with velvet in aristocratic circles, are glaringly open here. And it is this sphere that we see first as the play opens.

It is the world of the streets, the locker room, the pool hall. It is dominated by concern about money, and by male competition, which may take the form of envy or hatred. The opening scene (as well as all of Iago's scenes with Roderigo) presents its terms, as Iago bilks Roderigo of his money, and spits hatred at Cassio and Othello.

The aristocratic Venetians do nothing like this. They don't have to. Those with wealth do not have to con a man of his purse—they have subtler means, means they have legitimated by law. Those with political power do not have savagely to manipulate one man: they can impersonally manipulate an entire army. Although Shakespeare does not explicitly identify the two worlds (one senses, indeed, that he would prefer to believe them different), their kinship is demonstrated when members of the aristocratic world—Othello, Cassio, and Brabantio—accede to the terms of the second, and even use those terms themselves.

Because both of these spheres are based in a desire to transcend nature, in control, both are profoundly misogynistic. Their fear and contempt for the feminine principle is expressed not just in contemptuous treatment of women, but in disdain for "feminine" qualities like loyalty, obedience, and above all, emotion. Women are seen largely as functions, and trivialized; there is general belief in male right to own women and control them. In this kind of thinking, there is disdain for bonds that do not advance one (in a linear way) in the world, for any subordination of self, and for sex.

There is a third sphere in the play, although its character is not as firmly delineated as the two Venetian spheres. This is Cyprus, which can be reached only by immersing oneself in nature, risking drowning. It is a space, rather than place, and thus like the "places apart" found in comedy. It is a space where those things normally kept in control and hidden can—and do—grow and appear in the light. In Cyprus, where there is, symbolically, no real civilization, only that brought by the Venetians, a man may be his own judge and jury and executioner, a woman may be inconstant, and the underlying assumptions of a culture may be glaringly displayed. And, most important, in Cyprus, the conventions of civilization which permit revocability are lacking. In reversal of the comedic device of using equivocating language to suggest the ambivalence of human affairs and to permit revocability, Othello shows words as deeds, and as irrevocable as murder.

The character who symbolizes the upper crust of Venice, despite his different nativity, is Othello; the character who bears the lower burden is Iago. But they are two crusts of one pie, and thus do not just intersect, but share the same base, like the imprintings on two sides of a coin.

Iago is unadulteratedly "masculine." He believes in control, reason, power, possession, and individualism; he holds any manifestation of the feminine principle in contempt. It is significant that Iago opens the play: it is his terms that dictate its events throughout. The language of that opening is indicative: Roderigo speaks of money; Iago says "Abhor me," and Roderigo speaks of hate. Iago replies "despise me," and proceeds to attack Cassio. He claims his rival is "almost damn'd in a fair wife," and knows no more of war than a "spinster" or "toged consul." Essentially, Iago is calling Cassio a sissy, effeminate, as containing "feminine" qualities.4 He blames Othello for choosing his lieutenant by "affection" (which is sometimes glossed to mean "favoritism," although the OED lists no such meaning for Shakespeare's period, which contains pejorative connotations not present in Shakespeare's term) rather than by "old gradation"—seniority, a coded hierarchy. The conversation moves to assertion of self, individuality at the expense of a social whole, and again Iago shows contempt for loyalty, subordination of self, service based on love, and equates such qualities with bestiality: a duteous servant is his "master's ass," and earns but "provender" for his pains.

What Iago lacks are the rewards of masculinity—wealth and status; his actions at the opening seem designed to gain these. He does bilk Roderigo of his fortune, and in time, he does supplant Cassio. But these achievements do not seem to satisfy him; they seem utterly insignificant. Like Richard III, Iago is cut off by his nature from the feminine principle. He not only scorns "feminine" qualities, but wishes to destroy them in others. He is not such an anomaly as he has been made out. His character is not unlike that of some historical figures who have gone into the world carrying the banner of a religious or political cause, wiping out pleasure, mercy, and sexual love.

Iago is totally rational—and I use that word as critics use it who call the feminine principle irrational—and his means is his end.5 Control is his absolute good, but it gets him nothing: he goes round and round, at every step inventing new reasons to exercise control. In the hollowness of those without satisfying ends, he wills the destruction of those who have them; he wants to "poison the delight" of those who, like Cassio, have a "daily beauty" in their lives.6 The only thing that makes Iago unbelievable is that he does this in the name of his own individuality, and not in the name of some "higher" cause.

Iago's weapons are his unremitting hatred of the feminine principle and his brilliance at articulating that hatred. This hatred appears in the first scene (thus completing the statement of values that dictates the events) when Iago cries out to Brabantio. He first describes Desdemona as if she were one more possession: "look to your house, your daughter, and your bags"; "sir, y'are robbed" (I, i, 80-85). Then he presents the marriage of Desdemona and Othello in these ugly images: "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe"; "You'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans"; Othello and Desdemona, he says, are "making the beast with two backs" (I, i, 88-89; 111-113; 116).

Iago consistently uses animal images—that is, images from nature—to describe sexuality and generation. He goes always directly to the heart of things, even if they are prejudices. Roderigo and Brabantio use political terms to describe what has occurred. Brabantio too sees his daughter as his possession: "She is … stol'n from me" (I, iii, 60). Roderigo says that Desdemona has made a "gross revolt"; Brabantio calls it "treason of the blood." Both men mean not only a revolt against her father's lawful possession and control, but also a revolt against the "laws of nature," as she moves to the "gross clasps of a lascivious Moor."

Both kinds of descriptions of what Desdemona has done are "masculine," and both betray the values of this culture. But Iago's way of speaking moves the case from the particular to the general. He casts filth not just on the coupling of Desdemona and Othello, but on coupling itself. All sexuality is "making the beast with two backs," if one has contempt for sex and sees it as bestial.7

Othello at first appears to be his ensign's opposite. That he is noble and that Shakespeare intended him to seem so appears to me to be unquestionable. His demeanor is authoritative and calm, his language intelligent and beautiful, and only rarely inflated. He appears in a particularly shining way because he appears after Iago. Iago's revelations about his own character "blacken" him instantly; his hatred for the Moor serves to exalt the general, and to "whiten" him. And in all the early scenes, Othello is steadily admirable, Iago steadily despicable. On the surface, the two present a clear contrast. Underneath, however, another current moves. For Othello, magnificent as he is, is also as egotistical as his ensign; moreover, his gentility and magniloquence tend to dull. Although it does not happen in the play, Othello could become tedious, boring; Iago is never that. The point is that Iago has the energy and wit and delight in himself that Shakespeare associates with the unleashed masculine principle. Hateful as he is, Iago is fun (in the way Richard III is fun) to listen to.

Othello's values are those of aristocratic Venice; Iago's are those of its underside. Iago has contempt for the feminine principle, for women, and feeling, and sex. Othello, without his awareness, shares this contempt. The first clue to this is his behavior in the Senate chamber. Othello swears that "as truly as to heaven / I do confess the vices of my blood, / So justly to your grave ears I'll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady's love" (I, iii, 122-125). The comparison seems inept, but Othello is never inept. Unconsciously, he is associating love with vice. In his effort to persuade the Senate that his commission will take priority over his marriage, he uses terms that could be Iago's: if he neglects his work for love, he says, "Let housewives make a skillet of my helm" (I, iii, 272). In response to the order to leave immediately, before the consummation of his marriage, he says "With all my heart." He accepts the commission for Cyprus with "a natural and prompt alacrity." He seems to have no regret whatever about leaving Desdemona. When she demurs and asks to go with him, he seconds her, but assures the Senate that he wants her "not / To please the palate of my appetite … but to be free and bounteous to her mind" (I, iii, 261; 262; 265). We might assume from this that Othello has a weak or undemanding sensual nature—indeed, one critic has so concluded—but this is the same man who later tells Desdemona she is "so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet / That the sense aches at thee" (IV, ii, 68-69).8

Othello's denial of the erotic element in love is related to Iago's denial of the loving element in eros. Both denials emerge from a need to separate love (the inlaw aspect) from sex (the outlaw). Both attempt to control sexuality, Othello by idealizing it, Iago by demeaning it: "But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts; whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion" (I, iii, 329-332). Both men assume that love and lust are related; Othello tries to purify the lustfulness from love, and Iago tries to rationalize the love out of lust.

Othello is almost as "masculine" as Iago. He too believes in control, reason, and the assertion of individuality. (Consider his statements: "Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter" [I, ii, 83-84]; "She lov'd me for the dangers I had passed, / And I lov'd her that she did pity them" [I, iii, 167-168]. Both show a strong ego sense.) He respects power and hierarchy. Dignified and self-respecting as he is before the Senate, he acknowledges it his superior; decent and humane as he is with his inferiors, he never forgets his authority over them.9 In addition, he shares Iago's sense of the degradation sexuality constitutes, but whereas Iago would engage in sex and then hurl contempt at the woman, assuming boys will be boys, Othello attempts to idealize sex out of existence.

However, misogynistic cultures, because they need the women they despise, always contain a safety pocket. They open a very narrow gate, through which pass those women considered purified from taint, and thus elevated. Othello, Cassio, and the play itself exalt one woman, Desdemona, as being above the common run. Cassio describes Desdemona in terms that any mortal would have trouble living up to: she "paragons description"; she is so divine that even nature gives her homage. (Othello too is exalted in this section of II, i. The exaltation, coupled with the suspense attending his arrival, emphasizes his greatness. Thus the pair seems, at the moment of their meeting, two superhumans matched.) Between Cassio's hyperbolic comments about Desdemona before Othello's arrival, and Othello's hyperbolic description of his feelings about Desdemona after he arrives, is a short, odd section. It is a dialogue that would be unnecessary and irrelevant to the play if Shakespeare were not focusing on the subject of attitudes towards women.

Iago begins by castigating Emilia, and immediately extends his criticism to women in general. Desdemona challenges him on this, clearly (if implicitly) believing herself worthy, and wishing to hear some words describing worthy women. Iago dredges up a set of ancient attacks on women. Women are dissemblers; by nature they are angry, argumentative, and sexual; they pretend to competence (huswifery), and sainthood. To Desdemona's challenge he replies with a set of verses which emphasize one thing and only one thing: female (dissembling) sexuality. When she challenges him further, he admits that there may be deserving women (the very phrase betrays the assumptions of the culture), and what they deserve is to "suckle fools and chronicle small beer" (II, i, 160). For Iago, women are body, child-bearers and nurturers, and housewives, none of which functions warrant any respect.

The language of Othello on his arrival is beautiful and extreme. Beside it, Desdemona's sounds pedestrian.10 In his ecstasy, he wishes for death because "I fear / My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate" (II, i, 190-193). He is, of course, ironically, quite accurate, but his negligence of, or ignoring of, the sexual consummation still to come is most untypical and therefore significant. Desdemona's language is matter-of-fact and plain. She is not an enraptured idealist, but simply a happy woman expecting a happy life.

These two attitudes—one exalting, one degrading, neither able to deal with the reality—towards women, and particularly towards Desdemona, are contrasted again in II, iii, 15-29, in the dialogue of Cassio and Iago about Desdemona and sex, but they come into direct confrontation in III, iii. And in this scene, it is Othello, not Iago, who associates vulnerability to feeling with bestiality. To Iago's warning against jealousy, he responds "Exchange me for a goat" if ever he suffers from such an emotion. Iago's campaign is careful. First he impugns Cassio, then warns Othello against jealousy. His warning alone is enough to shake Othello a little; beneath his calm and assured exterior there is a sense of some kind of unworthiness. But he dismisses it: "she had eyes, and chose me."

Because male legitimacy is based on pretense, it is always shaky. Like Brabantio and others of his culture, Othello believes in his possession and right to command his wife: inconstancy would be a "revolt." But beneath this belief always lurks the suspicion that one person cannot really own another.11 Thus the grounds on which the entire Renaissance concept of marriage is erected are shaky, and Othello is feeling the tremor.

Iago's next step is a slide onto the dangerous ground of Desdemona. He begins with a commonplace misogynistic statement—Venetian women (all of them, of course) are inconstant. Then he moves closer to home: she deceived her father, why not you? This has special force because Brabantio himself has hurled the warning—about his own daughter—at Othello. Iago adds: she even deceived you, for when she seemed frightened of you, she was most in love with you.

Just these assertions are enough to dash Othello, to undermine all his exalted love. Since for Desdemona to be worthy of his love she must be better than the common run of women, the mere suggestion that she is not the utter paragon of virtue and honesty she has been made out is sufficient to tarnish her.12 Since she obviously could not be superhuman, Iago's suggestion that she is not has the strong force of truth: honest Iago, indeed. And seeing how the mere intimation that she can deceive shakes Othello, understanding that such a suspicion will lead to doubts as to whether she is really free from moral taint (with women, that means sexuality), Iago has a clear path for his next step. He trains Othello to see sex, women, and love as he does.

He accomplishes this through language, which is his greatest gift: Iago is literally a poet of hate and disgust. And in this play, language is action. Iago destroys Othello and Desdemona without lifting a finger; he uses his tongue alone. And it is a brilliant one.

Nevertheless, it would be impossible for Iago to seduce Othello if Othello did not already share Iago's value structure.13 Othello is not dense or blind, he is not a noble savage. He is a male who lives and thrives in a masculine occupation in a "masculine" culture, the assumptions of which he shares.14

There are two kinds of women, one being superhuman, totally virtuous. (Even Iago believes there are such things as virtuous women: see II, iii, 360-361; IV, i, 46-47). The other kind is a dissembler, a deceiver, because of sexuality; she is thus subhuman, bestial, capable of any degradation. And the two kinds are absolutely mutually exclusive. One can cross into the subhuman camp at any time, but once in it, one can never return. So Othello, perceiving taint in Desdemona for the first time, is deeply shaken. Her later, frightened deception about the handkerchief will clinch the case against her.

But Othello is a deeply feeling person. Unlike Iago, he is capable of dedicating himself to something or someone outside himself. Thus his fury against Desdemona is nothing like Iago's contemptuous treatment of Emilia. Desdemona has betrayed Othello in the deepest part of his being, "there, where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live or bear no life; / The fountain from which my current runs / Or else dries up" (IV, ii, 57-60). When he stops loving Desdemona, "chaos is come again."

Yet in I, ii, Othello tells Iago that he would not have confined his "unhoused free condition" except that he loves Desdemona. He does not seem to have suffered from "chaos" in the years before he loved; he did not "bear no life" before he met her.

Desdemona has seduced Othello into placing faith and trust in that unfixable, uncontrollable feminine principle; her love for him has seduced him into allowing himself to love. By submitting to the feminine principle, Othello turns his back on his training. While Iago is contemptuous of the qualities of the feminine principle, Othello feels ignorant of them. He apologizes to the Senate for his lack of polish; he thinks Desdemona may have turned against him because he is old, or black, or lacks the "soft parts of conversation" (III, iii, 264). In loving her he has opened the deepest parts of himself, allowed himself to feel, although he is unused to the "melting mood." He has freely accepted vulnerability and subordination to another. And it is Othello's ignorance of the inlaw aspect, an ignorance that in a person of mature years has to be based in fear and distrust, that makes him so vulnerable to Iago's certainty that with women, distrust, mistrust, is the only reasonable, the only rational position.

In truth, the mere suggestion that Desdemona is unfaithful is enough to send Othello into a renunciatory paroxysm that goes beyond just love and marriage and women: he renounces his career as well. It is tempting to read that passage as self-dramatization, but it is of a piece with his character generally. Othello does dramatize his emotions—consider his speech just before he kills Desdemona. He is a passionate man. And loss of faith, once he has placed it, leads to loss of the will to live. In this way, he is related to Hamlet.15 (So is Iago, in another way.)

We are, I think, meant to find Othello a bit of an innocent, regardless of his age. He sees himself thus and so does Iago at one moment. He is emotionally deep but inexperienced, like Hamlet and (perhaps) Troilus; he is as idealistic as they are as well. His blackness is partly an emblem for this sort of difference from wily Venetians and courtly Florentines. For Othello, as for Hamlet and Troilus, the altar on which he has first placed his devotion must remain fixed, constant, else chaos is come again.

Chaos comes swiftly and it comes through language. It is the vividness and ugliness of the sexual images Iago is able to conjure that leads Othello to hell. "Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? Behold her topp'd?" (III, iii, 345). Othello replies, "Death and damnation!" The vividness of Iago's account of Cassio's talking in his sleep is enough to lead Othello to swear "I'll tear her all to pieces," and to abjure all his "fond love."

An essential part of the exchanges of Othello and Iago is the pervasive animal imagery. It can signify subordination, as in Iago's early characterization of a loyal servant as an ass; in Iago's hectoring of Brabantio, it is applied to copulation and generation. It next appears—again in Iago's mouth—when Roderigo claims he will die from love. Iago scoffs: "Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon" (I, iii, 314-316). He then proceeds to outline what he considers to be the proper relations among human faculties; his ideas are classical and Catholic, items of accepted philosophical and theological doctrine.16 One could read his speech and shrug about devils who can quote Scripture. But it is far more likely that Shakespeare was suggesting that the values that motivate and characterize an Iago are accepted and respected values in the Western world. Only his apparent ignorance of love makes his statement seem that of a villain; like Troilus, Iago identifies love as appetite (in II, i, 225-235).

Iago's associations are clear: sex, subservience, and affection are parts of the feminine principle, and are therefore not within the pale of the human because they are tied to nature, beasts, and deservedly enslaved classes, which include women.

But Othello, once his idealism is undermined (indeed his idealism is a shift made to allow love in the face of his real beliefs), shares Iago's ideas. Like the ensign, he equates love with appetite, marriage with possession, and considers less than total possession of a wife "toadlike" (III, iii, 270).17 Iago whets him with images of Desdemona and Cassio as goats, monkeys, and wolves. Othello falls into a fit, then mutters, "A horned man's a monster and a beast" (IV, i, 62). "Goats and monkeys!" (IV, i, 263), his uncontrolled outburst at the end of his tormented speech to Lodovico, proves that Iago's poison poured in his ears has done its work.

Once Iago has poisoned sexuality itself in Othello's mind, there is nothing to be done. Desdemona as idealized woman and his exalted notion of love are dead for him whether he kills the real woman or not. If Desdemona, that paragon, is tainted, so are all women. In his rage at the destruction of his illusion, Othello treats both Desdemona and Emilia as whores. (Thus, at the end of the play, Iago calls Emilia "whore" when she tells the truth about the handkerchief.) And since Desdemona is clearly sexual—physically as well as emotionally and intellectually in love with Othello—she is tainted (whether unfaithful or not) once Iago has taught Othello to see sex as he does.

Nevertheless, Othello could simply turn away from Desdemona; he could divorce her; he could talk to her about the charges; he could … a thousand things. But he must kill her because of the prime value of his culture, his own prime value as well: control. As I said earlier, there are only two forms of control—domestication and killing. Desdemona seems unable to be domesticated, so she must be killed. Trust of the fluid feminine principle is difficult precisely because it cannot be controlled; its very nature is defined by that. Division into inlaw and outlaw aspects is a way of trying to control it, but it does not work very well. Othello must kill Desdemona because he loves her so much that if he did not kill her, he would slide into accepting her infidelity, to giving up control over her entirely.

Although he attempts, in his words over her sleeping body, to ceremonialize her murder, invoking justice and "more men" as his reasons, he cannot accomplish this. Desdemona's crime is worse than his, and this justifies his. Wakened and asked to confess her sins, Desdemona says "They are loves I bear to you" (V, ii, 40). She too sees love as sin. The murder in Othello is the murder of a vision of human love purified from the taint of a sexuality seen as bestial, vicious, and chaotic.18

That Shakespeare himself was thinking in terms like those I have described is demonstrated by his portraits of the three women in the play. They come from three moral levels: the "divine" Desdemona from the super-human; Emilia from the realistic world; and Bianca from the subhuman, since she is a prostitute and thus, in the moral universe of Shakespeare's plays (and else-where as well), not deserving of human consideration or rights. Yet all three of these women are finally treated in the same way. Moreover, Shakespeare placed words in their mouths that show he was aware of the political situation of women and their personal identities apart from men.

Desdemona, the angel who has not yet experienced mistreatment, accepts her culture's dictum that she must be obedient to males. Her first words in the play express her sense of duty to father and husband, a "divided duty" (I, iii, 181). The last words she speaks before she is aware of a change in Othello are: "Be as your fancies teach you; / What e'er you be, I am obedient" (III, iii, 88-89). She cannot even conceive of infidelity to a husband; she does not struggle against Othello when he commences to abuse her. To the end she remains submissive, begging Othello to let her live one more night, one more half hour. Her last words, placing the blame for her death on herself, are self-denying in the extreme: they are the words of a martyr. With Cordelia and Hermoine, Desdemona represents the inlaw feminine principle at its most superhuman.

Yet Shakespeare also takes pains to show her human, whole, and possessed of will. She confesses, in the Senate chamber, to "violence, and storm of fortunes" (I, iii, 249). It is she who protests the separation of the newlyweds; she asserts she wants to live with Othello because she wants "the rites for why I love him" (I, iii, 257). And it is she who cries out to the senators in dismay, "To-night, my lord?" (I, iii, 278), after the order to leave immediately. She has defied and deceived her father; like Helena, she would lose her virginity to her own liking.

Desdemona is sexual. Her innocence resides not in her freedom from sexual "taint" (as does the Virgin Mary's), but in her ignorance of the bestiality others see implicit in it. She is chaste and constant by nature: she cannot conceive of infidelity; she cannot imagine that love can end; and she is ignorant of male ways of talking and thinking about sex. To the degree that she represents part of Othello's psyche, she embodies that part which exalts and idealizes love, separating it from bestial sex. But Shakespeare is at some pains to emphasize that Desdemona herself has no need of such moral schizophrenia, that in her wholeness she finds no need to redeem or idealize sex.

Desdemona has no sexual guilt because she feels no need to transcend sex. She does not claim she wants to go to Cyprus to be "free and bounteous" to Othello's mind: nor is she hesitant to assert publicly that she has sexual desires. She can jest with Iago about women without embarrassment. Although she knows that sex is sin, her own sexual acts have been sanctified by ceremony into "rites." She teases Othello about Cassio with the tenacity of a cajoling child; she lies about the handkerchief like a wary child. And yet when Othello strikes her publicly, she stands her ground with adult dignity: "I have not deserv'd this" (IV, i, 224).

In short, until the "brothel" scene, she is a sensitive and confident young woman, straitly kept, kept a dependent child, but retaining spirit nevertheless. She is whole, sexual, given to be happy. But the men in the play see her differently.

For Brabantio, she has the passivity and silence proper in women: "a maiden, never bold; / Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion / Blush'd at itself" (I, iii, 94-96). He thinks she is unsexual, "opposite to marriage" (I, ii, 67). Thus her elopement with Othello is doubly "unnatural": she has chosen a man of a color different from her own, and she has betrayed that she does possess sexual desires.

Roderigo idealizes Desdemona as holy, "full of most bless'd condition" (II, i, 249-250). Cassio exalts her even more than Othello does, as divine, a paragon, "our great captain's captain." For Othello, Desdemona is not fully a separate being but part of himself, the completion of himself.

But honest Iago sees her only as "fram'd as fruitful / As the free elements" (II, iii, 341-342). It is ironic that of all the men, he sees Desdemona the most accurately.

Desdemona perceives herself the way Othello perceives her—as part of him, as not existing without him; his rejection of her in IV, ii stuns her into stupefaction. She tells Iago that the removal of Othello's love will kill her "but never taint my love" (IV, ii, 161). And as she dies, she puts the blame for her murder on herself. (Interestingly, Othello sneers that she dies in sin, lying; over and again, the inflexibility of the masculine principle leads to a devaluation of the feminine.)19

Yet even this ideal figure complains bitterly, after Othello strikes her, of his injustice. And she sighs "O, these men, these men!" (IV, iii, 60). And that she is shown as near-ideal, and seen by most of the male characters as fully an ideal, does not keep her from being called a "land-carrack" (slang for prostitute) by Iago. Or from being treated like a whore by her husband.

Bianca echoes, with sad resignation, Desdemona's happy statement of subordination to her man: "'Tis very good; I must be circumstanc'd" (III, iv, 201), she replies to Cassio's order to leave lest Othello see him "woman'd" (III, iv, 195). Cassio's abrupt contempt for her jealousy provides a brief but pointed contrast to the main action. Woman may get jealous as well as men; but they have no power, and their jealousy is dismissed with scorn.

Bianca appears after an amused, contemptuous conversation about her between Iago and Cassio. Cassio attacks her, using animal imagery, until she retorts jealously. He retreats, and Bianca leaves in anger. Nevertheless, she is still supplicant: "An' you'll come to supper tonight, you may" (IV, i, 159-160).

It is emblematic that Iago and Cassio are discussing Bianca when Othello thinks they are discussing Desdemona. In this male world, all women are the same. Like Othello, Cassio exalts Desdemona; nevertheless, he shares his culture's misogyny, saying to Desdemona after Iago's satire on women, "he speaks home" (II, i, 165). And he has contempt for the woman whose body he uses. Even her most genuine love and fidelity cannot protect Desdemona from the language, the attitudes, and finally the oppression of the male view of women.

Othello treats Emelia as a bawd when he castigates Desdemona as whore; Iago treats his wife with curt contempt.20 None of the women imagines independence of men, but Emilia is aware of her own and other women's autonomous being. And she is the spokeswoman for the females of the play. She is worldly, a little cynical, resigned. She murmurs bitterly about male dominance: "I nothing but to please his fantasy" (III, iii, 299), she says of her relation to Iago. She is bitter: men "are all but stomachs and we all but food; / They eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us" (III, iv, 104-106).

In IV, iii, Emilia delivers a little sermon on the relations of husbands and wives. In context it seems almost irrelevant, since it is a defense of adultery in wives and Desdemona has not performed this act. It is a piece of moralizing, similar to other passages in Shakespeare in which the lower orders comment on the exemplary implications of the behavior of the upper classes. Here, Emilia suggests that the behavior of husbands and their treatment of their wives necessarily have consequences, and that inconstancy is, after all, a "small vice" (IV, iii, 69). She assumes that women are human—merely human, but at least human—and like men are subject to affection, temptation, and anger.

One effect of Emilia's speech is to counter the attitudes of the males in the play. Whether they idealize women or degrade them all into whores, like Iago, who says, "knowing what I am, I know what she shall be" (IV, i, 73), or whether they do both simultaneously, the thing they do not do is see women as human beings. Shakespeare does, in this play.

But on another level, Emilia's speech broadens the implications of the action. Desdemona has not been unfaithful to Othello: that is insisted upon by the play. We overhear her conversations with Cassio; we overhear her shocked conversation with Emilia; we are clearly asked to give the last drop of pity to her and to her maid as they die. In the comedies, an accusation of infidelity is tantamount to actual infidelity on the mythic level of the play. It does not function this way here. Shakespeare took too many pains to inform us at every step of the line, not only of Iago's plot, but also of Desdemona's innocence. But he clearly wishes to consider the broader issue: if Desdemona had been inconstant, would she have deserved death? Does Othello have the right to kill her if she is guilty? He does not deal with these questions in Othello, because this play is about male attitudes towards women—and each other—and thus Desdemona must stand as a symbol of what men destroy. He does consider it in Cymbeline. But Emilia's defense of inconstancy in women brings up the question. Suppose Desdemona had been inconstant? Would the audience wish her dead? And Emilia's speech is a long, long way from the speech given by Luciana to Adriana in Comedy of Errors: a lifetime away.

Othello is a profound examination of male modes of thought and behavior, especially with regard to women and "feminine" qualities. Iago is honest: he speaks the ordinary wisdom of the male world. The consequences of the values he shares with the other males of the play destroy the "feminine" values held by Desdemona, above all, but also Othello, Emilia, Cassio, Roderigo.

And Iago never changes. He remains. He endures without cracking, the only character in the play who never shows a sign of emotion or passion or the weakness he despises, although his behavior clearly has to be motivated by passion. He talks about lust, but never shows any sign of it. The prime exponent of reason and control stands firm even as the world around him collapses, even knowing that he caused its collapse. Although tortures are promised, things that will make him speak word again, this brilliant verbal manipulator, this poet for whom silence is indeed punishment, stands alive at the end of the play, surrounded by bodies, and is, in our imagination, triumphant. Well, the truth is, he is.


3 Alvin Kernan describes three circles or worlds in the play: an outer world, representing "the brute power of nature"; Venice, representing reason, law, and social concord; and Cyprus, which is halfway between the two. Intro., Signet Edition (New York, 1963).

4 Samuel A. Tannenbaum sees Iago's Cassio as "effeminate." "The Wronged Iago," Shakes. Assoc. Bull. XII, 1 (January 1937): 57-62.

5 Many twentieth-century critics find Iago a rationalist, among them Robert Heilman, who refers to R. P. Warren's remark that Shakespeare's villains are marked by rationalism. Magic in the Web (Lexington, Ky., 1956), and "The Lear World." Mark Van Doren says Iago has "a heart that passion cannot rule." Shakespeare (Garden City, N.Y., 1953), p. 194. Alvin Kernan calls Iago "icily logical."

6 Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of "Othello" (Berkeley, Calif., 1961), pp. 170-171, asserts that the ultimate motive for Iago's hatred of Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio is "his denial of the values they affirm." Elsewhere, Rosenberg describes Iago as a cool manipulator who asserts the supremacy of will and intelligence and "their power to efface emotions," and quotes to the same effect Karen Horney's description of a psychological type. "In Defense of Iago," SQ VI, 2 (1955): 145-158.

7 Iago's misogyny and loathing for sex have been noted by many critics, among them William Empson, "Honest in Othello, " The Structure of Complex Words (London, 1951); Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1958); and Robert Rogers, "Endopsychic Drama in Othello," SQ XX (1969): 205-215.

8 Othello has been described as an unsensual lover by Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York, 1942), p. 127. Kernan praises Othello for what he calls self-control, and adds that every major character except Desdemona "is in some degree touched with sexual corruption." Wolfgang Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), p. 124, concludes from the imagery that Othello's approach to experience is primarily sensory.

9 Sometimes Othello is blamed for these qualities. Norman Council claims that he is concerned only with his honor and himself. When Honour's at the Stake (London, 1973), p. 113. A. P. Rossiter accuses Othello of egotism as well as possessiveness and self-pity. Angel with Horns, ed. Graham Storey (London, 1961), p. 195. Egotism and self-pity are the burden also of the famous criticism of T. S. Eliot, "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca," Selected Essays 1917-1932 (London, 1932), and F. R. Leavis, "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero," Scrutiny VI (1937).

Yet as Helen Gardner persuasively argues, the tone of the play does not support such readings, which arise mainly because of twentieth-century distaste for authority, a code of honor, and heroic postures. See The Noble Moor, British Academy Lecture, 1956.

10 Desdemona's "sensible normality" contrasts with the "emotional exaggeration of Othello," writes S. L. Bethell, Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (London, 1944), p. 18.

11 Kenneth Burke writes: "In ownership as thus conceived [by Othello] … there is … forever lurking the sinister invitation to an ultimate lie, an illusion carried to the edge of metaphysical madness, as private ownership, thus projected into realms for which there are no unquestionably attested securities, is seen to imply also, profoundly, ultimately, estrangement." "Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method," Hudson Review IV, 2 (1951): 165-203.

12 The accusation made against Othello by Leo Kirschbaum ("The Modern Othello," ELH II [1944]: 283-296) is that he tries to transcend the merely human, and thus moves easily into the posture of a god and an agent of divine justice.

13 That Iago and Othello share something has been pointed out by Kirschbaum, Leavis, Frank Kermode, Intro., Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974), and Irving Ribner in the Ribner-Kittredge Intro. to the play (Waltham, Mass., 1963), as well as J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London, 1949).

14 The "something" that critics point to that binds Othello and Iago is the misogyny and fear of sex implicit in Western culture. John Holloway suggests this very obliquely when he writes that Iago conjures in Othello the memory of something he has heard or read about women. The Story of the Night (London, 1961), p. 46. Iago and Othello are "binary or double stars revolving about a common axis within a gravitational field." Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearean Tragedy (New York, 1956), p. 123. In my reading, the common axis is women=sex, the gravitational field a "masculine" way of seeing. But Helen Gardner writes that Iago's views represent a "true view of life." "Othello: A Retrospect," SS 21 (1968).

15 Robert Ornstein points out that Othello's anguish shows the profound involvement of the male ego in what I call chaste constancy. Moral Vision, p. 221.

16 In fact, of course, misogyny too is both classical and Catholic. Traditional patriarchal thinking disdains both women and the qualities (rightly or wrongly) associated with them.

17 In a way of thinking that exalts transcendence, anything merely human seems bestial, and is most easily expressed in animal imagery. Caroline Spurgeon, Shakespeare's Imagery (Boston, 1961), p. 335, shows that the animal imagery comes mainly from Iago, who utters over half of it, and that most of the rest comes from Othello. Other images contribute to the delineation of the characters of the two men. Iago refers frequently to bodily functions and uses technical and commercial—"masculine"—terms. Othello, the idealist, refers to the cosmos—the elements, the heavens, celestial bodies, winds, and sea. Cf. Wolfgang Clemen, Shakespeare's Dramatic Art (London, 1972), p. 122, and Mikhail Morozov, "The Individuation of Shakespeare's Characters Through Imagery," SS 2 (1949).

18 Maynard Mack claims Othello faces "two ways of understanding love: Iago's and Desdemona's," and must choose between "two systems of valuing and two ways of being." "The World of Hamlet, " Yale Review XLI (1952): 502-523. But in fact there are three ways to seeing sex (not love) in the play: Iago's, which reduces it to appetite and commerce, Othello's, which idealizes it into exalted romantic love, and Desdemona's, which blends sex, love, and the everyday into what we may call married love.

19 Alvin Kernan states that his murder of Desdemona destroys in Othello "all the ordering powers of love, of trust, of the bond between human beings." S. L. Bethell writes that Othello "loses his heaven with his faith in Desdemona." "Shakespeare's Imagery: The Diabolic Images in Othello," SS 5 (1952).

20 Marvin Rosenberg remarks that critics do not notice Iago's treatment of Emilia, although it is very significant. "At best he treats her with sadistic humor, alone with her … he snarls orders at her as if she were an inferior being." "In Defense of Iago."


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13553

Daniel Stempel (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Silence of Iago," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 2, March, 1969, pp. 252-63.

[In the essay below, Stempel examines Iago's motives and the irrationality of evil which, the critic argues, Shakespeare dramatized through Iago.]

In the final scene of Othello, Iago has been unmasked as the villain responsible for Othello's desperate act; there is no escape for him. Yet he spurns Othello's demand of an explanation, and, despite the threat of torture, maintains an obdurate silence. That silence, however, is not the mere bravado of a "Sparton Dogge"; it is the logical and ultimate fulfillment of Iago's boast to Roderigo in the opening scene:

For when my outward Action doth
The natiue act, and figure of my heart
In Complement externe, 'tis not long after
But I will weare my heart vpon my sleeue
For Dawes to pecke at; I am not what I am.

Thus Iago takes refuge in silence, cloaking the native act and figure of his heart in darkness for all time. The critics, left (like Lodovico) with no satisfactory explanation of Iago's arrogant malignity, have racked the text with cunning cruelty, seeking an answer; every contradictory facet of Iago's ambiguous nature has been accounted for: his motives and his lack of motives, his honesty and his duplicity, his orthodoxy and his diabolism. But the play offers no solution; it gives us Iago, and, despite his disclaimer, he is what he is—we must accept him. Nevertheless, that acceptance must rest on something more substantial than the romantic admiration of a colossus of iniquity. Iago embodies the mystery of the evil will, an enigma which Shakespeare strove to realize, not to analyze. And if we follow, as best we can, Shakespeare's shaping of the mind and heart of Iago, we shall discover a profound unconscious irony beneath the conscious dissimulation of Iago's speeches, an irony whose significance is symbolized, paradoxically, by the final silence of Iago.

To Iago, of course, there is no mystery. The will is free to choose, unmoved by good or evil. When Roderigo asks his advice, "What should I do? I confesse it is my shame to be so fond, but it is not in my vertue to amend it," Iago replies, "Vertue? A figge, 'tis in our selues that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are our Gardens to the which, our Wills are Gardiners. So that if we will plant Nettels, or sowe Lettice: Set Hisope, and weede vp Time: Supplie it with one gender of Hearbes, or distract it with many: either to have it sterrili with idlenesse, or manured with Industry, why the power and Corrigeable authoritie of this lies in our Wills. If the braine of our Hues had not one Scale of Reason, to poize another of Sensualitie, the blood, and basenesse of our Natures would conduct vs to most prepostrous Conclusions. But we haue Reason to coole our raging Motions, our carnali Stings, or vnbitted Lusts: whereof I take this, that you call Loue, to be a Sect, or Seyen" (I.iii.348-363).

Here again the critics are at odds. Bernard Spivack construes "vertue" as "the divine grace flowing into the otherwise helpless nature of man, creating there the power toward good without which salvation is not possible." Iago, he claims, is "demolishing in a phrase the theological foundations beneath the whole system of Christian ethics. He is homo emancipatus a Deo, seeing the whole world and human life as self-sufficient on their own terms, obedient only to natural law, uninhibited and uninspired by any participation in divinity." Spivack labels Iago a "Machiavel": "Nature is Iago's goddess as well as Edmund's, with the articles of the ancient's faith even more explicit and wider in their application."2 Yet Roland M. Frye, in Shakespeare and Christian Doctrine, quotes Luther, Calvin, and Hooker on individual responsibility for actions and concludes, "These remarks summarize the personal accountability insisted upon by the Christian tradition and accepted by Iago when he tells Roderigo that "tis in ourselves we are thus or thus … the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills'."3

Both interpretations, however, mistake the meaning of virtue as Roderigo and Iago understand it. Neither is talking about morality per se; they are taking opposite sides on the question of human freedom. Roderigo is using "virtue" in the older sense of an innate trait of character, a meaning close to that of Machiavelli's virtù. He is pleading that he cannot help being what he is, and in this, he, not Iago, is the Machiavellian. As Leo Strauss points out, Machiavelli taught that "the specific nature of a man so far from being determined by him, by his choice or free will, determines him, his choice or free will."4

The stage Machiavel, however, cannot be charged with a perversion of the actual doctrines of Il Principe, since the appellation was extended to any plotter against duly constituted authority. Recognizing this, Spivack is reluctant to use the term and warns, "Provided we extend the significance of the label beyond Machiavelli, since it embraces concepts of which Tudor England was conscious without the Florentine's instruction, Iago is a Machiavel." He amplifies this warning by pointing out, "Applied to Iago, the Machiavellian label, while supplying some prefatory enlightenment, is too general to carry us very far into the moral meaning of his role. The high art that wrought him into the dense and exclusive design of his own play does not allow him to remain an undifferentiated specimen of villainous humanity according to the commonplace Elizabethan formula of the Machiavel." This is an admirable summation and no judicious critic could possibly deny its accuracy; nevertheless it overlooks an important clue which supports Spivack's major theme, the survival of elements of the Vice of the morality play in Shakespeare's villains and specifically in Iago. Spivack stresses the strong moral and homiletic character of Iago's language; he writes, "A villain can act this way, but it is only Villainy in a Geneva gown that can talk this way."5 A palpable hit indeed, but it misses the heart of the matter by pinking the wrong church and the wrong doctrine; it is not Villainy in a Geneva gown that talks this way, but Villainy in a black cassock.

Shortly before the staging of Othello in 1604 a new breed of Machiavel, "the monstrous combination Ignatian Matchivell," had been created by the imaginative masters of Elizabethan polemic.6 To the patriotic defenders of the English crown against the encroachment of Spain and the Papacy, the association of Loyola and Machiavelli seemed natural and fitting, despite the Jesuit record of fierce opposition to Machiavellian secularism, for both, from the English point of view, had sacrificed morality to expediency. The Jesuitical Machiavel made his appearance as early as 1601 when a spokesman for the English Catholic secular clergy called the Society of Jesus "the very schoole of Machiavellisme." J. Hull, a Protestant, accused the Jesuits of being "well practised in Machiavel, turning religion into pollicie" in The Unmasking of the Politique Atheist (1602).7 In The Downfall of Poperie (1604), Thomas Bell stated "that the Iesuits are right Machiavels, and that whosoeuer will adhere vnto them must depend vpon the deuil of hell."8 To the Elizabethan the Jesuitical Machiavel seemed even more wicked than the conventional Machiavel who cast aside both religion and morality, for he justified his villainy by an appeal to faith and piety. This seeming contradiction, the blending of sanctity and crime, of hell boasting that it served heaven, was more shocking than open blasphemy. As a contemporary pamphlet put it, "But in the meane time you see the strange mysteries of the Iesuites doctrine that haue mingled heauen and hel, and lift vp the hands of Subiects against the anointed of God; arming them with the inuisible armour of Scriptures, Sacraments, Prayers and Blessings against their naturali Soueraigns."9

The legendary obedience of Jesuits to their superiors was cited triumphantly by their foes as proof that they were ready to use any means to achieve the ends assigned to them. They were even accused of being prepared to poison the Pope himself "if their purposes and plots bee but a little crossed."10 To a Jacobean audience, Iago was merely summing up standard Jesuit procedure when he impatiently prodded Brabantio: "Sir: you are one of those that will not serue God, if the deuill bid you" (I.i.121-122).

Although the Jesuitical Machiavel, unlike the traditional Machiavel, manipulated doctrine to further his schemes, his view of "personal accountability" was certainly not in agreement with the views of those strange bedfellows, Luther, Calvin, and Hooker. Mr. Frye disposes of the knotty abstractions of the problem of free will by assuring us, "Fortunately, we do not need to follow the intricacies of this matter, for Shakespeare did not employ them, and so we may turn to the theologians' practical teachings on freedom" (p. 157). After this neat amputation of practical morality from the living body of doctrine, Mr. Frye finds (to no one's surprise) that Luther, Calvin, and Hooker agree on man's possession of freedom and responsibility in the limited context of this world. But no serious moralist, outside of certain Oriental sects, would argue otherwise, any more than a competent politician would campaign against home and mother! The imposition of this spurious ecumenism suggests that a unanimity of opinion existed at a time when religious dissension and controversy were actually growing sharper and more hostile. It is far more likely that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were better acquainted with the points of difference between theologians than with their occasional admissions of a common ground, for these differences were vigorously defended, privately and publicly, by the warring factions. Iago's speech on free will cannot be understood by those who assume that Shakespeare would not have been acquainted with "the intricacies of this matter"; it is a carefully phrased exposition of a sharply defined viewpoint, not a vague generalization on "personal accountability."

Iago, as I have suggested, is entirely unconcerned with the moral consequences of choice; it is all one to him, if we "will plant Nettels, or sowe Lettice: Set Hysope, and weede up Time." He is arguing for the unimpeded freedom to choose what we will, good or evil. Surely it is not necessary to demonstrate that neither Luther nor Calvin granted the will that freedom which Iago claims for it. For both, as for St. Augustine, the human will is free only to sin, not to choose the good. Without the grace of God, man is the slave, not the master, of his will.11 Hooker, who follows Aquinas on this point, is much more liberal in expanding the scope of freedom of choice; yet there is also a fundamental difference between Hooker's freedom and Iago's. For Hooker, reason or "the show of reason" makes the choice and the will assents to it. The act of choice is initiated by the reason, not the will; thus, all sin begins with a clouding of the judgment rather than with a perverse will.12 Iago, in contrast, insists that will determines choice and reason must perforce assist it. The actual function of reason is to neutralize the pull of the appetites and leave the will absolutely free to make its choice. Reason is no more than an instrument of the will. As Virgil K. Whitaker sums it up, "with a nice sophistication Iago readjusts the accepted philosophy to his own wilfulness: reason must control the appetites, but so that they do not interfere with the will, to which the reason is therefore a servant."13

But this is more than a readjustment of the accepted philosophy—it is an inversion of it, and Iago cannot be credited with its invention. At the time that Othello was first produced at the court (1604), a bitter controversy over free will was raging on the Continent. In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius Loyola had called for the defense of the freedom of the will and justification by works against the attacks of Luther and Calvin: "Likewise we ought not to speak of grace at such length and with such emphasis that the poison of doing away with liberty is engendered. Hence, as far as is possible with the help of God, one may speak of faith and grace that the Divine Majesty may be praised. But let it not be done in such a way, above all not in times which are as dangerous as ours, that works and free will suffer harm, or that they are considered of no value."14

The line of battle which was drawn, with the forces of the champions of grace on one side and those of free will on the other, was destined to cut an irregular path through the ranks of both Protestants and Catholics. Although others had prepared the way for him, the standard-bearer of the Jesuit army was Luis de Molina, a Spanish Jesuit who taught at Evora in Portugal. In 1588 Molina published a brilliantly argued defense of human freedom, Concordia liberi arbitrii cum gratiae donis, divina praescientia, providentia, praedestinatione et reprobatione.15 Molina's doctrines placed him in opposition not only to the heretics but to the stringent interpretation of Thomist theology by the Dominicans, who promptly accused him of teaching "Pelagianism." A long struggle followed, as the Jesuits, with certain modifications of Molina's extreme position, united in his defense. In 1602 Pope Clement VIII summoned the Congregation de Auxiliis to judge the merits or defects of Molina's work; the Congregation carried on its deliberations through the short reign of Leo XI in 1605 and into the first years of Paul V's term of office. Finally, in 1607, the Pope declared that the quarrel was to be broken off without deciding for either party; the question was left open and the disputants were forbidden to label their opponents heretical. Since, after all the years of bitter debate, the Concordia had not been condemned, the Molinists hailed the decision as a victory.16

Molina's approach to the perennial problem of the reconciliation of divine grace and human freedom was to make man a completely free agent to whom grace was freely proffered. The crucial question for Molina was whether a man could choose to accept or reject grace; if he could not, he was not free. Liberty for Molina was the absence of any constraint alien to the human will. He resolutely blocked the loophole through which his opponents escaped the charge of determinism by asserting that an inner or "spontaneous" inclination of the will by God violates human freedom as much as any external constraint. Molina insisted that any antecedent cause, including the First Cause, was a determination outside the human will and therefore a limitation of its intrinsic freedom.

To harmonize divine providence with man's complete liberty of indifference—the freedom to act or not to act, or to take either of two contrary courses of action—Molina postulated three types of divine knowledge: scientia naturalis, the knowledge of all things possible; scientia libera, the knowledge of what God will decree to exist in actuality; and, between these, scientia media, the knowledge of what would be in any hypothetical circumstance. Through scientia media God foresees the acceptance or rejection of grace by men in diverse situations and then wills that the actual circumstances will be such that their response to the aids of grace is predictable, but not caused. As Anton C. Pegis suggests, Molina transfers the mystery of grace from the will of God to the will of man; sufficient grace is extended to all men, but it is efficacious only for those who, as God foresees, will exercise their free power of choice to accept it.17

That act of choice is not preceded by the judgment's rational selection of an end toward which the will is then directed, as the "accepted philosophy" taught. It is an act of pure freedom, directed from within; the will, in short, is autonomous.

Moreover, I think that freedom is in the will and not in the intellect and for the freedom of willing or nilling or refraining from action by not willing when we can will, and by not nilling when we can nill, not so much deliberation on the part of the intellect is necessary as many consider it to be, and much less the command of the intellect by which it orders the will to will or nill or to refrain from action; but for willing it is sufficient to have a notion of some good which manifests itself in the object as a thing pleasurable or useful or honorable. Indeed, if this good is not so great and so clearly known as to enforce necessity upon the will, as nothing is, except for God clearly seen, the will is free not to elicit action, although it usually elicits it, if the good is great and nothing prevents it from this eliciting. In a similar instance of a notion of some evil the same will is free to nill it and reject the object; and yet it is not constrained to nill, but it is able not to elicit the nolition by refraining from the act; although when the object is powerful it usually elicits nilling, unless there is something present which may move it from another direction not to elicit that (nilling) or even to a sorrowful embracing of the (evil object) because of a good conjoined with it. And so, since there is this disposition and notion on the part of the intellect, the will can by its innate liberty will or nill or elicit neither action.18

This liberty of indifference, founded on the autonomy of the will, is just what Iago claims for all men, brushing aside as weakness Roderigo's surrender to the domination of his affections. Iago's analysis of human freedom is so clearly defined that its source is unmistakable. It is, of course, completely at odds with the teachings of contemporary Protestant theology, Anglican or Calvinistic, as well as with the doctrines of the rigorous Thomists.19 Nor, as I have indicated, is there any evidence to show that this will-centered psychology was derived from Machiavelli or from the naturalistic stage Machiavel. We must conclude, I believe, that Iago is the spokesman of Jesuit "Pelagianism"; and if we follow the direction indicated by this significant clue, perhaps we shall come closer to the heart of the mystery concealed by Iago's (and Shakespeare's) baffling silence.

Like all Englishmen of his time, Shakespeare was exposed to a flood of anti-Jesuit literature. The Jesuits, driven into hiding by the zeal of the Queen's men, were likely targets for the technique of the big lie, a favorite device of Elizabethan pamphleteers of all persuasions, few of whom were noted for veracity or temperate language. Frank L. Huntley, in an article on "Macbeth and the Background of Jesuitical Equivocation," has traced the history of this anti-Jesuit propaganda and has shown that it was flourishing long before the outbreak of popular indignation at the time of the Gunpowder Plot.20 Shakespeare was acquainted with at least one of these tracts, Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), which he used as a source in Lear. Although Othello was written and staged a year before the Gunpowder Plot, no one would have been surprised to see a Jesuitical villain, especially in a drama with a Venetian setting.21

Most of the animosity directed toward the Jesuits was political in origin, since they were regarded as subverters of royal authority, but their theological doctrines, at a time when theology and politics were inextricably blended, were also singled out for attack. A specific reference to the Molinist controversy was made by the anonymous author of "The secular Priests Preface to the English Catholiques" in The Iesuites Catechisme (1602). One faction in the secular clergy of the Roman Church in England regarded the Jesuits as foreign interlopers and spies, and did not hesitate to make their grievances known both at home and abroad. To his readers, the unnamed cleric piously pointed out the perilous ground on which his opponents were even then treading: "At this instant, there is a great and most dangerous contention in particular, betwixt them and the Dominicans, about a speciali point of grace."22

This "speciali point of grace" had also been noted by William Perkins, the popular preacher and casuist of Cambridge University. In "The Epistle Dedicatorie" of A Treatise of Gods free Grace and Mans Free-Will (1602), Perkins, addressing Sir Edward Dennie, wrote, "Right Worshipfull, it is a thing most evident, that the present Religion of the Church of Rome, is an enemie to the grace of God, two waies."23 First, Perkins stated, "because it exalts the libertie of mans will, and extenuates the grace of God," and, second, because it teaches justification through works as well as faith. Under the former of these two headings, Perkins divided his charges into five specific points, two of which bear directly on the issues brought up by Molina and the Jesuits: "Secondly, some of the Romish Religion avouch, that the efficacie of Gods preventing grace, depends upon the cooperation of mans will: and they affirme, that the Councell of Trent is of this minde: but then to the question of Paul, 1 Cor.4.7. Who hath separated thee? The answer may be made, I my selfe have done it by mine own will. And that shall be false which Paul teacheth, that beside posse velie, the power of wel-willing, ipsum velie: that is, the act of wel-willing, is of God, P phil, 2.13." In a marginal gloss Perkins quotes from "Molina de grat. & lib. arb.": "Gratiae auxilia, quod efficacia sint, habent dependenter ab arbitrii libertate."

As his third point, Perkins charged, "They give unto God in all contingent actions, a depending will, whereby God wills and determines nothing, but according as he fore-sees, that the will of man determine it selfe. And thus to maintaine the supposed libertie of the will, that is, the indifferencie and indetermination thereof, they deprive God of his honour and soveraigntie. For by this meanes, not God, but the will it selfe, is the first moover and beginner of her owne actions. And there are even of the Papists themselves, that condemne this doctrine as a conceit."

Perkins, the most influential of the Puritan divines, was shocked by the immense power given to the will of man by the Jesuits. His own definition of the will is "Will, is a power of willing, choosing, refusing suspending, which depends on reason… . And in every act of will there are two things, Reason to guide and Election to assent, or dissent" (Works, 1, 703). For Perkins, as for Calvin, there are two kinds of liberty, the liberty of nature, which is simply the power of choice, whether it is effective or not, and the liberty of grace, "which is a power to will or nill well, or to will that which is good, & to nill that which is evil" (Works, 1, 708). Without grace the will is not free to choose good; further, "there is not only an Impotencie to good, but such a forcible proneness & disposition to evil, as that we can do nothing but sinne." Perkins sees man in his fallen state as a prisoner: "The prisoner though he have lost a great part of his liberty, yet hath he not lost all for within the prison he may (as he will) either sit, stand, lie, or walke. And though he which is captive to sinne can do nothing but sin, yet may he in sinning use his liberty: & in the divers kinds of evil intended, shew the freedome of his will" (Works, 1, 711).

For Perkins, God's grace, when granted, is irresistible; it is not in the power of the will to reject it. The Jesuit doctrine of the cooperation of free will and grace seemed to him to be "much derogatorie to the divine grace of God, to place the efficacie thereof in mans will & it ministers much matter of boasting unto men." Beside this passage he also supplied a marginal gloss from Molina, "L. Molina saith, that our will maketh grace to be effectuall. De. li. arb. pag. 326. 327. and sometime againe he saith, will is but a condition, and no cause of the efficacie of grace, p. 329. Yet alwaies he graunteth, that it lieth in mans will whether grace shall be effectual, or no. Thus when grace is offered on Gods part, wil within stands as the Porter, to open or shut, or as master Controller to accept or reject the worke of God" (Works, 1, 716).

Perkins had evidently studied the views of all parties in the Molinist controversy and triumphantly decided the question in favor of the greater glory of divine grace and Calvin's theology: "Lumbard in his time much declined from the purity of former daies: and yet he is far sounder than the Iesuites of our daies. For he saith thus: Freewill is now hindered by the law of the flesh from doing good, and stirred up to evill, so as it can not will and doe good, unlesse it be delivered and helped by grace. We leaving the Papistes in their dissensions, place the efficacie of grace in grace itselfe" (Works, 1, 717).

These quotations, from Catholic and Protestant sources, indicate that the Molinist debate was no minor theological squabble unknown in England. Assuming then that Shakespeare had some knowledge of contemporary Jesuit doctrine and practices, let us turn to the text of the play and see where our hypothesis will lead us. As a general impression, it is noteworthy that, for a play ostensibly about military men and events, the language owes as much to the jargon of the pulpit as to the oaths and boasts of the cockpit.

Roland Frye points out, "Predestination was a labyrinth into which one was well advised not to wander, and only Cassio does wander into it, in his maudlin discussion with Iago: 'there be souls must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved,' and 'the Lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient'" (p. 147). Frye sees no significance in Cassio's lines; it is simply the stock comic situation of a drunken discussion of a serious topic. Yet these lines would be more suited to an officer in Cromwell's New Model Army than to a bawdy young Florentine. Cassio's drunken jest is a twisting of a theme that runs through the play, culminating in Desdemona's dying words and in Othello's speeches before and after her murder. From the Calvinistic point of view, there is more truth in Cassio's babbling than in Iago's brilliant rationalizations. It is Othello who bitterly and tersely phrases that truth after the revelation of Desdemona's innocence: "But (oh vaine boast) / Who can controll his Fate?" (V.ii.327-328).

In contrast, Iago, the champion of the absolute autonomy of the will, shows no remorse, but simply withdraws behind a wall of defiant indifference after he has lost his power to manipulate circumstances. If he is no longer free to act, he is at least free not to act, to remain silent and unmoved by accusations and threats. The consistency of Iago's thought and behavior throughout the play, reflecting his unshaken belief in the doctrine of freedom which he expounds to Roderigo, may provide a new reading for a baffling crux in one of his earliest speeches, a reading which is closely linked to the recurrent theme of predestination. This theme, as we have seen, appears in Cassio's speech as a variation of the perennial theological riddle which asks why, of two men, one is to be saved and the other damned. If we alter Iago's reference to Cassio in the first scene, "A Fellowe almost damn'd in a faire Wife" to "A Fellowe almost damn'd in a faire Wise" (I.i.23), and place it in the context of Iago's "divinity of hell," it becomes a meaningful statement of Iago's pride in his own unfettered will and his scorn for Cassio, "the Bookish Theoricke."24 As Father Brodrick explains it in his life of Cardinal Bellarmine, "Another of Molina's propositions ran as follows: it might happen that a man with more and greater graces than his fellow should be damned, while that other, owing to his correspondence with the lesser graces given him, should be saved."25 It is indeed possible, according to this proposition, to be damned in a fair wise. Iago readily concedes Cassio's greater graces, the favor of Othello and "a dayly beauty in his life / That makes me vgly" (V.i.22-23), but his self-confidence remains unshaken; his lesser graces can be used efficaciously for his advantage while Cassio is the passive victim of his apparent superiority. Here, as elsewhere in the play, Shakespeare seems to be forcing to its extreme conclusions Iago's advocacy of the Jesuit emphasis on the self-determination of the will.

While this may seem to be mere casuistical juggling to us, it was a vital question in an age which took its theology seriously. In the earlier text of his sermon of 18 April 1619, John Donne noted that the problem had been crucial for both Jesuits, and, one assumes, English Arminians: "Consider the other faculty, the will of man, and thereby those bitternesses which have passed between the Jesuites and the Dominicans in the Romane Church, even to the imputation of the crime of heresie upon one another in questions concerning the will of man, and how that concurs with the grace of God; particularly whether the same proportion of grace being offered by God to two men, equally disposed towards him before, must not necessarily worke equally in those two: and by those bitternesses amongst persons neerest us, even to the drawing of swords in questions of the same kinde, particularly whether that proportion of grace, which doth effectually convert a particular man, might not have been resisted by the perversnes of that mans will, whether that grace were irresistible or noe."26

Casuistry, in fact, forms the pattern of Iago's reasoning throughout the play, in keeping with his character as a Jesuitical Machiavel. He is a master of the art of judging cases of conscience—for the advancement of his own aims, of course. His first speech to Othello bolsters his much vaunted reputation for honesty by referring to a scruple of conscience somewhat alien to a professional soldier:

Though in the trade of Warre I haue slaine
Yet do I hold it very stuffe o' th'
To do no contriu'd Murder:

In his speech on virtue, Iago delivers a brief lecture on self-control to Roderigo, pointing out to him that the appetites are under the rule of the will; love, Iago tells him, is "meerly a Lust of the blood, and a permission of the will" (I.iii.365-366). "Permission" is used in its exact scholastic sense; it indicates that love is not caused by the will since it is an appetite, "a Lust of the blood," but it is allowed to exist because the will does not act against it, just as God does not cause evil but permits it to exist. Cynically, Iago reviews for Roderigo all the reasons for not giving way to despair, punctuating his discourse with repeated admonitions to pile up riches: "If thou wilt needs damne thy selfe, do it a more delicate way than drowning. Make all the Money thou canst" (I.iii.382-383). His cunning casuistry and his greed are both in keeping with the popular image of the Jesuit. John Manningham noted in his diary that Roger Fenton, an Anglican casuist, preaching at Paul's Cross on 21 November 1602, warned, "Popishe priests and Jesuites play fast and loose with mens consciences. Jesuites come into riche mens houses, not to bring them salvacion, but because there is something to be fisht for."27

When Cassio, lamenting the loss of his good name, turns to Iago, he is reminded that "Reputation is an idle, and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deseruing" (II.ii.297-299), as Iago suits his moralizing to his man. His task is to induce Cassio to take his suit to Desdemona, not to give up all hope of recovery, and so Iago carefully nurtures his expectations with a liberal waiver of Cassio's error: "Come, you are to seuere a Moraller. As the Time, the Place, & the Condition of this Country stands I could hartily wish this had not befalne: but since it is, as it is, mend it for your owne good" (II.ii.327-330). This is certainly the language of the casuist; it echoes the opinion of William Perkins, Shakespeare's contemporary, and the founder of "the Divine Science of Cases of Conscience" in England: "For it hath bin prooved at large, by induction of sundrie particulars, that there are degrees of sinnes, some lesser, some greater: some more offensive and odious to God and man, some lesse. And that the circumstances of time, place, person, and maner of doing, doe serve to enlarge or extenuate the sin committed."28

After Iago has persuaded Cassio to ask for Desdemona' s intercession, he congratulates himself on his skill in handling cases of conscience:

And what's he then,
That saies I play the Villaine?
When this aduise is free I giue, and honest,
Proball to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moore againe.

"Proball," which has usually been taken as a contraction of "probable," may have a specific and pertinent meaning in this context. Certain Jesuit casuists were noted for their application of the rule of probability ("probabilism") in cases of doubtful conscience. Where authorities disagreed on a moral question, the less probable opinion was allowed as long as it was supported by a reputable source; that is, the rule of reasonable doubt was invoked to the benefit of the sinner. Writing of differing opinions on equivocation among the Jesuits, Bishop Thomas Morton noted, "These may seem contrarie to men of synceritie, but among these speakers, in their practically judgement, there is no contradiction: for they have another winding in this their Labyrinth, that Many times the lesse probable opinion is to be followed. So then as yet we have but an Eele by the tayle. Againe, to determine against so damnable a doctrine onely in these termes, More probable; yea and peradventure more probable: I say, to doubt of such a Protestant and orthodoxall truth, is doubtlesse to deny it."29 Iago is certain that the advice he has given Cassio is most probable indeed and deserves the approbation of the strictest moralist:

     How am I then a Villaine,
To counsell Cassio to this parateli course,
Directly to his good?

The question is ironic, of course; Iago savors his own duplicity, viewing with delight the prospect of using Desdemona's virtue "to enmesh them all." What he is practicing is not that Casuistical Divinity which Perkins claimed to have purified from all Roman error, but the "Diuinitie of hell' of the Jesuits:30

When deuils will the blackest sinnes put on,
They do suggest at first with heauenly shews,
As I do now.

Again this is part of the Elizabethan caricature of the Jesuit. As early as 1583, the Puritan Phillip Stubbes, fired by piety and patriotism, had emptied the vials of his wrath on the Jesuits in a diatribe whose charges were to be repeated ad nauseam in the following decades: "And forsooth these goodlie fellowes, the diuels agents, that must work these feates, are called (in the diuels name) by the name of Iesuites, seminaries preests, and catholikes, vsurping to themselves a name neuer heard of till of late daies, being indeed a name verie blasphemously deriued from the name of Iesus, and improperly alluded and attributed to themselues." He warned, "Take heed of those fellowes that haue mel in ore, verba lactis, sweet words and plausible speeches: for they haue fel in corde, and Fraudem faclis, Gall in their harts & deceit in their deeds. So falleth it out with these ambidexters, these hollow harted friends, where they intend destruction, then will they couer it with the cloke or garment of amity & friendship; therefore are they not to be trusted."31

Having gained the confidence of Roderigo and Cassio in this manner, Iago applies his ability in manipulating consciences to Othello. After inserting the thin edge of doubt between Othello's reason and his love, Iago establishes himself as an incorruptible authority on morals who cannot gloss over the faults of his country-women:

In Venice, they do let Heauen see the
They dare not shew their Husbands.
Their best Conscience,
Is not to leaue't vndone, but kept

And Desdemona, Iago points out, may be no better than the others. His syllogism is simple and valid: Venetian women are not to be trusted; Desdemona is a Venetian woman; therefore Desdemona is not to be trusted. Since Iago is a Venetian, Othello must take his word for it and accept his major premise; he knows the minor premise is true; and so he is forced, with the help of Iago's pertinent thrusts at Desdemona, to the inevitable conclusion.32 Iago's analysis is so plausible that Othello pays tribute to his skill in casuistry:

This Fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knowes all Quantities with a learn'd
Of humane dealings.

But everything which Othello has been told is an equivocation, not an outright lie but a clever perversion of the truth. The irony of Iago's pose as a simple honest soldier, a plaindealer, is sharpened by his protestations to Othello:

   Oh wretched Foole,
That lou'st to make thine Honesty, a Vice!
Oh monstrous world! Take note, take (note
To be direct and honest, is not safe.

Yet, like the English Jesuits, Iago demonstrates a certain care in the phrasing of an oath; he has mental reservations and he guards himself against overstepping their bounds. Unlike the emancipated Machiavel, Iago will not swear a false oath. When Othello swears "by yond Marble Heauen," meaning God and His angels, "In the due reuerence of a Sacred vow" (III.iii.523-524), Iago deliberately takes the word "heaven" in its purely natural sense: "Witnesse you euer-burning Lights aboue, / You Elements, that clip vs round about" (III.iii.527-528). Since, unlike Edmund, he does not worship Nature, the oath is meaningless, and he has not forsworn himself.

It is worth noting that as Iago plies his craft, enmeshing Othello in a cleverly woven net of moral decisions, he can be as liberal as the most lax of the Jesuit casuists. Indeed, he is at times much more forgiving than Othello, and his liberality serves his purpose, for it kindles Othello's wrath. Othello is impatient with subtle distinctions between right and wrong; he has a passion for justice and, once his mind is made up, he acts swiftly. It is Iago who advises Othello to let Desdemona live (III.iii.541); his advice, of course, is savagely rejected. When Othello writhes at the suggestion that Desdemona has been "naked with her Friend in bed, / An houre, or more, not meaning any harme" (IV.i.7-8), Iago shrugs it off as a mere peccadillo, "If they do nothing, 'tis a Veniali slip." Othello, in contrast, shares the Protestant horror of temptation: "They that meane vertuously, and yet do so, / The Diuell their vertue tempts, and they tempt Heauen."

Iago puts the matter as a hypothetical case of conscience: "But if I giue my wife a Handkerchiefe / … Why then 'tis hers (my Lord) and being hers / She may (I thinke) bestow't on any man" (IV.i.14, 16-17). When Othello asks if she may also bestow her honor wherever she wishes, Iago sneers at his lack of sophistication: "Her honor is an Essence that's not seene, / They haue it very oft, that haue it not." Again, as with Cassio, he reduces honor to a mere fiction, an abstraction without substance; Iago is concerned only with things that can be seen, the "ocular proof demanded by Othello: "But for the Handkerchiefe." Having focused Othello's attention on his one tangible item of evidence, he pursues his hypothetical instance one step farther: "What if I had said, I had seene him do you wrong? / Or heard him say … " Although Iago can offer no proof of the first of these alternatives, he is eager to supply new evidence for the second. His hypothesis suddenly comes closer to reality—if it is not ocular proof, it is at least hearsay.

The close juxtaposition of these alternatives confuses the enraged Othello and he falls into Iago's snare. As he listens to Iago's tale of Cassio's boasted conquest of Desdemona, he fails to distinguish between the two, and accepts hearsay for ocular proof. Yet, even as he swoons in a fit, overcome by the strength of his passions, his broken mutterings reveal a scrupulous conscience untouched by Iago's malign casuistry; Othello, the magnanimous hero, has a greatness of soul which encompasses mercy as well as justice: "To confesse, and be hang'd for his labour. First, to be hang'd and then to confesse: I tremble at it" (IV.i.46-48). "Confess and be hanged" is a stock phrase; Othello reverses it, but trembles at the thought of sending even Cassio to eternal damnation without absolution. It is the same scruple of conscience that prevents him from killing Desdemona without giving her an opportunity to confess her sins: "I would not kill thy unprepared Spirit, / No, Heauens forfend, I would not kill thy Soule" (V.ii.37-38). It is only by his clever appeal to Othello's outraged sense of justice that Iago can quell the natural insurrection of mercy: "But yet the pitty of it, Iago: oh Iago, the pitty of it" (IV.i.214).

Iago turns every favorable circumstance to account, never forgetting his immediate purpose: to enmesh them all while leaving himself unharmed and the master of the situation. It is necessary for him to get rid of all three, Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona, in as brief a span of time as possible so that his plot may not be betrayed. Iago volunteers to serve as Cassio's "undertaker" and cunningly changes Othello's design to poison Desdemona by suggesting that it would be more just to strangle her in the bed which she has dishonored. Since Othello will be alone with Desdemona, there will be no doubt of the identity of her murderer. After the deed is done, with Cassio out of the way, Othello will be regarded as a husband de-ranged by jealousy, and his word will not be taken against Iago's. Iago prepares the Venetian nobles for the event by hinting that Othello can be expected to do more than strike his wife: "'Faith that was not so well: yet would I knew / That stroke would proue the worst" (IV.i.306-307). Characteristically, he makes no overt accusations but merely hints at Othello's madness: "You shall obserue him. / And his own courses will denote him so, / That I may saue my speech."

Iago's last act of persuasion through casuistry is his enlistment of Roderigo to kill Cassio. Roderigo has his doubts—"And that you would haue me to do"—but Iago dangles the bait of Desdemona before his eyes and promises, "Come, stand not amaz'd at it, but go along with me: I will shew you such a necessitie in his death, that you shall thinke your selfe bound to put it on him" (IV.ii.273-275). We do not know what Iago's arguments are, but they are cogent enough to nerve a reluctant Roderigo:

I haue no great deuotion to the deed,
And yet he hath giuen me satisfying Reasons:
'Tis but a man gone. Forth my Sword: he

Since both the doctrine and the language of Iago are Jesuitical, one might, by adopting the attitude of Shakespeare's Protestant contemporaries, find other hints pointing toward the Jesuitical Machiavel. It took little encouragement to set a patriotic Englishman off on the scent of a concealed Jesuit; like Iago, he might have shrugged off the question of truth by averring, "I know not if't be true, / But I, for mere suspition in that kinde, / Will do, as if for Surety." No one, Thomas Bell warned, could be sure that he was not dealing with a Jesuit: "Note here gentle reader, what a cursed crewe of disloyall caterpillers these Iesuites be, they are not onely ranke traytors, as you haue hard at large; but so full of cozonage, and hypocriticall dealing, in their pestilent sect; that no man can tell, when he talketh, or conuerseth with a lesuite, for they are both Friars and Nunnes, both men, and women, and Hue in the world to set forward Iesuiticall plots and treasonable practises, as if they were lay-people."33

Remembering that Loyola (whose Spanish name was Íñigo de Loyola) was, like Iago, a soldier, our hypothetical patriot would have seen no incongruity in the use of casuistry by a veteran of the wars. As George Whetstone pointed out, "I the lesse maruel that these Iesuits sow their seditions in such disguised, warlike, and ruffianly order, and intice men to violent murther, without difference of persons, when their first founder Ignatius Loyola was a Spanish souldier, who decreeped with woundes, to keepe himselfe from begging in age, disguised himselfe with the habite of holinesse, and with counterfeit miracles began this holy order."34

More important, since the Jesuitical Machiavel is usually associated with a plot to subvert secular authority, would our Jacobean zealot have seen any political implications in Iago's machinations against Othello? In 1604 the quarrel between Venice and the Pope, which was to lead to an interdict in 1606 and the expulsion of the Jesuits, was already brewing. In one of his letters from Venice in 1604, Sir Henry Wotton described the Venetian state as neutral in religion and not unfriendly to the Protestant cause.35 There is a tantalizing ambiguity in Iago's soliloquy (II.i.319-345) as he casts about for both a motive and a scheme to injure Othello and advance his own fortunes; he states that it is not out of "absolute lust" that he "loves" Desdemona, an ironic hyperbole since he goes on to evaluate the probability of furthering an affair between Desdmona and Cassio. But he does admit that he stands "accomptant for as great a sin," which he does not name. Further, he is only "partely led to dyet my Reuenge"; but he does not clarify the nature of the other motives which spur him on. Iago's final silence rules out any possibility of an answer to this enigma, but Lodovico's order does indicate that his crime against his general is not to be passed off as a personal vendetta: "You shall close Prisoner rest, / Till that the Nature of your fault be knowne / To the Venetian State" (V.ii.408-410). To those who were sensitive to political overtones, it may well have appeared that Iago's clever casuistic maneuvering of his general into a crime of passion was an act of subversion as well as pure malevolence. This, in conjunction with the other hallmarks of the Jesuitical villain, might have led our credulous playgoer to view Iago's stubborn refusal to speak as mute evidence of the usual obdurate resistance of imprisoned Jesuits and their followers to the ingenious tortures devised by their persecutors.36

But while these political overtones may either have been sensed or read into the villainy of Iago by an audience alert to any shift of policy, they are only remote ripples of the maelstrom of evil that constitutes the core of Iago's character. Breaking through the superficial pattern of double-dealing which is typical of the "supersubtle" Venetian (or Italian) ruffian, Shakespeare probed beyond mere diabolical plotting to its metaphysical source. For him, Iago embodies that principle of evil which unites the Jesuit and the Machiavel: not simply the sacrifice of morality to expediency, but the arrogant claim of the insatiable ego to be free of all limitations except those imposed by its own will, a freedom beyond good and evil.

The aura of malignity which surrounds Iago—"No light, but rather darkness visible"—is not to be attributed to the means he employs nor even to their ends, but to the manner in which he relishes and savors the act of evil. His stated motives are flimsy rationalizations that have little to do with either fact or logic; they are flotsam tossed up from depths that even his subtle intellect cannot plumb. When Iago is most absolute in his assertion of the freedom of the self-determined will, he is, at the same time, most deceived. The entire play must be read as a protest against this doctrine of the autonomous will and a confutation of it. Iago is not the ranting Machiavellian blasphemer who both defies and denies his God; he is something far more sinister, the demi-devil who "plumes up" his will in the confident belief that he is free to determine his own salvation or damnation as he pleases. The center of his universe is his ego and its infinite lust for power recognizes no circumferential bounds; for him there is neither divine nor social order. All values are derived from the central isolated will: "I haue look'd upon the world for foure times seuen yeares, and since I could distinguish betwixt a Benefit, and an Iniurie: I neuer found man that knew how to loue himselfe" (I.iii.342-345). Loyalty to a superior is meaningless: "In following him, I follow but my selfe" (I.i.64).

Chaucer's Pardoner is an excellent example of this type of villain. As Alfred L. Kellogg points out in his brilliant analysis, "An Augustinian Interpretation of Chaucer's Pardoner," "The essential contrast of The Pardoner's Tale, is between living in accordance with 'Goddes wille' and living 'right at our owene wille,' the eternal antithesis of the pride of Satan and the humility of Christ."37 Iago is an important link in the chain of the literary avatars of this "eternal antithesis"; as a figure of evil endowed with an enormous vitality breathed into him by his creator, he has shaped a tradition that sprang into renewed life in romanticism and persists in our own time.

Coleridge's famous formula for Iago, "the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity," has been sneered at by sophisticated critics as a typical romantic obfuscation. But Coleridge, like Schopenhauer, had rejected the easy solutions and comforting dogmas of the Enlightenment for a frank admission of the irrational nature of the evil will. This, as Robert Penn Warren has argued convincingly, is the theme of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "The bolt whizzes from the crossbow and the bird falls and all comment that the Mariner has no proper dramatic motive or is the child of necessity or is innocent of everything except a little wantonness is completely irrelevant, for we are confronting the mystery of the corruption of the will, the mystery which is the beginning of the 'moral history of Man'."38

And this, as Coleridge surmised, is the mystery of Iago's motivation. When Iago utters his last defiant words, "Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: / From this time forth, I neuer will speake word" (V.ii.370-371), he is unwittingly paraphrasing the wise admonition of Augustine:

Let no one, therefore, look for an efficient cause of the evil will; for it is not efficient, but deficient, as the will itself is not an effecting of something, but a defect. For defection from that which supremely is, to that which has less of being—this is to begin to have an evil will. Now, to seek to discover the causes of these defections—causes, as I have said, not efficient, but deficient—is as if someone sought to see darkness, or hear silence. Yet both of these are known by us, and the former by means only of the eye, the latter only by the ear; but not by their positive actuality, but by their want of it. Let no one, then, seek to know from me what I know I do not know; unless he perhaps wishes to be ignorant of that of which all we know is, that it cannot be known.39


1 All citations are taken from the New Variorum Edition, ed. H. H. Furness (Philadelphia, 1886).

2Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1958), pp. 423-424.

3 Princeton, 1963, pp. 159-160.

4Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Ill., 1958), p. 246. See also "The individual agent cannot escape the nature he is born with. He acts in such and such a way because this nature requires it." Gentillet's A discourse upon the meanes of wel governing against N. Machiavelle, trans. S. Patericke (London, 1602), p. 138, gives the following version of Ch. xxv of Il Principe: "So that if hee which governes himselfe moderately, encounter and meet with a time, wherein his vertue is requisit, he cannot faile but prosper; yet if the time change, he shall undoubtedly overthrowe himselfe, if hee likewise change not his manners and order of life." Gentillet comments, "Now Machiavell would make men beleeve, that this is true, and that all the good and evill which come to men, happeneth, because they have Fortune accordant or discordant to their complexions."

5Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, pp. 423, 425, 437.

6 Mario Praz, "Machiavelli and the Elizabethans," Proceedings of the British Academy, XIV (1928), 83.

7 Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London, 1964), p. 59.

8 "The Epistle Dedicatorie," n.p.

9A Letter Written out of England (London, 1599), p. 10.

10 Thomas Bell, The Anatomie of Popish Tyrannie (London, 1603), p. 107.

11 "Unless, therefore, the will itself is set free by the grace of God from that misery by which it has been made a servant of sin, and unless it is given help to overcome its vices, mortal men cannot live upright and devout lives." Retractions, I , 9. St. Augustine, The Problem of Free Choice, trans. Dom Mark Pontifex (Westminster, Md., and London, 1955), Appendix, p. 24.

12Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book I, p. vii.

13Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino, Calif., 1953), pp. 281-82.

14The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S. J. (Westminster, Md., 1954), p. 161.

15 For this article I have used the edition of Johannes Rabeneck, S. J. (Madrid, 1953).

16 For a brief description of the Molinist controversy, see "Molinism," Catholic Encyclopaedia. An excellent account is given by James Brodrick, S. J., The Life and Work of Blessed Robert Francis Cardinal Bellarmine, S. J. (London, 1928), II, 1-69.

17 "Molina and Human Liberty," Jesuit Thinkers of the Renaissance, ed. Gerard Smith, S.J. (Milwaukee, 1939), p. 110.

18 "Ceterum arbitrer libertatem esse in voluntate et non in intellectu atque ad libertatem volendi aut nolendi vel continendi actum non volendo, quando velie possumus, et non nolendo, quando possumus nolle, non esse necessariam tantam deliberationem ex parte intellectus quantam multi necessariam esse existimant et multo minus imperium intellectus quo voluntati imperet ut velit aut nolit vel contineat actum; sed ad volendum satis esse notitiam bonitatis alicuius quae in obiecto eluceat rei delectabilis vel utilis aut honestae. Ea vero bonitas si tanta non sit et tam perspicue cognita quae voluntati necessitatem inferat, ut nulla est talis praeter Deum clare visum, integrum est voluntati non elicere actum, tametsi regulariter ilium eliciet, si magna sit nihilque adsit quod ab eo eliciendo retrahat. Similiter existente notitia alicuius mali integrum eidem voluntati est nolle ac respuere obiectum; nec tamen necessitatur ad nolendum, sed potest non elicere nolitionem continendo actum, tametsi quando obiectum est vehemens, regulariter nolitionem eliciet, nisi adsit quod aliunde moveat ad illam non eliciendam aut etiam ad contristativum amplectendum propter bonum cum eo coniunctum. Itaque existente eadem dispositione ac notitia ex parte intellectus qualis explicata est potest voluntas sua innata libertate velie aut nolle vel neutrum elicere actum." Concordia, Quaest. 14, art. 13, disp. 2, 9, pp. 15-16.

19 Although the first stirrings of Arminianism made their appearance in the decade preceding the staging of Othello, they were not identified as a Protestant reaction to Calvinism, but rather as a Catholic fifth column. William Perkins (1558-1602) warned, "Lastly, it were to be wished that some of our students euen of Divinity, had not a spice of this sinne of Core: for within this sixe or seuen yeares, divers haue addicted themselues to studie Popish writers and Monkish discourses, despising in the meane time the writings of those famous instruments and cleare lights, whom the Lord raised up for the raising and restoring of true religion; such as Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Beta, Martyr, &c, which argueth that their minds are alienated from the sinceritie of the truth." Works (1609), III, 552. He may have been referring to William Barret, who was forced to make a public recantation of his unpopular views at Cambridge in 1595. William Prynne gives a complete account of the incident in his Anti-Arminianisme, 2nd ed. (1630), pp. 61-62. Prynne describes Barret's doctrines as "these then Pelagian, and Popish, but now both Popish, and Arminian tenets."

20PMLA, LXXIX (Sept. 1964), 390-400.

21 Thomas Dekker's The Whore of Babylon, registered in 1607 but possibly written and performed earlier, includes in its "Drammatis Personae" Palmio, "a Iesuite."

22The Iesuites Catechisme or Examination of their doctrine. Published in French this present year 1602, and nowe translated into English. N.p.

23Works, I, between pp. 701-702.

24 The emendation "wise" for "wife" has been offered before (see the discussion in the Variorum Othello), but not with this specific meaning. As for the "divinity of hell," Bell, Anatomie of Popish Tyrannie, p. 45, writes: "But in regard of brevitie, I referre the reader, that shall desire more of this kind of their hellish divinitie, to that worthie book which the French papistes haue put forth, (intituled the Iesuites catechisme,) a golden booke indeede." See also "Will you haue the truth, their proper element is Diuinitie, that's their Facultie, that's their field: therein are they expert."

25Bellarmine, II, 38. Also see Concordia, p. 645: "Quare potest unus cum aequali aut minori eiusdem gratiae praevenientis auxilio converti, quando alius cum aequali aut maiori eiusdem praevenientis gratiae auxilio non convertitur."

26The Sermons of John Donne, eds. G. R. Potter and E. M. Simpson (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1955), II, 375.

27Diary of John Manningham, ed. John Bruce (Westminster, Eng., 1868), p. 88. For this reference I am indebted to my colleague, Dr. Elizabeth N. McCutcheon.

28Works, II, 11-12. Also see Thomas Wood, English Casuistical Divinity During the Seventeenth Century (London, 1952), Ch. i.

29A Full Satisfaction Concerning a Double Romish Iniquitie (London, 1606), p. 87. Although the reference is dated two years after the first performance of Othello, it indicates that there was a contemporary knowledge of the methods of Jesuit casuistry.

30 See Perkins' The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience (Cambridge, Eng., 1609), "The Epistle Dedicatorie" by Thomas Pickering.

31Phillip Stubbes's Anatomy of the Abuses in England (1583), ed. F. J. Furnivall (London, 1877-79), Part II, pp. 6-7.

32 Spivack also notes Iago's "sexual syllogism," p. 426.

33Anatomie of Popish Tyrannie, p. 78.

34The Censure of a loyall Subiect (London, 1587), n.p.

35 See Logan Pearsall Smith, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton (Oxford, 1907), I, 77 ff., 318.

36 See John Gerard, S.J., The Autobiography of an Elizabethan, trans. Philip Caraman (London and New York, 1951), pp. 72-73.

37Speculum, XXVI (1951), 473.

38 "A Poem of Pure Imagination: An Experiment in Reading," in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (New York, 1946), p. 81.

39The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York, 1950), p. 387.

Fred West (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Iago the Psychopath," in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 43, No. 2, March, 1978, pp. 27-35.

[In the following essay, West argues that in Iago Shakespeare created a profound and accurate portrait of a psychopath.]

It is not sufficient to simply drape Iago in allegorical trappings and proclaim him Mister Evil or a Machiavel or a Vice. Such a limited view of Iago is an injustice to the complexity of his character, since Shakespeare's studies in personality are acclaimed by psychologists for their accuracy and profundity. Although the influence of the miracle plays and the later morality plays with their type-characters still lingered in some Elizabethan drama, the English Renaissance is widely recognized as a period of great interest in that branch of science which has become known in modern times as psychology. Dramatists were particularly intrigued by the more bizarre working of the human mind, often creating characters whose personalities could form the subjects of contemporary psychological case studies. This is certainly true of Iago, who is an accurate portrait of a psychopath.

One of the best-argued essays on Iago-as-Machiavel is that of Daniel Stempel, who depicts Iago as the Jesuitical Machiavel, a popular combination the Elizabethans conjured up against the Papacy. Yet in developing his thesis, Stempel does much to explain the psychology of Iago. "The individual cannot escape the nature he is born with," he says, "but must act as this nature requires him to act… . Iago is entirely unconcerned with the moral consequences of choice; it is all one to him if we 'plant Nettels, or sowe Lettuce, set Hysop, and weed up Time.' … His stated motives are flimsy rationalizations that have little to do with either fact or logic; they are flotsam tossed up from depths that even his subtle intellect cannot plumb." And, "Iago, the champion of the absolute autonomy of the will, shows no remorse, but simply withdraws behind a wall of defiant indifference after he has lost his power to manipulate circumstances."1 Here we have, as we shall see, the salient characteristics not just of the Machiavel, but also of the psychopath.

In criticizing those who see Iago as mere symbol, a personification or extension of Satan, or the Spirit of Evil, Marvin Rosenberg says, "They fail to do justice to Iago's flesh and blood qualities in seeing him as a symbol… . He was wonderfully shaped by Shakespeare into a first-rate dramatic character, as well as a clearly recognizable type of human being, with passage and frustrations—and even physical symptoms—characteristic of a type of troubled humanity common enough so that psychologists in our time regularly encounter it. Shakespeare was not content, in Iago, to load his play with yet another stock Machiavel, another version of an old Morality figure … with a great playwright's searching insight, he was probing into the roots of human wickedness… . "2 While Rosenberg nowhere labels Iago as a psychopath, he does quote from Karen Horney at length to show that Iago is a kind of human being "so common in society that in psychological writing we may find it charted as a type … of a familiar neurotic pattern." This indeed comes close to the mark, but Iago is considerably more than the familiar "ulcer" type that Rosenberg calls him.

Inevitably, Iago has been likened to Aaron, the villainous Moor of Titus Andronicus, who is something more like the stock figure of Evil. That Shakespeare was under the influence of the morality play in this early work is made clear by such scenes as the appearance of Tamora and her two son in the allegorical garb of Revenge, Rape, and Murder. Yet, even Aaron gives evidence of being more than a mere symbol of Evil. He has certain very human motives that urge him on to evil deeds: the illicit love of the queen with its concommitant chance of power, and the threat to the life of his baby son. In Aaron, Shakespeare foreshadows some of the characteristics of Iago.

Lucius: What shall I swear by? Thou believest
  no god:
That granted, how canst thou believe an oath?
Aaron: What if I do not? As indeed I do not;
Yet, for I know thou art religious,
And hast a thing within thee called

A bit later in the same scene Aaron's defiant lines to Lucius (124-44) proclaim not only a lack of remorse but also a baneful wish that he could have committed even more evil, both directly and by manipulating others. This speech is significantly indicative of Shakespeare's early awareness of the characteristics of the psychopath. As if to discount the notion that his role is merely symbolic Evil, Aaron says, "If there be devils, would I were a devil" (147). But whereas Aaron makes his final exit lusting to do more evil, and calling evil by its name, Iago is a more complex psychopath. He does not regard his own actions as horrendously evil.

Interestingly enough, A. C. Bradley, at the turn of this century, came very close to diagnosing Iago as a psychopath. At the time Bradley wrote, very few clinical studies had appeared on the subject of the psychopath. Long regarded as a sort of wastebasket category for aberrant types who did not fit well into more clearly defined categories of behavioral variants, the clinical profile of the psychopath is only now becoming sharply delineated. Furthermore, the general reading public is just now becoming aware of the term—and the type. The Mask of Sanity,4 Hervey Cleckley's landmark study of the psychopath, was first published in 1941, almost half a century after Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy5 appeared. Yet, in comparing Bradley's analysis of Iago with the profile of psychopath in Cleckley, it is astonishing how close Bradley's analysis comes to the psychiatrist's description of the psychopath. Bradley, however, did not delineate a major characteristic of the psychopath: he could not quite stomach his own analysis that Iago is a moral blank, so he protested that Iago is not a monster, but a man with a conscience, however faint. But the play itself shows clearly enough that Iago goes off as he comes on, devoid of conscience, with no remorse. "This guiltlessness," according to McCord and McCord, "is one of the central features of psychopathy."6

Bradley died before Cleckley wrote. Whether Cleckley was acquainted with Bradley's work is not really to the point. He does indeed devote a chapter (Chapter 40) to fictional characters of psychiatric interest, and even mentions Iago: "Perhaps the most interesting and ingenious creation of vindictiveness known to man, [he] carries out his schemes of hate and treachery without adequate motivation in the ordinary sense" (pp. 370-71). Cleckley's analysis of the psychopath, however, is based not on fictional works, but on thirteen in-depth case studies and close observations of still other cases.

Early in his analysis Bradley cites Coleridge's astute phrase—the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity"—with approval, qualifying it as a "disinterested delight in the pain of others" (p. 170). He is most certainly on the right track. He also supports Coleridge's "passionless character of Iago"; according to Bradley, Iago, "was by no means a man of strong feelings and passions … but decidedly cold by temperament" (p. 177). This matches closely with Cleckley's statement that "the psychopath always shows general poverty of affect. While it is true that he sometimes becomes excited and shouts as if in rage or seems to exult in enthusiasm and again weeps in what appear to be bitter tears or speaks eloquent and mournful words about his misfortunes or his follies … mature, wholehearted anger, true or consistent indignation, honest, solid grief, sustaining pride, deep joy, genuine despair, are reactions not likely to be found within this scale" (p. 397).

As Coleridge said, Iago is motiveless. His motives—or excuses—come more as afterthoughts, not as stimuli toward the heinous actions he perpetrates. Like the psychopath described by Cleckley, Iago is impulsive, but he sees nothing basically wrong with his own behavior, no matter how erratic or antisocial; therefore, he doesn't bother to find or invent excuses unless prodded. The very first lines of Othello contain just such prodding on the part of Roderigo, lago's gull. Roderigo says to Iago: "Thou told'st me thou didst hold him in thy hate" (5-6). lago's resentment toward Othello begins to burn, as he replies: "I know my price… . And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship's ancient" (10, 30). Roderigo fuels the heat: "By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman" (31) and "I would not follow him then" (37). To which Iago finally replies: "O, sir, content you. I follow him to serve my turn upon him" (38-39).

The psychopath, in Cleckley's words, seems "sweetly free" of any doubts that his behavior is perfectly compatible with normal standards of morality, realiability, and so on. Even lago's insidious speeches—"I am not what I am" (62) and "Virtue? a fig!" (I.iii.314)—are not reflective soliloquies revealing his true being and his awareness of his innate evil; they are boastful speeches to Roderigo. As a psychopath, he has no real insight into his own true nature, hence it would never occur to him to inquire if he were evil or malignant. Also, he projects his own views and shallowness of affect upon others, so he has no reason for making an unfavorable evaluation of himself against anyone else. Only in matters of intelligence does he see any difference: he considers himself more complex and more intelligent than anyone around him.

Bradley more or less anticipates this clinical view, arguing that Iago, "though thoroughly selfish and unfeeling, was not by nature malignant." On the contrary, "he had a superficial good-nature, the kind of good-nature that wins popularity and is often taken as a sign … of a good heart." Bradley asserts, "It may be inferred that before the giant crime which we witness, Iago had never been detected in any serious offence and may even never have been guilty of one, but had pursued a selfish but outwardly decent life, enjoying the excitement of war and of casual pleasures" (p. 177).

True enough, Iago seems always to support his general. He moves jovially and at ease among the gentlemen of Cyprus, even as he sets up Cassio for a drunken fall (II.iii). He is more convincing yet in his ribald but humorous description of women to Desdemona, who is far more amused than offended (II.i). All of which fits Cleckley's description: "More often than not such a person will seem particularly agreeable and make a distinctly positive impression when one first meets him. Alert and friendly in his attitude, he is easy to talk with and seems to have a good many genuine interests. Signs of affection or excessive affability are not characteristic. He looks like the real thing" (p. 382). But, Cleckley goes on to say, "Not only is [the psychopath] undependable, but also in more active ways he cheats, deserts, annoys, brawls, fails and lies without any apparent compunction. He will commit theft, forgery, adultery, fraud, and other deeds for astonishingly small stakes and under such greater risks of being discovered than will the ordinary scoundrel. He will, in fact, commit such deeds in the absence of any apparent goal at all" (p. 390).

How, then, are we to account for lago's never having performed any horrendous deeds before? Again, Bradley has, perhaps unwittingly, given the answer in suggesting that Iago has enjoyed "the excitement of war and of casual pleasures." As a bluff, hearty soldier, he had indulged himself in all the peccadilloes that are generally more excused in the uniformed warrior than in the civilian; his more excessive asocial whims had been pretty well channeled off in the violence of war where even killing was not only accepted but honored. The psychopath is asocial; war is asocial; Iago was in his element, and praised for his actions, not condemned. He did what heroic Othello did, the difference being that Othello was supremely motivated and master of himself, while Iago was satisfying his quest for instant pleasure in excitement. This search is another indication of his psychopathic nature, for, according to McCord and McCord, the "psychopath often seems willing to sacrifice everything for excitement. His satisfactions have always been fleeting and highly changeable from childhood through maturity. Consequently, he seems to know no greater pleasure than constant change, and the search for excitement at any cost becomes an important motive" (p. 9). Similarly, Cleckley points out that "in a life devoid of higher-order stimuli, of primary or serious goals and values, of intense and meaningful satisfactions, one can better understand the patient who, for the trivial excitement of stealing a dollar (or a candy bar), the small gain of forging a $20.00 check, half-hearted intercourse with an unappealing partner, sacrifices his job, the respect of his friends, or perhaps his marriage" (p. 444).

Plainly enough, the "motive" for lago's eventual crime is no motive in the normal adult sense, but only the whim of a very young child. As the play opens, there are no immediate wars to occupy him. Othello, his chief, has moved into domesticity, a constant guest in the home of Brabantio for months before his marriage to Desdemona. The scene is now set for an exciting prank by the lateness of the hour, Roderigo's distress, the proximity of Brabantio's house. Perhaps on the spur of the moment an idea occurs to Iago:

                    Call up her father,
Rouse him. Make after him, poison his
Proclaim him in the streets, incense her

But what about his disappointment at the placing of Cassio, an "arithmetician," over himself, a seasoned warrior; his suspicions that the Moor "twixt my sheets has done my office"? It is unnecessary here to repeat in full the ample, detailed argument of Bradley that Iago is a consistent and consummate liar, that "one must constantly remember not to believe a syllable that Iago utters on any subject … " (p. 172). What he says in reference to the causes of his frustrations and hatred is not borne out by any evidence in the play. On the contrary, as Bradley shows, the opposite is generally true.

Yet he is never suspected of lying—until the final scene, of course, when even his wife Emilia, the closest of all human beings to him, is thunderstruck to discover that Iago has lied. And Othello still calls him "honest, honest Iago" almost to the end. How does he bring it off so well?

The psychopath does not set out to lie in the self-conscious, guilt-beset way that a normal person would. Lying does not bother him. Cleckley says, "One gets the impression that he is incapable of ever attaining realistic comprehension of an attitude in other people which causes them to value truth and cherish truthfulness in themselves. Typically he is at ease… . His
simple statement … carries special powers of conviction. Candor and trustworthiness seem implicit in him at such times. Though he will lie about any matter, under any circumstances, and often for no good reason, he may, on the contrary, sometimes own up to his errors (usually when detection is certain) and appear to be facing the consequences with singular honesty, fortitude, and manliness" (p. 387). What better description could one find of "honest" Iago, who protests that his rough-hewn probity is his greatest fault:

                                O wretched fool
That liv'st to makfle thine honesty a vice!
O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O
To be direct and honest is not safe.

Is Othello a fool for being duped? No, he merely shares the opinion of everyone else who knows Iago. Of the play—and Iago—Bradley says accurately: "Evil is … united with an intellectual superiority so great that [one] watches its advance fascinated and appalled" (p. 145).

And, "Such evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself easily with exceptional powers of will and intellect" (p. 189). An early question of psychiatrists in regard to a psychopathic personality was, "Can the moral sense be diseased and the intellectual faculty remain unimpaired?"7 While at least one study indicates that on the whole psychopaths share the same IQ distribution as normal individuals,8 specific psychopathic individuals have demonstrated exceptional intelligence. For instance, the subjects of Cleckley's case studies generally show a higher-than-normal intelligence. Of one of these subjects Cleckley reports: "His ability to plan and execute schemes to provide money for himself, to escape legal consequences … could be matched by few, if any, people whom I have known. In such thinking he not only shows objective ingenuity, but also remarkable knowledge of other people and their reactions (of psychology in the popular sense) at certain levels, or, perhaps one should say, in certain modes, of personality-reaction. At any sort of contest based on a matching of wits, he is unlikely to come off second best" (pp. 60-61).

Iago consistently dramatizes these characteristics, from his self-serving admonition to Roderigo to "put money in thy purse," to his astute management of Cassio's drunkenness, to his first sly hint to Othello that Cassio's relationship with Desdemona is not entirely honorable. Even Othello remarks upon Iago's keen perception of human nature: "This fellow's of exceeding honesty, and knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings" (III.iii.257-59). Not only does he prove his exceptional skill at planning events, but when he finds himself in an exceedingly dangerous situation, not once does he falter or display uncertainty, but adroitly shifts the circumstances to his own favor. Othello's threat of horrible death (III.iii.) does not faze Iago in the least, but rather seems to reinforce his self-assurance. Thus we see Iago as a perfect example of Cleckley's psychopath in whom we find "extraordinary poise rather than jitteriness or worry… . Even under concrete circumstances that would for the ordinary person cause embarrassment, confusion, acute insecurity, or visible agitation, his relative serenity is likely to be noteworthy" (p. 384).

We have already established the poverty of affect in the psychopath. He may weep and shout with rage, but all this is a readiness of expression rather than a strength of feeling. This would preclude any honest indignation on the part of Iago over Othello's preference of Cassio, or any sincere jealousy or true conviction that Othello was committing adultery with Emilia. We have also considered that conditions in the opening scene of the play were suitable for Iago to yield to an immature urge to excitement, setting into motion circumstances and happenings that developed into tragedy. But another facet of Iago's psychopathic personality contributed to the trouble-making: Cleckley says, "The psychopath is always distinguished by egocentricity. This is usually of a degree not seen in ordinary people and often is little short of astonishing" (p. 395). Part of Iago's egocentricity is his vanity. In his "motive-hunting" Iago picks on what is closest at hand (the psychopath has no difficulty in finding "plausible" excuses for his actions, then believing them himself), the upbraiding by Roderigo for his seeming cowardice in serving the Moor while professedly hating him. Bradley remarks, "What is clear is that Iago is keenly sensitive to anything that touches his pride or self-esteem" (p. 179). And so, in justifying his behavior to Roderigo, Iago sets his course of action. He must now manipulate people and outwit his adversaries to demonstrate his superiority. As we have already noted, it doesn't really matter to Iago whether or not Othello has committed adultery with Emilia: "I known not if't be true, but I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do, as if for surety" (I.iii.377-79).

As Bradley so acutely observes: "The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority; and if it involved secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities, and, thirdly, the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated. And the moment most dangerous to such a man would be one when his sense of superiority had met with an affront, so that its habitual craving was reinforced by resentment, while at the same time he saw an opportunity of satisfying it by subjecting to his will the very persons who had affronted it" (p. 185).

As stated earlier, Bradley could not accept fully this creature which he had so accurately diagnosed. These characteristics, he protested, are too frightful to constitute a man. Such a being would be a monster. The evidence, however, has been accumulated overwhelmingly by psychologists and psychiatrists that such a moral blank does indeed exist, and in frightening numbers. Shakespeare knew the type well enough, and though the "wicked Ensign" was furnished him by Cinthio, he constructed Iago so that he fulfills the clinical profile of the psychopath. Shakespeare had observed that there exist perfectly sane people in whom fellow-feeling of any kind is extremely weak while egoism is virtually absolute, and thus he made Iago. Aggressive and highly impulsive like all psychopaths, Iago's only motivation is an immature urge toward instant pleasure. Bluff and affable among his fellows, he is still unable to form lasting bonds of affection, not even with his wife. He has no real loyalties, but serves only his own ends, using people ruthlessly with no concern for their feelings. Shakespeare's crowning touch to his creation is the absolute lack of remorse in Iago, when at the very end, Iago views with equanimity all the hideous results of his manipulations. To quote Cleckley once more: "All the horror is in just this—that there is no horror" (p. 153).


1 Daniel Stempel, "The Silence of Iago," PMLA, 84 (1969), 252-63.

2 Marvin Rosenberg, "In Defense of Iago," SQ, 6 (1955), 145-58.

3 All quotations from Titus Andronicus and Othello are from Sylvan Barnet, ed., The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

4 Hervey Cleckley, The Mask of Sanity, 2nd ed. (St. Louis: C. V. Mosby, 1950).

5 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; rpt. Cleveland: World/Meridian, 1955).

6 William McCord and Joan McCord, The Psychopath (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1964).

7 McCord and McCord, p. 26.

8 McCord and McCord, p. 43.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31449

Julian C. Rice (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Desdemona Unpinned: Universal Guilt in Othello," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. VII, 1974, pp. 209-26.

[In the following essay, Rice centers on the character of Desdemona in his discussion of guilt and human nature in Othello.]

The linking and parallelism between individual characters in Shakespearean drama is nowhere more prevalent than it is in Othello. As Barbara Everett has expressed it, the characters are all "forced by the 'elements that clip us round about' into a perpetual sense of, or straining toward, community. The 'net shall enmesh them all' is made at the instant the play begins, and is a condition of common need and common imperfection, so that a characters."1 The linking may have serious thematics implications. Is Othello responsible for his actions, or does he perhaps represent a common human vulnerability to Iago's destructive powers? The idea that all men share the responsibility for the acts of any individual human being is suggested when Desdemona paradoxically accuses herself of her own murder: "Emilia. O, who hath done this deed? / Desdemona. Nobody—I myself."

Although the abstract idea of universal guilt, stemming from the Fall, has been connected with the play, the criticism almost unanimously excludes Desdemona from participation. Most frequently, she is viewed as a Christ-figure, a morally perfect and entirely innocent victim. If it can be shown that Desdemona resembles Othello in more ways than she transcends him, however, the drama may be said to be less a tragedy of individual character than of human nature itself. Evil is most terrifying when it is performed with the conviction of goodness and moral necessity. But the archetypal evil-doer, like Oedipus, is not himself as malicious as he is, ultimately, blind. It is the "blood and baseness" of Othello's nature which leads him to "preposterous conclusions," but the same blood and baseness is present in the most outwardly virtuous of human beings—even in Desdemona.

Brabantio's disillusion with Desdemona foreshadows the play's more subtle revelations. Just as Desdemona's last speech in the play indicates that, being human, she shares the responsibility for her own murder, so her first lines in the play force Brabantio to face the reality that "she was half the wooer." Significantly, Brabantio says that he will forswear retributive justice upon Othello, if Desdemona turns out to be guilty. The realization that if all do offend, none do offend, is a traditional concomitant of the very logical Christian response of compassion toward human frailty.

        I pray you hear her speak,
If she confess that she was half the wooer
Destruction on my head if my bad blame
Light on the man!

But Brabantio is as foolish as King Lear temporarily is, when, faced with human imperfection, he condemns generation: "I had rather adopt a child than get it." No child of Adam and Eve can be any better than Desdemona proves to be, but even she is morally vulnerable.

Her first major motive in the play, to accompany Othello to Cyprus, occasions a plea for sympathy from the "gracious Duke." Her speech may also be taken as a Christian plea for charity from the audience:

           Most gracious Duke,
To my unfolding lend your prosperous ear,
And let me find a charter in your voice,
T'assist my simpleness.
                                (I.iii. 239-42)

As her true nature and simultaneous naivetée are "unfolded" in the course of the play, so are the same qualities shown in her husband. To hold Othello or Desdemona morally responsible or "damned" for the unfolding tragedy would presumably not be the response of a "prosperous" or "gracious" auditor. Her next speech expresses her love for as well as her resemblance to Othello. Being married, they are of the same family, and more symbolically they have always been married members of the human family: "My heart's subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord." In their Platonically proud denial of the body's claims (like Othello's earlier refusal to promote Iago), they are exactly alike.

While Othello and Desdemona may consider their union to be a marriage of true minds, many members of Shakespeare's audience were probably not Neoplatonists. A denial of sexual reality may have been as obviously naïve to devout "married" Protestants in Shakespeare's audience as it would be today to commonplace psychological perception. After Desdemona insists that she wants to go to Cyprus for reasons other than sexual desire ("I saw Othello's visage in his mind") Othello himself puts what he comically considers to be first things first:

Let her have your voice.
Vouch with me, heaven, I therefore beg it
To please the palate of my appetite,
Nor to comply with heat—the young
In me defunct—and proper satisfaction;
But to be free and bounteous to her mind;

His next lines ominously and ironically foreshadow the tragic action:

          No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton
My speculative and officed instrument,
That my disports corrupt and taint my
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation!

A base adversary does indeed suborn Othello's noble sentiments and psychological naivete to his own purposes. A new tragic "estimation" of human nature is a major aspect of the play's development. The audience will have to reassess the appearance which the noble Moor presents in Act I. To neglect this and to accept Othello's and Desdemona's own definitions of themselves is to be fooled as they are by flattery, that is, an overly optimistic or Neoplatonic view of the human condition.

In II.i Desdemona listens disapprovingly to Iago's pessimistic view of women:

            You are pictures out of door,
Bells in your parlors, wildcats in your
Saints in your injuries, devils being
Players in your housewifery, and
 housewives in your beds.
                               (IL.i. 110-13)

Such a slanderous view disturbs Desdemona, and she needs to reassure herself that she does not resemble the universal woman which Iago describes. In effect she dares him to define her:

Desdemona. What wouldst write of me, if
  thou shouldst praise me?
lago. O gentle lady, do not put me to't,
For I am nothing if not critical.

The whole scene is an example of her need for self-justification, perhaps to repress a subconscious guilt. An audience need never have heard of Freud to sense that in this scene "the lady doth protest too much." In her aside, she even justifies her participation in the conversation. She feels that she should be more concerned for Othello's safety than for her own need to be reassured. She cannot face this need and thinks of the whole conversation as simply a diversionary means of passing the time. But her aside itself is the real diversion:

Desdemona. I am not merry; but I do
The thing I am by seeming otherwise.—
Come, how wouldst thou praise me.

Iago's answers comprise an accurate and unflattering description which is corroborated by the rest of the scenes in which Desdemona appears. The language of his answer resembles the riddling responses of a fool character, and such language intentionally invites speculation and explication. In the repartee which follows Desdemona's invitation, there is a significant pun on "white" and "wit." Desdemona asks how Iago would praise a woman who is black (unattractive) and witty:

Iago. If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She'll find a white that shall her blackness fit.

Just as Iago has mocked the human need to justify action, when he flippantly speaks of his "motives" for destroying Othello, so he is mocking Desdemona's use of her "wit" to "fit" or to cover the inner "blackness" of her psyche. Similarly, to complete the pun, human beings have little difficulty finding a "white" reason to cover a black sinful impulse. A wit in fallen man is only a device to whitewash the reality of insistent desires.

It is, symbolically, the inner blackness which both Othello and Desdemona try to deny. Desdemona is not unfaithful to Othello, but, like Othello, she is unfaithful to herself. When she insists that Iago describe "a deserving woman indeed—one that in the authority of her merit did justly put on the vouch of very malice itself," she is obviously thinking of herself. Ironically she is asking Iago to "vouch" for her virtue. And his response, being that of "very malice itself," another quality which the single Vice may personify, is maliciously candid. In each line of his speech, he mentions an abstract quality of moral perfection which does not match the reality of human capability. In the last line he suggests that such a "wight" is a human impossibility. Again there may be a pun on Desdemona's being white. Nothing is all white or all black, as it were. A pure "wight" is impossible. All human beings are "black," or fallen, within. When Desdemona asks Iago to describe one who is "black and witty," good and evil, or sinful and self-deceiving, she is asking for the description of herself which he then extensively supplies:

She that was ever fair, and ever proud;
Had tongue at will, and yet was never loud;
Never lacked gold, and yet went never gay;
Fled from her wish, and yet said "Now I
She that being angered, her revenge being
Bade her wrong stay, and her displeasure
She that in wisdom never was so frail
To change the cod's head for the salmon's
She that could think and ne'er disclose her
See suitors following, and not look behind:
She was a wight (if ever such wights were)—

To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.

Desdemona's primary virtue in the play is her ability to forswear revenge, to bid "her wrong stay, and her displeasure fly" and to transcend the "frailty" of hasty and useless retributive action, or changing the "cod's head for the salmon's tail." Emilia tempts her to precisely this sort of "womanly" revenge in IV.iii. Such virtues, however, are no panacea for curing folly, as Iago's last line suggests. Folly is an inherent and permanent frailty, passed on to children, and existing within even the most virtuous individuals. Desdemona perhaps exhibits some of the most important virtues mentioned in Iago's speech, but she also reveals some of the faults which he catalogs. Most obviously, the words "never proud" do not accurately fit Desdemona. Both she and Othello are as complacently confident as Adam and Eve were before Eve encountered the serpent, although it is the male half of "mankind" who most directly confronts the devil in this play. And in Othello the Fall occurs without any explicitly reassuring hope of redemption, as Desdemona's lines ironically suggest. The heavens are not clearly protecting mankind against evil here:

Desdemona.              The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should
Even as our days do grow.
Othello.         Amen to that, sweet powers!
I cannot speak enough of this content;
It stops me here; it is too much of joy
And this, and this, the greatest discords be
 [Kissing her]
That e'er our hearts shall make!
lago. [Aside] O, you are well tuned now!
But I'll set down the pegs that make this
As honest as I am.

What Bradley called "fate" seems to be the unconscious combination of contradictory good intention gone awry, furthered by unlucky chance incidents and blind human optimism or pride. Tragically and unwittingly, Desdemona contributes to her murder with her idealistic zeal. Her overconfidence in the power of virtue to triumph, often taken to be an example of her pure faith, may be simply a self-righteous obliviousness to sin and frailty. It is really her own power to move Othello that she repeatedly assures Cassio of when he entreats her intercession. The scene reveals her vanity and her susceptibility to flattery, qualities of Eve rather than Christ:

Desdemona. Be thou assured, good Cassio, I
will do
All my abilities in thy behalf.

                 Do not doubt, Cassio
But I will have my lord and you again
As friendly as you were.

               And be you well assured
He shall in strangeness stand no farther off
Than in a politic distance.

Do not doubt that; before Emilia here
I give thee warrant of thy place.
                (III.iii.1-2, 5-7, 11-13, 19-20)

Desdemona' s faith in the power of virtue to triumph may foreshadow the play' s skepticism concerning Providenc e as well as her psychological naïveté. Although Othello might be particularly prone to insecurity becaus e of the racial differences emphasized in the opening scenes, Desdemona' s idealistic Neoplatonism makes her impervious to his vulnerabilities.

                  Assure thee,
If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it
To the last article. My lord shall never rest;
I'll watch him tame and talk him out of
His bed shall seem a school, his board a
I'll intermingle everything he does
With Cassio's suit.

Othello then enters and Cassio leaves in spite of Desdemona' s request that he stay and hear her speak, a request dictated by her desire to demonstrate her power over her husband to an admiring audience. Sans audience (on stage, at least) she confidently approaches Othello and begins almost peremptorily, "Ho w now, my lord? / I have been talking with a suitor here, / A man that languishes in your displeasure." As she continues, her references to "grace and power to move " are marks of feminine vanity, the desire to have the "maistrye," rather than genuine Christlike attributes. Her power to move is ironically limited to her ability to sexually attract. It is really this power which she is, very normally and inevitably, playing upon. Her description of Cassio is really a description of herself. Although both Cassio and Desdemona have faults, the play repetitively and indirectly invokes a compassionate response toward them.

For if he be not one that truly loves you,
That errs in ignorance and not in cunning,
I have no judgment in an honest face.
I prithee call him back.

Her lack of judgment allows her to aggravate Othello's incipient suspicion. She presses on, more because Othello is refusing her than out of genuine concern for Cassio. The comic repetition of her insistent questions suggests this:

Desdemona. … Good love, call him back.
Othello. Not now, sweet Desdemona; some
  other time.
Desdemona. But shall't be shortly?
Othello.        The sooner, sweet, for you.
Desdemona. Shall't be tonight at supper?
Othello.                           No, not tonight.
Desdemona. Tomorrow dinner, then?
Othello.     I shall not dine at home;
I meet the captains at the citadel.

She offers a pretext of wifely demurral to her husband's wishes, but her specific request is a paradoxical combination of entreaty and command:

Why then, tomorrow night, on Tuesday morn,
On Tuesday noon, or night, on Wednesday
I prithee name the time, but let it not
Exceed three days.

When Othello inadvertently hits upon Desdemona's real motive of intercession ("Let him come when he will! I will deny thee nothing"), she strongly "denies" that she is testing Othello's devotion and her own power over him. There is an inherent comic quality in her insistence that the "boon" is for Othello's sake rather than her own. Othello's lines about denial are repeated again after Desdemona's speech, which is, with dramatic transparency, a psychological denial of her own selfishness:

Othello. … I will deny thee nothing.
Desdemona.             Why, this is not a boon;
'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you
Or sue to you to do a particular profit
To your own person. Nay, when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficult weight,
And fearful to be granted.
Othello. I will deny thee nothing!

She reveals herself entirely, when she petulantly answers Othello's request to be left to himself: "Shall I deny you? No. Farewell my lord." As she exits, she speaks a couple of lines, which bear more ironic implications:

Emilia, come. Be as your fancies teach you;
Whate'er you be, I am obedient.

The decorous obedience which a wife was supposed to offer her husband has been only a thinly disguised veil over Desdemona's words which reveal the traditional feminine vice of desiring the "maistrye." Desdemona is not obedient to the ideals of generosity and charity, in regard to Cassio, any more than she is truly obedient to her husband. She is in reality obedient, as all mankind must frequently be, to her pride, her fallen nature, and her "fancies." Both Othello and Desdemona are as their "fancies teach" them. The line is a fore-shadowing of Othello's surrender to his own jealous fancies, externalized in the personified Vice, Iago. "Whate'er" Othello is by nature, Desdemona must also be.

But Desdemona certainly does not wish to believe in her own frailty, judging by her responses to Othello's direct accusations in IV.ii. Before Desdemona's entrance, Othello, although referring literally to Emilia, unwittingly describes both himself and Desdemona:

              This is a subtle whore
A closet lock and key of villainous secrets,
And yet she'll kneel and pray; I have seen her

The same irony continues as he identifies Emilia's "mystery" in a way which ironically describes his denial of his own inherent sin:

Othello. [To Emilia] Some of your function,
Leave procreants alone and shut the door;
Cough or cry hem if anybody come.
Your mystery, your mystery! Nay, dispatch!

When he confronts Desdemona, Othello is especially concerned with the indignity of his imagined situation: "But, alas, to make me / The fixed figure for the time of scorn / To point his slow and moving finger at." Actually, both accuser and accused are guilty of the same sin and the same falseness here. This is implied in Desdemona's self-exonerating question, which is simultaneously an ironic indictment of herself, "Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?" The sin of ignorance can be committed by anyone, regardless of social identity. Desdemona believes that because she is a Christian, she cannot possibly be a strumpet:

Othello. Are not you a strumpet?
Desdemona.                No, as I am a Christian!

Her refusal to face the reality of her nature and of the Fall is suggested further in the next scene. When Emilia asks how she is, Desdemona accurately defines her awareness: "Faith, half asleep." She restates her naïveté within a few lines. Her words consciously imply that she deserves no childing, but they also describe an old habit of self-righteousness, an imperviousness to self-chiding:

       Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks.
He might have chid me so; for, in good
I am a child to chiding.

As she cannot face her own feminine frailty, she cannot bring herself to pronounce the word "whore"—"Am I that name, Iago?" She reiterates her image of herself by dramatizing her virtue for Iago and Emilia:

                           Here I kneel:
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love
Either in discourse of thought or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense
Delighted them in any other form.

Her reference to her "discourse of thought" and to her "senses" as having been perfectly pure is another example of pride, since the mind and the senses were notoriously fickle from the Skeptical and Calvinistic points of view. The line foreshadows Desdemona's becoming guilty of just these "sins" in the next scene. A virtuous person was expected to acknowledge and thus control his sinful impulses (thought and sense) rather than try to deny them as Desdemona does. But for Desdemona the fallen nature within her is literally an unspeakable horror: "I cannot say 'whore,' / It does abhor me now I speak the word." The presence of Bianca in the play suggests that all women are sisters. Desdemona shrinks with horror from, or "abhors," the word "whore." The obvious pun also suggests that she shrinks from the reality of the whore within her, the potential whore which exists within all women. Just as Cassio runs from the external, literal whore, Bianca, so Desdemona psychologically flees or abhors a part of her inner self. Cassio is in a sense "married" to the whore without, and Desdemona is bound to the whore within.

The courtesan, Bianca, is an important character for what she reveals to the audience about the other less "honest" women in the play. She does not appear in Cinthio's novella, and Spivack has a number of explanations for her presence in Othello: 1) "a married Cassio would have been less tractable a subject for Iago's intrigue"; 2) "with two respectable wives already inside a play dealing with matrimony, a third would have had no dramatic virtue at all compared with the opportunity to stage a harlot," especially given "the theatrical fashion in prostitutes … during the early years of the seventeenth century"; and 3) Iago is able to increase Othello's anger by saying that Cassio looked upon Desdemona with no more respect than he did "his whore." He emphasizes that practical dramaturgic considerations were the major reasons for unmarrying Cassio, and that these took precedence over a morally accurate picture of the lieutenant, whose "daily beauty" would have gained from a wife "a degree of enhancement that the courtesan does not altogether supply."3 The point that Spivack has minimized suggests that Shakespeare did not neglect moral considerations by including Bianca but may actually have enhanced them. Her presence in the play serves to reveal the hypocrisies of Cassio and Desdemona rather than their "daily beauty." Bianca is a "fallen" woman, but she is generous and loving to Cassio. If she is dishonest in the sense of being unchaste, she is at least psychologically honest about her feelings and her identify. Othello's wife is literally honest or chaste, an "honest" woman, but like her husband and like Cassio, she is, in her pride, psychologically dishonest. Emilia stands between the other two women. More psychologically honest about herself and human nature than Desdemona, she nevertheless is not ready to admit to herself that she could be as bad as Bianca.

Although Emilia admits that she would not commit adultery by the "heavenly light" Desdemona swears by, her humorous rejoinder echoes the mocking but disturbingly truthful comments of Iago:

Desdemona. Wouldst thou do such a deed for
  all the world?
Emilia. Why, would not you?
Desdemona.       No, by this heavenly light!
Emilia. Nor I neither by this heavenly light;
I might do't as well i' th' dark.

She goes on to distinguish herself from a courtesan, however, with a humorous sort of moral doublethink:

Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, or caps, or any petty exhibition; but, for all the whole world … ?

(IV. iii.72-74)

She then plays the Vice to Desdemona as Iago plays it to Othello. Emilia tempts Desdemona to evil by preaching a gospel of justice and logical retribution. If Emilia is not so purely an incarnation of evil as Iago, the Iago-presence within her is strong enough. The illusion of justice and repayment for wrong accompanies moral evil as tenaciously as Iago serves Othello. Emilia is so specific in cataloging "wrongs" that although she shows admirable courage and loyalty later, she may here be playing the bawd. Courage, loyalty, and sexual promiscuity are not contradictory qualities, especially if Shakespeare is as psychologically sophisticated as the critical tradition considers him to be:

          And have not we affections?
Desires for sport? and frailty? as men have?
Then let them use us well; else let them
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
Desdemona. Good night, good night.
  Heaven me such uses send,
Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.

Desdemona's response is a human emulation of Christ-like behavior, not necessarily that of a spotless soul. It is the only psychologically possible answer for her to make at the moment, although her moral hypocrisy is not as crude as that of Emilia. Emilia makes a fine distinction between adultery for a gown and adultery for the whole world, but she is comically self-righteous later when she berates Bianca, who has been falsely accused of complicity in Roderigo's death and Cassio's injury:

Iago. This is the fruits of whoring. Prithee,
Go know of Cassio where he supped tonight.
[To Bianca.] What, do you shake at that?
Bianca. He supped at my house; but I
  therefore shake not.
lago. O, did he so? I charge you go with
Emilia. O fie upon thee, strumpet!
Bianca. I am no strumpet, but of life as
As you that thus abuse me.
Emilia.          As I? Fie upon thee!

But the play carefully and subtly expresses what the characters strenuously attempt to deny. And if IV.iii reveals certain aspects of Emilia's character, it also seems to me to reveal more about Desdemona than many critics have been willing to admit. In the scene, Desdemona is preparing for bed, and during a section of about thirty lines she is shedding articles of clothing while she speaks. The scene employs the conventional topos of clothing to symbolize the psychological exposure of Desdemona, which is simultaneously occurring. As she takes off articles of clothing, the lines reveal previously concealed qualities of her psyche. She tells Emilia that Othello has dismissed her, and Emilia replies that she wishes Desdemona had never seen Othello. Desdemona disagrees:

So would not I. My love doth so approve him
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his
Prithee unpin me—have grace and favor.

Her love for Othello has never admitted the possibility of human fault, and she can only turn the reality into an illusion. Her speech is, however, punctuated by a significant request that Emilia "unpin" her. The request foreshadows the revelation of the next few lines. Desdemona's next speech suggests a traditional truth she had never accepted: "All's one. Good Father, how foolish are our minds!" Although "all's one" is literally a reference to the unimportance of Emilia's having laid out the wedding sheets, in another sense the words along with what follows suggest the universal inclusiveness of human folly, which inevitably includes the "divine Desdemona." The story of her maid, "Barbary," whose love proved mad and did forsake her, also suggests that Desdemona is not meant to be a unique exemplar of virtue. The maid's name recalls Othello's nationality, and Iago's earlier mocking reference to him as a "Barbary horse." If Desdemona parallels "Barbary," who by implication is a Moor like Othello, she and Othello are interchangeable in their possession of the same human weaknesses. When, a few lines before, she says her love "approves" Othello, another Renaissance meaning of "approve" as "resemble" suggests that she, like Othello, sees faults (such as "stubbornness") as virtues. This is, in a sense, a "song" which Desdemona dies singing:

        She had a song of "Willow";
An old thing 'twas, but it expressed her
And she died singing it.

In saying that she feels like hanging her "head all at one side" and singing "like poor Barbary," there is the implication that she, like Barbary and like Othello, has faced only one side of her character and of human identity.

Another shocking revelation occurs after her second request to be "unpinned." In an unguarded utterance Desdemona reveals that she is not above normal human impulses. In IV.i Iago fed Othello's jealousy by implying that Lodovico, as well as Cassio, was involved with Desdemona: "'Tis Lodovico, / This comes from the Duke. See, your wife's with him." When Othello strikes Desdemona, Lodovico defends her and tells him to "call her back." Othello's reaction implies further jealousy: "Othello. What would you with her sir? / Lodovico. Who? I, my lord? / Othello. Ay! You did wish that I would make her turn." Othello then speaks bitterly of his wife, directing the speech to Lodovico. Thus Lodovico is established in Othello's mind as a potential threat or rival. This is obviously, in a literal sense, as preposterous as his accusation of Cassio. But in a more subtle psychological sense Othello's jealousy may be unwittingly accurate. Desdemona has been repeatedly abused and checked by her husband. She has been defended by a handsome young emissary from Venice. Desdemona's momentarily "unpinned" words to Emilia suggest that she is a descendant of Eve, and, however pure, a sister of the Wife of Bath and Bianca. Emilia's more basic response simply places Desdemona's inner character into sharper relief for the audience:

Emilia. Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
Desdemona. No, unpin me here.
This Lodovico is a proper man.
Emilia. A very handsome man.
Desdemona. He speaks well.
Emilia. I know a lady in Venice would have
  walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of
  his nether lip.

Being unable to face the implications of what she and Emilia have just said, she sings her willow song, which itself suggests that Desdemona refuses to face undeniable natural realities. The first two lines contain a contradiction. Although the "poor soul sat singing by a sycamore tree," she sang "all a green willow." Although Desdemona lives in a world which is undeniably and by nature composed of good and evil elements, she has admitted only the good. This is as foolish as sitting next to a sycamore tree, while "singing" that "all" trees are "green willows." After giving Emilia her clothes ("Lay by these"), she repeats the chorus, and with her literal and symbolic clothing removed, her line suggests her own limitations of insight within the play: "Sing all a green willow must be my garland." In her next line she repeats her "approval" of Othello's "scorn." She then stops singing momentarily, because she feels that she is not singing accurately. Why should she approve Othello's scorn, unless the insistent knocking of a repressed truth might make her feel that Othello's jealousy is somehow justified? Only a few lines before she had spoken admiringly of Lodovico. She fears that her song, or her soothingly idealistic view of herself and of life, will be interrupted. But the knocking or potential interruption is being sounded only in her own mind:

Let nobody blame him, his scorn I
Nay, that's not next. Hark! Who is't that
Emilia. It is the wind.

The song then concludes with the sort of skepticism Desdemona has always fled from. The disparity between the prettiness of the sound of the singing and the reality of the words' meaning is, in the theater, a dramatic perspective on the pathetic attempt at denial which consistently characterizes Desdemona. Her natural human impulses attract her to Lodovico and make her potentially, if not actually, unfaithful to Othello. It is this view of human nature that neither she nor Othello can accept. But the voice of psychological reality is growing so loud in her mind that she "approves" Othello's scorn, although in a literal sense it is unjustified. When the song itself becomes cynically real, Desdemona attempts to dismiss Emilia, a personification of this cynical reality (as Othello had dismissed her earlier).

"I called my love false love; but what said
   he then?
       Sing willow, willow, willow:
If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe
So, get thee gone; goodnight.

But Emilia does not leave, and Desdemona can only ask her a desperate question. The question is necessary, since she fears the encroachment into her consciousness of a hidden part of herself. If she can deny that women are naturally promiscuous, she can more effectively deny the urgings she senses knocking in herself. But Emilia's response, like those of her husband to Othello, expresses the tragic reality rather than a romantic dream:

Desdemona.        O, these men, these men.
Dost thou in conscience think, tell me,
That there be women do abuse their
In such gross kind?

Emilia's longer speech of definition, previously quoted, appropriately concludes the scene's revelation that women are more like men than angels: "And have not we affections? Desires for sport? and frailty? as men have?"

Although Desdemona may not be naturally superior to the other characters in the play, there are at least two instances where she seems to distinguish herself favorably. At the end of the scene just discussed she refuses to cynically capitalize on the definition of human nature with which Emilia has just provided her: "Heaven me such uses send, / Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend." And in the scene immediately preceding, IV.ii, she reacts to Othello's abuse without vengeful anger. Thematically, the following speech suggests that Desdemona is asserting the bond between human beings rather than exaggerating the division. In so doing she is departing from the retributive and angry actions which possess Othello and most of the rest of humanity. Thus, as Emilia unthinkingly remarks, Desdemona's reaction is both a change indeed and, as the line's double entendre suggests, a change in deed:

Desdemona.         Prithee tonight
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets,
And call thy husband hither.
Emilia.      Here's a change indeed!

On the other hand, it may actually be Desdemona's inability to face reality which accounts for her "virtue" here. She can only reply to Emilia with a trite proverb in IV.iii, and she would prefer to return to her Edenic honeymoon rather than admit the state to which her marriage has fallen. Her "sacrifice," whether consciously virtuous or psychologically necessitated, does not evoke the heaven-sent "uses" to which she had earlier referred.

The play ends with the "bloody period" of Othello's final stab. Iago's contemptuous references to humanity's destructive foolishness cannot be glossed over or evaded as unduly cynical. Desdemona is not a living contradiction of Iago's demonstration of human nature. His cynicism does not "break down upon the rock of her truth." As the Vice he has caused the other characters to exhibit the various vices he personifies. And the picture is not heroically tragic in any sense. The self-destructive urges are not understood. Man knows no more at the end of the play about why evil occurs than he did at the beginning. No Providential revelation explains the tragic action. The ritual quality of the last act arises from the use of the traditional familial convention.4 Man can be counted upon to behave recurrently in the same basic ways. He loves, sexually, and he murders. The human race exists perpetually bound in a marriage of love and of death. The implied sexual puns on "die" in the speeches of Othello before he kills Desdemona suggest the tragic basicity of these two human actions:

Othello.                Sweet soul take heed,
Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy
Desdemona. Ay, but not yet to die.
Othello.                     Presently.
Therefore confess thee freely of thy sin,
For to deny each article with oath
Cannot remove nor choke the strong
That I do groan withal. Thou art to die.

Othello's final words at the end of the play also reveal the parallelism between sexual love and murder: "I kissed thee ere I killed thee. No way but this? Killing myself, to die upon a kiss." His words imply the question of the play. Must the blind continue to slaughter the blind? Must man be as much at the mercy of his impulses to destroy for a "cause" as he is compelled to express his sexual nature? No very reassuringly redemptive note is sounded at the end. Lodovico compares Iago's cruelty to other natural threats. Human evil is as powerful as "anguish, hunger, or the sea!" And Cassio, a man who has many of the same faults which characterized Othello and Desdemona, now has the task of governing the "city" and of dealing with Iago. There is no progressive feeling that the new governor, or the new generation, so to speak, will be any more successful in dealing with the problem of Iago than the old one was: "No way but this?" Othello is decidedly not a comedy of redemption. The futures of Othello and Desdemona in another life and the future of the human race in this life are frighteningly and tragically ambiguous.


1 Barbara Everett, "Reflections on the Sentimentalist's Othello," CritQ, 3 (1961), 128-29.

2 All Othello citations are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, 1942).

3 Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York, 1965), pp. 417-18.

4 The plot is an allegory of what in modern speech would be called "man's inhumanity to man" or a violation of the "brotherhood" of man. A relatively literal age like ours retains only the metaphor of opposing brothers. But the familial convention in an older tradition was used more broadly. In Euripides' tragedy, The Bacchae, an Iago-like god named Dionysus provides the impetus and the illusion of justice which culminates in the ritual murder of Pentheus at the hands of his mother, Agaue. Oedipus kills his father, and the "unnatural" children in King Lear think themselves justified in the cruelty they inflict upon their father. In Hamlet brother kills brother, and the meaning is more immediately clear to a modern perception. But the murder of a wife may have carried the same metaphorical meaning for Shakespeare's audience as the murder of a brother does for us.

W. D. Adamson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Unpinned or Undone?: Desdemona's Critics and the Problem of Sexual Innocence," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. 13, 1980, pp. 169-86.

[In the essay below, Adamson surveys critical opinion on Desdemona's moral character and concludes that her dominant trait is innocence, which, the critic argues, contrasts sharply with the characters of Othello and Iago.]

Surveys of Othello criticism have for years noted that most of the opinion about Desdemona's moral significance is lamentably polarized: at one extreme are her idolaters, the readers who see her as a desexualized spirit, "ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint" (A. C. Bradley); and at the opposite one, her attackers, including those who disparage her as "little less than a wanton" (President John Quincy Adams) or even as an outright strumpet.1 Perhaps because both Othello and Iago are moral absolutists, themselves interpreting Desdemona oversimply, critics tend to grasp the same absolute moral contrasts to explain her too. Whatever the reason, very few readers have been able to contemplate Desdemona with anything like true balance—to attain an objectivity in viewing her that is also consistent with the inferable values of Shakespeare's play.2 But this widespread failure to avoid reductive moral extremes like "saint" and "strumpet" may at bottom be simply a persistent consequence of our culture's sexual heritage, as entailed upon Othello and the critics alike. Reviewing some typical beliefs of her idolaters, attackers, and most recently her "humanizers"—critics who seek to make her simply a sort of "femme moyenne sensuelle, " equipped with all the ordinary longings and frailties—may clarify Shakespeare's apparent intention in making Desdemona's true nature so difficult for readers to agree about.

Marvin Rosenberg observed that even among twentieth-century critics, Desdemona "has been in grave danger of being canonized" as Bradley is quoted doing above.3 One version of this approach is to align her with the forces of good in Othello's supposed morality play antagonism, or otherwise to "interpret" her. Thus Robert B. Heilman reads her as "the symbolization of spirit," that "world of spirit which Iago by philosophical necessity must destroy."4 Alvin Kernan places her on a more robust sounding moral pole, associating her with "a life force that strives for order, community, growth, and light" against Iago's" anti-life force that seeks anarchy, death, and darkness."5 The father of all such systems was not Norman O. Brown but Prudentius, as Bernard Spivack acknowledged a few years before, reading Othello as "the elemental strife between Good and Evil, the metaphor of the moral dualism sustained by the Christian imagination through the dozen centuries between Prudentius and Shakespeare" and this moral dualism "includes Desdemona as well."6 On which side is she? "Iago destroys the bond of love and marriage which, in the persons of Desdemona and Othello, unites transcendent virtues—love and purity with valor and magnanimity" (p. 46). Thus far the allegorizers are in agreement: Desdemona is goodness and purity incarnate.

But oddly, though here suggesting that Desdemona is an avatar of purity, in several other remarks Spivack reveals a conflicting image of her:

There turns out to be additional justice, then, in [Iago's] already well-established plot to accuse Cassio and Desdemona of adultery, since one may very well believe that they are really in love with one another.

(p. 9)

That statement could be overlooked, except that Spivack follows it by observing that Iago might well find it "credible that Cassio and Desdemona love each other" (p. 12) and then even writes of "a Desdemona [Iago] can properly accuse of adultery because it is likely she loves Cassio anyway" (p. 30). In short, if we may believe this reputable critic, Iago was right about Desdemona all along.

That is—or should be—a staggering claim, yet Spivack is simply an extreme example of a cynical tendency to overstress Desdemona's human "frailty" which has quietly been developing among critics ever since the days of Thomas Rymer7 and John Quincy Adams, as seen for example in W. H. Auden, writing three years after Spivack. Though conceding that Desdemona's present relationship with Cassio is "perfectly innocent," Auden feels that her fall is simply a question of time:

One cannot but share Iago's doubts as to the durability of the marriage. It is worth noting that, in the willow-song scene with Emilia, [Desdemona] speaks with admiration of Ludovico and then turns to the topic of adultery. Of course she discussed that in general terms and is shocked by Emilia's attitude, but she does discuss the subject and she does listen to what Emilia has to say about husbands and wives. It is as if she had suddenly realized that she had made a mesalliance and that the sort of man she ought to have married was someone of her own class and color like Ludovico. Given a few more years of Othello and of Emilia's influence and she might well, one feels, have taken a lover.8

More insidiously plausible than Spivack's opinion, this is the classic view of Desdemona as that typical femme moyenne sensuelle which so fascinates Shakespeare, according to an intelligent essay about his heroines written years ago by Eric W. Stockton.9 Auden's Desdemona will degenerate into a sort of Madame Bovary eventually, and in fact "bovarysme" in T. S. Eliot's sense of congenital moral duplicity and self-deception has been laid to Desdemona in a French article.10 The fashion soon spread to America.

Perhaps inspired by some clinical jargon in Auden's essay, a group of psychoanalyzers soon began to argue that "Desdemona was not a passive and innocent victim of Othello's jealousy" but instead is "an overt contributor to her own death both by word and act." She is crippled by a "moral masochism"; her attachment to Othello is basically Oedipal, and her masochistic self-incrimination stems from her suicidal sense of guilt.11 (Another article in the same issue of the review diagnosis of incestuous guilt, also touching like Auden on the critical "problem" caused by the comment about Lodovico.)12 Though unchallengeable by lay critics, this insistence on Desdemona's Oedipal guilt does concern us insofar as it also asserts her moral guilt—that she incites Othello and thus is to blame for her own fate. In this respect the psychoanalyzers are part of the growing overreaction to Desdemona idolatry.

In the "mainstream" of Shakespeare criticism the antiidolatrous impulse of recent years may have reached its extreme development in Julian C. Rice's article entitled "Desdemona Unpinned: Universal Guilt in Othello."13 Not surprisingly, Rice assails her image as a "Christ-figure, a morally perfect and entirely innocent victim" that he says critics "most frequently" hold of her, "almost unanimously exclud[ing] Desdemona from participation" in that "universal guilt, stemming from the Fall" named in his title (p. 209). In this same broad sense of guilt, writes Rice, Desdemona "shares the responsibility for her own murder" if only because "all men share the responsibility for the acts of any individual being" (p. 209). But if guilt were universal, none would offend; and Rice's Desdemona definitely has offended. She may not be a saint, he implies, but she evidently thinks she is one: with Othello, she supposedly shares "a Platonically proud denial of the body's claims," and there is a damnable pride too in their "overly optimistic or neoplatonic view of the human condition" (pp. 210, 211). Typically, what the idolaters see as saintly virtue in Desdemona is now read as a moral defect: "Her overconfidence in the power of virtue of triumph, often taken to be an example of her pure faith, may be simply a self-righteous obliviousness to sin and frailty" (p. 214).

Now we may perceive the central issue emerging: how are critics like Rice justified in terming Desdemona's attitude "obliviousness to sin and frailty," and not simply "innocence"? It is a matter of interpretation and of their working assumptions. For example, Desdemona's inability in the boudoir scene to say the word "whore" which Othello has thrown at her is not, on Rice's reading, because of her sense of hurt at his brutal treatment; it is due to the recognition of sexual reality she is hypocritically suppressing:

for Desdemona the fallen nature within her is literally an unspeakable horror… . The presence of Bianca in the play suggests that all women are sisters. Desdemona shrinks with horror from, or "abhors," the word "whore." The obvious pun also suggests that she shrinks from the reality of the whore within her, the potential whore which exists within all women.

(pp. 218, 219)

And naturally, if a critic's working assumption is that all women are potential whores—whatever the statement may be intended to mean—the Lodovico comment will even further undermine her claim to innocence:

Another shocking revelation occurs after her second request to be "unpinned." In an unguarded utterance Desdemona reveals that she is not above normal human impulses … Desdemona's momentarily "unpinned" words to Emilia suggest that she is a descendant of Eve, and, however pure, a sister of the Wife of Bath and Bianca.

(p. 222)

Thus Rice, like Spivack, sees a "pure" Desdemona with one eye and with the other sees a woman whose unguarded utterances—"This Lodovico is a proper man" and "He speaks well"—prove that the slanders are "accurate":

in a more subtle psychological sense Othello's jealousy may be unwittingly accurate … her human impulses attract her to Lodovico and make her potentially, if not actually, unfaithful to Othello.

(pp. 222-23)

There is a sensitive nuance of distinction in this "potentially, if not actually unfaithful," we may judge. Or we may feel that in the context there is no difference.

It appears that a basic working assumption in this essay is that "women are naturally promiscuous," then (p. 224), and in many of the other critics too there are implicit assumptions about female sexual frailty reminiscent of the clerical antifeminists of the Middle Ages.14 This male critical bias in fact is a historical echo of the antifeminist—ultimately antisexual—attitudes Shakespeare portrays in characters like Othello, Leontes, and Hamlet, who embody the masochistic, guilt-laden residue of ascetic Augustinian Christianity passed on to Shakespeare's generation by the continental Reformation and Anglo-Catholicism alike.15Perhaps it is not surprising that male critics respond too sympathetically to the sexual paranoia Shakespeare pictures in Othello and Iago, which Juliet Dusinberre terms in the similarly afflicted Leontes the "diseased conviction of [woman's] generic frailty."16 However, it is not the case that Desdemona's continuing devaluation in modern criticism is a conspiracy of cynical males: her most dangerous enemies are some of her feminist defenders.17

One of the most intelligent and balanced of the feminist oriented reappraisals is an essay by S. N. Garner, "Shakespeare's Desdemona."18 Overall, the paper is a valuable contribution to Othello criticism, particularly because it shows beyond question that Shakespeare does in fact portray Desdemona as a mature, "spirited and sensual," even "sexually playful" woman, far from the etherealized Desdemona of the idolaters: "he goes out of his way to make her human rather than divine," Garner writes (pp. 238, 237, 235). Yet this Desdemona is no hoyden, either: "Shakespeare does not wish to make her seem either shy or overly forward" in the equivocal-looking scene of risqué banter with Iago (II.i). The playwright "makes a special effort to maintain the balance" here, keeping Desdemona "off a pedestal" yet also picturing in her "a full range of human feelings and capacities" (p. 238). To this point Garner does full justice to "Shakespeare's delicately poised portrayal" of the heroine, a woman "neither goddess nor slut" (p. 235), and we should desire most modern critics a fuller acquaintance with this particular Desdemona. But eventually Garner overinterprets the boudoir scene in the same way the cynical detractors had done, this time adding a new assumption of dubious validity.

The new assumption concerns the view critics should hold of Desdemona's loyalty to Othello: does it ever waver, and if so, how is the wavering materially important? I would argue that critics must be "absolutists" in this matter. She must be read as having been unwaveringly faithful to the Moor—though we may not be absolutely assured of this until just before her murder—or Iago begins to seem correct in principle when he makes obscene slanders against her, Othello begins to appear justified in murdering her as an unfaithful wife, and the play's entire structure of meaning collapses like a house built of sand: Othello becomes a stupefying muddle of conflicting ironies, in the end vindicating the demi-devil Iago's keen knowledge of human nature and the gulled Moor's heroic firmness of purpose in giving Desdemona nothing that she did not, after all, deserve. There simply is no critical alternative to insisting on her loyalty which will not, pressed to its logical conclusion (as occasional "experimental" stage productions do), invert the play Shakespeare wrote—in effect making Desdemona a villainous fraud and Iago the conscience of the play. (Then chaos is come again.) Yet the Garner essay commences with the clear implication that Desdemona need not necessarily be unwavering:

Many critics and scholars come to Shakespeare's play with the idea that Desdemona ought to be pure and virtuous and, above all, unwavering in her faithfulness and loyalty to Othello. The notion is so tenacious that when Desdemona even appears to threaten it, they cannot contemplate her character with their usual care and imagination.

(p. 234)

This seems reasonable at first, especially if by "pure" the writer is cautioning critics against thinking Desdemona sexless. But at bottom it is equivocation and temporizing.

We need to remember the fallen world that we, like Shakespeare, are living, reading, and writing in: it is only too easy to take an honest woman for a whore if from the start we believe in "the potential whore which exists within all woman" or attribute "potential" existence to anything whatever simply because it has not actually happened. (Is Lady Macbeth a "potentially" loving mother in the same way Desdemona is a "potential whore"?) Moreover, in Shakespeare's times as in his plays a woman not "unwavering in her faithfulness and loyalty" to her husband invariably was dismissed as a whore: "A man who is unchaste loses nothing in the eyes of the world. A woman who is unchaste is nothing."19 Sexual fidelity in Shakespeare's lifetime and for centuries afterward was a vastly more sensitive issue than it is today, and this is a historical fact that criticism must reckon with when considering Desdemona's morality.

Let us then face the real critical issue. The question is not "Is it right to call an unfaithful wife a whore?" It may not be right, but Shakespeare always does. Nor should we now still need to be reminded that the wine Desdemona drinks is made of grapes—still think that the central question is "Is Desdemona a normally sexed woman?" Shakespeare says she is, as Garner and others demonstrate. But what then? Must "normally sexed" imply "potentially unfaithful"—or even "naturally promiscuous"? Male critic or female, if we assume so or write equivocally as though we might, we are falling ill with the "diseased conviction of woman's generic frailty" that Dusinberre so rightly exposes.

Then we must decide once and for all if Desdemona should be read as having been faithful to Othello—physically faithful of course, but faithful also without prejudicial qualification about her "potential." Garner, not unlike Rice, makes a point of Desdemona's supposed discovery that "she is human and therefore capable of treachery" (p. 247). But is she capable of it, assuredly? What if she should be revealed to us as constitutionally incapable of treachery—decisively revealed, when it is too late to prevent her murder? What if, notwithstanding the antifeminist slanders about woman's generic frailty, Desdemona were revealed as having been the one richer than all her tribe? The true tragic waste, then, "the pity of it all." I suggest that the real issue is, therefore, "Is Desdemona innocent?"—legally innocent of adultery, morally innocent of idly considering it, and psychologically innocent of even being capable of it. We should resist the temptation to "humanize" her to the extent of equivocating fatally about her innocence and temporizing from the irrelevant (and to Shakespeare inconceivable) perspective of our own era's very different valuation of sexual fidelity. We must not, in "unpinning" Desdemona, undo her as well.

Because S. N. Garner does not share these strict assumptions about Desdemona's unwavering loyalty and the dubiousness of the concept of generic frailty, even her heretofore balanced discussion of Desdemona over-interprets the boudoir scene damagingly:

That she thinks of Lodovico when she is undressing to go to bed with Othello suggests that she is still trying to find a way around the emergency of the moment… . Since the man that Desdemona has loved, married, and risked her social position for has turned into a barbarian and a madman, she unconsciously longs for a man like Lodovico—a handsome, white man, with those attributes she recognizes as civilized. In her heart she must feel she has made a mistake.

(pp. 248-49)

Here is Desdemona as Madame Bovary again, a femme moyenne sensuelle who is precisely no better than she should be. The trouble with this "realists's" view of her is that it imperceptibly merges with Iago's absurdly lewd picture of her as a super-subtle Venetian whore, and the critics either do not see this or do not mind. The "unconsciously longing" reference to Lodovico confirms her true nature to the cynics, and to some feminists the "human" frailty is welcome in helping to repudiate arrogant male stereotypes of chilly sexual "virtue" and constricting sexual loyalty.20 Thus, both male cynics and feminists can arrive at the conclusion Spivack had precociously announced twenty years ago, that Iago's accusations against Desdemona are "proper" ones. So would they turn her virtue into pitch.

These are "worst case" readings of the boudoir scene, but what if we read it without prejudice? Let us inquire what Shakespeare might have thought he was depicting in Desdemona, tentatively ruling out the conclusion of "unconscious longing" for another man. Possibly he wished merely to show her distracting her mind from the strong premonition of death that the scene's willow song shows; then the Lodovico reference carries pathos, not prejudice. But why Lodovico, in particular? First, Shakespeare may have wished at this turning point to remind us of the road Desdemona has not taken, when instead of a proper and respectable citizen like Lodovico she embraces her storm of fortunes in Othello. Second, he may well have wished to characterize her by what she does not say about the eligible bachelor, under such outrageous provocation as Othello has given her in the brothel scene. Earlier (III.iii.236-38), Iago maliciously predicted to him that she may "hap'ly repent" her choice of the Moor should she "fail to match [him] with her country forms" as seen in countrymen like Lodovico; it would be especially impressive in her now if she pointedly does not repent her choice when offered this cue to do so. (Emilia, at IV.iii.17, says she wishes Desdemona had never seen her husband.) There would be deep pathos in this touch of suppressed—or possibly even unthought—regret, with the emphasis on what Desdemona does not say, which any normal woman would say. But, of course, the eye of the beholder can see what it wishes in this scene, either loyally suppressed regret or disloyal unconscious longing.

For to be sure, the Lodovico comment is ambiguous; it might be felt that Shakespeare is in fact suggesting the faintest of wistful velleities in Desdemona (though surely nothing so psychologically crude as a desperate contingency plan to save herself from death). Here then is the third point: that it is precisely the sort of fatal ambiguity that Shakespeare has made Desdemona exhibit to us and Othello all along and that the prejudiced Moor has mis-construed against her loyalty, just as the critics would. (Other ambiguities are her "downright violence" in deceiving her father and eloping with Othello, her stout-hearted plea to accompany him to Cyprus, the scene of risqué banter with Iago at II.i, her overseen farewell to Cassio at the opening of III.iii, her obtusely tactless suit to reinstate Cassio, her embarrassment over the lost "napkin," etc.) The Lodovico comment and all the other ambiguities are needed to make Othello's suspicions dramatically credible to an audience, at least credible enough that he will not seem to us the ignorant dolt he seems to Emilia, who is not a man and has not seen the ambiguities, including Iago's contrived ones. And more: all the ambiguities are needed—in fact indispensable—to draw the audience partway into Othello's tragic dilemma of "seemings" about his wife—to keep half-invoking (at least in the minds of comparably predisposed observers) until the hour of her murder the fleeting suspicion that Desdemona might indeed be simply an ordinary woman, false one way or another, in deed or in thought, and "the cause" thus more or less just. Unlike Othello we know Iago is lying about Desdemona, but like Othello we must sporadically wonder if he may be right about her anyway, in principle.21 It is only on the brink of her murder that we are allowed to see unequivocally that "the cause" will be a dreadful travesty of justice, that she is not the "super-subtle Venetian" of Iago and the critics. Thus the one final ambiguity of the Lodovico comment—which shows us how Desdemona has brought herself to the brink of doom—is supplanted immediately by unmistakable proof of her innocence.

It is because she is innocent that she is about to die, and the essence of her innocence is her inability to imagine sexual evil—must less to conceive of Othello or anyone else imagining it.22 Despite her own spirited sexuality and her carnal knowledge, she has no idea what disastrous misconstructions the sexually paranoid Othello has been putting on her incautious, guiltless expressions of vitality. (Othello lists for us her conspicuous vital qualities at III.iii. 183-86.) Thus, because the essence of sexual evil is sexual disloyalty, the boudoir scene makes it abundantly clear that Desdemona literally cannot conceive of committing the sin that Othello is about to execute her for. I quote at length, to stress what I feel is Shakespeare's manifest intention in the scene:

Desdemona. O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think—tell me,
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
Emilia.     There be some such, no question.
Desdemona. Wouldst thou do such a deed for
  all the world?
Emilia. Why, would not you?
Desdemona.        No, by this heavenly light!
Emilia. Nor I neither by this heavenly light.
I migh do't as well i'th'dark.
Desdemona. Wouldst thou do such a deed for
  all the world?
Emilia. The World's a huge thing; it is a
  great price for a small vice.
Desdemona. In troth, I think thou wouldst
  not… .
Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong
For the whole world… .
I do not think there is any such woman.
Emilia. Yes, a dozen.…
                                 (IV. iii. 58-83)

"Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?" "Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?" and again, "Beshrew me if I would do such a wrong for the whole world." This reiteration underlines Desdemona's innocence in its aspect of naiveté, as she tries and fails repeatedly to comprehend the way of the world, represented by Emilia's counterpoint of pungent but not ungentle irony ("Yes, a dozen"). This cannot be "a self-righteous obliviousness to sin and frailty" as Julian Rice called it, because Shakespeare is showing that Desdemona has never known of the sin and frailty to begin with. (For Rice, Desdemona's ironic question "Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?" becomes, in a prejudiced and theologically self-contradictory misconstruction, "the sin of ignorance," [p. 218].) And lest we still are perplexed about Desdemona, tempted still at this late point in the play to read her as an ordinary sensual woman, this adultery discussion plainly shows us that she is an extraordinary woman. In fact, as Maynard Mack has written, this kind of scene—which Shakespeare typically inserts to clarify the heroic commitment of his tragic protagonists just before the climax—is an epitome of his method:

the implicit subject of all these episodes is the predicament of being human. They bring before us the grandeur of man's nature, which contains, potentially, both voices, both ends of the moral and psychic spectrum. They bring before us the necessity of his choice, because it is rarely given to him to go through any door without closing the rest. And they bring before us the sadness, the infinite sadness of his lot, because … he has no sublunar way of knowing whether defiant "heroism" is more to be desired than suppler "wisdom." The alabaster innocence of Desdemona's world shines out beside the crumpled bedsitters of Emilia's—

and ultimately, Mack concludes, "these are incommensurables which human nature nevertheless must somehow measure, reconcile and enclose."23

Thus any hesitation about the issue exposed in the boudoir scene—or any suggestion that Desdemona is being disingenuous, neurotically "strugg[ling] to keep her innocence" against the emerging "truth" about herself24—risks obscuring a fundamental pattern of Shakespeare's art. We may see also that it is because of this arresting contrast between the absolute moral innocence of Desdemona and the supple moral relativism of Emilia that Shakespeare makes Emilia pronounce Desdemona's epitaph, with particular emphasis on her innocence. She cries to Othello,

        Nay, lay thee down and roar!
For thou hast killed the sweetest innocent
That e'er did lift up eye.

This is not to idealize Desdemona, for it is true, on the authority of Emilia. And no other character's testimony could be so decisive as this archrealist's, Shakespeare says.

We need to accept that Desdemona is conceived as absolutely innocent, then; Iago and the sceptical critics are wrong. But a perhaps insurmountable obstacle to critical harmony is that her innocence is increasingly seen as an even greater liability than her supposed guilt and, if not denied, is deplored and stigmatized all the more. We see that a major critic like Maynard Mack cannot write "innocence" without writing "alabaster" in front of it,25 and many of today's younger critics find it hard to write "innocence" without writing "life-denying" in front of it. Where the earlier critics sentimentalize innocence and tend to suppress Desdemona's apparently contradictory sexuality, the newer ones often see her innocence as a neurotic defense mechanism, or even at one extreme a "life-destroying" characteristic, the epitome of "the sexual unreality the race longs for."26 Criticism thus goes a progress from the desexualizing idolaters through the cynics and "humanizers" and eventually comes out close to where it began, with some readers who see Desdemona as a sexually repressed zombie (the modern equivalent of a sexless saint?). But all are mistaken, Shakespeare implies; Desdemona's innocence coexists with a rich sexuality, and the conspicuous expression of her innocence is her vital exuberance, including the hot, moist hand of sexual vitality. She herself is a natural alternative to "saint or strumpet," which is all along a tragically false dilemma exploited by Iago.

Cassio is the unlikely spokesman for this virtually unperceived alternative. We need to distinguish him carefully from the characters involved in the dilemma; though calling her "the divine Desdemona," he is not in the sex-suppressing sense an idolater of her—it is inaccurate to say that "Cassio idealizes Desdemona as much as her father did"27—and he politely but firmly repudiates Iago's obscene reading of her as well, in another interesting scene of verbal counterpoint, at the start of II.iii. Cassio finds that Desdemona has "An inviting eye, and yet methinks right modest" (1. 23), acknowledging her sexiness while in nowise leering at it. In this way he functions to provide an idea of Desdemona's virtuous sexuality, as the peculiar language of his invocation speech may suggest:

              Great Jove, Othello guard,
And swell his sail with thine own pow'rful
That he may bless this bay with his tall ship,
Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's
Give renewed fire to our extincted spirits,
And bring all Cyprus comfort! O, behold!
The riches of the ship is come on shore!
You men of Cyprus, let her have your
Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven,
Before, behind thee, and on every hand,
Enwheel thee round!

Here and elsewhere Cassio is full of breathless hyperbole about Desdemona, but the important thing to note is that he definitely does not hold a desexualized view of her.28 On balance, this invocation speech contrasts with Iago's hellish, bestial vision of their love and human sexuality in general, which is the play's dominant emphasis. And at the same time it is—in a line like "make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms"—clearly not the desexualized alternative of maiden saintliness that her father Brabantio and Othello think is the only other choice. Though only a passing emphasis in the play and inseparable from Cassio's somewhat sophomoric admiration of Desdemona, the speech very possibly is Shakespeare's understated attempt to "take the curse of f Desdemona's and Othello's sexual union, the curse Iago puts on it in the nightmarish opening scene. (Naturally, in the sexual hell of goats and monkeys where everyone becomes a monstrous beast with two backs, such exorcism must be ineffectual.)

In this connection, it seems a bit beside the point to write as A. P. Rossiter did that "the antithesis to [Iago's and Othello's] fundamentally sex-loathing attitude … is nowhere a normal acceptance of sexuality in human love." Rossiter continues, "It is either a glorifying idealization or a glorified sensuality that we are shown, as hyperbolic as the idealization and as little in touch with the real love of a real woman."29 After all, Othello is not social realism, and some hyperbole is part of tragedy's decorum. And if we must choose, a glorified sensuality is relatively "normal" compared to Iago's degrading smuttiness and Othello's desexualizing idolatry and is certainly preferable in any case. (Its virtue is that it does not reduce all women to whores and will not degenerate into that diseased conviction since, being sensual already, it cannot be disenchanted by the discovery of sensuality in woman.) To be sure, Cassio's view of sex is obviously flawed, not perfectly "in touch with the real love of a real woman," but Shakespeare probably drew it that way deliberately: if Cassio were too philosophically attractive, he might begin to look like poor Desdemona's natural soulmate, and the vexatious issue of Iago's slanders seeming "proper accusations" would arise again. He may be a slightly silly fellow, but Cassio is also the only male character in the play whose idea of Desdemona's sexuality is not revealed to be disastrously erroneous.

Strictly speaking, then, it is inaccurate to say that "the poles of critical opinion" we have seen "are exactly those presented in the play,"30 though it was almost certainly Shakespeare's design that the sexual choice must seem limited to those equally unpleasant categories of "saint" and "strumpet." Nor is it true that "we are shown extremes" of sexual attitudes, "with a kind of blank between."31 Because of Cassio it is not quite a blank, and moreover Othello's desexualized idolatry and Iago's sexual nihilism are "extremes" only in the sense that the two faces of a coin are; the nihilism is a reaction to the idolatry.32 Like Brabantio, Othello thinks of Desdemona as "a maiden still and quiet"; when it becomes obvious to him that she is not this (particularly after her body apparently unprovides his mind during their unquiet wedding night on Cyprus) but is instead a healthy young woman with a frank delight in life, his implicit fear of sex and his sense of personal inadequacy tip the balance, and Iago can "prove" to him with suspicious ease that Desdemona all along has been "that cunning whore of Venice."33Like the critics, Othello and Iago both finds it inconceivable that Desdemona might be simultaneously an innocent person and a normally sexed one. Othello's pitiable need for a woman who is a "saintly" maiden and Iago's compulsive need to find a whore within every woman are fundamentally the same mental attitude, the "infected knowledge" of one who has drunk the cup of sexual experience and seen a spider within. Idolater and slanderer are the same man under the skin; it is only Desdemona's innocent, virtuous sexuality, implicitly recognized by the comparably unsuspecting and (mutatis mutandis) unworldly Cassio, which is the real alternative to their sickness.

So much for the specific charge of sexual unreality in Desdemona's innocence and the play. The catchall charge that Desdemona represents a "life-destroying" innocence—the exact opposite of what Alvin Kernan argues—should also be rejected. This objection arises from those feminist critics who are preoccupied with the inadequacy of traditional literary heroines as role models. They are right but irrelevant, for Shakespeare writes tragic stories, not mirrors for women.34 More importantly, to stigmatize Desdemona's innocence as "life-destroying" is to put the case exactly backwards: her innocence is if anything life-destroyed, and Shakespeare clearly implies that it is not the fruitful Desdemona who is neurotic but the sex-hating, masochistic, and destructive males.

Nevertheless, if readers come to Shakespeare primarily in search of women characters who are "self-actualizing, strong, risk-taking, independent" and above all not martyred by tragically deluded males, they will inevitably respond unsympathetically to Desdemona and her innocence.35 Clearly, it is not "viable": "Desdemona is young, innocent, sweet, naive, and trusting—and these characteristics help to kill her," Janet Overmyer has written.36 A woman more aware of the workings of the sexual imagination, sophisticated enough to know the folly of uninhibited, ambiguous-looking behavior in a world of eavesdropping males—could certainly catch herself before doing the things that provoke Othello's delusion (though her physical beauty itself carries a stigma). But what does this imply? It must be the ultimate perversity to make Desdemona's innocence a moral weakness. From an objectively feminist perspective, Othello is Desdemona's tragedy too—the tragedy of an unworldly woman calumniated and murdered by a husband who is not the free and open mind he seems but a sex-obsessed tyrant who insists on thinking the worst as she insists on the best. However, the tragedy really carries no moral lesson, only "The pity of it." It is pointless to obscure the pity by wishfully thinking Desdemona Emilia, or condemning her as a disingenuous, sexually repressed Ophelia.37

Innocence entails the most appalling vulnerability to those who have lost it or never possessed it. But knowing this should not prevent our seeing that Desdemona, much like the innocent, persecuted Hermione of The Winter's Tale, stands, however vulnerably, in a state of "grace." (Compare Cassio's invocation of heavenly grace upon Desdemona, and Hermione's much noted link with "gracious" things and with "great creating nature.") Desdemona's blissful sexual unself-consciousness, neither an ignorant nor a repressed state of mind, becomes the mark of her absolutely positive moral standing when contrasted with the sexually self-conscious, self-torturing and destructive personalities of her persecutors. ("I will chop her into messes! Cuckold me!") The free and fruitful Desdemona suggests human nature before the birth of guilt; like an unfallen Eve she does not know sexual shame, though unlike her, Desdemona definitely does know sexual passion already and thus cannot "fall." This evanescent, tragically doomed grace seems to be the uniquely Shakespearean idea of innocence at its richest. As critic Robert E. Fitch described it, it is "not crudely sexual in character but is the innocence of life in all its beauty and pathos and weakness that is overwhelmed and destroyed by an evil which it cannot comprehend."38 If we cannot respond positively to this quality, or if we still feel (in Desdemona's own words) "I do not think there is any such woman," perhaps it is not with Shakespeare that our ultimate reproaches should be lodged.


1 Quoted by Marvin Rosenberg in The Masks of Othello: The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1961), pp. 208, 207.

2 Some welcome exceptions to this rule include G. Wilson Knight, Harley Granville-Barker, and Hugh M. Richmond. Knight, in The Wheel of Fire, 4th ed. (London: Methuen, 1949), wrote that "Desdemona is [Othello's] divinity. She is, at the same time, warmly human" (p. 107). There may be the seeds of an idolatrous influence, however, in his statement that "in the far flight of a transcendental interpretation, it is clear that she becomes a symbol of man's ideal, the supreme value of love" (p. 109). Granville-Barker, in Prefaces to Shakespeare 4: Othello (1948; rpt. London: Batsford, 1969), though finding Desdemona innocent and "absolutely good," also recognized her ardor and her candor, verging on childishness (pp. 69, 123, 65). Richmond admits that Desdemona "is partly responsible for what comes about," behaving with "outrageous tact-lessness toward her tense husband" when pleading for Cassio's reinstatement, yet finds that "she emerges as the most admirable figure of all": she is "a woman of heroic clarity of mind and commitment, a fit spouse for a great general, and moreover one (like Juliet) not squeamish about sex, pleading in public almost too daringly to share his bed on his campaigns" ("Love and Justice: Othello 's Shakespearean Context," in Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, eds., Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare [Eugene: Univ. of Oregon Books, 1966], pp. 166, 167, 159, 169).

3The Masks of Othello, p. 208.

4Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1956), p. 218.

5"Othello: An Introduction," in Alfred Harbage, ed., Shakespeare: The Tragedies (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 80. Kernan does not associate Desdemona with divinity. Norman Rabkin puts Othello's apparent morality play scheme in intelligent perspective: "Shakespeare is obviously using the schematism provided by the morality convention for more interesting ends than the simple moral which the origins of the convention might suggest … for the particular form of Othello's evil is the loss of the particular form of his good, his faith in his wife" (Shakespeare and the Common Understanding [New York: Free Press, 1967], p. 68).

6Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958), p. 449.

7 Rymer affects to believe that "there is nothing in the noble Desdemona that is not below any Countrey Chambermaid with us" (A Short View of Tragedy, quoted in The Masks of Othello, p. 207).

8 "The Alienated City: Reflections on Othello," Encounter, 17 (August 1961), 13.

9 "The Adulthood of Shakespeare's Heroines," in Alwin Thaler and Norman Sanders, eds., Shakespearean Essays (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1964), pp. 161-80.

10 The article was by Andre Raphael, entitled "Le bovarysme de Desdemone," Langues Modernes, 66 (1972), 795-802. (Eliot had originally defined "bovarysme" as, essentially, "the human will to see things as they are not," in his essay "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca," collected in Laurence Lerner, ed., Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism [Baltimore: Penguin, 1963], pp. 301-13.) Raphael's reading of Desdemona, with an epigraph from Alice in Wonderland in which Alice says, "I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then," predicates of her the same fickleness and super-subtlety that Iago does.

11 Robert Dicks, "Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?" American Imago, 27 (1970), 292, 294, 295-296.

12 Stephen Reid, "Desdemona's Guilt," American Imago, 27 (1970), 245-72.

13Shakespeare Studies, 1 (1974), 209-26.

14 Two useful general surveys of this subject are in Vern L. Bullough's The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women (1973; rpt. Baltimore: Penguin, 1974), and Katherine M. Rogers' The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1966). Bullough shows that "Sex in the early Christian church was virtually equated with women, and … it was women who were looked upon as the source of all male difficulties" (pp. 97-98). Another study, Juliet Dusinberre's, explains that this bias led to an all-or-nothing view of sex in women: "The medieval elevation of chastity in women is the counterpart to the conviction, apparent in the writings of the Church fathers and of medieval satirists, that women are by nature inordinately lustful. In practical terms a way of keeping the natural concupiscence of women under control is to make the highest virtue of its antithesis: the state of virginity" (Shakespeare and the Nature of Women [London: Macmillan, 1975], p. 32).

15 I have developed this view in my study entitled "Shakespeare's Drama of Calumny: Sexual Innocence Against Infected Knowledge," Diss. University of Minnesota 1977, Ch. 2.

16 "On Taking Shakespeare's Women for Granted," Shakespeare Newsletter, 28 (April 1978), 18.

17 Of course, as Eric W. Stockton asserted, Shakespeare himself "is as much a feminist as an Elizabethan can be" ("The Adulthood of Shakespeare's Heroines," p. 162), and Juliet Dusinberre has shown that it was possible for an Elizabethan to be very much a feminist: "Shakespeare could take only one thing for granted in his creation of women characters and the worlds they people: that asseverations about women in the aggregate belonged to an old order of thinking" ("On Taking Shakespeare's Women for Granted," p. 18).

18Shakespeare Studies, 9 (1976), 233-52.

19 Dusinberre, p. 53.

20 Cf. Wendy Martin, commenting upon a heroine of Mary McCarthy's whose role model was Chaucer's Criseyde: "Her favorite quotation is from Chaucer's Criseyde 'I am my owene woman, wel at ese,' but although she is sexually liberated, she continues to be psychologically enslaved because she persists in looking for her identity in a man" ("Seduced and Abandoned in the New World," in Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, eds., Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness [1971; rpt. New York: Signet, 1972], p. 344). The ideals of sexual liberation and "selfhood" depend upon the creation in our time of the much needed new literary image of women Wendy Martin calls the "new Eve," but of course in Chaucer and in Shakespeare the sexually liberated Cressida is a whore, and it is moreover the essence of Desdemona's strengths as well as her weaknesses that she reposes all of her being in a man, Othello.

21 All of the ambiguities are the focus of what Terence Hawkes describes as "the tragic dilemma which makes it necessary to choose between two opposed versions of the truth" (Shakespeare and the Reason: A Study of the Tragedies and the Problem Plays [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964], p. 115).

22 Granville-Barker writes of Desdemona's "gently obstinate incredulity of evil," p. 69.

23 "The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Constructions of the Tragedies," in James L. Calder-wood and Harold E. Toliver, eds., Essays in Shakespearean Criticism (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 31-32.

24 Garner, p. 247.

25 Rabkin too applies "alabaster" to Desdemona, but with a difference, pointedly restricting its invidious connotations to Othello's image of her (p. 66).

26 Vivian Gornick, "Woman as Outsider," in Gornick and Moran, p. 139. "Without a shred of actuality," Gornick writes, "Desdemona is a total projection of Othello's fears and self-hatred, a direct reflection of his great longings and his melancholy sense of humiliated defeat" (p. 138).

27 Garner, p. 239.

28 Alfred Harbage, in writing that this speech sounds like "a prayer to the virgin," seems to have missed much of its emphasis: Cassio's explicitly sexual reference to Desdemona and Othello and the numinous potency he attributes to Othello and associates with the communal welfare sound more like fertility cult worship than devotions to the Virgin (William Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide [1963; rpt. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1970], p. 351).

29"Othello: A Moral Essay," in Angel with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare (1961; rpt. London: Longman, 1970), p. 205.

30 Garner, p. 235.

31 Rossiter, p. 205.

32 Rossiter himself points out that "the ideal exists by the inhibition of the real; and in the collapse of the ideal (unreal love), Othello is left with many views of Iago-like crudity and brutality" (p. 204).

33 This is basically the "enemy within the gates" reading of F. R. Leavis. ("Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero: or The Sentimentalist's Othello," in The Common Pursuit [New York: New York Univ. Press, 1952], pp. 140-41.) It is elaborated convincingly by Hugh M. Richmond, writing in the essay cited above that "Othello falls victim so completely to Iago not because he is the dupe of another but because he is deceived and overpowered by his own repudiated instincts," p. 163. Earlier, Terence Hawkes's study had seen that "Sexuality appears to be almost entirely absent" from Othello's relationship (p. 113), and the consequences of all three of these points were worked out by R. N. Hallstead in the essay "Idolatrous Love: A New Approach to Othello," Shakespeare Quarterly, 19 (1968), 108-20, an essay to which I am particularly indebted. In slightly different terms, Norman Rabkin earlier described Othello's downfall in love as a tragedy of religious absolutism; "It is Othello's tragedy that he tries to validate his faith" (Shakespeare and the Common Understanding, p. 72).

34 The tendency of readers to overidentify with fictional characters is suggested by Vivian Gornick's remarks on George Washington Cable's heroine Aurora, which follow the remarks quoted above on Desdemona: "[Aurora] is magnificently, touchingly, incredibly beautiful, brave, true, soft, good, loyal, courageous, quiet, need I go on? She is the quintessential Victorian fantasy female. As I continued to read of Aurora, I felt a strange sickening feeling developing in my chest and stomach… . I said fiercely to myself, Aurora, you are destroying me! If you live, I surely cannot!" (p. 139).

35 Wendy Martin, in Gornick and Martin, p. 345.

36 "Shakespeare's Desdemona: A Twentieth-Century View," University Review (Kansas City), 37 (1971), 304-05.

37 As Granville-Barker wrote, "As we listen [to the boudoir scene], and watch Desdemona indifferently listening, and mark the contrast between the two, there may slip into the margin of our minds the thought: better indeed for her had she been made of this coarser clay. But then she would not have been Desdemona" (p. 70). Ophelia, with the songs of deranged bawdy she babbles before her death, is in contrast to Desdemona a character who can legitimately be seen as sexually repressed. But there is a kind of innocence in her too, despite the traditional chorus of jeers that she was Hamlet's mistress (a conclusion which the play does not support); and the least prejudicial readings of her bawdy may be those like Una Ellis-Fermor's which see in it "faint echoes of Hamlet's obscenity" in the nunnery and mousetrap scenes (The Jacobean Drama, 5th ed. [London: Methuen, 1965], p. 253).

38Shakespeare: The Perspective of Value (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), pp. 216-17. The author is writing about Ophelia.

Irene G. Dash (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "A Woman Tamed: Othello," in Wooing, Wedding, and Power: Women in Shakespeare's Plays, 1981, pp. 103-30.

[In the following essay, Dash discusses Desdemona's character and Shakespeare's treatment of marriage.]

    "Be as your fancies teach you;
What e'er you be, I am obedient."

Married to Othello before the drama opens, Desdemona is a woman slowly tamed in the crucible of marriage. Bright, intelligent, and courageous, she is endowed with qualities that should assure her success. Nevertheless, these strengths become handicaps when she seeks to adjust to a new role. Continuing where Romeo and Juliet ended, Othello raises questions left unanswered by the swift deaths of those youthful star-crossed lovers. It asks whether the passion and idealism of two lovers who have courageously crossed color lines and defied conventions can be sustained in marriage. It asks whether the patterns of marriage are stronger than the individuals, even the most outstanding individuals. Arguing for the success of Desdemona and Othello are their maturity, their long friendship and love preceding marriage, her managerial skills, and his gentleness. Arguing against their success are miscegenation and villainy feeding passion. Holding the balance are martial conventions—conventions that demand more of women than of men.

The regulations that limit a woman's activity in marriage are greater than those limiting a man's; despite the advantages of security and protection that marriage assures her, the woman actually loses more and gains less than does the man, reasons the late nineteenth-century sociologist, Emile Durkheim.1 John Stuart Mill denounces the relationship because "it confers upon one of the parties to the contract, legal power and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the other party, independent of her own wishes."2 Even more significant to Othello is Mill's conclusion that this arrangement is demoralizing for both parties.

Although the play examines marriage, it is not a domestic tragedy, for, as Helen Gardner reminds us, any evaluation of Othello must begin with our first responses to the drama—our sense of its grandeur and soaring beauty.3 Domestic tragedy usually presents characters of limited power in imagination and background. The magnificence of Othello, the range in Desdemona as a woman, including her intelligence, originality, and defiance of convention, belie this designation of the work. But it is the tragedy of a woman, of women, pummeled into shape by the conventions that bind. For Shakespeare takes not one, but two marriages—one new and fresh, one old and worn—to give us a double vision of the experience. Some critics tend to prefer Emilia, the wife of Iago, to Desdemona because Emilia's story ends defiantly on a positive note, offering hope for women. But the extremity of the force that breaks her submission to her husband hardly argues for her independence. Desdemona's tragedy is the more usual—a slow wearing away of the resistance, a slow imposition of patterns—a slow loss of confidence in the strength of the self, always with the aim of adjusting to marriage. Coleridge believed that she was just the woman every man "wishes … for a wife."4 How sad that this should be a man's dream.

Shakespeare presents Desdemona in all of her power at the beginning of the play. To heighten our curiosity, he offers three different perspectives of her before she ever appears. The first is from Iago who, hidden by the dark of night, coarsely taunts her father, "An old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (I.i.88-89). The next is from her adoring father who, describing the Desdemona he knows, refuses to believe she has married Othello:

   A maiden, never bold;
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blush'd at herself.

Finally, we listen while Othello adds still another dimension to the portrait, suggesting that she was not merely a passive woman entrapped by him:

    My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of

She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she
That heaven had made her such a man.

Thus claims Othello. We anxiously await Desdemona's entrance.

When, at last, she appears, she speaks with dignity and self-possession. Her first words are addressed to her father, Brabantio. Standing before the Venetian Senate, she listens when he asks:

   Come hither, gentle mistress.
Do you perceive in all this noble company
Where most you owe obedience?

Neither weepingly begging her father's approval, like Juliet, nor angrily fighting his treatment of her, like Kate, Desdemona rationally answers him. Admitting her obligation to him for "life and education" (182), she then insists:

… so much duty as my mother show'd
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.

Her words are terse; her approach direct. Aware of her father's prejudice, she chooses her language with precision. Unwilling to equivocate, she challenges him with her phrase, "The Moor, my lord."

Father and daughter duel with words. While the senators stand on the sidelines, time-keepers and referees in this combat, Desdemona and Brabantio carry on their battle, focusing on the naming process surrounding the word "Moor." "Valiant Othello" (I.iii.48), says the Duke. "Brave Moor" (291), asserts a senator. But Brabantio admits neither. He converts "Moor" from a term of approbation to one of disgust by omitting the definite article or any descriptive adjective from his words of address. "Look to her, Moor," the father warns in his final words, "She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee" (292-93).

Nor are these Brabantio's only words as we tend to believe from stage productions that often cut his earlier anguished interchange with his colleagues. The senators, having decided to send their most capable general, Othello, to repel the Turks, and hoping to defeat the enemy, are immersed instead in a family dispute. Faced with a political and military as well as a social problem, the Venetians attempt mediation between Brabantio, one of their members, and his daughter, who has married their most able general. Speaking on Desdemona's behalf, the Duke reprimands her father with "Your son-in-law is far more fair than black" (I.iii.290). But Brabantio knows only a father's loss, "He bears the sentence well that nothing bears / But the free comfort which from thence he hears" (212-13). In this vein, the father rejects solicitude or kind words. "But words are words; I never yet did hear / That the bruis'd heart was pierced through the ear" (218-19). The speech, searing in its intensity, helps define Desdemona. Frequently, however, this speech dwindles to a few lines. Desdemona, then, loses some of her specificity, for drama relies on the interaction of characters. A colorless father diminishes the intensity of the daughter. The full text, however, vibrates with the challenge of youth to age, of daughter to father.

The victim of neither magic nor drugs, Desdemona convinces the court of her love for Othello. Nor will she willingly remain behind when he must depart for war. "I crave fit disposition for my wife" (I.iii.236), Othello requests. Insensitively, unimaginatively, the Duke suggests she reside in her father's home. Swiftly all three—Desdemona, Brabantio, and Othello—reject the proposal. In comparison with the almost monosyllabic responses of Othello and Brabantio, Desdemona speaks at length, offering several reasons against the Duke's plan. Among her arguments, she cites the strain such an arrangement would be on her father—how repugnant to him. Finally, she proposes an alternative. She would accompany Othello to Cyprus. Speaking in direct language once again, she refers to conjugal rights—the joys of marriage that include sexual fulfillment:

   That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,
May trumpet to the world.

Although the language obscures exact meaning, the individual words convey the speaker's intensity: "violence," "storm," and "trumpet" as a verb. Desdemona speaks for youth, sexual honesty, and passion.

At Cyprus, she continues to surprise us with her freshness and vigor, as well as her sensitivity to those around her. With Iago, she parries in verbal quips. With Lieutenant Cassio, her husband's second in command, she acts the solicitous friend. To all, waiting anxiously with her for Othello's arrival, hoping that his ship has not been lost in the storm, she reassures with her gaiety, confiding to the audience:

I am not merry; but I do beguile
The thing I am by seeming otherwise.—
                                   (II.i. 122-23)

Thomas Rymer, writing in 1693, denounced Desdemona's behavior in this scene, accusing her of crudeness.5 But Shakespeare was expanding his earlier portrait of an independent, bright woman, worthy of audience interest. "Come, how wouldst thou praise me?" (124), she laughingly challenges Iago, then matches him witticism for witticism. She recognizes the "fond paradoxes" he sports "to make fools laugh i' th' ale-house." (138-39). She accuses him of inaccuracy in the way he praises (actually denigrates) all but the worst women. She listens to his puns and double entendres. "O most lame and impotent conclusion" (161) she asserts of his last quip in a series of descriptions of women, introducing her own pun. Most of these lines usually disappear from stage productions. The excision may seem slight—a mere thirty-six lines of quick banter—but it alters the portrait of Desdemona, simplifying her character.

Desdemona's activities on the quay at Cyprus prior to Othello's arrival illustrate her skill and training as a hostess as well as her sophistication. In the scene where he addresses the senators, Othello had described her activities in the days when he came courting. He spoke of how she alternated between listening to his tales of adventure and acting the housewife for her father:

… These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline;
But still the house affairs would draw her
Which ever as she could with haste
She'ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse.
                                       (I.iii. 145-50)

The scene at the dock verifies Othello's report, reveals the self-confidence nurtured by her early experience, and provides additional background on the youthful Desdemona before she attempts to adjust to marriage. On the quay at Cyprus she is testing her old skills in a new setting. Verbal agility, outspokenness, honesty—they all seem to work.

In an excellent essay on Othello, Susan Snyder compares the endings of the comedies, which, she claims, insist that interdependence in marriage is a way of completing oneself, with the ending of Othello, which challenges such a postulate.6 Snyder believes Shakespeare to be saying that, since separateness is part of the human condition, when two people who love each other become interdependent they are bound to meet tragedy. Upon this concept of the separateness of people, I wish to offer a further theory for consideration. In Othello, Shakespeare is dealing with two people who have known and loved each other for some time. Until they marry, the tragedy does not occur because until that time they do not have to conform to any set roles; they function as two individuals. With marriage, they receive a new set of rules, new patterns for behavior. Desdemona, in Act III, reminds Othello of how often they disagreed. Attempting lightness, she speaks of:

… Michael Cassio,
That came a-wooing with you, and so many a
When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
Hath ta'en your part—

Implicit here is the idea that disagreements between them could lead her to disparage Othello. Her lines also suggest that these disagreements were an integral part of their relationship.

We hear an example of this disagreement and mutual respect when they reunite at Cyprus. "Oh my fair Warrior" (II.i. 182), exclaims Othello joyously. "My dear Othello" (182), returns Desdemona, her speech tempered while his words continue to soar in hyperbole. "If after every tempest come such clams, / May the winds blow till they have waken'd death" (185-86), he begins, continuing uninterrupted until he ventures to speak of the absolute comfort and contentment achieved at this moment:

   If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear

My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

Vehemently, Desdemona protests. She envisions marriage as an ongoing process, one that promises continued growth.

   The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should
Even as our days do grow!

They have disagreed before. They disagree now. He accepts her semantic correction, her meticulousness with words that she exhibited in the interchange with her father. "Amen to that, sweet powers!" (195), Othello responds. Although his words prove prophetic within the context of the drama, his willingness to alter his views underlines the uniqueness of their early relationship.

Marriage will impose new forms. Mutual respect will give way to an aloneness created by one party holding the power, the other being powerless. Shakespeare offers an immediate illustration in the lines of Iago and the interaction between him and Emilia. Despite her sullen protest that her husband has "little cause" to complain, Iago, in a few swift strokes, blocks in the basic forms of his marriage:

 Bells in your parlors, wild-cats in your
Saints in your injuries, devils being offended.

For Iago, women's voices clang like dissonant bells in the parlor and rise to the level of screams in the kitchen, the word "wild-cat" even implying a physical tearing at one another by women. But try to stop such behavior, he suggests, and women will act the injured saints. Hardly a pretty picture of women or of marriage emerges from these lines. Although spoken in jest, they hint at the interaction between him and Emilia. More revealing are her weak protests of innocence, confirming Iago's description. In this glimpse of a marriage long suffered by a man and a woman, he emerges as the dominant person. Nevertheless, he has no illusions about the potential for happiness in marriage but speaks with the bitterness of a misogynist. Later, in an aside about Othello and Desdemona, he sneers: "O, you are well tun'd now! / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music" (199-200). His words are those of skeptical humanity to the joy and hope of new found love. The guest at the wedding wishes the bride and groom joy but thinks of the disappointments that lie ahead for them. Othello, too, will discover reality; Iago promises to guide him to it. Thus Shakespeare contrasts the mutual respect between the newlyweds with the imbalanced relationship in a long standing marriage.

As the drama progresses, Desdemona continues to exhibit the self-confidence fostered during her youth. She assumes that the virtues of rationalism and forthrightness will prove natural supports. Instead, she finds they trap her. Her first semi-defeat occurs when she appeals for the reinstatement of Cassio who has been stripped of his position because of fighting when drunk. Desdemona appeals to Othello, not on the basis of his arbitrarily pleasing her, but on the basis of reason. She questions the wisdom of his extraordinarily harsh punishment for Cassio's comparatively harmless offense:

And yet his trespass, in our common reason
(Save that they say the wars must make
Out of her best), is not almost a fault
T' incur a private check.

Conceding that some reprimand is necessary, she believes that in time of joyous celebration her husband is applying measures reserved for wartime.

Othello refuses to argue with her. Accustomed to discussing their disagreements, she is surprised by his answer. "I will deny thee nothing" (76), he asserts. But she is not asking blind assent. She then lists all of the normal processes of living to which Cassio's return to his former position might be compared. Finally, Desdemona distinguishes between a reasonable request, such as she here presents, and a favor of great weight:

     Why, this is not a boon;
'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person. Nay, when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficult weight,
And fearful to be granted.

Arguing with him, as she had previous to marriage, she expects a rational answer. Instead, Othello repeats his earlier statement, learning the ways of a husband:

I will deny thee nothing.

Role playing has begun. Othello's vulnerability to convention not only leads him to permit Iago to malign Desdemona in the scene immediately following this encounter, but also marks the beginning of the decline in the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. Prior to her appeal for Cassio, Iago's innuendo had been limited to a few comparatively inoffensive lines. After it, he freely muddies Desdemona's reputation. Striving to conform to a role, Othello dams the easy flow of talk between himself and his wife. The man who had prided himself on her independence, asking the senators to "Let her have your voice" (I.iii.260), now begins to think in terms of power and powerlessness. This precedes only briefly the thought of a wife as a possession.

Because her appeal for Cassio in this scene so clearly reaffirms her strength, the stage history offers interesting insights into attitudes toward Desdemona. Both the longer speech, beginning "Why, this is not a boon," and the shorter one, on the subject of Cassio's trespass, tend to disappear, whole or in part, from productions. As I have previously indicated, I believe an inter-relationship exists between textual excision or emendation and attitudes toward women in the larger society of the time. Othello has always been a popular play; it has also frequently been cut. Fairly extensive records exist of acting texts since 1761. A few characteristic texts suggest the treatment of these speeches. In 1761, both disappear from the stage.7 In 1804, Kemble eliminates both although retaining the longer speech in the printed text (it is crossed out in the promptbook).8 The same formula holds as late as 1871. One of the speeches appears in the text but both disappear in the theater.9 In the twentieth century—and here I cite the 1930 Paul Robeson production—stage business offers a valuable key to Desdemona.10 Again only the longer speech appears in print. A fountain on stage provides the focus for the major action. From it Desdemona plucks a lily, sprinkling the water from the lily on Othello's head. At the conclusion of her appeal, she crosses to Othello and kneels. Accompanying his second "I will deny thee nothing," he rises and lifts Desdemona from her kneeling, suppliant position. Finally, when she departs, the stage directions "cross left and curtsey" accompany her lines "farewell my lord." There can be little misinterpretation of the role of Desdemona in these acting versions. Either she is denied the power of reasoning, appearing submissive and begging, or she is transformed into a coquette, whose coy gestures, rather than her words, form the focal center of the action.

Anyone seeking to understand Desdemona's attitude toward herself vis-à-vis Othello must carefully scrutinize her response after his second "I will deny thee nothing" followed by his request to "leave me but a little to myself (III.iii.85). She picks up his phraseology and skillfully converts it into the interrogative, "Shall I deny you? No. Farewell, my lord" (86). Before leaving, however, she makes one final comment: "Be as your fancies teach you; / What e'er you be, I am obedient" (88-89). Is this the statement of a compliant wife, or does the word "fancies," with its negative connotation in the Elizabethan era, suggest a challenge? (The word "fancies" at that time included "delusive imagination" and "caprice" among its many definitions.) Loaded with ambiguities, the speech has ironic overtones. When, however, excisions occur, or stage directions dictate coquettish, compliant actions, a new meaning emerges. Then, the meekness implicit in the individual words dictates a straight reading.

As the play progresses, we watch Desdemona attempting to understand her role but inevitably exhibiting—although with less frequency—the strength that characterized her at the start. One of the last examples occurs in Act IV. Already convinced of her infidelity, Othello listens incredulously while she speaks to the Ambassador from Venice. Unfortunately, the subject is Cassio, the person with whom Othello believes her unfaithful. The lines have a double edge. "How does Lieutenant Cassio?" (IV.i.222), Lodovico, the Ambassador asks. Iago noncommittally responds, "Lives, sir" (223). Desdemona gives the more complete explanation "Cousin, there's fall'n between him and my lord / An unkind breach; but you shall make all well" (224-25). When Othello challenges "Are you sure of that?" Desdemona, stunned, answers "My lord?" But when Lodovico pursues the questioning, Desdemona volunteers to explain, using the unfortunate phrase, "for the love I bear to Cassio" (233). Still not fully aware of the demands on a wife, she fails to be silent.

Throughout the play, we hear echoes of the voice that defied her father and society to marry Othello, the Moor. Dynamic and verbal in the early scenes, she resembles many of Shakespeare's strong women—particularly Juliet, who defied her parents, and Beatrice, who knew that wooing is not smooth. Like them, Desdemona is "half the wooer." Unlike them, her story begins with marriage, and her tragedy derives from the testing of premarital ideals against the reality of marriage. Jessie Bernard writes of woman's being "ciphered out" in marriage—losing her identity as an individual; Simone de Beauvoir speaks of woman accepting the role of "Other" where man is the "Subject."11 Virginia Woolf offers still another perspective when she describes woman as the magic mirror in which man sees himself at twice his normal size.12 Like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, man then sees woman as a diminutive being. For a person like Desdemona, such a swift transformation is difficult although she thinks she understands her new role. "So much duty as my mother show'd / To you," she claims to her father, she will give to Othello.

Shakespeare forces the audience to recognize her strength in the first act where two conflicting qualities surface: her sense of self-confidence and her belief in woman's dedication to her husband. After addressing her father, she offers her reasons for loving Othello:

I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honors and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.

Charles Lamb cites this speech when presenting his own reason for preferring to read the play in the privacy of his study rather than seeing it on the stage where miscegenation would be obvious. "I appeal to everyone that has seen Othello played, whether he did not, on the contrary, sink Othello's mind in his colour."13

The lines are important not only because they challenge those present to acknowledge Othello's blackness, but because of the religious connotations of the language: "valiant parts," "honors," "souls," and "consecrate." The words betray an almost holy dedication to the man she has married. Desdemona is willing to subordinate her life to his, illustrating de Beauvoir's thesis of the male as "Subject," or major focus of attention, and the woman as "Other." But this new bride does not comprehend the full implications of such selfdenigration, believing rather that reciprocity and mutual respect, elements that animated their relationship before marriage, will continue to prevail. She little realizes that these words will conflict with the person behind them—the woman who had been certain of her self.

Othello's reasons for marrying have nothing to do with gods and super-beings. "She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd" (I.iii.167), he tells the senators before her arrival. "And I lov'd her that she did pity them" (168). In greater detail, he explains how their relationship grew, his tales of adventure eliciting her pity:

She swore, in faith 'twas strange, 'twas
    passing strange;
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.

The words "pitiful" and "pity" ring through his speech, offering a verbal portrait of Desdemona as an emotional woman highly influenced by romantic tales. Was this Othello's impression of her—was he hoping that the words would appeal to his auditors—or was he, perhaps, transferring to her some of his own perceptions of what a woman's role should be? The word "pity" never enters Desdemona's vocabulary when describing her love, just as "duty" never enters Othello's. Nor does he express views similar to Desdemona's on the relationship of sex to marriage. Compared with her healthy, outspoken desire to accompany him to Cyprus, he protests little interest in the "light-wing'd toys / Of feather'd Cupid" (268-69), insisting that his obligations to the state supersede all others. Seeming to dismiss romantic love and sexuality, he refers to "wanton dullness" (269) that can result from love interfering with business. The irony of his statement vibrates through the tragedy.

Finally, Desdemona and Othello present different visions of the future. Early in the play, he confides privately that were it not for Desdemona's unusual qualities, he would never have married:

But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth.

Marriage confines; no vast horizons exist here. The most illuminating contrast, however, occurs in the exchange already cited when he and Desdemona disagree during their reunion at Cyprus.

Despite their differences, they promise an original marriage for it will include an interchange of ideas; it will even allow for disagreement. Othello's lines when they leave the senate acknowledge a multifaceted role for Desdemona:

Come, Desdemona, I have but an hour
Of love, of worldly matter and direction,
To spend with thee.

But something happens to their relationship that is not attributable merely to the machinations of Iago, a character who probably grew out of the medieval Vice figure and reveals elements of evil in men.14 Whether he exhibits, as Coleridge suggests, "motiveless malignity," personifies evil within Othello himself, as others believe, or is a valid, recognizable character, Iago contributes to the tragedy and arouses our pity for Othello, his major victim. Nevertheless, Shakespeare goes beyond the relationship between these two men to delve into that between Othello and Desdemona. The tragic portrait is one we still recognize of a man and a woman who have entered an unconventional marriage but lack the creativity and strength to nurture it. Divided by their cultural backgrounds as well as by their self-perceptions as male and female, they discover marriage to be more complex than either had anticipated. Their racial differences, which helped emphasize their strengths in the early section of the drama, exacerbate their problems of adjustment. Othello, unfamiliar with Venetian ways, enters a foreign territory both emotionally and socially. False reports of Venetian patterns of marriage delude and confuse him. Desdemona, too, clings to conventions, believing that mutual respect can coexist in a relationship where a woman owes "duty" to a husband and considers him almost godlike. Slowly, unwillingly, she discovers the contradiction implicit here. Finally, Othello's attempt to conform means a retreat to a male world, setting another network into operation, one that supersedes the intimacy between husband and wife. As a result, he becomes vulnerable to Iago's description of Desdemona. This willingness to allow another man to speak of her as Iago does reveals Othello's inability to create new patterns of marriage.

In the medieval morality plays, good and evil battle for the soul of mankind. The Vice figure, or Devil, frequently triumphs until the last moments before death when Virtue finally convinces the protagonist to repent, saving his soul, if not his life.15 Because of Othello's anguished choice between believing Desdemona and accepting Iago's word as truth, some critics consider Iago the representative of evil and Desdemona that of good in a conflict for Othello's soul. But this formula fails because the play transcends the simple battle between the personifications of two abstract ideas for a soul. Although Iago is the quintessence of evil—whether a Satan figure or evil in mankind—Desdemona is far more complex than a simple representation of good. Nor are the two characters exact opposites.16 Any neat equation balancing them distorts, minimizing the strength of Shakespeare's portrait of this new bride. Compared with Iago, she has stimulated far less indepth critical analysis—perhaps because evil is more flamboyant and more easily discernable than good.17 Nevertheless, close explication of her lines reveals a well-developed character guided by reason, complementing her intense love for her husband in a tragedy exploring the impact of marriage on a woman of courage and independence.

That Shakespeare was concentrating on marriage rather than just discussing love seems apparent from the references to the long courtship of Othello and Desdemona, indicating an extensive period of love before marriage. Mutuality of respect and affection could survive then. Marriage alters this. The demoralizing effect of its conventions and institutions may be observed in Othello's new attitude toward Desdemona as property:

  O curse of marriage!
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites!

Desdemona too feels the effect of the inequality in the power relationship, becoming confused as to obligations to self and obligations as wife. Finally, Shakespeare expands his canvas by his portrayal of Emilia who is explicable as a consistent character only if one constantly reminds oneself of the meaning of adjustment to the role of wife for a woman.

Rymer mockingly called this play the "tragedy of the handkerchief." But Shakespeare merely uses the device of a handkerchief to expose the fragility of marriage and to question the standards that govern the behavior of a husband and a wife. Treasured by Desdemona as the first gift from Othello, the handkerchief is the key to his other life. Dropped by Desdemona in a moment of confusion, the handkerchief is stolen by Emilia and given to her husband. It becomes the symbol of fidelity and infidelity, of a woman's obedience and disobedience, of the cultural gap between Othello and Desdemona. Asking Desdemona for the handkerchief after she has lost it, Othello entwines it in a tale of magic and mystery. An enchanted token, given him by his mother on her deathbed that he in turn might give it to his wife, the handkerchief has special powers governing marital felicity. Its loss "were such perdition / As nothing else could match" (III.iv.67-68). Listening, Desdemona is terrorized by the intensity of Othello's emotion. While we as audience know that Othello has already been victimized into believing his wife unfaithful, she, knowing nothing of this, is repelled by his words. "Is't possible?" (68), she asks, wondering that he could accept such a myth. But her question is ambiguous. To Othello, it merely challenges the authenticity of the story. "Then would to God that I had never seen't" (77) she passionately concludes. The magic in the web of the handkerchief—the charmer, the furies—suddenly reveals to Desdemona a world she does not know. She is meeting a stranger: the man she married.

In this scene, Desdemona counterpoints Othello's references to the handkerchief with her second request for the reinstatement of Cassio. Rosenberg cites the scene as an example of Desdemona's dishonesty, noting that "She 'meddles' in her husband's business, presses him to reinstate his dismissed officer—presses him at the worst moment, when he most needs understanding. Finally, she lies to him, and destroys their hope of love. Is this quite a heroine?"18 That depends, of course, on whether one considers supportiveness of a husband to be a necessary component of a heroine or whether one judges a hero/heroine as a character of unusual strength and moral fortitude striving to achieve a particular goal, aware, eventually, that he/she may be destroyed in the quest. Desdemona continues to strive for success in an unusual marriage, relying on her two major supports: her intelligence and her ideal of a wife's role. At this moment in the play, however, she faces tremendous disappointment.

One is reminded of Hamlet's sudden explosion at Ophelia in his "Get thee to a nunn'ry" (III.i.120) scene. Unlike the comments on that scene, where critics do not worry about the truth or falsehood of Hamlet's, "I lov'd you not" (118), they worry a great deal about Desdemona's honesty in the handkerchief scene. Nevertheless, in both instances, Shakespeare is presenting the emotional response of one character to qualities previously unknown in a loved one: Hamlet to Ophelia, Desdemona to Othello.

Desdemona's concept of her role is shaken. Othello's intense response to the seeming loss of the handkerchief forces her to rethink her expectations. What are the dimensions of her husband? Is he a mere man, not a god after all? Having rationalized excuses for Othello's behavior—attributing his unreasonableness to worries about affairs of state—she concedes:

 Nay, we must think men are not gods,
Nor of them look for such observancy
As fits the bridal.
                                (III.iv. 148-50)

Reality presses her to reevaluate the man she married.

Writing of the "shocks" a woman faces in marriage, Bernard includes the wife's discovery of the fallacy of the sex stereotype that women have been "socialized into accepting."

Her husband is not the sturdy oak on whom she can depend. There are few trauma greater than … the wife's discovery of her husband's dependencies; than the discovery of her own gut-superiority in a thousand hidden crannies of the relationship… . These trauma are the more harrowing because they are interpreted as individual, unique, secret, not-to-be-shared with others, not even, if possible, to be admitted to oneself.19

Desdemona follows the pattern described above. No sooner has she come to the awful realization that her husband is but a man than she backtracks. The thought must be obliterated, pushed aside. For a woman brought up to think of man as superior, the shift requires too much psychological energy. Before she completes her speech, Desdemona begins to blame herself—retrogressing—becoming forgiving and apologetic.

I was …
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;
But now I find I had suborn'd the witness,
And he's indicted falsely.

Does she really believe that she has been dishonest in her evaluation of Othello? Bernard's explanation sounds more valid.

This retraction by Desdemona marks her first major decline. John W. Draper, a critic writing in the nineteen-thirties, suggests that in creating the contrast between the Desdemona of Act I and the Desdemona of the other acts, who "becomes increasingly naive and innocent," Shakespeare was combining English and Venetian mores of the period—the free versus the restricted life for women.20 But Shakespeare's portrait has a remarkable consistency as the story of the decline of a woman from a single, self-confident person to an uncertain, married woman still attempting to understand her role.

Demonstrating the decline and confusion in a woman's value system, Shakespeare contrapuntally presents Emilia in the scene where she hands her husband the stolen handkerchief. Rationalizing that she hopes to "please his fantasy" (III.iii.299), she is aware of the immorality of the act. No sooner has she handed Iago the handkerchief than she seeks to retreat from the deed, desiring to absolve herself of responsibility by weakly demanding the handkerchief's return. Since she knows that it will not be returned, her action merely characterizes a woman who, although she has not lost her ability to discern right from wrong, finds it simpler to be guided by her husband's moral code than her own. She prefers not to confront him. Iago knows this. Observing the intensity of his reaction to the handkerchief, she momentarily reconsiders what she has done. "If it be not for some purpose of import, / Give't me again" (316-17), she protests, knowing he will refuse. Unfortunately, Emilia has learned her role too well. In actions she conforms to her husband, hoping to evade responsibility and rid herself of guilt. In many ways, she presents the syndrome of the battered wife. "The psychological costs to women of the happiness achieved by thus adjusting to the demands of marriage have been not inconsiderable," writes Bernard.21

When, therefore, in subsequent scenes, Emilia fails to admit the theft of the handkerchief, despite being witness to Othello's tirade against Desdemona, we realize the extensiveness of this domination by a husband of his wife. After Othello leaves, having shocked Desdemona with the story of the magic in the cloth, Emilia can rant about men:

'Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
They are all but stomachs, and we all but
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us.
                                 (III.iv. 103-6)

Emilia speaks from her deepest knowledge and experience but loyalty to her husband supersedes all others. The images in the quote above are ugly and sensual, indicating man's attitude toward woman as object rather than person. They also fairly accurately suggest what has happened to Othello. Trying to conform to the societal patterns for a husband's behavior, he has allowed all former interchange with Desdemona to be wiped out by this new relationship: marriage.

We witness his further sense of ownership of his wife in the famous brothel scene (IV.ii) where he considers her offenses insults to his own name. Desdemona, already broken by a hostility she cannot fathom in a marriage to which she cannot adapt, clings to the one strength she still retains—her ability to reason. "Am I the motive of these tears?" (43), she queries early in the scene, hoping that Othello's anger is directed against the Venetian Senate, not herself. And then reminding us of the third scene when she challenged her father, she mourns the loss of Brabantio's love: "If you have lost him, / Why, I have lost him too" (46-47). Not hearing her, Othello speaks only of his own anguish. "But, alas, to make me / The fixed figure for the time of scorn" (53-54), he exclaims.

Still unknowing and inexperienced in the new art of wifely compliance, Desdemona attempts neither to soothe nor to placate him. Rather, she returns to her earlier theme, "I hope my noble lord esteems me honest?" (65). Not a question, but a plea, the words nevertheless arouse his anger, reminding him of the original purpose of the interview. From "chuck" and "Desdemon," the affectionate names he called her at the scene's opening, he spits out the epithet, "O thou weed" (67). And still Desdemona persists, as Emilia would not. This new young bride has not yet learned the lesson that wives must know—to absorb insult without responding. "Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?" (70), she insists, hoping for a rational answer. But reason has fled. Othello names her "whore" and "public commoner" (72-73). Automatically she rebels, "By heaven, you do me wrong" (81).

After he leaves, Desdemona recognizes that "his unkindness may defeat" her life (160), but concludes that it will "never taint" her love. Because of these lines, Desdemona's critics hail the noble, selfless, Desdemona—constant, forgiving, loving. By then, however, she is a woman defeated by marriage. Even were she not murdered at the drama's close, her tragedy has occurred. A. C. Bradley found her "helplessly passive … because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute." Desdemona, however, is not helplessly passive when she decides to marry Othello. Her love is absolute but her nature seems more varied than Bradley would grant. He continues to say that, although we may pity Othello more, we are aware that he is "a man contending with another man; but Desdemona's suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being she adores."22 Unable to see a woman as a full-blooded person, the critic fails to realize how accurately Shakespeare portrays the transformation of a woman, even a strong woman, by marriage.

John Stuart Mill, writing more than two centuries after Othello was composed, suggests a major reason for critical inability to recognize this conflict facing Desdemona. "Many a man thinks he perfectly understands women, because he has had amatory relations with several, perhaps with many of them." But such an observer, while he may learn something about the sexual nature of woman, will not learn about the other aspects of woman because she carefully hides her true self from him. On the other hand, a man who is a husband may think he knows women well because he may know one woman very well, the woman to whom he is married. Mill continues:

And in fact, this is the source from which any knowledge worth having on the subject has, I believe, generally come. But most men have not had the opportunity of studying in this way more than a single case: accordingly one can, to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man's wife is like, from his opinions about women in general.23

Thomas McFarland, writing today, applies contemporary philosophical ideas to his analysis. "Desdemona's virtuous purity is not only an existentially unique event, but a youthful idealism and unawareness of the exceeding worldliness of the world."24 In this comment, we find Desdemona's innocence partly responsible for her fall. Again the tendency is to consider a force acting for good rather than evil as being passive. Here the early religious tradition of the psychomachia for the soul of mankind may have contributed to Shakespeare's development of Desdemona as a more vital character than usually believed. However critics, seeking to understand her, continue to think primarily in terms of "Other." Is she unaware? Or is she, like Hamlet, aware but unwilling to compromise her ideals?

As well as innocence and naiveté, the word "unaware" may also carry negative connotations. Listen to D. A. Traversi, another twentieth-century critic. He finds that, "like Isabella and even Ophelia before her, Desdemona has the power to exercise upon men an influence of whose nature and strength she remains until the last moment very largely unaware; and this power, given a logical basis and a perverse interpretation in Iago's 'philosophy' of 'nature,' becomes a principle of dissolution and destruction."25 Where is this power of which she is unaware? Surely she has confidence in her ability to sway the senators and to match wits with Iago at Cyprus. Nor does she believe herself lacking in power when she promises Cassio:

My lord shall never rest,
I'll intermingle every thing he does
With Cassio's suit.

But how does her power become a principle of dissolution unless Traversi, too, is asking for a completely compliant Desdemona? Somehow, Desdemona here sounds evil despite her inherent goodness.

Then there are the almost classic interpretations of the woman's role as forgiver or supporter of men. We are told that Desdemona learns the depths of her love through suffering. Bernard McElroy, in his recent study of tragedy, offers a version of this approach when he observes that Desdemona comes eventually "to know her love only by discovering the powers of loyalty and forgiveness with which it endows her."26 Did she misunderstand loyalty before? Had she no perception of the meaning of forgiveness? I find it difficult to accept the theory that woman is enhanced by her ability to be the constant "forgiver" in an inequitable arrangement. She may also be destroyed by suppressing the self and continually accepting others' affronts. Too often, a woman painfully adjusts to a vision of marriage that she had never anticipated.

Whereas many critics have idealized Desdemona, others have found her responsible for the tragedy—usually because she did not fulfill her role properly. Both types of criticism are based on expectations about women's behavior and both have persisted into our own time. J. A. Bryant in a recent work comments, "Othello represents the figure of God… . Desdemona is the ideal—truth, goodness, beauty—made flesh, an incarnation of her creator's ideal excellence."27 If to Bryant Desdemona represents the ideal, to other critics writing today she falls far short of that perfection. Hugh Richmond, for example, finds her guilty of forgetting her social tact and H. A. Mason, another of our contemporaries, believes her cold, observing:

As soon as we see that Othello is blind and ignorant we hope that Desdemona will be able to save him by a love both clairvoyant and active. We are consequently appalled to find her with her warm-blooded nature, in matters of intelligence about life so cold, inert and self-contained.28

We continue to read Shakespeare's plays and to enjoy them in the theater, not because the characters are idealizations but because they capture human elements that we recognize. Helen Gardner suggests that the reason for the strong disagreement about Othello is that the ideas it explores are still alive: "The conflict of attitudes on such subjects as 'jealousy, fidelity, chastity, the quality of desire between a man and a woman, the illicit or degenerate forms of it, the rights that lovers have over each other, the proper response to amorous treachery' is one reason for the conflict of views about the play and its hero."29

It is also the reason for the conflict of views about Desdemona. Tillie Olsen may offer the answer when discussing the oppression of women. She sees the problems women face as unique: "The oppression of women is like no other form of oppression (class, color—though these have parallels). It is an oppression entangled through with human love, human need, genuine (core) human satisfactions, identifications, fulfillments."30

When in the last scene, after Desdemona's death, Emilia finally blurts out the truth, she first throws off the yoke of marriage: "My husband?" (V.ii.146), and again two lines later, "My husband?" until she expands on this question, "My husband say she was false?" (152). Only after challenging Iago and discovering his villainy does she finally break loose, but not before indicating the long force of habit—submission. "'Tis proper I obey him; but not now. / Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home" (196-97). Only the murder of a woman she treasured could finally break the chain that had dictated Emilia's relinquishing of responsibility for her own actions.

By examining not one, but two marriages, Shakespeare records the effect of "adjustment," of being a "proper wife," on a woman. Emilia follows the formula. Did she ever rebel when first married? We do not know. No remnant of rebellion remains until the death of Desdemona shocks the long-married woman into action. It is as if the hypnosis of role were suddenly broken.

Othello is one of Shakespeare's studies of the complexity of marriage and of the pressure of conventional patterns on even the most unusual characters. The play examines the many qualities demanded of a man and a woman to succeed in marriage. It contrasts the mutual respect between a man and a woman with the more usual power-versus-powerlessness relationship. It contrasts a long standing marriage with one newly consummated, recording the corrosion of value systems in a woman long dominated by her husband. By creating in Desdemona a woman of intelligence, courage, and self-confidence, Shakespeare intensifies the tragedy of her disintegration. Unable to discard her habits of thinking and speaking, she fails to adjust to marriage. Although Shakespeare creates in Iago a powerful agent for the destruction of Othello and Desdemona, the lack of communication between them and the inability to transfer to marriage patterns of mutual respect practiced when they were single made their tragedy inevitable. In this play, Shakespeare suggests the dangers of attempting to conform to stereotyped ideals of marriage, and the cost to husband and wife… .


1 Emile Durkheim, Suicide, pp. 269-72, 275-76.

2 John Stuart Mill, "Letter of Contract," in The Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1:158.

3 Helen Gardner, "The Noble Moor," p. 189.

4 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Shakespearean Criticism, 2:354.

5 Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy, p. 110.

6 Susan Snyder, "Othello and the Conventions of Romantic Comedy," pp. 123-42.

7 Folger Prompt Oth 27.

8 Folger Prompt Oth 19.

9 Folger Prompt Oth 2.

10 Folger Prompt Oth Fo 2.

11 Jessie Bernard, "The Paradox of the Happy Marriage," in Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran, eds., Woman in Sexist Society, p. 154; Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. xvi.

12 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, p. 35.

13 Charles Lamb, The Art of the Stage as set Forth in Lamb's Dramatic Essays, p. 22.

14 Among recent critics who have written at length on the subject are Bernard Spivack who cites the Vice of the morality play as the major ancestor of Iago, in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil; Leah Scragg, who contends that the Devil was the prototype, "Iago—Vice or Devil?"; and Joyce H. Sexton, who believes Envy most closely resembles Iago, The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare, pp. 50-60.

15 Edmund K. Chambers, The Medieval Stage, 2:149-57; A. P. Rossiter, English Drama from Early Times to the Elizabethans, pp. 102-9.

16 Alvin Kernan, for example, writes, "Desdemona is balanced by her opposite, Iago; love and concern for others at one end of the scale, hatred and concern for self at the other." Kernan, ed., Othello, p. xxiv.

17 After arriving at my conclusions, I found similar observations on the general blandness of the criticism of Desdemona in Carol Thomas Neely's interesting article, "Women and Men in Othello," pp. 133-58.

18 Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello, p. 7.

19 Bernard, "Paradox of the Happy Marriage," pp. 154-55.

20 John W. Draper, "Desdemona: A Compound of Two Cultures."

21 Bernard, "Paradox of the Happy Marriage," p. 149.

22 Andrew C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 179.

23 John Stuart Mill, "The Subjection of Women," in Essays on Sex Equality, p. 151.

24 Thomas McFarland, Tragic Meaning in Shakespeare, p. 88.

25 Derek A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, p. 136.

26 Bernard McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, p. 112.

27 Joseph Allen Bryant, Jr., Hippolyta's View: Some Christian Aspects of Shakespeare's Plays, pp. 140, 145.

28 Hugh M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy, p. 71; H. A. Mason, Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love, p. 142.

29 Helen Gardner, "Othello: A Retrospect, 1900-67," p. 5. (Gardner here quotes John Holloway, The Story of the Night, p. 37.)

30 Tillie Olsen, Silences, p. 258.

Works Cited

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953. Reprint. Bantam Books, 1961.

Bradley, Andrew C. Shakespearean Tragedy. 1904. Reprint. London: Macmillan, 1960.

Bryant, Joseph Allen, Jr. Hippolyta's View: Some Christian Aspects of Shakespeare's Plays. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.

Chambers, Edmund K. The Medieval Stage. 2 vols. 1903. Reprint. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Shakespearean Criticism. Edited by Thomas Middleton Raysor. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1930.

Draper, John W. "Desdemona: A Compound of Two Cultures." Revue de Littérature Comparée (1933), 13:337-51.

Durkheim, Emile. Suicide. Translated by J. A. Spaulding and George Simpson. New York: Free Press, 1951.

Gardner, Helen. "The Noble Moor." Proceedings of the British Academy (1955), 41:189-205.

——. "Othello: A Retrospect, 1900-67." Shakespeare Survey (1968), 21:1-11.

Gornick, Vivian, and Barbara K. Moran, eds. Woman in Sexist Society. New York: New American Library, 1972.

Holloway, John. The Story of the Night. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Kernan, Alvin, ed. Othello. New York: New American Library, 1963.

Lamb, Charles. The Art of the Stage as Set Out in Lamb's Dramatic Essays. Commentary by Percy Fitzgerald. London: Remington, 1885.

McElroy, Bernard. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

McFarland, Thomas. Tragic Meaning in Shakespeare. New York: Random House, 1968.

Mason, H. A. Shakespeare's Tragedies of Love. London: Chatto and Windus, 1970.

Mill, John Stuart. The Letters of John Stuart Mill. Edited by Hugh S. R. Elliot. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1910.

Mill, John Stuart, and Harriet Taylor Mill. Essays on Sex Equality. Edited by Alice S. Rossi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Neely, Carol Thomas. "Women and Men in Othello" Shakespeare Studies (1977), 10:133-58.

Olsen, Tillie. Silences. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1978.

Richmond, Hugh M. Shakespeare's Sexual Comedy. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

Rosenberg, Marvin. The Masks of Othello. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

Rossiter, A. P. English Drama from Early Times to the Elizabethans. 1950. Reprint. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1967.

Rymer, Thomas. A Short View of Tragedy. London, 1693.

Scragg, Leah. "Iago—Vice or Devil?" Shakespeare Survey (1968), 21:53-65.

Sexton, Joyce H. The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare. English Literary Studies Monograph Series, no. 12. Victoria, B. C, Canada: University of Victoria, 1978.

Snyder, Susan. "Othello and the Conventions of Romantic Comedy." Renaissance Drama (1972), N.S. 5:123-41.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Traversi, Derek A. An Approach to Shakespeare. 2d ed., rev. and enl. New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1956.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1929.

Harry Berger Jr. (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Impertinent Trifling: Desdemona's Hander-chief," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 235-50.

[In the following essay, Berger focuses on the character of Desdemona and the significance of her handkerchief.]

—that's but a trifle here—
—we make trifles of terrors—

Too much attention has been paid to the symbolic meanings of the famous handkerchief and too little to such considerations as its putative size (is it as big as a flag or as small as a facial tissue?) and the odd circumstances of its appearance and removal. Just when Othello's rage has reached a first climax, Desdemona enters to tell him he is keeping his dinner and dinner guests waiting (3.3.283-85).1 "I am to blame," he replies, and her next questions—"Why is your speech so faint? are you not well?" (11. 286-87)—tell us to hear something more in his reply than an apology for delaying dinner. "I am to blame" is at the same time a logical response to the thought that concludes the soliloquy he has just uttered: "If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself, / I'll not believe it" (11. 282-83). "Haply," he is to blame, "for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have"; therefore "She's gone" (11. 267-71). Seeing Desdemona approach, he veers away from that dread conclusion and, in effect, blames himself for believing it possible. But perhaps he is to blame for having aroused her desire in the first place. The idea that "this forked plague is fated to us" (1. 280)—"us" males, husbands, and especially "great ones" (1. 277), not to mention great ones who are black, who don't have extended manners, who are somewhat "declin'd" in years (1. 269)—this idea, manured by Iago, allows Othello to share the blame with Desdemona and leads him to answer her questions by hinting at his imaginary horns:

OTHELLO I have a pain upon my forehead, here.
DESDEMONA Faith, that's with watching, 'twill
  away again;
Let me but bind your head, within this hour
It will be well again.
OTHELLO              Your napkin is too little:
Let it alone, come, I'll go in with you.
DESDEMONA I am very sorry that you are not
                                   (11. 288-93)

The crucial object makes its appearance modestly and anonymously as a "napkin," and that is what Emilia also calls it before she enlarges on its significance and Iago's interest in it, after which she teasingly offers it to Iago as "that same handkerchief (1. 309). Thus almost as soon as it appears, we learn that it has already been the topic of much conversation and observation, fetishized by Othello as a token of Desdemona's love and fidelity, and loved by her for this reason. To learn this is to realize that, in the moment of Desdemona's producing and then losing the handkerchief, an extraordinary event has taken place. Of course, Othello's "Let it alone" is teasingly laconic, but whether "it" denotes his forehead or the napkin, the result of his command is that Desdemona drops the napkin, and this tells us how she heard the statement. Yet he had "conjur'd her she should ever keep it," and "she reserves it evermore about her" (11. 298-99). This precious object could hardly go unrecognized, and it would be perverse to stage the episode in a manner that concealed the handkerchief from Othello (for example, by having Desdemona wad it up in her hand). She, at any rate, knows what she is dropping. To represent Othello as recognizing it makes him perceive what she offers to bind his head with. If she registers that recognition, she must hear him countermand his general conjuration in ordering her to drop the handkerchief before he escorts her off-stage.

When Othello points to the pain on his forehead and Desdemona says "that's with watching," she obviously refers to his staying up too late, working too hard, etc.; yet listening to the phrase with Othello's ears may give it a different ring, for it comes after a stretch of dialogue between him and Iago in which much has been made of perceiving, observing, seeing, scanning, and noting (11. 245-56); "watching" may, like standing the watch, mean protecting against trouble, and it may also mean looking for trouble. Desdemona's "'twill away again" then has the force of a shallow consolation, like his "I'll not believe it"; and (still listening with his ears) her repeating the sentiment in the next line's "within this hour / It will be well again" sounds suspiciously dismissive: perhaps her offer to "bind" his head is an offer to hide his horns and seel up his eyes—and with the very handkerchief that signifies the power of the gift that binds her to him in loving obligation. If she has abused and soiled the gift, if she is doing so now with this brazen gesture, it makes sense for him to protect himself by refusing the offer. He will not let her touch him with it, and his command is so phrased as to persuade her he wants her to drop the fetish and leave it behind. But doesn't he notice that she drops the precious keepsake? Only a little later in the same scene, he explodes when Iago, who has not left the stage and still has the handkerchief, all but gives him the "ocular proof he demanded (1. 366), telling him that "today" he saw "Cassio wipe his beard" with it (11. 445-46). Presumably Iago does not know that Othello has seen the handkerchief several minutes earlier—Emilia neglects to tell him when or under what conditions she found the handkerchief. But doesn't Othello remember? It is evidently useful to him to disremember in order to set up the possibility of Desdemona's losing it. For on the one hand she does not deserve to keep it if she has violated what it represents; if on the other hand she loses it in spite of his conjuration, she violates what it represents. Thus by helping Desdemona lose the handkerchief and by dis-remembering the episode, Othello facilitates the production of the ocular proof that will give him vantage to exclaim on her.

If Desdemona normally keeps the handkerchief "evermore about her," why doesn't she pick it up before going offstage? Emilia tells Iago she "let it drop by negligence" (1. 315), and at 3.4.19 Desdemona wonders, "Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?" What could cause such unexpected negligence and forgetfulness? What motivates Desdemona's act of disremembrance? The gesture that interprets Othello's "Let it alone" as a command to let go of the handkerchief signals a double rejection. In his rejection of her offer to soothe him, she hears the message that she does not deserve and should not have the handkerchief. Dropping it may be read simultaneously as an act of obedience and as a contestatory gesture rejecting his rejection—he doesn't deserve the love and fidelity her possession of the handkerchief symbolizes. Dropping the handkerchief enables her to be in the position of losing it, and losing it, she knows, would be "enough / To put him to ill thinking" if he were capable of jealousy, which of course he isn't (11. 23-24). So (one is tempted to say), knowing this, she loses it. And later, having elicited from him all the signs of jealousy, she ignores the signs and firmly denies that she has lost the handkerchief (11. 81-84). Her stubbornness in this exchange is closely and strangely linked to the maddening stubbornness with which she changes the subject from the handkerchief to Cassio. In spite of her devotion to and concern for Othello, her sense of injured merit keeps her from acknowledging his jealousy while pursuing a course of rhetorical action that aggravates it.

Othello and Desdemona work closely together to lose the handkerchief and to disremember its loss. In the dissociated agency of deep emplotment, the playing-through of disowned desires and apprehensions, they cooperate with Iago by losing the handkerchief in order to make the kind of trouble for themselves, for each other, that both are motivated to make. "Give me the ocular proof," Othello commands Iago (3.3.366), but not until after he has helped provide a likely candidate for that function. Desdemona's dropping the handkerchief is already ocular proof: if she is unfaithful, she should not have the handkerchief; if she does not have it, she is unfaithful. For Desdemona his rejection of her offer to soothe him with the handkerchief is already ocular proof that he has rejected her, and losing the handkerchief puts her in a good position to test the force and meaning of his rejection.

The fruits of disremembrance are harvested in 3.4. Desdemona initiates the action by sending the Clown in search of Cassio, then pauses to wonder about the handkerchief and to assure Emilia that Othello is incapable of jealousy. Seeing Othello approach, she says, "I will not leave him now till Cassio / Be called to him" (11. 28-29).2 Othello barges in with a series of broad hints about her lechery that hark back in tone to Iago's quips and his comments on hand-paddling in 2.1. To Othello's angry variations on the topic of her moist and liberal hand, she responds at first with reserve, then more tartly, and finally, as if to put an end to this nonsense and get back to her topic of choice,

DESDEMONA I cannot speak of this; come,
  come, your promise.
OTHELLO What promise, chuck?
DESDEMONA I have sent to bid Cassio come
  speak with you.
                                                 (11. 44-46)

I find it hard to imagine that Desdemona—the Desdemona who engaged in what Ridley disapprovingly calls "cheap backchat" with Iago and in innocently flirtatious palm-paddling with Cassio (2.1.167), the Desdemona who displayed acquaintance with humoral theory just before Othello's entrance in 3.4—grasps the meaning of Othello's little disquisition on her hot hand (11. 32-43) with a jot less clarity than the editors who gloss his adjectives: "The palm, if hot and moist, was taken to be an indication of 'hot' desires"; "liberal] free, and so 'too free' and so 'loose.'"3 She knows whereof she "cannot speak," or will not speak. It is she, after all, and not Emilia who first brings up the possibility of "ill thinking" and jealousy, but only to rule it out in advance. Immediately after she does so, Othello enters displaying all the signs of ill thinking and jealousy. Far from appearing ingenuously unaware of the jealousy with which he confronts her from this point on, she shows rather that she refuses to acknowledge it—refuses to acknowledge that he has any cause, therefore any right, to be jealous, refuses to acknowledge even the possibility of behavior on her part which could be misinterpreted. As Rymer huffily and astutely observes, "Othello's Jealousie, that had rag'd so loudly and had been so uneasie to himself, must have reach'd her knowledge… . And yet she must still be impertinent in her suit for Cassio."4 After 3.4 her refusal to acknowledge his jealousy modulates into a desire to rise above it—or, to put it more precisely, a desire to show herself rising above it. Yet if we take simple interlocutory logic into account and premise that her ability to ignore or rise above Othello's jealousy depends on his expressing it, her behavior from 3.4 on leads to an interesting conclusion: Desdemona secures that ability by pushing the button that lights up his angry-husband display; she acts in a manner calculated to evoke from him the signs of ill thinking that denote the passion she won't acknowledge.

The battle between them is joined when Othello, armed (as he thinks) with his ocular proof, prepares to establish the guilt that will justify the sentence of death he has already passed on Desdemona (3.3.483-85). His preparation—in effect, the argument for the prosecution—consists in conferring the broadest possible significance on her betrayal, which he interprets as misuse of the generous gift of power he has bestowed on her, the apotropaic power to ward off the contamination of their coupling by moderating the sexuality she arouses. This gift, this alienated power, together with the sexuality he both desires and fears, makes Desdemona her captain's captain and her general's general. It is to insure against the risk involved in alienating power—the risk (let us say it now) of castration—that Othello reifies gift and power together in the second gift of the handkerchief. Thus he tries to reclaim some of the control he has alienated by making Desdemona responsible for the power she has and potentially guilty for its misuse. In its structure this tactic resembles Portia's bestowal of the ring on Bassanio after she admits, "Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / Is now converted" (The Merchant of Venice, 3.2.166-67). The compensatory function of the ring is identical to that of the handkerchief:

            I give … this ring,
Which when you part from, lose, or give
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.
                                (11. 171-74)

It is important to remember that the gift of the handkerchief is, like Othello's courtship, introduced as part of the prehistory of the play. Desdemona has been apprised of and embraced the general tenor of the gift since before her arrival at Cyprus. Yet if we recall this when Othello parries Desdemona's "I have sent to bid Cassio come speak with you" with his handkerchief attack, we may be puzzled as to the status of the Egyptic narrative he tells. Is he now filling in details omitted when he first gave her the handkerchief? His meticulous exposition and her puzzled responses suggest this is the case. It is idle to wonder whether he had such a narrative in mind from the beginning, but the fantasy he unfolds is obviously parabolic, and the parable is consistent with the divided attitude toward sexuality and blackness his language displays in 1.2 and 1.3. The parable conveys, in Carol Neely's words, "something of Othello's … imagined relations to … the myth of African men's sexual excess," that is, he makes the handkerchief symbolize first the wife's sexual power over her husband and then the chastity that the husband demands as an always-inadequate placeholder for the virginity she lost when she subdued him to her love (3.4.53-61, 67-73).5 The burden of the parable is that if the exotic blackness of the romantic and heroic stranger gives way to the monstrous blackness of the Barbary horse, it will be—it already is—her fault.

Desdemona's "Is't possible?" (1. 66) punctuates the parable's first thesis, and her "I' faith, is't true?" (1. 73) punctuates the second. These puzzled responses are themselves puzzling. Given what we have already heard from her, it is not clear that these questions express the wide-eyed bewilderment of the naive auditor. They may suggest that she realizes for the first time how serious he was when "he conjur'd her she should ever keep it," and realizes also that the conjuration contained as an admonitory nucleus his "vantage to exclaim on [her]." I hear as much anger as perplexity in the placement and voicing of her questions: Can he really be holding me responsible and setting me up this way? Is my noble Moor going mad? Is he actually going to make a Thing, threaten me with matchless "perdition, " over my losing the handkerchief? "Then would to God that I had never seen it!" (1. 75). The intensity of her recoil may be measured by setting it against the fetishistic attachment described by Emilia: "she so loves the token, … / That she reserves it evermore about her, / To kiss, and talk to" (3.3.297-300). What she cherished as a token of his love she now rejects as a token of his bad faith. The terms of his threat are themselves revealingly obfuscatory: the implied perdition she faces is that he will "hold her loathly" and "hunt / After new fancies" (3.4.60-61, my emphasis). But since the parable follows his harping on her moist hand, the threat has the hapless ring of the betrayed victim's desire for revenge: her losing the handkerchief or giving it away not only symbolizes but also actualizes both her failure to moderate his desire and her success in moderating another's.

I imagine Desdemona as capable of hearing this message in Othello's words and offended by his aggressive yet devious power plays as much as she is dismayed by his unstable behavior and the groundless accusation he all but makes. For it is not fear and trembling alone that her three mendacious utterances convey:

DESDEMONA It is not lost, but what an if it
  were? …
I say it is not lost.
OTHELLO        Fetch't, let me see it.
DESDEMONA Why, so I can sir, but I will not
This is a trick, to put me from my suit,
I pray let Cassio be receiv'd again.
                                       (11. 81, 83-86)

Her tone is at first defiant and truculent and then dismissive as she counterattacks with her own weapon and continues to rub Cassio in Othello's face:

OTHELLO Fetch me that handkerchief, my
 mind misgives.
DESDEMONA Come, come,
You'll never meet a more sufficient man.
OTHELLO The handkerchief!
DESDEMONA      I pray, talk me of Cassio.

OTHELLO The handkerchief!
DESDEMONA              A man that all his time
Hath founded his good fortunes on your
Shar'd dangers with you,—
OTHELLO The handkerchief!
DESDEMONA    I'faith, you are to blame.
                                                           (11. 87-94)

Her concluding utterance echoes his "I am to blame" and has the same indeterminate reference. He is to blame for what? His treatment of Cassio? His treatment of her? Her losing the handkerchief? She ducks away from Emilia's second question about jealousy and continues to make excuses for Othello later in the scene, attributing his "puddled … spirit" to state matters. "Pray heaven," Emilia responds, that "it be state-matters, as you think, / And no conception, nor no jealous toy / Concerning you," at which Desdemona exclaims, "Alas the day, I never gave him cause!" (11. 137-40,153-56). That note of rueful but defiant self-exoneration underlies her interlocutory moves in 3.4: Othello is not the sort of man to be jealous (and if he were, it would be the result of humoral imbalance); if he is jealous, it must be because of the handkerchief's magic or its loss; perhaps, as Emilia helpfully suggests later, he is jealous because he is jealous (jealousy is a self-begotten monster [11. 159-60]); at any rate, it has nothing to do with Desdemona. All she can do is implore heaven to "keep that monster from Othello's mind" (1. 161). Othello can't—that is, he shouldn't—be jealous because she never gave him cause, and it would be unworthy of him to imagine something unworthy of her. Therefore she will ignore the signs of jealousy. Her way of ignoring them is to deny she lost the handkerchief in order to deny his interpretation of the loss. If the loss of the token signifies or actualizes the loser's infidelity, it signifies or actualizes falsely with respect to her, and she rejects its lie. If she has to lie in order to maintain the truth, Othello is to blame for that as well as for evading the Cassio problem, for making her badger him about it, and for mistreating the man who shared with him the dangers not only of war but also of courtship.

Desdemona's heated exchange with Othello displays an interest in keeping him angry, but angry on her terms, not his: she brushes past his demands for the handkerchief and irritates him by switching to a topic entirely unrelated to jealousy, a topic she has already seen him reluctant to deal with, the topic of Cassio. There is no indication in her language that she associates Cassio with Othello's display of jealousy, much less that she is angrily taunting him with the possibility that she has committed adultery. She frames the Cassio Project as an enterprise that has everything to do with gender—with the struggle of will between her and Othello—and nothing to do with sex. This strategy is consistent with (and reinforces) her refusal to acknowledge Othello's jealousy. Yet, as I have suggested, not only does the refusal seem perversely self-scotomizing, it accompanies behavior that seems, even more perversely, to arouse and intensify the very object of that refusal, the jealousy that gives her vantage, if not to exclaim on Othello, then to dramatize her injured merit ("I never gave him cause," "you are to blame," "poor Barbary" [3.4.156 and 94; 4.3.33]). To view it from this stand-point is to throw the harshest light on her motivation—i.e., if encouraging his unjustified jealousy is important to her own self-justification, what better way to do this than couple her persistence in denying his jealousy with her persistence in rubbing the salt of Cassio into its wound?

This is no doubt too harsh a light. It's enough to say that ignoring Othello's jealousy allows Desdemona to defend herself and even seize the offensive in 3.4. It gives her permission to bring up Cassio as often as she likes without for a moment having to entertain the not improbable possibility that Othello suspects a liaison between her and this most "sufficient man" who helped bring them together. Yet the Cassio Project remains the instrument of her anger, and she is not unaware of its effect. "I have spoken for you, all my best," she tells Cassio, "And stood within the blank of his displeasure / For my free speech" (11. 124-26). In 4.1 her persistence in this line produces the predictable climax of the collision course on which she and Othello have set themselves. Speaking to Lodovico in Othello's presence, she tells him of the "unkind breach" between Othello and Cassio and predicts that Lodovico will "make all well" (11. 220-21). Othello, who is reading about Cassio's replacing him as governor, interjects, "Are you sure of that?" Desdemona's "My lord?" indicates that she is aware he is listening (11. 222-23). Her next comment seems meant to be overheard by him. To Lodovico's inquiry about the breach, she replies that it is "most unhappy" and that she "would do much / To atone them, for the love [she] bear[s] to Cassio" (11. 227-28). This piece of free speech draws "Fire and brimstone!" from Othello (1. 229), and why shouldn't she expect that, since she is harping on what she knows displeases him, and her comment is itself a continuance of her effort to "atone them"? Moreover, their exchanges are now being monitored by Lodovico and his attendants, which affects the way her response to Othello—another "My lord?" (1. 229)—can be played and heard: not only What did you say? I didn't hear you but also Say that again, so everyone can hear it. By the end of the skirmish that follows, Lodovico has shifted from a bystander to Desdemona's partisan:

OTHELLO Fire and brimstone!
DESDEMONA                   My lord?
OTHELLO                          Are you wise?

DESDEMOONA What, is he angry?
LODOVICO               May be the letter mov'd him;
For, as I think, they do command him home,
Deputing Cassio in his government.
DESDEMONA By my troth, I am glad on't.
OTHELLO            Indeed!
DESDEMONA             My lord?
OTHELLO I a m glad to see you mad.
DESDEMONA             How, sweet Othello?
OTHELLO Devil!             [Striking her.]
DESDEMONA I have not deserv'd this.
LODOVICO My lord, this would not be believ'd
  in Venice,
Though I should swear I saw't: 'tis very
Make her amends, she weeps.
                                                (11. 229-39)

Desdemona's second question has demonstrative or even exclamatory force because directed to Lodovico: "What, is he angry?" equals Look, he's angry. Her reply to Lodovico's news is ambiguous: she is truly glad because they will return to Venice and leave the Cassio problem behind them; she is glad to hear Cassio will be not only reinstated but promoted; perhaps also, since she has just heard Lodovico speculate that the letter may have caused Othello's anger, she is glad to hear the news even if he isn't. Given this choice of targets, Othello's "Indeed!" is relatively restrained, only a warmup, and Desdemona's third "My lord?" challenges him to speak up and say what's on his mind. He does not directly meet the challenge but throws "I am glad" back in her face and muffles his meaning, if not his aggression, enough to confuse several commentators and elicit another inquiry from Desdemona. "How, sweet Othello?" is, again, ambiguous in its reach, and the work done by "sweet" is affected by the scope of "How?" Because Othello's utterance is more than an ejaculation or mutter, because it redirects attention from the letter to her, and because it is a cryptic nonsequitur, I take Desdemona's question to be asking for a more explicit restatement: What are you getting at? Why do you call me—or how am I—mad? Why are you talking and behaving this way? I see that you're angry, but why take it out on me? Her words contain something like a challenge to him to come clean. She solicits accusation and he withholds it. But this is a drama she, more than he, is displaying for Lodovico's benefit. Thus although her "sweet Othello" may be no more than a gesture of affection and concern, an attempt to soothe him (comparable to her earlier offer to bind his head with the handkerchief), it can't escape the aggressiveness of the context or the performative edge given it by the presence of onstage spectators. "Sweet Othello" shows Lodovico her love and concern for her husband and asks him to join her in wondering why Othello is being so hostile: See, I love him, why is he talking to me this way? Even in terms of Desdemona's preferred interpretation of her "for the love I bear to Cassio," she may be expected to know why he is talking to her thus. In her terms Othello clearly overreacts and enables Desdemona to show Lodovico the spectacle of an unjustly battered wife.

To return for a moment to Othello's "I am glad to see you mad," the most satisfactory gloss on the utterance is the one proposed by Ridley, who links it to "Are you wise?": "'are you in your right wits?' (i.e. thus openly to speak of love for Cassio)… . 'I am glad to see that you have so manifestly taken leave of your senses, and betrayed yourself publicy'."6 But if this is what Othello insinuates, he refrains from saying so outright, and the gap between insinuated message and cryptic utterance is important because it is part of a withholding pattern: Othello never mentions Cassio by name to Desdemona until 5.2.48 and after 3.3.76 makes no pronominal reference to him in her presence. This is especially noticeable in the accusation scene, 4.2, during which, as Kenneth Muir points out, "he does not give her a chance of defending herself by naming her supposed lover, her accuser, or the evidence against her."7 When he finally mentions Cassio in 5.2 (and mentions him together with the handkerchief), he does so on the mistaken assumption that Cassio has been killed. I conclude from this that he doesn't want to give her a chance to clear herself by confronting him together with Cassio. He has a use for his jealousy. But, as we have seen, Desdemona also has a use for it. Her insistence on mentioning Cassio in the martial context of her project has the same effect as—and reinforces—Othello's refusal to mention Cassio in the venerean context. She departs from her withholding pattern only once, responding in a justifiable moment of weakness to Othello's "thou art false as hell" with "To whom, my lord? with whom? how am I false?" He avoids the questions ("O Desdemona, away! away! away!"), and she herself then obediently veers away through "Am I the occasion of those tears, my lord?" to the hypothesis that he may be unhappy because he suspects her father had a hand in his recall to Venice—therefore, "Lay not your blame on me; if you have lost him, / Why, I have lost him too" (4.2.40-48). After this exchange Othello and Desdemona collaborate in redirecting blame from the third party, steering it back to her so that he can continue belaboring her as if she is the sole offender and she can continue protesting her honesty and injured merit.

This collaboration is founded and dependent on the losing of the handkerchief, which in turn has its potential meanings preinscribed by the terms of Othello's gift, terms he mystifyingly displaces or injects into "the web of it" as its "magic." Karen Newman observes that this "snowballing signifier… . first appears simply as a love token given by Othello to Desdemona and therefore treasured by her," but it would be more accurate to say that it first disappears as a love token and that, at its appearance or disappearance, what it represents is not so simple. Newman herself remarks on its "doubleness": "when the handkerchief is first given, it represents her virtue and their chaste love, but it later becomes a sign, indeed a proof, of her unfaithfulness."8 Yet Emilia's "he conjur'd her she should ever keep it" places the representational emphasis less on her virtue and their chaste love than on his desire to test her fidelity. Whatever the object symbolizes must be something he entrusts to her safekeeping—this something could include his reputation—and the point of the gift is that it transfers accountability from him to her. Should she lose it, she will bear the culpability of losing all that he has decided to make it stand for.

The sense that Othello presented the handkerchief not only as a gift but also as a threat or warning is of course reinforced in 3.4, after it has become a sign of her unfaithfulness. Othello blusters that the gift of chaste desire to be entrusted to and safeguarded by the woman is the man's:

                    … while she kept it
'Twould make her amiable, and subdue my
Entirely to her love: but if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathly, and his spirits should
After new fancies.
                                      (11. 56-61)

Thus, if we have only Emilia's and Othello's comments to judge by, we must conclude that "when the handkerchief is first given" the anticipation of betrayal is already woven into the web of the gift, the terms of which express an anxiety about, a potential proof of, Desdemona's unfaithfulness. The apotropaic function of the handkerchief may be suggested by recalling an earlier exchange:

BRABANTIO Look to her, Moor, have a quick
  eye to see:
She has deceiv'd her father, may do thee.
OTHELLO My life upon her faith: honest Iago,
My Desdemona must I leave to thee.

The handkerchief transfers responsibility for his life to her faith. In 3.4, having—as he thinks—proved her unfaithful, he makes it represent the power (of prophetesses, mothers, wives, virgins) she has lost but also, coterminously, the power he has lost—has tried and failed to domesticate—because of her.

It is in this gestural drama more than in the reified web of the handkerchief that symbolic action resides.

The action is not merely iconographic—not merely elicited from a description of the object ("a handkerchief, / Spotted with strawberries" [3.3.441-42]). It is agentive. That is, the handkerchief becomes the locus and medium of a complex motivational conflict between agents who displace or alienate their agency from themselves to it as to a scapegoat, a pharmakon, a fetish. The poison in Othello's gift is mystified as the magic in the web. The agency of subjects and discourses is detextualized both in and as the handkerchief. But the handkerchief itself is, as Emilia says, only "a trifle" (5.2.229), the word picked up by Rymer in his notorious critique of "the Tragedy of the Handkerchief that is "a Tragedy of this Trifle."9

Othello and Desdemona are not alone in promoting the loss of the handkerchief. Someone else is complicit with them and, indeed, makes it possible for them to capitalize later on its loss. After they go offstage leaving the handkerchief behind them in 3.3, Emilia snaps it up, for at that point she does not view it as an unconsidered trifle:

I am glad I have found this napkin;
This was her first remembrance from the Moor,
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Woo'd me to steal it, but she so loves the
For he conjur'd her she should ever keep it,
That she reserves it evermore about her,
To kiss, and talk to; I'll ha' the work ta'en out,
And give't Iago: what he'll do with it
Heaven knows, not I,
I nothing know, but for his fantasy.

The final line here is the First Quarto variant; the Folio reads "I nothing, but to please his fantasy." The elided verb in the Folio version could be do or wish, but the influence of the preceding phrase suggests the Quarto's "know." Emilia disowns knowledge in a manner that recalls Brakenbury's "I will not reason what is meant hereby, / Because I will be guiltless from the meaning" (Richard III, 1.4.93-94), but her "because" is more indirect: my husband is a little weird ("wayward") and is probably up to some mischief, but it's none of my business; he has odd fancies or whims, and my job is to humor him and keep him happy. When she offers it to Iago, she wonders what he will do with the handkerchief he has "been / So earnest to have me filch," and she has a moment of hesitation:

EMILIA If it be not for some purpose of
Give me't again, poor lady, she'll run mad,
When she shall lack it.
IAGO Be not you known on't, I have use for

"[P]oor lady, she'll run mad" sounds a note of pity verging on condescension, as if for a child who has been imposed upon by the Moor's strangely demanding act of donation; Desdemona will have to suffer the consequences not only of her negligence but also of the enthusiasm with which she embraces the odd conditions attendant on his gift. Momentarily distanced from Desdemona by her own acquiescence in Iago's "fantasy," Emilia expresses the mixture of curiosity, sympathy, and censure with which members of the serving class scrutinize the follies of their (often less worldly) betters.

Emilia, then, anticipates trouble but blinkers herself and throws in her lot with Iago. The dramatic crescendo of threats that concludes 3.3 enhances our sense of Desdemona's vulnerability and of Emilia's contribution to it. In 3.4 an onstage Emilia remains mum during the whole stretch of dialogue in which Othello spins out his history of the handkerchief and hectors Desdemona about its whereabouts. After he leaves, Desdemona expresses her unhappiness "in the loss of it" and thus gives Emilia a chance to make her less unhappy by speaking up. Emilia's refusal is therefore all the more conspicuous: she responds with an evasively general witticism about men's mistreatment of women (11. 100-103). This pattern of nondisclosure continues into the fourth act. At the beginning of 4.2, Emilia learns from Othello himself, as he questions her for evidence of Desdemona's infidelity, that he suspects Cassio. She stoutly defends Desdemona against his misguided suspicion in words that carry the true Desdemonan pitch: "if she be not honest, chaste, and true, / There's no man happy" (11. 17-18). Then she leaves the stage when Othello orders her to summon Desdemona, returns with her five lines later, is thereafter shortly and curtly dismissed again as if she were Desdemona's procuress (11. 27-30), and returns some sixty lines later just in time—as the Quarto places her entrance—to hear Othello ranting about "that cunning whore of Venice, / That married with Othello" and to give him another chance to call Emilia "madam" before he exits (11. 91-96). "Alas," she exclaims, "what does this gentleman conceive?" and, a moment later, "what's the matter with my lord?" (11. 97, 100). Has she forgotten the discussion that opened the scene? Critics comment on the dramatic irony and heightened suspense of Emilia's all but fingering Iago in this scene, yet her failure to mention the scene's opening discussion is equally damaging and of a different order of complicity. Her failure to put two and two together and recognize that the scoundrel she describes is Iago is strictly part of a negotiation between the play and its audience, a venerable mechanism for driving spectators/readers wild by conspicuously blocking and deferring anagnorisis until too late. But her silence about her conversation with Othello is part of Emilia's negotiations with Desdemona and Iago. This is the second time she fails to report something she has seen or heard, though here, as before, she is well positioned to know that her failure can increase Desdemona's jeopardy along with Othello's jealousy. These lapses are deeply problematic; they haunt the interchange between Emilia and Desdemona from the handkerchief episode on.

I hasten to add that none of this should be construed as reflecting adversely on Emilia's loyalty and devotion to Desdemona, any more than Desdemona's passive-aggressive reactions to Othello reflect adversely on her loyalty and devotion to him. It is just that Emilia's behavior in the play is charted along, and straddles, two different trajectories, one dominated by Desdemona and the other by Iago. In the first she is a faithful attendant, in the second a closemouthed watcher. The relation between these trajectories is textually underdetermined and therefore open. Like one of Philip McGuire's "open silences," it solicits performative and contextual interpretation. It wants, in other words, to be motivated, and several motivational cues present themselves as candidates for inspection to anyone imagining or staging the speaker of Emilia's language.

First, in the context of socioliterary allusion, Emilia occupies a well-stencilled and recognizable position, that of the servant or attendant who innocently or corruptly helps betray her mistress in order to humor her lover. Examples are Pryene in the tale told by Phedon in Faerie Queene (Book 2, stanza 14) and Margaret in Much Ado About Nothing. According to Much Ado's notoriously inconsistent stage directions, Margaret is not among the dramatis personae listed in the Quarto for the repudiation scene (4.1); the possibility that she might be present, watching but not exposing the slander of Hero, is not thereby foreclosed, but it is not thematized. Emilia's collusion with Iago over the handkerchief differs from the charade Don John and Borachio have Margaret innocently perform, because it involves Emilia in a voyeuristic exercise of the power of nondisclosure. Within the citational context, one of the motives imaginable for Emilia is a socially coded pleasure in watching one's betters misbehave and suffer, a pleasure Don John and Iago vigorously pursue in their self-appointed roles as performers of the villain's and victim/revenger's discourses.

Emilia's relationship to Iago provides a second context. Does she remain silent because she is afraid of Iago? Because she is interested in finding out what her weird husband is up to? Because in such matters a wife should obey her husband?—though her silence about the handkerchief is not something Iago explicitly enjoins; it appears to be Emilia's decision. In their interchange at 3.3.305-13, she offers the handkerchief as a gesture that seems partly an attempt to surprise and please him, partly a rebuke to his brusque and chiding manner. The gesture suggests that she finds his manner more a challenge than a threat. At 4.2.147-49 she rattles him by mocking his idle jealousy. Her discomposure at discovering his villainy in 5.2 suggests that she has previously humored him as a kind of crank, a buffoon, that is, a husband, like herself an exemplary player in the Venetian game of marriage, a game that reflects and reproduces the cynical norms they both articulate as conventional wisdom.

This is the game depicted for Desdemona by Iago in 2.1 and by Emilia in 4.3. It is the game Desdemona refuses to play, and her anomalous marriage to Othello promises at first to flout its rules. After Othello finds a use for the game, Desdemona continues to represent herself as an exception and to buttress her claim by denying that their marriage could be jeopardized by suspicions for which there are obviously no grounds. I can imagine an Emilia who expects husbands to be jealous, who is intrigued by the possibility of Othello's conforming to the rule, and who may even be willing to prove her point to Desdemona by the silence that facilitates his conformity. In 3.4 Emilia disingenuously puts Desdemona to the test. Having watched Othello go on about the handkerchief, heard Desdemona defy him with her lies and talk of Cassio, and seen Othello storm offstage, Emilia asks, "Is not this man jealous?" (1. 96). This is scarcely reducible to a request for information. It has the force of a rhetorical question soliciting Desdemona's assent; the force, perhaps, of a Q.E.D., as if Emilia has just run off an experiment that proves Desdemona's marriage is no more impervious than hers to the slings and arrows of outrageous husbands. The demonstration is set up at the beginning of 3.4:

DESDEMONA Where should I lose that
  handkerchief, Emilia?
EMILIAI know not, madam.
DESDEMONA Believe me, I had rather lose my
Full of crusadoes: and but my noble Moor
Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness
As jealous creatures are, it were enough
To put him to ill thinking.
EMILIA             Is he not jealous?
DESDEMONA Who, he? I think the sun where
  he was born
Drew all such humours from him.
                                                (11. 19-27)

At the end of the demonstration, when Emilia archly repeats her question, Desdemona swerves from a direct answer and steers her perplexity toward the handkerchief:

EMILIA Is not this man jealous?
DESDEMONA I ne'er saw this before:
Sure there's some wonder in this
I am most unhappy in the loss of it.
                                 (11. 96-99)

Her refusal to enlighten Desdemona allows Emilia to put pressure on Desdemona to acknowledge both the truth about Othello and the larger truth that their marriage is not the exception Desdemona thinks it is—that it is as difficult, as precarious, as frangible as any other. Not even the divine Desdemona can avoid being victimized by the misogynist discourse that governs relations between men and women, wives and husbands, in and out of Venice.

Desdemona continues to resist this pressure. When she can no longer justify Othello's behavior, she justifies her own. Indeed, after Othello has struck and bewhored her, she more insistently affirms her difference and uniqueness not only against his slander but also against Emilia's worldly norm. In 4.3 she appropriates the childlike and wounded bewilderment of poor Barbary to put questions to the Emilian voice of experience: can there be women who abuse their husbands as grossly as Barbary and I were abused? would you do such a deed? Unlike the run of women described by and including Emilia, she would never dream of cheating on her husband. And as if to dramatize her innocence by a show of unworldly ignorance, she goes so far as to claim not to believe "there is any such woman" (1. 83). Thus where Iago wants to prove to himself that he can make Othello jealous, and where Emilia wants to prove to Desdemona that Othello is jealous, Desdemona seems intent on showing she can rise above his jealousy when she can no longer deny it.

Given the predicament Desdemona is placed in by her position at the juncture where "in one line" the "crafts" of Iago, Emilia, and Othello "directly meet" (Hamlet, 3.4.210), what can she do? For she is being unjustly victimized, and that needs to be emphasized in the face of the argument that she won't let Othello victimize her all by himself but will get herself victimized, make him do it, be his partner in crime. At one tender moment she all but acknowledges the anger behind her militantly nonviolent resistance when, after rationalizing his rage as a reaction to state matters, she says,

        beshrew me much, Emilia,
I was (unhandsome warrior as I am)
Arraigning his unkindness with my soul;
But now I find I had suborn'd the witness,
And he's indicted falsely.

"Unhandsome warrior" is like a lifeline of self-accusation thrown from the "O my fair warrior!" it remembers (2.1.182). But if this makes for tenderness of tone, the legalistic rhetoric that follows resonates more harshly. She concedes that she persuaded herself to misinterpret the behavior she witnessed, but hers remains the prerogative of judgment, the power of indictment, and she derives that power from "the authority of her merits" as the "deserving woman" she knows herself to be (11. 144-46). Those merits measure his unkindness, which is still the defendant and may still undergo a new trial in her "soul's court of justice."10 She will give him another chance.

Desdemona is indeed a warrior, a trooper, who defends against the fate predicted by Iago in 2.1: it is possible to be a good wife and yet to avoid being reduced to a suckler of fools and chronicler of small beer. When the man she loves begins very soon, and unaccountably, to abuse her, she turns the other cheek. She makes excuses for him. She forgives him. Finally, when all else fails, she reduces herself to poor Barbary, who, forsaken by her mad lover, dies singing the willow song. From one line of this song—"Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve" (4.3.51)—she takes the idea for her death scenario in 5.2: after reviving to announce that she is "falsely, falsely murder'd" and "A guiltless death I die," she answers Emilia's "who has done this deed?" with "Nobody, I myself, farewell: / Commend me to my kind lord, O, farewell" (11. 118-26). Thus she bids "her wrong stay, and her displeasure fly" (2.1.153). "Let nobody blame him" solicits pity and praise for the innocent victim who has the charity to forgive. But at the same time, the phrase arraigns his unkindness by creating the presupposition that he is to blame and is being blamed by others, so that her charity only intensifies our sense of the wrong he did, and the instruction coded in her speech act is, Let everyone blame him. The same effect is serially produced in her final three utterances. The complex balance of the final gesture is testified to by the diverse and sensitive reactions of several critics. On the one hand, Desdemona "effectively authorizes" Othello's view of the murder as a sacrifice, "allowing him to have the last word"; "her last breath is a protective lie"; she is thus "fully in collusion with Othello's destruction of her," for "if she did not actually kill herself, she unwittingly invited death through the nobility of a love that platonically (and foolishly) refused to register Othello's metamorphosis.""11 On the other hand, in this emphasis on her ennobling if suicidal power lurks the suggestion that her final utterance disempowers, arraigns, and indicts Othello: it was she who drove him to it and made him less than himself; if she dies helping him live his lie about her, it is to intensify his sense of her value and of his loss; if she represents herself as having invited "death through the nobility of a love that … refused," etc., it is to prove to him that he couldn't have killed her without her complicity.

It must be obvious that this account of Desdemona has taken an odd but not unusual critical turn. In spite of my effort to portray Desdemona as a strong and admirable figure, a true member of the sisterhood that includes Rosalind, Helena, Portia, and Hermione, my frequent reliance on free indirect discourse snidely exposes her utterances and motives to the citational rhetoric of moral disapproval. The message this procedure conveys is let nobody blame her. It is as if in my delight to find Desdemona complicit in her undoing and thus prove my point about the redistribution of complicities, I equate her complicity with moral culpability rather than discursive responsibility. Granted that free indirect discourse is a form of paraphrastic mimicry and thus easily lends itself to critique or parody of its object, it derives this power from its aptness as a technique for representing self-representation. One therefore ought to be able to deploy the technique without prejudice in (let us say) a non-Flaubertian manner to register the traces in language of the motivational and discursive pressures on the stories people tell themselves and others. I look for negotiations between those pressures and the pressure to maintain selfesteem—the cardinal value in the normative stories one is told to tell about oneself—in the linguistic signs of the activity I have elsewhere called "practical unconsciousness," the materials for which are supplied by the network of discourses circulating through the speech community of the play.12 Now it may be appropriate to aim free indirect discourse tendentiously toward the normative stories per se and toward the strategies of misrecognition they mobilize on their behalf, but that isn't the same as using paraphrastic mimicry against a particular storytelling subject, Desdemona, for example. Yet I don't think the foregoing account of her complicity is "wrong"; it is one-sided; it gloats too much over its discovery of the extent to which she shares with Othello and Iago responsibility for what happens.

A less tendentious view of Desdemona might begin with the observation that her final words permit of a paraphrase that amounts to a refutation of her earlier claim, "I never gave him cause": to say "Nobody, I myself is to acknowledge that she gave him cause. As a confessional gesture, this edges toward self-accusation. But if a glimmer of the sinner's discourse is discernible, it remains faint: "falsely murder'd," she dies a "guiltless death," not, however, as one who was victimized but as one who got victimized; she accepts responsibility, not culpability. Can the words signify that she accepts responsibility for his culpability? Isn't that what "my kind lord" may suggest if one imagines it uttered with no trace of bitterness, sarcasm, or reproach? This reading, however, doesn't neutralize the more tendentious interpretation unfolded above. She acknowledges that she gave him cause and even perhaps—pushing it toward the sinner's desire for punishment—that she deserves what she got. But her prosecution of the victim's discourse, culminating in her reduction of herself to poor Barbary, who, saintlike, forgives her tormentor, vibrates through her last words and solicits a different reading: he will discover too late what a jewel he has thrown away. Thus "I gave him cause" struggles with I never gave him cause, and I deserve what I got struggles with he'll deserve what he gets; and in my reading of Desdemona, these combatants remain locked in mortal embrace.


1 Quotations of Othello follow the Arden text (ed. M. R. Ridley [London: Methuen, 1958]). Unless otherwise noted, quotations of other Shakespeare plays follow The Riverside Shakespeare, e d. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

2 I have here kept the Arden line count but replaced Ridley's First Quarto reading ("Let Cassio") with the Folio variant ("till Cassio"). The Folio is the basis of most modern editions.

3 Ridley, ed., 2.1.109-66n, 3.4.32n, and 3.4.34n.

4 Thomas Rymer, "A Short View of Tragedy … " (London, 1693), reprinted in Critical Essays of the Seventeenth Century, ed. J. E. Spingarn, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908), 2:208-55, esp. 246.

5 Carol Thomas Neely, "Circumscription and Unhousedness: Othello at the Crossroads," paper delivered at the 1992 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America in Kansas City. I'm grateful to Professor Neely for sending me a copy of the paper. See also For a similar and equally stimulating interpretation, see Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays, Hamlet to The Tempest (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 68-69. Adelman lays more emphasis on the parable's strange conjunction of maternal power with virginity as representing "the impossible condition of male desire, the condition always already lost" (69).

6 Ridley, ed., 4.1.234n.

7 The New Penguin Othello, ed. Kenneth Muir (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1968), 209.

8 Karen Newman, Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991), 91.

9 Rymer in Spingarn, ed., 2.251 and 254.

10 The New Folger Library Othello, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, 1993), 3.4.173n.

11 Emily C. Bartels, "Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race," Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54, esp. 454; Eamon Grennan, "The Women's Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence," SQ 38 (1987): 275-92, esp. 290; Adelman, 280 (Adelman's paraphrase of Kay Stockholder's argument in "Form as Metaphor: Othello and Love-Death Romance," Dalhousie Review 64 [1984-85]: 736-47, esp. 744-45); James L. Calderwood, The Properties of Othello (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989), 36.

12 On practical unconsciousness, see my "What Did the King Know and When Did He Know It? Shakespearean Discourses and Psychoanalysis," South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 811-62, esp. 830-31.

Further Reading

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Bartels, Emily C. "Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 417-33.

Compares the main female characters from Othello and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, focusing on their "gestures of submission" that "paradoxically enable" self-expression.

Cook, Ann Jennalie. "The Design of Desdemona: Doubt Raised and Resolved." Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 187-96.

Centers on the structure of Othello as it relates to the revelation of Desdemona's character. Cook contends that Shakespeare raises numerous doubts about Desdemona's true nature in the same manner that the playwright clouds the issue of Iago's and Othello's characters.

Dickes, Robert. "Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?" American Imago 27, No. 3 (Fall 1970): 279-97.

Argues that Desdemona is an active participant who shapes her own destiny rather than a passive victim of other character's machinations.

Dollarhide, Louis E. "Othello's Descent from Reason." The University of Mississippi Studies in English 9 (1968): 37-45.

Discusses Othello's "loss of reason" and argues that it leads him to condemn his wife and lieutenant to death on the basis of flimsy, circumstantial evidence.

Faber, M. D. "Two Studies in Self-Aggression in Shakespearean Tragedy." Literature and Psychology XIV, Nos. 3-4 (Summer-Fall 1964): 80-96.

Argues that numerous aspects of Desdemona's character are self-destructive and suicidal. Faber also comments on Othello's suicide.

——. "Othello: The Justice of It Pleases." American Imago 28, No. 3 (Fall 1971): 228-46.

Psychoanalytic interpretation of Othello's and Iago's characters in which Faber focuses on "Iago's suggestion that Othello strangle Desdemona in her bed and Othello's enthusiastic reception of this idea."

Flaumenhaft, Mera J. "Begetting and Belonging in Shakespeare's Othello." Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy 4, No. 3 (Spring 1975): 196-217.

Examines Othello's and Iago's attitudes toward love and childbearing, arguing that the attitudes of both are influenced by their positions within the state.

Kovel, Joel. "Othello." American Imago 35, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Summer 1978): 113-19.

Interprets Othello through a psychoanalytic approach, commenting on themes of jealousy, sexuality, and the relationship between the individual and society.

Nathan, Norman. "Othello's Marriage Is Consummated." Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 34 (October 1988): 79-82.

Refutes other scholars who have argued that Othello's marriage to Desdemona is never consummated.

Saul, Leon J. "Othello: Projection in Art." JAMA 200, No. 1 (April 3, 1967): 145-46.

Interprets Othello as a depiction of paranoid jealousy with Iago and Othello as two parts of a single personality. Saul also discusses the psychological concept of projection as it relates to Shakespeare's creation of Othello.

Smith, Gordon Ross. "Igo the Paranoiac." American Imago 16, No. 2 (Summer 1959): 155-67.

Draws on psychoanalytic theory to argue that Iago's motives stem in part from repressed homosexual feelings for Othello and Cassio.

Sussman, Henry. "Characterization in Antigone and Othello." Psyche and Text: The Sublime and the Grandiose in Literature, Psychopathology, and Culture, pp. 7-26. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Discusses characterization and the psychological and cultural factors that impact it.

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Iago's Alter Ego: Race as Projection in Othello


Othello (Vol. 53)

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