Sharon Friedman (review date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6455

SOURCE: Friedman, Sharon. “Revisioning the Woman's Part: Paula Vogel's Desdemona.New Theatre Quarterly 15, no. 58 (May 1999): 131-41.

[In the following essay, Friedman compares Othello with Desdemona, Paula Vogel's revision of Shakespeare's play, examining in particular the way in which Vogel dramatized the threat posed by female desire and questioned conventional categories associated with virginity and faithfulness.]

In his introduction to Othello, Alvin Kernan asserts that Shakespeare's vision of human nature dramatizes ‘ancient terrors and primal drives—fear of the unknown, pride, greed, lust, underlying smooth, civilized surfaces’, and that there is a marked ‘contrast between surface manner and inner nature. … In Desdemona alone do the heart and the hand go together: she is what she seems to be.’1

This characterization is reversed in Paula Vogel's revision of Othello as Desdemona.2 In this play, we have a Desdemona who is not what she seems, ‘of spirit so still and quiet’. Rather, she is Othello's worst nightmare, the transformation of Iago's pretence into reality. Though still naive, Desdemona is no longer the innocent—unselfish in her love, forgiving of all transgressions against her. She is sexually adventurous as she works for Cassio's harlot Bianca in her brothel, seemingly voracious in her appetites, manipulative of anyone who can feed them, and anything but loyal in her relationships with women or men.

Questions abound. Why has Paula Vogel created a Desdemona who, though ostensibly inside out, still seems like Othello's projection? Could a lascivious Desdemona represent a feminist reclamation of the powers of desire and, at long last, ownership of the gaze? What, in this revision, constitutes change, subversion, or the revelation of patriarchal ideology concerning women's sexuality encoded in Othello?

To be sure, Vogel joins a throng of critics, writers, directors, and actors who have challenged Shakespeare's plays with their new readings, literary applications, film adaptations, and inventive theatrical productions, often from a feminist perspective.3 In her call for ‘more new readings’ of Shakespeare in the 1990s, the scholar Jean Howard argues against the traditional approach to criticism that sees meaning ‘already in the text’, there to be discovered by the ‘alert reader’. Rather, Howard argues that a Shakespeare play is an occasion for a ‘complex, contemporary interaction with a classic text’ and ‘an occasion for creation by which the critic acknowledges his own place in history’.4

Peter Erickson, in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves, locates the writer as well as the critic in history. Emphasizing the ‘interactions between past and present that we construct and negotiate’, he is seeking representations of Shakespeare which go beyond contemporary theatrical performance and pedagogy to the ‘different cultural sites of contemporary literature’, which he perceives as ripe for ‘imaginative free play and for the development of an independent perspective’.5

Erickson's prime example is the poet Adrienne Rich's re-visioning of the father-daughter motif and women's forgiveness in both King Lear and The Winter's Tale. Given Shakespeare's iconic status, the danger is that the image can become ‘fixed in our minds as an inviolable element of father-daughter relations’, despite the ideological tensions in ‘values and expectations’, which are subject to dramatic pressure within the text. ‘Whether or not Shakespeare is seen as critical of Lear, Shakespeare cannot give us Cordelia's point of view.’6

This critical distance from Shakespeare in twentieth-century rewritings of his works is also noted by Marianne Novy, whose collection of articles documents women's readings of Shakespeare over the past three hundred years. Carol Neely, in an epilogue to this book, observes categories of revisions. Some writers foreground female friendship and express a connection to women...

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characters who demonstrate assertiveness, exploit the uses of disguise to transcend confinement, and display wit as well as passion (e.g., Rosalind, Beatrice, Helena, Cleopatra). Other writers who adapt Shakespeare for their texts seem more detached as they ‘balance sympathy and judgement. … Patriarchal structures and the constrictions suffered by women are exposed and, sometimes, corrected through revision.’ Neely notes that several often seemingly conflicting responses alternate—

between anger and empowerment, between critique of patriarchal culture and the creation of alternatives to it. … Analysis of patriarchy moves beyond characters, beyond the playwright himself, to a probing analysis of his culture as well as the writer's, with Shakespeare's plays enabling the critique.7

These revisions eventually lead to ‘transformational’ readings which, in alliance with Shakespeare, ‘transform his scripts into their own’.


Paula Vogel's raucous Desdemona draws on many of these conventions of feminist revisioning. She foregrounds the women in the play; explores female friendship; and refocuses plot to reveal the ‘high cost of patriarchal values’ that several critics see embedded in Shakespeare's tragedies. As the editors of The Woman's Part assert, ‘the men who uphold [these values] atrophy, and the women, whether resistant [Emilia] or acquiescent [Desdemona], die’.8

However, departing from her re-visionary and transformational predecessors, Paula Vogel does not attempt to celebrate the purportedly ‘womanly’ virtues—the ‘flexibility, compassion, realism’ attributed to Shakespearean heroines.9 She does not perceive in the women's intimacy a ‘mutual affection and a kind of female subculture apart from the man's world’.10 Nor does she correct and revise the restrictions that so obviously oppress the women and inform the men's destructive fantasies of betrayal.

Rather, Vogel's play marks an important shift in the feminist critical perspective, specifically in drama, as characterized by Lynda Hart in her collection of essays on contemporary women's theatre: ‘the shift … from discovering and creating positive images of women in the content of the drama to analyzing and disrupting the ideological codes embedded in the inherited structures of dramatic representation’.11

Whether one takes the interpretive stance that Shakespeare questions and explodes patriarchal attitudes toward women or that he reinscribes profound fears of female sexuality and desperate attempts to control it, the terms by which women are defined (e.g., the virgin or the whore) and the spheres to which they are relegated—backroom, bedroom, balconies—remain in place. A revisionary theatre perceives genre, language, stage space, and the body as the ‘loci’ for the playwright to ‘dramatically challenge’ the terms, categories, and beliefs by which women are defined and determined in the discourse of dramatic and cultural texts.12

In any revision, the original work hovers over its present incarnation. In fact, the programme notes to Desdemona include a brief synopsis of Othello, followed by a letter from Vogel to her audience in which she reveals her implicit dialogue with the Bard. She begins by sharing her memories of earlier readings, when she had wept for the Moor, who ‘goaded to desperation by the innuendos of cuckoldry that [his ensign] Iago manufactured, [and] believing his virginal bride to be the harlot coupling with his lieutenant Cassio, gives in to homicide’, strangling ‘pure, blameless Desdemona’ in her bed.

At the same time, however, and despite Vogel's admiration for Shakespeare's ‘fantastic verse’, she began to question the critical assessment of Desdemona as a ‘fully dimensional heroine’. The woman that she reads is an abstraction played by ‘gawky male adolescents’. Furthermore, Vogel raises two provocative questions regarding conduct in a text which, though naturalized through the ages, in her mind bears questioning:

Had Desdemona been sleeping with the Russian Navy [that is, the Venetian garrison], would Othello have been justified in his self-pitying act of murder? [And] why did Emilia steal the handkerchief Othello had given his wife, if she was such a devoted servant to Desdemona?

(‘A Letter from the Playwright’)

In this self-reflexive reading of Othello, the playwright/critic also becomes a feminist spectator who, as Randi Koppen defines such a viewer, resists, revises, and produces meanings ‘in response to the text's own promptings’.13 In a deconstructive parody, Vogel dislodges the convention of the intimate scene between women in Shakespeare's theatre and expands it into an entire play. Now decentering the tragic hero, she foregrounds and enacts the threat of female transgression—the construction of female desire—that incites the tragic action of the play.14

Using bodily presence and ribald language in place of whispering asides, delicately expressed confidences, and plaintive ballads (e.g., Desdemona's song in the willow scene), these familiar female characters, central to our most cherished narratives and cultural paradigms, speak in a forbidden language, and disrupt the categories of their representation—the twin images of the virgin/whore dichotomy and the faithful handmaiden—linked to their gender and class status. Vogel produces multiple and shifting identities as she dramatizes, among various postures, a whoring Desdemona, a spiritually monogamous Bianca, and a sassy Emilia, who does not invariably understand and support the lady she serves. As in women's performance art, ‘the position of the female subject talking back throws that position into process, into doubt’.15


In Renaissance drama, particularly tragedy, centre stage is the site of public action and oratory more often reserved for male characters, reflecting the ‘relationship between the male-defined polis and the politics of stage space’.16 Several critics have lauded Shakespeare for creating a counter-universe in scenes where women share intimate conversations that reveal both their ‘freedoms and constraints’. Carole McKewin observes that although this enclosed space is often ‘shaped by the larger world of the play’, in scenes where women talk to each other apart from men, they engage in freer expression of their ‘perceptions and identities, comment on masculine society, gather strength, and engage in reconnaissance to act in it’.17

McKewin illustrates this assertion with her view that Desdemona and Emilia's ‘feminine friendship … is affectionate and frank, generous and nurturing’. In the willow-song scene in Othello, Desdemona laments the plight of her mother's maidservant forsaken by her lover, and initiates a dialogue with Emilia about women's attitudes toward adultery and honour. According to McKewin, this dialogue between women ‘reflects both the increased oppression of the outside world and the effect, however limited, the counter-universe can have on its opposite’. McKewin admires Emilia's loyalty to Desdemona and her ‘egalitarian view of man and woman in marriage’. Indeed, with more than a hint of cultural feminism, the critic perceives their friendship as what ultimately emerges from this counter-universe to ‘reveal what woman is, and to reshape the chimeras of slander’ that result in the ‘debacle of Othello’.18

Vogel, focusing her lens onto the background of the play, brings Bianca from the streets into the palace, juxtaposes her with Desdemona and Emilia, and complicates this intimate conversation with material concerns. Her women engage in frank discussion and behaviour that undermines their valourization and camaraderie, and so frustrates any attempt at a unified construction of ‘what woman is’. Her counter-universe is fraught with differences among the women and contradictions within each character. Their world is presented as inextricably intertwined with all that surrounds it, to reveal the hierarchy and intersection of gender and class relationships that might explain Emilia's careless but fatal betrayal as well as the harsh Renaissance code governing a woman's adultery.


To establish the links between the ostensibly dual universe of feminine and masculine, Vogel probes the ‘unconscious’ of the text—that which is not directly spoken or presented but ‘operate[s] contrapuntally’ in the ‘absence’, ‘silence’, or ‘reverse side’ of what is written.19 Although Othello is not a tragedy of a woman's infidelity, but rather of the tragic consequences of Iago's plot inflaming Othello's fantasy of betrayal, the subject of Desdemona's sexuality and, most notably, the men's construction of it, is always there, ‘latent’, bubbling to the surface in speech and action. Indeed, the hint of Desdemona's alleged indiscretion with Cassio is instantaneously translated by Othello into her whorish behaviour with his men of every rank and file, ‘pioneers and all’ (III, iii, 343). As Jyotsna Singh succinctly states:

To label Othello a ‘tragedy of jealousy’ has almost become a critical commonplace. What has less frequently been specified is a crucial aspect of his male jealousy—namely, the fear that wives can turn into whores or, put another way, that wives and whores are indistinguishable.20

It is precisely this binary construction that Vogel dramatizes and, in the process, deconstructs as she probes the ideological discourse that informs the play's lofty themes of marital love, honour, and loyalty.

What lurks behind the Renaissance ideal of pure and passive femininity, guardian of masculine sexuality, if not the anxiety that all women are descendants of Eve, responsible for ‘both mortality and the “sin” of human sexuality’?21 Female sexuality is contained in the social practice of marriage to a virginal bride. That which is not contained ‘emerges as whoredom’. Singh observes that the terms ‘harlot’, ‘whore’, ‘strumpet’, and ‘courtesan’ recur ‘frequently in various Renaissance discourses such as court records, sermons, moral treatises, and literary texts’ in the service of moral prescriptions.

Singh also notes that prostitution, as a social and economic institution that expanded in the early modern period, is ‘elided’ in narratives which demonize women's unbridled sexuality and associate it with the prostitute.22 The idea of woman's desire (as opposed to woman as the object of desire) was seen as a threat to the moral and social order dependent on strict gender opposition and hierarchy.23

Within Othello, this polarization between the sexes is generated by the men and leads to the destruction of all the major characters. What one remembers of this conflict is the male preoccupation with honour that Othello speaks of as dependent upon a woman's faithfulness—‘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, 269-72). And even after the discovery of his error, he calls himself an ‘honourable murderer’ (V, ii, 290).

Several critics have identified the root of this concern in the struggle for a secure masculine identity which gives rise to images of threatening females. Thus, in Man's Estate Coppelia Kahn argues that, although ‘in its outward forms, patriarchy granted near-absolute legal and political powers to the father … in unacknowledged ways it conceded to women, who were essential to its continuance, the power to validate men's identities through their obedience and fidelity as wives and daughters’.24

Shakespeare's Desdemona is continually called upon to defend her honour in a display of her faithfulness and obedience to her husband. She speaks her desire only in her wish to consecrate her marriage (‘the rites for which I love him’, I, iii, 252) by following Othello to Cyprus. Othello, however, speaks of it in fear and loathing:

O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites!

(III, iii, 267-9)

And when he believes her guilty of sexual impropriety with one man, he declares her a threat to all men that he must eliminate (‘Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men’, V, ii, 6).

Iago's plot is consistently underscored by his numerous references to wives as whores. Taunting Desdemona and Emilia in repartee, he claims that though ‘pictures out of door’, you are ‘wildcats in your kitchens … players in your huswifery, and huswives in your beds’ (II, i, 108-11). And in his plot to dupe Othello, he substitutes talk of Bianca for incriminating remarks about Desdemona. In the staged conversation with Cassio which he intends to be inaccurately overheard by Othello, Bianca the whore serves as the ‘embodiment’ of Desdemona's transgression.25


By ‘making the silences speak’,26 Paula Vogel engages us in a production that replaces the ‘absent female’, represented by the boy players of the Elizabethan theatre, with real women whose sexual desires and psychic needs are no longer cursed, camouflaged, mimicked, or encoded in stylized gestures, at least by the men.27 As Sue Ellen Case argues:

Without the public appearance of the female body, cultural representations of sexuality could not be physical ones. Rather, sexuality became located within the symbolic system that was the property of the spiritual domain, for instance language. … In theatre, the sexual danger inherent in the female gender was alleviated by the male assimilation of female roles. …28

In Vogel's production, the women, not the men, comprise an almost exclusive community. Their formidable presence momentarily evokes the spectre of women's emasculating power and duplicitous nature that had only been treated symbolically in Othello.

In her Comic Women, Tragic Men, Linda Bamber argues that the ‘feminine in Shakespeare … is always something unlike and external to the Self, who is male. … The Feminine … is that which exists on the other side of … the barrier of sexual differentiation.’29 With ironic references to the men's suspicions in Othello, Vogel brings her audience across the great divide only to find that the women's quest for fulfilment seems to mirror the men's, as they yearn for sexual adventure, power and position, and, of course, true love.

Even sexual betrayal is in the air. Desdemona unwittingly cuckolds Emilia during her night at the brothel, and Bianca is almost driven to violence when she discovers that the handkerchief given to her by Cassio belongs to Desdemona. The playwright heeds Emilia's words in Othello: ‘Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell, / And have their palates both for sweet and sour …’ (IV, iii, 96-8). Women's desire, though boldly advocated by Shakespeare's Emilia, is articulated in terms of men's sensibilities. It is this version of sexuality that Vogel puts on display.

Making no attempt to capture the lost voices of Renaissance noblewomen, handmaidens or prostitutes, Paula Vogel stages the threat of female desire in a patriarchal culture and the conditions that might structure women's fantasies about themselves and each other. In dramatic texts, perhaps the most salient feature of what Sue Ellen Case calls the ‘Fictional Woman’ is her representation as an ‘object of exchange between men’.30 As maiden or prostitute, her ‘sexual allure can never escape the thrall of commodification’.31 Paula Vogel's women, exercising a kind of agency, are acutely aware of the value of their charms.


In Desdemona, the three women spring to life as they appropriate the language of sexuality and manipulate the exchange. In coarsely mocking banter, they talk to each other about their experience of sex; objectify the male organ (as Desdemona fondles a hoof-pick, she stretches out and says ‘Oh me, oh my—if I could find a man with just such a hoofpick—he could pluck out my stone’); name the various forms of couplation (as does Bianca when she informs and instructs the eager Desdemona in the tricks of her trade); and acknowledge the barter of their sexuality in exchange for money, gifts (‘a brooch for a breast’) and, in Emilia's case, her place in the world as the ensign's wife.

In Othello, the handkerchief functions as a powerful metaphor for the proprietary attitude toward women's sexuality. Whoever possesses the handkerchief possesses the woman. Thus, the handkerchief confiscated by Emilia and placed by Iago in Cassio's possession—only to end up in the hands of his strumpet Bianca—duly becomes proof of Desdemona's alleged betrayal.32

The handkerchief in Vogel's play—visible in a lit corner of the stage as the play opens—retains its power to convict Desdemona (Vogel's subtitle is ‘A Play about a Handkerchief’). However, we see it as a mere contrivance—a ‘snot rag’, in Desdemona's contemptuous language, which stands for nothing. The women become the ‘ocular proof’ that Shakespeare's Othello yearns for to justify his accusation and revenge.

Still, this Desdemona is far more complex than Othello imagines her to be. Vogel relies on dramatic irony as she reaches back through Othello to Shakespeare in order to fashion a Desdemona out of his subversive cues—for example, Brabantio, Desdemona's father, warning Othello that his daughter may betray him as she has betrayed her father in marrying without his consent. She has defied the patriarchal code in placing her will above her father's judgement—even the judgement of the Venetian Senate, in her refusal to postpone the consecration of her marriage. She professes not to have fallen prey to mysterious potions and charms, but to have responded to her heart's ‘preferences’. Furthermore, Othello tells us that she had been aroused by listening to his dangerous exploits:

She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse. …
She wished she had not heard it;
Yet she wished that heaven had made her such a man.

(I, iii, 148-9, 161-2)

Vogel transposes this ‘greedy ear’, this desire to be a male warrior, into a greed for conquest and sexual adventure that Desdemona associates with male freedom.33 She explains to the scornful Emilia her desire to break out of her ‘narrow world’ and to see the ‘other worlds’ that married women never get to see, ‘bridled with linen, blinded with lace’ (19). Seeking to assuage her disappointment with the ‘strange dark man’, whom she mistakenly believed would offer her escape, she proclaims her ‘desire to know the world’:

I lie in the blackness of the room at … [Bianca's] establishment … on sheets that are stained and torn by countless nights, and the men come into that pitch-black room—men of different sizes and smells and shapes, with smooth skin—rough skin, with scarred skin. And they spill their seed into me, Emilia—seed from a thousand lands, passed down through generations of ancestors, with genealogies that cover the surface of the globe. And I simply lie still there in the darkness, taking them all into me; I close my eyes and in the dark of my mind—oh how I travel!


Desdemona reveals at once her desire to know and the limits on her desire as she seeks only carnal knowledge and imagines herself a passive learner. She becomes whatever they are. She knows whatever they know. Furthermore, Vogel associates Desdemona's desire for the ‘strange, dark man’ with the desire for a different and, using Coleridge's word, ‘monstrous’ union. The critic Karen Newman has linked Othello and his tales of ‘slavery and redemption’, ‘of Cannibals, that each other eat’, and ‘men whose heads Grew beneath their shoulders’, to the play's ‘other marginality, femininity’. Both thus represent the fear and power of the Other, which ‘threatens the while male sexual norm here represented by Iago’.34

Vogel's Desdemona openly expresses her attraction for the feared Other, acts out her propensity for a union which is alluded to by Shakespeare's male characters as unnatural and bestial. Concomitantly, she expresses disappointment in the divided self that marks Othello. As the Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt observes, Othello's own identity

depends upon a constant performance … of his story, the loss of his own origins, an embrace and perpetual reiteration of the norms of another culture. … He is both representative and upholder of a rigorous sexual code which prohibits desire, and yet is a sign of a different, unbridled sexuality.35

Vogel's Desdemona, less discreetly than Shakespeare's, aligns herself with the latter Othello as she quests for global encounters that will replicate if not surpass his mythical journeys.36

In Othello, it is Emilia who punctures the ideal of women's purity and of unwavering faithfulness to husbands. When Desdemona asks her, ‘Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?’ Emilia replies: ‘The world's a huge thing; it is a great price for a small vice’ (IV, iii, 70). In Shakespeare's dialogue, Emilia imagines fashioning a world that would make her wrong a right. However, it is a world in which her cuckoldry would make her husband a ‘monarch’.

In Desdemona, Vogel switches the women's respective stances. Her Emilia is unwilling to take chances, intimating that her position in the social order is vulnerable enough. It is Desdemona, with the haughtiness of the desirable noblewoman, who tries to remake the world—not for her husband's gain, but for her own power, responding, ‘The world's a huge thing for so small a vice’ (19).

With these inverted representations of the women, Vogel offers us a dual response. She reads against the text in order to reveal the material concerns and the discursive representations that haunt the women in Shakespeare's Othello. So, in Vogel's invention, the women are situated in the back room of the citadel, the private sphere of the servant Emilia where her work is no longer invisible. Among the artifacts of her daily life—tools, baskets, leather bits—she peels potatoes and washes blood-stained sheets and nightgowns (actually the chicken's blood used to feign Desdemona's virginity on her wedding night). The sense of containment in the back room and the association of sex and the spilling of blood seem to reflect a more vulnerable, certainly less lofty, image of women's lives.

The latter half of Vogel's play introduces Bianca. As the owner of a brothel, she is depicted as a more aggressive prostitute than the courtesan who in Shakespeare's play follows Cassio around, pining for his love and waits on his attention. Vogel's Desdemona, true to her class, ignores the destitute conditions underlying Bianca's plight. She sees her as the sexually and financially independent new woman of the Renaissance, that which the men of her station might perceive as the threat of organized lechery.37 Here, the women speak openly of sex, but like their Shakespearean counterparts are defined by the attachment to the men in their lives, and are frequently subject to physical abuse. And though they share these intimacies, they are separated by class divisions that evoke condescension, misunderstanding, and distrust among them.

Bianca, though on the surface free, is still subject to violence from her customers, and will never have her dream of romance and security with Cassio. In the end, she shatters Desdemona's misguided fantasy about her when she says: ‘Inside every born one of us want smugs an’ babies, smugs wot are man enowt t' keep us in our place’ (38).

Emilia will continue to be ignored or mistreated by Iago, and, whatever fraught allegiance she has to Desdemona, cannot look to her for salvation as her lady's maid in exchange for keeping Desdemona's confidences. She has taken the handkerchief to advance the career of her husband on whom she is forever dependent. Despite the contempt for Iago that she openly expresses to Desdemona, she explains that

for us in the bottom ranks, when man and wife hate each other, what is left in a lifetime of marriage but to save and scrimp, plot and plan? … I says to him each night—I long for the day you make me a lieutenant's widow.


And finally, amidst all of her daring and bravado, Desdemona's fate is sealed in the cultural code reflected in the punishment of death for betrayal that she is to receive from Othello, even in Vogel's revision.


As spectators, producing meaning in our interaction with Shakespeare's text and with Vogel's production simultaneously, we might resist her disturbing representation as we long for a Desdemona free of Othello's conception of her, pure or vile, and revisioned as more tragically heroic. Yet we feel Othello's conception more powerfully in his absence, sensing from the tension within the female enclave that the male world is ‘everywhere around’, and that the female world of love and desire is ‘entirely constituted by the gaze of man’.38 And when this Desdemona addresses the audience directly, without the mediation of the male protagonist, spectators might, in Brechtian terms, become ‘alienated’ from their ‘habitual perceptions’ of a character made strange by this shift in viewpoint.39

Clearly Vogel makes use of Brechtian techniques—the alienation effect, epic (episodic) structure, and the social gest—to disrupt the spectator's expectations of Othello, to ‘surprise the spectator into thought’. As Janelle Reinelt describes it, Brechtian technique

provides the means to … foreground and examine ideologically determined beliefs and unconscious habitual perceptions, and to make visible those signs inscribed on the body which distinguish social behaviour in relation to class, gender, and history … to see what is missing, or what new insights emerge if hidden aspects are thrown into relief.40

In thirty short scenes, or ‘takes’, punctuated with flashes of light and percussive music, Paula Vogel creates an episodic structure that invites the spectators to interpose their judgement between the acts. By contrast with a seamless narrative or plot structure in which the characters move to what feels like an inevitable end, the division between scenes allows the spectator greater freedom here to imagine alternatives to the course of these events, or to reflect on their determinants.

At the same time, the playwright explicitly frames the angles from which we view each character in a series of what one critic called ‘character-freezing tableaux’, that at once eliminate a single viewpoint while drawing attention to the framing of characters on stage. Freeing (or ‘alienating’) these characters from the audience's familiar or conditioned responses, the actors posture to the audience employing the device of the ‘social gest’.

Consisting of a singular gesture or a ‘realm of attitudes’41 expressed in words and movement, the gest demonstrates the character's identification with social attitudes and relationships. Emilia, the confidante in servitude, bends over her crate of potatoes or her pile of washing; Bianca, the sexually aggressive prostitute, stands with legs apart, hands on hips which are thrust forward; and Desdemona, with unladylike abandon, leans back upon a table, and dangles her head arched upside down, suggesting both privilege and vulnerability.

The final four frames constitute a tragic recognition shared by two women, though they have no authority to act on it. Once again, Vogel dislodges a generic convention associated with tragedy—the moment of recognition that signals self-knowledge for the protagonist. In their dialogic relationship, Desdemona and Emilia together discover that Othello's gathering up of the wedding sheets from her bed, ‘like a body’, breathing it in ‘like a bouquet’, isn't love (45). Indeed, it has been surveillance.

The final gest, which spans three ‘takes’ (scenes), conveys resignation as Emilia prepares Desdemona for her impending death in the marriage bed, brushing her hair the requisite hundred strokes. Desdemona, ‘listening to the off-stage palace’, leans back, this time to accept her fate. The audience, presumably grappling with their various responses to the revisions of the original text, might also become aware of what does not change. The female world, though presented more subjectively, is still performing under a watchful, scrutinizing eye, awaiting judgement. For all of Desdemona's fidgetings, she is forever confined within Othello's gaze. But the spectator, perhaps for the first time, might stand outside it, recognize it, and resist its compelling vision.


  1. Alvin Kernan, ‘Introduction’, Othello, by William Shakespeare (New York: Penguin Books, 1986) p. xxiii-iv. All subsequent references to this edition of Othello are in parentheses.

  2. Desdemona was first produced in association with Circle Repertory Company by the Bay Street Theatre Festival, Sag Harbor, New York, in July 1993, then by the Circle Repertory Company, New York in Fall 1993, and was published by Dramatists Play Service, 1994. All subsequent references to Desdemona appear as page numbers in parentheses.

    For a discussion of the ‘multiple implications’ of the phrase ‘the woman's part’, see the ‘Introduction’ to Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds., The Woman's Part (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 12. The reference to ‘part’ in the title plays upon five different senses in which the term may be understood. It assumes (1) that women play a ‘distinct, gender-determined part’ in the world of the plays as well as outside them; (2) the bawdy meaning of ‘part’, as used by Shakespeare to indicate women's sexuality; (3) that the parts women play are social as well as sexual, and in the plays may be false—‘roles adopted to deceive or inflicted by the dominant patriarchal culture’—and constitute only part ‘of a whole’: that is, the complex identity of any character and of the men and women in relation to each other; (4) that feminine and masculine characteristics are changing cultural constructs and thus not restricted to females or males; and (5) that feminist criticism, in confronting these limiting constructs within texts, is ‘avowedly partisan’, and so taking the ‘woman's part’.

  3. For example, Peter Erickson's readings of the representations of Shakespeare by twentieth-century women writers (Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Adrienne Rich) in Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1991); the numerous films of recent years such as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, Trevor Nunn's Twelfth Night, Al Pacino's Looking for Richard; or Kristin Linklater's all-woman cast in the Company of Women's production of Henry V at Smith College, in September, 1994.

  4. Jean Howard, ‘Scholarship, Theory, and More New Readings: Shakespeare for the 1990s’, in Shakespeare Study Today, ed. Georgianna Ziegler (New York: AMS Press, 1986), p. 129, 138.

  5. Erickson, p. 2, 7.

  6. Erickson, p. 163-4.

  7. Carol Thomas Neely, ‘Epilogue: Remembering Shakespeare, Revising Ourselves’, in Women's Revisions of Shakespeare, 1664-1988, ed. Marianne Novy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 243-4.

  8. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 6.

  9. Neely, ‘Epilogue’, p. 243.

  10. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 5.

  11. Lynda Hart, ed., Making a Spectacle: Feminist Essays on Contemporary Women's Theatre (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989), p. 4.

  12. Hart, p. 13.

  13. Randi S. Koppen, ‘“The Furtive Event”: Theorizing Feminist Spectatorship’, Modern Drama, XXXV, No. 3 (September 1992), p. 379.

  14. See Dympna Callaghan, Women and Gender in Renaissance Tragedy (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1989), p. 56-9, where she argues for ‘deconstructing certain crucial terms of canonical criticism’ in order to examine women's status in tragic drama and its reproduction in traditional criticism by ‘juxtaposing the concept of tragic transcendence with that of female transgression’.

  15. Jeanie Forte, ‘Women's Performance Art: Feminism and Postmodernism’, in Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre, ed. Sue Ellen Case (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 254.

  16. Nancy Reinhardt, cited by Hart, p. 8. Reinhardt notes that the ‘sides, background, niches, and balconies function as the inner domestic space where women are usually kept’. Lorraine Helms, in ‘Acts of Resistance: the Feminist Player’, in The Weyward Sisters: Shakespeare and Feminist Politics, eds. Dympna Callaghan, Lorraine Helms, and Jyotsna Singh (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p. 111, examines the effects of theatrical production in relation to performance choices for those who play ‘the woman's part’ in contemporary performance. She claims that ‘with some exceptions, Shakespeare's female characters play their roles in the illusionistic scenes of the locus. They enjoy few opportunities to express the interiority of the reflexive soliloquy and even fewer to address the audience from the interactive platea.

  17. Carole McKewin, ‘“Counsels of Gall and Grace”: Intimate Conversations between Women in Shakespeare's Plays’, in The Woman's Part, eds. Lenz, Greene, and Neely, p. 118-19. McKewin cites Juliet Dusinberre's observation that Shakespeare's theatre offers a ‘consistent probing of the reactions of women to isolation in a society which has never allowed them independence from men either physically or spiritually’ (p. 117).

  18. McKewin, p. 128-9.

  19. Callaghan, p. 75, 65.

  20. Jyotsna Singh, ‘The Interventions of History: Narratives of Sexuality’, in The Weyward Sisters, eds. Callaghan, Helms, and Singh, p. 46.

  21. Callaghan, p. 53, 63-4.

  22. Singh, p. 12.

  23. See Dympna Callaghan's survey of the relationship between family, church, state and cosmos, and the significance of the category ‘woman’ in political and theological discourse (p. 14-27).

  24. Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1981), p. 12. According to Madeline Gohlke Sprengnether, male fantasies of betrayal stem from fears of being weak or ‘feminine’ in relation to a powerful woman. ‘The feminine posture for a male character is that of the betrayed, and it is the man in this position who portrays women as whores’. See ‘“I Wooed Thee with My Sword”: Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms’, in Othello, ed. Alvin Kernan, p. 250.

  25. Singh, p. 48.

  26. Singh (p. 7) draws on a phrase employed by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn in their reading of Isak Dinesen's story ‘The Blank Page’ as a ‘paradigm for a feminist historiography’. See ‘Feminist Scholarship and the Social Construction of Woman’, in Making a Difference, eds. Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 13.

  27. Lorraine Helms (p. 106-7) cites varying critical responses to women playing female roles originally written by men for male performers. For example, Elaine Showalter argues positively that ‘when Shakespeare's heroines began to be played by women instead of boys, the presence of the female body and the female voice, quite apart from interpretation, created new meanings and subversive tensions in these roles’. On the other hand, Sue Ellen Case argues that these roles are ‘caricatures’, and that they should again be played by men to underscore that classic roles are ‘classic drag’. Helms argues for a ‘partial, problematic, and paradoxical’ freedom at the same time that one acknowledges these constraints.

  28. Sue Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), p. 21.

  29. Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1982), p. 4.

  30. Case, p. 26.

  31. Singh, p. 20.

  32. According to Carol Thomas Neely, the handkerchief also functions symbolically to represent ‘sexuality controlled by chastity’. Passed from female sibyl to female charmer to Othello's mother to Desdemona, its purpose has been to make women ‘amiable’, and prevent men from hunting ‘after new fancies’. (See her extended discussion in ‘Women and Men in Othello’, in The Woman's Part, eds. Lenz, Greene and Nealy, p. 228-30.) Karen Newman discusses the handkerchief's historical as well as psychological significance: in her view, it ‘figures not simply [the mother's] missing penis’ but the ‘lack around which the play's dramatic action is structured, a desiring femininity … an aberrant and monstrous sexuality’. “‘And Wash the Ethiop White”: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello’, Shakespeare Reproduced, eds. Jean E. Howard and Marion O'Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), p. 156.

  33. Karen Newman observes that Desdemona's responses to Othello's tales are ‘perceived as voracious … conflating the oral and aural’. Othello's language ‘betrays a masculine fear of a cultural femininity … envisioned as a greedy mouth never satisfied, always seeking increase, a point of view which Desdemona's response to their reunion at Cyprus reinforces. … Othello fears Desdemona's desire because it invokes his monstrous difference from the sex/race code he has adopted, or alternatively allies her imagined monstrous sexual appetite with his own’ (p. 152).

  34. Newman (p. 157) further argues that although Shakespeare was subject to racist, sexist, and colonial discourses of his time, by making Othello a hero and Desdemona's love for him sympathetic, the play stands in a contestatory relationship to the hegemonic ideologies of race and gender in early modern England.

  35. Greenblatt, quoted in Newman, p. 150.

  36. Desdemona is, after all, willing to accompany Othello to Cyprus, which Alvin Kernan sees as a society ‘less secure’ than the idealized city represented by Venice—the image of government, ‘of reason, of law, and of social concord’. The island of Cyprus is more exposed to the Turks, emblematic of the forces of barbarism, the ‘geographical form of an action that occurs on the social and psychological levels as well’ (xxvi-vii).

  37. See Jyotsna Singh's discourse on such facts as unemployment and population displacements that led to the prosperity of brothels in early modern England (p. 28-33).

  38. Roland Barthes, quoted in Greene and Kahn, p. 4.

  39. See Bertolt Brecht on the alienation effect in Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Methuen, 1964), p. 192.

  40. Janelle Reinhelt, ‘Beyond Brecht: Britain's New Feminist Drama’, in Feminist Theatre and Theory, ed. Helene Keyssar (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), p. 35-6, 42.

  41. Brecht, p. 198.

Arthur M. Eastman (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4976

SOURCE: Eastman, Arthur M. “Othello as Ironist.” In In Honor of Austin Wright, edited by Joseph Baim, Ann L. Hayes, and Robert J. Gangewere, pp. 18-29. Carnegie Series in English, no. 12. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon University, 1972.

[In the following essay, Eastman investigates the similarities between the characters of Othello and Iago, maintaining that since both approach the world as ironists, Iago's efforts to corrupt Othello are successful.]

When we think about it, it is scarcely less extraordinary that Othello should submit himself to Iago's tutelage, turn his love into hate, and destroy Desdemona, then himself, than that he and Desdemona should have transcended the barriers of race and age and culture in the first place and boldly entered into their ecstatically intuitive union. Iago is diabolically skillful, of course, and the marriage was quick, denying in its brevity of courtship the richness of familiarity that might have withstood the Devil himself. We recognize, too, Othello's role as alien, his radical ignorance of Venetian society, his military simplicity, and his proven faith in “honest” and bluff Iago. All these things bear on Othello's transformation, but they do not get to the center of the mystery. The center of it—the psychological center, at least, if not the archetypal, religious, or dramaturgic—may be this: that just as beneath all their multitudinous differences Othello and Desdemona shared some essential identity that made them one whatever the worldly odds might be, so between Othello and Iago there obtains “an unfortunate affinity” (Schlegel's phrase) by means of which, despite the extraordinary differences between them, the Ancient practices upon and destroys his master. Van Doren observes that

Nothing that is in Iago is absent from Othello, though there is much in Othello of which Iago never dreamed. It would be misleading to say that Iago is an extension of Othello, for Iago is complete in himself. But it may be illuminating to point out that the response of one to the other is immediate, or if not immediate, sure.

Iago, we might say, is able to find his way to Othello's heart by looking within his own.

The thing he finds there is a way of addressing his world that is for him, and Othello, temperamentally necessary. It is the ironist's way. It is the asserting of authority by confronting situations from a position of partially or totally masked power. Partial masking serves to remind the potential adversary of power which he knows but which in the circumstances he may have overlooked. It is an oblique display of recognized force. Total masking occurs when there is no immediate need to assert control, and its value to the ironist is that it multiplies his power. Socrates' wisdom gained potency from his mask of ignorance and the ace in a poker game gains potency from being buried. The might of a platoon of armed men is augmented by the surprise of ambush. Totally masked power is multiplied power kept in reserve, the knowledge of which secures the ironist in his authority.

From first to last Iago is an ironist. He contrives his life to appear other than he is—cold-blooded, self-seeking, amoral, sexually pathological, and obsessed with envy—so that what he seems becomes an ambush from which he destroys his enemies and plumes up his will in double knavery. Othello is necessarily an ironist in his vocation. As a general he must be able to confront his enemy with shows that conceal his real strength. He must keep decisive power in hidden reserve. He must betray his enemy into false estimates of his plans, strength, and disposition. But Othello is also an ironist in non-military relationships. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that his life is all military. He approaches it as a battle, himself against a potential enemy, with victory assured, should hostilities break out, to the side that manipulates its power and appearance of power most effectively.

Shakespeare has been at pains to make this clear at the outset. Iago warns Othello of Brabantio's strength. Othello replies: “My services which I have done the signiory / Shall outtongue his complaints.” Here is an unironic consciousness of recognized power: there is no question on either side about the nature of Othello's services. But the irony enters immediately:

                    'Tis yet to know—
Which, when I know that boasting is an honor,
I shall promulgate—I fetch my life and being
From men of royal seige …

Here is power in reserve, the hidden royalty, knowledge of which fortifies Othello in his conflict with Brabantio.

Shakespeare does not isolate this first revelation. The ironic temperament shines through a few moments later in the oblique intimation of recognized strength, “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” And it appears again at the end of the scene. Brabantio has arrested Othello. His men move toward Othello's party, their hands on their swords. Othello's men prepare for resistance. Before the fray can begin, Othello stills it, turns to Brabantio, and asks: “Where will you that I go / To answer this your charge?” The irony of the situation is marvelous and of Othello's contriving. The general is apparently surrendering to the enemy, making the speech of conciliation, ready to accept the unavoidable terms. Even as he bows toward the yoke, however, hidden power is at his beck to snatch victory from defeat. For Othello's question is not candid. He knows the Duke has sent for him, that affairs of state demand his presence at the Senate, that Brabantio's cause must give way, for the moment, to the call of military council. Othello might have told this to Brabantio. Instead, the question, the trap. And Brabantio walks into it: Othello must go to prison.

                    What if I do obey?
How may the Duke be therewith satisfied,
Whose messengers are here about my side
Upon some present business of the state
To bring me to him?

Othello contrives his life to have authoritative power or knowledge in hidden reserve. He stands before the Senate, accused of witchcraft. Though he knows that he comes of royal seige and feels that he may speak unbonneted to the best, he addresses them with ceremonial humility: “Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors, / My very noble and approved good masters.” Like a Southern Senator unaccustomed to public speaking, he proclaims that he is “rude” in speech. To explain his inadequacies in “the soft phrase of peace,” he reminds them of his lifetime of broil and battle. The stated purpose is to explain a non-existent inadequacy; the ironic effect is to remind his listeners of his military prowess and their need of him.

Othello tells his tale in the quiet consciousness of his unknown royalty, the need the state has of him, the testimony Desdemona will make in his behalf. These things he keeps in reserve. The tale itself is an ironic and progressive revelation of hitherto hidden things—a marshalling of authoritative knowledge that saves the day. It begins by revealing that Brabantio had loved Othello, “oft invited” him, “still questioned” him: the accuser had himself created the occasion he now bemoans. The body of the tale puts the Senate in Desdemona's place, carries it through strange lands, moving accidents, hair-breadth 'scapes, until it is similarly bewitched. “I think this tale would win my daughter too,” says the Duke. Othello's private knowledge of the nature of his wooing, in other words, turns into persuasive strength on his behalf. And finally, most devastating revelation of all and most powerful as it evokes the admiration that men confer on those of their sex conspicuously successful in love, Desdemona was herself the wooer:

                    My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished
That Heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story
And that would woo her.

Both Othello and Iago are ironists. Within certain important limitations, they tend to think and feel in the same ways. The elements that Iago finds within Othello, by looking within or projecting himself, are these: first, a sense of authority from the ironist's superior power or knowledge in a conflict situation; second, an almost overpowering frustration when one is denied this superior knowledge—either by conscious ignorance of the salient elements in the situation or by finding that one is the victim of another's irony; third, a general tendency, which under the stimulus of frustration may mount to compulsion, to confront or manipulate situations so that one achieves ironic mastery—by reserving knowledge, by finding knowledge hidden from others, by posing as ignorant where one has knowledge or as weak where one is strong; and fourth, a tendency to project one's own nature, to assume that others also confront life ironically.

Iago's irony is inhibited only by the prudential concerns of psychopathic self-centeredness while Othello's irony, initially, is moral. “The Moor is of a free and open nature” not because he lacks a feeling for irony, but because his own irony does not hit below the belt; not because he lacks subtlety but because he lacks dishonesty. Similarly, the motives governing their resort to irony differ. For Iago irony is compensatory. It bridges the gap between his self-esteem and the place accorded him by the world. Irony becomes for him both a means and an end, a means of getting what he wants, whether Roderigo's money or the downfall of his enemies, but an end as the very act of irony indulges his self-importance. Othello, at least at first, needs no such compensation, for in most respects the world agrees with his self-judgment. For Othello irony is primarily a means, a prudential approach to potential danger, and, as an end, it signifies not self-importance, though there are occasional hints of self-indulgence, but self-confidence. Yet whatever the ultimate causes and however different the morality and motives, the basic tendencies are the same. From his secure intuition of these Iago projects his plot.

Iago's strategy is first to deny and then to provide Othello with the superior knowledge the ironic temperament needs. The strategy gets its test in the attack on Cassio. The alarum has sounded; the general has risen from his bed, stands before Cassio, Montano, and “Honest Iago, that look'st dead with grieving.” What has happened? What does happen is step one in the strategy: Othello is forced into conscious ignorance. Neither Cassio nor Montano can speak and Iago will not. Othello is not simply in ignorance; he is ignorant where others have knowledge, and knowledge that, as commanding general, deeply concerns him. His blood begins his safer guides to rule. Now it is Iago's turn to speak, and so to speak that Montano will credit his integrity, Cassio his loyalty, and Othello find the authoritative knowledge toward which his temperament inclines him. Playing the role of one reluctant to give his friend away, Iago protests Cassio's decency too much. And Othello seizes on the hint: “I know, Iago, / Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter, / Making it light to Cassio.” Iago has not made it light, but Othello, projecting his own tendency to keep knowledge in reserve, sees Iago doing the same. Compelled by his initial frustration, Othello vaults to the compensating and satisfying certainty, composed partly of truth, partly of falsehood, that Iago has prepared for him. Secure in the true knowledge of Cassio's guilt and the false knowledge of the extent of that guilt, Othello sacks his lieutenant.

With his strategy approved by its baptism of fire, Iago is prepared to attack the marriage itself. Why the marriage? For many reasons, undoubtedly, but among them, these three. First, Othello is vastly ignorant about Desdemona and marriage, a point generally recognized. Othello's ignorance is his Achilles' heel. Second, Iago's temperament, both jealous and ironic, finds the poetic justice of it satisfying just as Othello will find a gratifying propriety in strangling Desdemona in her bed, “even the bed she hath contaminated.” Third, Iago knows from his own experience both the frustration of marital suspicion and the compulsive tendency toward a knowledge that remains unverifiable, unstable, and unsatisfactory. If the jealous man is inevitably doomed to spiritual malaise, the jealous ironist is doubly damned. Doubt opens the gate to the frustration of conscious ignorance, the worse frustration of feeling oneself the victim of others' irony—and such is the common way of thinking, the frustrations are not momentary: once to be a cuckold is always to be a cuckold, always to be the ruled rather than the ruler of a power complex. Fourth, Iago knows in the marrow of his own jealous nature that when marital doubt arises, the cards are stacked in favor of the assumption of guilt. If one assumes innocence, one continues to be vulnerable, which is, to the ironic temperament, impossible. If one assumes guilt, however, one cannot be hurt further. One knows, and knowing, one is in a sense impregnable. Iago knows the frustrations and the compulsion toward assuming guilt. He knows, finally, the intolerable instability of that assumption. If one cannot verify it, if one cannot get ocular proof or admission, one's power is insecure. One has trumps that no one else will recognize. Like a man in a nightmare, one has strength and uses it, but the door will not open, the enemy will not fall. So, nagged by the knowledge that the assumption of guilt may be false yet driven to that assumption, and thwarted in realizing the mastery that the assumption should provide, the jealous ironist finds in neither poppy nor mandragora the sweet sleep he owed yesterday.

Iago adapts his attack to Othello's temperament. His first words, “Ha! I like not that,” suggest an ulterior knowledge that places Othello in ignorance. Othello, only partly attentive, asks, “What dost thou say?” and Iago, overly protesting the unimportance of his exclamation as he had overly protested Cassio's decency, baits Othello's predisposition to find out hidden knowledge: “Nothing, my lord. Or if—I know not what.” Was it not Cassio that parted from Desdemona?

Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.

But it was Cassio. And he did steal away guilty-like. Othello feels a vague unrest. If Iago thinks Cassio would not, should not steal away, then there is something more here than meets the eye. Some kind of knowledge lies back of these exclamations and disclaimers, this unwillingness to accept the truth. In a quiet way, Othello's frustration has begun. Shall he call back Cassio? The ironist wants power in reserve. And the frustrated ironist needs that power to the extent of his frustration. Othello demurs. Iago has gained a foothold on Othello's mind.

Slowly, carefully, Iago teases Othello into a sense of his own ignorance; slowly, carefully, he sets up the counters on which Othello's mind, driven toward knowledge, will close. When Othello, progressively irritated by Iago's echoes, “As if there were some monster in his thought / Too hideous to be shown,” asks to be released from ignorance—“If thou dost love me, / Show me thy thought”—Iago, sensing that the frustration is not strong enough, retreats from the question but dangles before Othello further suggestions of secret intelligence. And step by step Othello follows until his frustration flares out: “By Heaven, I'll know thy thoughts.” The time has come for Iago to force the corrective knowledge home: “Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy.”

Othello is rescued from ignorance and is again secure. The knowledge he has gained, however, is not of Desdemona's dishonesty; it is simply of Iago's suspicion. In the quenching of his frustration, he relaxes into quiet confidence, unaware that his new knowledge is as flawed as his knowledge about Cassio's guilt, unaware that Iago has led him into admitting question of Desdemona's chastity. Though he does not know it, his ignorance, his temperament, and Iago's guile already doom his security forever.

Iago's job is now to fan the flames of new frustration by directly convincing Othello of his own ignorance about Desdemona and by suggesting that Othello is the victim of adulterous irony. He does it skillfully. First the argument from personal experience, which depends on a kind of knowledge Othello cannot have:

I know our country disposition well.
In Venice they do let Heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands.

Then, the twin arguments of Desdemona's deceit: she deceived her father and she showed Othello fear when she felt love. As the flame mounts, Iago breaks off, but when Othello tries to gain certitude, seeking within his heart and experience for the truth with which to confront these doubts, Iago will not let him. With each solicitous fear that he has dashed Othello's spirits, he keeps Othello emotionally off balance and subtly evokes the ironist's predisposition to accept guilt as fact. With very few words more he achieves his goal. “Why did I marry?” cries Othello; “This honest creature doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.” The conviction grows as Othello seeks out the hidden knowledge to give him mastery:

                    Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years …
She's gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.

Doubt withers away as the conviction becomes, momentarily, absolute:

                    'tis the plague of great ones …
'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death.
Even then this forkèd plague is fated to us
When we do quicken

When Othello returns, he is on the rack. Each slightest realization of his new knowledge becomes an agony of frustration. As he imagines Desdemona's stolen hours of lust, he finds his assumption of guilt inadequately supported by knowledge: “'tis better to be much abused / Than but to know 't a little.” As he finds Cassio's kisses on Desdemona's lips, he tastes the bitter fruit of another's irony. The pain of these unfolding realizations forces doubt upon Othello: “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.” The doubt, alas, is at best a forlorn hope—is, in fact, little more than procrastinated belief, a shrinking from and a testimonial to the inevitable. Intuiting this, Iago floods Othello's mind with images of sexual guilt. As Othello stares in fascinated revulsion—at pictures of himself, the supervisor, grossly gaping on while Desdemona is topped, of Cassio and Desdemona “prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride”—his very act of imagination is an act of acceptance. When he demands “a living reason she's disloyal,” he is no longer challenging the fact. Like a hanging judge, he is simply asking evidence to support the predetermined verdict. The businesses of the dream and the handkerchief satisfy the demand.

Iago's temptation and Othello's fall have been presented. The catastrophe looms in the offing. In between Shakespeare focuses on the workings of Othello's temperament, on the dynamics of jealousy as it operates, under cynical tutelage, in a highly imaginative mind habituated to ironic consciousness of power. In Act II Shakespeare had shown Iago listening in on the exchange of courtesies between Cassio and Desdemona. Iago's asides tainted the scene with cynical malevolence:

He takes her by the palm. Aye, well said, whisper.
With as little a web as this will I ensnare as
great a fly as Cassio. Aye, smile upon her, do, I
will gyve thee in thine own courtship … Very good,
well kissed! An excellent courtesy! 'Tis so indeed.
Yet again your fingers to your lips? Would they
were clyster pipes for your sake!

Now, in Act IV, it is Othello who stands outside a friendly exchange, sustaining his need for authority by cynically misconstruing its meaning, breathing out hate and threats:

Now he tells how she plucked him to my chamber.
Oh, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it to.

Othello has sunk to Iago.

In his degradation he is true to his temperament. He is the dupe of adultery, hence the butt of others' power; but because he knows and because his knowledge is concealed from those who have hurt him, he has again something of that reserve strength the ironist needs. His realization of this strength wavers, however, for, as we have seen, he can feel it intensely only as he simultaneously senses in all its bitterness the source of that strength, which is his own ignominy.

It is such a bittersweet realization that Iago offers when he has Othello spy upon his conversation with Cassio. Othello watches and suffers, watches and feels his power wax. Predisposed to know rather than doubt, predisposed to project his own temperament on others, he twists Cassio's every motion into confirmation. And like Iago earlier, he gains power from a knowledge of which his victim is ignorant, the knowledge of his own feelings and motives, now inflamed by his kindled shame. In his threat, Othello momentarily realizes the strength he relies on.

Since this realization is twinned with shame, however, it is unstable, and as Cassio leaves, reaction sets it. Othello's mind drives back on his ignominy, on the transparent ease with which he has been duped, on the naiveté of his trust in Cassio, on the sickly sweet folly of his love for Desdemona. In his agony he feels, too, a deeper vision, a tragic and impersonal sense of Desdemona's lost perfection. Simultaneously to feel these things, however, is to be torn apart. Othello cannot say “let her rot, and perish, and be damned tonight” and “O, Iago, the pity of it” and remain whole. To escape from this emotional torment, he smothers his sense of the tragic. He asserts his ironic temperament over his deepest apprehensions of life's meaning. By the end of this episode Othello has reasserted his mastery and strengthened it with the will, born of shame, to strangle Desdemona.

Even now, however, his mastery is but momentary. Not only does his sense of power depend on a sense of shame too painful to be steadily realised, but his power must be recognized or susceptible of recognition before it is secure. Othello must test his power. Hence the brothel scene. What Othello seeks is a guarantee to his conviction, not a discovery of innocence, and he seeks it in the masochistically ambivalent way already defined, tormenting himself to satisfy his corrupted imagination.

Emilia provides no satisfaction. Her attitude, in fact, threatens Othello's conviction, for it denies the very premise on which his strength is built. But he does not yet feel much frustration, for Emilia is “a simple bawd” and Othello has to do with “a subtle whore, / A closet lock and key of villainous secrets.”

Othello begins his interview with Desdemona in ironic mastery. He is a customer, she a whore. They know the secret promptings of the flesh, these two. Then he shifts from the initiate to the outsider, the sardonically indignant justicer, his language still ironic, still making Desdemona the pawn of his bitter conviction:

Why, what art thou?
Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife.
Come, swear it, damn thyself …
Swear thou art honest.

Her protestation of innocence but intensifies his conviction of her guilt and of what she has done to him. Momentarily, like a man standing outside of himself yet looking in, Othello tries to come to terms with his estate. He could have borne pain, poverty, captivity—

                    But, alas, to make me
A fixèd figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!

This is the ironist's response to Othello's condition, the sense of humiliation. But deeper than the ironic vision is the tragic, the sense not of humiliation, but of utter, unredeemable loss. Once again this surfaces:

But there where I have garnered 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!

Yet even as Othello contemplates his tragedy, revulsion floods through him:

                    to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!

His attention rebounds from the destruction of his life to the destroyer, and with that shift, his ironic pride reasserts itself. “I hope my noble lord esteems me honest” meets for reply “Oh, aye, as summer flies are in the shambles, / That quicken even with blowing.”

To this point Othello has not really tested his power. He has asked, he has made his charge, but his sense of his loss, his sense of the pity of it, has dominated his mind. Now, when Desdemona cries out, “what ignorant sin have I committed,” he suddenly finds himself facing nightmare. He had built a universe out of self-confidence and love only to have it destroyed. He has built another out of the ruins, one founded on pain, a suffering universe but an ordered one. And this woman who ruined the first will ruin the second, will deny its existence, will mock him with her insistence that the first world was the true one. Othello cannot surrender his certitude, for that would be to invite a second chaos, but in his torture and frustration he strikes out. He seizes on the ambiguity of “committed” and wrathfully demands,

Was this fair paper, this most goodly book,
Made to write “whore” upon? What committed!
Committed! O thou public commoner!

When he can still obtain no confession, no corroboration of his conviction, Othello ends the interview as he began it. To maintain his universe and his own suffering authority over it, he returns to the acted irony, the leering insistence on shared knowledge of guilt:

                    I cry you mercy …
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello.

When Othello first succumbed to Iago's temptation, he knelt down and “by yond marble Heaven, / In the due reverence of a sacred vow,” swore his revenge. When Iago proposed that he strangle Desdemona in “the bed she hath contaminated,” Othello replied, “Good, good. The justice of it pleases.” Now, as he stands over his sleeping wife, it is as justicer. Why? The reasons are in part religious, but they are also temperamental. When Othello swore his vow, he was putting himself in a position of power, both as his reverently sworn intent was knowledge denied Desdemona and Cassio and as he thereby enlisted in the cause of divine justice and thus became its agent. When he was gratified by the poetic justice Iago proposed, he was realizing a sense of providential strength: the all-powerful forces of the universe bring about their justice with ironic propriety, and Othello found himself, as it were, partaking of divine knowledge, divine intent, divine strength as he planned strangulation in the very bed of shame. At the bedside he is supreme. His conviction is absolute, his intent gives him the fullest realization of that conviction, and in his identification of his own purposes with the moral order of the universe, he has purged himself alike of the lust he had imaginatively shared and the sense of shame, powerlessness, and frustration hitherto concomitant with his mastery.

The strangulation scene is in many ways the brothel scene all over again. Again Othello puts his power, now religiously enforced, to the test; and again the test fails. Again he begins in ironic, though impersonal, control; again the control is threatened, and again his passion erupts, nullifying the religious reinforcement, to destroy the thing that threatens him. Othello destroys Desdemona, it seems to me, to save himself, to assert for the last time against the challenge of her adultery and her protested innocence his own mastery.

As the play draws to a close, Iago, by his final act of sealing his lips, remains true to his temperament and maintains his power over those who would exort confession from him. Othello, at the end, likewise remains true to his ironic nature. He has struggled out of chaos only to find chaos again in Emilia's dying revelation. Now he builds anew, rapidly, for the true order is but the old one turned upside down: his is the damnation, not Desdemona's; hers is the purity, not his. This discovery, though, and the suffering that has gone into it change Othello's relation to his world. He is beyond it now, invulnerable. Other men cannot touch him. When Gratiano tries, Othello begins to respond as of old, bringing forth a concealed weapon and explicitly, ironically insisting on his physical mastery:

                    I have seen the day
That with this little arm and this good sword
I have made my way through more impediments
Than twenty times your stop.

“Little” arm indeed! Yet scarcely has he asserted his power over others than he repudiates it:

Do you go back dismayed? 'Tis a lost fear.
Man but a rush against Othello's breast,
And he retires.

His present authority is of another sort. These men are concerned with life, as Othello once was, but now he holds the power which his suffering and discovery have conferred upon him, the power to reject life. Hence he leaves the stage of our minds as he entered it, the holder of concealed knowledge, concealed intent, even in death the ironic master of those whose wills oppose his own.

                    Set you down this,
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him, thus.


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Often described as a tragedy of character, much of the critical commentary of Othello focuses on the main characters of the play—Othello, Iago, and Desdemona—and their relationships to one another. Other areas of scholarly interest include the role of race and racism in the play, as well as gender roles and relationships. One of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays, modern film and stage adaptations of Othello also reflect these critical concerns.

Scholars have not reached a consensus on Desdemona's character. S. N. Garner (1976) finds that just as the other characters in the play see Desdemona as either pure and perfect or as Venice's “cunning whore,” so do many modern critics. Garner finds, however, that Desdemona is much more complex than either of these views, and that an interpretation of the play's meaning depends as much on an accurate understanding of her character as it does on understanding the characters of Iago and Othello. Shakespeare depicted Desdemona as neither pure nor corrupt, Garner maintains, but as a women possessing a full range of human emotions. Other critics focus on Othello's character and on his relationship with Iago. Arthur M. Eastman (1972), for example, identifies a marked similarity between Othello and Iago in that they both approach the world as ironists. Eastman explains that as ironists, they assert their authority by addressing situations from a position of concealed power. It is this affinity between Othello and Iago, Eastman contends, that allows Iago to manipulate Othello successfully. Derek Cohen (see Further Reading) centers his study of Othello on the character's suicide, tracing the political and psychological factors contributing to Othello's mental state. The critic views Othello as a pawn of white domination and demonstrates the way in which he is used by the Venetian state to sustain its dominion over its black foes, and used by Shakespeare to portray the dangers of miscegenation.

Like Cohen, G. K. Hunter (1967) also investigates the role of race and racism in Othello. Hunter reviews the notions Elizabethans held about foreigners in general and blacks in particular, finding that there existed a widespread association of blacks with sin, wickedness, and the devil. According to the critic, Shakespeare did not present Othello as a stereotypical black character, and contends that it is the darkness of Iago's soul that ruins Othello. James R. Aubrey (1993) also examines Elizabethan views regarding blacks, noting that blacks were often associated with monsters. Aubrey demonstrates that Othello's character is fashioned in such a way as to exploit this association, and thereby heighten the response of early audiences to Othello's character. Arthur L. Little, Jr. (1993) studies the way in which the play emphasizes a connection between Othello's “otherness” and sexual subversiveness. The critic also examines the way in which the audience and the other characters in Othello react to Othello's blackness in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense.

Othello's treatment of Desdemona is at the center of many critical studies exploring gender roles and relationships in Othello. Carol Thomas Neely (1985) demonstrates the centrality of the marriage bed and the consummation of the marriage in the play. Neely finds that such a focus on the couple's sexual relationship reveals that marital love is the play's main theme and that the primary conflict is between men and women. Furthermore, Neely associates the fueling of this conflict with the fact that the men's sense of identity and self-worth is dependent not only on their relationships with women, but on the bonds developed with other men, who honor one another's reputation. By contrast, the critic contends, the women in the play are relatively indifferent to reputation, and in part free from the jealousy and competitiveness that impair the men. An analysis of the bonds between males also figures prominently in Ruth Vanita's 1994 essay. Vanita examines the complicity of male society in the murders of Desdemona and Emilia. The men fail to intervene on behalf of the women, according to Vanita, because they believe that the husband/wife relationship is distinct from other types of human relationships. Valerie Wayne (1991) takes another approach to the topic of gender roles, maintaining that the play presents a range of ideologies concerning women and marriage, and that this reflects English Renaissance culture, where multiple discourses on women and marriage were also available. Wayne argues that the misogyny in Othello, for which Iago serves as the primary mouthpiece, represents just one of the prevailing views of the Renaissance.

Gender and race relations also play a significant role in modern stage and film productions of Othello. Sharon Friedman (1999) compares Othello with Desdemona, Paula Vogel's revision of Shakespeare's play, examining in particular the way in which Vogel dramatized the threat posed by female desire and questioned conventional categories associated with virginity and faithfulness. Judith Buchanan (2000) reviews a 1995 film version of Othello, directed by Oliver Parker, starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago. Buchanan investigates the ways in which the film constructs “otherness,” showing that Fishburne's Othello is a man willing to announce his resistance to Venetian society, and hence, his otherness. Buchanan also studies the way the film manipulates the subjective gaze, and contends that the film encourages the voyeuristic viewing of Othello's own self-observations. Another recent film adaptation of Othello, O (2001), is reviewed by Peter Travers (2001), who finds the film a flawed interpretation of Shakespeare's play, but one worth seeing nevertheless. Specifically, Travers criticizes the film's reliance on plot mechanics borrowed from Shakespeare that do not make sense given the film's modern context.

G. K. Hunter (lecture date 1967)

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SOURCE: Hunter, G. K. “Othello and Colour Prejudice.” In Proceedings of the British Academy, LIII (1968): 139-63.

[In the following lecture, originally delivered in 1967, Hunter attempts to ascertain Shakespeare's theatrical purpose behind Othello's blackness and contends that Shakespeare did not present Othello as a stereotypical black character.]

It is generally admitted today that Shakespeare was a practical man of the theatre: however careless he may have been about maintaining consistency for the exact reader of his plays, he was not likely to introduce a theatrical novelty which would only puzzle his audience; it does not seem wise, therefore, to dismiss his theatrical innovations as if they were unintentional. The blackness of Othello is a case in point. Shakespeare largely modified the story he took over from Cinthio: he made a tragic hero out of Cinthio's passionate and bloody lover; he gave him a royal origin, a Christian baptism, a romantic bravura of manner and, most important of all, an orotund magnificence of diction. Yet, changing all this, he did not change his colour, and so produced a daring theatrical novelty—a black hero for a white community—a novelty which remains too daring for many recent theatrical audiences. Shakespeare cannot merely have carried over the colour of Othello by being too lazy or too uninterested to meddled with it; for no actor, spending the time in ‘blacking-up’, and hence no producer, could be indifferent to such an innovation, especially in that age, devoted to ‘imitation’ and hostile to ‘originality’. In fact, the repeated references to Othello's colour in the play and the wider net of images of dark and light spread across the diction, show that Shakespeare was not only not unaware of the implication of his hero's colour, but was indeed intensely aware of it as one of the primary factors in his play.1 I am therefore assuming in this lecture that the blackness of Othello has a theatrical purpose, and I intend to try to suggest what it was possible for that purpose to have been.

Shakespeare intended his hero to be a black man—that much I take for granted;2 what is unknown is what the idea of a black man suggested to Shakespeare, and what reaction the appearance of a black man on the stage was calculated to produce. It is fairly certain, however, that some modern reactions are not likely to have been shared by the Elizabethans. The modern theatre-going European intellectual, with a background of cultivated superiority to ‘colour problems’ in other continents, would often choose to regard Othello as a fellow man and to watch the story—which could so easily be reduced to its headline level: ‘sheltered white girl errs: said, “Colour does not matter”’—with a sense of freedom from such prejudices. But this lofty fair-mindedness may be too lofty for Shakespeare's play, and not take the European any nearer the Othello of Shakespeare than the lady from Maryland quoted in the Furness New Variorum edition: ‘In studying the play of Othello, I have always imagined its hero a white man.’ Both views, that the colour of Othello does not matter, and that it matters too much to be tolerable, err, I suggest, by over-simplifying. Shakespeare was clearly deliberate in keeping Othello's colour; and it is obvious that he counted on some positive audience reaction to this colour; but it is equally obvious that he did not wish the audience to dismiss Othello as a stereotype nigger.

Modern rationalizations about ‘colour’ tend to be different from those of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. We are powerfully aware of the relativism of viewpoints; we distinguish easily between different racial cultures; and explicit arguments about the mingling of the races usually begin at the economic and social level and only move to questions of God's providence at the lunatic fringe.

The Elizabethans also had a powerful sense of the economic threat posed by the foreign groups they had daily contact with—Flemings or Frenchmen—but they had little or no continuous contact with ‘Moors’, and no sense of economic threat from them.3 This did not mean, however, that they had no racial or colour prejudice. They had, to start with, the basic common man's attitude that all foreigners are curious and inferior—the more curious the more inferior, in the sense of the proverb quoted by Purchas: ‘Three Moors to a Portuguese; three Portuguese to an Englishman.’4 They had also the basic and ancient sense that black is the colour of sin and death, ‘the badge of hell, The hue of dungeons, and the Schoole of night’ (as Shakespeare himself says).5 This supposition is found all over the world (even in darkest Africa)6 from the earliest to the latest times; and in the West there is a continuous and documented tradition of it.7 It may be worth while giving some account of this. In Greece and Rome black was the colour of ill luck, death, condemnation, malevolence. The Roman feeling about the colour is well summed up in Horace's line:

hic niger est; hunc tu, Romane, caveto(8)

—on which the Delphin editor comments: ‘Niger est] Homo pestilens, malus, perniciosus: contra est candidus, albus.’ The soldiers of Brutus were dismayed to meet an Ethiop just before the battle of Philippi.9 In Lucian's Philopseudes (§ 31) we hear of a ghost met in Corinth: ‘when the Spirit appeared … he was squalid and long-haired and blacker than the dark’ (μελάντεροs του̑ zόφου). Suetonius tells us of a play, being rehearsed at the time of Caligula's death, in which the infernal connotations of the colour were used with self-conscious art. In this play Egyptians and Ethiopians played the parts of the inhabitants of the underworld.10

The coming of Christianity made no break in the tradition. Indeed, Christian eschatology seems to have taken over the black man from the underworld with great speed and enthusiasm. In the dream of Marcellus in the Acts of Peter (c. a.d. 200)11 a demon appeared ‘in sight like an Ethiopian … altogether black and filthy’. In the third-century Acta Xanthippae the devil manifested himself as the King of Ethiopia.12 In the so-called ‘Epistle of Barnabas’ the devil is called ό μέλαs.13 In another early text the martyrdom of Perpetua is represented as a battle between the saint and a black-faced Egyptian—the devil, of course.14 Among the visitors to the much-tried St. Anthony was the devil as a μέλαs παι̑s;15 in Cassian's Collationes Patrum the devil appears several times in figura Aethiopis taetri.16 And so on; I have elsewhere given later examples of the same religious visions.17 They went on, unchanging, into Shakespeare's own day.

The linguistic change from Greek or Latin to English did not free the word black from the associations that had formed round μέλαs or niger. As candidus had combined the ideas of white skin and clear soul, so the word fair served to combine the ideas of beauty and whiteness. Black remains the adjective appropriate to the ugly and the frightening,18 to the devil and his children, the wicked and the infidel. In the medieval romances, the enemies of the knights are usually Saracens, often misshapen and monstrous (eyes in forehead, mouth in breast, etc.) and commonly black.19 This is a tradition that Shakespeare picks up in his description of Thomas Mowbray as a Crusader,

Streaming the ensign of the Christian cross
Against black pagans, Turks and Saracens.(20)

There was then, it appears, a powerful, widespread, and ancient tradition associating black-faced men with wickedness, and this tradition came right up to Shakespeare's own day. The habit of representing evil men as black-faced or negroid had also established itself in a pictorial tradition that persists from the Middle Ages through and beyond the sixteenth century. This appears especially in works showing the tormentors of Christ, in scenes of the Flagellation and the Mocking, though the tormentors of other saints are liable to have the same external characteristics used to show their evil natures. Thus in the south porch of the Cathedral of Chartres, the executioner of St. Denis is shown as negroid (Pl. XXIa). The alabaster tablets produced in England in the late Middle Ages, and exported to the Continent in large numbers, frequently have enough pigment remaining to show some faces coloured black. W. L. Hildburgh, writing in Archaeologia, xciii (1949), assumes that there is a link between this characteristic and the medieval drama: ‘the very dark colour of the faces of the wicked persons [is] intended to indicate their villainous natures; in some tables the faces of the torturers and other iniquitous persons are black’ (p. 76). E. S. Prior, Catalogue of the Exhibition of English Medieval Alabaster Work (1913), had made the same point: ‘the blackening of the faces of the ruffians and executioners and heretics as seen in many of the tables was no doubt a stage trick’ (p. 21, n. 1). There is a good example in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, a crucifixion which the 1836 catalogue describes thus: ‘the penitent thief looks towards Christ and the other has his face averted and is painted as a negro’ (p. 146). Again, A. Gardner, writing of English medieval sculpture, tells us that ‘In the martyrdom scenes the executioners are given hideous faces, which seem sometimes to have been painted black’, English Medieval Sculpture (1951), p. 310. He illustrates a good example showing the martyrdom of St. Catherine (fig. 609, p. 309). Further examples are described in ‘Medieval English Alabasters in American Museums’, Speculum, xxx (1955), where the Scourging and the Resurrection are both marked by this feature. Wall-paintings in English churches preserve evidence of the same usage. A Massacre of the Innocents from Croughton (Northants.), illustrated in Borenius and Tristram, English Medieval Painting (1927) as plate 51, shows dark-faced soldiers. The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul at Pickering (N. Yorks.) has splendid fifteenth-century wall-paintings—not yet properly photographed—in which both Herod and the scourgers are given dark faces. Herod is represented in the same way, it may be noticed, in an alabaster tablet described in The Archaeological Journal, lxxiv (1917), plate xiii.

Among the sixteenth-century painted windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, the Scourging itself does not have this feature, but the window above (window X), intended as a typological comment on it (‘Shimei cursing David’), gives a dark face to Shimei, the vir sanguinum et vir Belial (2 Samuel, 16. 7), as the legend tells us.

Among illuminated manuscripts, the Luttrell Psalter has a black scourger on fol. 92v (Pl. XXIb), and the Chichester Psalter, now in the John Rylands Library, has several full-page pictures of the Passion, in which the tormentors are black with grossly distorted features (see Pl. XXIIa). The Très-Belles Heures de Notre Dame du Duc Jean de Berry has a full-page Scourging, with two white tormentors and one black (Pl. XXIIb). Bodleian MS. Douce 5—a Book of Hours of Flemish Provenance and fourteenth-century date—has a similar scene. The most celebrated picture in which this tradition appears is the Scourging by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua. In this the negro scourger stands alone brandishing his rod above the head of Christ. Among the many monographs devoted to Giotto no one seems to have pointed to the tradition with which I am here concerned.

The latest picture which uses this tradition, so far as I know, is a martyrdom of St. James, attributed to Van Dyck, sold by Weinmüller of Munich in 1958 (Catalogue 721, item 501—Pl. XXIII).

It is suggested by several of the authorities cited here that the pictorial tradition was associated with theatrical usage. Certainly the drama of the Middle Ages seems to have used black figures to represent the evil of this world and the next. Creizenach21 describes the European diffusion of the black faces. The surviving accounts of the Coventry cycle (which some think Shakespeare may have seen—and which he could have seen) retain the distinction between ‘white (or saved) souls’ and ‘black (or damned) souls’.22 The English folk-play describes St. George's enemy as (inter alia) ‘Black Morocco Dog’, ‘Black Prince of Darkness’, or even ‘Black and American Dog’.23 In Thomas Lupton's All for Money (1558-77) ‘Judas cometh in like a damned soul in black’.24 Udall's Ezechias, acted in Cambridge in 1564 is stated to have represented the leader of the Assyrians as a giant and made his followers coal-black. As the reporter of the performance tells us:

Dicta probat fuscis miles numerosus in armis
          Tam nullas tenebras dixeris esse nigras.(25)

In John Redford's Wit and Science (? 1530) we seem to have a moral transformation scene coram populo, expressed in terms of face colouring. Wit goes to sleep on Idleness's lap. Idleness then tells us:

Well, whyle he sleepth in Idlenes lappe,
Idleness marke on hym shall I clappe.

(434 f.)26

When Wit awakens he is taken for Ignorance (child of Idleness); he looks in a glass and exclaims:

                    hah, goges sowle,
What have we here, a dyvyll?
This glas I se well hath bene kept evyll
.....Other this glas is shamefully spotted,
Or els am I to shamefully blotted.
.....And as for this face
Is abhominable as black as the devyll.


Even in a proverbial title like ‘Like will to like quoth the Devil to the Collier’ the widespread and universally accepted point is exposed as part of the air that Englishmen of Shakespeare's age breathed. Indeed, as late as Wycherley's The Plain Dealer (1676) stray reference to the Devil's blackness was supposed to be intelligible to a theatrical audience (‘like a devil in a play … this darkness … conceals her angel's face’).27

How mindlessly and how totally accepted in this period was the image of the black man as the devil may be seen from the use of ‘Moors’ or ‘Morians’ in civic pageants. ‘Moors’ were an accepted part of the world of pageantry.28 There were Moors in London Lord Mayor's Pageants in 1519, 1521, 1524, 1536, 1541, 1551, 1589, 1609, 1611, 1624,29 who seem to have acted as bogey-man figures to clear the way before the main procession. They were sometimes supplied with fireworks for this purpose, and in this function seem to have been fairly indifferent alternatives to green-men, wodewoses, devils. As Withington has remarked,30 ‘it seems obvious that all these figures are connected’; they are connected as frightening marginal comments on the human state—as inhabitants of those peripheral regions in the mappae mundi where Moors, together with

Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders,

rubbed shoulders (such as these were) with Satyrs, Hermaphrodites, salvage men, and others of the species semihomo.31 An extreme example of this status of the Moor appears in the report of the pageant for the baptism of Prince Henry in 1594. It had been arranged that a lion should pull the triumphal car; but the lion could not be used, so a Moor was substituted.32

Renaissance scepticism and the voyages of discovery might seem, at first sight, to have destroyed the ignorance on which such thoughtless equations of black men and devils depended. But this does not prove to have been so. The voyagers brought back some accurate reports of black and heathen; but they often saw, or said they saw, what they expected to see—the marvels of the East.33 In any case the vocabulary at their disposal frustrated any attempt at scientific discrimination. The world was still seen largely, in terms of vocabulary, as a network of religious names. The word ‘Moor’ had no clear racial status. The first meaning in the O.E.D. (with examples up to 1629) is ‘Mahomedan’. And very often this means no more than ‘infidel’, ‘non-Christian’. Like Barbarian and Gentile (or Wog) it was a word for ‘people not like us’, so signalled by colour. The word Gentile itself had still the religious sense of Pagan, and the combined phrase ‘Moors and Gentiles’ is used regularly to represent the religious gamut of non-Christian possibilities (see O.E.D. for examples). Similarly, Barbary was not simply a place in Africa, but also the unclearly located home of Barbarism, as in Chaucer (Franklin's Tale, 1451, Man of Law's Tale, 183).

I have suggested elsewhere that the discoveries of the voyagers had little opportunity of scientific or non-theological development.34 And this was particularly true of the problems raised by the black-skinned races. No scientific explanation of black skins had ever been achieved, though doctors had long disputed it. Lodovicus Caelius Rhodiginus in his Lectionum Antiquarum libri XXX (1620) can cite column after column of authorities; but all without conclusive answers. We hear among the latest reports of Africa collected in T. Astley's New General Collection of Voyages (1745) that the blackness of the Negro is ‘a Topic that has given Rise to numberless Conjectures and great Disputes among the Learned in Europe’ (ii. 269). Sir Thomas Browne in three essays in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica (VI. x-xii) not only declared that the subject was ‘amply and satisfactorily discussed as we know by no man’ but proceeded to remedy this by way of amplitude rather than satisfactoriness. The theological explanation was left in possession of the field. Adam and Eve, it must be assumed, were white; it follows that the creation of the black races can only be ascribed to some subsequent fiat. The two favourite possibilities were the cursing of Cain and the cursing of Ham or Cham and his posterity—and sometimes these two were assumed to be different expressions of the same event; at least one might allege, with Sir Walter Ralegh, that ‘the sonnes of Cham did possesse the vices of the sonnes of Cain’.35 The Cham explanation had the great advantage that ‘the threefold world’ of tradition could be described in terms of the three sons of Noah—Japhet having produced the Europeans, Shem the Asiatics, while the posterity of Ham occupied Africa, or, in a more sophisticated version, ‘the Meridionall or southern partes of the world both in Asia and Africa’36—sophisticated, we should notice, without altering the basic theological assumption that Cham's posterity were banished to the most uncomfortable part of the globe, and a foretaste of the Hell to come. This geographical assumption fitted in with the wisdom that the etymological doctors had in the Middle Ages been able to glean from the word Ham—defined as ‘Cham: calidus, et ipse ex praesagio futuri cognominatus est. Posteritas enim eius eam terrae partem possedit quae vicino sole calentior est.’37 When this is linked to the other point made in relation to the Cham story—that his posterity were cursed to be slaves38—one can see how conveniently and plausibly such a view fitted the facts and desires found in the early navigators. Azurara, the chronicler of Prince Henry the Navigator's voyages, tells us that it was natural to find blackamoors as the slaves of lighter skinned men:

these blacks were Moors (i.e. Mahomedans) like the others, though their slaves, in accordance with ancient custom which I believe to have been because of the curse which, after the Deluge, Noah laid upon his son Cain [sic], cursing him in this way: that his race should be subject to all the other races in the world. And from his race these blacks are descended.39

The qualities of the ‘Moors’ who appear on the Elizabethan stage are hardly at all affected by Elizabethan knowledge of real Moors from real geographical locations, and, given the literary modes available, this is hardly surprising. It is true that the first important Moor-role—that of Muly Hamet in Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (c. 1589)—tells the story of a real man (with whom Queen Elizabeth had a treaty) in a real historical situation. But the dramatic focus that Peele manages to give to his Moorish character is largely dependent on the devil and underworld association he can suggest for him—making him call up ‘Fiends, Fairies, hags that fight in beds of steel’ and causing him to show more acquaintance with the geography of hell than with that of Africa. Aaron in Titus Andronicus is liberated from even such slender ties as associate Muly Hamet with geography. Aaron is in the play as the representative of a world of generalized barbarism, which is Gothic in Tamora and Moorish in Aaron, and unfocused in both. The purpose of the play is served by a general opposition between Roman order and Barbarian disorder. Shakespeare has the doubtful distinction of making explicit here (perhaps for the first time in English literature) the projection of black wickedness in terms of negro sexuality. The relationship between Tamora and Aaron is meant, clearly enough, to shock our normal sensibilities and their black baby is present as an emblem of disorder. In this respect, as in most others, Eleazer in Lust's Dominion (c. 1600)—the third pre-Othello stage-Moor—is copied from Aaron. The location of this play (Spain) gives a historically plausible excuse to present the devil in his favourite human form—‘that of a Negro or Moor’, as Reginald Scott tells us—but does not really use the locale to establish any racial points.

These characters provide the dominant images that must have been present in the minds of Shakespeare's original audience when they entered the Globe to see a play called The Moor of Venice—an expectation of pagan devilry set against white Christian civilization—excessive civilization perhaps in Venice, but civilization at least ‘like us’. Even those who knew Cinthio's story of the Moor of Venice could not have had very different expectations, which may be summed up from the story told by Bandello (III. xxi) in which a master beats his Moorish servant, and the servant in revenge rapes and murders his wife and children.40 Bandello draws an illuminating moral:

By this I intend it to appear that a man should not be served by this sort of slave; for they are seldom found faithful, and at best they are full of filth, unclean, and stink all the time like goats. But all this is as nothing put beside the savage cruelty that reigns in them.

It is in such terms that the play opens. We hear from men like us of a man not like us, of ‘his Moorship’, ‘the Moor’, ‘the thick-lips’, ‘an old black ram’, ‘a Barbary horse’, ‘the devil’, of ‘the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor’. The sexual fear and disgust that lies behind so much racial prejudice are exposed for our derisive expectations to fasten upon them. And we are at this point bound to agree with these valuations, for no alternative view is revealed. There is, of course, a certain comic brio which helps to distance the whole situation, and neither Brabantio, nor Iago nor Roderigo can wholly command our identification. None the less we are drawn on to await the entry of a traditional Moor figure, the kind of person we came to the theatre expecting to find.

When the second scene begins, however, it is clear that Shakespeare is bent to ends other than the fulfilment of these expectations. The Iago/Roderigo relationship of I. i is repeated in the Iago/Othello relationship of the opening of I. ii; but Othello's response to the real-seeming circumstance with which Iago lards his discourse is very different from the hungrily self-absorbed questionings of Roderigo. Othello draws on an inward certainty about himself, a radiant clarity about his own well-founded moral position. This is no ‘lascivious Moor’, but a great Christian gentleman, against whom Iago's insinuations break like water against granite. Not only is Othello a Christian, moreover, he is the leader of Christendom in the last and highest sense in which Christendom existed as a viable entity, crusading against the ‘black pagans’. He is to defend Cyprus against the Turk, the ‘general enemy Ottoman’. It was the fall of Cyprus which produced the alliance of Lepanto, and we should associate Othello with the emotion that Europe continued to feel—till well after the date of Othello—about that victory and about Don John of Austria.41

Shakespeare has presented to us a traditional view of what Moors are like, i.e. gross, disgusting, inferior, carrying the symbol of their damnation on their skin; and has caught our over-easy assent to such assumptions in the grip of a guilt which associates us and our assent with the white man representative of such views in the play—Iago. Othello acquires the glamour of an innocent man that we have wronged, and an admiration stronger than he could have achieved by virtue plainly represented:

… as these black masks
Proclaim an enshield beauty ten times louder
Than beauty could, displayed.

(Is it an accident that Shakespeare wrote these lines from Measure for Measure in approximately the same year as he wrote Othello?) Iago is a ‘civilized’ man; but where, for the ‘inferior’ Othello, appearance and reality, statement and truth are linked indissolubly, civilization for Iago consists largely of a capacity to manipulate appearances and probabilities:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Othello may be ‘the devil’ in appearance: but it is the ‘fair’ Iago who gives birth to the dark realities of sin and death in the play:

                    It is engender'd. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light

The relationship between these two is developed in terms of appearance and reality. Othello controls the reality of action; Iago the ‘appearance’ of talk about action; Iago the Italian is isolated (even from his wife), envious, enigmatic (even to himself), self-centred; Othello the ‘extravagant and wheeling stranger’ is surrounded and protected by a network of duties, obligations, esteems, pious to his father-in-law, deferential to his superiors, kind to his subordinates, loving to his wife. To sum up, assuming that soul is reality and body is appearance, we may say that Iago is the white man with the black soul while Othello is the black man with the white soul. Long before Blake's little black boy had said

I am black, but oh my soul is white.
White as an angel is the English child,
But I am black as if bereaved of light.

and before Kipling's Gunga Din:

An' for all 'is dirty 'ide
'E was white, clear white inside …
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

Othello had represented the guilty awareness of Europe that the ‘foreigner type’ is only the type we do not know, whose foreignness vanishes when we have better acquaintance; that the prejudicial foreign appearance may conceal a vision of truth, as Brabantio is told:

If virtue no delighted beauty lack
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.

This reality of fairness in Othello provides a principal function for Desdemona in the play. Her love is of a spiritual intensity, of a strong simplicity equal to that of Othello himself, and pierces without effort beyond appearance, into reality:

I saw Othello's visage in his mind.

Her love is a daring act of faith, beyond reason or social propriety. Like Beauty in the fairytale she denies the beastly (or devilish) appearance to proclaim her allegiance to the invisible reality. And she does so throughout the play, even when the case for the appearance seems most strong and when Iago's power over appearances rides highest. Even when on the point of death at Othello's hands, she gives testimony to her faith (martyr in the true sense of the word):

Commend me to my kind lord.

Othello is then a play which manipulates our sympathies, supposing that we will have brought to the theatre a set of careless assumptions about ‘Moors’. It assumes also that we will find it easy to abandon these as the play brings them into focus and identifies them with Iago, draws its elaborate distinction between the external appearance of devilishness and the inner reality.

Shakespeare's playcraft, however, would hardly have been able to superimpose these new valuations on his audience (unique as they were in this form) if it had not been for complicating factors which had begun to affect thought in his day.

The first counter-current I should mention is theological in origin and is found dispersed in several parts of the Bible. It was a fairly important doctrine of the Evangelists that faith could wash away the stains of sin, and the inheritance of misbelief, that the breach between chosen and non-chosen peoples could be closed by faith. The apostle Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch and thereupon, says Bede, the Ethiop changed his skin.42 The sons of darkness could be seen to become the sons of light, or as Ephesians 5. 8 puts it:

For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as the children of light.

Jerome remarks on this (in Epistle xxii, § 1):

He that committeth sin is of the devil (John, 3: 8). Born of such a parent first we are black by nature, and even after repentance, until we have climbed to Virtue's height we may say Nigra sum sed speciosa, filiae Hierusalem.

Only after conversion, he goes on, will the colour be changed, as by miracle, and then will the verse be fitting: Quae est ista, quae ascendit dealbata? (Cant. iii. 6 and viii. 5—Septuagint version).

Augustine hangs the same point on an interpretation of Psalm 73 (74 in the English Psalter), v. 14. The verse in the Authorized Version reads ‘Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness’, but the Vulgate version has … Dedisti eum in escam populis Ethiopibus. Augustine43 asks who are meant by the Ethiopians; and answers that all nations are Ethiopians, black in their natural sinfulness; but they may become white in the knowledge of the Lord. Fuistis enim aliquando tenebrae; nunc autem lux in Domino (Ephesians 5. 8). As late as Bishop Joseph Hall, writing one of his Occasional Meditations (1630) ‘on the sight of a blackamoor’, we find the same use of nigra sum sed speciosa:

This is our colour spiritually; yet the eye of our gracious God and Saviour, can see that beauty in us wherewith he is delighted. The true Moses marries a Blackamoor; Christ, his church. It is not for us to regard the skin, but the soul. If that be innocent, pure, holy, the blots of an outside cannot set us off from the love of him who hath said, Behold, thou art fair, my Sister, my Spouse: if that be foul and black, it is not in the power of an angelical brightness of our hide, to make us other than a loathsome eye-sore to the Almighty.

The relevance of this passage to Othello need not be stressed.

The grandest of all visual representations of this view that all men are within the scope of the Christian ministry (‘We, being many, are one body in Christ’, says St. Paul in Romans 12. 5) is probably the portal of the narthex at Vézelay (Pl. XXIV), displaying the relevance of the pentecostal spirit of evangelism even to the monsters on the verge of humanity—Cynocephali and long-eared Scythians, whose relation to the Christian world had been debated by St. Augustine and other Fathers. But this monument has been treated with admirable fullness by Émile Mâle,44 and it is no part of my function either to repeat or dispute what he has said.

Moreover, Vézelay does not touch on the colour question. And visual images are obviously of crucial importance here in establishing the idea of the black man as more than a patristic metaphor, as a figure that might be met with in real life. For the image of the black man, considered in relation to the scheme of the Christian Evangel, we have to turn in the main to representations of the three Magi. In early Christian art there seems no evidence that the three kings were shown different from one another. As early as the eighth century,45 however, the Excerptiones Patrum, attributed to Bede, had described Balthazar, the third king, in the following terms:

Tertius, fuscus, integre barbatus, Balthazar nomine, habens tunicam rubeam.46

I may quote Mâle on this description:

It should also be noted that … the term fuscus applied to Balthazar by the pseudo-Bede was never taken literally, and it was only in the fourteenth and still more in the fifteenth centuries that the king has the appearance of a Negro.47

It would be interesting to know what factors impeded the development of the black Balthazar in iconography. For as early as 1180, in the great typological sequence at Klosterneuburg, Nicholas of Verdun had represented the Old Testament type of the Epiphany—the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon—with a Negro Sheba (Pl. XXVa)—a feature to be met with elsewhere (e.g. Pl. XXVb).

It was another typological parallel, however, that probably did most to establish the black Balthazar—that between the three kings and the three sons of Noah. The genuine Bede makes this point in his commentary on Matthew:

Mystice autem tres Magi tres partes mundi significant, Asiam, Africam, Europam, sive humanum genus, quod a tribus filiis Noe seminarium sumpsit.48

and this view was given general diffusion in the Glossa Ordinaria.49 If we suppose that Cham became the father of the black races, it follows that one of the Magi must represent these races. Balthazar carries on his face the curse of Cham, but reveals the capacity for redemption through faith available to all races. And such another is Othello.

The sense that inferior and black-faced foreigners might in fact be figures from a more innocent world close to Christianity grew apace in the Renaissance50 as the voyagers gave their accounts, not of highly organized Mahomedan kingdoms, but of simple pagans, timid, naked as their mothers brought them forth, without laws and without arms (as Columbus first saw them and first described them)51 and perhaps having minds naturally prone to accept Christianity.52 The old ideals and dreams of travellers, the terrestial paradise, the fountain of youth, the kingdom of Prester John, assumed a new immediacy. And so the old impulse to bring the Evangel to all nations acquired a new primitivist dynamic. An interesting demonstration of this is supplied in a Portuguese picture of the Epiphany c. 1505, sometimes attributed to Vasco Fernandes, where a Brazilian chief, in full regalia, replaces the black Balthazar (Pl. XXVI). Alongside the view that such black pagans could only acquire Christian hope by enslavement grew an alternative vision of their innocence as bringing them near to God, by way of nature. Nowhere was the opposition between these two views more dramatically presented than in the famous debate at Valladolid between Sepulveda and Las Casas.53 Sepulveda asserted that the American Indians were ‘slaves by nature’, since their natural inferiority made it impossible for them to achieve the light of the gospel without enslavement.54 Las Casas, on the other hand, dwelt on the innocence of the Indians, living secundum naturam, on their natural capacity for devotion, and on the appalling contrast between the mild and timid Indians and the inhumanity of their ‘civilized’ or ‘Christian’ exploiters. Of these two it was of course Las Casas who made the greatest impact in Europe. We should not forget that the Valladolid debate was decided in his favour; but it was not in Spain, but in France and England that primitivism grew most rapidly. Spanish claims to the New World and Spanish brutality in the New World combined the forces of jealousy, frustrated greed, and local self-righteousness so as to create (even if with initially polemical purpose) a whole new critique of European Christian pretensions. It could now be said that white European Christianity had been put to the test in America (the test being the salvation of souls) and had been found wanting. ‘Upon these lambes’, writes Richard Hakluyt (quoting Las Casas), ‘so meke, so qualified and endewed of their maker and creator as hath bene saied, entred the spanishe, incontinent as they knew them, as wolves, as lyons and as Tigres moste cruell of long tyme famished’.55 Fulke Greville puts the same point even more categorically:

And in stead of spreading Christian religion by good life, [the Spaniards] committed such terrible inhumanities as gave those that lived under nature manifest occasion to abhor the devilry character of so tyrannical a deity [as the Christian God].56

The crown of all such Renaissance primitivism is Montaigne's Essays, and especially that on the Cannibals, where the criticism of Spanish Christianity has become a libertin critique of modern European civility. Shakespeare, in The Tempest, seems to show a knowledge of this essay,57 and certainly The Tempest reveals a searching interest in the status of Western civilization parallel to Montaigne's, and a concern to understand the point of reconciliation between innocence and sophistication, ignorance and knowledge.

Of course, we must not assume that Shakespeare, because he had these concerns in The Tempest, must have had them also in Othello; but The Tempest at one end of his career, like Titus Andronicus at the other end, indicates that the polarities of thought on which Othello moves (if I am correct) were available to his mind.

I have spoken of ‘polarities’ in the plural because it is important to notice that Shakespeare does not present his Othello story in any simple primitivist terms. Othello is not adequately described as the exploitation of a noble savage by a corrupt European.58 This is an element in the play, and it is the element that Henry James found so seminal for his own images of the relationship between American and European;59 but it is not the whole play.

Othello has something of the structure of a morality play, with Othello caught between Desdemona and Iago, the good angel and the evil angel. Iago is the master of appearances, which he seeks to exploit as realities; Desdemona, on the other hand, cares nothing for appearances (as her ‘downright violence and storm of fortunes ❙ May trumpet to the world’), only for realities; Othello, seeing appearance and reality as indissoluble cues to action, stands between the two, the object of the attentions and the assumptions of both. The play has something of this morality structure; but by giving too much importance to this it would be easy to underplay the extent to which Othello becomes what Iago and the society to which we belong assumes him to be.

There is considerable strength in the anti-primitivist side of the great Renaissance debate (as that is represented in Othello) and this lies in the extent to which the whole social organism pictured is one we recognize as our own, and recognize as necessarily geared to reject ‘extravagant and wheeling strangers’. I speak of the social organism here, not in terms of its official existence—its commands, duties, performances; for in these terms Othello's life is well meshed into the state machine:

My services which I have done the Signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints.

I speak rather of the unspoken assumptions and careless prejudices by which we all conduct most of our lives. And it is in these respects that Iago is the master of us all, the snapper-up of every psychological trifle, every unnoticed dropped handkerchief. It is by virtue of such a multitude of our tiny and unnoticed assents that Iago is able to force Othello into the actions he expects of him. Only the hermit can stand outside such social assumptions; but, by marrying, Othello has become part of society in this sense, the natural victim of the man-in-the-know, the man universally thought well of. And Iago's knowingness finds little or no resistance. We all believe the Iagos in our midst; they are, as our vocabulary interestingly insists, the ‘realists’.

The dramatic function of Iago is to reduce the white ‘reality’ of Othello to the black ‘appearance’ of his face, indeed induce in him the belief that all reality is ‘black’, that Desdemona in particular, ‘where I have garnered up my heart’

… that was fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face.

Thus in the bedroom scene (V. ii) Othello's view of Desdemona is one that contrasts

          that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alablaster

with the dark deeds her nature requires of her.

Put out the light, and then put out the light,

he says; that is, ‘let the face be as dark as the soul it covers’; and then murder will be justified.

This intention on Shakespeare's part is made very explicit at one point where Othello tells Desdemona,

Come, swear it, damn thyself; lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves should fear to seize thee; therefore be double-damn'd—swear thou art honest.

(IV. ii. 36 ff.)

What Othello is asking here is that the white and so ‘heavenly’ Desdemona should damn herself black, as Esdras of Granada had done in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller, with the result that:

His body being dead lookt as blacke as a toad: the devill presently branded it for his own.60

It is, of course, to the same belief that Shakespeare alludes in Macbeth's ‘The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon’.

The dark reality originating in Iago's soul spreads across the play, blackening whatever it overcomes and making the deeds of Othello at last fit in with the prejudice that his face at first excited. Sometimes it is supposed that this proves the prejudice to have been justified. There is a powerful line of criticism on Othello, going back at least as far as A. W. Schlegel,61 that paints the Moor as a savage at heart, one whose veneer of Christianity and civilization cracks as the play proceeds, to reveal and liberate his basic savagery: Othello turns out to be in fact what barbarians have to be.

This view, however comforting to our sense of society and our prejudices, does not find much support in the play itself. The fact that the darkness of ‘Hell and night’ spreads from Iago and then takes over Othello—this fact at least should prevent us from supposing that the blackness is inherent in Othello's barbarian nature. Othello himself, it is true, loses faith not only in Desdemona but in that fair quality of himself which Desdemona saw and worshipped: (‘for she had eyes and chose me’). Believing that she lied about the qualities she saw in him it is easy for him to believe that she lies elsewhere and everywhere. Once the visionary quality of faith, which made it possible to believe (what in common sense was unbelievable) that she chose him—once this is cancelled, knowingness acquires a claim to truth that only faith could dispossess; and so when Iago says

I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands.

Othello can only answer ‘Dost thou say so?’ Once faith is gone, physical common sense becomes all too probable:

Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.

The superficial ‘disproportion’ between black skin and white skin conquers the inward, unseen ‘marriage of true minds’. Similarly with the disproportion between youth and age: ‘She must change for youth’; being sated with his body she will find the error of her choice. The tragedy becomes, as Helen Gardner has described it, a tragedy of the loss of faith.62 And, such is the nature of Othello's heroic temperament, the loss of faith means the loss of all meaning and all value, all sense of light:

                    I have no wife,
O insupportable! O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.

Universal darkness has buried all.

But the end of the play is not simply a collapse of civilization into barbarism, nor a destruction of meaning. Desdemona was true, faith was justified, the appearance was not the key to the truth. To complete the circle we must accept, finally and above all, that Othello was not the credulous and passionate savage that Iago has tried to make him, but that he was justified in his second, as in his first, self-defence:

For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.

The imposition of Iago's vulgar prejudices on Othello (‘These Moors are changeable in their wills’, etc.) is so successful that it takes over not only Othello but almost all the critics. But Iago's suppression of Othello into the vulgar prejudice about him can only be sustained as the truth if we ignore the end of the play. The wonderful recovery here of the sense of ethical meaning in the world, even in the ashes of all that embodied meaning—this requires that we see the final speech of Othello as more than that of a repentant blackamoor ‘cheering himself up’, as Mr. Eliot phrased it.63 It is in fact a marvellous stretto of all the themes that have sounded throughout the play. I shall only dwell on Othello's self-judgement and self-execution, repeating and reversing the judgement and execution on Desdemona and so, in a sense, cancelling them. Othello is the ‘base Indian’ who threw away the white pearl Desdemona, but he is also the state servant and Christian who, when the Infidel or ‘black Pagan’ within him seemed to triumph,

Took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus.

With poetic justice, the Christian reality reasserts its superior position over the pagan appearance, not in terms that can be lived through, but at least in terms that can be understood. We may rejoice even as we sorrow, catharsis is achieved, for

What may quiet us in a death so noble,

as this in the Aleppo of the mind?

It is often suggested that Othello is a play of claustrophobic intensity, painfully narrow in its range of vision. A. C. Bradley finds in it ‘the darkness not of night, but of a close-shut murderous room’; he assumes that this is due to a limitation in its scope ‘as if some power in his soul, at once the highest and the sweetest, were for a time in abeyance … that element … which unites him with the mystical poets and with the great musicians’. Elsewhere he refers to it as ‘a play on a contemporary and wholly mundane subject’.64 Many other notable critics have felt the same. Granville Barker believes that it is ‘not a spiritual tragedy in the sense that the others may be called so … it is a tragedy without meaning, and that is the ultimate horror of it’.65

Given the approach to the play outlined in this essay I think it is possible to modify the view shared by these great critics. If we think of the action not simply in terms of the bad Iago's unresisted destruction of the good Othello, and of the bad Othello's unresisted destruction of Desdemona, but see these actions instead in terms of prejudice and vision, appearance and reality, indeed in terms of the whole question of civilization as canvassed, for example, in Montaigne's Essays—if we see these large questions as begged continuously by the action we may feel that some wider vision has been let into ‘the close-shut murderous room’.

The domestic intensities of King Lear have been seen usefully and interestingly (by Theodore Spencer, for example) in relation to the intellectual history of the Renaissance.66 The position of the king obviously calls on one set of traditional assumptions, while Edmund's doctrine of nature equally obviously draws on the views of the libertins, of Montaigne and Machiavelli. The pressure of these larger formulations may be seen to add to the largeness of scope in the play. Othello, on the other hand, is thought not to be a play of this kind. ‘The play itself is primarily concerned with the effect of one human being on another’,67 says Spencer. It is true that Iago operates in a less conceptualized situation than Edmund; but the contrast between his world view and that of Othello is closely related to the contrast between Edmund and Lear. On the one side we have the chivalrous world of the Crusader, the effortless superiority of the ‘great man’, the orotund public voice of the leader, the magnetism of the famous lover. The values of the world of late medieval and Renaissance magnificence seem compressed in Othello—crusader, stoic, traveller, believer, orator, commander, lover—Chaucer's parfit knight, Spenser's Red Cross, the Ruggiero of Ariosto. In Iago we have the other face of the Renaissance (or Counter-Renaissance), rationalist, individual, empirical (or inductive), a master in the Machiavellian art of manipulating appearances, a Baconian or Hobbesian ‘Realist’.

In the conflict of Othello and Iago we have, as in that setting Edmund, Goneril and Regan against Lear and Gloucester, a collision of these two Renaissance views. Bradley points to a similarity between Lear and Othello, that they are both ‘survivors of a heroic age living in a later and smaller world’. Both represent a golden age naïvety which was disappearing then (as now, and always). Lear's survival is across a temporal gap; his long life has carried him out of one age and stranded him in another. But Othello's travel is geographical rather than temporal, from the heroic simplicities of

          I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege

into the supersubtle world of Venice, the most sophisticated and ‘modern’ city on earth, as it seemed to the Elizabethans.

Here, if anywhere, was the scene-setting for no merely domestic intrigue, but for an exercise in the quality of civilization, a contest between the capacities and ideals claimed by Christendom, and those that Christians were actually employing in that context where (as Marlowe says)

… Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords.(68)

Othello's black skin makes the coexistence of his vulnerable romanticism and epic grandeur with the bleak or even pathological realism of Iago a believable fact. The lines that collide here started thousands of miles apart. But Shakespeare's choice of a black man for his Red Cross Knight, his Rinaldo, has a further advantage. Our involvement in prejudice gives us a double focus on his reality. We admire him—I fear that one has to be trained as a literary critic to find him unadmirable—but we are aware of the difficulty of sustaining that vision of the golden world of poetry; and this is so because we feel the disproportion and the difficulty of his social life and of his marriage (as a social act). We are aware of the easy responses that Iago can command, not only of people on the stage but also in the audience. The perilous and temporary achievements of heroism are achieved most sharply in this play, because they have to be achieved in our minds, through our self-awareness.


  1. See R. B. Heilman, ‘More Fair than Black; Light and Dark in Othello’, Essays in Criticism, i (1951), 313-35.

  2. I ignore the many treatises devoted to proving that he was of tawny or sunburnt colour. These are, however, very worthy of study, as documents of prejudice.

  3. See G. K. Hunter, ‘Elizabethans and Foreigners’, Shakespeare Survey, xvii (‘Shakespeare in His Own Age’) (1964), 37-52.

  4. See M. P. Tilley, A Dictionary of Proverbs (1950), M. 1132.

  5. Love's Labour's Lost, IV. iii. 254 f.

  6. See V. W. Turner, ‘Colour Classification in Ndembu Ritual’, Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. M. Banton (1966); Arthur Leib, ‘The Mystical Significance of Colours in … Madagascar’, Folk-lore, lvii (1946), 128-33; Joan Westcott, ‘The Sculpture and Myths of Eshu-Elegba, the Yoruba Trickster’, Africa, xxxii (1962).

  7. See Hoffmann-Krayer and Bächtold-Stäubli, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, s.v. Schwartz.

  8. Horace, Satires, I. iv. 85.

  9. Plutarch, Brutus, xlviii.

  10. Suetonius, Caligula, lvii.

  11. M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), p. 323 (Acts of Peter, § 22).

  12. See M. R. James, Apocrypha Anecdota (Texts and Studies, ii. 3) (1893), 54.

  13. Ed. Funk, Patres Apostolici, i. 48.

  14. Passio Perpetuae, ed. J. A. Robinson, Texts and Studies, ii. 1 (1891), 76 f.

  15. See Patrologia Graeca, xxvi, col. 849 a.

  16. See Corpus Scriptorum Eccl. Latinorum, xiii (1886), 32, 55.

  17. G. K. Hunter, loc. cit.

  18. See Walter Clyde Curry, The Middle English Ideal of Personal Beauty (1916). I have not been able to see J. E. Willms, Über den Gebrauch der Farbenbezeichnungen in der Poesie Altenglands (München, 1902). The kind of shock that could be produced by the association of blackness and beauty is illustrated by the Scottish tournament of 1505 in which James IV set up a negress as the Queen of Beauty, and himself as ‘the wild knight’ defended her honour. (See Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland, III, xlviii ff., lii, 258 f.) The scandal that this caused can be discovered from Pitscottie.

  19. See, for example, Cursor Mundi, 8077; Sir Ferumbras, 2785; Alisaunder, B. 6402.

  20. Richard II, IV. i. 94 f.

  21. Geschichte des neueren Dramas, i (1911), 201. An interesting detail appears in footnote 3 on this page: ‘Wie intensiv die Bemalung war, ergibt sich den Summen, die in Frankreich den Barbarien und Badestubenbesitzern für Reinigung der Teufel bezahlt wurden.’ (See also E. J. Haslinghuis, De Duivel in het drama der Middeleeuwen [1912], p. 182.)

  22. See Thomas Sharp, A Dissertation upon the Coventry Mysteries (1825), pp. 66, 70.

  23. E. K. Chambers, The English Folk Play (1933), p. 28.

  24. Ed. E. Vogel, Shakespeare Jahrbuch, xl (1904), l. 1439.

  25. See F. S. Boas, University Drama in the Tudor Age (1914), pp. 94 ff.

  26. Malone Society Reprints (1951).

  27. The Plain Dealer, IV. ii.

  28. Moors (like dwarfs and fools) were found also in the human menageries that the courts of the Renaissance liked to possess. The Moors at the court of James IV of Scotland appear often in the Treasurer's Accounts. One item there throws an interesting light on their status: ‘The nuris that brocht the Moris barne to see (i.e. to be seen), be the Kingis command’ (volume iii, p. 182).

  29. See Malone Society Collections, iii (1945).

  30. R. Withington, English Pageantry, i (1918), 74.

  31. The association of the negro with semihomines appears in a sixteenth-century sword-dance of ‘Mores, Sauvages et Satyres’, cited by Chambers (Mediaeval Stage, i. 199, n. 5), and in the decoration of the ‘vasque de Saint Denis’ (c. 1180) decorated with sculptures of ‘Sylvanus, satyr and negro’ (see H. W. Janson, Apes and Ape-lore (1952), p. 55). The vasque also uses a sculpture of an ape, and this may be associated with the others as a further illustration of the semihomo. The confusion of the ape and the negro has a considerable history. The negress at the Court of James IV of Scotland who was set up as ‘Queen of Beauty’ (see above, …, n. [18]) was compared to an ape; Dunbar tells us ‘Quhou schou is tute mowitt lyk ane aep’ (‘of an blak-moir’). Joseph Glanvill (Scepsis Scientifica [1665]) suggests that the apes (rather than the negroes) are the descendants of Cham. The confusion was a useful one for the defenders of negro slavery, and drew extra support from the often-repeated stories that orang-utangs frequently stole away and ravished black women. Thus Edward Long in his History of Jamaica says that ‘The equally hot temperament of their women has given probability to the charge of their admitting these animals [monkies or baboons] to their embrace’ (ii. 383). Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on Virginia (written in 1781), treats as an acknowledged fact ‘the preference of the Oranootan for black women’ (Question XIV).

  32. See A True Reportary of the Baptisme of Frederik Henry, Prince of Scotland (1594) (S.T.C. 13163).

  33. See R. Wittkower, ‘Marvels of the East’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, v (1942), 159-97. See also L. Olschki, Storia letteraria delle scoperte geografiche (Firenze, 1939), and R. Romeo, Le scoperte americane nella coscienza Italiana (1954), who puts the idea expressed here with great clarity: ‘Idee e valori preesistenti operano direttamente sui viaggiatori, spingendo a intendere in conformità ad essi testimonianze dubbie, discorsi in lingue sconosciute, fenomeni poco spiegabili’ (p. 14).

  34. G. K. Hunter, loc. cit.

  35. The History of the World, I. vi. 2.

  36. A. Willet, Hexapla in Genesin (1605), p. 119.

  37. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, VII. vi. 17. (Patrologia Latina, lxxxii, col. 276.)

  38. See St. Ambrose, Comment. in epist. ad Philippenses (Pat. Lat. xvii, col. 432): ‘servi autem ex peccato fiunt, sicut Cham filius Noe, qui primus merito nomen servi accepit.’

  39. Discovery and Conquest of Guinea (Hakluyt Society, XCV [1896], 54).

  40. Bandello, Novelle, Book III, novel xxi, derived from Pontanus (Opera, i. 25 b), and translated by Belleforest, Histoires tragiques. The story was apparently Englished in ballad form, in 1569, 1570, and again in 1624, 1675. See Hyder Rollins, ‘Analytical Index’ (Studies in Philology, xxi [1924]), item 2542: ‘a strange petyful novell Dyscoursynge of a noble Lorde and his lady with thayre ij cheldren executed by a blacke morryon.’

  41. See G. K. Hunter, loc. cit.

  42. Bede, Super Acta Apostolorum Expositio (Pat. Lat. xcii, col. 962).

  43. St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos (Pat. Lat. xxxvi, col. 938).

  44. Émile Mâle, L'Art religieux du XIIe siècle en France (1922), pp. 328 ff.

  45. For the dating see P. Glorieux, Pour revaloriser Migne (1844), and J. F. Kenney, Sources for the Early History of Ireland (1929).

  46. Pseudo-Bede, Excerptiones Patrum (Pat. Lat. xciv, col. 541).

  47. Émile Mâle, The Gothic Image (1958), pp. 214-15.

  48. Bede, In Matthaei Evangelium Expositio (Pat. Lat. xcii, col. 13).

  49. Walafridus Strabus, Glossa Ordinaria (Pat. Lat. cxiv, col. 73).

  50. There is an iconographic parallel in the use of negro figures to represent primitive innocence, in Bosch and perhaps elsewhere. Fränger, The Millennium of Hieronymus Bosch (1952), notes (p. 108): ‘This scene takes place in the presence of a Nubian girl, who is nigra sed formosa like the black bride of the Song of Songs (i. 5). We are doubtless justified in regarding these negresses, who appear so often in the picture, as embodiments of the innocence that had not yet vanished from the primal condition of tropical nature.’

  51. Quoted in R. Romeo, Le scoperte americane nella coscienza italiana del Cinquecento, p. 19; L. Olschki, Storia letteraria delle scoperte geografiche, pp. 11-22.

  52. So Columbus in the journal of his first voyage (16 October 1492): ‘They do not know any religion, and I believe they could easily be converted to Christianity, for they are very intelligent.’ The Bull Inter cetera of 1493 (which divided the New World between Spain and Portugal) speaks of the Indians as gentes pacifice viventes … nudi incedentes, nec carnibus vescentes … credunt unum Deum creatorem in celis esse, ac ad fidem catholicam amplexandam et bonis moribus imbuendum satis apti videntur.

  53. Described most fully in English in L. Hanke, Aristotle and the American Indians (1959).

  54. See Eric Williams, Documents of West Indian History (1963), item 155, discussing the view that a ‘negro cannot become a Christian without being a slave’. Cf. the summary of Sepulveda's position in Hanke, op. cit., pp. 44 f. The same views persist today, though with interesting modifications in the vocabulary: ‘He (the Negro) requires the constant control of white people to keep him in check. Without the presence of the white police force negroes would turn upon themselves and destroy each other. The white man is the only authority he knows.’ (Quoted in E. T. Thompson, Race Relations [1939], p. 174.)

  55. A Discourse on the Western Planting (1584) printed in The Writings of the two Richard Hakluyts, vol. ii (Hakluyt Society [second series], lxxvii [1935], p. 258).

  56. Fulke Greville, Life of Sir Philip Sidney (1652), ed. Nowell Smith (1907), p. 116.

  57. Disputed in M. T. Hodgen, ‘Montaigne and Shakespeare’, Huntington Library Quarterly, xvi (1952), 23-42. Miss Hodgen finds a similarity of elements used to praise primitive life in Louis le Roy, Boemus, Vespucci, Mexia, etc.

  58. But Iago's Spanish name (and his nautical imagery) may represent Shakespeare's awareness of this potentiality in his play at some level of his consciousness. The relevance of the figure of Sant' Iago Matamoros (Moor-slayer) has been suggested by G. N. Murphy, ‘A Note on Iago's name’, Literature and Society, ed. B. Slote (1964).

  59. See Agostino Lombardo, ‘Henry James The American e il mito di Otello’, Friendship's Garland: Essays presented to Mario Praz, ed. V. Gabrieli (1966), pp. 107-42.

  60. Nashe, Works, ed. McKerrow, ii. 326.

  61. August Wilhelm Schlegel, Lectures on Dramatic Art (1815), ii. 189.

  62. Helen Gardner, ‘The Noble Moor’, Proceedings of the British Academy, xli (1955).

  63. T. S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, reprinted in Selected Essays (1932), p. 130.

  64. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), pp. 177, 185, 186.

  65. Harley Granville Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (fourth series [1945]), pp. 156, 175.

  66. Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (1943).

  67. Spencer, op. cit. (1961 ed.), p. 126.

  68. Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, I. i. 122.

Russell Jackson (review date 2000)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Shakespeare Performed: Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon: Summer and Winter, 1999-2000.” Shakespeare Quarterly 51, no. 2 (summer 2000): 217-29.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson assesses the production of Othello staged during the 1999-2000 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Jackson finds that Ray Fearon's and Zoë Waites's performances as Othello and Desdemona were “subtle and convincing” but reserves his highest praise for Richard McCabe's Iago.]

Othello, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, gave a satisfying sense of having visited many—if not all—of the play's possibilities within the framework of a production seeking to find coherence in the text. In this case the setting was late-nineteenth century. Many local effects worked very well, as they have proved to do in other productions with a similar choice of period. The midnight council of the Venetian senate became a lamp-lit cabinet room, with a globe representing the world at stake in an imperialist struggle; the discomfiture of Cassio took place in a mess-hall drinking ritual, away from the more decorous festivities of the island (fireworks visible and audible in the distance). In this kind of transposition one loses the specific identity of the Turks as an alternative, threatening, and non-Christian power—the decaying Ottoman Empire was by the late 1800s a pretext for imperial aggression in others rather than a threat in itself. Like Trevor Nunn's memorable Other Place production of 1989 (subsequently a television film) with Willard White, Ian McKellen, and Imogen Stubbs, this year's Othello was a domestic drama with a military background, in which the religious dimension did not figure strongly.

Ray Fearon and Zoë Waites were subtle and convincing as Othello and Desdemona. In the little time we saw them happy together they were charmed with each other's company and physically affectionate in a lighthearted way: there was no intrusive consciousness of their role as victims in a tragedy of love. Othello's “Excellent wretch” had a tinge of amusement, with no preemptive sense that perdition was about to catch his—or anyone's—soul. Fearon was clear and perhaps a little quieter than he could have afforded to be in the more grandiloquent passages of the part. He refused to invest “Farewell the tranquil mind” with any specious lyricism, rather making it sadly reflective. However, the valuable quality of danger may have been lacking in this Othello.

The most commanding performance was that of Richard McCabe as Iago. This was a chubby, utterly believable, ingratiating ensign. Like McKellen in Nunn's production, he was dependable and resourceful (producing iodine for Roderigo's wound in 3.1); but unlike him, he showed no signs of repression. Trying to cheer Desdemona up as they waited for the arrival of Othello's ship, he was relaxed and solicitous. In the officer's mess he was clearly at home, and it was Cassio who seemed awkward, with his abstemious glass of orange juice in his hand (before he was seduced into drinking wine) and his clear distaste for Iago's jovial “Health to their sheets.” Iago was easygoing to the point of being able to start the poisoning of Othello's mind in 3.3 lightly, with shared laughter. (This also marked the turning-point in Othello's lightness of attitude: when Iago apologetically remarked that Othello seemed to have been “dashed,” his “Not a jot” was given with a snort of laughter—almost the last we would hear from him.) After Othello's “I do not think but Desdemona's honest,” Iago replied: “Long live she so,” but the next phrase had murderous pauses in it: “And long live you to think—so—.” The scene ended in a gesture of blood brotherhood, with the two men kneeling side by side. This was all excellent ensemble work, which may explain to some degree the sense of diminishment in Othello himself from the customary heroic ideal.

McCabe delivered his soliloquies with a horrifying relish: even the way he spoke the noun in “I hate the Moor” seemed to afford him a tinge of perverse pleasure in his own disgust. When, seated in the doge's chair at the end of 1.3, Iago encouraged Roderigo to think of Desdemona's likely disposition after she was “sated with [Othello's] body,” he himself clearly enjoyed the notion. In the credible but not overelaborate context of this nineteenth-century setting, what we saw of Iago's own marriage to Emilia evoked one of Ibsen's lighter family pictures, and the effect his poison had on Othello and Desdemona suggested Strindberg at his bleakest. Iago cultivated an almost fatherly relationship with Aidan McCardle's dapper, pathetic Roderigo—carefully patting down the false moustache he had persuaded the young man to wear as part of his disguise in Cyprus—until the worm began to turn (the wonderful moment when the audience learns for the first time about those jewels!) and he had to be gotten rid of.

The staging was handsome and simple, with all the significant action down on the forestage. In the opening scene the full depth of the stage, with a few lighted windows visible in the background, suggested the Venetian cityscape. After the arrival in Cyprus the acting area was closed in by a drop set a few feet upstage of the proscenium arch, in which vertical curtains of cream-colored fabric could be raised or lowered. Othello could be seen through them, lurking to watch Iago with Cassio and Bianca, and in the final scenes of the play, shadows were thrown onto this screen from both directions. …

S. N. Garner (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Garner, S. N. “Shakespeare's Desdemona.” Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 233-52.

[In the following essay, Garner stresses the importance and complexity of Desdemona's role in Othello, and asserts that Shakespeare endowed her with a full range of human emotions.]


As Desdemona prepares to go to bed with Othello in Act IV, scene iii of Shakespeare's Othello, the following conversation occurs between her and Emilia:

Shall I go fetch your nightgown?
No, unpin me here.
This Lodovico is a proper man.
A very handsome man.
He speaks well.
I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.

(ll. 36-42)1

Surely this is startling dialogue coming as it does between the brothel scene and the moment when Desdemona will go to her wedding with death. An actress or director would certainly have to think a great deal about how these lines are to be spoken and what they are to reveal of Desdemona's character. But a reader or critic is not so hard pressed, and he may, if it suits him, simply skip over them. This is precisely what most critics do.

Robert Heilman is representative. In his lengthy book on the play, Magic in the Web,2 he does not discuss the passage. One reason for this omission, of course, is that he, like most critics, is mainly interested in Othello and Iago. Nevertheless, since he uses the New Critics' method of close reading—underscoring images, habits of diction, and grammatical structure—it is peculiar that when he treats Desdemona's character, dealing in two instances with Act IV, scene iii specifically (pp. 189-90, 208-10), he fails to notice these lines. A partial explanation for this failure is that he sustains his interpretation of Othello and Iago and the theme of the play by insisting on Desdemona's relative simplicity and diverges from other critics who make her “overintricate” (p. 209). More significantly, however, the passage is difficult to square with his contention that in the last act Desdemona “becomes … the saint” (p. 215), a representation of “the world of spirit” (p. 218).

Other critics whose method, if nothing else, will scarcely allow them to ignore the passage cancel it out as best they can. G. R. Elliott, for example, in his line-by-line commentary, Flaming Minister, remarks that here Desdemona “speaks listlessly [italics mine]; and she pays no heed to the vivid tale begun by her woman of the Venetian lady. … She herself would make a hard pilgrimage for a ‘touch’ of Othello's love.”3 In other words, she does not mean what she says about Lodovico, her mind is really on Othello, and when Emilia talks about touching Lodovico's “nether lip,” Desdemona must, Elliott implies, think of Othello. Similarly, M. R. Ridley, editor of the Arden edition, is evidently bothered by the lines and can only hope they somehow do not belong to Desdemona: “What did Shakespeare intend by this sudden transition to Lodovico? Is Desdemona for a moment ‘matching Othello with her country forms’? One is tempted to wonder whether there has not been a misattribution of speeches, so that this line [38] as well as the next should be Emilia's.”4 It is unusual, to say the least, that an editor who has argued so carefully for his preference of the quarto to the folio edition for his copy-text should speculate so carelessly here. He wishes to attribute to Emilia a line that both editions give to Desdemona, make Emilia's lines repetitious (as they would be since “proper” and “handsome” are synonymous), and destroy the rhythm of the dialogue, rather than let Desdemona have the line Shakespeare evidently gave her.5

The reason for these efforts to get rid of Desdemona's lines about Lodovico seems obvious. 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.

At what appears to be the other extreme is such a critic as W. H. Auden, one of the few who notices the passage and sees it as a significant revelation of Desdemona's character. Viewing her cynically partly on account of it, he remarks: “It is worth noting that, in the willow-song scene with Emilia, she speaks with admiration of Ludovico [sic] and then turns to the topic of adultery. … It is as if she had suddenly realized that she had made a mésalliance and that the sort of man she ought to have married was someone of her own class and colour like Ludovico. Given a few more years of Othello and of Emilia's influence and she might well, one feels, have taken a lover.”6 But isn't Auden finally making the same assumption as the others? Doesn't his cynical and easy dismissal of Desdemona imply that he has expected her to be perfect? If she is not, then she must be corrupt. Isn't this Othello's mistake exactly? Either Desdemona is pure or she is the “cunning whore of Venice” (IV.ii.88).

The poles of critical opinion are exactly those presented in the play.7 On the one hand is the view of Desdemona the “good” characters have; on the other is the negative vision of her that Iago persuades Othello to accept. At a time when we have become especially careful about adopting any single perspective of a character as the dramatist's or the “right” perspective, why do many critics now simply accept one extreme view of Desdemona or the other? I can only assume that they share a vision Shakespeare presents as limited.

Desdemona's character is neither simple nor any more easily defined than Iago's or Othello's. Any effort to describe it must take into account all of what she says and does as well as what other characters say about her and how their views are limited by their own personalities and values. Though Shakespeare does not give Desdemona center stage with Othello, as he gives Juliet with Romeo and Cleopatra with Antony, he does not keep her in the wings for most of the play, as he does Cordelia or Hermione. She is often present so that we must witness her joy, fear, bewilderment, and pain. What happens to her matters because we see how it affects her as well as Othello. The meaning of the tragedy depends, then, on a clear vision of her character and experience as well as those of Othello and Iago.


That Desdemona is neither goddess nor slut Shakespeare makes very clear. He evidently realized that he would have to defend his characterization of her more against the idealization of the essentially good characters than the denigration of the villain. Consequently, though he undermines both extremes, he expends his main efforts in disarming Desdemona's champions rather than her enemy. In her first two appearances, Shakespeare establishes her character and thus holds in balance the diverging views, but he goes out of his way to make her human rather than divine.

He carefully shapes Othello's account of Desdemona to counter Brabantio's initial description of her as “A maiden never bold, / Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion / Blushed at herself” (I.iii.94-96). Because Brabantio is unwilling to believe that Desdemona's “perfection so could err” (l. 100) that she would elope with Othello, he accuses him of seducing her by witchcraft or drugs. In Othello's eloquent defense (ll. 127-69), he shows not only that Brabantio's accusations are false but also that it was Desdemona who invited his courtship. His description of her coming with “greedy ear” to “devour” his tales of cannibals, anthropophagi, and his own exploits suggests that she is starved for excitement and fascinated by Othello because his life has been filled with adventure. She loved him, he says, for the dangers he had passed. So far is Desdemona from being Brabantio's “maiden never bold” that she gave Othello “a world of kisses”8 for his pains and clearly indicated that she would welcome his suit:

                                                                                                              She wished
That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story,
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

(ll. 161-65)

The scene is carefully managed so as to create sympathy for both Othello and Desdemona. Because Desdemona initiates the courtship, Othello is absolutely exonerated of Brabantio's charge. His cautiousness acknowledges the tenuousness of his position as a black man in Venetian society and is appropriate and even admirable. The Moor cannot be confident of Desdemona's attraction to him, and he undoubtedly knows that marrying him would isolate her from her countrymen. Recognizing Othello's reticence and undoubtedly its causes, Desdemona makes it clear she loves him but, at the same time, maintains a degree of indirection. Shakespeare does not wish to make her seem either shy or overly forward.

When Desdemona finally appears, she strengthens the image Othello has presented. Before the senators, she answers her father's charges forcefully and persuasively, without shyness or reticence. More significantly, it is she, and not Othello, who first raises the possibility of her going to Cyprus. Othello asks only that the senators give his wife “fit disposition” (I.iii.233), but when the Duke asks her preference, Desdemona pleads:

                                        If I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for why I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him.

(ll. 250-54)

Her wish not to be left behind as a “moth of peace” is a desire not to be treated as someone too fragile to share the intensity of Othello's military life. As though she might have overheard Brabantio tell Othello that she would not have run to his “sooty bosom” (I.ii.69), she confirms her sexual attraction to him as well as her own sexuality by insisting that she wants the full “rites” of her marriage.9

Shakespeare must have wanted to make doubly sure of establishing Desdemona's sensuality, for he underscores it the next time she appears. At the beginning of Act II, while she awaits Othello on the shore of Cyprus, her jesting with Iago displays the kind of sexual playfulness that we might have anticipated from Othello's description of their courtship.

As soon as Desdemona arrives at Cyprus, together with Emilia, Iago, and Roderigo, and is greeted by Cassio, she asks about Othello. Immediately a ship is sighted, and someone goes to the harbor to see whether it is Othello's. Anxious about her husband, Desdemona plays a game with Iago to pass the time; in an aside, she remarks, “I am not merry; but I do beguile / The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (II.i.120-21). Their repartee grows out of a debate that Iago begins by accusing Emilia of talking too much. A practiced slanderer of women, he chides both his wife and Desdemona. Although Desdemona rebukes him, “O, fie upon thee, slanderer!” (l. 111), she asks him to write her praise. Instead he comments on general types of women:

If she be fair and wise: fairness and wit,
The one's for use, the other useth it.
Well praised. How if she be black and witty?
If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
She'll find a white that shall her blackness fit.
Worse and worse!


Iago's “praises” commend women for what he might expect Desdemona to regard as faults, and none are without sexual overtones. Though Desdemona remarks that they “are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i' th' alehouse” (ll. 136-37), they do not offend her and serve her well enough as a pastime for fifty-five lines, until Othello arrives.

Critics who take an extreme view of Desdemona see her pleasure in this exchange with Iago as a failure of Shakespeare's art. Ridley, for example, comments: “This is to many readers, and I think rightly, one of the most unsatisfactory passages in Shakespeare. To begin with it is unnatural. Desdemona's natural instinct must surely be to go herself to the harbour, instead of asking parenthetically whether someone has gone. Then, it is distasteful to watch her engaged in a long piece of cheap backchat with Iago, and so adept at it that one wonders how much time on the voyage was spent in the same way. All we gain from it is some further unneeded light on Iago's vulgarity” (p. 54 n).10 But this scene is unnatural for Ridley's Desdemona, not Shakespeare's. What the dramatist gives us here is an extension of the spirited and sensual Desdemona that has been revealed in the first act. Her scene with Iago shows her to be the same woman who could initiate Othello's courtship and complain before the senators about the “rites” she would lose in Othello's absence. Her stance is similar to the one she will take later when she tries to coax Othello into reinstating Cassio. That the scene impedes the dramatic movement too long and that its humor is weak are perhaps legitimate criticisms; to suggest that it distorts Desdemona's character is surely to misunderstand her character.

Shakespeare makes a special effort to maintain the balance of the scene. He keeps Desdemona off a pedestal and shows her to have a full range of human feelings and capacities. Yet he is careful not to allow her to fail in feeling or propriety. The point of her aside is to affirm her concern for Othello as well as to show her personal need to contain anxiety and distance pain and fear. As we see how Desdemona acts under stress later in the play, it seems consistent with her character that she should want a distraction to divert her attention in this extremity. Shakespeare brings the exchange between Desdemona and Iago to a brilliant close as Othello enters and greets his “fair warrior.”11 The sensual import of this moment and his address is surely heightened by what we have seen of Desdemona shortly before.

Shakespeare's delicately poised portrayal of Desdemona to this point prepares us for the splendid antithesis between Iago and Cassio in the middle of the second act:

Our general cast us thus early for the love of his Desdemona; who let us not therefore blame. He hath not yet made wanton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove.
She's a most exquisite lady.
And, I'll warrant her, full of game.
Indeed, she's a most fresh and delicate creature.
What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation.
An inviting eye; and yet methinks right modest.
And when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?
She is indeed perfection.


Such a carefully counterpointed exchange invites us to adjust both views.

Iago distorts Desdemona's character by suppressing the side of it that Cassio insists on and emphasizing her sensuality. His suggestions that she is “full of game” and that her eye “sounds a parley to provocation” call up an image of a flirtatious and inconstant woman. Iago's view is clearly limited by his devious purpose and also by his cynical notions about human nature in general and women in particular.

But Cassio's view is limited as well. He idealizes Desdemona as much as her father did. It is evidently clear to Iago that his efforts to persuade Cassio of his vision will fail when he pronounces Desdemona “perfection,” as had Brabantio before him (I.iii.100). The extravagance of language Cassio uses earlier in describing Desdemona must also make his view suspect. For example, he tells Montano that Othello

                                                  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.


After the safe arrival of Desdemona and her companion in Cyprus, Cassio rhapsodizes:

Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,
The guttered rocks and congregated sands,
Traitors ensteeped to enclog the guiltless keel,
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their moral natures, letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona.

(II.i.68-73; italics mine)

This idealization gives as false a picture of Desdemona as Iago's denigration of her. Cassio's lines in fact comment more on his character than on Desdemona's. To accept his view of Desdemona, as many have done, is as grievous a critical mistake as to accept Iago's.


Desdemona's liveliness, assertiveness, and sensuality are corroborated in her marrying Othello. The crucial fact of her marriage is not that she elopes but that she, a white woman, weds a black man. Though many critics focus on the universality of experience in Othello,12 we cannot forget the play's racial context. Othello's blackness is as important as Shylock's Jewishness, and indeed the play dwells relentlessly upon it.13

It is underscored heavily from the beginning. The first references to Othello, made by Iago to Roderigo, are to “the Moor” (I.i.37, 54). Roderigo immediately refers to him as “the thick-lips” (I.i.63). He is not called by name until he appears before the senators in scene ii when the Duke of Venice addresses him. He has been referred to as “the Moor” nine times before that moment.

Iago and Roderigo know they may depend on Brabantio's fears of black sexuality and miscegenation. When he appears at his window to answer their summons, Iago immediately cries up to him, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.85-86) and urges him to arise lest “the devil” (l. 88) make a grandfather of him. The tone intensifies as Iago harps on Othello's bestial sexuality. To the uncomprehending and reticent Brabantio he urges impatiently:

                                                                                                              You'll have
your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you'll
have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have coursers
for cousins, and gennets for germans.

(ll. 107-10)

Mercilessly, he draws a final image: “Your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (ll. 112-14). The unimaginative and literal Roderigo adds that Desdemona has gone to the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (l. 123).

Brabantio had “loved” Othello, invited him often to his home, and encouraged him to tell the stories that captivated Desdemona (I.iii.127-31); yet he has the prejudices that Iago and Roderigo expect. Although he had objected earlier to Roderigo as Desdemona's suitor (I.i.92-95), he now commiserates with him, “O, would you had had her!” (I.i.172). Brabantio obviously never imagined that Desdemona could be attracted to Othello because he is black. When Othello appears, he tells him that only if his daughter was enchanted or drugged would she have “run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight” (I.ii.69-70). He cannot believe that she fell in love with what he assumes “she feared to look on!” (I.iii.98).

But even to the other characters who do not have reason to malign Othello as do Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio, black is not beautiful. Othello is accepted because he is like white men or in spite of his blackness. The Duke tells Brabantio, “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.285). When Desdemona affirms her love for Othello, she explains, “I saw Othello's visage in his mind” (I.iii.247). More importantly, Othello himself sees his blackness as a defect. When Iago first tries to raise doubts about Desdemona's fidelity, Othello reassures himself, “She had eyes, and chose me” (III.iii.189); that is, she married him despite his blackness. Later, as he begins to believe Iago's insinuations about Desdemona, he laments:

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


Iago knows that he may appeal to Othello's sense that his blackness is a liability to undermine his faith in Desdemona. He warns him that Desdemona's “will, recoiling to her better judgment,” may begin to “match” him “with her country forms, / And happily repent” (III.iii.236-38).

Othello's blackness is further associated with a lack of grace, particularly with a lack of manners and eloquence. Mistakenly imagining that he speaks ineloquently, Othello apologizes to the senators before he addresses them, “Rude am I in my speech, / And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81-82). Later when he finds causes in himself for Desdemona's supposed infidelity, he considers one possibility, “Haply for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have” (III.iii.262-64). Iago will, of course, take advantage of Othello's superficial deficiencies; he tries to persuade Roderigo that Desdemona will tire of Othello because the Moor lacks “loveliness in favor, sympathy in years, manners, and beauties” (II.i.227-28). It is probable that Othello takes Cassio with him when he courts Desdemona to compensate for what he considers his own insufficiency. The Florentine aristocrat is distinguished for his handsomeness, grace, and eloquence.

Critics speculate about what Othello's marriage to Desdemona means for him but usually fail to consider what it means for her to marry someone so completely an outsider. What are we to make of Desdemona's choosing Othello rather than one of her own countrymen? Brabantio tells Othello that Desdemona has “shunned / The wealthy, curlèd darlings of our nation” (I.ii.66-67). It seems incredible to him that, having done so, she should then choose Othello. But Shakespeare intends to suggest that the “curlèd darlings” of Italy leave something to be desired; the image implies preciousness and perhaps effeminacy. He expects us to find her choice understandable and even admirable.

Of all Desdemona's reputed suitors, we see only Roderigo. The easy gull of Iago and mawkishly lovesick, he is obviously not worthy of Desdemona. When Othello and Desdemona leave for Cyprus, Roderigo tells Iago, “I will incontinently drown myself” (I.iii.300), and we cannot help but assent to Iago's estimation of him as a “silly gentleman” (I.iii.302). Even Brabantio agrees that he is unsuitable, for he tells him, “My daughter is not for thee” (I.i.95). Only by comparing him to Othello does he find him acceptable.

The only other character who might be a suitor for Desdemona is Cassio. But it occurs to neither Cassio nor Desdemona that he should court her. Shakespeare makes him a foil to Othello and characterizes him so as to suggest what Desdemona might have found wanting in her countrymen. He is evidently handsome and sexually attractive. In soliloquy, where he may be trusted, Iago remarks that “Cassio's a proper man” (I.iii.381) and that “he hath a person and a smooth dispose / To be suspected—framed to make women false” (ll. 386-87). Drawing Cassio as one who is “handsome, young, and hath all those requisites in him that folly and green minds look after” (II.i.244-45), Iago persuades Roderigo that Cassio is most likely to be second after Othello in Desdemona's affections. In soliloquy again, Iago makes clear that he thinks Cassio loves Desdemona: “That Cassio loves her, I do well believe 't” (II.i.285).

Though he is handsome and has all the surface graces, Cassio is wanting in manliness. Shakespeare certainly intends Cassio's inability to hold his liquor to undermine his character. He gives this trait mainly to comic figures, such as Sir Toby Belch, or villains, like Claudius. Once drunk, the mild-mannered Cassio is “full of quarrel and offense” (II.iii.50). His knowledge of his weakness (II.iii.39-42) might mitigate it, but even aware of it, he succumbs easily. Though at first he refuses Iago's invitation to drink with the Cypriots, he gives in later with only a little hesitation to Iago's exclamation, “What, man! 'Tis a night of revels, the gallants desire it” (II.iii.43-44). His lack of discipline here and his subsequent behavior that disgraces him lend some credence to Iago's objections to Othello's preferring him as lieutenant.

Cassio's relationship with Bianca also calls his masculinity in question. Nowhere else does Shakespeare show a man of Cassio's rank keeping company with prostitutes. His affair with Bianca tends to reduce him to the level of Touchstone, though Bianca is far superior to Audrey. Yet his friendship with Bianca in itself does not discredit him as much as his behavior towards her. He makes fun of her behind her back; Iago tells us, “He, when he hears of her, cannot restrain / From the excess of laughter” (IV.i.99-100). Yet when she confronts him, angry because she believes he is unfaithful to her, and threatens to stop seeing him, he anxiously follows after her for fear “she'll rail in the streets” (IV.i.162).

Cassio is, then, as Auden has described him, something of a “ladies' man” (p. 10), who idealizes women of his own social class and spends his time with prostitutes. He serves ideally to help Othello woo Desdemona because he has no interest in her sexually; he would keep her “divine” Desdemona. The embodiment of style, Cassio is hollow at the core. But just as he knows that he has a tendency toward drunkenness, so he recognizes his own impotence. As he awaits Othello's ship on Cyprus, he prays that “Great Jove” will guard it so that Othello can “Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms, / Give renewed fire to our extincted spirits” (II.i.80-81). In this last line he recognizes a potency in Othello that he finds wanting in himself and those around him. Desdemona enters immediately, and Cassio's striking address, following his anticipation of Othello's and Desdemona's sexual union, underscores his sexual failing:

O, behold! The riches of the ship is come on shore!
You men of Cyprus, let her have your knees.
Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven,
Before, behind thee, and on every hand,
Enwheel thee round.


As Alfred Harbage has remarked, his greeting suggests “a prayer to the Virgin”;14 the extravagance of these lines and others that describe Desdemona point up Cassio's tendency to idealize her.

Desdemona's marrying a man different from Roderigo, Cassio, and the other “curlèd darlings” of Italy is to her credit. She must recognize in Othello a dignity, energy, excitement, and power that all around her lack. Since these qualities are attributable to his heritage, she may be said to choose him because he is African, black, an outsider. When she says she saw Othello's visage in his mind, she suggests that she saw beneath the surface to those realities that seemed to offer more promise of life. If the myth of black sexuality (which Othello's character denies at every turn) operates for Desdemona, as it does for some of the other characters,15 it can only enhance Othello's attractiveness for her as she compares him with the pale men around her.

Desdemona shows courage and a capacity for risk in choosing Othello, for it puts her in an extreme position, cutting her off from her father and countrymen. Brabantio in effect disowns her since he would not have allowed her to live with him after her marriage (I.iii.237) if she had not been permitted to go with Othello to Cyprus. His last words are not to her, but to Othello, and they cut deep: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father, and may thee” (I.iii.287-88). Later we learn that Brabantio died of grief over the marriage (V.ii.204-206). We are to disapprove of Desdemona's deception no more than we are to disapprove of Juliet's similar deception of Capulet, or Hermia's of Egeus. Shakespeare gives Brabantio's character a comic tinge so that our sympathies do not shift from Desdemona to him.

That her marriage separates her from society is implied because of the attitudes we hear expressed toward Othello, but it is also made explicit. Brabantio does not believe that Desdemona would have married Othello unless she had been charmed partially because of his sense that she will “incur a general mock” (I.ii.68). After Othello has insulted Desdemona, Emilia's question of Iago makes clear what lines have been drawn: “Hath she forsook … Her father and her country, and her friends, / To be called whore?” (IV.ii.124-26). Desdemona does not marry Othello ignorant of the consequences; when she pleads with the Duke to allow her to go to Cyprus, she proclaims:

That I love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,
May trumpet to the world.


She knows her action is a “storm of fortunes.” Her willigness to risk the censure of her father and society is some measure of her capacity for love, even though her love is not based on complete knowledge. She does not see Othello clearly and cannot anticipate any of the difficulties that must necessarily attend his spirited life. Her elopement is more surely a measure of her determination to have a life that seems to offer the promise of excitement and adventure denied her as a sheltered Venetian senator's daughter.


Because Desdemona cuts herself off from her father and friends and marries someone from a vastly different culture, she is even more alone on Cyprus than she would ordinarily have been in a strange place and as a woman in a military camp besides. These circumstances, as well as her character and experience, account in part for the turn the tragedy takes.

At the beginning she unwittingly plays into Iago's hands by insisting that Othello reinstate Cassio immediately. On the one hand, she cannot know what web of evil Iago is weaving to trap her. On the other, her behavior in this matter is not entirely without fault. It is only natural that Desdemona should wish Cassio reinstated since he is her old friend and, except for Emilia, her only close friend on Cyprus. But her insistence is excessive. She assures Cassio that Othello “shall never rest” (III.iii.22) until he promises to restore the lieutenant's position, and indeed, she makes sure that he never does. Yet her persistence does not seem necessary, for Emilia has assured Cassio earlier:

                              All will sure be well.
The general and his wife are talking of it,
And she speaks for you stoutly. The Moor replies
That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus
And great affinity, and that in wholesome wisdom
He might not but refuse you. But he protests he loves you,
And needs no other suitor but his likings
To bring you in again.


Desdemona harps on her single theme playfully, teasingly. Her manner is no different from that which she took when she courted Othello or jested with Iago. Her vision seems not to extend beyond the range that allowed her to manage domestic life in Brabantio's quiet household.

As soon as Othello's jealousy and rage begin to manifest themselves, Desdemona's forthrightness and courage start to desert her. She can no longer summon up those resources that might help her. She is not as fragile as Ophelia; she will not go mad. But neither is she as resilient or as alert to possibilities as Juliet, who was probably younger and no more experienced than she. Before Juliet takes the potion the Friar has prepared to make her appear dead, she considers whether he might have mixed a poison instead, since he would be dishonored if it were known he had married her to Romeo (IV.iii.24-27). She confronts the possibility of evil, weighs her own position, and takes the risk she feels she must. There is never such a moment for Desdemona.

Under the pressure of Othello's anger, Desdemona lies to him, by denying she has lost the handkerchief he gave her, and makes herself appear guilty. Her action is perfectly understandable. To begin with, she feels guilty about losing it, for she has told Emilia earlier that if Othello were given to jealousy, “it were enough / To put him to ill thinking” (III.iv.28-29). But more important, she lies out of fear, as her initial response to Othello indicates:

Why do you speak so startingly and rash?
Is't lost? Is't gone? Speak, is it out o' th' way?
Heaven bless us!


Then she becomes defensive: “It is not lost. But what an if it were?” At this point Othello's demeanor must be incredibly frightening. Shortly before this moment he has knelt with Iago to vow vengeance against Desdemona if she proves unfaithful, and moments later, he is so enraged that he “falls in a trance” (IV.i.44). In this sudden crisis, latent fears of Othello that are inevitably part of Desdemona's cultural experience must be called into play. Her compounded terror destroys her capacity for addressing him with the courage and dignity that she had summoned in facing her father and the senators when they called her actions in question.

If Desdemona has wanted the heights of passion, she finds its depths instead. That she is simply bewildered and unable to respond more forcefully to Othello's subsequent fury is attributable to several causes. To begin with, his change is sudden and extreme. When Lodovico arrives from Venice and meets the raging Othello, he asks incredulously:

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?


Noble Othello is like the flower that festers and smells far worse than weeds. Only Iago anticipates the full possibilities of his corruption.

But the most important causes of Desdemona's powerlessness lie within herself. She idealizes Othello and cannot recognize that he is as susceptible to irrationality and evil as other men. She tells Emilia that her “noble Moor / Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are.” Evidently surprised, Emilia asks if he is not jealous, and Desdemona replies as though the suggestion were preposterous: “Who? He? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humors from him” (III.iv.26-31). Though Emilia immediately suspects that Othello is jealous (III.iv.98), Desdemona does not credit her suspicions since she “never gave him cause” (l. 156). Emilia tries to explain that jealousy is not rational and does not need a cause:

But jealous souls will not be answered so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they're jealous. It is a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.

(ll. 157-60)

Though Iago provokes Othello, his jealousy, as Emilia says, arises out of his own susceptibility. He has romanticized Desdemona, as she has him. Forced to confront the fact that she is human and therefore capable of treachery, he is threatened by his own vulnerability to her. If he cannot keep himself invulnerable by idealizing her, then he will do so by degrading her. His fears are heightened because he thinks his blackness, age, and lack of elegance make him less attractive sexually than Cassio.

Despite the worsening crisis, Desdemona will not be instructed by Emilia, nor will she alter her view of Othello so that she might understand and possibly confront what is happening. Her only defense is to maintain an appalling innocence. The more she must struggle to keep her innocence in the face of the overwhelming events of the last two acts, the more passive and less able to cope she becomes.16 She must hold on to it for two reasons. First, nothing of her life in the rarefied atmosphere of Brabantio's home and society could have anticipated this moment, and nothing in her being can rise to meet it now. Therefore, she must close it out. Second, if she is deserted by her husband, there is nowhere for her to turn. Rather than suffer the terror and pain of her isolation, she must deny that it exists.

Shakespeare's portrayal of Desdemona from the beginning of Act IV until her death illustrates how finely and clearly he had conceived her character and how well he understood the psychology of a mind under pressure. As Iago's poison works and Othello becomes more convinced of Desdemona's guilt and increasingly madder with rage, Desdemona will become gradually more passive and continually frame means of escape in her imagination.

After the brothel scene, when Othello leaves calling Desdemona the “cunning whore of Venice” (IV.ii.88) and throwing money to Emilia as to a madam, Desdemona is stunned. Emilia asks, “Alas, what does this gentleman conceive? / How do you, madam? How do you, my good lady?”; Desdemona replies, “Faith, half asleep” (IV.ii.94-96). The action is too quick for her to be literally asleep; Othello has just that moment left. Rather, she is dazed;17 her mind simply cannot take in what it encounters. Almost at once she begins to look for ways out. Directing Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed (IV.ii.104), she hopes to be able to go back in time, to recover the brief happiness and harmony she and Othello shared when they were newly married. Though she will subsequently assert that she approves of Othello's behavior (IV.ii.106; iii.20-22), part of her will not approve and will continue to create fantasies to save herself.

Next, Desdemona begins to anticipate her death, directing Emilia to shroud her in her wedding sheets if she should die (IV.iii.26-27) and singing the willow song. She not only foreshadows her death but also expresses an unconscious desire for it. Her preface to the song makes her wish clear:

My mother had a maid called Barbary.
She was in love; and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her. She had a song of “Willow”;
An old thing 'twas, but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song tonight
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary.


That the song will not go from her mind and that she has “much to do” to keep from hanging her head and singing it suggest the insistence of a death wish. To express a desire for death here and to plead with Othello later to let her live is not inconsistent. Death wishes are more often hopes of finding peace and escape rather than real wishes to die. The song itself—quiet, soporific—promises calm in contrast to Othello's raging.

Just before Desdemona sings, she starts the conversation about Lodovico quoted at the beginning. 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. She admires Lodovico as “a proper man”—precisely the phrase Iago used to describe Cassio (I.iii.381)—and as one who “speaks well,” calling up those qualities that Cassio has and Othello lacks. Since the man 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.18 In her heart she must feel she has made a mistake.

Desdemona does not know the world, or herself, for that matter. Like Lear, she has been led to believe she is “ague-proof.” At the end of Act IV Shakespeare makes it certain, if he has not before, that she is self-deceived and that there is a great discrepancy between what she unconsciously feels and what she consciously acknowledges. When Desdemona asks Emilia whether she would cuckold her husband “for all the world,” Emilia plays with the question, answering, “The world's a huge thing; it is a great price for a small vice” (IV.iii.71-73). Desdemona finally says she does not think “there is any such woman” who would (IV.iii.88). Her comment underscores her need to close out knowledge that might threaten her. Coming as it does after the passage about Lodovico, her remark can only emphasize her pitiable need to maintain an innocence that must inevitably court ruin.

Like Sleeping Beauty waiting for the prince's kiss, Desdemona is asleep when Othello comes. When he threatens her, the most she can do is plead for her life. Desdemona is not Hermione, who has the wisdom to know that if Leontes doubts her fidelity, she cannot convince him of her chastity by insisting on it. And unlike Hermione, Desdemona merely asserts her innocence rather than reproaches her husband, with whom the final blame must lie. She can only lament that she is “undone” (V.ii.76) and beg for time. She acts differently from the heroine of The Winter's Tale not only because she is more fragile and less wise but also because her accuser is not a white man following at least the forms of justice in a court. Othello is a black man with rolling eyes (V.ii.38) coming to do “justice” in her bedroom at night.

When Desdemona revives for a moment after Othello has stifled her, she affirms her guiltlessness (V.ii.122) and to Emilia's asking who has “done this deed,” she answers, “Nobody—I myself. Farewell. / Commend me to my kind lord” (V.ii.123-25). Her answer is often thought of as an effort to protect Othello. Had Othello stabbed Desdemona, then the notion is plausible that she might pretend to have killed herself to save him. But Desdemona could not have smothered or strangled herself. I think her answer acknowledges instead her full responsibility for her marriage and its consequences. What her implied forgiveness of Othello means is unclear. Her remark of a moment before, “A guiltless death I die,” must be rendered with pain or anger, so her forgiveness may merely follow her old pattern of denying what she feels and acknowledging what she must; in other words, it may be unfelt. If her forgiveness is genuinely felt, however, it might suggest that Desdemona has come to see Othello with the prejudices of her countrymen and to regard him as acting according to a barbarian nature that will not allow him to act otherwise.19 She forgives him, then, as she would a child. Or at its best, her pardoning Othello means that she is finally capable of an ideal love, one that does not alter “when it alteration finds” or bend “with the remover to remove.” But even if we see Desdemona as acting out of pure love, as most critics do, her triumph is undercut because she never confronts the full and unyielding knowledge in the face of which true love and forgiveness must maintain themselves. Furthermore, there is no ritual of reconciliation between Desdemona and Othello. Though Othello is by Desdemona's side when she forgives him, she uses the third person and speaks to Emilia.

Othello learns that he is wrong, that Iago, whom he trusted, has deceived him heartlesstly, monstrously. But he never understands what in himself allowed him to become prey to Iago. The final truth for him is that he has thrown a pearl away. His suicide is a despairing act. He finally sees himself as unblessed and bestial—beyond mercy. Paradoxically, his only redemption must come through self-execution.

Othello is surely one of Shakespeare's bleakest tragedies. Given their characters and experience, both personal and cultural, Desdemona and Othello must fail. They do not know themselves, and they cannot know each other. Further, they never understand the way the world fosters their misperceptions. We must watch as Othello is reduced from a heroic general, with dignity, assurance, and power to a raging, jealous husband and murderer, out of control and duped by Iago. We see Desdemona lose her energy, vitality, and courage for living to become fearful and passive. Both suffer the pains of deception, real or supposed loss of love, final powerlessness, and death. Tragedy never allows its protagonists to escape suffering and death, but it often graces them with the knowledge of life, without which they cannot have lived in the fullest sense. Yet for all their terrible suffering, Desdemona and Othello are finally denied even that knowledge.


  1. William Shakespeare, The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York: Harcourt, 1972). All quotations from Shakespeare are from this edition.

  2. Magic in the Web (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1956).

  3. Flaming Minister (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1953), p. 203.

  4. Othello (1958; rpt. New York: Random, 1967), p. 166n.

  5. In The Stranger in Shakespeare (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), Leslie Fiedler forgets that it is Desdemona who begins the conversation about Lodovico when he comments that Emilia “appears to be tempting poor Desdemona by evoking the charms of … Lodovico” (p. 166).

  6. “The Alienated City: Reflections on ‘Othello,’” Encounter, 17 (1961), 13.

  7. Most critics, too many to cite, see Desdemona as wholly good and virtuous, even saintly. Those not mentioned elsewhere in this paper who have a negative or mixed view of her are: Richard Flatter, The Moor of Venice (London: William Heineman, 1950); L. A. G. Strong, “Shakespeare and the Psychologists,” Literature and Psychology, 14 (1964), 56-61; Robert Dickes, “Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?,” American Imago, 27 (1970), 279-97; Stephen Reid, “Desdemona's Guilt,” American Imago, 27 (1970), 245-62; and Janet Overmyer, “Shakespeare's Desdemona: A Twentieth Century View,” The University Review, 37 (1971), 304-305.

  8. Though using the Folio edition, which reads “kisses,” as copy-text, editors adopt the quarto's “sighs” more often than not; Alvin Kernan, editor of the Signet Othello, is a pleasing exception. Though most offer no explanation for the gratuitous change, “kisses” evidently violates their sense of Desdemona's character and the dramatic situation. The differences in the Folio and quarto texts prompt some of Ridley's most unpromising speculation: “Perhaps the compositor had recently been setting a passage in which ‘world of kisses’ occurred, and it stuck in his mind.” He finds it “hard to imagine anyone making the alteration deliberately” (p. 30n). Ridley, of course, is justified in retaining “sighs” since his copy-text is the quarto edition.

  9. Ridley (p. 36n) compares Shakespeare's use of “rites” here to Romeo and Juliet, III.ii.8-9: “‘Lovers can see to do their amorous rites / By their own beauties.’”

  10. So strong are Ridley's objections to this passage that he even calls Thomas Rymer to his aid; he quotes from A Short View of Tragedy (1693): “‘Now follows a long rabble of Jack-pudding farce [i.e. stuffing, padding] between Jago and Desdemona, that runs on with all the little plays, jingle, and trash below the patience of any Country Kitchenmaid with her Sweetheart … and when every moment she might expect to hear her Lord (as she calls him) that she runs so mad after, is arrived or lost’” (p. 54n).

  11. Desdemona is obviously Othello's “warrior” because she has come to battle along with him, but his address has sexual implications as well. It recalls the opening line of Spenser's “Sonnett LVII” in the Amoretti: “Sweet warriour when shall I have peace with you?”

  12. Heilman sees the play as “a drama about Everyman” (p. 139); Leo Kirschbaum (“The Modern Othello,” ELH, 11 [1944]) regards Othello as a “romantic idealist” (p. 289); R. N. Hallstead (“Idolatrous Love: A New Approach to Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly, 19 [1968]) finds in him the pattern of “idolatrous love” (p. 107); Wilson Knight (The Wheel of Fire, 5th ed. [1930; rev. New York: Meridian Books, 1958]) sees in Desdemona and Othello “essential” man and woman (p. 111).

  13. Studies by Eldred D. Jones (Othello's Countrymen [London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965] and The Elizabethan Image of Africa [Charlottesville: The Univ. Press of Virginia, 1971]) and G. K. Hunter (“Othello and Colour Prejudice,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 8 [1967], 139-63) deal with Elizabethan attitudes toward blacks and affirm that they were not generally regarded with tolerance. Two articles that examine the way racial attitudes work in Othello are Miriam Halevy's “The Racial Problem in Shakespeare” in The Jewish Quarterly, 14, No. 2 (1966), 3-9; and K. W. Evans's “The Racial Factor in Othello” in Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1969), 124-40.

  14. William Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide (1963; rpt. New York: Farrar, 1970), p. 351.

  15. The myth is apparent in Iago's and Roderigo's efforts to incite Brabantio (see pp. [17-18] above) and in lago's absurd suspicions that Othello has slept with Emilia as well as in the rumors that give fuel to those suspicions (I.iii.375-77; II.i.294-95; IV.ii.144-46).

  16. Many have commented on Desdemona's passiveness, but there is no indication that Shakespeare means us to see it with the condescension of Fiedler, who describes her as becoming a “passive, whimpering Griselda” (p. 142), or Allardyce Nicoll, who sees her as becoming “a mere slave” to Othello (Studies in Shakespeare [London: Hogarth, 1927], p. 88).

  17. Compare Nicoll, p. 92.

  18. Though my view differs from his, Harley Granville-Barker, in Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1947), is the only critic who sees Lodovico as having a significant function in the play (II, 57-60).

  19. The play, of course, does not support such a view of Othello; G. K. Hunter comments: “The fact that the darkness of ‘Hell and night’ spreads from Iago and then takes over Othello—this fact at least should prevent us from supposing that the blackness is inherent in Othello's barbarian nature” (p. 159).

Carol Thomas Neely (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10529

SOURCE: Neely, Carol Thomas. “Women and Men in Othello.” In William Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 79-104. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1985, Neely contends that the central theme of Othello is marital love and that its primary conflict is between men and women.]

What should such a fool
Do with so good a woman?

Othello, 5.2.234-35

Relations between love, sexuality, and marriage are under scrutiny in Othello, as in the comedies, problem plays, and Hamlet. In more extreme form than in the problem plays, we see here the idealization and degradation of sexuality, the disintegration of male authority and the loss of female power, the isolation of men and women, and the association of sexual consummation with death. The festive comedies conclude with the anticipation of fertile marriage beds. The problem comedies achieve their resolutions with the help of midpoint bedtricks. The marriage bed is at the very heart of the tragedy of Othello; offstage but dramatically the center of attention in the first scene and again in the first scene of the second act, it is literally and symbolically at the center of the last scene and is explicitly hidden from sight at the conclusion. Whether the marriage is consummated, when it is consummated, and what the significance of this consummation is for Othello and Desdemona have all been an important source of debate about the play. Throughout its critical history, Othello, like the other problem plays, has generated passionate and radically conflicting responses—responses that are invariably tied to the critics' emotional responses to the characters and to the gender relations in the play. Othello, Iago, and Desdemona have been loved and loathed, defended and attacked, judged and exonerated by critics just as they are by characters within the play.

“Almost damned in a fair wife” is Leslie Fiedler's alternate title for his chapter on Othello in The Stranger in Shakespeare. In it he asserts of the women in the play: “Three out of four, then, [are] weak, or treacherous, or both.” Thus he seconds Iago's misogyny and broadens the attack on what Leavis has called “The sentimentalist's Othello,” the traditional view of the play held by Coleridge, Bradley, Granville-Barker, Knight, Bayley, Gardner, and many others. These “Othello critics,” as I shall call them, accept Othello at his own high estimate. They are enamored of his “heroic music,” affirm his love, and, like him, are overwhelmed by Iago's diabolism, to which they devote much of their analysis. Like Othello, they do not always argue rationally or rigorously for their views and so are vulnerable to attacks on their romanticism or sentimentality. Reacting against these traditionalists, “Iago critics” (Eliot, Empson, Kirschbaum, Rossiter, and Mason, as well as Fiedler and Leavis) take their cues from Iago. Like him, they are attracted to Othello, unmoved by his rhetoric, and eager to “set down the pegs that make this music.” They attack Othello at his most vulnerable point, his love. They support their case by quoting Iago's estimates of Othello; they emphasize Iago's realism and “honesty” while priding themselves on their own. Their realism or cynicism gives them, with Iago, an apparent invulnerability. But, like “Othello critics,” they share the bias and blindness of the character whose perspective they adopt. Most damagingly, both groups of critics, like both Othello and Iago, badly misunderstand and misrepresent the women in the play.

Iago critics implicitly demean Desdemona, for if Othello's character and love are called into question, then her love for him loses its justification and validity. Explicitly they have little to say about her. Othello critics idealize her along with the hero, but, like him, they have a tendency to see her as an object. The source of her sainthood seems a passivity verging on catatonia: “Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not even in silent feeling. … She is helpless because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute. … Desdemona's suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores.” Iago critics, finding the same trait, condemn Desdemona for it. “But the damage to her symbolic value is greater when we see her passively leaving everything to Heaven. She ought in a sense to have embodied Heaven, given us a human equivalent that would ‘make sense’ of Heaven. For this task she had the wrong sort of purity.” When Desdemona is credited with activity, she is condemned for that, too; she is accused of being domineering, of using witchcraft, of rebelliousness, disobedience, wantonness. Although discussion of her has frequently been an afterthought to the analysis of the men, recently she has been the focus of a number of studies. Both Othello and Iago critics tend to see good versus evil as the play's central theme, Othello versus Iago as the play's central conflict, and hence, the major tragedies as its most important context.

A third group of “Iago-Othello critics,” including Kenneth Burke, Arthur Kirsch, Stephen Greenblatt, Stanley Cavell, Edward Snow, and Richard Wheeler, elide the divisions between the first two groups and view the play from a perspective more like my own. They see Othello and Iago as closely identified with each other; they are “two parts of a single motive—related not as the halves of a sphere, but each implicit in the other.” They find the source of the tragedy in Iago-Othello's anxieties regarding women, sexuality, and marriage—anxieties that are universal and generated by underlying social or psychological paradigms. Like Iago-Othello, these critics find the tragedy inevitable and locate its “cause” in an impersonal, implacable agency outside of the protagonists: for Burke, this “cause” is the “disequilibrium of monogamistic love”; for Kirsch, it is “the polarization of erotic love,” with its psychological and theological roots; for Greenblatt, it is ambivalent Christian views of marital sexuality as chaste and adulterous; for Snow, it is “the male order of things,” the patriarchal society that represses male sexuality and suppresses female sexuality at the behest of the superego; for Cavell, it is universal (male) fears of impotence and deflowering, and of mortality; for Wheeler, it is the conflict among male autonomy, female sexuality, and nurturing femininity. These critics do not ignore or sanctify Desdemona; nor do they condemn her explicitly. All emphasize her active, loving, passionate sensuality and extol her worth. An effect of their focus is, however, that she, more than Iago, becomes the cause of Othello's destruction; it is her relaxed, frank, sexuality and the passionate response it arouses in Othello which generate the tragedy. These critics show how Desdemona's virtues catalyze Othello's sexual anxieties, but they fail to emphasize enough that she has the potential to provide a cure for them.

With this third group of critics, I argue that the play's central theme is love—specifically marital love—that its central conflict is between the men and the women, and that contexts as illuminating as the tragedies are its source, Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi and Shakespeare's preceding comedies. Within Othello it is Emilia who most explicitly speaks to this theme, recognizes this central conflict, and inherits from the heroines of comedy the role of potential mediator of it. She is dramatically and symbolically the play's fulcrum. It is as an Emilia critic, then, that I should like to approach the play, hoping to perceive it with something akin to her clearsighted passion.

Gli Hecatommithi could have provided Othello with its theme and organizing principle as well as with its plot. The battle of the sexes in marriage is its central motif and dominates the frame, subject matter, and arrangement of the tales. In the introduction the company debates whether harmony can be achieved in marriage. Ponzio denies this, supporting his view with platitudes that Iago would relish: “Better bury a woman than marry her”; “For there to be peace between husband and wife, the husband must be deaf and the wife blind.” Fabio, the group's leader, asserts instead that “the only rational love is that which has marriage as its goal, and that this is the quiet of true and wise lovers, coupled together, cooling their amorous flames with sage discourse and in legitimate union.” Othello similarly presents marriage as either potentially strife-ridden or harmonious. In Gli Hecatommithi the debate continues in the tales, and in the Third Decade it is intensified by the inflammatory subject matter—the infidelity of husbands and wives. The seventh tale, the source of Othello, is a rebuttal of the sixth, in which a husband discovers his wife's infidelity and, as the company judges, “most prudently” (prudentissimamente) arranges to have her “accidentally” drowned. In the eighth tale, a contrast to the two preceding it, harmony supersedes warfare. A wife forgives her unfaithful husband and wins him back, behaving with a “prudence” (la prudenza) exactly opposite to the behavior of the husbands in tales six and seven. Othello similarly rings changes on the theme of male and female in a series of parallel and contrasting couples—Desdemona/Othello, Emilia/Iago, Bianca/Cassio—along with fantasy couples—Roderigo/Desdemona, Cassio/Desdemona, Othello/Emilia. Throughout the tales of the Third Decade it is most often the men who intensify the conflicts, practicing infidelity or taking revenge on wives they suspect of infidelity; the wives, even when wronged, often succeed in mending the relationships. The men in Othello similarly seek revenge; the women similarly seek to secure harmonious relationships but fail to do so.

Their predecessors in this task are the heroines of Shakespearean comedy, to which Othello shows pervasive and profound resemblances. Though it is almost always assumed that Othello is dominated by a tightly meshed plot, the play seems, like many of the comedies, loosely plotted, held together by theme. The conflicts introduced in the first act between Desdemona and her father and between Venetians and Turks evaporate before they are under way exactly as do those between Hermia and Egeus in Midsummer Night's Dream and between Duke Frederick and Duke Senior in As You Like It. As in the comedies, these early plot developments are presented in a flat, compressed way; they seem almost an excuse to get the characters to the woods or to Cyprus where the play's real conflicts emerge. Iago plots the remainder of the play; but his scheme is slight, repetitive, and flawed. It has been found lacking in both motive (like Rosalind's plot in As You Like It) and goal (like Don John's plot in Much Ado about Nothing), and although the play's increasing intensity is undeniable, there is little actual plot development between the end of the first phase of the temptation scene (3.3.275) [All Othello citations are to the Arden Shakespeare edition, ed. M. R. Ridley] and the attempt on Cassio's life in act 5. Iago's destruction of Othello, like Rosalind's education of Orlando, is not merely linear. Both are continually starting over; they are repeated variations on opposite themes: Iago works to induce fantasy and Rosalind to dispel it. Neither entirely succeeds. Iago's plot, like those of the comedies, rests on coincidence and absurdity. The handkerchief is like the givens of the comedies—the fairy juice, the caskets, the disguises, the identical twins; it is trivial and ridiculous but, as I shall show, symbolically all-important. The play proceeds as much by a clash of attitudes, viewpoints, and sexes as by plot developments.

Structure, too, imitates that of the pastoral comedies in its movement from an urban center to an isolated retreat, with resultant intensity, freedom, breakdown, and interaction among disparate characters. Though Othello refers to Cyprus as a “town of war,” once the threats of Turks and the storm have lifted, it is instead Venus's isle, a place for celebration—relaxation, drinking, eating (dinner arrangements are a frequent topic of conversation here as in Arden), flirting, sleeping, lovemaking. In the comedies, the potential corruption of these activities is suggested in witty banter, songs, comic simile and metaphor; in Othello, this corruption becomes literal.

The play is a terrifying completion of the comedies. In them, realism and romanticism, lust and desire, heterosexual and homosexual bonds, male and female power are held in precarious balance. The men's idealism, misogyny, foolishness, and anxiety are mocked, transformed, and dispelled—“laugh[ed] to scorn” (As You Like It, 4.2.19)—by disguises and mock deaths, by parodied or aborted nuptials, by delayed or deceitful consummations. The women, through their “high and plenteous wit and invention” (Othello, 4.1.185), transform the men from foolish lovers into—we trust—sensible husbands, and at the end submit to their control. Although “The cuckoo then, on every tree, / Mocks married men,” (Love's Labor's Lost, 5.2.896-97), the mockery grounds love without seriously threatening it. The comedies' relaxed incorporation of marital sexuality is evident in their endings, which look forward to fruitful, harmonious marital consummation—in the fairy-blessed beds of the Midsummer Night's Dream couples; the rewon beds of Bassanio and Portia, Gratiano and Nerissa in Merchant of Venice; the “well-deserved bed” of Silvius and the rest in As You Like It. But in Othello, the marriage has taken place before the play begins, and its consummation may already be under way, imaged by Iago as a theft, a violent attack. In the play, women's wit is constrained, their power over men is lost, and the men are transformed downward—“to be now and now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast” (2.3.296-97). The men's profound anxieties and murderous fantasies cannot be restrained by the women's affection, wit, and shrewishness. The play ends as it began, in a world of men—political, loveless, undomesticated.

The men in Othello extend and darken the anxieties of the comedy heroes. They are, in Emilia's words, “murderous coxcombs” (5.2.234). Three out of the five attempt murder; five out of the five are foolish and vain. Roderigo, most obviously a coxcomb, shows in exaggerated fashion the dangerous combination of romanticism and misogyny and the dissociation of love and sex that all the men share. He is a parody of the conventional Petrarchan lover: love is a “torment,” death a “physician” (1.3.308-9), Desdemona “full of most blest condition” (2.1.247), and consummation of their relationship securely impossible. Yet he easily accepts Desdemona's supposed adultery and the necessity of Cassio's murder; his casual cynicism comes to outdo Iago's: ‘“Tis but a man gone” (5.1.10). The other men have similarly divided and possessive views of women. Brabantio shifts abruptly from protective affection for the chaste Desdemona—“of spirit / So still and quiet, that her motion / Blush'd at her self” (1.3.94-96)—to physical revulsion from the assertive sexuality revealed by her elopement—“I had rather to adopt a child than get it” (1.3.191). Cassio's divided view is more conventionally accommodated. He idealizes the “divine Desdemona,” flirting courteously and cautiously with her and rejecting Iago's insinuations about her sexuality; this side of women is left to Bianca, who is a “monkey” and a “fitchew” and is used and degraded for it. Othello's conflict regarding women is more profound, and the other men's solutions are not open to him. Because of his marriage and his integrity, he cannot, like Roderigo, assert Desdemona's chastity and corruptibility simultaneously; like Cassio, direct his divided emotions toward different objects; or, like Brabantio, disown the problem.

Othello's shifts from the idealization of women to their degradation are “extravagant and wheeling” (1.1.136). Iago is the catalyst, but Othello makes his task easy. At the play's start, Othello's idealistic love, like that of the comedy heroes, needs some realistic grounding in the facts of sex. For Othello, sex is secondary and potentially either frivolous or debilitating and in conflict with his soldier's duty;

                                                                      no, when light-wing'd toys,
And feather'd Cupid, foils with wanton dullness
My speculative and active instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my reputation!


Marriage and consummation naturally pose a threat to this idealistic love. Othello's greeting on Cyprus suggests his preference for a perpetually unconsummated courtship:

                                                            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.


In response Desdemona asserts instead quotidian joys:

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

Perhaps she, like Rosalind or Viola or the ladies in Love's Labor's Lost, might have tempered Othello's idealism, his need for absolute, unchanging love. Instead, it is nudged by Iago into its antithesis—contempt for women, disgust at sexuality, terror of cuckoldry, the preference for literal death over metaphorical “death.” The acceptance of cuckoldry and sexuality found in the comedies—“as horns are odious, they are necessary” (As You Like It, 3.3.49-50)—is impossible for Othello. Instead he turns Petrarchan imagery against Desdemona—“O thou black weed, why art so lovely fair?” (Othello, 4.2.69)—praising and damning her simultaneously. His conflicts are resolved, his needs to idealize and degrade her to maintain their love intact are momentarily reconciled only when he kills her, performing a sacrifice which is also a murder.

Iago, though primarily the manipulator of these conflicts in the other men, is also the victim of his own. His cynical generalizations are, like those of Jaques, the parody and inverse of the romantics' claims; they are self-conscious, defensive, self-aggrandizing, and divorced from reality: “My muse labours / And thus she is deliver'd” (2.1.127-28). Like the other men, he accepts generalizations—especially generalizations about women—as true, provided they are “apt and of great credit” (2.1.282), “probable, and palpable to thinking” (1.2.76). Like the others, he is careful not to contaminate his fantasies about women with facts. Roderigo does not court Desdemona in person, Othello does not immediately confront Desdemona and Cassio with his suspicions, and Iago never tries to ascertain whether or not Emilia is unfaithful.

In fact—like Don John and Parolles—he has little contact with the women in the play. He is at ease in act 2 engaging Desdemona in witty banter, but he is subdued and almost speechless in act 4 when confronted with her misery and fidelity. Treating Emilia with casual contempt throughout, he is astounded by her exposure of him in the last scene. Like Brabantio, Iago assumes that “consequence” will “approve” his “dream” (2.3.58) and ignores evidence to the contrary.

Even protected as it is from reality, Iago's cynicism/misogyny has cracks just as Othello's idealism does. He has a grudging admiration for and envy of Desdemona's “blest condition,” Othello's “constant, noble loving, nature” (2.1.289), and Cassio's “daily beauty” (5.1.19). He aspires to Cassio's job and Othello's “content” and tries to identify with their love for Desdemona—“now I do love her too” (2.1.286), although this love is immediately subsumed under notions of lust and revenge. The tension between his theoretical misogyny and his awareness of Desdemona's particular virtue drives him to resolve the conflicts, to turn that virtue “into pitch” (2.3.351), just as his verses extravagantly praise the deserving woman the better to be able to diminish her. Othello's conflict has the opposite issue; he murders Desdemona to redeem her from degradation.

The women in Othello are not murderous, nor are they foolishly idealistic or anxiously cynical, as the men are. From the start they, like the comedy heroines, combine realism with romance, mockery with affection. Bianca comically reflects the qualities of the women as Roderigo does those of the men. The play associates her with the other two women by means of the overheard conversation about her which Othello takes to be about Desdemona and by means of her irate and essentially just response to Emilia's attack: “I am no strumpet, but of life as honest / As you, that thus abuse me” (5.1.120-21). At this point, Iago tries to fabricate evidence against her, just as Othello, in the scene immediately following, fabricates a case against Desdemona. Bianca's active, open-eyed enduring affection is similar to that of the other women. She neither romanticizes love nor degrades sex. She sees Cassio's callousness but accepts it wryly—“'Tis very good, I must be circumstanc'd” (3.4.199). She mocks him to his face but not behind his back, as he does her. Her active pursuit of Cassio is in contrast to his indifference, to Roderigo's passivity, and to Othello's naiveté. Even when jealous, she continues to feel affection for Cassio, accusing him openly and demanding that he come to dinner on her terms. The play's humanization of her, much like, for example, that of the bourgeois characters at the end of Love's Labor's Lost, underlines the folly of the male characters (and critics) who see her as merely a whore.

Emilia articulates the balanced view that Bianca embodies—“and though we have some grace, / Yet have we some revenge” (4.3.92-93). She, like other Shakespearean shrews, especially Beatrice and Paulina, combines sharp-tongued honesty with warm affection. Her views are midway between Desdemona's and Bianca's and between those of the women and those of the men. She rejects the identification with Bianca yet sympathizes with female promiscuity. She corrects Desdemona's occasional naiveté but defends her chastity. Although she comprehends male jealousy and espouses sexual equality, she seems remarkably free from jealousy herself. She wittily sees cuckoldry and marital affection as compatible: “Who would not make her husband a cuckold, to make him a monarch?” (4.3.74-75). She understands, but tolerates, male fancy; the dangers of such tolerance become evident in this play as they never do in the comedies.

Desdemona's and Emilia's contrasting viewpoints in the willow scene have led critics to think of them as opposites, but both are strong, realistic, and compliant. When we first see them together, they encourage and participate in Iago's misogynist banter but reject his stereotypes. Desdemona here defends Emilia from Iago's insults just as Emilia will ultimately defend Desdemona from Othello's calumny. While Desdemona is no shrew (though she might be said to approach one in the matter of Cassio's reinstatement), her love is everywhere tempered by realism and wit like that of the comedy heroines. During courtship she hides, as they did, behind a sort of disguise, in this case not male dress, but a mask of docility and indifference which conceals her passion from both her father and Othello. Like Iago's docile and deserving woman she is one that could “think, and ne'er disclose her mind, / See suitors following, and not look behind” (2.1.156-57). Eventually, though, she takes the lead in the courtship as the heroines do; she finds an excuse to be alone with Othello, mocks him by speaking of him “dispraisingly” (3.3.73), and traps him into a proposal using indirection not unlike Rosalind's with Orlando.

After marriage, as during courtship, Desdemona's love tempers romance with realism, obedience with self-assertion. She is indifferent to Cassio's elaborate compliments (2.1.87ff.). She rejects Othello's desire to stop time, instead emphasizing love's growth. Her healthy, casual acceptance of sexuality is evident in her banter with Iago and with the clown, in her affirmation that she “did love the Moor, to live with him” (1.3.248), and in her refusal to postpone consummation of “the rites for which I love him” (1.3.257). She will not allow herself to be idealized; nor will she romanticize Othello. She had spoken “dispraisingly” of him during courtship, and she mocks him gently after marriage:

Tell me, Othello: I wonder in my soul,
What you could ask me, that I should deny?
Or stand so mammering on?
Shall I deny you? no, farewell, my lord.

(3.3.69-71, 87)

She reminds herself, in an emphatically short line:

                                        nay, we must think
Men are not gods;
Nor of them look for such observances
As fits the bridal.


Her concise statement about her love reveals its balance and health:

I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honours, and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.


She loves Othello for his body and mind, for his reputation and actions; she consecrates herself to him spiritually and practically.

Desdemona's spirit, clarity, and realism do not desert her entirely in the latter half of the play as many critics and performances imply. Her inability to defend herself is partly the result of Othello's refusal to voice his suspicions directly. When he does so in the brothel scene, she persistently questions him to discover exactly what he is accusing her of and defends herself as “stoutly” (3.1.45) as she had earlier defended Cassio:

If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any hated foul unlawful touch,
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none.


Her naiveté and docility in the willow scene are partly a result of her confusion and fear, but perhaps also partly a protective facade behind which she waits, as she did during courtship, while determining the most appropriate and fruitful reaction to Othello's rage. The conversation and the song with its alternate last verses explore alternate responses to male perfidy—acceptance “Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve”—or retaliation “If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men” (4.3.51-56). Emilia supports retaliation—“The ills we do, their ills instruct us so” (l. 103)—though, like Bianca, she practices acceptance. Desdemona's final couplet suggests that she is groping for a third response, one that is midway between “grace” and “revenge,” one that would be more active than acceptance yet more loving than retaliation:

                                                                      God me such usage send,
Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend!


The lines are a reply to Emilia and a transformation of an earlier couplet of Iago's: “fairness and wit / The one's for use, the other using it” (2.1.129-30). Desdemona will put fairness and wit to use in a sense that includes and goes beyond the sexual one, acknowledging and using “bad” to heal it. Her earlier command to have the wedding sheets put on her bed seems one expression of this positive usage. Just before her death, as earlier in the handkerchief and brothel scenes, Desdemona strives to “mend” Othello's debased view of her, transforming the “sins” he accuses her of into “loves I bear to you”; a testimony to her pure, active, humble, fertile affections. But Othello recorrupts them: “And for that thou diest” (5.2.40-41).

The men's sense of identity and worth is dependent not only on their relations with women but on their bonds with other men who guarantee their honor and reputation. Vanity, rivalry, and dependence characterize the relations among all the men in the play. Jaques's portrait of the soldier aptly sums up traits which they share: “Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, / Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, / Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the canon's mouth” (2.7.149-52), traits which are those of coxcombs but grow murderous here. Cassio, of course, explicitly voices the men's concern with “the bubble reputation” and reveals how central their position and image are to their sense of identity: “I ha' lost my reputation! I ha' lost the immortal part, sir, of myself, and what remains is bestial” (2.3.255). This identity is highly vulnerable because the men view reputation as detachable, external; it is a matter of rank or title, something to be conferred—or removed—by other men. Hence Iago continues to care about the rank of lieutenant in spite of his continuing intimacy with Othello. Cassio equally relishes his title; “The lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient,” he boasts (2.3.103). Othello must fire Cassio for appearances' sake and because Montano “is of great fame in Cyprus” (3.1.46). Othello's dependence on others' “rich opinion” (2.3.286) creates conflict in his love; “feather'd Cupid” potentially threatens “reputation” in the first act, and later he finds the scorn due the cuckold almost as difficult to bear as the loss of Desdemona.

Although they are neither “bearded like a pard” nor “full of strange oaths,” the men in this play, in their vanity, desire the swaggering manliness which such characteristics conjure up. Iago successfully plays on the others' nervousness about this “manliness,” driving them to acts of “malicious bravery” (1.1.100). He jovially calls them “man” while questioning their manhood or urging new proofs of it. He goads Cassio into “manly” drunkenness and good fellowship—“What, man, 'tis a night of revels, the gallants desire it” (2.3.39). He urges Othello, “Good sir, be a man” (4.1.65). He flatters Roderigo's manly pride: “if thou hast that within thee indeed, which I have greater reason to believe now than ever, I mean purpose, courage, and valour, this night show it” (4.2.213-16). His suggestive battle cries to Roderigo imply a connection that all the men assume between sexual and martial prowess: “Wear thy good rapier bare, and put it home. … fix most firm thy resolution” (5.1.2, 5); perhaps the gull's melodramatic attack on Cassio is “satisfying” even beyond Iago's “reasons,” compensating him for his lack of sexual success. Inversely, cuckoldry is seen by Othello as invalidating his military glories; only the murder of Desdemona and his own suicide restore his pride in his “occupation.”

Since the reputation and manliness which the men covet is achieved in competition with others, all the men are “jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel.” Iago's success derives largely from his ability to manipulate male rivalries, verifying his friendship with each man by shared contempt toward another. In this way, he feeds the men's need for self-esteem, insures their bond with him, and exacerbates their potential rivalries with each other. He enrages Brabantio by claiming that his friend has “robbed” his daughter. He gulls Roderigo by demeaning Othello and urging that they have common cause against him: “my cause is hearted, thine has no less reason, let us be communicative in our revenge against him: if thou canst cuckold him, thou doest thyself a pleasure, and me a sport” (1.3.366-69). He almost offhandedly belittles Othello to Cassio, Cassio to Montano, Othello to Lodovico. His entrapment of Othello begins by insinuating not Desdemona's unfaithfulness but Othello's cuckoldry, his loss of “good name.” This cuckoldry triply threatens Othello: with the loss of Desdemona's love; with the supremacy of Cassio, his lieutenant, over him; and with the loss of his reputation and the scorn of other men.

Iago offers to compensate for these losses with his own love—to replace Othello's other bonds with their friendship. Iago's attack is set up when Othello demands that Iago prove his love by complying with his general's wishes (he has just been threatened by Desdemona's seeming to put similar pressure on him): “If thou dost love me, / Show me thy thought” (3.3.119-20). It concludes with Othello's attempt to replace his love for Desdemona with a vow of vengeance and a (coerced) bond with Iago, through which it seems he can restore his heroism and control by regaining the love and dependence he fears he has lost:

Witness, you ever-burning lights above,
You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here Iago doth give up
The excellency of his wit, hand, heart,
To wrong'd Othello's service: let him command,
And to obey him shall be in me remorse,
What bloody work so ever.
                                                            I greet thy love;
Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance bounteous.


Iago's feigned love gives him power which Desdemona's genuine love cannot counteract; he destroys his superior by destroying Othello's belief in his own superiority and the bonds which confirm that superiority. Nowhere is his power and its roots in Othello's fear of inferiority to other men more ruthlessly and painfully demonstrated than when Iago engineers Othello's eavesdropping of his and Cassio's mockery of Bianca; here, Othello's wounded vanity, obsessive jealousy, and competitive concern for reputation and manliness coalesce in his terse asides with their sexual-martial double entendres:

Do you triumph, Roman, do you triumph?
So, so, so, so; laugh that wins.
Ha' you scor'd me? Well.
I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw't to.


Iago likewise gains power by imposing on the play, through his bawdy, an image of heterosexuality which, like male bonds, is seen as competitive and violent. Sexuality here is not merely represented as an act of male assertion, as in Much Ado, or as painful debilitation, as in All's Well That Ends Well, but as a violent, bestial overpowering of the woman by the man which degrades both: “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe,” “you'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse,” “he hath boarded a land carrack”; Desdemona is in the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (1.1.88-89; 110-11; 2.2.50; 1.1.126). This vision of sexuality comes to replace the tender, hallowed passion of Desdemona for Othello, her desire to participate in “the rites for which I love him” (1.3.257), as Othello imagines that Cassio “lie[s] with her, lie[s] on her” (4.1.38), “pluck[s] up kisses by the roots” (3.3.429). The inevitable culmination of this fantasy occurs when Othello clasps, covers, and stifles Desdemona—“Down, strumpet. … Nay and you strive” (5.2.80,82), silencing her “even in the bed she hath contaminated” (4.1.203)—and then kills himself.

Although the men's aggression destroys the women, their attempts at heroic violence against each other do not completely succeed. Othello vows to kill Cassio but never does, and Roderigo's murder attempt on Cassio fails. It takes Cassio and Iago together to kill poor Roderigo, and Othello cannot kill Iago. The cowardice, clumsiness, and insecurity that belie male pretensions to valor are manifested comically—as in the Twelfth Night duel or in the gulling of Parolles—in the hesitation of Lodovico and Gratiano to answer Roderigo's and Cassio's cries for help: “Two or three groans; it is a heavy night, / These may be counterfeits, let's think 't unsafe / To come into the cry without more help” (5.1.42-45). Even after Iago's entrance, they still hang back, ascertaining his identity (51) but ignoring his cry (thus allowing him to murder Roderigo), introducing themselves (67), discovering Cassio's identity (70), and finally coming to his side after Bianca, who has just entered (75). They still offer no assistance but only perfunctory sympathy and an anticlimactic explanation: “I am sorry to find you thus, I have been to seek you” (81).

Male friendship, like male courage, is in this play sadly deteriorated from the Renaissance ideal. In romance and comedy, the world of male friendship in which the work opens (see, for example, the Arcadia, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, Love's Labor's Lost) is disrupted and transcended by romantic love. In the problem comedies, male friendship is already corrupted as friends exploit and betray each other. As Othello begins, romantic love already dominates, but friendship is reasserted in perverted form. Iago's hypocritical friendship for all of the men, which aims to gratify his own will and gain power over them, is the model for male friendship in the play. Brabantio's “love” for Othello evaporates when his friend marries his daughter. Roderigo intends to use Iago though he is worse used by him. Othello has no hesitation in cashiering Cassio and ordering his death. The men's vanity and rivalry, their preoccupation with rank and reputation, and their cowardice render them as incapable of friendship as they are of love.

The women, in contrast, are indifferent to reputation and partially free of vanity, jealousy, and competitiveness. Desdemona's willingness “to incur a general mock” is evident in her elopement and her defense of it, and in her request to go to Cyprus. Emilia braves scorn to defend her mistress, “Let heaven, and men, and devils, let 'em all, / All, all cry shame against me, yet I'll speak” (5.2.222-23). If Cassio's description of Bianca corresponds at all to fact, she too ignores reputation, comically, to pursue him—“she haunts me in every place … she falls thus about my neck; … so hangs, and lolls, and weeps upon me” (4.1.131-36)—and we see her brave the confusion of the night and the ugliness of Iago's insinuations to come to Cassio's side when he is wounded. Bianca's jealousy is also in contrast to the men's; instead of corroding within, it is quickly vented and dissipates, leaving her affection for Cassio essentially unchanged. Furthermore, she makes no effort to discover her rival, to obtain “proof,” or to get revenge. Likewise Emilia, though expert at noting and analyzing jealousy, seems untouched by it herself. Even her argument for the single standard is good-natured; it contains little hatred of men and no personal animosity toward Iago.

Desdemona is neither jealous nor envious nor suspicious. She is not suspicious or possessive about Othello's job, his intimacy with Iago, or his “love” for Cassio, but supports all three. She seems entirely lacking in the sense of class, race, rank, and hierarchy that concerns the men and is shared by Emilia, who refuses to be identified with Bianca. She treats her father, the Duke, Othello, Cassio, Iago, Emilia, even the clown, with precisely the same combination of politeness, generosity, openness, and firmness. Emilia's and Desdemona's lack of competitiveness, jealousy, and class consciousness facilitates their growing intimacy, which culminates in the willow scene. The scene, sandwiched between two exchanges of Iago and Roderigo, sharply contrasts the genuine intimacy of the women with the hypocritical friendship of the men, while underlining the women's isolation and powerlessness. Emilia's concern for Desdemona is real, and her advice well meant, whereas Iago's concern for Roderigo is feigned, his advice deadly—“whether he kill Cassio, / Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, / Every way makes my game” (5.1.12-14). Roderigo accepts Iago's “satisfying reasons,” finding them sufficient to justify murder; Desdemona rejects Emilia's reasonable justification of wives' adultery without rejecting the concern that prompts her to offer it. In the willow scene sympathy stretches from Emilia and Desdemona to include Barbary and the protagonist of the song—all victims of male perfidy; in the Roderigo/Iago scenes, enmity reaches Cassio. In this play romantic love is destroyed by the semblance of male friendship, which itself soon disintegrates. Meanwhile, friendship between women is established and dominates the play's final scene. Othello chooses Iago's friendship over Desdemona's love temporarily and unwittingly; Emilia's choice of Desdemona over Iago is voluntary and final. Though the stakes here are higher, the friendship of Desdemona and Emilia is reminiscent of the generous, witty female friendship in the comedies, where women share their friends' hardships (Rosalind and Celia), vigorously defend their honor (Beatrice and Hero), support their strategems (Portia and Nerissa), and sympathize with and aid even their rivals (Julia and Sylvia, Viola and Olivia, Helen and Diana, Mariana and Isabella). But in Othello, without the aid of disguise, bedtricks, or mock deaths, the women cannot protect each other from male animosity.

Because of the men's vanity, competitiveness, and concern for honor and reputation, when they do act, they try to exonerate themselves, persistently placing blame for their actions outside themselves. Even Cassio, while abusing himself for his drunkenness, comes to personify that drunkenness as a “devil,” something which invades him. Roderigo blames Iago for his failure to prosper: “Iago hurt [me]. Iago set [me] on” (5.2.329-30). Iago, at the last, instead of boasting about the execution of his grand design (as, for example, Satan does in Paradise Lost), tries to shift responsibility for it elsewhere—to Bianca, to Emilia, and finally, even after the facts are known, to Othello: “I told him what I thought, and told no more / Than what he found himself was apt and true” (5.2.177-78). Othello's longing for passivity and his denial of responsibility are intertwined throughout the play. He both sees himself as passive and desires passivity. His narrative history before the senate, the basis for our original impression of the heroic Othello, describes, when closely examined, what he has suffered rather than what he has done; he speaks of “moving accidents by flood and field; / Of hair-breadth scapes 'i th' imminent deadly breach; / Of being taken by the insolent foe; / And sold to slavery, and my redemption hence” (1.3.135-38), and of his subsequent enslavement by Desdemona, whom he entertained with similar tales, for example, “of some distressed stroke / That my youth suffer'd” (1.3.157-58). Pity is indeed the appropriate response to his tale. His farewell to arms is, curiously, a farewell to “content,” to “the tranquil mind” (3.3.354), and to the instruments of war; it is they who are seen as active and heroic, not himself. His vow of revenge, likening him to the “compulsive course” of the “Pontic sea,” reveals the longing for external control and validation which underlies the heroic stance. In a parallel passage after his error is revealed, he again wants to be swept along by a current: “Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur, / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” (5.2.280-81), to be consumed by hell-fire rather than by desire. Two of his significant actions in the play—the cashiering of Cassio and the murder of Desdemona—are, in a sense, “compulsive,” achieved, as he himself notes, only when passion “Assays to lead the way” (2.3.198), and he feels out of control or seeks a false sense of being under the control of an impersonal “cause.” Even at his suicide, when he is in control, he sees himself as “you” rather than “I,” object rather than actor, as “being wrought, / Perplex'd in the extreme … one whose subdued eyes, … Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees / Their medicinal gum” (5.2.246-51). In the anecdote that accompanies his suicide, Othello is actor and acted upon, hero and victim, and his action is again violent and enraged. But it is also premeditated—and gives him, at last, the command over himself he has not achieved throughout.

Desdemona's self-recriminations must be seen in the light of Othello's evasions. Critics have found them puzzling, excessive, intolerable, even neurotic, perhaps they are all of these. But her unwarranted self-accusations—“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 indited falsely” (3.4.148-52)—and her false assumption of responsibility for her death—“Nobody, I myself, farewell” (5.2.125) provide the sharpest possible contrast to the men's excuses. Her last request, “Commend me to my kind lord,” not only conveys her forgiveness but is one final active effort to restore their mutual love. She is not, however, a willing victim and does not sacrifice herself to Othello, although she does not attribute guilt to him either. She defends her innocence and pleads for her life; but he murders her anyway.

Desdemona's cryptic lines after she is apparently dead give to her actual death some of the functions and the feel of Shakespearean mock deaths. Like the women who stage them, she defends her innocence—“A guiltless death I die” (5.2.123)—assumes responsibility for the death, and seeks to transform Othello into a “kind lord.” When the audience finds that the women it has thought dead remains alive, the poignant, momentary impression that this may be a mock death intensifies the horror of the scene. Desdemona's refusal to blame and hurt Othello is at the heart of her loving virtue. Hero, Helen, and Hermione likewise do not blame their detractors directly. But this virtue coalesces in dangerous ways with Othello's need to blame and hurt her.

From the beginning, Desdemona has viewed love as risk and challenge. She has violently uprooted herself from her father's protection and the conventional expectations of Venetian society, whereas Othello has put himself into “circumscription and confine” for her. She has initiated while Othello has responded. She is neither the “rose” or “chrysolite” of Petrarchan convention seen by Othello nor the saint extolled by critics. She sets the stage for her wooing by an extraordinarily active listening, which Othello naturally notices and describes; she would “with a greedy ear / Devour up my discourse” (1.3.149-50). She engenders his love by her own: “She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd, / And I lov'd her that she did pity them” (ll. 168-69); she proposes and elopes. She is the one who challenges her father directly, who determines to go to Cyprus. She moves after marriage to bring the lovers' idiom down to earth, using all of her “plenteous wit and invention” at their reunion and in the discussion of Cassio. All the characters in the play make mention of her energizing power. Cassio, hyperbolically, attributes to her the ability to influence recalcitrant nature:

Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,
The gutter'd rocks, and congregated sands,
Traitors ensteep'd, to clog the guiltless keel,
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their common natures, letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona.


Othello is awed by her power to move man and beast—“She might lie by an emperor's side, and command him tasks. … O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear” (4.1.180-81, 184-85)—testifying, late in the play, to his ineradicable love for her. Iago, in soliloquy, attributes to her unlimited power over Othello—“she may make, unmake, do what she list” (2.3.337). And Desdemona herself, vowing support for Cassio, reveals her sense of her own persistance and controlling force:

If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it
To the last article.


But Desdemona's energy, assertiveness, and power are made possible by Othello's loving response to her, just as his subduing of himself to her, his “garner[ing] up” (4.2.58) of his heart is engendered by her love for him. Each has “thrive[d]” (1.3.25) in the apparent security of their mutual love, but their joyous subduing of themselves to each other leaves them vulnerable. With that certainty lost, with their responses to each other mistrusted, Othello is plunged into chaos and Desdemona into helplessness. In this crisis, he seeks to be “unhoused” again, and she refuses to acknowledge the loss of her new home: “Commend me to my kind lord” (5.2.126).

All of the women, in spite of their affection, good sense, and energy, fail to transform or to be reconciled with the men. The sexes, so sharply differentiated in the play, badly misunderstand each other. The men, as we have seen, persistently misconceive the women; the women fatally overestimate the men. Each sex, trapped in its own values and attitudes, misjudges the other. Iago acts on the hypothesis that women, on the one hand, share his concern with reputation and propriety (“Be wise, and get you home” [5.2.224], he orders Emilia) and, on the other, enact his salacious fantasies. Othello assumes, with Iago's prompting, that just as he is the stereotypical soldier, foreigner, older husband, so Desdemona will be the stereotypical mistress, Venetian, young bride. He responds to Iago's claim to knowledge about Desdemona—“knowing what I am, I know what she shall be”—with comic enthusiasm: “O thou art wise, 'tis certain” (4.1.73-74). Likewise the women attribute their own qualities to the men. Desdemona projects her lack of jealousy onto Othello. Emilia attributes to Iago her own capacity for empathy: “I know it grieves my husband, / As if the case were his” (3.3.3-4). Even Bianca, because she does not view herself as a whore in her relationship with Cassio, is surprised that he should treat her as one. Hence, although the women recognize the foolishness of the men's fancies, they are all too tolerant of them. Emilia steals the handkerchief for the sake of Iago's “fantasy” (3.3.303) and thus assures the success of his plot. Desdemona's salutation to Othello in act 3 is lamentably prophetic—“Be it as your fancies teach you, / What e'er you be, I am obedient” (3.3.89-90). He leaves her to be instructed in her whoredom.

The lost handkerchief becomes the emblem of the women's power and its loss. Both Othello's original description of the handkerchief and its part in the plot reveal that it is a symbol of women's loving, civilizing, sexual power. It has passed from female sibyl to female “charmer” to Othello's mother to Desdemona. Othello is merely a necessary intermediary between his mother and his wife—“She dying, gave it me, / And bid me, when my fate would have me wive, / To give it her” (3.4.61-63). Its creator, the sibyl, who “In her prophetic fury sew'd the work,” and its next owner, the Egyptian charmer who “could almost read / The thoughts of people,” reveal the source of its power in women's passionate intuitive knowledge. This knowledge, it seems, enables them to use and control sexuality. The middle ground that women find between lust and abstinence (as the men in the play cannot do) is suggested in the description of the process by which the handkerchief is made. The worms that did “breed” the silk, emblems of death, sexuality, and procreation, are “hallow'd.” The thread they spin vitally and naturally from themselves is artificially improved, dyed in “mummy” which is “conserve[d] from maiden's hearts.” The handkerchief then represents marital chastity—sexuality transformed by loving fidelity. Its function is to chasten and control men's love and desire:

                                        she told her, while she kept it
'Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father
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 hunt
After new fancies.

(ll. 56-61)

It represents women's ability to moderate men's erratic (and erotic) “fancies,” to “subdue” their promiscuity (assumed to be the norm under the double standard outlined by Emilia), and perhaps, by extension, their vanity, romanticism, jealousy, and rage as well. The handkerchief is the symbol of Desdemona's loving power over Othello:

Excellent wretch, perdition catch my soul,
But I do love, thee, and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.


The handkerchief is lost, literally and symbolically, not because of the failure of Desdemona's love, but because of Othello's loss of faith in that love. Once lost, the female power it symbolizes is degraded and constrained, and comedy gives way to tragedy.

After the handkerchief's original loss, all of the characters, men and women alike, misuse its power and misinterpret its symbolism, marking the disruption of all the love relationships in the play. The abuse begins when Othello pushes it aside, rejecting Desdemona's loving attempt to heal the pain on his forehead, and Emilia picks it up to give it to Iago, thereby making herself subservient to him and placing her loyalty to her husband above affection for Desdemona. Her silence about its whereabouts confirms her choice. Shakespeare's alteration of his source—removing Iago from an active role in the theft of the handkerchief and dramatizing its loss in these particular circumstances—emphasizes the handkerchief's symbolism and the active role played by Desdemona and Emilia in the misunderstandings that follow from its loss. In Iago's hands, its function is reversed; it is used to confirm his power over Emilia and Othello and to induce in Othello loathing for Desdemona. Iago's first mention of it incites Othello to reject love and embrace vengeance (3.3.441-86). Now the hero, under Iago's tutelage, proceeds to reinterpret the handkerchief as his love token—a pledge of his love and possession of Desdemona and of her sexual fidelity—“She is protectress of her honour too, / May she give that?” (4.1.14-15). Hence its loss provides “proof” of his suspicions. The reinterpretation continues in his altered description of its history in the last act. As he uses it to support his “cause” against Desdemona, it becomes “the recognizance and pledge of love / Which I first gave her … an antique token / My father gave my mother” (5.2.215-18; italics mine). It is now a symbol of the male control and love which Desdemona has betrayed; hence she must be punished—“Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men” (5.2.6).

Desdemona, too, alters her view of the handkerchief. Instinctively using it to cure Othello's pain, she almost succeeds. She “loves” the handkerchief (3.3.297) and recognizes the danger of its loss. But when pressed by Othello, she rejects its significance—“Then would to God that I had never seen it!” (3.4.75). Her rejection reflects the failure of her power. In Desdemona's earlier discussion of Cassio she was in control; now her persistence is foolish and provokes Othello's rage. Even in the early part of this scene, Desdemona deftly parries and “mends” Othello's ugly insinuations, turning his implied sexual vices into passionate virtues:

This hand is moist, my lady.
It yet has felt no age, nor known no sorrow.


For here's a young and sweating devil here,
That commonly rebels: 'tis a good hand,
A frank one.
You may indeed say so,
For 'twas that hand that gave away my heart.


But after the tale of the handkerchief she loses the initiative. She tries to regain it by—just barely—lying, and by changing the subject. But the attempt to calm and heal Othello fails. Her lie, like Ophelia's similarly well-intentioned lie to Hamlet, is generated by her love but signals the loss of her maiden's power and innocence; it confirms—Othello believes—his notions about female depravity, as Ophelia's lie confirms Hamlet's similar views. Both women, rejected by their lovers, do not regain the initiative in the relationship.

The handkerchief next creates conflict in the Iago/Emilia and Cassio/Bianca relationships. Both men use it, as Othello has done, to consolidate their power over women. When Emilia regrets its theft, Iago snatches it from her and dismisses her, “Be not you known on 't” (3.3.324). Cassio similarly gives orders to Bianca regarding it and dismisses her (3.4.188-89). She, though jealous, agrees to copy the work; her willingness to be “circumstanc'd” (l. 200) is a flaw which all the women share. Later, however, she returns the handkerchief in a scene parallel and in contrast to that when the handkerchief was lost. Bianca, like Othello, is jealous. She flings down the handkerchief as he pushed it aside, and it lies on the stage ignored by the couple, who go off to a possible reconciliation. But Bianca's refusal to be used by the handkerchief or by Cassio leads to a truce and a supper engagement, whereas Othello's refusal to be healed by it opens the breach in his relationship with Desdemona that culminates in her murder.

Eventually the handkerchief's original function is reestablished; it becomes the vehicle through which civilizing control is returned to the women. The reference to it by Othello in the last scene enlightens Emilia; it ends Iago's domination of her, engenders her accusations of Othello and Iago, and enables her to prove Desdemona's faithful “amiable” love. Othello is once again “subdue[d]” to this love. Emilia, stealing the handkerchief, is catalyst for the play's crisis; revealing its theft, she is catalyst for the play's denouement.

Her reiteration of “husband” and “mistress” in the last scene emphasizes the play's central division and the “divided duty” of Emilia. When Iago's villainy is made known, she shifts her allegiance unhesitatingly. Instead of tolerating both Iago's “fancy” and Desdemona's virtue, she denounces the one and affirms the other. She questions Iago's manliness: “Disprove this villain, if thou be'st a man: / He said thou told'st him that his wife was false, / I know thou didst not, thou art not such a villain” (5.2.173-75). Then she rejects the wifely virtues of silence, obedience, and prudence that are demanded of her, “unhousing” herself:

I will not charm my tongue, I am bound to speak:
'Tis proper I obey him, but not now:
Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home.

(ll. 185,197-98)

Her epithet just before she is stabbed appropriately refers to all the men in the play: Iago, to whose taunts it is a response; Othello, who responds to it; and Cassio, Roderigo, and Brabantio as well:

O murderous coxcomb! what should such a fool
Do with so good a woman?

(ll. 234-35)

Emilia, another “good woman,” dies without self-justifications or calls for revenge; instead she testifies to Desdemona's innocence and love just as her mistress had done at her own death. Her request to be laid by her mistress, her reiteration of the willow song, and her own attempts to “by bad mend” complete her identification with Desdemona.

Emilia's story has utterly destroyed Iago's bond with Othello and foiled his attempt to “make up [his] will,” (1.3.393), to complete himself by compensating for his own misshapenness through the stories that allow him to shape others. He and his fantasies are repudiated by Roderigo, by Othello, and by Emilia. Her refusal of obedience destroys Iago's plot and refutes his philosophy, which requires that she act in her own self-interest. Iago's final, Othello-like attempt to deny his wife's betrayal is to call her “villainous whore” and stab her, thus validating her confession and her epitaph for him. But this act, like all of the other events of the night, “fordoes” Iago instead of “mak[ing]” him (5.1.128). He has not eradicated Othello's love for Desdemona or turned her virtue into pitch. The deaths of Roderigo, Desdemona, Emilia, and Othello destroy the power over others which is the source of his self-engendering and identity. His final silence—“Demand me nothing, what you know, you know, / From this time forth I never will speak word” (5.2.304-5)—is, for him, the equivalent of suicide. Iago's silence, his imperviousness, his unmade-upness, his refusal to suffer, all mitigate his scapegoat function throughout the last scene, emphasizing instead his role as catalyst to Othello's tragedy. It is Othello's speech, his pain, his recreation of a self to which we attend.

While the division between Iago and Emilia is absolute after he kills her, some connections between Othello and Desdemona are reestablished in the last act. Desdemona, as we have seen, continues to affirm their relationship up to the moment of her death, and Othello in the last scene does move away from the men and toward the women. Othello, like Desdemona and Emilia, dies in pain testifying to love, whereas Iago lives, silent; Othello, like the women, stays to acknowledge at least partial responsibility for his actions, while Iago flees, accepting none. But Othello cannot abandon his masculine identity by asserting a new one: “That's he that was Othello; here I am” (l. 285). Instead of applying Emilia's accusation to himself, he stabs Iago; the two men are one in their desire to place guilt elsewhere and eliminate its bearer. With Iago's exit, Othello turns his attention, characteristically, to his honor and a suicide weapon. Emilia's death, though it reenacts Desdemona's, is a mere parenthesis in his search, scarcely noticed by him. Although male bombast is virtually silenced at the end of this play, as it is in the comedies—Iago will “never more speak word” (l. 305) and the terseness and precision of Roderigo's dying epithet for Iago (“O inhuman dog”) are equaled in Cassio's epitaph for the dead Othello (“For he was great of heart”)—Othello's rhetoric continues unchecked. Throughout the scene, he persists in seeing himself and Desdemona as ill-fated, “unlucky,” as victims of Iago who has “ensnar'd” (l. 303) him. Desdemona is still imagined as the remote, passive, perfect object of romantic love. She is “cold, cold” as her “chastity” (ll. 276-77), associated with “monumental alabaster” (l. 5), with an “entire and perfect chrysolite” (l. 146), and with a “pearl” (l. 348). In his last speeches, his own brand of Iago's “motive-hunting,” he strives to reconstitute his heroic reputation. He leaves the play exactly as he had entered it, affirming his services to the state (compare 1.2.17), confessing, asking for justice and judgment (compare 1.3.122-25), telling stories about his past, and putting his “unhoused free condition” into its ultimate “confine” for love of Desdemona. His suicide both punishes himself as an Iago-like “dog” and reasserts his identity as a decisive, just commander and a passionate lover of Desdemona: “I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee, no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (ll. 359-60). His love remains idealistic, anxious, self-justifying—consummated “no way” but in death.

Indeed, most of the characters remain where they started—or return there. Here there is not even the tentative movement beyond folly that we find in the comedy heroes. Roderigo was upbraiding Iago in the play's first lines and is still doing so in the letter that is his last communication. Cassio has again received a promotion and is again caught up in events he does not comprehend. Brabantio, had he lived, likely would have responded to Desdemona's death exactly as he did to her elopement: “This sight would make him do a desperate turn” (l. 208). Iago, like Jaques, Malvolio, and Shylock, the villains of the comedies, is opaque and static. His cryptic last words, “What you know, you know,” (l. 304) reveal no more about him than did his overexplanatory soliloquies. Desdemona, just before her death, challenges Othello as she had challenged her father and defends herself with the same straightforward precision she used before the senate:

And have you mercy too! I never did
Offend you in my life, … never lov'd Cassio,
But with such general warranty of heaven,
As I might love: I never gave him token.

(ll. 59-62)

Bianca comes forth to seek Cassio at her last appearance as at her first; both times she frankly declares her affection and is brusquely dismissed. Emilia's function and attitudes do change, however, though her character perhaps does not. She moves from tolerating men's fancies to exploding them and from prudent acceptance to courageous repudiation. She ceases to function as reconciler of the views of the men and the women, and the separation between them widens.

The play's ending is tragic; but it is also cankered comedy. The final speech effects a disengagement even greater than that which is usual at the end of the tragedies. Avoiding mention of the love of Othello and Desdemona and direct reference to Othello's murder and suicide, it focuses on the “state matters” (3.4.153) which the lovers themselves earlier sought refuge in and on the punishment of Iago, who does, at this point, become a scapegoat. Lodovico asks us to see the tragedy as Iago's “work,” to look foward with relish to his torture, and to avert our gaze from the bed and its significance. But the restoration of military order provides little satisfaction here. The speech does not look back over the events of the play, creating a sense of completion and exhaustion as in Romeo and Juliet and King Lear; it does not look forward to a new beginning, however equivocally, as do Hamlet and Macbeth. The conflict between the men and the women has not been eliminated or resolved. The men have been unable to turn the women's virtue into pitch, but the women have been unable to mend male fantasies. The comic resolution of male with female, idealism with realism, love with sex, the individual with society is aborted. The play concludes, not with symmetrical pairings off and a movement toward marriage beds, but with one final triangle: Emilia, Desdemona, and Othello dead on wedding sheets. We are made to look with Iago, ominously a survivor, at the “tragic lodging of this bed”; lodging here, with its resonance from other Shakespearean uses, concludes the play on a note of arrested growth, devastated fertility. “The object poisons sight”; it signifies destruction without catharsis, release without resolution. The pain and division of the ending are unmitigated, and the clarification it offers is intolerable. “Let it be hid” is our inevitable response.

Valerie Wayne (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12754

SOURCE: Wayne, Valerie. “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello.” In The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, pp. 153-79. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991.

[In the following essay, Wayne contends that Othello depicts an array of ideologies concerning women and marriage, and argues that the misogyny in Othello, for which Iago serves as the primary mouthpiece, represents just one of the prevailing views of the Renaissance.]


Among all the critiques of the new historicism that are currently available, Carolyn Porter's remarkable essay, ‘Are we being historical yet?’, seems to me to explain most fully the process by which subversive elements are contained and marginal elements subordinated, dominated and othered in some new historicist practices. ‘The problem lies … in being limited to one set of discourses—those which form the site of a dominant ideology—and then reifying that limit as if it were coterminous with the limits of discourse in general. It is this issue of framing the discursive field which new historicists most urgently need to address.’1 I would like to approach this problem by examining the text of Othello as presenting a range of ideologies on women and marriage that interact with one another, on the assumption, which I have illustrated elsewhere, that there were also multiple discourses on those subjects available within English Renaissance culture.2 An obvious place to look within the text for at least one alternative discourse is where it is hardest to find in recent productions—in the scene that has so troubled modern editors and directors that it has been complained about and cut in performances of the play. That is the conversation about women between Iago and Desdemona in Act II, scene i.

No one has objected to the scene more than M. R. Ridley, who calls it ‘one of the most unsatisfactory passages in Shakespeare’ because it is ‘unnatural’ to Desdemona's ‘instinct’ and ‘distasteful to watch her engaged in a long piece of cheap backchat with Iago’.3 Ridley's comments show that he is offended by Desdemona's ‘vulgarity’, as Lisa Jardine has already pointed out;4 his own critical discourse also attempts to establish an interpretive purity for which objection becomes ‘backchat’ and backchat is always ‘cheap’. Reading Shakespeare apart from other texts of the period, including those in the debate about women that Jardine connects briefly to the play, he is a critic who objects to the bad bits in the bard from the safety of his editorial sanctuary. There is a drive to ideological tidiness in this approach that functions much like Ridley's impulse ‘to wash an Ethiop white’ in his treatment of Othello, a subject that Karen Newman has explored in her essay on the play. Jardine and Newman object to Ridley's sexism and racism and also address what Newman terms the ‘historical contingency’ of the Renaissance text.5

Yet while asserting the claims of history and showing how Othello figures monstrosity in the play, Newman creates her own totalising gesture by describing ‘the white male norms’ of the play encoded through Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio.6 This gesture, made in an important essay that expands our knowledge of the racism in western culture, also occurs with disturbing frequency in less sophisticated feminist criticism—in uses of patriarchy as a monolithic and unvarying phenomenon, in assumptions that the forms by which men dominate women are the same across cultures, and in the compatible assumption that women's oppression is similarly felt and repressed at various historical moments. If very different totalising moves have marginalised women in the texts of new historicists, as feminist critics we need to be wary of comparable gestures that totalise and reify men, in order to free our own critical practices from complicity in the operations we seek to criticise and resist. ‘What we do not need’, Porter points out, and her ‘we’ applies to feminist as well as historical critics, ‘is a criticism which re-others those voices which were and are marginalised and disempowered by dominant discourses.’7 Nor do we need a criticism that essentialises white men.

Porter's caution applies whether marginal voices arise from persons of other races or classes, from women, or from men as malevolent as Iago. So rather than seeking alternative discourses only through the differences of race, class or sex in Othello, I want to consider Iago not as an archetype of patriarchy or of evil,8 but as one who articulates a marginal discourse in English Renaissance culture, a discourse that was and is in a particularly unstable relation with the dominant discourses available both then and now. I will argue that Iago's conversation with Desdemona in Act II, scene i, associates him quite specifically with the residual Renaissance discourse of misogyny. Through Iago's influence on Othello, the misogynist text of the Renaissance is written onto Desdemona's body after the woman's text that marks her as chaste has been displaced. While my focus will be on the play's allusions to the writing of texts in the Renaissance debate about women, and on the historically specific ideological positions and gender differences arising from it and from discourses on marriage, I want also to comment on how the discourses we privilege in relation to Renaissance texts inscribe the criticism we produce about them.

Misogyny is especially effective as an ideology when it masquerades or is taken for something else, and it has been taken for much besides misogyny in discussions of this play, as if Shakespeare could not possibly have understood what he was writing. Thomas Rymer confused it with ‘“Jack-pudding farce … that runs with all the little plays, jingle, and trash below the patience of any Country Kitchenmaid with her Sweetheart”’. Ridley quotes him and comments: ‘It is difficult not to sympathise for once with Rymer, who, for all his regrettably crude ebullience of expression, does sometimes hit the nail on the head.’9 But which (gendered) head? In Rymer's remark Iago's discourse on gender is effaced as the discourse of class, too low even for the kitchen-maid; and in Ridley's, the critic also becomes ‘crude’. Peter Stallybrass, in his essay addressing Othello, observes that members of oppressed groups sometimes deny class boundaries by ‘collapsing … women into a single undifferentiated group’ through the articulation of ‘misogynist discourse’.10 What happens in this critical discourse on the play is a related, although reverse, move: Ridley affirms Rymer's displacement of the concerns of gender onto class, thereby muting issues in the play relating to women, and simultaneously condemns Rymer's remarks as evincing a lower-class style like its subject matter, thereby reasserting the class boundaries of critical discourse that Rymer supposedly violated. In this way an elitist critical discourse maintains the marginalisation of gender while asserting the primacy of class in style and content. Since displacements such as these occur frequently in Renaissance drama and its criticism, effecting a double silencing of gender issues, misogyny has often not been addressed as a discourse that articulates the distrust and hatred of women. Yet in its undisplaced form it was prevalent in medieval and Renaissance literature.

The Middle Ages was so known for it that Howard Bloch remarks in ‘Medieval misogyny’ that the title of his essay may seem redundant,

because the topic of misogyny … participates in a vestigial horror practically synonymous with the term medieval, and because one of the assumptions governing our perception of the Middle Ages is the viral presence of antifeminism. … The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature.11

Christine de Pisan was so angered to find it in Matheolus that she wrote The Book of the City of Ladies in response, and incited the querelle des femmes in French literature. Chaucer provides a good bibliography of medieval misogyny through the texts listed in Jankyn's ‘boke of wikked wives’ from The Wife of Bath's Prologue. Jean de Meun's portions of The Romance of the Rose made Le Jaloux's tirades against women widely available to medieval and Renaissance readers, but they could also find misogyny in the Bible, in writings of the church fathers, in books on courtly love and in countless proverbs.12 While these texts raise interpretive complexities, there was still nothing subtle about their denunciation of women. It was blatant:

All you women are, will be, and have been whores, in fact or in desire, for, whoever could eliminate the deed, no man can constrain desire. All women have the advantage of being mistresses of their desires. For no amount of beating or upgrading can one change your hearts, but the man who could change them would have lordship over your bodies.13

Such passages are designed to persuade as fully against marriage as against women, and Bloch identifies ‘the defining rhetorical context of all misogynistic literature’ as that ‘which seeks to dissuade from marriage’.14

During the Renaissance, misogyny does not disappear but is seemingly contained through an association with specific characters. Lord Gasper in Castiglione's Courtier, Master Gualter in Tilney's Flower of Friendshippe, the eponymous characters of the anonymous play, Misogonous, or Beaumont and Fletcher's The Woman Hater: these figures articulate a misogyny that is directed against marriage as well as women but is condemned by other participants in the fictions. There is also a misogynist in Shakespeare's source for Othello, Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, a fellow named Ponzio who rejects Fabio's praise of marriage in the debate that opens the collection of tales on the grounds that ‘women are dangerous beings’. Ponzio quotes from Menander, ‘“Better bury a woman than marry her”’, from King Alfonso of Naples, ‘“For there to be peace between husband and wife the husband must be deaf and the wife blind’”, and from other authors to support his position.15 In Women and the English Renaissance, Linda Woodbridge discusses over three dozen stage misogynists, Iago among them, and she describes their ‘antimasque function’ as embodying all doubts, fears and hatred of women, so that when the misogynist is converted, banished or killed, those responses to women appear to be, too.16 By the time William Gouge published his Domesticall Duties in 1612, it was even possible to charge a Puritan clergyman who discussed marital duties with misogyny. Although Gouge advocates the subjection of wives, he also resists husbands' abuse of their authority, so he protests that wives have no cause to complain about his advice: ‘This just Apologie I have beene forced to make, that I might not ever be judged (as some have censured me) an hater of women.17 Gouge did not carry the badge of misogynist proudly, especially since that criticism could have implied that he advocated a Catholic, rather than Protestant or Puritan, position on marriage. Through its frequent use as a charge, the term came to function as a threat, much as the charge of ‘shrew’ functioned for insubordinate wives.

The illusion that misogyny was contained or destroyed by these Renaissance texts is important to a character who was nearly always recuperated, for attributing misogynist attitudes only to him obscured similar assumptions within other characters and the defences they offered on behalf of women. Gasper and Gualter are both threatened with being thrown out of the restricted aristocratic worlds that they inhabit by the female participants in their dialogues, and their continued presence within courtly society depends upon their containment. The existence of the misogynist in a text does not, therefore, guarantee its position on women from a modern perspective, for as an identifiable ideology, misogyny was overdetermined during the Renaissance. While it was presented as a residual ideology that the dominant discourse had put aside, the debate about women in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts was one means by which misogyny was fully sustained in the culture. It was residual in the sense that Raymond Williams uses that term to identify an ideology that ‘has been effectively formed in the past, but … is still active in the cultural process.’18 During the Renaissance, misogynist discourse had a history and continued to make history.

The frequent identification of misogyny in Renaissance texts distinguishes it from the dominant ideology, usually with the implication that the later writers are superior for having spurned such outmoded ways of thinking. But literary misogyny was still being produced. In 1596, for example, C. M. (perhaps Christopher Middleton), the author of a very conventional romance, defended the title of his text by remarking on misogyny's residual position in the culture. The Nature of a Woman tells of twin brothers who are ‘blessed in all worldly wealth, except the unfortunate choyse of two wicked wives, … both wicked, because both women’. These women become the occasion for discord between the brothers and their children, and after many fabulous episodes in the woods, everyone is reconciled when the two wives admit their guilt. For the reader who is wondering why such a story has this title, C. M. explains in his preface to the second part that he was ‘loath to breake square’ with his real purpose, so he used the present title, ‘which though therein it answer not everie mans privat expectation in what they meane, yet could not I fit it better to the matter, containing indeede nothing but the envious practises of two wicked women.’ His title is admittedly misleading, but it has a kind of validity given his misogynist text. Then he explains the cause: ‘wherein if any take offence, let him for this time winke at my fault, as rather affecting to frame my selfe to the new fashion, that it should be accounted new stuffe, then following the old be esteemed as too stale.’19 The old fashion here referred to is literary misogyny, which is C. M.'s mode within a romance genre; the new stuff is the more positive presentation of women that would have been signalled by the apparently neutral phrase, ‘the nature of a woman’. We can now read that phrase as naturalising yet another, hardly neutral, construct of woman; but in 1596, at least in C. M.'s opinion, the most blatant form of misogyny that associated women with evil was clearly old hat. Yet it was not so outmoded or irrelevant that he felt obliged to apologise for producing a misogynist text: he merely asks pardon for the disjunction between text and title.

In ‘Discourse in life and discourse in art’, Vološinov/Bakhtin makes a distinction that explains why a residual ideology such as misogyny would appear even more visible in a culture than one that was dominant:

If a value judgment is in actual fact conditioned by the being of a given community, it becomes a matter of dogmatic belief, something taken for granted and not subject to discussion. On the contrary, whenever some basic value judgment is verbalized and justified, we may be certain that i[t] has already become dubious, has separated from its referent, has ceased to organize life, and, consequently, has lost its connection with the existential conditions of the given group.20

The very presence of misogynist discourse in the Renaissance suggests the instability of that view of women. It was not that no one any longer associated women with evil, but that the ideology was at issue and not an unquestioned presupposition or a given of the culture. Many texts in the Renaissance debate position themselves against that ideology. Thomas Elyot's Defence of Good Women places a character named Candidus against Caninius, who ‘lyke a curre, at womennes condicions is alwaye barkynge’: Candidus is not unambiguously feminist,21 but Caninius is clearly antifeminist and is prompting a humanist defense of women's worth. The misogynists in Renaissance texts engender controversy over that ideology rather than belief: they keep misogyny alive at the same time that they call it into question.

What this discourse also diverts attention from are the misogynist assumptions about women's inferiority and inadequacies that patriarchal structures often assert in historically different forms and modes. Less explicit forms of misogyny or sexism were not frequently contested during the Renaissance, so the observation that Candidus's domesticated and idealised prescriptions for women in The Defence of Good Women also restrict women's agency, or that Cassio treats women as others in a way similar to Iago, requires working against the distinctions between discourses available at that time, since the rhetoric that both characters use is markedly different from Iago's. Gouge's resistance to being identified as a woman-hater is similarly justified on rhetorical grounds, since he does not associate women with evil. Yet the women who charged him with misogyny may have felt that his justifications for wives' subjection to their husbands were based not on an articulated hatred, but on a structural requirement of the subordination of women in theology and in social formations that also assumes a deep distrust of women. By what means can we distinguish more pervasive and less explicit forms of misogyny, which are still with us, from the local version so readily identified by its rhetoric? During the Renaissance, the very presence of a separate discourse made the latter form of misogyny more easy to see, while it also obscured the visibility of other ‘misogynies’22 that operated in that culture and continue to operate in ours. The charges made against Gouge suggest the possibility that some persons in his culture saw through the screen of rhetorical misogyny to some other means of condemning or confining women that functioned in many personal and institutional contexts.

The different forms that misogyny can assume within cultures therefore require some modified application of Vološinov/Bakhtin's axiom in relation to this problem, because misogyny as a structural principle governing power-relations has not ‘ceased to organize life’ or ‘lost its connection with the existential conditions of the given group’. Patriarchal structures create numerous and varied opportunities for reinforcing misogyny, so there is an uneasy relation between misogynist discourse and other forms of patriarchal oppression. The localised, residual misogyny available in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could therefore be remobilised by the dominant discourse: the ideology of marriage that valorised chastity as yet another means of containing women's desire was its complement, not its opposite. Because both ideologies were still active in the cultural process, the dominant discourse could simultaneously reject and promulgate residual misogyny in order to enforce women's continued subordination within the culture.

We do need a way of identifying discursive misogyny, especially in medieval and Renaissance texts, because its very visibility made it function as a literary device during those periods. Yet if we are presently spared some of that rhetoric, various other means of subordinating and discrediting women that have very material consequences affect us daily. Literary theories and critical practices often marginalise and degrade issues relating to women. Forces within the academy effectively establish a male elite and simultaneously demean the work of women. As feminist critics, we address these problems by resisting the marginalisation of women in texts and in other material practices and by calling attention to issues of gender that other critics either do not see or prefer to ignore. To interpret from our present moment meanings in Othello that have been effaced through time, for example, we can consider the play's association of Iago with the misogynist and its use of Renaissance discourses on women. It is not historical accident that has obscured our knowledge of those controversies: it is the historical oppression of women that marginalises those controversies and continues to do so within contemporary critical practice. So in this analysis I want to look at two kinds of difference in the play—the historical difference of positions for and against women as they were constructed by the Renaissance debate and texts on marriage, and the gender differences that were mapped out by those discourses.


In Act II, scene i, the audience hears divergent constructions of women by Cassio and Iago that parallel the praise and blame accorded to women in the Renaissance debate. Even before Desdemona comes on stage, Cassio celebrates her as one who surpasses all other textual constructions of exemplary women: she is 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.(23)

The passage says less about Desdemona than about the effort of an ingenious artist to pen her praise, drawing attention to the verbal constructions of women that will be a concern of the next one hundred lines. When she does arrive in Cyprus, Desdemona is greeted with a proud flourish from Cassio:

Hail to thee, lady! And the grace of heaven
Before, behind thee, and on every hand,
Enwheel thee round.


This salutation is adventitious, given Desdemona's more material concern for her husband's safety, and perhaps repetitious of the wheeling round she received during her sea voyage; but Cassio's enthusiasms extend beyond rhetorical praise of Desdemona to a kiss for Emilia.

Such ‘courtesy’ prompts Iago's first remark:

Sir, would she give you so much of her lips
As of her tongue she oft bestows on me
You would have enough.


Here the misogynist charges his wife with being a shrew, which was a common, not an ingenious, assertion. Although Desdemona observes that Emilia has not yet spoken and may have been stunned into silence by his attack—‘Alas, she has no speech’ (103), Iago replies that his wife speaks ‘too much … when I have list to sleep’ (104). He is referring to the ‘curtain lecture’, when wives were said to complain to their husbands while they were both within the curtains of their bed.24 Since even an absence of woman's speech is described by Iago as ‘too much’, he revises his complaint: ‘she chides with thinking’ (106). Yet he is the one who thinks of chiding as he projects his own dissatisfaction onto her. Emilia then defends herself—‘You have little cause to say so’ (107)—and Iago reveals the ‘cause’ through generalised charges against women:

Come on, come on; you are pictures out of doors, bells in your parlours, wild-cats in your kitchens, saints in your injuries, devils being offended, players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds.


Again Iago says nothing new: these charges were proverbial assaults.25 Yet the speech makes it clear Emilia's fault is simply that she is a woman. In this catalogue of vices, women are vain, talkative, vengeful, idle and wanton.

When Desdemona hears these remarks, she replies, ‘O fie upon thee, slanderer!’, and however playfully she delivers the line, it can imply a serious charge, one with more far-reaching consequences than the generalised charge of ‘misogynist’. The two words were related because misogynists frequently slandered women: Linda Woodbridge explains that ‘misogynists libel womankind; slanderers blacken one woman's reputation.’26 The more localised abuse was also an actionable offence during the Renaissance if it occurred in a public context. On this subject, Lisa Jardine's relation of defamation suits in ecclesiastical courts to the events in Othello is especially informative. Jardine sets out the consequences of the public event of calling someone a whore, for example: the offended party made a deposition that, ‘if substantiated in court, led to the offender's doing public penance, paying a fine, or (in extreme cases) being excommunicated.’27 In addition to the cases Jardine cites from the Durham records, there is the instance of Shakespeare's own daughter, Susanna, who, like her biblical antecedent, also suffered the abuse of slander.28

On 15 July 1613, Susanna Shakespeare Hall sued John Lane, Jr., for slander in the consistory court of Worcester Cathedral. ‘“[A]bout 5 weeks past the defendant [Lane] reported that the plaintiff [Susanna] had the running of the reins and had been naught with Rafe Smith at John Palmer.”’ Schoenbaum glosses ‘the running of the reins’ as ‘to suffer from gonorrhoea (“reins” = kidneys or loins).’29 Lane had charged that Susanna had a venereal disease and had been wicked or ‘naughty’ with Rafe Smith: and the phrase ‘to have been naught with’ suggests how immediately a woman could become naught through the charge of adultery.30 Lane did not appear for the court proceedings, and less than a fortnight later he was excommunicated. Schoenbaum infers the need for Susanna's suit from the community she inhabited: ‘Stratford was a closely knit society, in which scandal—quick to circulate—had to be quicky quashed.’ In her more general account of such suits, Jardine points out ‘the defamation, if it went unchallenged could become an “actuality”’, not only through gossip but through charges brought in the courts if the defamation were allowed to stand.31 For personal and for legal reasons, it was important that Susanna act to defend herself.

Othello also conveys the need for a woman to defend herself from slander, because it calls attention to the relation between verbal abuses and their ‘eventful’ consequences, whether in defamation suits or in the murder of one's wife. Slander is the offence that Emilia suspects ‘some eternal villain’ to have committed when Othello accuses Desdemona of being a whore—that ‘some busy and insinuating rogue’ has ‘devis'd this slander’ of Desdemona in order ‘to get some office’ (IV, ii, 129-32). The act is consistent with Iago's earlier intent ‘to abuse Othello's [ear] / That he [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife’ (I, iii, 377-8), and with Othello's threat that Iago should ‘abandon all remorse’ if he ‘doest slander her and torture me’ (III, iii, 369-70). It is a major crime committed in the play and the only one committed by Iago against Desdemona: we see and hear it committed, and objected to, as early as II, i. In these instances, too, it deserves to be treated as a serious offence: Madeleine Doran observed that ‘in Shakespeare slander is one of the worst of evils; it is a vice that I do not recall ever being excused.’32 When Iago declares at the end of the play that ‘From this time forth I never will speak word’ (V, ii, 301), the very means by which he avoids self-incrimination becomes an assurance that he will not repeat his offence.

Emilia's response to Iago's generalisations about women specifically relates his slander to the misogynist position against women that formed one side in the Renaissance debate, for she denies her husband the opportunity to construct her as a text by saying, ‘You shall not write my praise’ (II, i, 115). The statement forbids Iago's inscriptions, but he easily agrees—he certainly will not be the one to praise his own wife. Yet the remark also implies a rejection of any praise that he might attempt to write. Emilia suggests that even the praise of women can convey blame when constructed by someone like Iago, so she refuses him the opportunity. Desdemona, who has less experience of this man, understands less the risk of being the object of Iago's pen, so she sets him to the task of using words in praise rather than blame of herself: ‘What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?’ She is requesting that he assume the opposite side in the Renaissance debate. Although her request seems unwise and self-congratulatory, it does coerce Iago into trying to speak well of women. At the same time, her engagement in this banter reveals that she is not the perfect creation Cassio described her as being, or Ridley wished she were.

Iago is so unsure that he can meet Desdemona's challenge that he at first declines to try; even when he begins, he admits his own insufficiency in this kind of discourse:

I am about it, but indeed my invention
Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze—
It plucks out brains and all. But my muse labours,
And thus she is delivered.


Stephen Greenblatt reads these lines as a ‘covert celebration of Iago's power to ensnare others’, associating birdlime, the sticky substance used to catch birds, with Iago's own invention,33 but they can also be read as an overt admission that Iago sees himself unfit for this kind of creative activity. When birdlime is removed from coarse wool, it takes the nap off; when Iago tries to praise women, he has to work so hard that the task plucks his brains out. It is the project of praising women that is like the birdlime—a project that might have caught women as well as birds; and Iago's mental activity is like the wool losing its nap. Iago's worry that he cannot do what Desdemona asks implies that his dispraise of women was candid and easily produced, while the praise requires labour and inspiration from a source beyond himself. His insufficiency is more surprising because elsewhere in the play Iago appears as a master rhetorician, but as Bloch explains, ‘the misogynistic writer uses rhetoric as a means of renouncing it, and, by extension, woman.’34 To be asked to produce the economiastic flourishes of Cassio exposes Iago's ruse against rhetoric. It is to ask him not to speak ‘home’, which is Cassio's own word for plain speech (II, i, 161), one that evokes the domestic nature of Iago's crabbed complaints.

While he tries to praise women or at least gives some appearance of trying, Iago's muse at first only delivers standard misogynist fare: approaching women through four categories and showing their insufficiency in each derived from Theophrastus's famously misogynist Golden Book on Marriage, as that text was cited in Jerome's Epistle Against Jovinian, The Romance of the Rose and The Wife of Bath's Prologue.35 Each account presented wives as inconvenient and troublesome whether they were rich or poor, fair or ugly. Iago instead claims that four different kinds of women are sexually wanton: either their beauty or intelligence help them to bed, or their ugliness or foolishness get them there anyway. Fair or foul, wise or foolish, women are all whores to him. Desdemona dismisses this ‘miserable praise’ as ‘old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh i'th'alehouse’ (136-7), but it is a particularly rank form of such mockery that dilates in every instance upon women as objects for sexual use and then blames them, as whores, for a use constructed by that discourse. Shakespeare adapts misogynist rhetoric with such precision and in a context so relevant to the debate and the events of the play that it is not an ‘unsatisfactory’ version of that discourse. The talk was cheap and it is represented as such. It suits this uneasy moment in the play and aligns Iago with an ideological position that is consistent with, and anticipates, his future actions and those of Othello. It specifically identifies Iago's slander as an act of verbal violence against women, one that will lead to the physical violence against one woman later in the play. So the scene establishes the gendered character of the crimes of both men by evoking positions in the written texts about women available in Renaissance culture. If we cut it or ignore it because we cannot understand it, we are effacing the concerns of gender that the play, as written, raises.36

Desdemona does collude in this activity, and she persists in asking for a third time: ‘But what praise couldst thou bestow on a deserving woman indeed? One that in the authority of her merit did justly put on the vouch of very malice itself?’ (II, i, 141-2), a malice very like that Iago has just displayed. Her insistence is finally rewarded, because what follows might, but for the last line, have been written by the most devoted humanist in praise of women:

She that was ever fair, and never 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 may’;
She that being angered, her revenge being nigh,
Bade her wrong stay, and her displeasure fly;
She that in wisdom never was so frail
To change the cod's head for the salmon's tail;
She that could think, and ne'er disclose her mind,
See suitors following, and not look behind;
She was a wight, if ever such wight were—
To do what?
To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.


Iago does achieve some eloquence here. In this catalogue, a woman may be beautiful without being vain, able to speak without being loud, wealthy without showing her riches off, restrained but consenting where appropriate. She is not vengeful; she would not commit adultery—that is, she would not exchange her sexual partner for one who is more attractive;37 she can keep confidences; suitors do not turn her head. The same categories that appeared in Iago's attack on women appear here but are inverted. That is why the description is so often framed in the negative, since it is in large part what women do not do, given men's charges against them, that makes them good. To constitute that goodness primarily through restricted activity, Shakespeare puts six ‘nevers’ in this passage. The last line then undercuts the entire construction by positing only the hypothetical existence of such a woman—which reasserts Iago's doubt and also suggests how difficult it would be to affirm anyone's identity through a catalogue of prohibited behaviours.

Yet if such a woman does exist, the problem is not one of nature, but of culture: what is she permitted to do—generally and sexually—ever? Iago's answer to Desdemona's question is appropriate given the rigid restrictions placed upon women's lives by those who praised them—by the humanists and Protestant reformers. Lines 61-162 in this scene present the problems on both sides of the controversy: it was not just that misogynists condemned all women, but that even their advocates, like Elyot's Candidus and William Gouge, described a severely restricted life for them. They show that the sport of debates about women was suspect from the start, since it assumed positions of attack or defence that defined women as uncomplicated others who could be catalogued for their virtues and vices because they were inferior to and far less complex than men. Only a woman who admits men's restrictions on her behaviour deserves to be a person, a ‘wight’, which is a term that suggests, especially when heard, how different from ‘whites’ both women and Moors could be. Yet Desdemona refuses to acknowledge just any man's right to direct his wife: after Iago's ‘praise’ she contradicts humanist advice by remarking, ‘Do not learn of him, Emilia, though he be thy husband’ (159-60). She notes too the ‘most lame and impotent conclusion’ (159) of Iago's last speech, implying that he who cannot praise women cannot relate genitally with them. Again, the words of the debate are interpreted as more than rhetorical display, more than writing, by their relation to feelings and actions: Desdemona reads them on Iago's body.38

The entire project of the debate depended on a perception of women that Emilia calls into question later in the play:

          What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is't frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And have we not affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

(IV, iii, 92-7)

When men ‘change us for others’, the double standard that permits men's adultery and forbids a woman's depends upon constituting women's sexuality as different from their own. The debate about women was one way of constructing that difference. In it, as outside of it, the otherness of heterosexual attraction became a basis for inferring differences in sexual desire: women were seen as either less or more desiring, less or more chaste, because they were different in other ways, in the ways of the other. When Emilia affirms women's similar desire, she questions the presuppositions of many inscriptions of women and constructs us differently from anyone else in the play.

Even Desdemona, who in Act I had affirmed the ‘downright violence’ (iii, 245) of her love for Othello, had asserted her desire only when the man who became her husband had provoked it. While the degree of her arousal might have made humanist and Protestant writers on marriage uneasy, even as Othello has been interpreted as uneasy at her assertion, the conduct books harnessed women's devotion to their husbands through valorising acts of self-sacrifice in loving wives. As long as a woman's affection was directed to her husband, the authors of conduct books did not object to it: when the misogynist in Tilney's text remarks that Julia should advise women to ‘bring your mayred women unto a meane’, the latter responds, ‘Not so … I will have no meane in love.’ Destructive acts such as wives jumping off cliffs with their husbands or slitting their wrists after their husbands had died were celebrated as proving the exemplary love of women. Female masochism in the interests of marital harmony was not only tolerated but actively encouraged by some Renaissance discourses on marriage.39

When Stephen Greenblatt claims that Protestant as well as Catholic approaches to marriage assert a ‘constant fear of excess’ of sexual desire in marriage,40 he is eliding important differences between Catholic and Protestant ideologies as well as different treatments of desire set forth for women as compared to men. The former difference did not even begin as a Protestant protest: it was Erasmus who first naturalised sexual relations in marriage by claiming that bodily pleasure, although the least of all pleasures in marriage, was not unworthy of ‘man’:

Neither do I here utter unto you those pleasures of the body, the which, whereas nature hath made to be moste pleasaunt unto man, yet these greate witted men, rather hide them, and dissemble them (I cannot tel how) then utterly contempne them. And yet what is he that is so sower of witte, and so drowpyng of braine (I will not saie) blockheded, or insensate, that is not moved with suche pleasure, namely if he maie have his desire, without offence either of God or man, and without hynderaunce of his estimacion. Truely I would take such a one, not to be a man, but rather to bee a very stone. Although this pleasure of the body, is the least parte of all those good thynges, that are in wedlocke. But bee it that you passe not upon this pleasure, and thinke it unworthy for man to use, although in deede we deserve not the name of manne without it, but compte it emong the least and uttermoste profites, that wedlock hath.41

It was this humanist view that, with all the other writings of Erasmus, was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in the ‘highest category of heterodoxy’ in 1559 and condemned by the Council of Trent. At its session in November 1563, the Council declared as anathema anyone who claimed that the married state excelled the state of virginity or celibacy. After Trent, the humanist position on marriage was primarily associated with Protestants and Puritans.42 In Christian Oeconomie, for example, which was written in the 1590s and first published in English in 1609, William Perkins objects to the results of the Counter-Reformation in the Catholic church by saying that ‘whereas it opposeth mariage and chastitie; it plainely determineth that in marriage there is no chastitie.’ Perkins aligns these Catholic retrenchments with Rome's earlier view of sexual relations in marriage as acts of ‘filthines’ and ‘uncleannesse of the flesh’, adding that through such condemnations of sexuality, ‘some beganne to detest and hate women.’43 He asserts a relation between post-Tridentine Catholicism, misogyny and the condemnation of sexual pleasure in marriage, in order to resist it from his Puritan position. While Protestants of any sort did not sanction unrestrained sexual play in marriage, and while they, too, were not free of the fear of desire, the valorisation of marital chastity offered them an alternative to the position of Rome that seemingly contained desire.

When he elides this difference between Catholic and Protestant positions on marriage, Greenblatt blames Desdemona for what he terms her ‘erotic submission’: ‘this frank acceptance of pleasure and submission to her spouse's pleasure is, I would argue, as much as Iago's slander the cause of Desdemona's death, for it awakens the deep current of sexual anxiety in Othello.’44 The danger of erotic pleasure in marriage has been heightened to the degree that it accords with medieval misogyny, leading Greenblatt to displace considerable blame for the words and actions of Iago and Othello onto Desdemona. He has presented a residual discourse as if it were the dominant one and, from this alignment, has produced a construction of Desdemona's role in her own death that is consistent with the misogynist view of her. In other words, the displacement of blame for Iago's slander results in a critic's collusion with that slander in his estimate of Desdemona. While I am not asserting that this interpretation results from a conscious or willed desire on Greenblatt's part, it does result from his reluctance to distinguish between a residual and a dominant discourse, his inattention to historical differences in advice to women and men, and his use of ‘arbitrary connectedness’ to relate literary and extra-literary texts.45 The result of this procedure is that Desdemona has been slandered yet once more by a fine critic who is refashioning our approach to the Renaissance. Residual misogyny remains at risk of being remobilised by the dominant discourse.

Emilia's alternative claims for women's desire are made through asserting not a difference but a likeness between the ‘affections, / Desires for sport, and frailty’ of men and women, and those claims constituted an emergent ideology during the period. While the dominant discourse asserted difference and inequality (yet, as Gouge would have it, a ‘small inequalitie … for of all degrees wherein there is any difference betwixt person and person, there is the least disparitie betwixt man and wife’),46 the emergent discourse on women's behalf argued for equality on the grounds of a similarity between the sexes. Tilney's Isabella contends, ‘For women have soules as wel as men, they have wit as wel as men, and more apt for procreation of children than men. What reason is it then, that they should be bound, whom nature hath made free?’47 Shakespeare's Emilia reasons on the same principle of likeness, but her questions were even more threatening to those who championed marriage, because the dominant discourses presented marriage as a relation that would contain women's desire. While an antimatrimonial misogyny is the residual ideology articulated in this play through Iago and, eventually, Othello, and a general advocacy for marriage is projected as dominant through Desdemona, Emilia's emergent position calls the constitution of woman as other into question by claiming that woman's desire can no more be harnessed than man's can. Her position challenged the double standard implicit in some (though not all) descriptions of monogamy and questioned the objectification of the other that occurs in many manifestations of desire. Instead of affirming an opposition between women and men, Emilia proposes that women, like men, are not so constituted as to permit sexual control by their spouses. The emergent character of her approach is especially difficult for us to read now because our own emergent discourses ask us to be alert to gender differences and to differences within genders; yet during the Renaissance, asserting a likeness with men was an important means by which women justified some of their claims to power. The position most fundamentally opposed to Emilia's in the play is that which asserts identity as absolutely different from and opposite to an other.

Iago constructs his own identity on this principle in Act II, scene i. After Desdemona calls him a slanderer for his generalisations against women, he replies,

Nay, it is true, or else I am a Turk:
You rise to play, and go to bed to work.


Iago's projections on women ensure his own identity as a Venetian, but if women are not objects or whores, then the alternative is that he is the other, the Turk, because someone has to play the other in his world. When Othello finally kills himself and says he is killing the ‘turbaned Turk’ who ‘beat a Venetian and traduced the state’ (V, ii, 349-50), he is killing the monster he became through Iago's mental poison, but he is also killing the only ethnic and racial other of the play. To be more precise, he is killing that self who is the other, the Turk or the Moor, as an act of Venetian patriotism. Just as one woman was praised by Iago for becoming a ‘wight’ through restricting her behaviour to the requirements of men, so Othello becomes white—both virtuous and Venetian—through annihilating his alien self. This is one way in which the coherent self is established in some forms of discourse, by defining itself off against internal and external selves, asserting its own freedom by denying ‘theirs’. Critical discourse can also engage in this practice through the monolithic construction of others. Shakespeare's Venice looks like some accounts of his plays, since it is not a place that can tolerate difference: the only characters left alive on stage are white men.

But all of the white men left on stage are not the same, and it is important that Iago's misogynist discourse is specific to his character and then spreads, through a kind of oral/aural abuse, to Othello. In Act IV, scene ii, Othello's focus is on Desdemona's body, specifically ‘there’ on her body:

But there where I have garnered 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 cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!


Norman Sanders notes the origin of the vocabulary of this passage in Proverbs 5:15-18. The biblical chapter advises against whoredom and compares the wife of a man's youth to ‘thine owne well’ or a ‘fountaine blessed’. A woman's womb sustains her husband with life-giving water, and to be discarded from it is to die of thirst. Yet the waters offered there are not for everyone: ‘But let them be thine, even thine onely, and not the strangers with thee.’48 It is this verse that prompts Othello's alternative image of the womb as a site for engendering foul creatures when it is not exclusive property. The womb is either a place of privileged ownership or a common pond breeding bestiality. In both instances its nurturant and procreative function gives wives the power of phallic mothers, who can turn each husband into a ‘young and rose-lipped cherubin’ (IV, ii, 62).49

Having constructed Desdemona as a pre-Oedipal and powerful whore, Othello then sees her as capable of having authored her own identity:

Was this fair paper, this most goodly book,
Made to write ‘whore’ upon? What committed?
Committed? O thou public commoner.


Desdemona's body before her supposed adultery is here likened to a paper-book, one of the books of blank paper that Renaissance students used for practice in writing, translation and copying. Othello imagines she has written ‘whore’ there through committing adulterous deeds. But Desdemona does no writing in this play and hence no ‘committing’ in word or deed. The activities of writing are always associated there with men; it is women's speech that Iago worries about. So Othello is confusing the agency of the discourse: he does not notice who does the writing, who commits it.50 In this scene it is Othello who is writing the body of misogynist discourse onto Desdemona's ‘book’.

The act is so clear to Emilia that she makes it a verb:

Alas, Iago, my lord hath so bewhored her,
Thrown such despite and heavy terms upon her
As true hearts cannot bear.

(IV, ii, 114-16)

The word ‘bewhored’ marks the connection between this discourse and Desdemona's body, for in being termed a whore, Desdemona becomes one. Three more times in the scene Emilia objects to his applying the word to her (119, 126, 136). When Desdemona begs Iago to tell her husband that she did not ‘trespass 'gainst his love / Either in discourse of thought or actual deed’ (151-2), something Iago is not likely to do, her request asserts the relation between thoughts, words and deeds. For her the connection is intolerably close, and she admits, while contradicting herself as she says so, ‘I cannot say “whore”: / It does abhor me now I speak the word’ (160-1). She cannot separate the language from her own body—‘abhor’ again affirms the connection—and Stallybrass reminds us that ‘there is no simple opposition between language and body because the body maps out the cultural terrain and is in turn mapped out by it.’51 For Desdemona there is no difference at all, because she is unable to resist this rhetoric when it comes from her own husband. Instead she thinks he may be right:

'Tis meet I should be used so, very meet!
How have I been behav'd, that he might stick
The smallest opinion on my least misuse?


When she does not oppose misogynist discourse, Othello's words ‘stick’ on Desdemona's body and become a part of her mind. Her response shows how misogyny spreads within a text and a culture, for as it works through language, it constructs the very thoughts and deeds that Desdemona did not do.

The other signifier that moves through the play in a complementary way is the handkerchief. Newman remarks that ‘as it passes from hand to hand, both literal and critical, it accumulates myriad associations and meanings.’52 I want to link some of those associations with the dominant ideology concerning women in the Renaissance, in order to suggest why its loss is an important precedent to the bewhoring of Desdemona and how it figures women's activity, their work. Edward Snow observes two genealogies for the handkerchief in the play: the matrilineal account of its passage from an Egyptian charmer to Othello's mother to Desdemona, where the three women merge into one another; and the patrilineal descent of the token from Othello's father to his mother. He sees the first story as narrating the gap in the second concerning how the son received from his mother the emblem of his father's sexual power and the means by which he establishes authority over his wife. Then he adds, ‘although it would be missing the point to try to distinguish the true version of the story from the false, the first version clearly engages Othello's imagination more deeply, and his psychic investment in it appears much greater.’53 The matrilineal origin of the handkerchief also extends to its embroidered inscription: to the sibyl who ‘sewed the work’ in a ‘prophetic fury’, to the hallowed worms that bred the silk thread, and the ‘mummy’ or embalming fluid taken from ‘maidens’ hearts', which was thought to have healing properties and provided its red dye (III, iv, 66-71).54 I think Lynda Boose is right to see in the handkerchief spotted with strawberries ‘visual proof of [Desdemona and Othello's] consummated marriage’ through its evidence of Desdemona's virginity, like wedding sheets spotted with blood:55 the dye ‘conserved of maidens’ hearts' used to colour the embroidery thread even seems applied to the handkerchief itself, since the ‘it’ of line 70 might refer to ‘the work’ (168) and the entire piece, as if the dye had bled from the pattern through to the cloth. The handkerchief becomes both metaphor and metonymy to prove the state of Desdemona's body before and after their marriage.56 And in serving this function it remains also a symbol for the woman's text—for the work that women do, since in the play they do not write books but serve as bodies to be written upon.

In Cinthio's Gli Hecatommithi, the handkerchief has no genealogy and no specific pattern, although it had been ‘embroidered most delicately in the Moorish fashion’. A woman in the house of the captain, Cassio's counterpart, ‘worked the most wonderful embroidery on lawn’ (a sheer linen or cotton), and she ‘began to make a similar one before it went back’.57 Shakespeare heightens this emphasis on copying the pattern in the handkerchief: Emilia remarks, ‘I'll have the work tane out’ (III, iii, 298) when she finds it; Cassio says to Bianca, ‘Take me this work out’ (III, iv, 174) and

I like the work well. Ere it be demanded—
As like enough it will—I'd have it copied.
Take it and do't, and leave me for this time


Bianca returns later with objections to the task: ‘I must take out the work? … This is some minx's token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse, wheresoever you had it. I'll take out no work on't’ (IV, i, 145-9). These passages shift the emphasis from making a handkerchief like the one Desdemona had to copying the pattern itself. The phrase used so consistently for this activity, ‘taking the work out’, which may have come from the French translation of Hecatommithi,58 conveys in its ambiguity a threat that when the pattern is copied, it is also taken away. Neither Emilia nor Bianca does copy the work as the woman did in the source: Emilia seems unable to take it out herself and gives the handkerchief to Iago before she can have it copied, and Bianca refuses to perform the task. So with all this emphasis on copying the handkerchief, it remains a single and original piece of work.

The handkerchief serves as a woman's text in that women alone are associated with the work and copying of it. During the Renaissance embroidery was women's work because they did it; but it was also an activity they were enjoined to do rather than reading or writing, for it kept them busy without allowing their minds to become too active. The pen and the sword were associated with men, while the counterparts for women were the distaff and the needle. In The Subversive Stitch, Rozsika Parker explains that ‘Needlework was designated a frontline position in the defense of women's chastity. … No other activity so successfully promoted the qualities that Renaissance man, anxious to define sexual difference, wanted in a wife.’59 This emblem of Desdemona's body that is made by women is made for women's apparent well-being: the Egyptian charmer told Othello's mother ‘'Twould make her amiable and subdue my father / Entirely to her love’ (III, iv, 55-6). It reassures a husband that his wife is doing her work by engaging in the domestic activities proper to her—by day and by night—for Iago was not alone in claiming that women ‘go to bed to work’, too (II, i, 14).

Because the handkerchief serves as proof of married chastity, it cannot be copied by Emilia and Bianca. It is an emblem of Desdemona's body that does not circulate because her body is not supposed to circulate: the regulated passage of the handkerchief is along family lines, not elsewhere. This restriction usually applied as well to the woman's text, for her work was private, performed for her family and produced primarily for their consumption. In Cinthio's narrative, the mere appearance of the woman in the window doing her work of embroidery, since she ‘could be seen by whoever passed by on the street’, convinced the Moor of her adultery.60 The value of married chastity, which is figured in the handkerchief, asserts a worth and purpose for women that contradict the assertions of misogyny by requiring the sexual control of women in marriage. Chastity was a charm. The Egyptian charmer knew that ‘if she lost it / Or made a gift of it’, Othello's father and any husband would lapse into misogyny—he ‘should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt / After new fancies’ (III, iv, 56-9). When Desdemona loses the handkerchief, she loses the means of presenting herself as amiable, the proof that she is doing her private, domestic, bed-work. She loses her own text, as the Renaissance constructed it for her.

Marriage was, then, the historical response to misogyny in the Renaissance: those who praised marriage worked in concert with those who defended women to claim that marriage was a holy and chaste state and women were sufficiently virtuous to be suitable as marital partners. But the shift from a valorisation of virginity to married chastity still depended on women's sexual control. It was haunted by the very question that Emilia asks about women's desire and that Othello raises earlier in the play:

                    O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites!

(III, iii, 270-2)

Othello's lines are uncomfortably close to Le Jaloux's charge that ‘all you women are, will be, and have been whores, in fact or in desire, for whoever could eliminate the deed, no man can constrain desire.’ They are preceded by Othello's harrassed question, ‘Why did I marry?’ (III, iii, 244). By the middle of the play, Othello has absorbed Iago's misogyny and a residual discourse has infected the dominant ideology. However, this transference was not due simply to the brilliant exercise of Iago's own malice: it was made easier by a contradiction that obtained within the dominant discourse.61 The ideology of marriage permitted husbands to call their wives ‘ours’ and to write upon their bodies, but it could not control women's desire. Since men's appropriation of women was never entire, jealousy arose from the contradictory claims of possession and desire. In this play Renaissance marriage produced what Kenneth Burke has called ‘a tragic trinity of ownership in the profoundest sense of ownership, the property in human affections, as fetishistically localized in the object of possession, while the possessor is himself possessed by his very engrossment’.62 The handkerchief becomes a fetishised sign of Desdemona's commodification through marital exchange, yet for her jealous husband the curse of marriage is that she, like it, cannot be fully possessed. Desdemona and Othello are no phoenix and turtle: their relation collapses when property is not appalled but marriage permits a partial and appalling assertion of property rights.

The woman's text as it appears in this play colluded with this ideology: instead of interrogating it, it was intent only upon proving wives' chastity in order to keep their husbands' good opinion. There was no way of copying or passing the text from woman to woman because it depended upon men for its production: the staining of the wedding sheets required men's agency, the embroidery women wrought did not sustain them, and the only safe passage of the text was within the line of the patriarchal family. However, the presence of that emblem in the play and its association with the historical response to misogyny does not signify women as complete lack, as some contemporary criticism does: this is not a blank handkerchief, for women have inscribed it. It is the historical antidote to the blank page of Desdemona's body where Othello inscribed ‘whore’. Instead of constructing women as an absence, it figures chastity as their charm that they must keep and treasure, lest it be lost. When it is lost, the handkerchief comes to signify Renaissance women's painful contingency, for their reputations were as easily displaced through some of the texts of men.

Hence the gender differences that were mapped out by discourses on women and marriage and that are refigured in this play represent men as writers and women as bodies that are written upon. Women assert themselves more actively through speech and through sewing (Marina in Pericles says that instead of being a prostitute, ‘I can sing, weave, sew, and dance’,63 and even as Othello curses Desdemona, he claims she is ‘so delicate with her needle’ [IV, i, 177]), but these activities do not create texts with a discursive content that is widely recognised as contributing to history. Feminist critics have claimed the importance of listening to ‘the voice of the shuttle’, and that voice can be heard through the story of Philomela, who gave evidence through her weaving that Tereus had raped her.64 In Chaucer's version in The Legend of Good Women, Philomela does ‘endyte’ her own story in ‘letters’ as she weaves her tapestry, since in prison she is denied use of a pen: ‘She coude eek rede and wel ynow endyte, / But with a penne coude she nat wryte.’65 Because women's hands manage to tell the story of their oppression in Ovid and Chaucer, Shakespeare's Lavinia must lose hers when she is raped: the words she writes with a stick in the sand produce an even more transient text that soon disappears. The ephemeral nature of speech and the silent status of sewn or woven characters are in some ways like Lavinia's letters: given their impermanency and the difference of their form, they are not often recognised as texts producing history. Like texts in the debate about women, those by women are washed away on the next high tide of historical reproduction.

Yet becoming alert to alternative discourses that are present at a particular historical moment and the variety of textual forms associated with them may enlarge our notion of what is available to us as we reconstruct history and politics in our own present. The male text in Othello shows that men have the power to appropriate women for their own purposes and to write women out, annihilate them or make them ‘naught’. The female texts often collude with those projects rather than resisting them. The risks of appropriative writing were high in the Renaissance when women were enjoined to silence and compliance; they are high now as we write about a silent past that cannot talk back. Approaching the past through dominant discourses only doubles the risk of that appropriation and prevents our being able to distinguish among available ideologies. It is in this sense, among others, that ‘knowledge is made possible and is sustained by irreducible difference, not identity’,66 for one cannot grasp what is or is not dominant without examining the range of positions occurring within a given culture. Instead of treating the Renaissance as a passive body at the mercy of our own inscriptions, we might address its texts for the play of their diversity—permitting their dissonances, giving them voice—as still another way of remaking the past into a palpable presence.


  1. Carolyn Porter, ‘Are we being historical yet?’ South Atlantic Quarterly, 87 (1988), pp. 769-70. See also Carolyn Porter's ‘reprise’ and extension of this argument in ‘History and literature: “after the new historicism”’, New Literary History, (Winter, 1990), pp. 253-72.

  2. See the introduction to my edition of Edmund Tilney's ‘The Flower of Friendshippe’: A Renaissance Dialogue Contesting Marriage, forthcoming from Cornell University Press. An earlier version of this essay on Othello was prepared for a seminar on ‘Shakespearean Tragedy and Gender’ at the Shakespeare Association of America meetings in 1987.

  3. M. R. Ridley, ed., Othello (London: Methuen, 1958), note to II, i, 109-66. Stanley Cavell also refers to ‘that difficult and dirty banter between [Desdemona] and Iago’ in ‘Othello and the stake of the other’, in his Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 136. He cites the play from Ridley's Arden edition.

  4. Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982), p. 120.

  5. Karen Newman, ‘“And wash the Ethiop white”: femininity and the monstrous in Othello’, in Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, eds., Shakespeare Reproduced (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 141-62, quotation from p. 153.

  6. Newman, ‘And wash the Ethiop white’, p. 153.

  7. Porter, ‘Are we being historical yet?’, pp. 780-1.

  8. Bernard Spivack's Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958) explores another side to Iago's character that also connects him to medieval traditions. When the figure of medieval vice is combined with the misogynist, misogyny becomes more recognisable as a vice rather than a slight character flaw or conversational habit.

  9. Ridley's edn, note to II, i, 109-66.

  10. Peter Stallybrass, ‘Patriarchal territories: the body enclosed’, in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan and Nancy J. Vickers, eds., Rewriting the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 133.

  11. R. Howard Bloch, ‘Medieval misogyny’, Representations, 20 (Fall, 1987), p. 1.

  12. For a good collection of medieval misogyny in these texts, see ‘The anti-feminist tradition’ in R. P. Miller, ed., Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 399-473. See also Katharine M. Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A history of misogyny in literature (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1966); and Eleanor Commo McLaughlin, ‘Equality of souls, inequality of sexes: woman in medieval theology’, in Rosemary Radford Ruether, ed., Religion and Sexism: Images of woman in the Jewish and Christian traditions (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974), pp. 213-66.

  13. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 165-6.

  14. Bloch, ‘Medieval misogyny’, p. 18. His reference to ‘all misogynist literature’ as situated against marriage is in conflict with his earlier discussion of a passage from Theophrastus as ‘less a true example of misogyny, a denunciation of the essential evil of woman, than a subgeneric topos known as the molestiae nuptiarum or antimarriage literature’ (p. 2). Miller remarks that ‘it has been soundly suggested that this tradition should not be labeled “antifeminist”, but rather “antimatrimonial”, directed primarily at clerks tempted to search out the “mixed love” of the world’ (Chaucer: Sources, p. 402). While the term ‘anti-marriage’ is more descriptive of some types of misogyny, it is also important to distinguish, when possible, between places where women and where marriage are being denounced. If we do not, we contribute to the invisibility of misogyny, which I believe has a much wider field than antimatrimonial texts.

  15. Geoffrey Bullough ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 7 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1978), p. 239.

  16. Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the nature of womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 290. See also Rogers, Troublesome Helpmate, pp. 118-33.

  17. William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622; reprint edn Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1972), dedicatory epistle, sig. ¶4.

  18. Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 113.

  19. C. M., The First Part of the Nature of a Woman, 1596 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Pollard Reel 995), sig. F1; The Second Part of the Historie called the Nature of a Woman, 1596 (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Pollard Reel 477), sigs. A2-A2v.

  20. V. N. Vološinov, ‘Discourse in life and discourse in art’, in Vološinov's Freudianism: A Marxist critique, trans. I. R. Titunik (New York: Academic Press, 1976), p. 101. This essay from 1926 is usually attributed to Mikhail Bakhtin. For a full discussion of the issues surrounding the attribution, see ‘The disputed texts’ in Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist's Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University), pp. 146-70.

  21. I have discussed the problems of interpreting Elyot's Defence and other humanist texts on women as feminist in ‘Zenobia in medieval and Renaissance literature’, in Carole Levin and Jeanie Watson, eds., Ambiguous Realities: Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), pp. 48-65 and in my introduction to The Flower of Friendshippe. An alternative approach informs Constance Jordan's Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990).

  22. See Joan Smith's Misogynies (London: Faber and Faber, 1989), for an account of the discrimination, denigration and violence that women have suffered recently in Britain. I am grateful to Marion Wynne-Davies for this reference.

  23. Othello, ed. Norman Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), II, i, 61-4. All subsequent references to the text of the play will be to this edition.

  24. See Carroll Camden, The Elizabethan Woman, rev. edn. (Mamaroneck, New York: Paul P. Appel, 1975), pp. 126-8, who discusses Thomas Heywood's Curtain Lecture, Swetnam's Arraignment, The Proud Wives Paternoster and other texts, including Desdemona's threat of shrewishness in Othello at III, iii, 22-6.

  25. Sanders's note to II, i, 108-11, cites Tilley W702: ‘Women are in church saints, abroad angels, at home devils.’

  26. Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance, p. 288.

  27. Lisa Jardine, ‘“Why should he call her whore?”: defamation and Desdemona's case’, in M. Tudeau-Clayton and M. Warner, eds., Addressing Frank Kermode: Essays in Criticism and Interpretation (Oxford: Blackwell, forthcoming).

  28. For discussion of another Susanna and parallels with Shakespeare, see Joyce Hengerer Sexton, ‘The theme of slander in Much Ado about Nothing and Garter's Susanna’, Philological Quarterly, 54 (Spring 1975), pp. 419-33. The biblical story of Susanna that appears in the Apocrypha was included in the Geneva Bible.

  29. Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A compact documentary life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 289.

  30. OED [Oxford English Dictionary] ‘naught’, adj., 2.c. ‘Const. with (one of the other sex)’. See also Richard III, I, i, 99, for the implication of adultery:

    Naught to do with Mistress Shore? I tell thee, fellow,
    He that doth naught with her (excepting one)
    Were best to do it secretly alone.
  31. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare, p. 290; Jardine, “‘Why should he call her whore?’”, forthcoming.

  32. Madeleine Doran, ‘Good name in Othello’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 7 (Spring 1967), p. 203.

  33. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 233.

  34. Bloch, ‘Medieval misogynyy’, p. 19.

  35. The portion of Theophrastus that is quoted in Jerome appears in Miller, Chaucer: Sources, pp. 412-13, and that from The Romance of the Rose is also cited by Miller on p. 456. In the Dahlberg translation it is ll. 8561-607, pp. 157-8, and in The Wife of Bath's Prologue it is ll. 248-75 in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). Adaptations of the joke also appear in Vives's Instruction of a Christian Woman, Pedro di Luxan's Coloquios Matrimoniales and Tilney's Flower of Friendshippe.

  36. The production of Othello by Sir Laurence Olivier, which was first staged in 1963 and filmed shortly thereafter, eliminates lines 115-62 of Act II, scene i, including Iago's comments on four kinds of woman and the passage of ‘praise’. Jonathan Miller's more recent production for the BBC Shakespeare series cuts the fourth kind of woman and the entire ‘praise’ passage, ll. 137-59.

  37. Iago's admirable woman is one who is sexually confined, so she refuses to exchange one penis for another, however desirable the latter or undesirable the former. One who would do so would be, to him, weak in wisdom. Hence Iago explicitly forbids good women from exchanging men as men do women. Sanders's note to l. 152 in his edition glosses ‘to change the cod's head for the salmon's tail’ as ‘“to exchange something worthless for something more valuable”’, noting the sexual innuendos in ‘cod's head’ for ‘penis’ and ‘tail’ for ‘pudendum’. See also Eric Partridge in Shakespeare's Bawdy, rev. edn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969), pp. 77-8, who glosses ‘tail’ as ‘penis’ at p. 196. The OED defines ‘change, v.’ with ‘for’ as ‘taken in exchange’ at 1.b and ‘cod's head’ as ‘blockhead’ at meaning 2. For an alternate reading, see Balz Engler, ‘Othello, II, i, 155: to change the cod's head for the salmon's tail’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), pp. 202-3.

  38. Since misogynist discourse was sustained during the Middle Ages in order to justify and support a celibate clergy, the connection that Desdemona asserts between its rhetoric and sexual impotence might have been happily received—as a kind of insurance—in some quarters, although restraining desire for women risked its being redirected towards men.

  39. The Flower of Friendshippe (London: Henry Denham, 1568), sig. D7. I have discussed this issue more fully in Part II of my introduction to Tilney's text.

  40. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 249. In Richard Strier's review of Renaissance Self-Fashioning called ‘Identity and Power in Tudor England’, Boundary 2 (1982), pp. 383-94, Strier also takes issue with Greenblatt on this point. See especially p. 393.

  41. The quotation is from the English text of Erasmus's Encomium Matrimonii that appeared in Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique, ed. Thomas J. Derrick (New York and London: Garland, 1982), pp. 126-7, since Erasmus's text was published most frequently in this translation.

  42. Margo Todd, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 206-10; Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, ed. and trans. H. J. Schroeder (St Louis, Mo.: Herder Book Co., 1941), p. 182; also Part I of my introduction to The Flower of Friendshippe.

  43. William Perkins, Christian Oeconomie, in Works, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cantrell, Legge, 1618), p. 689. Although Pickering's translation was first published in 1609, Ian Breward, who is the editor of The Works of William Perkins, vol. 3 (Appleford, England: Sutton Courtenay Press, 1970), says ‘it was probably written in the early 1590s’ (p. 414). See also C. S. Lewis, who remarks in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954) that ‘so far as there was any difference about sexual morality, the Old Religion was the more austere. The exaltation of virginity is a Roman, that of marriage, a Protestant, trait’ (p. 35).

  44. Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning, p. 250.

  45. ‘Arbitrary connectedness’ is Walter Cohen's phrase for the relation new historicists assume between diverse cultural texts. See his ‘Political Criticism of Shakespeare’, in Howard and O'Connor, eds., Shakespeare Reproduced, esp. pp. 34-8. The assumption ‘seems to preclude a systematic survey of the available evidence, leading instead to a kind of synecdoche in which a single text or group of texts stands in for all texts and thus exhausts the discursive field. … Thus in the extreme case women cease to be historical actors or subjects. They can be victims or objects, but it is not, however complexly, their experience that matters’ (p. 38).

  46. Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties, p. 271.

  47. The Flower of Friendshippe (1568), sig. D8. I have discussed another emergent aspect of Emilia's words as a positive adaptation of shrewish speech in ‘Refashioning the shrew’, Shakespeare Studies, 17 (1985), pp. 159-87.

  48. The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), p. 268; and Sanders's edn, note to IV, ii, 58-61. Since the biblical passages uses ‘cistern’ to mean a reservoir or pond, and toads breed in such places, I have departed from Sanders's gloss of the word as ‘cesspool’ at l.60, although it does begin to take on those associations. See OED, ‘cistern’, 1-3.

  49. Edward Snow finds in this passage Othello's ‘primitive fantasies of a more ancient maternal betrayal’, in ‘Sexual anxiety and the male order of things in Othello’, English Literary Renaissance, 10 (1980), pp. 404-5.

  50. The OED defines sixteenth-century meanings of the verb ‘commit’ as ‘to commit to writing, to put in writing, write down for preservation’, etc.

  51. Stallybrass, ‘Patriarchal territories’, p. 138.

  52. Newman, p. 156.

  53. Snow, ‘Sexual anxiety’, p. 404.

  54. E. A. Wallis Budge discusses the medicinal use of ‘mummy’ in The Mummy: A handbook of Egyptian funerary archaeology (1893; 2nd edn 1925; rpt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), pp. 201-9, explaining that the fluid was sometimes taken out of previously mummified bodies for its healing properties. ‘Abd al-Latif mentioned that he saw mumia, or bitumen, which had been taken out of the skulls and stomachs of mummies sold in the towns, and he adds, “I bought three heads filled with it for half an Egyptian dirham.”’ Budge continues, ‘About three or four hundred years ago [from 1893] Egyptian mummy formed one of the ordinary drugs in apothecaries' shops. The trade in mummy was carried on chiefly by Jews, and as early as the XIIth century a physician called Al-Magar was in the habit of prescribing mummy to his patients. It was said to be good for bruises and wounds’ (p. 202).

  55. Lynda Boose, ‘Othello's handkerchief: the recognizance and pledge of love’, English Literary Renaissance, 5 (1975), p. 363. See also Carol Thomas Neely, ‘Women and men in Othello’, in her book, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 128 ff., and Cavell, Disowning Knowledge, p. 135. My students Carmen Wickramagamage and Carina Chotiware say that the custom of displaying the wedding sheets is still sometimes observed in Sri Lanka and India.

  56. Stallybrass, ‘Patriarchal territories’, p. 138.

  57. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, p. 249.

  58. See Sanders's introduction to the play, p. 3.

  59. Rozsika Parker, The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the making of the feminine (New York: Routledge, 1984), pp. 74, 64.

  60. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, p. 249.

  61. In The Expense of Spirit: Love and sexuality in English Renaissance drama (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), Mary Beth Rose shows that in Othello, ‘the heroics of marriage also collapses from within, dissolving inevitably from its own unresolved contradictions’ (p. 131). I agree generally with her conclusions and especially like pp. 144-53, where she discusses Desdemona's three lies, although I have described the discursive field of the play differently to include its evocations of the Renaissance debate about women and conflicting religious positions.

  62. Kenneth Burke, ‘Othello: an essay to illustrate a method’, The Hudson Review, 4 (Summer 1951), pp. 166-7.

  63. Pericles in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), IV, vi, 183.

  64. Patricia Klindienst Joplin, ‘The voice of the shuttle is ours’, Stanford Literature Review, 1 (1984), pp. 25-53. I am grateful to Tina Malcolmson for this reference.

  65. In The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, ll. 2356-8.

  66. This Derridean observation is from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘A literary representation of the subaltern: a woman's text from the third world’, in her book, In Other Worlds: Essays in cultural politics (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 254.

Judith Buchanan (review date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10058

SOURCE: Buchanan, Judith. “Virgin and Ape, Venetian and Infidel: Labellings of Otherness in Oliver Parker's Othello.” In Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 179-202. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 2000.

[In the following review, Buchanan considers Othello's cultural placement and the depictions of otherness in Oliver Parker's 1995 film version of Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne in the title role. Buchanan studies the way the film manipulates the subjective gaze and contends that the film encourages the voyeuristic viewing of Othello's own self-observations.]

In February 1998, Kofi Anan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, arrived in Iraq to confront the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Of all the things that were crucially relevant to Anan's high-profile embassy, colour was certainly not one of them. And yet, in the context of a world order which, in other respects, is anything but consistently equitable in its view of black and white, the symbolism of his ‘ride to the rescue’ of ‘the civilized world’ (as characterized in the Wall Street Journal) can carry a Shakespearean resonance: a black African was the commissioned representative of an organization, the majority of whose central power has traditionally lain in white communities, upholding its values against the dangerous infidel.1 Seen in this light, Anan's mission to Iraq exposes the degrees of alterity that sometimes underpin cultural relations. In the face of a common foe explicitly defined in ‘the civilized world’ in terms of its absolute alterity, subsidiary categories of alien and insider—black and white, African and Euro-American—are pragmatically elided.

In Othello, white Venice's collective sense of what constitutes insider and outsider status is similarly, though more dramatically, challenged: Venice sends Othello, a Moor, to Cyprus as its commissioned representative in opposing its dangerous Other, the Turk. It is testimony to how thoroughly Othello is seen to have assimilated to a Venetian value-system that he, so visibly a non-Venetian, is chosen to serve as its strategic ambassador elsewhere.

Film productions of the play have depicted Othello in a variety of cultural relations to the city-state that employs him. In the first section of this essay, I survey the ways in which the balance of Othello's assimilation to Venetian culture, and resistance to it, has been signalled in different productions. Against this backdrop I then consider the cultural placement of Othello, and configurations of otherness, specifically in Oliver Parker's film. In the second section, I examine how the manipulation of the subjectivized gaze contributes to notions of belonging and alterity in the film. In the third section, I weigh the implications of a contemporary narrative by which the film was ambushed in its earliest reception context. And finally, I question the pertinence of our millennium moment in constructing a critical frame within which discussions of alterity may be conducted.


The Venice depicted in Shakespeare's play is acutely conscious of the particularity, and assumed rightness, of its own mores and beliefs. ‘This is Venice: / My house is not a grange’ (I.i.104-5), says Brabantio with smug indignation when awoken in the night.2 The Venetians believe in the harmony and civilized order of their life, their rhetoric perpetuating this myth even when the evidence before them throws doubt upon it. To sustain its self-image as the epitome of well-regulated government and Christian virtue, Venice needs a foil, and the Turk—Venice's religious, economic and imperial rival—neatly provides one. In Shakespeare's Venice, as in the real Venice of the early modern period, the Turk is demonized as everything that is barbaric, untrustworthy and dangerous.3 Thus in Othello, Venice's sense of its own worth is implicitly pitted against the Turks' supposed barbarism and indiscipline (‘Are we turned Turks? … For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl’ [II.iii.166, 168]), deceitfulness (‘Nay, it is true, or else I am a Turk’ [II.i.114]) and damned condition (the Turks, unlike the Christians, ‘shall [not] be saved’ [IV.ii.88]). In being commissioned to represent Venice, Othello is being asked to oppose the very thing against which Venice defines itself most obviously. He must be Venice abroad, upholding its values in the face of its opposite.

We may assume that Shakespeare's depiction of Othello's Moorishness is intended to indicate a Muslim background. Indeed, sections of Othello's own life story as told to the Senate have parallels with that of a real Muslim-born North African of the period, Wazzân Al-Fasi. In 1550, Wazzân had published an account of the geography and customs of Africa under his Christianized name, John Leo. In 1600, John Pory translated this into English as A Geographical Historie of Africa, adding a prefatory address to the reader in which he recommended his author with this two-edged testimonial:

Who albeit by birth a More, and by religion for many yeeres a Mahumetan; yet if you consider his Parentage, Witte, Education, Learning, Emploiments, Travels, and his conuersion to Christianitie; you shall find him not altogether … unwoorthy to be regarded.4

Some details of Wazzân's life (the North African origins, roaming the Mediterranean, being sold into slavery) may well have served as a pattern for Othello's own history.5 Moreover, Shakespeare's depiction of his Muslim Moor-turned-Christian, and his depiction of Venice's conditional acceptance of him, turn on the same telling ‘albeit’ that underscores Pory's recommendation. Othello, ‘albeit … a More’, is noble, courageous, dignified, experienced in battle, well-born and a convert to Chrisitianity, and so, despite his colour and culture, the Venetian Senate considers that he, too, on these terms, is ‘not altogether … unwoorthy to be regarded’.

Othello, like Wazzân, makes one of the expressions of his assimilation to his elected culture the adoption of its religion as his own. In advertisement of Othello's adopted Christianity, Laurence Olivier's Othello (filmed in 1965) wears a large cross around his neck to which he clings in moments of crisis. This symbol of his Christianizing, worn proudly on his chest, indicates his self-conscious and earnest desire to align himself with Venetian culture and beliefs. However, it sits oddly with his African robe, highly polished blacked-up appearance, African accent and bare, manacled feet. In a moment of torment on Cyprus, Olivier's Othello rips the cross violently from his neck, actively rejecting the value-system by which he now feels abused. His relationship with the symbol of his Venetian affiliation had from the first seemed strained. In ridding himself of it, he reclaims a cultural identity less riven by contradiction.

In Sam Mendes' 1998 National Theatre production, Othello (played for the first time at the National by a black actor, John Harewood) once again clutched a large gold cross at critical moments in the action. His obsessive fingering of this symbol of his adopted culture helped him sustain his affiliation. Indeed, Harewood's Othello clung to his cross almost as a talisman, a point of security in an increasingly tormenting world. Later, however, it became also, quite literally, the instrument of his destruction. Othello's secret weapon (produced at the end of the play to thwart those who would prevent him from taking his own life) emerged in this production from within the decorative cross that had been present throughout. Harewood's Othello unscrewed his crucifix and inserted the hidden blade contained therein into his jugular with surgical precision, appropriately declaring himself the slain ‘turbanned Turk’ (V.ii.351) as he died by the cross. At the last Othello had cast himself in the role of the dangerous infidel whom he had been sent by Christian Venice to oppose.

Oliver Parker's Othello (1995) aligns itself with the placement of Othello as a man willing to advertise his resistance to his environment more than with productions that present a man trying to minimize his distinction from it.6 Laurence Fishburne, the first black actor to have played the role in a commercial cinema production, presents an Othello who is far from being a Venetian in all but skin colour.7 Parker configures him as a fascinating and useful outsider in Venice, a man whose power carries hints of an eroticism, derived from his arresting physicality. Our first view of him is a close-up of his prominently scarred hand taking Desdemona's unblemished one during their clandestine marriage ceremony: a striking introductory image of black meeting white. The Othello who then leans in to claim a kiss from his bride is half-shrouded in a black hooded cloak. For Desdemona (Irene Jacob), as for the rest of Venice, his unapologetic otherness is undeniably part of his attraction. His Venetian garb does little to moderate the effect: his colour, stature, bearing, earrings, unfamiliar gestures and half-mocking atmosphere make him less the supreme exemplum of Venice than an exotic misfit within it.

In Janet Suzman's 1988 made-for-television production, one of the symbols by which John Kani's Othello powerfully signals his Otherness from his environment is his constantly visible African tribal necklace. Even in front of the Venetian Senate, this symbol of his non-alignment with white Christian Venice is worn with pride. The blue gem around Fishburne's neck is not worn as prominently as Kani's necklace. Nevertheless, having no equivalent among the Venetians, its presence marks him out as a man from a place governed by different cultural, aesthetic and trading norms and conventions. In the course of Parker's film, as Othello feels increasingly tormented by Venice and all that he takes it to represent, his symbols of non-assimilation—the blue gem, his loose African cape, a wooden staff—assume an increasing prominence. The necklace, in common with the one in Mendes' production, is more than mere decoration. At the end of Parker's film, in a self-dramatizing gesture, Othello pulls it tight round his own neck as he stabs himself. Whereas Harewood's Othello symbolically dies by the Venetian cross he has tried, but failed, to make his own, in the symbolic scheme of Parker's film, Othello dies from his refusal to break free of his old cultural attachments and make Venice's systems and beliefs fully his own.

In 1599, the English poet I. Ashley concluded his sonnet apostrophizing Venice with the line, ‘Enamour'd like Narcissus thou shalt dye’.8 Renaissance England perceived Venice as a place whose image had been constructed partly to gratify its desire to think well of itself. Parker's Venice, like Shakespeare's, is also in love with its own self-image: it believes the myths it has created about itself. In the opening scene of the film, a gondola skims quietly at night across the Grand Canal in Venice. The world to which we are immediately introduced is one of shimmering and beautiful reflections. It is a city whose very architecture dictates that it gaze unceasingly upon its own reflected image.

Shakespeare's Moor has a history as a mercenary (‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere’ [I.i.134-5]). Fishburne's half-snarling, half-mocking, powerfully physical screen presence makes him credible in such a role. His Othello adjusts his character as he adjusts his allegiances. In Venice, even while standing clearly distinct from its inhabitants, he mirrors aspects of the character of the city. He is an Othello who, like Venice itself, is captivated by an image of himself which he fashions carefully for public consumption—a man not only taken with his own reflection but happy to encourage others also to gaze upon it.

Othello's self-dramatizing tendencies emerge early in Parker's film. His account of his life to the Senate is punctuated by flashback scenes which he conjures as pleonastic illustration to his words. He is quick to visualise how well received he was at Brabantio's house, and how irresistibly drawn to him Desdemona was. Othello is inspired and consoled by the graphic recollection of his own favourable impact on his world. As Parker's camera aligns itself intermittently with Desdemona's desirous gaze throughout the film, Othello's body is explicitly eroticized by its visual strategy. On the night of their arrival in Cyprus, it is, for example, his undressing, not hers, upon which the camera lingers with the most intimate and detailed appreciation. Moreover, the way in which Iago (Kenneth Branagh) looks at Othello, though more complex and full of contradictory impulses than Desdemona's gaze, is itself not free of a fascinated attraction. When Iago sits on the beach delivering his ‘The Moor already changes with my poison’ soliloquy, his line (‘Look where he comes’ [III.iii.333]), which in the text heralds Othello's entrance, is in the film reduced simply to ‘Look’. Iago's instruction that we should ‘look’, delivered intimately straight to camera, immediately instructs it to swing around, following Iago's own turning gaze, until it lights upon Othello standing on a promontory. Parker's editing of the Shakespeare line here, and accompanying camera direction, is a defining moment for his film as its implicit visual strategy becomes momentarily explicit. The eroticized gaze is made central, and potential distractions from that concentration are minimized or excluded. Parker's interest in ‘where he comes’ (both cultural placement and historical context) is, by contrast, more limited. Rather, Parker attempts to spin the dramatic material into an erotic myth not finally determined by context or history. It is, moreover, impossible not to heed Iago's instruction that we ‘look’ upon Othello not only at this moment but throughout the film, since he is the privileged centre of its visual design.

Iago spends much of the time observing Othello with a complex mix of proprietorship, detestation and irresistible intimacy. Near the end of the temptation scene, Iago watches Othello looking at himself in a full-length mirror. The voyeuristic observation of self-observation is laden with significance, since it is the narcissism of Othello's self-obsessed gaze that Iago succeeds in warping. ‘Why did I marry?’ (III.iii.245) Othello is left to ask of his own reflection, seeing himself already as a man weakened and compromised. His admiration for himself as hero becomes in stages a contempt for himself as an idiotic aberration in a white world beyond his comprehension or control. Near the end of the film, the injured Iago climbs onto the bed to join its tragic loading, clinging like a needy, damaged child to his dead general's leg. Othello's body is thus fetishized as a point of fascination by the intradiegetic attentivenesses (voyeuristic and physical) of both Desdemona and Iago. And in tune with the self-indulgent dictates of Othello's own mind, it is also treated as an object of fascination and awe by the camera.

While still mirroring something of the self-dramatizing and narcissistic character of Venice, Fishburne's Othello, once on Cyprus, also then mirrors aspects of its cultural placement. Cyprus is a liminal territory. Both geographically and culturally it sits between worlds, looking both towards Christian Venice and towards the infidel Turk, having been conquered by each and unsure of its proper belonging.9 In the action of Shakespeare's drama, the Turkish fleet is drowned in a sea-storm off the coast of Cyprus, and the Venetian forces posted there hold their subsequent night of revels in celebration of ‘the mere perdition of the Turkish fleet’ (II.ii.3). In Parker's film, a stuffed effigy of a turbanned Turk with a crescent on his tunic is jeered at and ceremonially burned during these festivities. For a historically savvy audience, however, the 1570 date of the film's setting would ironize the implied triumphalism of this gesture. The months of that year were to be the island's last moments under Venetian rule: it was in the following year that the Turks were to rout the Venetians soundly from Cyprus in the name of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.10

An audience in the 1990s could not be expected to know of the imminent fall of Cyprus to the Turks in 1571 in the way that Shakespeare's first audiences may have done. Nevertheless, Parker's Othello does capture a sense of the precariousness of an outpost of empire that is not invulnerable to attack and whose complete collapse, though it does not yet know it, is imminent. A general sense of fragility in colonial Cyprus is evoked. Few things there may be relied upon as solid or dependable. Although the fortress, turrets and weaponry on Cyprus with their clear, hard edges present an appropriately defined front to a potentially threatening world, the dominant motifs in the film's visual scheme involve water and the billowing, diaphanous fabrics of curtains, drapes, dresses and a fluttering handkerchief. Elements in which one might drown or become impotently entangled define the psychological climate of Parker's Cyprus. With studied indifference, for example, Iago casually knocks two chess board figures—the black King and the white Queen—into a well where we see them sink in slow motion. This scene is then revisited at the end of the film in the burial at sea of Othello and Desdemona when their shrouded bodies are shown drifting towards the bottom of the ocean. Iago as director of his own fantasy drama has ensured that Othello's and Desdemona's black and white bodies eventually replace the corresponding chess figures which acted as substitutes for them in his earlier rehearsal of the scene.

Cyprus' cultural indeterminacy provides a disastrous pattern for Othello. As a man used to making a quick identification with each new territory he serves, he absorbs the cultural ambivalence of Cyprus into his own person and reproduces it for his final self-dramatizing speech. Here he casts himself simultaneously in the role of Venetian soldier of the cross and as the Turkish infidel, deliberately conflating a glorious incident from his past with his present situation:

And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turbanned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by th' throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus!                    He stabs himself.


In slaying himself he feels himself to be both upholding his Venetian commission (smiting the infidel) and the obstacle to that commission (the malignant traducer of the state that must be smitten). He is both perpetrator and victim in his own death, ascribing not only different roles to the dichotomized self that emerges in the act, but also different cultures—Venetian and Turk. As Fishburne's Othello lies on his death bed strangled by his Moorish jewel, surrounded by all the personnel of his Venetian life, and identifying himself as the Turk, his unreconciled cultural identity echoes that of the island he had briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to govern.


On arrival in Cyprus, Branagh's Iago peels a piece of fruit with a small knife. In its blade he watches the reflection of Cassio and Desdemona as they whisper together. The scene is directly reminiscent of the parallel scene in the 1955 Yutkevich Othello in which Iago (Andrei Popov) watches their innocent dalliance in blurred reflection in the hilt of his sword. However, the small neat knife wielded by Branagh's Iago, as he does precisely controlled violence to a piece of fruit, plays a more pivotal role in Parker's film than did the equivalent scene in the Russian Othello. In Parker's version, it becomes clear that it is Iago's observation of Cassio and Desdemona in distorted reflection in the blade of his knife that suggests his own future strategy to him: he must render the image of these two people blurred also to Othello by interposing himself as a distorting mirror through which Othello may observe the world.

Iago's desire to dictate the lens through which Othello is to perceive things identifies him as the film's internal cinematographer. It is Iago who explicitly instructs the spectator to ‘look’, and indeed how to ‘look’, at Othello when he is standing ruminatively by the shore. It is also Iago who determines how Othello should look both at others and at himself. In the carefully stage-managed encavement scene, Iago places Othello behind bars and theatrically blocks Cassio's mock-disclosure specifically to suit Othello's angle of vision. In a slightly heavy-handed metaphor for his emotional enslavement, the shadows of the bars fall on Othello's face. As our perceptions are then aligned with Othello's, we, too, are invited to see through the bars what Iago would have him see.

Envisaging Branagh's Iago as the man who determines who will see what, from what angle and in what clarity of focus, carries, of course, its own biographical resonance. Branagh, like the Iago he plays, is a man who likes to direct his own dramas. In having Branagh's character determine the ways in which others should look, Parker has incidentally alluded to the contained talent, the unacknowledged director, that he had on his set in the person of Kenneth Branagh. Rita Kempley in her review for the Washington Post speculated that Branagh's role in this production might have been more extensive than this: ‘Kenneth Branagh doesn't just steal the show; one suspects he might have sat in the director's chair as well.’11 In the penultimate scene of the production, however, Parker's camera finally makes clear its distance from Iago by rising above the bed to look down upon him as he lies injured and enfeebled. As the only rising, high-angle shot in the film, it is particularly striking, immediately and drastically redefining the camera's relationship with Iago. He looks up at the camera from his huddled position on the bed, but his look has changed. No longer is it the look of a man in control, a man whose intimate and knowing glances at the camera have encouraged the spectator into a complicity with his vicious designs. He has now been diminished and objectified. He is now denied the consoling illusion that he is constructing the pictures we see; rather, he is himself looked down upon as part of the composed patterning of the frame. As Parker's last-minute assertion of a superior angle upon a disempowered Iago cannily reminds us, the Othello picture that was finally created was, despite Kempley's speculations, not Branagh's but Parker's.12

Although Othello is the chief object of fascination and eroticism in the film, he is by no means always objectified by the film's gaze. By intermittently aligning the film's fluid subjectivities with Othello's own perceptions, Parker destabilizes a sense of his Moor's alterity. Of all Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Othello is perhaps the least intimate with an audience. He has fewer soliloquies than Hamlet, Macbeth or Lear, and those that he does have do not offer much honest disclosure, differing little in tone from his public speeches. He is, arguably, so accustomed to sculpting an image of himself for the benefit of an appreciative public that he never develops an honest inner life distinct from that. Parker, however, allows the spectator an unusual degree of intimacy with Othello, both through occasional voice-overs (a device often withheld from screen Othellos, although standard for screen Hamlets, for example), and by subjectivizing his perceptions. On both counts, Othello seems to be rendered a more private and knowable character than has been true of most Othellos. So strategic is the film's decision not to keep Othello simply as an objectified Other, viewed by the world and by the camera as an item of fascination, desire and horror, that he is even given a moment to parallel and parody Iago's imperious and directorial ‘Look’ that determines the subsequent camera angle and object. As Desdemona enters the bedchamber, in the second half of the film, Othello says, ‘Look where she comes’. His instruction causes the camera to spin hastily through 180 degrees from objectifying him to subjectivizing his view of Desdemona's approach in the same shot. The camera work thus creates the illusion that he, too, like Iago, can control the spectatorial gaze. Othello's aspiration to subject status is, however, most obviously validated when Desdemona dances for him and the other guests after their victorious arrival on Cyprus. Her display is designed specifically to gratify his attentive observation of her, and the scene cuts between a shot of him as delighted voyeur and shots of her as self-styled object of his appreciative gaze. In his love scene with Desdemona, and in its many subsequent tormenting variations in his anxious fantasy, he is both voyeur and predator. At their first sexual encounter, she seems to back off a little nervously across the room before his semi-naked figure. He advances, the subjectivized camera alternating between seeing her retreating figure from his perspective and seeing his advancing one from hers. The impression generated both by point of view and editing is inescapably one of reluctance on her part and insistence on his—if only in a spirit of amorous play. Once she has slipped half-coyly, half-invitingly behind the curtains onto the bed, he parts the flimsy barrier purposefully and enters the bed, in order to claim the ‘fruits’ that he has just said were still ‘to ensue’ (II.iii.9). He has styled himself as the warrior-conqueror, she as the coyly vanquished. Parker has thus added a further slightly troubling, if titillating, opposition—that of desire and fear—to the array of more neutral contrasts (physical strength and physical fragility, a scarred body and an unblemished one, black skin and white, male and female) already inherent in the sexual union of Othello and Desdemona. Later, in a sequence from Othello's tormented fantasy, he once again advances naked towards the billowing bed curtains with clear sexual purpose to divide, see, enter and possess. With disturbing symbolism, however, in his fantasy he advances with his knife drawn. He parts the curtains with its blade and, still in his troubled fantasy, finds Desdemona and Cassio entwined naked there, mocking him. For Othello—a military man of action who feels increasingly adrift in a world of sexual intrigue—the knife which he grips in his fantasy is one of the few reliable and solid objects amidst the fluttering, shifting, insubstantial fabrics of his environment. From his perspective, it is also a symbol of his manhood in the face of bafflingly complex female charms and snares.

From a spectator's perspective, however, the presence of Othello's knife in his nightmare is also a reminder of the previous knife which had assumed some prominence in the film—that in which Iago had observed Desdemona's and Cassio's distorted reflection upon their first arrival in Cyprus. In triggering the recollection of the earlier scene, the knife in Othello's fantasy world serves as a reminder that his vision of Desdemona and Cassio has been deliberately rendered blurred by the interposing presence of Iago. The association punctures the impression of Othello's power as subject not object of the film's gaze by reminding the spectator of the strategic interference that now determines his observation of the world. Shortly afterwards, Othello watches from behind a muslin hanging as Desdemona searches for the missing handkerchief. Our spectatorial position is once again aligned with his so that we, too, see her only indistinctly through the distorting muslin filter. His stepping from behind this curtain in order to bring her into a clarity of focus has several parallel moments throughout the film. After his brief vigil sitting watching Desdemona sleep before he kills her, for example, Othello deliberately moves aside the flimsy curtain with his staff that he (and we with him) might see her more clearly. His several efforts to move aside the various obstructions that cloud his view of Desdmona are, however, futile. The flimsy fabrics that constantly interpose themselves between him and his wife are Parker's metaphors for a blurring of his vision that has taken place on a more fundamental emotional level. His attempts to manoeuvre his way around such material obstructions merely serve to emphasize his inability to lift the emotional filter that has been placed over his vision.

The irony of Othello's parodically directorial ‘Look’ moment is, therefore, that, far from being able to influence others' ways of looking, not even his own gaze is reliable, having been distorted by the interposing filter of Iago's vicious interpretative lens (itself a construct of the real director, Parker). Although the composition of the shot of Desdemona's approach here, and of Desdemona more generally at other moments in the film, is advertised as being part of Othello's perception, when we look upon Desdemona, what we are made most aware of is the discrepancy between the (innocent) woman whom we see and the (adulterous) woman whom Othello sees in the same figure. The fact that we are looking as it were with him serves only to emphasize the distinction between his and our reading of the image we have jointly received. Thus, being aligned with his point of view does not ultimately generate an unShakespearean kinship between audience and Othello, but rather reinforces a sense of the failings in his vision and, therefore, most commonly of the (wholly Shakespearean) gulf between him and us.


Unlike many Shakespeare films of the past decade (most obviously Baz Lurhmann's William Shakespeare's ‘Romeo + Juliet’ and Christine Edzard's As You Like It), and many theatrical productions of Othello over the same period which have deliberately courted topical resonances, Parker's Othello does not update its source drama to modern times, nor does it explicitly draw out any contemporary parallels. In fact, although evidently stylistically of its moment, Parker's film shows every sign of attempting to abstract itself from topical allusions of all kinds through its firmly historical 1570 setting. Nevertheless, Shakespeare's play is so brimful of emotive triggers not exclusive to moment or context that it can scarcely escape chiming with contemporary narratives in a reception context.13 Just as no contemporary production of The Merchant of Venice can duck the resonances of being played in a post-Holocaust world, so no contemporary production of Othello can be oblivious of how the interracial encounters in the play relate to those beyond its bounds. The increasingly multicultural nature of our world renders this necessary, and an ostensibly distant temporal setting for the production does nothing to circumscribe this.

The black man was, of course, notably absent from productions of Othello on the Jacobean stage, and has largely remained so since. When Othello is played by a blacked-up white actor, as he has so often been, the play may be a discourse about race, but at a discernible symbolic remove from the subject of its consideration. The 1920 silent Anson Dyer animated Othello contributes an apposite joke to the performance history of blacked-up Othellos. A cartoonist's hand appears in front of a line drawing and starts to colour in the figure of a man sitting in front of a dressing table mirror. As we watch, the bare figure is transformed in stages into a music-hall black minstrel, complete with banjo slung across his back. Mid-task, however, the cartoonist's hand places the burnt cork he has been using on the dressing table in front of his half-coloured creation and withdraws from the frame. Left to his own devices, the newly animated, but only half-coloured, Othello then himself picks up the cork and completes the task of blacking-up himself. The accompanying intertitles to this opening sequence make the joke yet more self-conscious. The opening intertitle, ‘Othello the moor was black’, is immediately followed by a second, which puns on the dual significance of black (literal colour and synonym for wicked) to emphasize the constructed nature both of Othello's colour and of his degenerative reputation: ‘but he was not as black as he was painted!’ The fact that Dyer's Othello is made so obviously responsible for applying his own colour, and therefore for constructing his own racial self-projections, reflects back interestingly upon the play which it is parodying. The character of Shakespeare's Othello deliberately spins culturally evocative myths about himself and his history (by, for example, dwelling on the mystical origins of the handkerchief) in order to nurture a sense of his own exotic Otherness. Moreover, the actor of Shakespeare's Othello has indeed rarely been as ‘black as he was painted’, since he has almost always been a white man painted black. Both his reputation and his colour have been blackened by deliberate decision. In the final shot, Othello's girlfriend (known familiarly as Mona) becomes comically and exaggeratedly smeared with black as his artificially applied colour rubs off on her. Thus the Dyer cartoon ridicules by extravagant parody the contemporary practice of casting a white man as Othello who needs to turn himself into a comically grotesque sideshow in order to play the part.

Fishburne's performance as a black man playing the part of a black man reduces the gap between the player and the part played, and so renders the debates about skin colour and ethnicity more immediate and less stylized than they could have been on the Renaissance stage, and than they have been in earlier film adaptations with a blacked-up Jannings, Welles, Olivier or Hopkins. In the opening scene of Parker's film, another Venetian black man is seen floating by on a gondola with another white woman, covering his face with a white mask—as if to adopt a pretence of belonging, of ‘being’ a white man in ways similar to those in which Jannings, Olivier, Welles, Hopkins and even Dyer's minstrel have, conversely, covered their faces in order to ‘be’ black men. And in an ironic reversal of this opening, Branagh's Iago deliberately blackens his own hand with charcoal—a gesture simultaneously of mock-derision and of intimate identification with the black Other whom he professes to hate. In sudden acknowledgement of the fact that he is himself being watched, Branagh's Iago then puts this freshly blackened hand over the lens of the camera as he declares his intention to construct a ‘net / That shall enmesh them all’ (II.iii.356-7). The conjunction of word and gesture here is doubly eloquent in the terms of the film. The camera in this production is that enmeshing net. It is the camera's characterization of the subjectivized gaze, and a failure to acknowledge the limits of one's own subjectivity, that enmeshes them all. Iago makes the spectator inescapably conscious of the camera's crucial role in the process of the drama by manually obscuring it here as he unfolds the detail of his plot. The conscious irony of the gesture is that, in putting it out of commission, he alerts us to its multiple functions. But it is also, as Branagh's Iago's artificially blackened hand attests, a man pretending to be black that brings about the downfall of the central characters. Iago's obvious pretence of blackening is a literalized metaphor for the way in which he has urged Othello to live. At the opening of the film, Fishburne's Othello is a black man who defies many of Venice's expectations about black men. He is noble, dignified, articulate, restrained. As the Duke says of him, in value-laden terminology, he is ‘far more fair than black’ (I.iii.291). He does not live out the stereotype of a black man—passionate, irrational, brutal, jealous, barbaric, libidinous, inarticulate.14 However, the racist propaganda of the dramatic milieu, championed most obviously and most crudely by Iago, eventually has its effect on Othello, who begins to live down to the prevalent expectations of his environment, becoming the thing he had been claimed to be. Thus Othello's emerging ‘blackness’ as a set of stereotypical behavioural patterns is the force tapped by Iago that eventually ‘enmesh[es] them all’. In Parker's production, the complementary moments of assuming whiteness (literally, with a hand-held mask) and assuming blackness (literally, with charcoal by Iago, and metaphorically, with passionate jealousy and violence by Othello) appropriately point to the complexity of the constructions of cultural identity in the world of the play.

Despite the film's eschewing of any obvious topical engagement, contemporary parallels presented themselves irresistibly after the film's release. Played in the movie theatres of the United States in late 1995 and early 1996, for example, a Shakespearean story about a successful, high-profile black man living in a predominantly white world, married to a white woman, made sexually jealous, driven to violent extremes and finally accused of her murder, could not but take on a particular topical resonance. Another story composed of the same essential narrative ingredients had until very recently enthralled the United States as it played out on every television in the country (and many more around the world). Parker's Othello was released in the United States shortly after the height of the media hysteria surrounding the trial of the black American football player, sports commentator and actor, O. J. Simpson, accused of murdering his white ex-wife. The political and emotional fall-out from what became known as ‘the trial of the century’ was still being felt.15 In both Othello's and O. J. Simpson's story, the central protagonist was a black man who had been celebrated by white society for his heroic performances in a masculine, combative endeavour (soldiery/football) and who had refused to allow himself to be confined by restrictive definitions of his colour, in each case marrying a white woman (Desdemona/Nicole Brown), attracting a blaze of publicity in the process and, rightly or wrongly, suspecting her of having a sexual relationship with a white man (Cassio/Ronald Goldman). After the murder, each displayed self-dramatizing suicidal tendencies: Othello delivered a self-exonerating obituary for himself before his public suicide, and Simpson memorably held a gun to his own head in the glare of the television cameras on a Los Angeles freeway. Each confined his expression of personal remorse to an accusation of having loved his wife ‘too well’ or ‘so much’. Simpson wrote a suicide note, addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern’. In an uncanny echo of Othello's self-portrait as ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’ (V.ii.342), Simpson wrote: ‘I loved her. I always have and I always will. If we had a problem, it's because I loved her so much.’ Later in the letter he reiterated the sentiment: ‘I loved her; make that clear to everyone.’16 His ‘make that clear to everyone’ exhibits the same concern for how he will be remembered after his death that motivates Othello's comparably insistent ‘set you down this’. Each invests his energies in trying to script his own obituary. Othello's initial plea for truthfulness in the account:

                              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 …


is immediately followed by his dictation of exactly what he would like that ‘unextenuated’ truth to be:

                                                                      Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous …


Othello's attempts at self-exoneration and self-ennoblement in trying to ensure that the dimensions of his love for Desdemona are mythologized after his death carry the same hollow ring that accompanies O. J.'s ‘I loved her; make that clear to everyone’. Under pressure, each reaches for words of self-consolation.

The several parallels and uncanny echoes ensured that, in its American reception, Parker's Othello was overwritten by the O. J. story. The film became a palimpsest on which were inscribed both its own intended Shakespearean story and a closely related, though accidentally acquired, contemporary narrative. The O. J.-saturated cultural backdrop for the early exhibition of Parker's Othello ensured that the film offered itself as a site on which the host of fears and prejudices unleashed by the O. J. affair could be remediated and examined at a useful symbolic remove through the distancing filter of a Shakespearean narrative. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times saw ‘the fates of O. J. and Nicole Simpson projected like a scrim on top of the screen’ when he watched Parker's Othello, and John Dargie in the L.A. Weekly asked ‘Why … is there something so creepy and so very O. J. in the intial love scene between Othello and Desdemona?’17

The O. J. Simpson trial received an astonishing, unremitting level of press coverage, keeping the television ratings high and selling newspapers. There was something inherent in the material that fascinated, and the fascination ran deeper than simply seeing a famous and successful man brought to account. The story played to a firmly entrenched set of cultural anxieties about the dangerous libido of the black man and the concomitant vulnerability of the white woman before his lascivious and violent clasps. It is an image whose disturbing and erotic inflection has found repeated narrative representation. The stories that are told most frequently, and which resurface in new guises in successive generations, are the ones that explore and assuage deep-rooted human anxieties, fears and repressed desires. The frequency with which the central image of the Othello/O. J. story finds narrative expression suggests that there is something latent in its texture that both troubles and appeals to us considerably. In his poem, ‘Goats and Monkeys’ (1969), which was inspired by his reading of Othello, the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott provided a cartooned and exaggerated image of the union of Desdemona and Othello as ‘Virgin and ape, maid and malevolent Moor’.18 The dichotomized imaging of ‘virgin and ape’ tips the story quickly towards the same fascinating grotesque that has given stories such as Beauty and the Beast (and, by extension, King Kong) a central place among our narrative myths.19 The extremity of contrast in an image of female helplessness juxtaposed with a powerful male monstrosity has the power to trouble and to titillate. Introducing also a black-white colour contrast to the formula adds an additional layer of sensationalism.

Within a few years, the parallels between the O. J. story and Othello will have become part of the critical orthodoxy about the play in general and perhaps about Parker's production, with its successful African-American in the central role, in particular. As a telling of Shakespeare's Othello, Parker's film certainly plays to the same primal prejudices about the black man and black male sexuality that the O. J. affair drew to the surface of white American society. In its representation of an interracial sexuality, it is alive to the emotive power and visual appeal of the exaggerated dichotomy in the aggressive black ram/defiled white ewe image. In fact, the film even flirts with the suggestion of an aggression in Othello's sexual relations with Desdemona from their first scene of love-making, and, in more pronounced fashion, in his subsequent fantasy. Thus for the film marketed as an ‘erotic thriller’, and whose advertising poster played up the eroticism of the sexual union of Othello and Desdemona, Parker exploited some of the disturbing eroticism lurking in the deep-rooted white prejudice about the danger that attaches to black male sexuality.20

Early in cinema's development, a black-white violent sexual clasp was made a subject of grotesque fascination. In D. W. Griffith's seminal feature film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), for example, the Ku Klux Klan arrive on horseback (to the triumphant accompaniment of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’) to save Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) from the lascivious and violent clutches of Silas Lynch (played in black face by Griffith's assistant, George Siegmann).21 Although there were plenty of black actors in minor roles in the film, it was considered unthinkable to subject a white actress to the trauma of being manhandled by a real black man, even in pretence; Lynch therefore had to be played by a blacked-up white man.22The Birth of a Nation established or confirmed many filmic conventions, both technical and thematic, that were to influence later filmmakers. One of these conventions, much emulated since, was a corrosive sexual-racial pattern. A subliminal message of the film was that black men's desire of white women is animal, ignoble and predatory. The message was not new, but Griffith's insistence upon it in one of the most influential films of the first quarter century of cinema helped to suggest it as a fertile subject for later film treatment.

The intensity of emotional responses to such images ensures that they are constantly recycled, providing the opportunity for the horror and the primal appeal of this particular taboo to be felt anew.23 In a predominantly white interpretative community in which racist fears still have an almost inexhumably deep hold, the story of a passionate and violent black man doing violence to a defenceless white woman can lend itself to being read as a narrative on a continuum at the most extreme end of which is the ‘virgin and ape’ myth. Parker's particular contribution to the corpus of Othello films nudges the material further in that direction.


In Othello's dignified and eloquent speech to the Senate in Act I, he seems to out-Venice Venice in exemplifying the virtues for which it would like to believe it stands. So amenable is he to being absorbed into Christendom that he even accepts a commission to fight for its interests. In aligning himself with Venice's values and cultural systems, he implicitly turns his back on those of his past. Even his view of the black man, and of the negatively charged connotations of the word black, seem to have been inherited wholesale from a culture overtly antagonistic to all that is not white. ‘Her name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face’ (III.iii.389-91), he says of Desdemona, poignantly illustrating how Venice's value-laden views of colour have infiltrated his own perceptions.

Once on Cyprus, however, the Venetian veneer is pared away from him in stages, suggesting that, although he had learned Venice's forms and manners, its identity had never been organically his. His marriage to Venetian ideals, like his marriage to one of its most eligible maidens, unravels in the course of the play. As if living down to the prevalent expectations of his cultural environment, Othello finally starts to resemble Christian Venice's stereotypical image of an infidel Moor—superstitious, inarticulate, crude, irrational, dangerous: the very things that Venice had initially been at pains to reassure itself that Othello, despite his Moorish origins, was not.

Although Norman Rabkin thinks him ‘the most emphatically Christian’ of ‘all the tragic heroes’, Othello ultimately resists Christianizing.24 In slaying himself, he both voices and enacts his resistance to it, ‘turning Turk’ in his act of suicide. His final speech (in which he casts himself simultaneously as champion of, and emblem of absolute alterity to, Christian Venice) demonstrates his sense of a riven identity: in his own person, as in the culturally ambivalent territory of Cyprus, the conflict between competing worlds, Christian and infidel, is played out.

The focus of this collection is to read these Shakespeare films, made on the cusp of the new millennium, in the light of anxieties attendant upon a moment of historical transition. Although the specifically Christian apocalyptic myth about the year 2000 ad had some purchase on the intellectual climate in the period in which Shakespeare was writing, it is no longer a feature of Christian consciousness.25 Its emotional legacy (associating significant temporal end markers with momentous events on a material or metaphysical level) now finds its most obvious focus in direful prophecies about the possible consequences of the ‘Millennium Bug’. That apart, little serious eschatological significance is now attached to the fact of calendrical juncture. Rather than heralding metaphysical crisis, the millennium is, more mundanely, now taken to refer simply to a system for counting time. That counting system is not, however, culturally neutral, and its heritage is significant.

At midnight on 31 December 1999 (or 2000, to be calendrically pedantic), it will be 2000 years since the date (erroneously) taken as the birth of Christ. In the midst of the millennial mania, it is easy, in an historically Christian culture, to be seduced into believing that the turn of the millennium is of moment to the whole of humanity. Rather, of course, it is only according to the Gregorian calendar of Christianity that this is a fin de siècle, and a new millennium. Other religions and other cultures have employed, and many still do employ, other calendars.26 The Christocentric assumption that the millennium is a universal phenomenon carries traces of an anachronistic cultural imperialism. Where this calendar now holds sway, it is due to the economic and militaristic expansionist successes of Christian Europe. As much as anything, therefore, the millennium serves as a reminder that European Christians have been empire-builders. It is, after all, only by a Christian dating system (devised by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century monk) that this moment receives the specific temporal labels that identify it as the end of a century and of a millennium.

Parcelling up history into temporal units—decades, centuries, millennia—helps us to organize and focus our sense of things. ‘Teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom’ writes the Psalmist (Psalms 90:12), implying a close association between counting time and understanding its import. In this same endeavour, we not only identify discrete temporal units but retrospectively assign a character to them too—the roaring twenties, swinging sixties, selfish eighties. If we are to ask what characterizes the drift tendencies of thought specifically at the end of this century and millennium, however, we encounter a paradox. One of the characteristics of the tide of thought in our own time springs from an increasing awareness of, and sensitivity to, cultural diversity. Alongside this has emerged a desire to challenge systems of cultural norm-referencing that automatically interpret difference from ourselves as either inferior or threatening. So one aspect of the spirit of the age at the end of this millennium—the aspiration to live multiculturally—sits in tension with the label applied to the moment, whose unexamined provenance is so specifically Christian.

Parker's film explores the locations and labellings of Otherness and, through its troubling and shifting subjectivities, the means by which notions of Otherness are constructed. It depicts a Venetian world trying to conceive of itself as a multicultural place—a place that can embrace the exoticism of another and even employ that Other on useful service in the pursuit of its own interests. Its ‘embracing’ of that exoticism, however, succeeds in extinguishing it. The story of Othello acknowledges that squeezing cultural others into the mould of the dominant power of the moment is unlikely to yield healthy results. Othello's response is finally to exaggerate his alterity in Venetian terms by aligning himself dramatically with the infidel Turk.

C. L. Barber has argued that Shakespeare's tragedies ‘present a post-Christian situation where, with some of the expectations and values of Christianity, we do not have God’. Their ‘extraordinary relevance to the modern age’, he writes, derives from their refusal to accommodate themselves to a specifically Christian world view.27 Not only Othello, but the tragic world of the play as a whole resists Christianizing. Reading this particular dramatic material (which both narrates and illustrates the resistance to a process of Christianizing) in millennial terms (whose heritage is so institutionally Christian) is, perhaps, a symbolically fraught project. Its implied Christocentric assumption about hegemony and cultural dominance even perhaps mimics Christian Venice's attempt, dramatized in the play, to subsume Othello into the heart of its values and systems.


  1. ‘Editorial’, The Wall Street Journal, 24 February 1998.

  2. Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honigmann (Walton-on-Thames: Nelson, 1997). All further references appear in the text.

  3. See particularly Lazaro Soranzo, The Ottoman of Lazaro Soranzo, trans. Abraham Hartwell (London: J. Windet, 1603).

  4. John Leo (Wazzân Al-Fasi/Leo Africanus), A Geographical Historie of Africa, trans. John Pory (London: George Bishop, 1600). The quotation is from Pory's introductory epistle ‘To the Reader’, sig. A3v.

  5. See Rosalind Johnson, ‘African Presence in Shakespearean Drama: Parallels Between Othello and the Historical Leo Africanus’, Journal of African Civilizations, 7 (1985), pp. 276-87.

  6. Jonathan Miller's 1981 BBC production, for example, boasts a very pale-skinned Othello (Anthony Hopkins), who obfuscates his cultural heritage in both appearance and behaviour—a thorough-going Venetian in his self-projections.

  7. Liz White's filmed Othello (1980) had a black Othello and other black cast members. However, it was never commercially released. For a discussion of the distinction between the exhibition of black people and the mimesis of blackness in relation to Othello, see Dympna Callaghan, ‘“Othello was a white man”: Properties of race on Shakespeare's stage’, in Terence Hawkes (ed.), Alternative Shakespeares, Volume 2 (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 192-215.

  8. One of the dedicatory English verses to Lewes Lewkenor's translation of Cardinal Gaspar Contarini, The Commonwealth and Government of Venice (London: John Windet, 1599), sig. A3v.

  9. Venice had annexed Cyprus in 1489 and ruled it as an outpost of empire, strategically placed to facilitate trade with the East. After sieges at Nicosia and Famagusta in 1570-1, Cyprus finally fell to the Turkish invasion fleet, led by Mustapha Bassa, on 1 August 1571. Cyprus had, therefore, been both Venetian and Turkish within living memory of 1604, the probable year of Othello's composition.

  10. Sections of a 1604 London audience familiar with the newly published English translation of Richard Knolles' Generall Historie of the Turkes (London: A. Islip, 1603) would have known that Cyprus had recently been lost to the Turks and was still a Turkish possession. This would have introduced a filter of cynicism through which Venice's pride in the face of the Turkish threat was viewed by the first audiences for Othello.

  11. Rita Kempley, Washington Post, 29 December 1995.

  12. For the UK release, Branagh insisted that his image be removed from the advertising posters. It was not his production, and he clearly wished to distance himself from it lest others should speculate as Kempley had.

  13. In this century, for example, Paul Robeson has written that American audiences found the play ‘strikingly contemporary in its overtones of a clash of cultures, of the partial acceptance of and consequent effect upon one of a minority group’ (Paul Robeson, ‘Some Reflections on Othello and the Nature of Our Time’, American Scholar, 14.4 [1995], p. 391), and Janet Suzman, a South African, that ‘[t]he overtones, undercurrents and reverberations for our country [were] hauntingly evident’ (Janet Suzman, about the 1987 Market Theatre production in Johannesburg, Washington Post, 6 September 1987). David Harewood said that he had found part of his inspiration for his role as a black man in a white world (in Sam Mendes' 1998 production of Othello at the National) by attending during the rehearsal period to the case of the murdered black London teenager, Stephen Lawrence (David Harewood, interviewed on Radio 4's Midweek, 27 May 1998).

  14. A selection of these stereotypes about Moors is peddled in Leo, A Geographical Historie.

  15. The verdict at the O. J. Simpson trial was delivered on 3 October 1995 after almost nine months of testimony. Parker's Othello was released in the United States on 15 December 1995.

  16. The letter was read at a news conference on behalf of Simpson on 17 June 1994 and reprinted the following day in the American dailies. See, for example, New York Times, 18 June 1994, late edition.

  17. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times, 29 December 1995. John Dargie, review in L.A. Weekly, 27 December 1995. Dargie is quoted in Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt, ‘Totally Clueless?: Shakespeare Goes Hollywood in the 1990s’, in Lynda E. Boose and Richard Burt (eds), Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 15. A Dutch production entitled ‘O. J. Othello’ had its UK première in the Observer Assembly Ballroom at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe. Barbara Hodgdon, in her wonderfully rich essay, ‘Race-ing Othello, Re-engendering White-Out’, in Boose and Burt (eds), Shakespeare, the Movie, pp. 23-44, has enumerated some of the parallels that may be drawn between Shakespeare's Othello and O. J. Simpson as part of her consideration of representations of blackness in productions of Othello. She does not, however, make it her brief to weigh the significance of these parallels specifically to readings of Parker's Othello (whose moment of release and casting of an African-American successful black actor in the central role perhaps makes them particularly pertinent).

  18. Derek Walcott, Collected Poems, 1948-1984 (New York: Noonday, 1986), pp. 83-4.

  19. Even in King Kong, the primitive, sexually insistent, oversized gorilla who wants as his ‘bride’ ‘The Golden Woman’ (Fay Wray in a blond wig) is associated with the sexuality of the black man. The men from the African village even dress up as Kong in gorilla fur as part of a ceremonial dance.

  20. It is difficult to identify from where in our social or psychological make-up such deep-rooted myths emerge. It is, however, tempting to speculate that this particular one may have sprung from an unconscious desire by insecure white men to ‘blacken’ that rival male sexuality that has also taken on other, intimidatingly desirable, proportions in the popular imagination.

  21. In the costume tests for the film, the character of Lynch is even more sexually threatening to Elsie than he is in the finished film. The costume tests were shown in the first part of the Thames Television and Thirteen/WNET 1993 co-produced three-part documentary, ‘D. W. Griffith: Father of Film’.

  22. In 1920, for the filming of Way Down East, Griffith had Gish lie on real ice-floes while wearing only a thin cotton dress. Griffith considered that risking the health of his leading lady (who did indeed suffer from the exposure to the cold) was an acceptable nuisance in the pursuit of the filmic moment; nevertheless, allowing her to be grabbed by a black man would have been an indignity too far. This relative discrimination is revealing about attitudes of the time, and about Griffith's in particular.

  23. In Emil Jannings' 1922 silent film adaptation of the play, the potential horror of this taboo must have been felt so keenly that it was considered advisable to mollify its effects by diluting the ‘Africanness’ of Othello's pedigree. In his moment of formal self-annunciation, Jannings' Othello declares himself (by intertitle) the ‘son of an Egyptian Prince and a Spanish Princess’. It is his half-European royal lineage that enables him then to make the claim, ‘My blood is fair, like hers, my wife's’. This suggestion of ‘fairness’ makes it the more likely that his mother is not intended to be thought a Spanish Moor. The decision to temper Othello's alterity (and explain his nobility) by giving him a Spanish mother is illuminating about the anxieties that surrounded even the fictional representation of a black and white sexual union in 1922.

  24. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), p. 63. See also Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 129.

  25. Christian thinking about the apocalypse had often taken the Genesis account of Creation as an allegory for the life of the world, which would toil for six days and then rest for one day. Since in 2 Peter 3:8 it is written ‘one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’, this was taken literally to signify that one day in God-speak meant a thousand years in human-speak. Thus the Creation would endure for 6,000 years before being brought to account and entering the 1,000-year reign of Christ (the Millennium). Since it was thought to have endured 4,000 years already at the moment when Christ was born, it therefore had 2,000 years left to run before the second coming and the beginning of the millennium. These anxieties were certainly characteristic of the period in which Shakespeare was writing. In 1593, for example, John Napier published The Plaine Discoverie of the Whole Revelation of St. John (Edinburgh: Robert Waldegrave). In it he calculated that the ‘latter daies’ of Creation had already arrived and the Day of Judgement was at hand, since the allotted span of 2,000 years ‘appeareth to be shortnd’ (Proposition 14, p. 19). Napier was well respected as a mathematician and scientist, and his Plaine Discoverie sold so well that by 1700 (the last date to which he calculated the world could endure) it had run to more than twenty editions. Despite the minor flurry of millenarianism in his intellectual environment, however, Shakespeare demonstrated little interest in it.

  26. Let us for a moment pursue a batty line of enquiry. If we were to construct out of Shakespeare's Othello a full person with a history, we would deduce that he would not have grown up within a Christian dating system. As a Moor, he would, more probably, have known the Muslim calendar which counts as its year 0 the Christian year 622 ad (the year in which Mohammed fled from Mecca) and which works to a 354-day year. One of his gestures of assimilation to Christian Venice is, therefore, to transform his way of thinking about time and its passing. Thus, to locate him now within an explicitly Christian system of time-keeping is akin to Venice's attempt to subsume him into the heart of their values and beliefs.

  27. C. L. Barber, ‘The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness’, in Coppélia Kahn and Murray M. Schwartz (eds), Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 196, 188.

Peter Travers (review date 2001)

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SOURCE: Travers, Peter. Review of O.Rolling Stone, no. 877 (13 September 2001): 116.

[In the following review, Travers offers a mixed assessment of the film O, a modern version of Othello directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Although Travers praises the performances of Mekhi Phifer as O (Othello) and Julia Stiles as Desi (Desdemona), the critic finds that the film relies too heavily on plot mechanics from the original play that do not make sense in Nelson's contemporary context.]

Sometimes these updates of Shakespeare's plays work well, whether they junk the text (10 Things I Hate About You) or stick with the iambic pentameter (Michael Almereyda's Hamlet). This is not one of those times. O, a modern spin on Othello, is a bumpy ride that is nonetheless worth taking. Set in a Southern prep school, the film shows the tragic consequences that occur when basketball champ Odin James (Mekhi Phifer)—no, they don't call him O. J.—falls hard for Desi (Julia Stiles), the dean's daughter. It's not their interracial romance that makes waves in this all-white school, it's the jealousy awakened in Odin by his court “bro” Hugo (Josh Hartnett). Hugo thinks his dad, Coach Duke (a hammy Martin Sheen), likes Odin better then he does his own son.

Phifer and Stiles put real heat into their performances. Hartnett, who survived the debacle of Pearl Harbor, is less successful in wrestling with his role as a modern-day Iago. Despite a colloquial script by Brad Kaaya, O relies on plot mechanics from the Bard that make no sense in a contemporary context. Nor does it help that director Tim Blake Nelson lays on a heavy hand that you don't see in his work as an actor (he played the spaciest convict in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). The film ends with a climactic shootout that litters the campus with bodies. Nelson doesn't overplay the shootings, but O has sat on a shelf for two years because Miramax, the film's original distributor, feared releasing a kids-with-guns film in a post-Columbine climate. Now, with Lions Gate stepping in for Miramax, O—flaws and all—has a chance to find an audience willing to engage the film on its own provocative terms. It's about time.

Further Reading

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Bonnard, G. “Are Othello and Desdemona Innocent or Guilty?” English Studies 30, no. 5 (October 1949): 175-84.

Attempts to determine how Shakespeare's original audiences would have viewed the actions of Desdemona and Othello, suggesting Shakespeare hinted that Desdemona, at least in part, deserved her fate and that Othello's love for Desdemona was unwise.

Cohen, Derek. “Othello's Suicide.” University of Toronto Quarterly 62, no. 3 (spring 1993): 323-33.

Explores the implications of Othello's suicide, suggesting that it is a result of the culmination of political and psychological stresses that assault Othello throughout the play.

Cook, Ann Jennalie. “The Design of Desdemona: Doubt Raised and Resolved.” Shakespeare Studies 13 (1980): 187-96.

Traces the linear development of Desdemona's character throughout the play, demonstrating the symmetry of the framework through which the audience receives information about her.

Gardner, Helen. “The Noble Moor.” In Shakespeare Criticism 1935-1960, edited by Anne Ridler, pp. 348-70. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Defends Othello against charges that it lacks meaning, arguing that the play is characterized by poetic, intellectual, and moral beauty.

Jorgensen, Paul A. “‘Perplex'd in the Extreme’: The Role of Thought in Othello.” In Shakespeare 400: Essays by American Scholars on the Anniversary of the Poet's Birth, edited by James G. McManaway, pp. 265-75. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964.

Traces the progression of Othello's intellectual development, and explores the concepts of thinking and knowing as primary preoccupations in the play.

Newman, Karen. “‘And Wash the Ethiop White’: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello.” In Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Othello, edited by Anthony Gerard Barthelemy, pp. 124-43. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1994.

Investigates the role of miscegenation in Othello, particularly as it functions in terms of plot and language.

Snow, Edward A. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello.English Literary Renaissance 10, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 384-412.

Maintains that Othello's jealousy is not an eruption of something primitive or barbaric, but is an attempt to reassert patriarchal authority threatened by Desdemona's sexuality.

Vanita, Ruth. “Men Beware Men: Shakespeare's Warnings to Unfair Husbands.” Comparative Drama 28, no. 2 (summer 1994): 201-20.

Contends that Othello weighs in on the Elizabethan and Jacobean debate concerning a husband's treatment of an unfaithful wife, arguing that the play challenges the commonly held notion that a chaste wife could always survive a suspicious husband's test.

Vitkus, Daniel J. “Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 2 (summer 1987): 145-76.

Demonstrates the parallels between the forms of religious conversion examined in the play and the fears of English Protestants regarding conversion to Islam and Catholicism.

Zender, Karl F. “The Humiliation of Iago.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 323-9.

Argues that the primary cause for Iago's murderous malice may be traced to Desdemona's unintentional humiliation of him.

Arthur L. Little, Jr. (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Little, Arthur L., Jr. “‘An essence that's not seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (fall 1993): 304-24.

[In the following essay, Little studies the way in which the audience and the other characters in Othello react to Othello's blackness in a metaphorical rather than a literal sense.]

Shortly after Iago convinces Othello that evidence of Desdemona's guilt needs only ocular proof, Iago tells Othello that a woman's honor is “an essence that's not seen” (4.1.16).1 From this point on, Othello attempts to see this unseen essence, zealously searching for the origins of Desdemona's honor, i.e., the original symbolic intactness of her hymeneal or undivided body. His psychological and discursive examination of this unseen body simulates the play's interrogations of Othello's own metaphorical black body, unseen and missing despite his literal black presence. The Duke offers the official reading of Othello's body when he proclaims to Desdemona's father, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.284-85).2 In other words, Othello's literal blackness should not be read as ocular proof of Othello's metaphorical blackness. But, as Othello's countrymen will finally have it, no amount of rhyming or coupling (or punning) will leave unseen the black Other whom the audience suspects is hidden within Othello. Like Othello's search for Desdemona's honor, the play probes into his blackness, always scrutinizing and presumably moving towards the origin and essence of his black presence.

Several recent essays have addressed Othello's blackness as a serious and complex trope. Emily Bartels argues that the Moor becomes demonized and implicated in the growing desires of England to delineate territory and establish borders between the Other and the self. Michael Neill traces how the play and its directors, engravers, and critics have fetishized and agonized over the racially adulterated marriage bed. And, by way of the idea of cultural monsters, Karen Newman exemplifies how femininity and blackness are made to complement each other in the play's construction of horrific desires.3 None of these essays addresses the question of how Othello goes about the (re)discovery of Othello's origins. I am not asking how Shakespeare's play allegorizes blackness. Critics have entertained such readings from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. To the extent that blackness in Othello is allegorical, it functions as Shakespeare's pre-text, what the audience knows before it comes to experience the play.4 Shakespeare's play is the text that will at once unsettle and fill in, substantiate and resolve what the audience suspects it already knows about the essence of blackness as the savage and libidinous Other. But blackness is also Shakespeare's pretext in the more common sense of this word. Blackness is Shakespeare's pretense, the metaphor to which onlookers, both the audience and characters onstage, can pretend to react only as the image is produced before them.5 The ongoing interplay between response and creation is what I mean more broadly by the “primal scene.” The “primal scene of racism,” then, denotes the site (as well as the sight) where an audience at one and the same time reactively and proactively constructs the signification of race—in this instance, blackness. I am insisting on a noncausal relationship: an audience does not simply become reflexive after blackness is visualized. Response and creation are concurrent.

More specifically, I am using “primal scene” as it derives from psychoanalysis, which is generally interested in the relationship between response and creation and which therefore provides a conceptual field for thinking through the ways in which this relationship manifests itself in Shakespeare's play. Since Freud, who first identified the primal scene (the Urszene), the concept has become more interdisciplinarily and critically applied and implied in the work of theoretical critics such as Ned Lukacher and William Beatty Warner.6 The primal scene denotes the moment when a child imagines or (by accident) actually sees his or her parents engaged in sexual intercourse. The child attempts to repress this moment, but it becomes known and seen through his or her repeated effort to hide it. It manifests itself in representations that are never exact, never literal, but always distorted. Because of this distortion, the primal scene does not point to a first scene so much as to the absence of the originary one, whose prior existence is evinced by some present scene. And because of a range of scene is forever figured and disfigured by this moment. As Warner says, the scene “has a decisive effect upon the person, his neurotic symptoms, his relationships with others, his style of thinking and feeling—in other words, it is a contributing factor in much of what we take an individual person to be.”7 The primal scene is both real and fantastical, both literal and metamorphical. It is also, like Othello’s blackness, something that the onlooker both responds to (i.e., represses) and creates (i.e., repeats). And Othello’s blackness, like the primal scene, remains from beginning to end a site of interplay between the literal and the metaphorical. As Lukacher has argued, in the primal scene “every disclosure [is] also a concealment, and every literal truth a figural lie.” The primal scene, writes Lukacher, exists in the constant enfolding of “historical memory and imaginative construction”;8 in the language of my essay, it exsists in the always present relationship between pre-text (memory) and pretext (construction), or between response and creation.

The three crucial structural elements of Shakespeare’s play are Othello’s blackness, his marriage to a white Desdemona, and his killing of her. These elements are, of course, related. The meaning of Othello’s murdering Desdemona depends upon their marriage, and the marriage’s meaning is the thoroughly invested in Othello’s blackness. Each element is in effect a repetition of the other two, with Othello’s blackness understood as the originary moment of the play’s anxieties. Certainly by the end of the play, Othello’s allegorical blackness is presumably literal and real, that is, he comes to be seen as having invested blackness with the audience’s allegorical presumption. Notwithstanding, the Urszene that represses and repeats—responds and creates—the meaning of all three of the structural elements derives from the sexual coupling of Othello and Desdemona. I am arguing that the scene of sexual intercourse between them functions, for the on- and offstage audiences alike, as the sexual site and sight of the play’s racial anxieties.9 I am arguing further that the way the play responds to and creates these anxieties is by mocking the sexual coupling of Othello and Desdemona and by associating it with other culturally horrifying scenes of sexuality, especially bestiality and homosexuality.


Othello has a black protagonist.10 But what does this black inscription mean? The pre-texts of Shakespeare’s play had already made the black persona synonymous with the Other. Frequently the Other’s status as a cultural, aesthetic, or textual truth is created by the dominant discourse as it returns to and rehearses the Other’s presumed originary history—that is, the moment when the Other first plays through the event that has made him or her essentially different. This originary history comes to signify the Other’s difference. (Historically in England and the United States, women, blacks and homosexuals have often been subjected to such originary inquisitions.) In the period from the late sixteenth through the middle of the seventeenth century, one finds the otherness of the black persona increasingly transformed into a truth. Originary myths and theories linked to blackness to Africa’s proximity to the sun.11 Especially during the early part of this period, England popularized the classical myth of Phaeton as a story about the origins of blackness. As Ben Jonson tells the story in his Masque of Blackness (1605), before Phaeton’s “heedless flames were hurled / About the globe, the Ethiops were as fair / As other[s].” Now, “black with black despair,” Ethiopian dames roam the world in search of their missing beauty, their lost identities.12 Although the popularity of the Phaeton myth was superseded by others stories and theories, it remained in circulation at least until the late seventeenth century. In John Crowne’s masque Calisto (1675), for example, one African nymph laments to another, “Did not a frantic youth of late / O’erset the chariot of the sun?... It is he that hath undone us.... And now we range the world around... To see if our lost beauty can be found.”13 More than signifying a different identity, blackness throughout the seventeenth century came to represent a lost identity.

The mythic reading of blackness was only one of several originary explanations. As “scientific” evidence increasingly became the offical, or real, proof of the day—and as England’s black population flourished—there developed a need for more such scientific histories.14 Of particular interest was George Best’s Discourse (published in 1578 and reprinted in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations in 1600), which meticulously maps out God’s condemnation of Ham, who, against the commandment of God and his father Noah, copulated with his wife while in the ark. God presumably punished Ham by making his son, Chus, and all Chus's offspring “so blacke and lothsome, that it [i.e., their blackness] might remaine a spectacle of disobedience to all the worlde.” Best also tells of another spectacle: “I my selfe have seene an Ethiopian as blacke as a cole brought into England, who taking a faire English woman to wife, begat a sonne in all respects as blacke as the father was. …” He concludes by arguing that the blackness of the child was owing to some “natural infection” of the father.15 Sir Thomas Browne confronted the same issue in Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646), where he raises objections to many of these earlier explanations and offers that “in the generation and sperm of Negroes, that being first and in its natural white, but upon separation of parts, accidents before invisible become apparent; there arising a shadow or dark efflorescence in the outside.”16

These typifying examples assume that whiteness functions as the originary truth and that blackness signifies some later horror, a kind of accident or aberration. Further, a traumatic sexual encounter informs many of these scenes, hinting at something sexually bungled or impolitic. As Newman says about both Othello and European travel accounts of Africa, “always we find the link between blackness and the monstrous, and particularly a monstrous sexuality.”17 The disobedient Ham secretly copulates with his wife, who then gives birth to a black child. Best has what I would argue is a voyeuristic encounter with miscegenation, saying in effect that he has seen a white English woman give birth to a black child; his not ending the sentence until he has explained the source of the infection (the black father) also licenses him to see this scene, this moment of the infectious Other. And Browne's biological explanation brings before the onlooker's eyes the initially unseen bad seed (the bad copulation), thereby repeating in his writing the move from invisibility to visibility. Blackness becomes represented as the scene of a black birth. Black identity seems all too naturally to find its origins in an imaginary scene of some horrific copulation.

The impetus for these originary explanations is, of course, to find the missing essence of blackness. If found, this missing essence (or scene) would provide ocular proof that the savage and libidinous nature of the black persona is literal and not simply metaphorical. Jacques Derrida has argued that culture desires to transform itself from the literal and personal into the metaphorical and universal, but (as he demonstrates throughout his work) culture never fully accomplishes this and everywhere betrays signs of the ongoing interplay between the two.18 While such an interplay may be said to be everywhere, Othello's blackness functions as a metadramatic example. Throughout Othello the literal and metaphorical repeatedly express and repress each other, defining and denying each other's evidential presence. Arthur Kirsch makes this point clear. Iterating how the play implicates its audience in the “primordial prejudices” against the black man, Kirsch states that

that process is kept constantly in our consciousness by Othello's literal appearance, by the pervasive imagery of blackness and fairness and of true and false vision, and by Iago's increasingly ominous and explicitly diabolic threats to turn the spiritual metaphor [of blackness as sinfulness] into an “ocular proof.”19

Kirsch is right to note a tension in the play between literal and metaphorical representations, but there remains the issue of audience accessibility—then or now—to a blackness unadulterated by this emphatically visual metaphor.

Kirsch himself is not immune to such literal and personal readings of the metaphorical. Even though he shows an awareness of metaphorical and cultural scripting, he locates Othello's hamartia not in some complex interplay between Othello's literal and metaphorical blackness but precisely and literally in Othello's own body. Kirsch writes: “The tragedy of Othello is that finally he fails to love his own body, to love himself, and it is this despairing self-hatred that spawns the enormous savagery, degradation, and destructiveness of his jealousy.”20 He argues that Othello is “in a state of despair” because he has “lost” his religious faith,21 the very faith that has damned blackness. Othello is understood to have at his core an essential absence, to have as his essence a lost and unlovable blackamoor “self”—savage, degraded, and destructive—that always already exists as a subject within quotation marks. He has no literal self that is not already metaphorically lost or missing.

Othello is caught in a discourse of lack. (The full effect of the Duke's witticism in the third scene of the play depends on the audience's knowledge of this entrapment.) Either he is “far more fair than black” and therefore does not have a metaphorical black identity, or he really is black and is therefore entrapped by those pre-textual histories of blackness as an essential absence. Whether attention is focused on a theological or aesthetic racism, the presence of Othello's self depends (in the play and in criticism) upon the success of culture in rendering invisible itself and its “racialist ideology.”22 It depends, finally, upon the ability to accuse Othello the man rather than the culture that damns him from the start, thereby making personal the definition of Othello as savage and libidinous Other. To define Othello's blackness as personal is to argue that it does not metaphorically represent blackness but is literally the thing itself.

Critics tend toward such readings of Othello's person, searching for the lack or loss of the civilized that they know is deep within him.23 Such critiques are commonly posed in the form of a question that ends with a recognition of Othello's gullibility or vulnerability. One example of this type of reading is Carol Thomas Neely's 1980 essay “Women and Men in Othello,” the subtitle of which repeats Emilia's accusatory question: “What should such a fool / Do with so good a woman?”24 What is it—so the question goes—that makes possible such inconceivable deeds? Here, as so often in these studies, Othello's anxiety is equated with his self-hatred or self-recognized inferiority, and his blackness becomes personal as opposed to cultural. But, I would argue, Othello's conviction that Desdemona would prefer Cassio cannot be sustained as evidence of Othello's prejudice against himself. These issues are not one and the same. In Shakespeare's Venetian world Othello's belief in Desdemona's preference is not a reflection of his self-hatred; rather, the alleged inferiority of black to white is a cultural cliché.

The literal presence of Othello's black, male body, especially as defined in relation to Desdemona's white, female body, emerges as the crucial scene in need of erasure in order to satisfy the fictions of a Western European cultural order. Neill reads the play through what “we can now identify as a racialist ideology [that] was beginning to evolve under the pressures of nascent imperialism.” He links Desdemona's “imagined adultery” to her “act of racial adulteration,” which is seen in the play as “violating the natural laws of kind.” These natural laws do more than subsume the unnatural—these laws are the very creation of the unnatural. Neill iterates this point when he speaks of the play's making of aberrations, “monsters that the play at once invents and naturalizes, declaring them unproper, even as it implies that they were always ‘naturally’ there.”25 Such an argument shows the interminable interplay between the natural and unnatural, as well as the fiction's pretext of bringing into presence and visibility the essence of Othello's blackness which the audience knows is always already there.

The sexual relations Othello imagines between Desdemona and Cassio are no simple matter in Shakespeare's play. Othello dramatizes the ideological and sexual reciprocity between the absence of one couple—Desdemona and Cassio—and the presence of another—Desdemona and Othello. It is, however, the presence or absence of Othello's blackness that shapes the emotional, psychological, and intellectual center of the play.


Blackness figures as an unending exchange between Othello's literal black presence and his metaphorical black absence; throughout, his blackness continues to elude. It is not an isolated issue in the construction of this single character;26 it informs and is informed by every other object and event in the drama. And what brings objectness (presence and visibility) to his blackness is nothing less than his own confrontation with objects—namely, the bed and the handkerchief. These objects are thoroughly inscribed in both the presence and the absence of his blackness, an identity at which the play will often only hint. Unlike his blackness, the bed and the handkerchief are so explicitly and frequently imaged throughout the play that they do not seem so critically elusive.27 In the end, however, the meaning of the bed and the handkerchief, like that of Othello and Desdemona's marriage, hinges on what the audience already knows to be the meaning (or emotional content) of Othello's blackness.

As both Michael Neill and Lynda E. Boose have argued, the bed (along with its sexual couple) finally emerges as an object that the play has all along been bumping into or trying to maneuver its way around.28 It stands before the audience as visible and climactic. I am inclined to agree with Stanley Cavell, whose “hypothesis about the structure of the play is that the thing denied our sight throughout the opening scene—the thing, the scene, that Iago takes Othello back to again and again, retouching it for Othello's enchafed imagination—is what we are shown in the final scene, the scene of murder.”29 But, as Neill demonstrates, it is first and foremost the bed—and not the murder—that the play persists in dangling before our eyes and repeatedly snatching away. While Lodovico's response to the tragic loading of this bed—“The object poisons sight; / Let it be hid” (5.2.360-61)—may attempt to return the bed to its hiddenness, it also figures this bed as an object always represented as a textual negotiation between presence and absence.30

The handkerchief even more than the bed is an object that repeatedly appears and disappears. It acts as a kind of prefatorial object, providing a visible token of one of Shakespeare's pre-texts, Leo Africanus's A Geographical Historie of Africa (1600).31 In his Historie, Africanus relates the custom in which “a certaine woman standeth before the bride-chamber doore, expecting till the bridegroome hauing defloured his bride reacheth her a napkin stained with blood, which napkin she carrieth incontinent [i.e., immediately] and sheweth to the guestes, proclaiming with a lowd voice, that the bride was euer till that time an vnspotted and pure virgine.”32 Steeped in consummation ritual from a culture of the Other, the napkin has at least a dual function: it speaks to Othello about the displacement of his marriage and to the audience about the exoticism and out-of-placeness of Othello's blackness in Western European culture. Rather than having a meaning that “may well lie hidden in rituals and customs which were accessible to Elizabethans but have since been lost,”33 the handkerchief most likely already functioned when the play was written as Shakespeare's token of lost or hidden rituals.

Like the napkin in Africanus's text, which exhibits the woman's loss of virginity, the napkin in Shakespeare's play is thoroughly invested with issues of loss and displacement.34 First of all, only after Othello and Desdemona lose the handkerchief does it become a significant object. This happens, of course, almost immediately. Lost a few lines after its first appearance, the handkerchief enters the play as a displaced object (3.3.285-88) and is, in essence, about its own absence. Further, its origins are textualized in loss of life:

… 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 silk,
And it was dyed in mummy which the skillful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.


Othello himself comes into possession of it as he loses his mother: “She, dying, gave it me” (l. 63).

And the nature of its enchantment depends upon whether it is lost or, instead, properly bestowed. Othello tells Desdemona that if his mother “lost it / Or made a gift of it, [his] father's eye / Should hold her loathèd” (ll. 60-62). Bianca also reads the handkerchief as a sign of loss. When Cassio gives it to her and asks her to copy the pattern, she blames his absence on the handkerchief and its owner: “This is some token from a newer friend. / To the felt absence now I feel a cause” (ll. 179-80). The pattern continues. There is a certain lack of objectness to this cloth. Rather than representing some real corporeal thing—a body part, for example35—the napkin instead turns Othello's enchafed mind back to the presence or absence of a first sexual scene between Desdemona and himself.

In its origins as well as in its ritualistic propriety, the handkerchief conjures up an originary sexual scene. It encourages the audience's return to Africanus or to some such pre-text and to narratives of foreign rites of devirgination found in those pre-texts. More incisively than any other critic, Boose has argued for a relationship between the cloth and some scene of sexual intercourse. She quite rightly links the handkerchief to the “ritual origins of marital blood pledge [that] stretch back into man's ancient consciousness.” As she points out, the allusion to the phallic worms that made the cloth and the “mummy … Conserved of maidens' hearts” which made the spotted-strawberry (or bloody) pattern on it “repeats the picture of the handkerchief.” And as “an antique token / [His] father gave [his] mother” (5.2.216-17), this napkin represents “that which every husband ‘gives’ his bride.”36 Peter L. Rudnytsky argues more explicitly for the handkerchief as a substitution for the primal scene.37 As Boose and Rudnytsky insist, the absent/present napkin, like the matrimonial bed itself, works to summon the audience again and again to the missing scene of the sexual coupling.

The handkerchief does not simply substitute for the sexual scene of Othello and Desdemona. Rudnytsky reads the cloth as a symbol of “all the ‘displacements of affect’” throughout the play, that is, as the thing that replaces what the audience is not allowed to see; but the significance of the napkin is less in its being a symbol and more in its being a distorted representation than Rudnytsky's argument allows.38 The trivial handkerchief displaces the sexual scene; it parodies the more momentous and much larger wedding-bed sheets. The mere presence of the handkerchief pushes the matrimonial bed and couple from a private into a public arena, where their marriage is itself subjected to and doomed by public scrutiny and cultural prejudice. The rites of marriage instead of belonging to Othello and Desdemona alone, seem always to be displaced and possessed by whoever possesses the napkin. The displaced cloth comes to represent the displaced bed, which represents the displaced couple; and these objects and the couple of Othello and Desdemona are significant because they are displaced.

Displacement, like Browne's reading of the accident of blackness, is signified by its visibility. The primal scene is the site and sight of such displacements, such emergences from invisibility. The couple that effects such a displacement is, of course, Othello and Desdemona. Notwithstanding, their difference depends upon the sameness of Desdemona and Cassio, who throughout serve as a kind of originary couple. Cassio, like Othello, is a foreigner in the Venetian community, but while Othello represents the sinister outsider, the Florentine Cassio signifies a kind of white knight from abroad. He is the courtier par excellence, who is more “gentleman” than any Venetian. Of the women and men found in this play, Desdemona and Cassio function as this Venetian playworld's most natural pair. As Stephen Greenblatt has argued, “it is eminently probable that a young, beautiful Venetian gentlewoman would tire of her old, outlandish husband and turn instead to the handsome, young lieutenant.”39 Cassio and Desdemona have about them a social legitimacy that grants them cultural invisibility: without Desdemona's marriage to Othello, she and Cassio would be the play's most probable and conventional couple.

Iago iterates as much shortly after Desdemona arrives in Cyprus and engages in banter with Cassio; Iago watches and comments on their ingenuous parody of courtly affectation. And when at the end of his chorus the sound of Othello's horns is heard and Iago proclaims, “The Moor! I know his trumpet” (2.1.175-76), Iago takes the trumpet as the cue for his own Jerichoan destruction of Othello and his world. He takes it also as a signal to begin his own revelatory trumpeting of Othello's strumpet. Iago's call for destruction first and foremost announces the metamorphosis of Desdemona from a virgin to an adulterous whore. The perfection of Desdemona and Cassio that could have been is forever lost: they are the originary couple that cannot be recovered. The courtly and proper couple is effectively displaced into the sexual and improper couple of Othello and Desdemona. Genteel courtship has been displaced by the bedroom, the most telling and exhibitionistic topos of the primal scene.

In most of the essays that have acknowledged or discussed the concept of a primal scene in this play, Othello is described as suffering from some maternal anxiety. All too commonly he figures as a child still erotically attached to his mother and forever entangled in some primal childhood experience.40 These readings are informative and sometimes provocative, but I do take a few exceptions to them. First, they rely too heavily on the explicit or implicit creation of Othello's childhood.41 Second, their projections of Othello's childhood lead them to construct the present Othello as a child. And third, their arguments locate Othello's primal scene in the imagined adulterous relations between Desdemona and Cassio. These studies fail to realize that Desdemona and Cassio are Othello's pretext (and pre-text). They are the play's originary couple, and they are also the fiction through which Othello is able to confront his own adulteration of Desdemona. Edward A. Snow's attention to the primal scene in Othello is more textually grounded. He attempts neither to transmogrify Othello into a child nor to imagine a childhood for him. He argues that “Othello becomes absorbed in a fantasy that makes him the guilty and at the same time punitive onlooker in the primal scene of his own marriage.”42 Finally, however, Snow's psychoanalytic portrait of Othello is more interested in Othello's psychological self than in the interplay between his psychological and cultural selves or his literal and metaphorical selves.

As already noted, the improper relationship between Othello and Desdemona is in its essence a displacement of the proper relationship between Desdemona and Cassio. Warner theorizes that “the primal scene is always already displaced from its originary oneness”; it is, he argues, “the figure of an always divided interpretative strategy that points toward the Real [i.e., its originary oneness] in the very act of establishing its inaccessibility.”43 The originary oneness of Desdemona and Cassio haunts the “divided” (1.3.179) relationship of Othello and Desdemona. Othello attempts to recover this oneness through his reunion with Desdemona in Cyprus (which has the potential to become the prelapsarian or fantastical other place often evoked in Shakespearean romantic comedy), but he finds their oneness repeated and displaced by the relationship between Desdemona and Cassio. This latter couple, however, can now offer only a monstrous and grotesque parody of Othello's union with Desdemona because, given Desdemona's (obscene) marriage, the proper coupling of Desdemona and Cassio is now recoverable only as a scene of sexual adulteration or deviance. Iago attempts to make Othello see his (Othello's) complicity in Desdemona's adulteration.


It is Iago who most adroitly pushes Othello towards the (re)discovery of his black origins. Beginning with Act 3, scene 3, he taunts Othello with the division, difference, and irrecoverable sameness between the sex scene of Desdemona and Cassio and the sex scene of Othello and Desdemona, thus returning Othello to the horror of his relationship with Desdemona. This focal scene opens with Iago's distortion of Cassio's conversation with Desdemona and closes with the homosocial and homosexual marriage between Othello and Iago. Primal-scene imagery dominates the scene: from the pain of Othello's “watching” (l. 284) to his demand for “ocular proof” (l. 357) and satisfaction (l. 387) to Iago's pornographic teasing of Othello and pornographic indictment of Desdemona—“How satisfied, my lord? / Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? / Behold her topped?” (ll. 391-93)—through Iago's evocation of bestiality, “Where's satisfaction? / It is impossible you should see this, / Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross / As ignorance made drunk” (ll. 398-402). Behind these representations is the sex scene between Desdemona and Cassio, which becomes more and more transformed into a kind of pornographic freak show.44

Throughout this scene, Iago manipulates the originary and invisible scene of Desdemona and Cassio. Like the absent/present bed and handkerchief, the sexual coupling of Desdemona and Cassio comes into the play as a missing scene. When Iago remarks that he himself “cannot think it / That [Cassio] would steal away so guilty-like” upon seeing Othello approach (3.3.38-39), Iago constructs Cassio's departure as signifying the post-coital moment of Desdemona and Cassio. This occurrence in and of itself is about an originary loss, a scene manqué, and this is all the more true following Iago's intimation that Cassio, in his role as go-between for Othello and Desdemona, probably began sexual relations with Desdemona long before her marriage to Othello. Othello comes to understand the sex scene between Desdemona and Cassio not from having seen it but from having missed seeing it.

The most memorable gesture in this scene of Othello and Iago's theatrics is Cassio's alleged dream, which Othello demands to have represented and which Iago feigns a reluctance to repeat:

… I lay with Cassio lately,
And being troubled with a raging tooth,
I could not sleep.
There are a kind of men so loose of soul
That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs.
One of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say, “Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!”
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry “O sweet creature!” Then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; laid his leg o'er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry, “Cursèd fate
That gave thee to the Moor!”

(ll. 410-23)

“O monstrous! monstrous,” responds Othello. “Nay,” says Iago, “this was but his dream” (l. 424). Iago's account works through a series of repetitions. He foregrounds his own telling of the story by emphasizing how much he begrudges telling it, and then, after setting the scene, speaks about men such as Cassio who in their sleep will “mutter their affairs,” presumably things they would normally not publicize or confess. Only after repeatedly drawing attention to more aggressive acts of speaking—“mutter,” “say,” “cry”—does Iago quote Cassio, whose words reveal the hidden sex scene between Desdemona and Cassio. An oral anxiety permeates various levels of Iago's narrative—his “raging tooth,” which somatically replicates and evinces the story he tells; his supposedly begrudged telling of the story to Othello; Cassio's painful and accidental confession in his dream; and the kiss on which this oral anxiety comes to focus: “Then kiss me hard, / As if he plucked up kisses by the roots / That grew upon my lips.” The repetition of this oral anxiety brings a sense of coherence to the pastiche that comprises Iago's narrative.

The image hidden from, but being made visible for, Othello is supposedly of Desdemona and Cassio, while Iago actually presents a homoerotic scene involving the sexual interaction between Cassio and himself. Rudnytsky, who attributes too narrow an objective to Iago, says that Cassio's dream “shocks both Othello and the audience with its sexual explicitness, while in reality proving nothing.”45 To read this moment as “proving nothing” both ignores Othello's own response to it and minimalizes its implication in Othello's desire for ocular proof. More perceptive is Neill, who does not elaborate but who at least acknowledges the “homoerotic displacement of the kisses that grow upon Iago's lips.”46

I would like to go further than Neill and suggest that Othello's “monstrous” response, rather than missing the sex scene of Iago and Cassio, can be seen as immediately directed towards this sexual coupling. This too is a scene of displacement: Iago displaces Desdemona; homosexuality displaces heterosexuality. Iago structures the scene so that the primal story intensifies as the scene continues, moving from Othello's “seeing” the missing Desdemona-Cassio scene to Othello's demand for ocular proof—a proof that is represented to him as a scene of bestial sexuality and then as a scene of homosexuality. This final gesture is quite explicitly Iago's coup de théâtre. The uncovering of the homosexual scene as the play's most pornographic and immediate sexual event (except for Othello's and Desdemona's deaths) brings into focus the many emphases throughout on adultery and bestiality. Not only in Shakespeare's play but in his culture as well, homosexuality is often made to signify the climactic scene of horrific sexuality.47

The sex scene of Iago and Cassio repeats and displaces the sex scene of Desdemona and Cassio which, of course, displaces that of Othello and Desdemona. At the same time, however, the scene itself reverts, returning finally to the nuptials alluded to in the first scene. These nuptials are repeated in Iago's parodic marriage to Othello. This marriage (with its caustic vows) conjures up and explodes any inclination to situate Othello and Desdemona in romantic comedy. The contextually grotesque marriage between Othello and Iago repeats and displaces the missing ceremony between Othello and Desdemona.

What we see explicitly in 3.3 appears more obliquely in 4.1, where Iago draws Othello back into the primal and homosexual story, a story Iago uses to reinforce and intensify his other stories about (an adulterous and bestial) blackness. When the scene opens, Othello and Iago talk about an “unauthorized kiss” and about a man and woman being naked in bed together without any intention of engaging in an illicit sexual affair (ll. 2-8). All this culminates with Othello's epileptic response to this imagined sex scene: “Lie with her? Lie on her?—We say lie on her when they belie her.—Lie with her!” (ll. 36-37). After Othello recovers, Iago stages the conversation between himself and Cassio which will supposedly provide Othello with evidence of the sexual liaison between Desdemona and Cassio. The conversation is actually about Bianca, to whom Cassio is said to be engaged. Cassio, denying any rumors about his betrothal to a woman he calls a whore, says that he would not be so “unwholesome” (l. 121), that is, he would not be so “unwhoresome” as to go against social expectation by actually marrying her.

While Othello mistakes the explicit subject being discussed by them, this scene about marriage and whoredom is nevertheless relevant to the perception of his marriage to Desdemona. This scene about Cassio and his mistress replays for the audience the Cyprus arrival scene between Cassio and Desdemona. It also repeats and displaces Othello and Desdemona's marriage, which it reduces to a parodic image of sexual whoredom. Finally, it recalls the homoerotic scene in the third act, as Othello experiences first and foremost, as in Iago's dream narrative, an encounter between Iago and Cassio. And this time he does not merely hear about their coming together but is made to see it. Furthermore, when Othello thinks Cassio's gestures mimic those of Desdemona and imagines Cassio (as Desdemona) saying “O dear Cassio!” (l. 136), he seems to remember that earlier ventriloquial and homoerotic scene in which Cassio falls about Iago's neck, plucks him forward, and cries, “O sweet creature!” Othello also recalls the plucked orality of the earlier scene: “Now [Cassio] tells how she plucked him to my chamber” (ll. 140-41). Othello's voyeuristic drama ends when Bianca enters carrying the handkerchief, the ocular proof of what Othello thinks he has missed seeing all along. Bianca has taken Desdemona's place. With the handkerchief in her hand, she becomes the visual testimonial that Desdemona has been transformed (or deformed) into a whore.

On the level of story, Othello poses a question for its protagonist—about the (in)fidelity of Desdemona—that eludes any response of empathic intellection from the on- or offstage audience, since the audience knows (with as much surety as any play permits) the answer to Othello's question, which is never a question for the audience. On the level of discourse, however, where the couple of Desdemona and Cassio is entangled in the couple of Othello and Desdemona, Othello's question forces the audience to confront those cultural matrices that give rise to and continually repeat the possibility of such a question. Discursively, no moment exists prior to the adulteration already scripted into Othello and Desdemona's relationship. The couple admits as much when Desdemona says before her death that her sins are the loves she bears Othello and he agrees, saying that she will die for those loves (5.2.40-41). Even in their bedchamber their love in its personal essence is an adulteration.

More is at issue than Othello's psychological or sexual profile, as I suggested earlier when taking issue with Snow's essay. Othello's adulteration of Desdemona is not so exclusively personal. Anxieties about the scene of Othello and Desdemona are promulgated before the couple actually has the possibility of staging such a scene. Iago's first words in the play speak of the coupling of Othello and Desdemona: “'Sblood, but you'll not hear me! If ever I did dream / Of such a matter, abhor me” (1.1.4-5), using words that draw on a primal discourse of blood, dreams, and whoredom (pun on “abhor”). Before identifying Othello and Desdemona by their names, Iago conjures them up in the familiarly ominous images of the primal scene. Long before Iago tells Cassio's dream in Act 3, the dream of Othello and Desdemona has been put into discursive circulation. This dream is not simply Iago's; when Brabantio hears that Desdemona has eloped with Othello, he confesses, “This accident is not unlike my dream” (1.1.139). Brabantio's dream is one that presumably murders him before the “sight” (i.e., of the couple on the bed) would, according to Gratiano, have forced him to “do a desperate turn” (5.2.204-6). Each of these dreams is a “foregone conclusion” (3.3.425), a fait accompli, before the play ever opens.


Despite Othello's repeated deliberations over the scene of Desdemona and Cassio, critics turn again and again to the scene of Othello and Desdemona, attempting to see or not see its presence in Shakespeare's play. From the absent/present bed and handkerchief to the repetitious and displaced sexual events throughout, the theater audience perceives the play's obsessive focus on the sex scene of this couple. As Rudnytsky argues,

The same primal scene fantasies animating Othello as a character are aroused in the audience or readers of Shakespeare's play. Like Othello, who desires to obtain the “ocular proof” of his wife's adultery, we long to pry into the secrets of the matrimonial bed-chamber.48

Perhaps second only to the conundrum of Hamlet's delay (the number of Lady Macbeth's children being a distant third) is the status of the sexual relations between Othello and Desdemona. Boose contends that every student or critic of the play is forced to inquire into this couple's sexual status, arguing that the question is “built into the text” and that

the dramatic construction of Othello … is one that seduces us into repeating Iago's first question to Othello: “Are you fast married?” What is important is not any presumed answer to the question, which can probably be argued either way. What is important is the fact that we need to ask it.49

Very much to Boose's point are the titles of two essays, T. G. A. Nelson and Charles Haines's “Othello's Unconsummated Marriage” and, written in response, Norman Nathan's “Othello's Marriage is Consummated.”50 The consummation question is no more incidental to interpretations of the play than the other primal constructs already discussed in this essay. Do they or do they not consummate their marriage? Hidden in the question is the desire for the evidence needed to praise or condemn Othello, Desdemona, and even the play itself. (Nathan, for example, has argued that “a lack of consummation cannot be a part of Shakespeare's play,” if only because of what would happen to the “quality of the play.”51)

Whether Othello and Desdemona consummate their marriage is, finally, immaterial, in that the consummation has more to do with ideology than with any physical act. Othello and Desdemona as a cultural idea or ideal is what the play is always displaying. The closing scene provides an emphatic example. The idea of an intense sexual experience, or even of a sexual betrayal, permeates, shapes, and gives meaning to the physical elements of the final scene, as the language that has hitherto been able to differentiate between sexual death and mortal death breaks down. The collapse is articulated quite succinctly when Desdemona comments (just before Othello murders her) that “that death's unnatural that kills for loving” (l. 42). The coupling of Othello and Desdemona here reaches its most explicit and pornographic moment in the play as Othello uses murder to both preempt and repeat the moment of sexual intercourse.52 The marriage is both consummated and not consummated. The ideological or symbolic story allows such paradoxes.

The final scene is informed by overdetermined symbols: the bed, the handkerchief, bestiality, homosexuality, and the devil.53 Symbolic rape also figures in this scene in which Othello violates Desdemona's body.54 The anxiety of the black man overpowering the white woman does not allow for any real ideological dissociation between sexual intercourse and rape. Othello finally overreaches the circumscription of his black sign; he is not simply the black devil but the “blacker devil” (l. 131). Along with him is his “demi-devil” (l. 300) in the figure of Iago, who is no diavolo incarnato since, despite his disposition, his body remains free of the physical signs of the devil's body (l. 285). (Desdemona escapes critical scrutiny from the onstage audience in this scene; she is finally martyred and apotheosized: “O, the more angel she” [l. 130].) This scene does more, however, than merely reiterate the metaphorical constructs used in the play to repeat and displace the sexual coupling of Othello and Desdemona.

Metaphorical representations are only part of the story. Instead of transforming the sex scene of Othello and Desdemona into something symbolic, the play moves ineluctably towards the literalization of their sexual moment. The symbolic reading of the black devil or beast overpowering the white woman is already in place. When Othello kills Desdemona, his literal blackness becomes metaphorical, or, better still, he becomes the literal embodiment of a metaphorical blackness. At this moment any cultural sympathy that an audience may have had for him is seriously compromised. The play reaches a “shocking literalization” in its closing moments.55 Othello's murderous deed brings a literalness to all those metaphorical constructs that have become so familiar during the play's repetition and displacement of Othello's blackness.

Othello comes to signify his blackness; he is made to fill in the missing scene of his black self. Because the physical blackness of this “fair” courtier is always visible to the audience, he threatens the proper codes of Venetian discourse. As a mercenary he helps return this Venetian culture to its deeply embedded racial codes by smiting himself, the Other. Once Othello (dis) figures himself as begrimed and black as his own face (3.3.384-85), the establishment of his blackness as literal and personal, that is, as properly his own, becomes a matter of allowing each person on- and offstage to remember and reconstruct for him/herself the literal evidence of what was thought to be only a metaphor. Blackness is not simply a metaphor, a cultural sign or response to a specific body or soul. It is also a personal thing, an individual body or soul that creates and gives credence to the already present cultural meanings of blackness. Shakespeare's onstage audience renders Othello an even blacker devil than what may simply be signified by the metaphor of blackness. During the play, Othello does become a beast, a sexual deviant, a whoremonger, a devil, and a rapist, evoking also in these closing moments the fantasies of a necrophiliac: “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, / And love thee after” (5.2.18-19).56 He becomes the text that Shakespeare's audience already knows. As Iago himself says, “What you know, you know” (l. 302). By adopting all these roles, Othello devours the metaphors of blackness into his “hideous” body, which, like jealousy, “doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (3.3.166-67).

Othello is made to create the ocular proof that legitimizes an audience's guarded response to his blackness. (This is true despite whatever sympathy or antipathy one may have for Othello.) I am not suggesting that the play succeeds in demonizing Othello or that it even has the demonization of Othello as its ultimate objective. Like the fictions about bestiality or homosexuality evoked or generated by the play, blackness is never literal in Othello. If anything, blackness figures as the ocular sign of a cultural need to create and destroy monsters: create them so that they may not create themselves, destroy them so that they may not procreate or multiply. In the nascent imperialism of early seventeenth-century England, this process is not merely birth control but ideological control. The black presence in Shakespeare's play makes visible and then amalgamates and critiques those impolitic fictions that become engendered and intermixed in the name of cultural order. Bestiality, homosexuality, and black sexuality (or blackness) are essentially one and the same horrific trope. The act of making fair fair and black black itself becomes a dramatic metaphor hinting at the ways Realpolitik uses metaphor in the spirit of literalness.

This does not mean that blackness in Othello is less concerned with race than with metaphor. The play is imbued with Othello's black sexuality. But unlike many of its pre-textual narratives that presume to look into the bedroom in order to pontificate on the mythic, moral, or scientific origins of blackness, Othello does not really hide or repress its pornographic reasons for invading the privy chamber of black sexuality. In fact, by having Iago anticipate a birth scene that never materializes, the play forces into the foreground the presumed incidental pornography of writers such as Best, Africanus, or even Shakespeare himself in Titus Andronicus.57 From the opening words of Othello to its closing moments, the play simulates some imagined or actual pornographic scene. Nothing distracts attention from it. Boose is only partly right when she argues that the audience finally “finds itself stirred by, trapped within, and ultimately castigated for its prurience.”58 It is important not to think of prurience alone. The play's pornography is deeply embedded in the ideological portrayal of Othello's blackness, even when his literal body is not the object on exhibition. Greenblatt exemplifies this in the ecstatic image at the conclusion of his Othello essay: he writes that the play's “liberation from the massive power structures that determine social and psychic reality” ends “in an excessive aesthetic delight, an erotic embrace of those very structures.”59 Kirsch speaks even more excitedly and personally. He concludes that Othello himself “enacts for us, with beautiful and terrifying nakedness, the primitive energies that are the substance of our own erotic lives.”60 The critique of Othello in the play and in criticism depends very much upon the audience knowing, i.e., fantasizing about, the eroticism of the Other. Prurience alone does not entrap the audience. The members of the audience are captivated and caught by the play's public knowledge that, long before Othello was ever conceived, they have already privately conjured up or dreamt about the seductive Other. The play argues that this is the crucial primal scene of racism which needs to be seen and decoded, this scene where culture creates but fails or refuses to see any reciprocity between its knowledge of cultural Others and its own erotic fantasies and anxieties.


  1. Quotations of Othello follow Alvin Kernan's Complete Signet Classic edition (New York: New American Library, 1963).

  2. Cf. the Song of Solomon: “I am blacke (O ye daughters of hierusalem) but yet fayre and well fauoured” (Bishop's Bible [1568], 1:5).

  3. See Bartels, “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 41 (1990), 433-54; Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,SQ, [Shakespeare Quarterly] 40 (1989), 383-412; and Newman, “‘And wash the Ethiop white’: femininity and the monstrous in Othello” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The text in history and ideology, Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, eds. (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 141-62. See also Ania Loomba's Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), a work recently brought to my attention.

  4. I am in part alluding to Edward Said's Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), especially his chapter “Knowing the Oriental” (pp. 31-49). Said is interested in exploring how European cultures (especially in the nineteenth century) come to know the “Oriental” as Other. He argues that “knowledge gives power, more power requires more knowledge, and so on in an increasingly profitable dialectic of information and control” (p. 36). Said also writes about how Europeans came to believe that their representations of the Oriental could actually lead to their discovery of the Oriental's “Platonic essence” (p. 38).

  5. Relatedly, Said writes, “knowledge of the Orient, because generated out of strength, in a sense creates the Orient, the Oriental, and his world” (p. 41). Jacques Derrida has also written about racism as “a memory in advance” in “Racism's Last Word,” Critical Inquiry, 12 (1985), 290-99, esp. p. 291.

  6. Lukacher, Primal Scenes: Literature, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986); and Warner, Chance and the Text of Experience: Freud, Nietzsche, and Shakespeare's “Hamlet” (Ithaca, N.Y., and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1986). The terms “applied” and “implied” are deftly explained by Shoshana Felman in her essay “To Open the Question” in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Shoshana Felman, ed. (1977; rpt. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 5-10. She argues that the critic's role is “not to apply to the text an acquired science, a preconceived knowledge, but to act as a go-between to generate implications between literature and psychoanalysis—to explore, bring to light and articulate the various (indirect) ways in which the two domains do indeed implicate each other, each one finding itself enlightened, informed, but also affected, displaced, by the other” (p. 9). My essay assumes an implicable relationship between psychoanalysis and literature. Furthermore, here the “primal scene” as a theoretical model is a scene of implication—one of enlightenment, affectation, etc. For me Othello makes most critical sense through an implicable model.

  7. Warner, p. 47.

  8. pp. 23-24.

  9. I am thus expanding Michael Neill’s argument, which focuses on the offstage audience, turned into voyeurs by the play.

  10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized a tradition of whitewashing, interpreting Othello as tawny rather than black, arguing that Othello was not a “veritable negro.” For some variations on this theme (in addition to a few other views), see the appendix on “Othello’s Colour” in Horace Howard Furness’s New Variorum edition of the play (Philedelphia: J. B. Lippincott and Co., 1886), pp. 389-96. In the same genre is M. R. Ridley, who does not attempt to whitewash Othello but argues instead that some blacks have the classic features of the Europeans and not the “sub-human” ones of Africans; see his Arden edition of the play (London: Methuen, 1958), p. li.

  11. Cf. the Prince of Morocco in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, ed. Kenneth Myrick (New York: New American Library, 1965): “Mislike me not for my complexion, / The shadowed livery of the burnished sun, / To whom I am a neighbor and near bred” (2.1.1-3).

  12. Ben Jonson: The Complete Masques, ed. Stephen Orgel (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 47-60, ll. 136-42.

  13. The Dramatic Works of John Crowne, ed. James Maidment and W. H. Logan (1874; rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1967), pp. 219-342, esp. p. 321.

  14. See Barbara J. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England: A Study of the Relationships Between Natural Science, Religion, History, Law, and Literature (Princeton: N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), esp. pp. 119-62. She argues that during the sixteenth century, history, which had been situated somewhere between literature and science, began to shift towards the scientific. On the “scientific” philology of the sixteenth century, see also Richard Halpern, The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation: English Renaissance Culture and the Genealogy of Capital (Ithica, N.Y., and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 176-214.

    For more on the presence of blacks in Renaissance England, see Eldred Jones, Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), esp. pp. 1-26 and 87. See also Newman (cited in n. 3, above), pp. 147-49.

  15. Quoted in Newman, pp. 146-47.

  16. The Works of Sir Thomas Browne, ed. Charles Sayle, 16 vols. (Edinburgh: John Grant, 1927), Vol. 2, pp. 367-95, esp. p. 380. For all his empiricism, his explanatory images do not seem so far removed from the images associated with Phaeton. See Browne's two chapters on “the Blackness of Negroes” and his chapter on the color black more generally. Quite interestingly, Browne argues against those who find blackness a “curse of deformity.” He writes that beauty is not in one's color but in “a comely commensurability of the whole unto the parts, and the parts between themselves.” Blacks, he emphasizes, are “not excluded from beauty” (pp. 383-84).

  17. p. 148. Derrida's argument about the discursive manipulation of race underscores my argument here: “The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word. Even though it offers the excuse of blood, color, birth—or rather because it uses this naturalist and sometimes creationist discourse—racism always betrays the perversion of man, the ‘talking animal’” (p. 292 [cited in n. 5, above]).

  18. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Translator's Preface” to Jacques Derrida's Of Grammatology (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), pp. ix-lxxxvii, esp. pp. lxxxiii-lxxxiv. See also Terry Eagleton's recapitulation of Paul de Man's critique of literature and language in Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1983). Eagleton writes that de Man has discovered “nothing less than a new way of defining the ‘essence’ of literature itself. All language, as de Man rightly perceives, is ineradicably metaphorical, working by tropes and figures; it is a mistake to believe that any language is literally literal” (p. 145). Similarly, the language of Othello's blackness can never become literal. Hidden in the play's move towards literalness is the fiction of symbolic blackness as real blackness. This fiction is the essence of racism, and, as Bartels has argued, the language of racism professes to be descriptive and literal but is really prescriptive and metaphorical (p. 433). See also Derrida, “Racism's Last Word,” p. 292.

  19. Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge, London, and New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), p. 21.

  20. pp. 32-33, emphases added.

  21. p. 30.

  22. The expression “racialist ideology” is from Neill (cited in n. 3, above). It may also be inferred from Neill that England during this time really began to confront the socioethnic presence of a racial self/Other; see esp. p. 394. Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Living On/Border Lines” in Deconstruction and Criticism, Harold Bloom et al., eds. (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), pp. 75-176: “Visibility should—not be visible. According to an old omnipotent logic that has reigned since Plato, that which enables us to see should remain invisible: black, blinding” (pp. 90-91).

  23. It is arguable, of course, that Shakespearean criticism does not single out Othello for its personal readings. Notwithstanding, critical discourses that allow one to work around the cultural construction of blackness as though it is merely allegorical and can ultimately be divorced from a critique of Othello's personal self only exemplify the way such cultural thinking has already personalized (and made chaste) its metaphors of the black Other. This comment is in part inspired by Stephanie H. Jed's Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1989).

  24. Neely's essay appears in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, eds. (Urbana, Chicago, and London: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978), pp. 211-39. Many critics use this kind of question to explicate Othello's character. For two other notable examples, see Marvin Rosenberg's The Masks of Othello: The Search for the Identity of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona by Three Centuries of Actors and Critics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1961), p. 185; and Stephen Greenblatt, “The Improvisation of Power” in Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 222-54.

  25. pp. 394, 399, and 412. Cf. Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), where he argues that laws do not simply regulate sexuality but create and deploy it.

  26. Martin Orkin maintains that “the possibility of racism” is “only one element in the unfolding of Othello's crisis” (“Othello and the ‘Plain Face’ of Racism,” SQ, 38 [1987], 166-88, esp. p. 175). Orkin argues that the play is actually an affirmation of Othello's blackness. While Orkin's essay includes a comprehensive survey of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English writings on the subject of blacks, his conclusions do not sufficiently respond to the uneasy depths of Shakespeare's cultural interrogation.

  27. I am thinking here of the number of times particular words occur in the text. The bed and sheets are mentioned twenty-five times and the handkerchief twenty-eight, versus only eleven mentions of blackness.

  28. Neill, passim; and Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief: ‘The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,’” English Literary Renaissance, 5 (1975), 360-74, esp. p. 370.

  29. “Epistemology and Tragedy: A Reading of Othello” in Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Othello, Harold Bloom, ed. (New York, New Haven, and Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1987), pp. 7-21, esp. p. 14.

  30. Neill, p. 402.

  31. A discussion of Historie and the handkerchief is in T. G. A. Nelson and Charles Haines, “Othello's Unconsummated Marriage,” Essays in Criticism, 33 (1983), 1-18, esp. p. 8. Africanus's Historie was in circulation from 1550 onwards—available mainly in Latin but also in Italian and French, and translated into English by John Pory in 1600. For a comparison of Africanus's Historie and Shakespeare's play, see Rosalind Johnson, “African Presence in Shakespearean Drama: Parallels between Othello and the Historical Leo Africanus,” Journal of African Civilization, 7 (1985), 276-87. See also Bartels (cited in n. 3, above), who emphasizes and then theorizes about the differences between these two texts (pp. 435-38).

    There is also a comparison to be made between Iago, who claims, “I am not what I am” (1.1.62), and Africanus, who writes, “When I heare the Africans euill spoken of, I wil affirme my selfe to be one of Granada: and when I perceiue the nation of Granada to be discommended, then I professe my selfe to be an African” (quoted in Bartels, pp. 436-37).

  32. Quoted in Nelson and Haines, p. 8.

  33. Boose, p. 361.

  34. Peter L. Rudnytsky is one of the few critics who take seriously not only the handkerchief but its absence. While his reading concurs with the one I am presenting in this essay to the extent that he links the cloth to the primal scene, for him the primal scene is ultimately the “maternal penis,” this “always absent thing” (“The Purloined Handkerchief in Othello” in The Psychoanalytic Study of Literature, Joseph Reppen and Maurice Charney, eds. [Hillsdale, N.J.: The Analytic Press, 1985], pp. 169-90, esp. p. 185). Such a reading risks ascribing to the napkin a real objectness. See also Susan Gubar's “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity” in Writing and Sexual Difference, Elizabeth Abel, ed. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 73-93, where she discusses concepts of absence/presence and (in)visibility with regard to blood-stained nuptial bed sheets.

  35. For more bibliography as well as for further discussion of the breast, penis, nipples, glans, and some of the other corporeal objects critics have associated with the cloth and its design, see Boose, p. 371.

  36. p. 367.

  37. pp. 184-85. Rudnytsky thinks of the “primal scene” as the scene of Desdemona and Cassio. Understanding the primal scene to signify the originary moment of the ocular crisis, I am arguing that the primal scene is the scene of Othello and Desdemona. It should be noted, however, that the meaning of the primal scene depends upon the ultimate inseparability of these two scenes.

  38. Rudnytsky's reading is similar to that of Kenneth Burke, who, according to Boose, thought of the strawberried cloth as “some sort of displaced genital symbol of Desdemona” (p. 371).

  39. p. 39 (cited in n. [16], above). For more discussion about the issue of probability and improbability in Othello (especially as it is treated by critics from Thomas Rymer through Harley Granville-Barker), see Joel Altman, “‘Preposterous Conclusions’: Eros, Enargeia, and the Composition of Othello,Representations, 18 (1987), 129-57.

  40. The essays to which I am referring are Randolph Splitter, “Language, Sexual Conflict and ‘Symbiosis Anxiety’ in Othello,Mosaic, 15 (1982), 17-26, esp. p. 24; Kirsch (cited in n. [11], above), pp. 23-24; and Rudnytsky, p. 177. See also Rudnytsky, pp. 181 and 185. The maternal/birth anxiety looks back into Othello's psychological “history” and, in the opinion of these critics, springs from his traumatic or unresolved relationship with his mother.

  41. Even though Rudnytsky is anxious about such characterological, biographical critiques, he attempts to unproblematize himself in the name of psychoanalytic truth: “Shakespeare's characters are not, of course, real people, and in a literal sense possess neither childhoods nor unconscious fantasies. But there is compelling evidence to suggest that Shakespeare anticipated Freud's discoveries about the importance of early experiences and the unconscious” (p. 177).

  42. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello” in Othello: Critical Essays, Susan Snyder, ed. (New York and London: Garland, 1988), pp. 213-49. The transmogrification of Othello into child as a kind of grotesque image is made especially pointed in the similar attempt to associate Othello with the senex iratus figure. Kirsch himself argues that “January figures were commonly depicted in the second childhood of senility” (p. 23). The depiction of Othello as a comic or farcical body entrapped in tragic form, making him incongruous with the heroic classicism of tragedy, serves most demonstratively to create Othello as a parodic or monstrous figure—in patriarchal language, to portray Othello as a distracted boy in a man's story; see also Kirsch, pp. 21-22.

  43. Warner (cited in n. 6, above), pp. 73-74 and 24, respectively.

  44. See, for example, Lynda E. Boose's more extensive discussion of pornography in Othello in “‘Let It Be Hid’: Renaissance Pornography, Iago, and Audience Response” in Autour d'Othello, Richard Marienstras and Dominique Goy-Blanquet, eds. (Presses de L'UFR Clerc Université Picardie, 1987), pp. 135-43. Her essay examines both the assumptions of our voyeuristic compliance in the play and those imperatives that, throughout, command the visual attention of the audience on- and offstage. Her observation that the “forbidden” gets repeatedly eroticized is suggestive of the primal-scene claims of my essay.

  45. p. 184. Many critics hesitate to see or take seriously the homoeroticism evoked by Iago. For example, Splitter has argued that “Othello sees what he wants to see and remains blind to the existence of Iago in the bed” (p. 24). Bruce R. Smith has argued that this scene has more to do with Iago's “militant maleness” than Iago's homosexuality (Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare's England [Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991], pp. 61-64). Smith does not grasp Iago staging what is presumably a culturally horrific representation. Jonathan Dollimore misses this scene, too, in his section entitled “Forget Iago's Homosexuality” in Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991). Dollimore may be on target in his refusal to fashion Iago as a “repressed homosexual,” but Dollimore fails to see the homosexual scene, saying (as does Rudnytsky) “that such a conclusion would obscure much and reveal little.” Dollimore also does not recognize the symbolic importance of homosexuality itself, conceding that there may be some hint of a homoeroticism between Othello and Iago “if only because the homoerotic, like other forms of eroticism, might in principle be anywhere, attached to anyone, and in an indeterminate number of contexts” (pp. 157-62). While there may be an element of accuracy in this remark, it also comes dangerously close to eliding the way(s) in which culture so frequently specifies and overdetermines homosexuality and the homosexual subject. True, Iago's homosexuality is not necessarily at issue here; but this reading of the scene should not detract from the homosexual construction of Iago's narrative.

  46. p. 400. See also pages 121-22 in Neill's “Changing Places in Othello,Shakespeare Survey, 37 (1984), 115-31. This essay contains a more elaborate analysis of displacement in Othello. See also Patricia Parker, “Shakespeare and Rhetoric: ‘Dilation’ and ‘Delation’ in Othello” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, eds. (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 54-74; and Altman (cited in n. [31], above).

  47. In his study of “homosexuality” in the Renaissance, Alan Bray discusses the intertextual associations among such terms or concepts as bestiality, whoredom, rape, adultery, and incest and emphasizes how an act of homosexuality quite frequently figures as the culmination of these “perversions.” Paraphrasing Du Bartas, Bray writes, “through rape, adultery and incest they came at last—‘glutted with all granted loves’—to homosexuality” (Homosexuality in Renaissance England [London: Gay Men's Press, 1982], pp. 14-15). See also Du Bartas's chapter entitled “The Vocation” in his Suite de la second semaine (1603), where Du Bartas revels in the punishment of the “homosexual,” the most profane of sinners (The Divine Weeks and Works of Guillaume de Saluste, Sieur Du Bartas, ed. Susan Snyder [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1979], ll. 1189-320). Excluding incest (on an overt level), Othello is quite thoroughly implicated in this particular construction of homosexuality. Notwithstanding, Bray is surprisingly silent about Othello and about homosexuality in Shakespeare more generally. On the subject of homosexuality and its association with bestiality, see also Smith, esp. pp. 174-80.

  48. p. 181.

  49. “Renaissance Pornography,” pp. 135-36.

  50. Nelson and Haines's article is cited in note [23], above; Nathan's appears in Cahiers Elisabéthains, 34 (1988), 79-82. In his article Nathan challenges not only Nelson and Haines's position; he also takes issue with Pierre Janton's article “Othello's Weak Function,” in which Janton, taking one of his cues from Iago's reference to Othello's “weak function” (2.3.345), writes that Othello's marriage is unconsummated since “Othello's libidinous aggressivity” remains unchanneled because of Othello's impotence (CahiersE, [Cahiers Elisabéthains] 7 [1975], 43-50).

  51. pp. 81-82. In short, Nathan argues that the tragic genre would prove inappropriate for such a comedic or farcial story and that the “characters of Othello and Desdemona would be greatly weakened” (p. 82).

  52. Splitter makes a similar argument (p. 23).

  53. The bed is, of course, the scene's dominant object, and the handkerchief is mentioned several times during the final moments. The bestial image is most explicitly present in Othello's reference to himself as a “circumcisèd dog” (5.2.354). And the homoerotic, at least the use of homosexual marriage, is discursively evident once Emilia enters and she and Othello engage in a repartee that amounts to a refrain in which Emilia asks, “My husband?” and Othello responds, “Thy husband” (ll. 136-51). This exchange (read with a penchant for wordplay) recalls for me the marriage between Othello and Iago. My concern is not with these symbolic representations per se but with the fact that they are all in some way scripted into the final scene.

  54. There is an image of rape in Othello's choice of a defloration metaphor to refer to his murder of Desdemona: “When I have plucked the rose, / I cannot give it vital growth again” (ll. 13-14). Neill comes to a similar conclusion in his reading of critical responses to this closing scene. He quotes, for example, a nineteenth-century Russian writer who comments on the portrayal of Othello by Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to perform the role: “That savage flesh did its fleshly work.” Neill remarks that in this commentator's account “the play exhibits nothing less than the symbolic rape of the European ‘spirit’ by the ‘savage, wild flesh’ of black otherness” (“Unproper Beds,” p. 391). The sense of rape evoked by this scene is also apparent in many of the engravings and paintings of it. For some examples, see frontispieces to the Rowe (1709) and the Bell editions (1785) and a print by H. Hofmann. The first two of these depict Othello standing over a sleeping Desdemona, her breasts exposed. In the Hofmann portrait Othello stands over a rather peaceful and angelic Desdemona; he holds a knife in one hand, and protruding from his cloak is a large, dark sword hilt that is unmistakably figured as a giant phallus. For reproductions of these images, see Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 4, Mark W. Scott, ed. (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1987), pp. 393, 426, and 587, respectively. For some additional examples, see Neill, pp. 386-89. The image of rape in the play is first conjured up by Brabantio, who argues that Othello has “abused [Desdemona's] delicate youth with drugs or minerals / That weaken motion” (1.2.73-74). Both the Signet and Riverside editions gloss “motion” as denoting mental capability; the interpretation of “motion” as referring to physical capability does not contradict this reading.

  55. Neill, “Unproper Beds,” p. 402.

  56. See Greenblatt (cited in n. [16], above), who argues of this passage that “it is as if Othello had found in a necrophilic fantasy the secret solution to the intolerable demands of the rigorist sexual ethic” (p. 252). The necrophilia works only (and almost gratuitously) as a way of further exploiting the play's exclusion of Othello as inscribable within any “rigorist sexual ethic.”

  57. Black identity and black sexuality are at issue in Titus Andronicus but to a different end than in Othello. In Titus the birth of Aaron's child allows the on- and offstage audience to look beyond the sexual affairs of Aaron and Tamora (see 4.2 and 5.1). The audience can focus its moral outrage on the black child produced by Aaron and Tamora's relationship. An interesting commentary on this use of Aaron's child emerges in the BBC production (1985) when the camera lingers long and frequently on Aaron's child, who is eventually killed and displayed by Marcus as a court spectacle. In Othello, Iago promises that Othello's demonic seed will bring forth gennets, monsters, and nightmares (1.1.110; 1.3.394-95; and 1.3.365-66, respectively). The play threatens to bring forth a child but does not deliver; it actively resists the demonic moralization that is all too easily inscribed on the black body of Aaron's child. Othello keeps the pornographic story in front of the audience.

  58. “Renaissance Pornography,” p. 136.

  59. p. 254.

  60. p. 39 (cited in n. [11], above).

    I wish to thank King-Kok Cheung, Valerie Smith, and Robert N. Watson, all of UCLA, who were generous enough to read and offer constructive and encouraging criticism of an earlier version of this essay. I also wish to thank UCLA graduate students Dwight McBride and J. C. Stirm for their insightful remarks.

Ruth Vanita (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6650

SOURCE: Vanita, Ruth. “‘Proper’ Men and ‘Fallen’ Women: The Unprotectedness of Wives in Othello.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 341-56.

[In the following essay, Vanita identifies the similarities between the deaths of Desdemona and Emilia and explores the complicity of male society in the two murders.]

A surprisingly large number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays represent or culminate in the murder of a wife, the reason cited almost always being her infidelity.1 The plays construct these murders, often led up to by beating and torture of the wife, as tragedy, yet endorse them as a form of justice.

These tragedies have come to be known as “domestic tragedies,” suggesting that the events are private, springing from a familial relationship, unlike tragedies which involve political murders and take place in the public sphere. An unresolved contradiction is evident in the titles of these plays which signal the intention to preach a public sermon to women, for example, Women Beware Women, A Woman Killed with Kindness, and A Warning to Fair Women. In Othello, this contradiction is forced to the surface, as the private is insistently made public.

One of the questions that has most vexed critical commentary on Othello is that of the responsibility for Desdemona's death, some critics ascribing it to Othello, others to Iago, others to both, and yet others to Desdemona herself.2 Emilia's death has not, until very recently, received comparable attention, and it is agreed that Iago is solely responsible for her death. My argument is that Desdemona and Emilia die similar deaths for similar reasons. In each case, the death blow is struck by one particular individual, but it is made possible by the collusion of a number of others who act on the assumption that husband-wife relations are governed by norms different from those that govern other human relations. These men, who spontaneously intervene to save a man from another man's violence, remain ineffectual, albeit deploring, spectators of the escalating violence inflicted by husband on wife. Their failure to intervene and prevent what they deplore is the crucial cause of Desdemona's and Emilia's deaths, insofar as an intervention to save these lives is dramatically presented as viable and possible.

The peculiar painfulness of Othello that many commentators have felt, springs from its dramatization of the ordinary, the normal, and its revelation of that normality as innately brutal and horrifying. Most Indian women students perceive Othello's behavior as “typical,” that is, as normal, husbandly, manly behavior. This concurs with Othello's own insight when he describes murderous jealousy as innate in the husband-wife relationship which posits the wife as the exclusive possession of the husband and is thus at odds with the human condition wherein one can never know another person's inmost thoughts and desires: “O curse of marriage! / That we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites!” (III.iii.265-67).3

Several recent critics have sought to explain Othello's behavior as arising from his insecurity as a black in a racist white society.4 However, I would contend that the play forcefully combats racism (which posits blacks and whites as essentially different) precisely by its presentation of Othello as not at all different from any white husband.5 The development of his jealousy, the language of property ownership he uses, and his misogynist generalizations about women and marriage, are very similar to those of Leontes, Claudio, Posthumus, and even Thomas Heywood's Frankford in A Woman Killed with Kindness or Chapman's Montsurry in Bussy D'Ambois, two plays about jealous husbands and adulterous wives staged within a year or two of Othello (all three ca. 1602-1604).

The difference between Othello and Shakespeare's other jealous husbands—Leontes, Claudio, Posthumus, Master Ford—is the far greater depth and intensity of Othello's love for his wife. What is interesting is that of all Shakespeare's jealous husbands, the one who is black is the one who wins most sympathy and admiration, not only from all those around him, but also from audiences. Othello's blackness does not diminish his power over his wife. Paradoxically, social prejudice against him results in an outcasting of Desdemona which isolates her even more than other wives and places her more completely at her husband's mercy. The murder of a wife is different from many other kinds of murder (for example, those represented in Hamlet and Macbeth) insofar as the victim is more definitely placed in the murderer's power. Leontes, in The Winter's Tale, enunciates the difference most clearly when explaining why it is so much easier and safer for him to kill his wife than to kill her supposed paramour:

                                                            Fie, fie! no thought of him:
The very thought of my revenges that way
Recoil upon me: in himself too mighty,
And in his parties, his alliance; let him be
Until a time may serve. For present vengeance,
Take it on her …
.....They should not laugh if I could reach them, nor
Shall she, within my power.(6)

A woman's lack of “parties” and “alliance” to come to her aid against a murderous husband renders her an easily available victim. The actual killing is generally the culmination of an escalating continuum of violence, a process represented in both Othello and The Winter's Tale. If Desdemona dies, it is not merely for the formal reason that Othello is a “tragedy” and has to end in death. The tragedy is shown at every point to be avoidable and finally occurs because those who should intervene fail to do so. Society's covert condemnation of Desdemona for choosing to marry a black man reinforces the prejudice that what happens between husband and wife is a private and domestic affair in which no one should interfere. Emilia's death at her husband's hands is again attributable to the onlookers' nonintervention. This is one of the rare cases where wife-murder is represented as occurring because Emilia is “unfaithful” not sexually but mentally. She breaks faith with Iago by choosing to be loyal to Desdemona rather than to him. The dramatic presentation of the two murders as parallels sharply undercuts the dominant ideology that legitimized the murder of an adulterous wife.

Despite S. N. Garner's elucidation of Desdemona's extreme situation, cut off from father and countrymen, a compulsion which renders her powerless, the myth of her passivity dies hard.7 David Farley-Hills is the latest in a long line of critics who term her passive and relate this passivity to the stereotype of the patient Griselda.8

The disinherited Desdemona is a stranger in Cyprus, her only status being that of Othello's wife. He, on the other hand, has lived in Cyprus before and has many friends: “How does my old acquaintance of this isle? / Honey, you shall be well desired in Cyprus: / I have found great love amongst them” (II.i.197-99). When Othello contemplates the possibility of divorcing her, he is aware that she will have nowhere to go: “I'd whistle her off, and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune” (III.iii.260-61). Desdemona uses a more explicitly economic term “beggarly divorcement” in the scene where her desperation is evident in her seeking Iago's intervention:

Good friend, go to him; for, by this light of heaven,
I know not how I lost him. Here I kneel:
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love …
.....Or that I do not yet, and ever did,
And ever will—though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement—love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love. I cannot say “whore”:
It does abhor me now I speak the word;
To do the act that might the addition earn
Not the world's mass of vanity could make me.


The underlying trend of thought here suggests that the alternatives before a divorced woman in her position would be to die in destitution like Barbary, or to become a whore like Bianca. Since the latter is impossible for her, it is the former that she envisages in the unrobing scene.9

Given this absence of viable options, patient submission is the best survival strategy. It may win Othello over, as it did many husbands in legend. If it does not, Desdemona has the consolation of having behaved with exemplary virtue. Her apparent fatalism (“It is my wretched fortune” [IV.ii.127]) is the inevitable product of a situation she realistically perceives as offering no escape route.

Desdemona foresees her death but fights for her life with every means available to her. She tries to find allies. The only Venetians who are at hand are Iago, Emilia, and Cassio. Cassio is himself alienated from Othello and in need of a mediator. Therefore, Iago is the only possible ally. She asks him to go to Othello and plead her case. In reply, Iago offers all the timeworn excuses offered for violent husbands: “I pray you, be content: 'tis but his humour; / The business of the state does him offence, / And he does chide with you” (IV.ii.164-66). When Emilia's indignation bursts forth, he tells her to “speak within door,” that is, as M. R. Ridley aptly glosses: “speak lower; ‘you don't want the whole street to hear’; Onions notes that in Warwickshire the phrase ‘Speak within the house’ was current till recently in the same sense.”10 And, finally, Iago advises her not to express her grief, but to act normally in the hope that Othello will reform as inexplicably as he has degenerated: “Go in, and weep not; all things shall be well” (IV.ii.171).

Iago's speeches here are not especially “villainous”; they are typical of the advice routinely offered to victimized wives by family, neighbors, and friends. In fact, Iago's villainy is as successful as it is because he speaks to the lowest common denominator, the most widely accepted prejudices.11 This is the case not just in his manipulation of Othello, but here, in the mischievous counsel offered to Desdemona. Desdemona faithfully tries to implement his advice by being obedient and meek, a strategy the play reveals as singularly ineffective. Desdemona is not presented as patient Griselda—representations of the latter kind of heroine show patience as a strategy that works; in Othello it does not.12

While Iago counsels patience, Emilia's impatience continues to explode, and she makes the most telling comment on Desdemona's predicament: “Hath she forsook … / Her father, and her country, all her friends, / To be called whore?” (IV.ii.124-26). The scene presents Emilia as Desdemona's only ally, but Emilia is a powerless wife like Desdemona herself.

Before this, however, Desdemona had tentatively sought another ally—Lodovico, whose role I should like to examine in some detail.13 Helen Gardner notes that the sensible strategy of leaving Othello and going home with the messengers from Venice never occurs to Desdemona.14 While Desdemona does not express any desire to leave Othello, she does express gladness at the news that he has been recalled to Venice, and thus, implicitly, at the idea of going home.

Lodovico arrives in Cyprus when Desdemona is aware of Othello's displeasure with her but not of her own danger. Lodovico is her kinsman, come from her home, her native city. He thus represents, or should represent, some form of support for her. When he appears on stage in IV.i, Desdemona is with him and her form of addressing him (she twice calls him “cousin”) shows an awareness of kinship. She is also eager for news from home: “And what's the news, good cousin Lodovico?” (IV.i.218). She is happy at the news that Othello is recalled to Venice—“By my troth, I am glad on't” (IV.i.238)—and her innocent expression of happiness is misinterpreted by Othello who strikes her. When Lodovico mildly requests him to “make her amends” Othello responds by heaping further insults on her and then storming out.

In his conversation immediately following with Iago, Lodovico expresses shock, and Iago warns him that the blow was no aberration but the symptom of a rapidly deteriorating situation: “yet would I knew / That stroke would prove the worst!” (IV.i.275-76). The implication, that Desdemona is in danger of further maltreatment, is clear. Yet Lodovico makes no attempt to intervene, to speak to Desdemona in private, or to question Othello as to the reasons for his anger. When we next see him, after the dinner hosted by Othello, Lodovico conducts himself with ceremonious formality. He speaks in a way that distances him equally from Othello and Desdemona and the responses he receives are couched in the same kind of formal language:

I do beseech you, sir, trouble yourself no further.
O, pardon me: 'twill do me good to walk.
Madam, good night. I humbly thank your ladyship.
Your honour is most welcome.


Thus sent to her deathbed by the irresponsible formality of Lodovico's “good night,” Desdemona responds by addressing him as “your honour,” not the earlier, intimate “cousin.”15 For Lodovico does not act the part of a cousin. One may contrast with his uncaring behavior here Hero's cousin Beatrice's response to the public dishonoring of her kinswoman, and Laertes' fury at the betrayal of his sister. Lodovico's response suggests that the First Senator's parting injunction “Adieu, brave Moor: use Desdemona well” (I.iii.287) in fact represented her community's acceptance of the idea that, disowned by her father, she henceforth would be wholly at the disposal of Othello.

At an individual level too, Lodovico betrays an unwillingness to take any personal risk in order to help victims of violence when he disregards Cassio's and Roderigo's cries for help, with the canny “Let's think't unsafe / To come in to the cry without more help” (V.i.43-44). Roderigo's response “Nobody come? Then shall I bleed to death” does not move either Lodovico or Gratiano to go to his help. When Iago comes in and asks who called out, Lodovico replies “We do not know” (line 47), and when Iago goes to Cassio's aid, he comments admiringly on what he sees as Iago's intrepidity: “a very valiant fellow” (line 52).

I suggest that it is this dimension of Lodovico that Desdemona comments on in the unrobing scene. Her comments represent a crux which has never been satisfactorily resolved. Critics have read her comments as straightforward praise of Lodovico, and have interpreted them as either irrelevant women's chatter, or as signs of Desdemona's sensuality and flawed innocence.16 However, a reading of the lines as ironical fits in much better with the trend of thought in this scene which focuses on male-female relations as experienced and perceived by women, and ends with Emilia's magnificent dissection and condemnation of the double standard of sexual morality. Desdemona's comment “This Lodovico is a proper man” (IV.iii.34) interjected into her memories of her mother's forsaken maid and her premonitions of her own approaching death, anticipates her cry “O these men, these men!” (line 57). The word “proper” is used with similar irony by Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing in a very similar situation:

Is a' not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? … O God that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place. … Talk with a man out at a window—a proper saying!17

Emilia misinterprets Desdemona's subtle irony when she replies “A very handsome man.” Desdemona answers “He speaks well,” an ironical reference to Lodovico's elaborately polite speeches that mask his fatal failure to act the proper role of a man. Again, a close parallel is available in Beatrice's angry comment on men's fine speaking and lack of chivalry in action when Benedick refuses to kill Claudio who has traduced Hero:

O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into complement, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. … I cannot be a man with wishing, therefore I will die a woman with grieving.


The last line sums up Desdemona's life. She began by wishing for a man's adventurous existence (“she wished / That heaven had made her such a man” [I.iii.161.62]) and dies, grieving, trapped in the predicament of a woman. Emilia's failure to understand what Desdemona is saying here completes Desdemona's isolation.18 At this point, Desdemona alone grasps the gravity of the situation, Emilia dismissing her anticipation of imminent death: “Come, come, you talk” (IV.iii.24).

Desdemona is killed not only by Othello and Iago but also by all those who see her humiliated and beaten in public, and fail to intervene. The presumption that husband and wife, even when literally in a public space, metaphorically inhabit a private space wherein violence is somehow different from the violence of one man on another fosters the development of a continuum of violence that escalates from abuse to beating to killing. Lodovico's role, as a Venetian and a kinsman, is crucial in the play's exposure of this pattern.

Interestingly, Thomas Rymer, one of Shakespeare's earliest critics, is perhaps the only one to comment on Lodovico's failure to aid Desdemona. In A Short View of Tragedy (1693) he writes:

her Father … sends his Kinsman, Seignior Ludovico, to Cyprus … who, at his arrival, finds the Moor calling the Lady, his Kinswoman, Whore and Strumpet, and kicking her: what says the Magnifico?

My Lord, this would not be believ'd in Venice,
Tho' I should swear I saw't; 'tis very much;
Make her amends: she weeps.

… What Tramontain could fancy the Venetians so low, so despicable, or so patient?19

Rymer reads Lodovico's behavior as evidence of Shakespeare's incompetence as a dramatist; it is possible, however, to read it as a representation of the societal “hands-off” approach to marital relations.

A clear contrast is provided by the reaction of all onlookers to the striking of Montano by Cassio. This is treated as a public act, a crime that must, like any act of cognizable violence even today, be pursued and punished by the state. A trial is virtually conducted on the spot, witnesses forced to testify, and Cassio's drunken state not admitted as an excuse. Othello feels compelled by social pressure to punish Cassio harshly even though he would much rather not. Iago's conjecture about Othello's state of mind: “You are but now cast in his mood—a punishment more in policy than in malice” (II.iii.265-67) is borne out by Emilia's later report of the private conversation between Othello and Desdemona:

                    The Moor replies
That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus,
And great affinity; and that in wholesome wisdom
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.


That Montano has “great affinity” or “kinsmen of high rank”20 is the crucial reason why Othello cannot overlook Cassio's assault on him. Violence on a male produces an immediate counterreaction. Othello is the only one of Shakespeare's major tragedies in which the innocent victim is put to death before our eyes after systematic physical and mental torture in the presence of witnesses, and this is possible because she is a wife.

Societal collusion in husbandly violence is dramatized more starkly in the death of Emilia. Carol Thomas Neely and Eamon Grennan,21 among others, have emphasized the importance of Emilia's courageous intervention on Desdemona's behalf, and her deliberate taking of risks to do so when she asserts the power of nonviolent resistance against the power of destructive violence: “Thou hast not half that power to do me harm / As I have to be hurt” (V.ii.161-62). However, the similarity of the two deaths has not been sufficiently commented upon.

Desdemona, dying, gives Emilia the responsibility of clearing her name, much as Hamlet charges Horatio to tell his story to the unsatisfied. “Commend me to my kind lord” (V.ii.126) is an injunction that Emilia literally fulfills.22 The way she is killed is a condensed version of the more long-drawn-out process of Desdemona's murder.

Emilia is not killed by Iago alone, as Desdemona was not killed by Othello alone. The other men present, by their inaction, literally create the space, as Lodovico did metaphorically, wherein a wife can be killed by her husband. At line 221 Iago draws his sword and is observed to do so, Gratiano calling attention to the action with “Fie! / Your sword upon a woman!” (V.ii.221-22). Yet, even though it is evident by this time that Emilia is exposing Iago's guilt and is therefore in need of protection (like any state witness), none of the men present makes a move to disarm Iago. What we see on stage at this point is a lone unarmed woman surrounded by armed men who deliberately fail to protect her—a visual presentation of the defenselessness of a wife. Iago, with his sword drawn, continues to abuse Emilia in increasingly violent terms but it is only twelve lines later that he stabs her. At the moment he stabs her, Othello simultaneously tries to stab him. Montano immediately disarms Othello with the result that Iago is able to kill Emilia and run away. What we see in this piece of stage business is two people being simultaneously assaulted—one a murderer, the other the woman who has exposed him. He is armed, she unarmed. And, in this moment, the man who intervenes does so to save the murderer, not his victim.23

The rationale behind Montano's apparently illogical behavior is provided by Gratiano: “The woman falls: sure, he has killed his wife” (line 234), and, again: “He's gone, but his wife's killed” (line 236). Iago, like Othello, must be preserved for the state to deal with, but Emilia, a woman and a wife, is a different order of being. Even though she has deliberately transgressed the role of wife to denounce her husband, and even as she declares another allegiance: “Ay, ay: O, lay me by my mistress' side” (line 235), she continues to be perceived by the men as the wife of her murderer, adjunct rather than agent. While the moral outrage expressed is real, it is limited, and consequently protest is blunted, by the perception of the husband-wife relation as the most significant element in the violent action, precisely as in Lodovico's earlier comment: “What! Strike his wife!” (IV.i.274).

The dramatization of Desdemona's and Emilia's murders challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of Elizabethan society and of our own—that outsiders should not interfere between husband and wife, and that an adulterous woman deserves death. The latter idea pervades Elizabethan and Jacobean drama but was by no means restricted to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It surfaces repeatedly in later literary texts—to take a famous example, in Goldsmith's lyric “When lovely woman stoops to folly.” That the idea is alive and well today is clear from the fact that a number of twentieth-century commentators on Othello and The Winter's Tale have seen Desdemona's and Hermione's behavior as “provocative,” thus implicitly arguing that a wife should not only be chaste but should give her husband no grounds to doubt her.24

Othello is the only play of its time which carries the chastity test to its logical conclusion by ending with the death of the innocent heroine. Desdemona's chastity fails to save her life. Her death demonstrates that innocent wives subjected to tests and ordeals are more likely to end up dead than triumphant. The presentation of her murder on stage is a departure from Shakespeare's normal practice. Michael Neill has documented critics' and producers' disturbed responses to this scene (from Dr. Johnson onward), and nineteenth-century productions' tendency to distance and veil the bed, and James R. Siemon has noted the tendency to tone down the violence of Desdemona's physical struggle with Othello.25 Neill suggests that audiences' sense of unease springs from their covert sharing of Iago's and society's horror at the interracial sexual encounter viewed as innately “adulterated” and “adulterous.” But the last scene focuses on murder rather than eroticism, on the irrevocability of the act of murder. Questions of chastity and guilt or innocence are submerged in the overpowering focus on life itself. In her last moments, Desdemona realizes that “beggarly divorcement” would be preferable to death: “O banish me, my lord, but kill me not” (V.ii.79). She fights for survival, pleading for one night more, one half hour more, as such heroines as Lucrece pleaded with their ravishers to spare their virtue.

If the audience feels guiltily engaged and hence doubly revulsed, this is not because it is complicit in the perspective of Iago, who is not only physically absent but also forgotten, swept away in the flow of Othello's magnificent rhetoric. The audience, as silent witness, is placed in the position of those men of Cyprus and Venice who silently witnessed the abuse of Desdemona and failed to intervene. The audience is guilty of failing to intervene in the daily drama of domestic violence that lies hidden behind countless bedroom doors in every society where Othello is staged. As Desdemona's bedroom door opens with terrifying finality to let in her licensed “lord” and murderer, the dramatist raises the curtain on the most invisible, least glorifiable, and yet most condoned of all forms of violence—the violence of armed men on the unarmed women within their power. Hermione's trial is far less painful because those who witness it are not silent; they are articulately and actively on her side. Their presence is an indication of hope, of a society whose conscience is alive. Desdemona's aloneness in her bedroom is a more true-to-life representation of the powerless position of wives.26 Modern productions generally reduce the full force of the scene by darkening the stage. On the Jacobean daylit stage, the candles were mere symbolic props. The audience could not evade or sentimentalize the stark horror of this murder.

Most domestic tragedies' presentations of the torture, self-abasement, and death of the guilty wife were intended as a warning to women, and often display a near-sadistic delight in the woman's sufferings.27 We are invited and guided to pass judgment. Othello, because of its dual focus—unconditional sympathy for Desdemona, and sympathy for Othello qualified by the uncomfortable awareness of our own culpability in feeling any sympathy with the assumptions upon which he and Iago act—does not allow us to pass judgment without simultaneously judging ourselves. Iago's entire argument is based on the misogynist assumptions that underlay rising Puritan morality; hence the audience could not indict him without some measure of self-questioning.

The effect of the last scene, unique in Shakespeare for the killings of two unarmed women by two armed men, one cast as hero, the other as villain, is surely, in one sense, to render unimportant the question of chastity. Who, watching this play, ever worries about the technicality of Emilia's chastity while she is waging her heroic battle for justice? Michael Neill suggests that the spectacle of the three bodies (Othello, Emilia, Desdemona) on one bed at the end of the play has “a covert suggestion of something adulterous.”28 He is here combatting G. M. Matthew's view of the two bodies, one black, one white (Othello, Desdemona) embracing in death as an emblem of the indivisibility of human dignity.29

But there is a fairly longish interval before the third body, Othello's, is added to the bed. In that interval, the spectacle of Desdemona and Emilia lying dead together is much more strongly suggestive of how great lady and ordinary gentlewoman are equally defenseless as wives, yet retain their dignity in death. It focuses visual attention on the similarity of their deaths, as their last words focus aural attention: “A guiltless death I die” (V.ii.123) and “So speaking as I think, I die, I die” (line 249).

One of the ironical echoes in Gratiano's statement “The woman falls” may derive from Emilia's earlier denunciation of the double standard: “But I do think it is their husbands' faults / If wives do fall” (IV.iii.86-87). These words occur again in Lodovico's “O thou Othello, that wert once so good / Fall'n in the practice of a damned slave” (V.ii.292-93), and “you shall close prisoner rest / Till that the nature of your fault be known / To the Venetian state” (lines 336-38). The ultimate irony in the play's representation of male-female relations is the fact that two women accused by their husbands of “falling” morally, actually fall not morally but physically, before our eyes, felled by those morally “fallen” husbands' hands and, symbolically, by the male-dominated society which endorses the murder of supposedly fallen women.

Shakespeare's highlighting of the importance of human intervention to save a woman from a murderous husband was not unique in its time. A sixteenth-century Northern English ballad on the theme specifically makes the point that onlookers have a duty to stop an enraged man from killing his wife. In this ballad, “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard,” the lady's husband, informed by a pageboy of her love affair, discovers her in bed with her lover. He tells the paramour to arm himself and fight, and kills him in the ensuing encounter. The wife defies her husband, declaring her love for her paramour. He then cuts off her breasts and kills her. The ballad is singularly free from any moralizing comment on the narrative, unlike plays on the theme. Instead, the lady's death is followed by a comment on the pity of the way the lady was killed, and then by the husband's addressing his followers:

He cut her paps from off her brest;
Great pitty it was to see
That some drops of this ladie's heart's blood
Ran trickling downe her knee.
Woe worth you, woe worth, my mery men all,
You were nere borne for my good;
Why did you not offer to stay my hand,
When you see me wax so wood?
For I have slaine the bravest sir knight
That ever rode on steed;
So have I done the fairest lady
That ever did woman's deed.(30)

The idea expressed here, that a husband may go temporarily mad with jealousy (“wax so wood”) and that uninvolved onlookers have therefore a greater responsibility to restrain him, a restraint that would be for his good, is an insight particularly appropriate to Othello.


  1. Although such murder was not, strictly speaking, legal in England (as it was in contemporary Venice), a betrayed husband was widely perceived as having the right, almost the duty, to kill his unfaithful wife and her paramour. See Norman Council, When Honour's at the Stake: Ideas of Honour in Shakespeare's Plays (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1973). Council argues that Othello questions this dominant notion, departing from the source story by Giraldi Cinthio in this respect. For the Venetian law, see Rodney Poisson, “Death for Adultery: A Note on Othello,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 28, 1 (Winter 1977): 89-92, 90.

  2. Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 105-108, sums up the controversy and goes on to turn the spotlight on Emilia and her relationship with Desdemona.

  3. Othello, New Penguin Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968). All references are to this edition, and will appear in the text.

  4. Martin Orkin, in “Othello and the ‘plain face of Racism,’” SQ, 38, 2 (Summer 1987): 166-68, demonstrates effectively how the play combats dominant racist assumptions and beliefs. However, he collates men's and women's situations and responses to read the play as a comment on “the inevitable limitations of human judgment” (p. 180). See also G. K. Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” in Interpretations of Shakespeare: British Academy Shakespeare Lectures, selected by Kenneth Muir (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), pp. 180-207; and Ruth Cowhig, “The Importance of Othello's Race,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 9, 2 (December 1977): 153-61. Ania Loomba in Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1989) goes further in stressing Othello's vulnerability, and totally ignores Emilia's role in the play. She treats the play in isolation from Shakespeare's other three plays on this theme.

  5. Sarup Singh, The Double Standard in Shakespeare and Related Essays (Delhi: Konark Publishers, 1988): “It is notable that given the same situation, Shakespeare's men, whether black or white, respond in the same way” (p. 29).

  6. The Winter's Tale, The Arden Shakespeare, ed. J. H. Pafford (Methuen: London, 1963), II.ii.181-26.

  7. S. N. Garner, “Shakespeare's Desdemona,” ShSt [Shakespeare Studies] 9 (1976): 233-52, sums up earlier responses to Desdemona and emphasizes her isolation.

  8. David Farley-Hills, Shakespeare and the Rival Playwrights, 1600-06 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1990). Farley-Hills's predilections are evident in his comment on the unrobing scene as presenting a “contrast between the sensitive Desdemona … and the coarser-grained but well-meaning Emilia, chattering about women's rights” (p. 108).

  9. The irony is exacerbated by Bianca's fate. Both Desdemona and Emilia, perceived by their husbands as unfaithful, are termed prostitutes. Iago calls Emilia “Villainous whore” (V.ii.227) just before he kills her, as Othello, strangling the struggling Desdemona, berates her: “Down, strumpet” (line 80). Bianca, called a prostitute by Cassio, shows her faithful love for him by rushing to his side when he is wounded, oblivious of the risk to herself. Iago arrests her on no evidence other than her reputation as a “strumpet” (V.i.78), a reputation she disputes. On this occasion too, none of the men present intervenes to save her, even Emilia self-righteously joining in her condemnation. This scene, immediately preceding the murder scene as it does, underlines the equal vulnerability of women, married or unmarried, to the violence of men.

  10. M. R. Ridley, in Othello, ed. Ridley, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1955), gloss, p. 158.

  11. As Peter Stallybrass puts it, Iago's “is the voice of ‘common sense,’ the ceaseless repetition of the always-already ‘known,’ the culturally ‘given,’” “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed” in Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers, eds., Rewriting the Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), p. 139.

  12. Puritan tracts and homilies of the time routinely handed out the Iago kind of advice to women, telling them to be silent and submissive, and endure even maltreatment by the husband. See Sarup Singh, and Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters (Sussex: Harvester-Wheatsheaf, 1983), esp. chap. 6, where she reads Desdemona as cast in the patient Griselda mold.

  13. Lodovico's role has never, to my knowledge, been adequately dwelt upon, although Desdemona's comments on him in the unrobing scene have led to endless speculation about her.

  14. Helen Gardner, “The Noble Moor” in Interpretations of Shakespeare, pp. 161-79; 175.

  15. That Desdemona is “publicly struck” in the presence of “men,” and can subsequently “acquit herself with … decorum” at a formal banquet is seen by Ridley as a sign of her “quality” (Ridley, Introduction, p. lxv). Another kind of reading is more concerned with Othello's than Desdemona's pain: “His striking her in public … is a symbolic act, a calling the world's attention to the intolerableness of what he suffers by the intolerableness of what he does” (Winifred Nowottny, “Justice and Love in Othello,University of Toronto Quarterly 21 [1952], 339). No critic appears to notice the role of the onlookers here, especially of Lodovico.

  16. S. N. Garner sums up the critical debate between those who see Desdemona as saint and those who see her as slut, the former ignoring, explaining away, or, like M. R. Ridley, wishing to transfer the lines to Emilia, the latter, like W. H. Auden, reading them as evidence of Desdemona's sensual interest in men. The lines are central to Garner's argument that Desdemona is represented in the play as fully human. According to him, “Since the man Desdemona has married, and risked her social position for has turned into a barbarian, she unconsciously longs for a man like Lodovico. … In her heart she must feel she has made a mistake” (p. 249). This speculation about what Desdemona “must feel” springs from what Garner himself feels—that the marriage is a doomed misalliance which “must fail” (p. 250), an assumption colored with racist feeling; see note 25 below. The lines are also central to Lisa Jardine's argument that Shakespeare represents Desdemona as culpable, based on the “patriarchal assumption” that she is driven by sensuality in marrying a black man. Jardine reads Iago's view as “a relevant view of Desdemona throughout the play” (p. 75).

  17. Much Ado About Nothing, New Shakespeare, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1971), IV.i.300-309. All references are to this edition and subsequently will appear in the text.

  18. Such miscommunication between two people holding a conversation is characteristic of Othello. People frequently misread speech, deriving a meaning opposite to that intended by the speaker. This is an important dimension of the representation of a society that fails to check injustice and violence, allowing them to build towards tragedy.

  19. Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1693) extracted from Othello: A Casebook, ed. John Wain (London: Macmillan, 1971), pp. 37-48, 40.

  20. Ridley, gloss, p. 92.

  21. Neely, and Eamon Grennan's sensitive exegesis in “The Women's Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence,” SQ, 38, 3 (Autumn 1987): 275-92.

  22. Desdemona's dying “lie,” “Nobody. I myself,” bears an uncanny resemblance to the dying statements given by hundreds of Indian women over the last two decades to police and doctors, declaring their deaths suicides, thus exonerating the husbands and in-laws who murder them. See, for instance, “Letters Written at Death's Door,” Manushi 1 (January 1979): 13-14. In the context of the masculine obsession with revenge displayed in the drama of the period, Desdemona's nonpunitive attitude would seem to signify women's insight that to follow the logic of an eye for an eye would be to make the whole world blind.

  23. The Quarto stage direction “He runs at Iago. Iago stabs Emilia” only confirms the indications built into both the Folio and the Quarto text that Montano intervenes to disarm Othello.

  24. On The Winter's Tale, see, for example, Nevill Coghill, “Six Points of Stage-craft in The Winter's Tale,ShS 11 (1969): 31-41, and the much more sophisticated argument of Howard Felperin, “Tongue-tied our queen?—The Deconstruction of Presence in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), pp. 3-18.

  25. Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery and the Hideous in Othello,” SQ, 40, 4 (Winter 1989): 383-412; and James R. Siemon, “‘Nay, that's not next’: Othello V.ii. in Performance, 1760-1900,” SQ, 37, 1 (Spring 1986): 38-51. Siemon too sees the “mixture of violence and eroticism” in the last scene as giving rise to the discomfort of critics and directors which led to its toning down in production so that the murder appeared a sacrifice (p. 39).

  26. With a characteristic flash of insight, A. C. Bradley noted in Othello “the darkness not of night, but of a close-shut murderous room” (Shakespearean Tragedy [London: 1904; rprt. Macmillan, 1969], p. 177). S. N. Garner makes a surprisingly racist comment when contrasting Desdemona with Hermione: “She acts differently from the heroine of The Winter's Tale not only because she is more fragile and less wise but also because her accuser is not a white man following at least the forms of justice in a court. Othello is a black man with rolling eyes coming to do ‘justice’ in her bedroom at night” (p. 249). He forgets that many other white men on the Elizabethan stage executed precisely such justice as did Othello, and that in Cymbeline, a white man, Posthumus, tries to do “justice” by proxy, instructing his servant to lure Imogen into a forest and murder her there.

  27. A Woman Killed with Kindness is a good example of such plays that wallow in self-righteous sadism masquerading as Christian charity. See my essay “Men Beware Men: Shakespeare's Warnings for Unfair Husbands,” forthcoming in Comparative Drama (Summer 1994), for a detailed consideration of Othello as a response to Heywood's play.

  28. Michael Neill, p. 407.

  29. G. M. Matthews, “Othello and the Dignity of Man,” in Arnold Kettle, ed., Shakespeare in a Changing World (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1964), pp. 123-45.

  30. The Faber Book of Ballads, ed. Matthew Hodgart (London: Faber and Faber, 1965; rprt. 1971), pp. 60-64, 64.


Othello (Vol. 53)


Othello (Vol. 79)