Paul Yachnin (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Yachnin, Paul. “Magical Properties: Vision, Possession, and Wonder in Othello.Theatre Journal 48, no. 2 (1996): 197-208.

[In the following essay, Yachnin interprets Othello as a theatrical evocation of the violent potentiality of wonder, embodied in Desdemona's fetishized handkerchief.]

A specter is haunting new historicism—the specter of the aesthetic: the attributes of beauty and sublimity, the realm of wonderful objects and feelings of awe. From Louis Montrose's evocation of the uncanny connections between Simon Forman's dream of Queen Elizabeth and William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to Stephen Greenblatt's book, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, we can discern an investment in wonder among those whom we might have expected to be more attuned to the political dimensions of literature.1 Of course, materialist criticism is entitled to examine the forms of wonder, since wonder is as much involved in the socio-political realm as is gender, rank, or race. But it is not merely a cool-headed interest in wonder that we find in new historicism; on the contrary, it is an undertaking to arouse amazement in the reader. For some practitioners, the attempt to awe their readers has to do with the cachet associated with the mystifying style of postmodernist French theory, but for lucid writers such as Montrose and Greenblatt, the attempt to arouse wonder has its roots in other ground. That ground is Shakespeare.

My focus is the operations of wonder in Shakespeare's playhouse, but I also will examine the differences between Renaissance versions of theatrical wonder and later forms in Shakespeare as literature. These versions are linked by their relationship with subjectivity, possession, and the nature of the object, but are produced in different ways and toward different ends—theatrical wonder is largely visual, processive, and collective; literary and critical wonder is “visionary,” possessive, and directed toward the individual as individual. Roughly speaking, it is the difference between an outing to the circus and a morning in church; we tend to misinterpret the earthly pleasures of the former in light of the heavenly raptures of the latter.

Othello is an illuminating text for the purposes of my discussion because it is both wonderful in itself and critical of how “magical” properties can seduce the eye and mind. By analyzing Othello's attempts to fetishize theatrical properties, we can begin to understand the fetishistic investments made by present-day readers and critics. This is not to suggest that the play is magically prescient. Rather its fictions of possession and wonder imply the conditions of its production and make the contradictions in that production visible as ideology. Pierre Machery tells us that “the book revolves around this myth [i.e., that the book is uncannily alive]; but in the process of its formation the book takes a stand regarding this myth, exposing it. This does not mean that the book is able to become its own criticism: it gives an implicit critique of its ideological content, if only because it resists being incorporated into the flow of ideology in order to give a determinate representation of it.”2 So while Shakespeare is the source of the specter haunting recent Shakespeare criticism, his play's “implicit critique of its ideological content” might nevertheless provide something like an exorcism.

Shakespeare's attempts to reconfigure playgoing as conversional wonder have meshed with the emergence of the aesthetic as a major cultural formation; however, it is unlikely that his drama in fact transformed the experiences of Renaissance playgoers.3 They, no doubt, continued to expect recreation rather than re-creation. In Othello, Shakespeare maneuvers to make wonder out of the material he has...

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to work with, which, among other things such as language and costume, includes the fabric of the handkerchief and the body of the boy actor who plays Desdemona. These two objects are constructed so as to enhance the cultural status of the play by raising it above the commercialism and materiality of actual play production. But if we can deploy a strategic resistance to the play's sublimity (a resistance that came more easily to the original audiences), then the ordinariness of these “wonders” and the particular ways in which they are presented will allow us critical insight into the mystifications of Shakespeare and Shakespeare criticism.

To move toward a historical understanding of Shakespearean wonder, let us begin by considering two exemplary views—Northrop Frye's idea of The Tempest as a play where wonder leads to self-knowledge and Greenblatt's troubled but similar account of the effects of wonder. Of course, new historicism arose in opposition to approaches such as Frye's, but humanist and antihumanist forms of criticism share some surprisingly similar assumptions about the relationship between the literary text and the subject. Here is Frye, writing in 1959:

[T]he play is an illusion like the dream, and yet a focus of reality more intense than life affords. The action of The Tempest moves from … reality to realization. What seems at first illusory, the magic and music, becomes real, and the Realpolitik of Antonio and Sebastian becomes illusion. … When the Court Party first came to the island “no man was his own”; they had not found their “proper selves.” Through the mirages of Ariel, the mops and mows of the other spirits, the vanities of Prospero's art, and the fevers of madness, reality grows up in them from inside, in response to the fertilizing influence of illusion.4

Greenblatt in 1991 sees wonder as “the central figure in the initial European response to the New World”—“something like the ‘startle reflex’ one can observe in infants.” Although his model of personhood is far more corporealized than Frye's, he nevertheless sees wonder as ineluctably inward:

Someone witnesses something amazing, but what most matters takes place not “out there” or along the receptive surfaces of the body where the self encounters the world, but deep within, at the vital, emotional center of the witness. This inward response cannot be marginalized or denied, any more than a constriction of the heart in terror can be denied; wonder is absolutely exigent, a primary or radical passion. … The experience of wonder seems to resist recuperation, containment, ideological incorporation; it sits strangely apart from everything that gives coherence to Léry's universe [Jean de Léry, whose History of a Voyage (1585) Greenblatt is discussing here], apart and yet utterly compelling.5

Although connected with the violent harrowing of the self central to Christian visionary experience, Frye and Greenblatt generally understand wonder in terms of a modern idea of personhood, where wonder provokes what Frye calls “realization,” the emptying out of the world and the concomitant expansion of the self. This view differs from Shakespeare's; Shakespeare usually shows how wonder violates or nullifies the self rather than how it precipitates the self's expansive fulfilment. We remember Horatio “harrow[ed] … with fear and wonder” (Hamlet, 1.1.45) or Cleomenes reduced to nothing by “the ear-deaf'ning voice o' th' oracle” (Winter's Tale, 3.1.9).6 For Frye and Greenblatt, in contrast, our ability to grasp an authentic selfhood has to do centrally with possessing and with being possessed by a fetishized text. “The Tempest,” Frye says, “is a play not simply to be read or seen or even studied, but possessed.”7 At the beginning of Marvelous Possessions, Greenblatt too declares his investments in the marvels of narrative: “I remain possessed by stories and obsessed with their complex uses.”8

To be sure, the idea of being possessed by theatrical spectacle was current in the Renaissance. In his Apology for Actors (1612), Thomas Heywood, reiterating Shakespeare's emphasis on the invasive power of spectacle, praises theatre's capacity to re-fashion the members of the audience: “so bewitching a thing is lively and well-spirited action that it hath power to new mold the hearts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.”9 But among eyewitness accounts of the drama, there are far fewer indications of the formative power ascribed to it by Heywood. We remember that the actors normally performed in the cold light of day and did not have the scenic resources of the court masque. Thomas Platter, in 1599, writes of the “marvelous” dancing that followed a performance of Julius Caesar; about the play he notes only that it was “very well acted.”10 In 1613, Sir Henry Wotton recounts disapprovingly the tawdry spectacle Shakespeare's company made of the history of Henry VIII: “The King's Players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry VIII, which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage … sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous.”11 So while there were marvels in the theatre, they were usually greeted as something akin to mere showiness.

In accord with these views of theatrical spectacle, playgoers seem not usually to have been possessed by wonder.12 The antitheatricalist writer and sometime dramatist Stephen Gosson writes scathingly about the fun audience-members have at the playhouse:

In our assemblies at plays in London, you shall see such heaving and shoving, such itching and shouldering to sit by women. Such care for their garments that they should not be trod on, such eyes to their laps that no chips light in them, such pillows to their backs that they take no hurt … such tickling, such toying, such smiling, such winking, and such manning them home when the sports are ended that it is a right comedy to mark their behavior.13

Indeed, a considerable part of the thrill of playgoing had little to do with the plays themselves, but was involved instead with the erotic and social gratifications of seeing and being seen by other spectators. In 1613, Henry Parrot satirizes the practices of self-display characteristic of a theatre described by one antitheatricalist as “Venus' palace”:14

When young Rogero goes to see a play,
His pleasure is you place him on the stage,
The better to demonstrate his array,
And how he sits attended by his page,
          That only serves to fill those pipes with smoke,
          For which he pawned hath his riding cloak.(15)

In view of the mirthful and eroticized atmosphere of Renaissance playhouses, it seems clear that the emphasis upon the conversional marvelousness of Shakespeare's plays must have been consequent upon their transformation into literature, a process that began in earnest only after Shakespeare's death. In the 1623 First Folio, Jonson lauds Shakespeare as “the wonder of our stage,” but promotes his “book” as an embodiment of genius that makes an irresistible claim on all those who “have wits to read, and praise to give.”16 In the Second Folio (1632), Milton expresses similar “wonder and astonishment” at Shakespeare's “Delphic lines.” In Milton's account, Shakespeare's astonishing book transforms the reader into a “livelong monument”—“thou our fancy of itself bereaving, / Dost make us marble with too much conceiving.”17 In commendatory verses prefixed to Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare (1640)—twenty-four years after the playwright's death—Leonard Digges is able to remember “how the audience, / Were ravished, with what wonder they went hence,” but invites the reader to look upon the “wit-fraught book, … whose worth / Like old-coined gold, … / Shall pass true current to succeeding age.”18 These tributes suggest that Shakespearean wonder, from the outset, was an experience which, while it might be imagined as the rapture of audience—members possessed by a bewitching spectacle, in fact belonged to readers who owned the text. “[Y]ou will stand for your privileges … to read, and censure,” urge John Heminge and Henry Condell, the actors responsible for the publication of the First Folio. “Do so, but buy it first … whatever you do, buy.”19

But while there are differences, there is also a historical line to be traced from the spectacles performed in Shakespeare's playhouse to the visionary wonders of the First Folio to the retailing of literary wonder in recent criticism. These versions of the marvelous are related to the broader development of what Georg Lukács calls “reified consciousness,” the idea that persons become objects to themselves because of their traffic in fetishized commodities—goods onto which are projected the realities of human labor and relations, and for whose commodified value real persons exchange their own worth. In “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács develops an analysis of the alienating effects of commodity fetishism: “The essence of commodity-structure … is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” “The commodity character of the commodity, the abstract, quantitative mode of calculability shows itself here in its purest form: the reified mind necessarily sees it as the form in which its own authentic immediacy becomes manifest.”20

When the commodity in question is literary wonder, and when such wonder is a possession that possesses and is the form in which the reader's mind finds its own “authentic immediacy,” readerly investments will be both profound and unstable. A text like Othello will be to the engrossed reader as Desdemona is to her husband—an object whose capacity to arouse wonder in the beholder is seen to underwrite the beholder's selfhood. Kenneth Burke explains Othello's stake in Desdemona as “ownership in the profoundest sense of ownership, the property of human affections, as fetishistically localized in the object of possession, while the possessor is himself possessed by his very engrossment.”21 We want to bear in mind the differences between the spectacular marvels staged in the culturally lowbrow Shakespearean theatre and the visionary wonder produced in the highbrow province of Shakespeare as literature. We also should remember that a performance—unlike a book—cannot be owned. But we also want to consider the possibility that reading Shakespeare for his profound insights into the meaning of life, or writing about Shakespeare in ways calculated to arouse wonder in our readers, might constitute particular institutional transformations of spectacular, commercial theatricality.

In Shakespeare's London, Othello's handkerchief would have been marketable goods, a square of embroidered cloth in a nation whose primary industry was the production of textiles, a stage property in a theatre whose largest operating expense was the purchase of costumes and draperies. Othello's mystification of the handkerchief within the play is of a piece with Renaissance Londoners' investments, both financial and psychological, in what even Caliban recognizes as “trash”—the “glistering apparel” (Tempest, 4.1. 224, 193 [stage direction]) that advertised individuals' high social status in the real world and whose visual appeal in the theatre helped to make Shakespeare's drama so popular. The play's stake in the handkerchief registers the theatre's participation in English society's fetishized trade in textiles.

In the world of the play, all the characters except Othello view the handkerchief as marketable goods; he defines it as a magical talisman. The effect of this definitional contest is twofold. One, the handkerchief emerges as wondrous—an object of great emotional and sexual energy. The napkin's enhancement serves the institutional project of valorizing drama over against the theatre's degraded world of work and its trade in playtexts and textiles. Two, the intensity of Othello's investments in this square of cloth works to reveal the fetish character of commodities in general. Although everyone except Othello thinks of the handkerchief as an ordinary object, they fetishize it too. They turn it into a commodity, in Marx's sense: a thing that becomes “mysterious … simply because in it the social character of men's labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour.”22 To understand the particular mystery the fetishized handkerchief evokes, however, we need to expand the field of labor and exchange to include the “work” of sex. That is necessary because the characters' projections of themselves onto the handkerchief run along lines determined by sex and gender. Moreover, to take sex and gender into account is to recognize their importance in the development of modern aesthetic fetishism. In this view, the art-object is the feminine beloved of the masculine owner—“a non-alienated object, one quite the reverse of a commodity, which like the ‘auratic’ phenomenon of a Walter Benjamin returns our tender gaze and whispers that it was created for us alone.”23

For most of the characters, the handkerchief is reproducible, exchangeable, and has a certain cash value. Furthermore, although it circulates widely, everyone recognizes it as private property. Because it is private property, Emilia, Cassio, and Bianca all speak about making copies of it. In this regard, is it even clear that Emilia plans to keep it after having found it? She says, “My wayward husband hath a hundred times / Woo'd me to steal it … I'll have the work ta'en out, / And give 't Iago” (3.3.292-96). Does she intend to give Iago the original or the copy? Does she perhaps prefer robbing the handkerchief of its singularity to stealing the thing itself from Desdemona? For Desdemona, the handkerchief balances between the everyday and the sacred, becoming a hugely valued love token that is nonetheless commensurable with monetary value. “Where should I lose the handkerchief?” she asks, “Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse / Full of crusadoes” (3.4.23,25-26).

Cassio and Emilia each intend to have the handkerchief copied because they recognize it as property that will be wanted by its owner. The strawberry-spotted handkerchief bears the print of the owner's possessive desire for it as a singular object, even though it is not necessarily unique, but potentially only the first of a series. It could be reproduced endlessly for an endless number of owners. This contradiction is paralleled by Iago's jealous ownership of his wife. She bears the imprint of his possessive desire for her as a unique prize even though he discounts her, with a sexual quibble, as “a common thing”: “You have a thing for me? It is a common thing” (3.3.302).

The handkerchief's properties are continuous with the properties of love. Were Desdemona an object like the handkerchief, Othello could possess her, but so could anyone else, and in any case she would then be a “common thing” like the handkerchief, certainly not the inimitable treasure for which Othello happily sacrifices his “unhoused free condition” (1.2.26). If she is not an object to Othello, then she is a subject—which is to say she is an object to herself. As self-possessed, she is free to give herself away to another. If she is her own private property, as Peter Stallybrass points out, then her defining attribute—her honor—becomes as detachable as her handkerchief:24

But if I give my wife a handkerchief—
What then?
Why then 'tis hers, my lord, and being hers,
She may, I think, bestow 't on any man.
She is protectress of her honor too;
May she give that?


No possible permutation is able to unburden heterosexual love of the contradictions involved in the patriarchal ownership of women, who are also required to be owners of themselves.

The handkerchief figures possessive male desire for the female “common thing” in ways that legitimize jealousy in terms of the “phantom objectivity” of the gender system. The operation of this system seems invisible to the characters, and its effects cut across gender lines. Bianca returns the handkerchief to Cassio, refusing to “take out the work” since she thinks it was given to him by another woman. This other woman is a “hobby-horse,” while Cassio is allowed the agential attributes of desire and deceitfulness:

What did you mean by that same handkerchief you gave me even now? I was a fine fool to take it. I must take out the work? A likely piece of work, that you should find it in your chamber, and know not who left it there! This is some minx's token, and I must take out the work? There, give it your hobby-horse.


Given the invisible influence that the handkerchief wields in its travels through the play, the claims Othello makes about both its sacred, feminine origins and its magical power to bind husband to wife through male desire seem not to belong to an enchanted world entirely foreign to Venetian civility, but rather to constitute a somewhat outlandish explanation of the handkerchief's actual operations. The play opens to analysis the fetish character of the handkerchief with regard to all the characters who touch it. It does so through Othello's explanation of its quasi-magical powers, but more so by the way Othello convinces himself into accepting it as “ocular proof” (3.3.360) against his wife (since it falls to the stage in his presence and as a result of his action some 150 lines before Iago reports having seen Cassio wipe his beard with it). Othello uses the handkerchief to prove something against Desdemona that the desirable thingness of the handkerchief has already inscribed as inevitable in heterosexual relations—the “destiny unshunnable” (3.3.275) of being made a cuckold. It is the fate of every man to invest his all in the vexed figure of Woman, she who is unique because she is a rare object and “common” because she is a subject. On this account, the vexing constitution of Othello's selfhood on the basis of heterosexual mutuality is no different from anyone else's—it is only that his terminology is strangely revealing.

But Othello's terms constitute more than an exotic account of the ordinary. In Othello's telling, the handkerchief is a different kind of thing—a wonder that possesses a particular history and a charismatic hold on its owner. Desdemona is reframed as just such a wonderful object. If she were like the handkerchief that Othello imagines, then he could possess her wholly yet she would become neither the “common thing” of marketplace exchanges nor the free trader of her own honor. Not, of course, that the handkerchief ever becomes convincingly magical. It is rather that its movements in the play suggest that there could be “magic in the web of it” (3.4.69). The handkerchief is held in hand after hand, but its significance is never grasped by any one possessor. Its power to generate an unseen network of connections over the heads of every character except Iago lends it a certain marvelousness. Even Iago cannot quite get hold of it. He is just lucky: it is surprising that Cassio is unacquainted with Othello's first and most valued gift to Desdemona, especially since Cassio went “a-wooing” with Othello “from first to last” (3.3.71,96). “Sure,” Desdemona says, “there's some wonder in this handkerchief” (3.4.101). For the play's original spectators and for us, there is indeed some wonder since, as Douglas Bruster comments, “uncanniness arises as the result of an extended social order” that is apparent in the handkerchief but not visible to the characters.25

So while the play opens to examination the operations of commodity fetishism, it also works to fetishize the handkerchief in the wonderful terms of Egyptian charmers, sibylline prophetic fury, and “mummy … / Conserved of maidens' hearts” (3.4.74-75). In order to understand the theatre's apparent need to redescribe its most important material resource, we do not need to follow Richard Wilson's spirited attack either on Shakespeare's theatre as “part of the apparatus of the English nation-state” or on Shakespeare as a proto-capitalist enemy of the artisanal class of clothworkers.26 But perhaps we do need to consider that costumes in the commercial theatre, while expensive and often gorgeous, were also redolent of the theatre's participation in trade and manual labor. Some costumes could project the somewhat grubby aura that went with being aristocratic cast-offs, but those costumes had themselves passed through the pawnbrokers and the second-hand dealers' shops; and other costumes and all the rest of the cloth used in performances constituted at one level “ocular proof” of the theatre's material and class connections with the increasingly hard-pressed and riotous clothworkers. In this view, the play endeavors to “take out the work” from textiles in order to purge theatre of the manual labor that made theatre possible, aligning drama thereby with the ethos of courtliness that itself was an important factor in the theatre's commercial success.

In 1610, Henry Jackson, member of Corpus Christi College, witnessed a performance of Othello at Oxford. “They also had tragedies,” he wrote,

which they acted with propriety and fitness. In which [tragedies], not only through speaking but also through acting certain things, they moved [the audience] to tears. But truly the celebrated Desdemona, slain in our presence by her husband, although she pleaded her case very effectively throughout, yet moved [us] more after she was dead, when, lying on her bed, she entreated the pity of the spectators by her very countenance.27

Jackson was a serious and religious young man, and Oxford probably provided a more attentive audience than the Globe or even Blackfriars.28 Yet his response to the boy actor, while deeply engaged, is equivalent to neither Frye's “realization” nor Greenblatt's “radical passion.” In Jackson's account, the audience's response mirrors the shift within the play from the language-based relationship between the lovers at the outset to Othello's subsequent attempt to gain visual mastery over Desdemona. At first they woo each other through story-telling, hinting, and speaking (1.3.128-70); under Iago's instruction, however, Othello learns to “[w]ear” his eyes so as to be ever on the watch for signs of his wife's infidelity (3.3.198). As a consequence of this shift from an aural to an ocular axis of relationship, Desdemona is transformed into a spectacle of duplicity within Othello's theatre of the gaze. In similar fashion, the Oxford spectators are moved by the speaking and acting of the actors, but are more affected by the sight of the countenance of the dead Desdemona. Importantly, however, the audience resists the conversion of Desdemona into the iconic figure of purity exemplified by Othello's comparison of his wife to “such another world / Of one entire and perfect chrysolite” (5.2.144-45) or by A. C. Bradley's classic description—“her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute.”29 On stage at Oxford, not even death can transform her into the figure of “monumental alablaster” (5.2.5) envisioned by the text and by critics such as Bradley. Instead the murdered Desdemona remains like a speaking subject: her face “entreated the pity of the spectators” (“spectantium misericordiam ipso vultu imploraret”).

Plays such as Othello, King Lear, Pericles, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest work fetishistically to transform the bodies of the boy actors into sights of wonder. It is not surprising that Shakespeare and his theatre should use the actors in this way. The body as show-piece is simply more impressive than any other spectacular object—with the possible exceptions of the costly machines being developed by Inigo Jones for court masques or the fireworks or cannon-fire displays like the one that caused the destruction of the Globe in 1613. Yet however well woman-as-fetish works within the playtexts or in the context of the modern formation of aesthetic fetishism, it seems unlikely that the early modern audience would have agreed, for example, with Ferdinand's proprietary, already jealous awe at his first sight of Miranda: “My prime request, / … is (O you wonder!) / If you be a maid, or no?” (Tempest, 1.2.426-28).

Finally, let us consider the relationship between the handkerchief and Desdemona as well as the idea that the play's infusion of charisma into the body of Desdemona operates in relation to the Renaissance difference between movable property and land.30 That Desdemona's body replaces the handkerchief (not to mention Othello's blackness) as an object of wonder makes good sense because bodies are more evocative than textiles, but what I want to suggest is that the play trades the handkerchief for Desdemona's body. To understand the wonder of Desdemona as the profit accruing from a sequence of exchanges within the spectacular economy of the play is to begin to grasp the production of woman-as-fetish and understand the Shakespearean fetish as continuous with ordinary life rather than as something sacred set over the ordinary.

Desdemona's amazing value is the culmination of a series of trades involving land, cash and movables, women, and status. Roderigo, very much like a number of young, landed gentlemen in Jacobean city comedy, converts his land into money in order to buy jewels in order to win the love of a woman, a treasure, who will bring him high status. But while Roderigo believes that Desdemona will confer greater sexual and social status than his land, the play, like so many city comedies, suggests the ideal that landedness is the only true basis of high status. Land is different from commodities because, in this somewhat nostalgic view, land possesses the possessor, who must live on it in order to administer and preserve it. In medieval law, all land belongs in principle inalienably to the king; general unease with the system by which land becomes virtually as exchangeable as other commodities finds expression in John of Gaunt's lament for the shameful binding of the sacred “earth of majesty, … / This other Eden” within “inky blots, and rotten parchment” (Richard II, 2.1.41-42,64).31 In the early seventeenth century, furthermore, the duties of landholders to their property and tenants was an acute social issue. The landed gentry flocked to London, leaving the rural population without governance, judicial supervision, or “hospitality”; some members of the gentry even lost their inherited estates while pursuing status in the spendthrift circles around the court.32 Roderigo speaks for this group when he promises to invest everything he owns in the chase after Desdemona: “I am chang'd. … I'll sell all my land” (1.3.380,382). Since land itself has become a commodity like all others, Desdemona, “full of most bless'd condition” (2.1.249-50), takes its place (as the possession that possesses) in the conferring of social status and personal worth.

So Desdemona is not merely a treasure, but the treasure of land. With wicked irony, Iago says, “[Othello] to-night hath boarded a land carract. / If it prove a lawful prize, he's made for ever” (1.2.50-51). Desdemona is as solid and valuable as land, Iago insinuates, but she is also movable and leaky like a boat. That irony infects Othello. Only by killing Desdemona can he be cured of it. Only at the end can he settle into a view of Desdemona as the permanent, possessing possession that land ideally was for the Jacobeans. This construction of Desdemona is intensely tragic for Othello. That she is Othello's homeland means that her murder renders his personhood irredeemably homeless:

          Where should Othello go?
Now—how dost thou look now? O ill-starr'd wench,
Pale as thy smock! when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.


From the shattered viewpoint of Othello's impending damnation, Desdemona's body shines out wonderfully as the promised land forever out of reach. We should perhaps bear in mind Othello's scattered, destroyed personhood when we—following, indeed, the play's hint—undertake to transvalue Othello, making it into “a play not simply to be read or seen or even studied, but possessed.”33 We might also remember Othello's fate when we attempt to exchange the moving sight of Desdemona's body for a “magical property,” a visionary possession of Desdemona in which we try to find manifested our own “authentic immediacy.”

The eighteenth-century writer and lawyer Arthur Murphy once imagined himself at Parnassus. He saw that the land had been divided by Apollo among the great writers of the classical and modern canons. Among these figures he found Shakespeare:

The great Shakespeare sat upon a cliff, looking abroad through all creation. His possessions were very near as extensive as Homer's, but in some places, had not received sufficient culture. But even there spontaneous flowers shot up, and in the unweeded garden, which grows to seed, you might cull lavender, myrtle, and wild thyme. … Even Milton was looking for flowers to transplant into his own Paradise.34

Murphy's quaint description of Shakespeare as land and as landholder may remind us of the fetishistic investments readers and critics make when they attempt to inhabit and be inhabited by a text such as Othello. Like the wandering Court Party on Prospero's Island or the wonder-struck conquistadors in the New World, we attempt to stake a claim to territories that seem able to restore us to ourselves. Instead of possessing and being possessed by Othello, however, we might do better to prize it for the multiplicity of its uses. As a useful rather than a sacred object, Othello would be, among other things, a work of literature, a script for actors, a text of some historical importance, and, by virtue of its implicit critique of ideology, a parable about the violence of wonderful representation.


  1. Louis Adrian Montrose, “‘Shaping Fantasies’: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture,” Representations 2 (1983): 61-94; Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

  2. Pierre Machery, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (London: Routledge, 1989), 64.

  3. On the emergence of the aesthetic, see Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990); on the conditions of production of conversional wonder in Shakespeare, see my “The Politics of Theatrical Mirth: A Midsummer Night's Dream, A Mad World, My Masters, and Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 51-66.

  4. Northrop Frye, “Introduction” to The Tempest, in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969), 1370.

  5. Greenblatt, Possessions, 14.

  6. All Shakespeare quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). Subsequent references will be included parenthetically in the text.

  7. Frye, “Introduction,” 1372.

  8. Greenblatt, Possessions, 1.

  9. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (London 1612; facsimile reprint New York: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1941), B4.

  10. Thomas Platter, quoted in the Riverside Shakespeare, 1839. The Riverside prints both the original German text and the translation used here.

  11. Sir Henry Wotton, quoted in the Riverside Shakespeare, 1842.

  12. See Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare's London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 44-48.

  13. Stephen Gosson, The Schoole of Abuse (London, 1579; facsimile reprint New York: Garland, 1973), C1v.

  14. Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583; facsimile reprint Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, 1972), L7v.

  15. Henry Parrot, Laquei ridiculosi: or Springes for Woodcocks (London, 1613), C6v.

  16. Ben Jonson, The Complete Poems, ed. George Parfitt (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975), 264.

  17. John Milton, Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1957), 63-64.

  18. Leonard Digges, commendatory poem prefixed to “Poems: written by Wil. Shake-speare. Gent.” (1640), quoted in the Riverside Shakespeare, 1846.

  19. John Heminge and Henry Condell, “To the great Variety of Readers,” facsimile reprint in the Riverside Shakespeare, 63.

  20. Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), 83 and 93.

  21. Kenneth Burke, “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” Hudson Review 4 (1951): 166-67.

  22. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (New York: Modern Library, 1906), 83.

  23. Eagleton, Ideology, 78.

  24. Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 137.

  25. Douglas Bruster, Drama and the Market in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 84.

  26. Richard Wilson, “‘A Mingled Yarn’: Shakespeare and the Cloth Workers,” Literature and History 12 (1986): 169.

  27. The original Latin text, along with the translation used here, is quoted in the Riverside Shakespeare, 1852; note that since the Riverside encloses the entire translation in brackets, its own internal editorial additions are enclosed in parentheses.

  28. See Dictionary of National Biography, entry on Henry Jackson, for an account of his character and career.

  29. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth (1904; reprint London: Macmillan, 1964), 145.

  30. On woman as land, see Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories.”

  31. See Kenelm Edward Digby, An Introduction to the History of the Law of Real Property (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875).

  32. See Felicity Heal, “The Crown, the Gentry and London: The Enforcement of Proclamation, 1596-1640,” in Law and Government under the Tudors, ed. Claire Cross et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 211-26.

  33. Frye, “Introduction,” 1372.

  34. Arthur Murphy, Gray's-Inn Journal (London, 1786), quoted in Mark Rose, Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), epigraph.

Albert Gerard (essay date 1957)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5223

SOURCE: Gerard, Albert. “‘Egregiously an Ass’: The Dark Side of the Moor. A View of Othello's Mind.” In Aspects of Othello: Articles Reprinted from Shakespeare Survey, edited by Kenneth Muir and Philip Edwards, pp. 12-20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1957, Gerard evaluates Othello as a “barbarian” figure by considering the Moor's failure to intellectually assess his own flaws, which ultimately leads to his “tragedy of groundless jealousy.”]

It is through the malice of this earthly air, that only by being guilty of Folly does mortal man in many cases arrive at the perception of sense.

Herman Melville

There are three schools of Othello criticism. The most recent of these is the symbolic school, chiefly represented by G. Wilson Knight and J. I. M. Stewart, who have endeavoured to explain away the difficulties inherent in the traditional psychological interpretation of the Moor by turning the play into a mythic image of the eternal struggle between good and evil, embodied in the noble aspirations of Othello and the cunning cynicism of Iago.1 This school arose in part as a reaction to an attitude mainly exemplified by Stoll, though already initiated by Rymer and Bridges, according to whom this tragedy ought to be treated as a purely dramatic phenomenon, created by Shakespeare for the sake of sensation and emotional effect.2 The third school is the traditional school of naturalistic interpretation; it branches off into two main streams: the Romantic critics, from Coleridge to Bradley, take Othello at his own valuation, and seem to experience no difficulty in assuming that his greatness of mind should blind him to Iago's evil purposes; more recent students, however, tend to have a more realistic view of the Moor and to stress the flaws in his character: T. S. Eliot speaks of bovarysme and self-dramatization, while his homonym, G. R. Elliott, asserts that the main tragic fault in Othello is pride.3

One way to solve this crux of Shakespeare criticism is to use the inductive method recently advocated by R. S. Crane, and look for the “particular shaping principle (which) we must suppose to have governed Shakespeare's construction of the tragedy” through “a comparison of the material data of action, character, and motive supplied to Shakespeare by Cinthio's novella with what happened to these in the completed play”.4 By analysing the way Shakespeare used (or neglected) some of the data provided by Cinthio, the way he transmuted a vaudevillesque melodrama into one of the unforgettable tragedies in world literature, we may perhaps hope to gain a fresh insight into what he saw in it, why he was attracted by it and what he meant to do with it.


This method is the one already applied by H. B. Charlton in his Clark Lectures at Cambridge, 1946-7.5 According to Charlton, one of the most significant alterations made by Shakespeare to Cinthio's story consists in the strengthened emphasis upon the difference in manners and outlook between Desdemona and her husband. Though this motif is barely alluded to by Cinthio, Shakespeare seized on the hint and expanded it to meaningful proportions. The most conspicuous, though, admittedly, the most superficial, aspect of this difference is the complexion of the Moor. In the original tale, there is only one allusion to Othello's blackness. In the play, his black skin and thick lips are mentioned time and again. As it is obviously impossible to retain the Romantic view that Othello is not a real Negro,6 we can safely assume that the blackness of the Moor, though it did not strike the Italian writer, appealed to the imagination of Shakespeare, who found it significant in a way that Cinthio, probably, could not even conceive.

Where is this significance to be found? I do not feel very happy about Charlton's suggestion that Shakespeare wanted to stress the physical and psychological antinomies between Othello and Desdemona because “the situation created by the marriage of a man and a woman who are widely different in race, in tradition and in customary way of life” was, at the time, “a particular problem of immediate contemporary interest”. There does not seem to be any compelling evidence that such a problem was especially acute in the early seventeenth century, so that it may be worth while to try another line of interpretation.

In The Dream of Learning, D. G. James has made excellent use of the changes which Shakespeare introduced into the personality of Belleforest's Hamlet so as to make it plausible that this young Danish chieftain should appear to all ages as the embodiment of the man of thought, or, to use a more up-to-date expression, of the intellectual. Now, if Shakespeare turned Hamlet into an intellectual, it is equally true that he reversed the process in his handling of Othello. Not only does Iago call the Moor an “ass” and a “fool”, not only does Othello concur with this unfavourable view in the last stages of the action, but the action itself is hinged upon Othello's obtuseness. This is quite palpable in III, iii, and we may be confident that if Partridge had seen Othello performed, he would have felt, at that moment, like jumping on to the stage and telling the Moor not to be an ass. Othello's muddle-headedness on this occasion is so extreme that critics like Rymer, Bridges and Stoll have indeed found it incredible and psychologically untrue. We might draw up a formidable list of Othello's glaring mistakes as exemplified in this scene. A few examples will suffice.

First, he must know that Iago wanted to become his lieutenant: he ought to be suspicious of his accusations against Cassio. Even though he believes, like everybody else, in Iago's honesty,7 he must know that his Ancient has a vulgar mind, and he should not allow his imagination to be impressed by Iago's obscene pictures of Desdemona. It is also remarkable that he does not try to argue the matter with Iago; in the early stages of his evolution, he simply proclaims his faith in Desdemona's chastity, but he cannot find any sensible argument with which to counter Iago's charges. It is true that he asks for some material proof of his wife's treachery, but he never bothers to inquire about the value of the “evidence” produced by Iago. Finally, once he is convinced of Desdemona's unfaithfulness, surely the next step is to go and discuss things with her or with Cassio; this he never does. Few people would make such a hopeless mess of the situation.

Whereas Shakespeare had keyed Hamlet's intelligence to the highest possible pitch, he deliberately stressed Othello's lack of intellectual acumen, psychological insight, and even plain common sense. In the play, Othello's negroid physiognomy is simply the emblem of a difference that reaches down to the deepest levels of personality. If Hamlet is over-civilized, Othello is, in actual fact, what Iago says he is, a “barbarian” (I, iii, 363).

Othello's fundamental barbarousness becomes clear when we consider his religious beliefs. His superficial acceptance of Christianity should not blind us to his fundamental paganism. To quote again from Charlton's study, “when his innermost being is stirred to its depths”, he has “gestures and phrases” which belong rather “to dim pagan cults than to any form of Christian worship”. These primitive elements receive poetic and dramatic shape in the aura of black magic which at times surrounds Othello. Though Brabantio is wide of the mark when he charges the Moor with resorting to witchcraft in order to seduce his daughter, it is nevertheless true, as Mark Van Doren has said, that “an infusion of magic does tincture the play”,8 and it comes to the fore in the handkerchief episode. The magic in Othello results from his acquiescence in obscure savage beliefs. It is an elemental force at work in the soul of the hero. It helps to build up the Moor as a primitive type.

Here again, we wonder why Shakespeare was attracted by such a hero. A twentieth-century dramatist might be interested in the clash of two cultures, which occurs in the mind of Othello. But though this aspect of the situation is not altogether ignored by Shakespeare, his main concern lies in another direction. The fact is that this tragedy of deception, self-deception, unjustified jealousy and criminal revenge demanded such a hero.

The crime-columns of the newspapers teach us that the people who murder their wives out of jealousy are generally mental defectives. Ordinary sensible people simply cannot believe that such a crime should deserve such a punishment. It was impossible for Shakespeare to take a subnormal type as a hero for his tragedy. Tennessee Williams could do it, I suppose, but not Shakespeare, because the Renaissance tradition required that tragedy should chronicle the actions of aristocratic characters. He might have chosen as his hero some nobleman with an inflated sense of honour, but then he probably could not have made him gullible enough to swallow Iago's lies. And it is precisely the gullibility that is essential. Shakespeare was not intent on emulating Heywood's achievement of the year before in A Woman Killed With Kindness. Othello is not a tragedy of jealousy: it is a tragedy of groundless jealousy.

So, in Cinthio's tale, Shakespeare found reconciled with a maximum of credibility the requirements of Renaissance tragedy and the necessities of his own private purpose: a character with a high rank in society, with a noble heart, and with an under-developed mind. It seems therefore reasonable to suppose that if Shakespeare was interested in Othello, it was not primarily because he is a barbarian, but because this noble savage provided him with a plausible example, suitable for use within the framework of the Renaissance view of tragedy, of a psychological characteristic that makes Othello the very antithesis of Hamlet. Othello's intellectual shortcomings have not passed unnoticed by students of the play, but the importance of this feature for its total meaning has not received the attention it deserves. We may say without exaggeration that Othello's lack of intellectual power is the basic element in his character. It is a necessary pre-requisite for his predicament. It is essential to the development of the situation as Shakespeare intended it to develop. And it may also throw some light on the nature of Shakespeare's tragic inspiration.


At the beginning of the play, Othello appears as a noble figure, generous, composed, self-possessed. Besides, he is glamorously happy, both as a general and as a husband. He seems to be a fully integrated man, a great personality at peace with itself. But if we care to scrutinize this impressive and attractive façade, we find that there is a crack in it, which might be described as follows: it is the happiness of a spoilt child, not of a mature mind; it is the brittle wholeness of innocence; it is pre-conscious, pre-rational, pre-moral. Othello has not yet come to grips with the experience of inner crisis. He has had to overcome no moral obstacles. He has not yet left the chamber of maiden-thought, and is still blessedly unaware of the burden of the mystery.

Of course, the life of a general, with its tradition of obedience and authority, is never likely to give rise to acute moral crises—especially at a time when war crimes had not yet been invented. But even Othello's love affair with Desdemona, judging by his own report, seems to have developed smoothly, without painful moral searchings of any kind. Nor is there for him any heart-rending contradiction between his love and his career: Desdemona is even willing to share the austerity of his flinty couch, so that he has every reason to believe that he will be allowed to make the best of both worlds.

Yet, at the core of this monolithic content, there is at least one ominous contradiction which announces the final disintegration of his personality: the contradiction between his obvious openheartedness, honesty and self-approval, and the fact that he does not think it beneath his dignity to court and marry Desdemona secretly. This contradiction is part and parcel of Shakespeare's conscious purpose. As Allardyce Nicoll has observed, there is no such secrecy in Cinthio's tale, where, instead, the marriage occurs openly, though in the teeth of fierce parental opposition.9

Highly significant, too, is the fact that he does not seem to feel any remorse for this most peculiar procedure. When at last he has to face the irate Brabantio, he gives no explanation, offers no apology for his conduct. Everything in his attitude shows that he is completely unaware of infringing the mores of Venetian society, the ethical code of Christian behaviour, and the sophisticated conventions of polite morality. Othello quietly thinks of himself as a civilized Christian and a prominent citizen of Venice, certainly not as a barbarian (see II, iii, 170-2). He shares in Desdemona's illusion that his true visage is in his mind.

Beside the deficient understanding of the society into which he has made his way, the motif of the secret marriage then also suggests a definite lack of self-knowledge on Othello's part. His first step towards “perception of sense” about himself occurs in the middle of Act III. While still trying to resist Iago's innuendoes, Othello exclaims:

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

(III, iii, 90-2)

This word, “again”, is perhaps the most unexpected word that Shakespeare could have used here. It is one of the most pregnant words in the whole tragedy. It indicates (a) Othello's dim sense that his life before he fell in love with Desdemona was in a state of chaos, in spite of the fact that he was at the time quite satisfied with it, and (b) his conviction that his love has redeemed him from chaos, has lifted him out of his former barbarousness. Such complacency shows his total obliviousness of the intricacies, the subtleties and the dangers of moral and spiritual growth. In this first anagnorisis, Othello realizes that he has lived so far in a sphere of spontaneous bravery and natural honesty, but he assumes without any further questionings that his love has gained him easy access to the sphere of moral awareness, of high spiritual existence. In fact, he assumes that his super-ego has materialised, suddenly and without tears. Hence, of course, the impressive self-assurance of his demeanour in circumstances which would be most embarrassing to any man gifted with more accurate self-knowledge.

This first anagnorisis is soon followed by another one, in which Othello achieves some sort of recognition of what has become of him after his faith in Desdemona has been shattered. The short speech he utters then marks a new step forward in his progress to self-knowledge:

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
.....Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone!

(III, iii, 345-57)

The spontaneous outcry of the first three lines results from Othello's disturbed awareness that the new world he has entered into is one of (to him) unmanageable complexity. He is now facing a new kind of chaos, and he wishes he could take refuge in an ignorance similar to his former condition of moral innocence. The pathetic childishness of this ostrich-like attitude is proportionate in its intensity to the apparent monolithic quality of his previous complacency.

What follows sounds like a non sequitur. Instead of this farewell to arms, we might have expected some denunciation of the deceitful aspirations that have led him to this quandary, coupled, maybe, with a resolution to seek oblivion in renewed military activity. But we may surmise that his allusion to “the general camp”, reminding him of his “occupation”, turns his mind away from his immediate preoccupations. The transition occurs in the line

Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!

which carries ambivalent implications. The content he has now lost is not only the “absolute content” his soul enjoyed as a result of his love for Desdemona: it is also the content he had known previously, at the time when he could rejoice in his “unhoused free condition”. This was the content of innocence and spontaneous adjustment to life. There is no recovering it, for, in this respect, he reached a point of no return when he glimpsed the truly chaotic nature of that state of innocence.

The fact that Othello starts talking about himself in the third person is of considerable significance. G. R. Elliott has noticed that the words have “a piercing primitive appeal: he is now simply a name”.10 Besides, in this sudden ejaculation, there is a note of childish self-pity that reminds one of the first lines of the speech. But the main point is that it marks the occurrence of a deep dichotomy in Othello's consciousness of himself. As he had discarded his former self as an emblem of “chaos”, so now he discards the super-ego that he thought had emerged into actual existence as a result of his love. It is as if that man known by the name of Othello was different from the one who will be speaking henceforward. The Othello of whom he speaks is the happy husband of Desdemona, the civilized Christian, the worthy Venetian, the illusory super-ego; but he is also the noble-spirited soldier and the natural man who guesses at heaven. That man has now disappeared, and the “I” who speaks of him is truly the savage Othello, the barbarian stripped of his wishful thinking, who gives himself up to jealousy, black magic and cruelty, the man who coarsely announces that he will “chop” his wife “into messes”, the man who debases his magnificent oratory by borrowing shamelessly from Iago's lecherous vocabulary.

Thus Othello, whom love had brought from pre-rational, pre-moral satisfaction and adjustment to life to moral awareness and a higher form of “content”, is now taken from excessive complacency and illusory happiness to equally excessive despair and nihilism. These are his steps to self-knowledge. That they should drive him to such alternative excesses gives the measure of his lack of judgment.


From the purely psychological point of view of character-analysis, critics have always found it difficult satisfactorily to account for Othello's steep downfall. That it would have been easy, as Robert Bridges wrote, for Shakespeare “to have provided a more reasonable ground for Othello's jealousy”, is obvious to all reasonable readers.11 The fact that Othello's destruction occurs through the agency of Iago has induced the critics in the Romantic tradition to make much of what Coleridge has called Iago's “superhuman art”, which, of course, relieves the Moor of all responsibility and deprives the play of most of its interest on the ethical and psychological level. More searching analyses, however, have shown that Iago is far from being a devil in disguise.12 And T. S. Eliot has exposed the Moor as a case of bovarysme, or “the human will to see things as they are not”,13 while Leo Kirschbaum has denounced him as “a romantic idealist, who considers human nature superior to what it actually is”.14

For our examination of Othello as a study in the relationships between the intellect and the moral life, it is interesting to note that the ultimate responsibility for the fateful development of the plot rests with a flaw in Othello himself. There is no “reasonable ground” for his jealousy; or, to put it somewhat differently, Shakespeare did not chose to provide any “reasonable” ground for it. The true motive, we may safely deduce, must be unreasonable. Yet, I find it difficult to agree that the Moor “considers human nature superior to what it actually is”: this may be true of his opinion of Iago, but Desdemona is really the emblem of purity and trustworthiness that he initially thought her to be. Nor can we justifiably speak of his “will to see things as they are not” (though these words might actually fit Desdemona); in his confusion and perplexity there is no opportunity for his will to exert itself in any direction. The basic element that permits Othello's destiny to evolve the way it does is his utter inability to grasp the actual. If we want to locate with any accuracy the psychological origin of what F. R. Leavis has called his “readiness to respond” to Iago's fiendish suggestions, we cannot escape the conclusion that his gullibility makes manifest his lack of rationality, of psychological insight and of mere common sense, and that it is a necessary product of his undeveloped mind.

Othello has to choose between trusting Iago and trusting Desdemona. This is the heart of the matter, put in the simplest possible terms. The question, then, is: why does he rate Iago's honesty higher than Desdemona's? If it is admitted that Iago is not a symbol of devilish skill in evil-doing, but a mere fallible villain, the true answer can only be that Othello does not know his own wife.

More than a century of sentimental criticism based on the Romantic view of Othello as the trustful, chivalrous and sublime lover, has blurred our perception of his feeling for Desdemona. The quality of his “love” has recently been gone into with unprecedented thoroughness by G. R. Elliott, who points out that the Moor's speech to the Duke and Senators (I, iii) shows that “his affection for her, though fixed and true, is comparatively superficial”.15 Othello sounds, indeed, curiously detached about Desdemona. His love is clearly subordinated, at that moment, to his soldierly pride. If he asks the Duke to let her go to Cyprus with him, it is because she wants it, it is “to be free and bounteous to her mind”. In the juxtaposition of Desdemona's and Othello's speeches about this, there is an uncomfortable suggestion that his love is not at all equal to hers, who “did love the Moor to live with him”, and that he is not interested in her as we feel he ought to be. At a later stage the same self-centredness colours his vision of Desdemona as the vital source of his soul's life and happiness: his main concern lies with the “joy” (II, i, 186), the “absolute content” (II, i, 193), the salvation (III, iii, 90-1) of his own soul, not with Desdemona as a woman in love, a human person. It lies with his love and the changes his love has wrought in him, rather than with the object of his love. It is not surprising, then, that he should know so little about his wife's inner life as to believe the charges raised by Iago.

On the other hand, his attitude to Desdemona is truly one of idealization, but in a very limited, one might even say philosophical, sense. Coleridge wrote that “Othello does not kill Desdemona in jealousy, but in the belief that she, his angel, had fallen from the heaven of her native innocence”.16 But Coleridge failed to stress the most important point, which is that this belief is mistaken. Desdemona is not “impure and worthless”, she has not fallen from the heaven of her native innocence. Othello is unable to recognize this, and his failure is thus primarily an intellectual failure.

His attitude to Desdemona is different from that of the “romantic idealist” who endows his girl with qualities which she does not possess. Desdemona does have all the qualities that her husband expects to find in her. What matters to him, however, is not Desdemona as she is, but Desdemona as a symbol, or, in other words, it is his vision of Desdemona.

In his Essay on Man, Ernst Cassirer has the following remark about the working of the primitive mind:

In primitive thought, it is still very difficult to differentiate between the two spheres of being and meaning. They are constantly being confused: a symbol is looked upon as if it were endowed with magical or metaphysical powers.17

That is just what has happened to Othello: in Desdemona he has failed to differentiate between the human being and the angelic symbol. Or rather, he has overlooked the woman in his preoccupation with the angel. She is to him merely the emblem of his highest ideal, and their marriage is merely the ritual of his admission into her native world, into her spiritual sphere of values. Because he is identifying “the two spheres of being and meaning”, he is possessed by the feeling that neither these values nor his accession to them have any actual existence outside her: his lack of psychological insight is only matched by his lack of rational power.

The Neo-Platonic conceit that the lover's heart and soul have their dwelling in the person of the beloved is used by Othello in a poignantly literal sense (IV, ii, 57-60). If she fails him, everything fails him. If she is not pure, then purity does not exist. If she is not true to his ideal, that means that his ideal is an illusion. If it can be established that she does not belong to that world in which he sees her enshrined, that means that there is no such world. She becomes completely and explicitly identified with all higher spiritual values when he says:

If she be false, O! then heaven mocks itself!

(III, iii, 278)

Hence the apocalyptic quality of his nihilism and despair.

The fundamental tragic fault in the Moor can therefore be said to lie in the shortcomings of his intellect. His moral balance is without any rational foundation. He is entirely devoid of the capacity for abstraction. He fails to make the right distinction between the sphere of meaning, of the abstract, the ideal, the universal, and the sphere of being, of the concrete, the actual, the singular.

When Othello is finally made to see the truth, he recognizes the utter lack of wisdom (V, ii, 344) which is the mainspring of his tragedy, and, in the final anagnorisis, he sees himself for what he is: a “fool” (V, ii, 323). The full import of the story is made clear in Othello's last speech, which is so seldom given the attention it merits that it may be well to quote it at some length:

                                        I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then, must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus. (Stabs himself)

(V, ii, 340-56)

One may find it strange that Shakespeare should have introduced at the end of Othello's last speech this apparently irrelevant allusion to a trivial incident in the course of which the Moor killed a Turk who had insulted Venice. But if we care to investigate the allegorical potentialities of the speech, we find that it is not a mere fit of oratorical self-dramatization: it clarifies the meaning of the play as a whole. There is a link between the pearl, the Venetian and Desdemona: taken together, they are an emblem of beauty, moral virtue, spiritual richness and civilized refinement. And there is a link between the “base Indian”, the “malignant Turk” and Othello himself: all three are barbarians: all three have shown themselves unaware of the true value and dignity of what lay within their reach. Othello has thrown his pearl away, like the Indian. In so doing, he has insulted, like the Turk, everything that Venice and Desdemona stand for. As the Turk “traduced the State”, so did Othello misrepresent to himself that heaven of which Desdemona was the sensuous image.

S. L. Bethell has left us in no doubt that the manner of Othello's death was intended by Shakespeare as an indication that the hero is doomed to eternal damnation.18 Such a view provides us with a suitable climax for this tragedy. Othello has attained full consciousness of his barbarian nature; yet, even that ultimate flash of awareness does not lift him up above his true self. He remains a barbarian to the very end, and condemns his own soul to the everlasting torments of hell in obeying the same primitive sense of rough-handed justice that had formerly prompted him to kill Desdemona: it is a natural culmination to what a Swiss critic has aptly called “eine Tragödie der Verirrung”.19


  1. G. Wilson Knight, ‘The Othello Music’ in The Wheel of Fire (1930; fourth edition, 1949). J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949).

  2. For a close discussion of the views of Rymer, Bridges and Stoll, cf. Stewart, op. cit. [Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949)].

  3. T. S. Eliot, ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, in Selected Essays (1932); G. R. Elliott, Flaming Minister. A Study of Othello (Duke University Press, Durham, 1953).

  4. R. S. Crane, The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry (Toronto, 1953), p. 147. The quotations are taken from a discussion of R. B. Heilman's method in his ‘More Fair than Black: Light and Dark in Othello’, Essays in Criticism, 1 (1951), 315-35.

  5. H. B. Charlton, ‘Othello’, in Shakespearian Tragedy (Cambridge, 1948).

  6. Cf. Coleridge, Lectures and Notes on Shakespere and Other English Poets (1904), p. 386.

  7. Levin L. Schucking, in Shakespeare und der Tragödienstil seiner Zeit (Bern, 1947) considers Othello's belief in Iago's honesty as “eine der Hauptschwächen in der Konstruction der Fabel”, for, he says “es ist höchst unwahrscheinlich, dasz Othello nach so langem Zusammenleben im Kriegsdienst sich derart über den bösartigen Character seines Fahnrichs im unklaren geblieben sein sollte” (p. 68). The general consensus about Iago's honesty, carefully stressed by Shakespeare, should nullify this particular criticism.

  8. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1953), p. 196.

  9. Allardyce Nicoll, Shakespeare (1952), p. 144.

  10. G. R. Elliott, op. cit. [Flaming Minister. A Study of Othello (Duke University Press, Durham, 1953).] p. 130, n. 30.

  11. R. Bridges, ‘The Influence of the Audience on Shakespeare's Drama’ in Collected Essays, 1 (1927).

  12. Cf. G. R. Elliott, op. cit. passim [Flaming Minister. A Study of Othello (Duke University Press, Durham, 1953);] J. I. M. Stewart, op. cit. [Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949)] p. 103; and F. R. Leavis, ‘Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero’, in The Common Pursuit (1952), p. 140.

  13. T. S. Eliot, op. cit. [‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, in Selected Essays (1932).]

  14. In ELH, December 1944 (quoted by J. I. M. Stewart, op. cit. [Character and Motive in Shakespeare (1949)] p. 104).

  15. G. R. Elliott, op. cit. [Flaming Minister. A Study of Othello (Duke University Press, Durham, 1953).] p. 34.

  16. Coleridge, op. cit. [Lectures and Notes on Shakespere and Other English Poets (1904)] pp. 393 and 529.

  17. E. Cassirer, An Essay on Man (New Haven, 1944), p. 57.

  18. S. L. Bethell, ‘Shakespeare's Imagery: The Diabolic Images in Othello’, pp. 29-47 of this volume.

  19. R. Fricker, Kontrast und Polarität in den Charakterbildern Shakespeares (Bern, 1951).


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Othello (ca. 1604) is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's finest dramatic works. The play, a character-driven domestic tragedy of jealousy and deception, is set in Venice and Cyprus and recounts how the Venetian general Othello falls victim to the treachery of his ensign Iago. Scholars have identified the principal source of the story as Cinthio's Italian novella Hecatommithi (1565), which features in broad outline the characters and incidents that Shakespeare adapted into his tragic drama. In Shakespeare's version, Othello, after blindly succumbing to the diabolic machinations of his trusted standard-bearer Iago, quickly descends into enraged jealousy, falsely believing that his lieutenant Cassio has had a sexual affair with Desdemona, his innocent wife. Othello later smothers Desdemona, and then falls on his own sword when Iago's nefarious scheming comes to light. Commentators, actors, and directors have generally been drawn to the fascinating figures of Iago, the quintessential Shakespearean villain whose murky motivations for evil have remained elusive; Desdemona, a complex amalgam of feminine submissiveness and willful determination; and Othello, possessed of intriguing qualities ranging from his status as an exotic “Other” to his tragic propensity for self-deception. These figures have largely shaped modern critical assessments of the drama.

Character-centered study of Othello has long been the centerpiece of scholarly interest, with each of the drama's three principal figures—Othello, Iago, and Desdemona—eliciting some share of critical examination. Twentieth-century criticism of Othello's character has commonly emphasized the Moor's status as an exotic “Other” within the contexts of the racially heterogeneous Venetian society depicted in Shakespeare's drama. Albert Gerard (1957) opts for a moral understanding of Othello that highlights his anti-intellectual or “barbarian” nature. According to Gerard, the Moorish general, although a noble figure, lacks the full capacity for self-knowledge and moral wisdom necessary to avert tragedy; thus he is the perfect victim of Iago's cynical intrigues. Gerard insists that even at the play's conclusion Othello fails to attain an adequate intellectual awareness of his moral deficiencies. Millicent Bell (2002) concentrates on Othello's self-doubt as conditioned by the racialistic social world in which he exists. In Bell's view, Othello, as a black converted Christian recently married to a white woman, ultimately suffers from his inability to completely assimilate into a community that deems him a racial outsider. Turning to Iago, Leah Scragg (1968) maintains that the stage ancestry of this generally despicable character derives from dramatic representations of the Devil, rather than from the allegorical figure of Vice, a staple player in the medieval morality play tradition. Scragg argues that far from being an ambiguously motivated, amoral role, Shakespeare's consummate villain bears affinities to the Christian dark angel, a merciless seducer of souls driven by a cosmological desire for revenge. Addressing the last of the central triad of characters in Othello, Emily C. Bartels (1996) offers a feminist assessment of Desdemona's assertive qualities, explicating her impulse to question and destabilize the repressive hierarchy of patriarchal social order in the drama. According to Bartels, this defining aspect of Desdemona's character is one that traditional, male-oriented criticism of the play has tended to circumvent, obscure, or ignore.

Othello has had a sustained appeal among audiences, perhaps due to its decidedly human themes and potent, domestic intimacy, and remains one of Shakespeare's most frequently performed plays. The problem of successfully realizing its multifaceted characters and balancing the diverse issues raised in the play, however, has made the task of staging an entirely satisfying production an elusive one. Doug Hughes's 2001 production at New York City's Public Theater received mixed reviews. Ben Brantley (2001) finds the dramatic power of Liev Schreiber's near-psychopathic Iago to be the central element of this production and contends that no one else in the cast “comes close to matching Mr. Schreiber's playful interpretive intelligence.” Barbara D. Phillips (2001) likewise praises Schreiber, and observes that his star performance as Iago tended to highlight the deficiencies of the remaining members of the cast, including those of Keith David, whose representation of Othello she deems less compelling. In another review of Hughes's production, Charles Isherwood (2001) offers a complementary estimation. Acknowledging the “confident grasp of Schreiber's bewitching Iago,” Isherwood describes how the actor was able to draw audiences into a circle of complicity with his evil acts. The critic additionally stresses the manner in which stage and lighting effects served to illuminate Schreiber's mesmerizing power. Other commentators, however, found the emphasis on Othello's spiteful ensign less appealing. Michael Feingold (2001) records flashes of brilliance from Schreiber, but nevertheless finds that his impassive rendition of Iago “lacks credibility.” Feingold deems Keith David's Othello the better of the two character interpretations, although he does contend that David could not sustain his stately, moving, and dignified performance evenly throughout the evening. John Simon (2001) offers the most negative review of the staging, suggesting that the responsibility for its limitations rests solidly with director Doug Hughes, whose casting and interpretive decisions, he claims, obscured the tragic grandeur of Shakespeare's drama, burying its loftier, philosophical qualities among the sordidness of domestic drama.

Contemporary assessments of the thematic issues raised in Othello have included the play's representation of race symbolized by Othello's dark skin, the elements of wonder and spectacle embodied in Desdemona's lost handkerchief, and the linguistic subversion found in Iago's masterful manipulation of language. Race and colonialism figure prominently in Thorell Porter Tsomondo's (1999) new historicist estimation of the drama, which underscores a narrative dislocation of Othello as “Other,” an outsider displaced from Venetian norms by language, skin color, geography, and ideology. While exploring the racial dynamics at work in Othello, Edward Washington (1997) nevertheless focuses on the drama as a tragedy of misinterpreted signs, locating Othello's culpability for his own downfall in his reliance on a coded system of gestures and images, rather than on the underlying truths they represent. Paul Yachnin (1996) and Andrew Sofer (1997) concentrate on the symbolic and thematic resonance of Desdemona's handkerchief in Othello. Stolen by Iago and later produced as proof of her infidelity, the handkerchief is a fetishized commodity in Yachnin's reading, capable of eliciting wonder and ultimately violence. For Sofer, the handkerchief embodies a broad spectrum of thematic functions in the play, designating an interlocking chain of signification that includes witchcraft, sexuality, jealousy, revenge, murder, inconstancy, and falsified evidence. A prop as metaphor, the handkerchief ties together the drama's leading motifs as well as drawing attention to its own theatricality, Sofer concludes. Linguistic signification is the subject of Lucille P. Fultz's (1997) essay, which considers Iago's skillful manipulation of language to orchestrate the deaths of Othello and Desdemona. For Fultz, verbal seduction—a desire for power achieved through language—is a basic thematic component of the drama, one embodied by Iago in each of his relationships with fellow characters. Lastly, Thomas Moisan (2002) considers the role of the Venetian state in shaping the characters and tragic outcome of the play.

Ben Brantley (essay date 10 December 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1196

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “A Revolt against God with No Apology.” New York Times (10 December 2001): E1, E4.

[In the following review of Othello directed by Doug Hughes at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, Brantley observes the dominance of Liev Schreiber's Iago in the production.]

The psychopath is running the asylum again. And isn't it wonderful to know that you're in such—shall we say—capable hands?

Playing the ultimate disgruntled employee in the fast-paced production of Othello that opened last night at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, the amazing Liev Schreiber presents a tic-ridden, sexually crippled Iago who is clearly as mad as a rabid raccoon.

Yet he also possesses the sort of gifts that are usually rewarded with keys to the executive washroom: charm, efficiency, discreet sycophancy, organization and excellent people skills, including an ability to plant an idea in someone else's head and make him think it's his own.

A pity about that motiveless evil thing. But if he lived in latter-day Manhattan instead of long-ago Cyprus, this Iago would be the head of a Fortune 500 company or perhaps be one of Broadway's few bankable directors. At least until someone discovered a body in one of his filing cabinets.

Anyone doubting that Mr. Schreiber has advanced to the top rungs of American stage actors need only check out his smart, flashy and extremely entertaining portrait of Shakespeare's most subtle destroyer of men. Last seen in New York in an exquisitely understated portrait of one of the cryptic adulterers in Harold Pinter's Betrayal, Mr. Schreiber here shifts into a more flamboyant mode.

But don't worry. The cool fireworks he sends off have been just as impeccably orchestrated as the elliptical silences of Betrayal. In Doug Hughes's swift and streamlined interpretation of Shakespeare's most relentless tragedy, Iago and the man playing him are unconditionally in charge.

Granted, this leads to a definite imbalance. No one else in the cast, led by the gifted Keith David as Othello, comes close to matching Mr. Schreiber's playful interpretive intelligence.

So Mr. Hughes really has no choice but to lead with the ace that is Mr. Schreiber, turning the whole evening into Iago's playground. For here is a Mephistopheles who was born, as he sees it, not just to rebel against God but to usurp his function.

Correspondingly, in ways beautifully enhanced by the staging and production design, all the world—or at least most of Cyprus—becomes Iago's stage. Mr. Hughes is expert in clearly configuring his cast members in the patterns of chess figures as seen through Iago's eyes.

Robert Wierzel's superb lighting takes us directly into the overheated workshop of Iago's mind, where we find him serenading his own shadow. And David Van Tieghem's sound design includes sinister bell noises that seem to signal those moments when Iago clicks another piece of his diabolical puzzle into place.

Even Neil Patel's minimal set, in which screens play an appropriately central role, and Catherine Zuber's costumes seem to feed into Iago's master plan. The mood is 18th-century rococo, recalling a time in which rank and class were elaborately stratified. In an inspired interpolative touch, Iago becomes Othello's valet cum dresser as well as his ensign. And who is more invisible than a valet?

Taking advantage of such handy camouflage, this Iago proceeds to write the script of the undoing of his charismatic boss, barely able to repress a murmur of delight when props, actors and scenery all conspire to fall into place. You'll often find him in an aisle of the theater, looking on like the archetypal nervous director, nibbling his fingers with a mixture of satisfaction and anxiety. He's like an evil urban twin of Prospero, the world-ordering wizard of The Tempest.

This Iago, for the record, is no bland-seeming, self-effacing functionary, which has become the fashion. The brilliant British actor Simon Russell Beale provided the last word in that vein in his landmark performance for the Royal National Theater several seasons ago.

Instead, Mr. Schreiber leaves no doubt that his Iago, addled by sexual resentment and class envy, is as bonkers as the serial killer played by Kevin Spacey in Seven or one of Thomas Harris's diabolical pleasure killers. This Iago knows he has to keep a somber mask over his enjoyment of the disasters he brings about, but every so often the mask slips in public. And there, fleetingly, in plain view are the compulsive flinches and twitches, that infernal smile of self-satisfaction.

The struggle to sustain the mask provides most of the real tension in this Othello. Mr. David's interpretation of the Moor scales down the usual majesty of presence. He's extremely composed and authoritative, a natural leader. But he doesn't have the hypnotic grandeur or the implicit force of passion that so famously won over Desdemona (Kate Forbes).

This means that when Othello does battle with that old green-eyed monster, he doesn't really have very far to fall. He suggests a self-involved businessman (too self-involved and self-confident to notice that his ensign Iago is subverting him at every turn). When he famously bids farewell to the “tranquil mind” and martial glory, it's as if he's saying goodbye to expense account lunches at “21.”

Christopher Evan Welch's foppish, foolish Roderigo is perhaps too easy a characterization, but it works. And Mr. Schleiber is never so creepy as when pulling Mr. Welch into a comradely embrace that seems mighty close to a stranglehold. Jay Goede is fine as the handsome Cassio, especially when in his drunkenness he says exactly what he shouldn't say if he wants to stay in Iago's good graces. Becky Ann Baker, an excellent actress, anachronistically brings to mind a whiny Shelly Winters as Desdemona's handmaiden.

Ms. Forbes, once you get past the self-conscious plumminess of her diction, is a refreshingly plucky Desdemona. She's heartier and more self-assertive than most Desdemonas, and it makes sense that she would stand up both to her father (Jack Ryland, in an enjoyably distraught performance) and her husband. She also does beautifully by the melancholy, introspective scene that precedes her murder.

Mr. David incisively conveys the uxorious sensual pride that Othello takes in his wife. But in this Othello it's Iago's relationship with Desdemona that seizes our imagination. Watch this Iago venturing, ever so tentatively, to touch Desdemona's neck as she weeps, simultaneously registering impulses both erotic and homicidal.

He's such a fascinating creature that you at first shrug off that no one else reaches Mr. Schreiber's level. After all, isn't that sort of appropriate, given the upper hand that Iago sustains for most of the evening?

By the second half, however, you're forced to remember that the play's title is indeed Othello. And this Othello's descent into tragic rage just doesn't intrigue except as it gratifies Iago. Tellingly, the audience was chuckling away even when Desdemona was being strangled (instead of suffocated as usual), not a good sign.

All the same, it isn't often that a production of a play as well known as Othello tells you anything new. And Mr. Schreiber, working with Mr. Hughes, draws an intriguing and persuasive new diagram of Iago's pathological web. Now if only his victims presented slightly more of a challenge.

Barbara D. Phillips (essay date 12 December 2001)

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SOURCE: Phillips, Barbara D. “Review of Othello.Wall Street Journal (12 December 2001): A15.

[In the following review of the 2001 Public Theater staging of Othello, Phillips notes the “austere power” of director Doug Hughes's production, but laments the lack of a more compelling Othello to match Liev Schreiber's masterful Iago.]

Othello is Shakespeare's most intimate tragedy, one in which the audience is made privy from the start to Iago's corrosive envy and hatred, his malign manipulations unrestrained by moral bounds. And it is the playwright's most concentrated drama, one in which the villain makes quick work of love, loyalty and honor as he destroys a forthright war hero and his innocent young bride using a stealthy arsenal of artful insinuation, pregnant pauses and a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries. The play, which opened Sunday at the Public Theater in a compelling production directed by Doug Hughes, and starring Keith David as Othello, the masterly Liev Schreiber as Iago and Kate Forbes as Desdemona, has its share of swordplay. But the true battlefield is one of wordplay—a personal realm in which language, well-aimed, is a powerful weapon.

Othello's soaring rhetorical gifts win the heart of his bride, Desdemona, who is entranced by his tales of far-off lands and courageous adventures. And they persuade the Duke, despite the anger of Desdemona's father, to give the couple his blessing. But this African prince, a foreign-born hero of the Venetian public realm, finds himself brought to ground by Iago, his low-born ensign, a gutter-fighter who can paint a lurid picture of Desdemona's supposed sexual deception with just a few well-placed strokes. Iago creates an illusory world in which he is perceived as an “honest” friend by those he sees as enemies and is both director and playwright of their undoing.

Iago's self-justifying motives—fury at being passed over for promotion; contempt for Cassio, the higher-born man who got the job from Othello; suspicion that his own wife, Emilia, has slept with the Moor; lust for Othello's wife, Desdemona—never quite explain the intensity of his anger or the scope of his evil.

The Public's Anspacher Theater proves to be the perfect setting for this rapid descent into hell, where its thrust stage and steeply banked seats keep some 275 ticket-holders within spitting distance of Iago's devilry. And director Doug Hughes puts the action at even closer range, staging the play in the aisles as well.

This could be a painful proximity in a production less sure-footed than the Public's. But Mr. Hughes's American cast shows a rare ease with both the music and meaning of Shakespeare's language. (Messrs. David and Schreiber are both noted voice-of-God narrators of TV documentaries, as well as classical actors.) Just as important, their well-chosen gestures serve as narrative footnotes for the modern audience, conveying the intent of words and phrases that the past four centuries of linguistic change have obscured.

It is, however, Mr. Schreiber's show from the start, more Iago than Othello. There is something in the way he carries himself, in his slightly askew posture, twitchy movements and the hooded nature of his gaze, that makes the skin crawl. Yet Iago's ability to gull both the innocents and sophisticates around him is plausible. Thanks to Mr. Schreiber's finely calibrated performance, we see with horror—and a guilty thrill—how Iago, his own self-control always threatening to slip away, is able to prey upon the individual weaknesses of each of his victims and play on the instruments of their destruction, remaining in their deluded eyes (until his final unmasking) a trusted confidante.

Mr. David is a less compelling actor, lacking the charismatic fire needed to balance Mr. Schreiber's infernal flame. When proud Othello is pulled downward, caught in the sinkhole of Iago's lies and fetid imagery, as well as his own unworldliness in the private realm, we don't feel the full measure of the distance he has traveled. Still, this Othello's epileptic seizure is frighteningly real, as are the tender kisses he plants on the sleeping mouth of the bride he is about to strangle to death.

In Catherine Zuber's 18th-century costumes, Ms. Forbes projects a nubile innocence as young Desdemona, her breasts all but popping out of her tightly bodiced dresses—no wonder she attracts the attention of these soldiers. But there is a firm determination beneath her soft curves, as when she pleads her own case with her choleric father, Brabantio (Jack Ryland), and lobbies for Cassio (Jay Goede) with her husband. In the secondary role of Iago's wife, an earthy Becky Ann Baker (probably best known as the mom on Freaks and Geeks) makes the most of Emilia's horror at the unwitting role she has played in Iago's cruel and deadly schemes.

Robert Wierzel's dramatic lighting, David Van Tieghen's expressionistic sound and Neil Patel's spare but strong scenic design (moveable Gothic screens, hanging lanterns, African drums)—underscore the austere power of this Othello.

Andrew Sofer (essay date fall 1997)

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SOURCE: Sofer, Andrew. “Felt Absences: The Stage Properties of Othello's Handkerchief.” Comparative Drama 31, no. 3 (fall 1997): 367-93.

[In the following essay, Sofer examines the symbolic and thematic significance of the handkerchief in Othello, listing the varying qualities it represents, such as Desdemona's misused honor, Othello's “ocular proof,” the powers of magic, the poetic notion of “felt absences,” and the inescapable “charm of objects.”]

Desdemona's handkerchief makes its first appearance in Shakespeare's source, Giraldi Cinthio's Hecatommithi. According to Cinthio, it is “a handkerchief embroidered most delicately in the Moorish fashion, which the Moor had given her [Disdemona] and which was treasured by the Lady and her husband too.”1 Cinthio's handkerchief contains no magic in its web; it is, rather, a crude plot device whose utility depends upon a string of chance events.2 By contrast, there is nothing coincidental in Shakespeare's dramatic embroidering of Cinthio's lurid pulp. In performance, Othello's handkerchief exerts an uncanny power over both characters and audience, and it propels the action as it repeatedly emerges in the right place at the wrong time. It seems almost to bend the characters to its own enigmatic will.

How do we account for the handkerchief's extraordinary grip on the audience's experience of Othello? Certainly no performance of the play can occur without it. When Iago tells Roderigo that “we work by wit and not by witchcraft,” he may not, strictly speaking, be accurate.3 Without the magic handkerchief, Iago's lies would not stick; the drama would be literally and figuratively unstageable. In its three brief appearances, the handkerchief draws the six characters it touches—Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Iago, Cassio, Bianca—into its own repetitive story, a story which begins in love and ends in death. As if to fulfill the sibyl's prophecy of doom, by the play's end the first three characters are dead, the fourth faces torture and death, the fifth is wounded, and the sixth is in prison, where (as a prostitute jailed under military law for the suspected murder of a high-ranking officer) her prospects for survival are dim.

In hindsight, Bianca's initial wariness regarding the handkerchief seems justified. But the phrase she uses to describe it is peculiar:

O Cassio, whence came this?
This is some token from a newer friend.
To the felt absence now I feel a cause.
Is't come to this? Well, well.


In context we can understand this speech in two ways. Bianca interprets the handkerchief as an incriminating sign, concrete evidence of a woman for whose sake Cassio has been neglecting her (“some token from a newer friend”), but she speaks more truly than she knows. Bianca herself is the latest “cause”—the latest link in the chain—animating the handkerchief's “felt absence”: its paradoxical ability to be at once present, felt, corporeal, yet also somehow absent, elusive, lost. We begin to disentangle the handkerchief's “magic in the web” (3.4.65) once we see that, from a phenomenological perspective, the peculiarity of stage properties is that they both are and are not themselves. Oscillating between sign and thing, props are “felt absences” that draw our attention simultaneously to their signifying function—Bianca's word “token” simply means a sign—and to their materiality (“felt” is of course a particular fabric). Thus the handkerchief is at once a token—a signifier which points to something absent, beyond itself, like Bianca's fictitious minx—and a talisman, an object that possesses (or seems to possess) magical qualities inherently bound up in its “work.”4

The handkerchief's double status as sign and thing explains why, as Bert O. States has persuasively argued, we must supplement a purely semiotic approach to stage objects with a phenomenological one in “a kind of binocular vision” that allows us to see them both as signs for something else and as nothing but themselves.5 Following States's lead, I wish to supplement the many accounts of the handkerchief's symbolism with a phenomenological description of its magic. Bracketing the question of whether the handkerchief's magic (or magic in general) exists outside the confines of the playhouse, I shall instead describe how the handkerchief appears to consciousness—both that of the characters and of the audience—as the play unfolds in performance.6 The handkerchief is not merely a sign but a performer in the play's action, and its physical movements and shifting emotional impact deserve as much attention as its symbolism.

That symbolism is relentlessly overdetermined. In a sort of semiotic juggling act, the play requires us to bear so many conflicting accounts of the handkerchief in mind—forehead binder, erotic toy,7 “Trifle light as air” (3.3.323), “magic in the web” (3.4.65), “minx's token” (4.1.147), “recognisance and pledge of love” (5.2.213), “antique token” (5.2.215) that they ultimately collapse into a mute object which, like Posthumus's “[s]enseless linen,” refuses to signify beyond itself.8 While the characters ascribe greater and greater significance to the handkerchief which culminates in the fateful ocular proof, the actual square of cloth refuses coherent meaning and insists instead on its own phenomenal “charm,” its lethal materiality in performance. Like a black hole, the handkerchief sucks the characters into its magic web, literally absorbing those who would reduce it to a mere sign (or “token”) into the folds of its own uncopiable “work.”9 The handkerchief arrogates a dizzying number of significations only to repudiate them; to paraphrase Brabantio, the handkerchief “engluts and swallows other [signs] / And yet is still itself” (1.3. 57-58).

A phenomenological approach is thus justified partly because the handkerchief exhausts all attempts to pin down its meaning and partly because the characters themselves, confronted by the handkerchief's strange properties, face the same interpretive hurdle as the audience or critic. If we examine the handkerchief purely in the semiotic attitude, as almost all its critics have done, we risk misreading its magic as a sign or metaphor for something else and failing to account for its grip on us in the heat of performance. While audience members since Thomas Rymer have complained of the handkerchief's inanity as a plot device, the very fascination it holds for the characters seductively commands our attention in the playhouse.

More crucially, a close examination of the handkerchief's three appearances reveals the specific theatrical mechanism at the core of the play. Shakespeare stages the handkerchief as a series of imaginative “reductions” performed by the play's characters. At these key moments, the play—world is “bracketed” (or reduced) so that the handkerchief alone absorbs a character's attention in all its mystery. In performance, Othello likewise demands that we perform the same process of imaginative reduction as the characters who serially encounter the handkerchief in the play. Shakespeare asks his audience to suspend the skeptical attitude towards witchcraft exemplified by the Venetian senate in act 1 and consider this particular handkerchief—not as an object “out there,” but as it seeps into our consciousness. The handkerchief's numinous properties, which accrete as the action unfolds, then color our perception of the surrounding play-world just as Othello's jealousy, once aroused, infects his interpretation of all subsequent events. The play's strategic repetitions ensure that we cannot get the handkerchief off our minds.

The scene in which Bianca takes the handkerchief from Cassio serves as a concrete example. Bianca has come upon her neglectful lover while he waits for Desdemona to press his suit for reinstatement to Othello. Cassio bears a strange handkerchief and demands that Bianca “[t]ake me this work out” (3.4.174).10 The moment when the handkerchief changes hands is dramatically ironic, for the audience is by now aware of the magic in its web. While to Cassio it is merely a pleasing trinket he has found in his chamber, we have just heard Othello's “magic in the web” speech (3.4.51-71) and have witnessed his obsessive iteration of “The handkerchief!” together with Desdemona's ensuing panic: “Sure there's some wonder in this handkerchief; / I am most unhappy in the loss of it” (3.4.95-96). Magic or no, the handkerchief has become charged with dramatic value and danger.

When Bianca takes the handkerchief, however, we are invited to “bracket” what we have heard and seen about the handkerchief so far—not in order to disavow its magic, but to put it, as it were, on hold. As the handkerchief is “given” to Bianca's consciousness, we are invited to see it through her eyes as if for the first time. The handkerchief takes on a sharper outline as its “felt absence” etches itself into Bianca's awareness, doubling the pain of Cassio's neglect by adding insult to injury. If Bianca is not charmed by the magic into falling further in love with Cassio—for she returns to fling it back at 4.1.149—she is nevertheless seized by the conviction that she has been thrown over: “Is't come to this? Well, well” (3.4.177).

Cassio himself seems smitten by the handkerchief in another way. In answer to Bianca's reasonable question, “Why, whose is it?” he replies:

I know not neither; I found it in my chamber.
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.


Cassio seems oblivious to the pain he has caused Bianca, and his peculiar assertion that “like enough” the handkerchief will be “demanded” is unlikely to render convincing his account of chancing upon it. The handkerchief here throws the couple's relationship into stark relief. Cassio is upset that Bianca has followed him and that Othello might glimpse him with a prostitute—hardly auspicious, given his disgraced circumstances—and brushes her off, while Bianca's parting comment, “'Tis very good; I must be circumstanced” (3.4.195), shows that she is resigned to making the best of things as they are. Bianca is forced to take the handkerchief with her as a bitter reminder of her own subservient position and a galling sign that Cassio is “womaned” (3.4.189). The handkerchief thus imports quite different values, and incites virtually opposite emotions, in the two characters whose consciousness it absorbs for the duration of the scene.

In sum, I am arguing that at privileged moments in performance the handkerchief becomes a dramatic event unto itself. It is an object “given to” a person's consciousness while at the same time being constituted by that consciousness. Shakespeare calls this reduction of the external world to the contents of consciousness “magic.” (Iago's word for the same mechanism is “jealousy,” of which more later.) Shakespeare might just as easily have used the term “glamour,” in the archaic sense of a spell; for it is the charm of objects apprehended in performance—their glamour, in fact—that is my subject here, just as it is Shakespeare's covert subject in Othello.

But with what sort of magic are we dealing? Critics, reluctant to take the handkerchief's magic seriously, have treated it as delusion or symbol. John A. Hodgson, for instance, asserts that “Othello lies … when he asserts that there is magic in the web of the handkerchief.”11 David Kaula dismisses Othello's belief in the handkerchief's magic as merely a psychic defense: “The magical associations of the handkerchief are temporary. They are symptoms of the delusion which grips the hero in the middle phase of the tragic action.”12 In a recent article, Paul Yachnin equates the handkerchief's spurious magic with that of commodity fetishism: Shakespeare at once fetishizes “magical” props so as to enhance his play's cultural status and unwittingly exorcises that magic by deconstructing the ideology behind it.13 Linda Woodbridge more cautiously historicizes the play's magic as “a mental phenomenon that is part metaphor, part intellectual construct, part protection magic.”14

To Robert B. Heilman, the handkerchief's “magic in the web” intertwines various strands of symbolic association and thus provides him with the title and subject matter of an influential book outlining “patterns of permanence” in the play's poetic language: a matrix of connections in which images echo and re-echo to forge a new kind of dramatic unity.15 Heilman argues that the poetic language surrounding the handkerchief becomes mysteriously endowed with dramatic value and meaning, but his figurative account of the handkerchief's magic as a spiritualized symbol of love gives us only half the story. If we strip Othello of its literal magic, its power to reduce consciousness at will, we miss what the play is doing: using magic not as a metaphor for something else (love, reputation, commodity fetishism) but as a reflexive model of theater itself. The handkerchief not only symbolizes magic but enacts it by reducing its victims' consciousness to consciousness of itself. In other words, the handkerchief does to its victims in the play-world precisely what Othello does to its audience in the playhouse.

I am not claiming that the handkerchief's “magic” is real to any particular character or that members of Shakespeare's original audience (or indeed Shakespeare himself) identified the handkerchief with witchcraft.16 Instead, I aim to clarify what kinds of magic are taken seriously by whom at which points in the play and to what dramatic purpose. My argument is that magic in Othello can be defined as self-authenticating, self-consuming emotion: once you believe it's real, it's real. Whether it “exists” independently of consciousness or not, magic is shown to work effectively wherever and whenever consciousness of magic is present. As Brabantio puts it, “’Tis probable and palpable to thinking” (1.2.76). Just as the handkerchief weaves its magic by reducing to itself the consciousness of each character with whom it comes into contact, so Iago reduces Othello's awareness to a groundless jealousy that engulfs him.

The very point of jealousy, in fact, is its groundlessness, for as soon as one suspects one might have cause to be jealous, one is. In Emilia's apt words:

They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they're jealous. 'Tis a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.


Magic and jealousy thus mirror each other and model Othello as it works on its audience. Magic is the mechanism by which we come to accept an object before us (a handkerchief, a wife, a play) as “charmed,” for good or ill; and as we follow its path through the action, the handkerchief models for us the glamorous process by which a thing becomes a charm, relentlessly accruing talismanic value beyond its mundane function as it is handled both by characters and in dialogue. When critics disagree over whether the handkerchief is “really” magical, they are in some sense missing the point. In performance, its charm is inescapable.


Desdemona produces her handkerchief at 3.3.289, the midpoint of the play's central scene. It is thus the pivot around which the play turns. Desdemona takes literally Othello's metaphorical reference to cuckoldry (“I have a pain upon my forehead here” [3.3.286]) and offers to bind Othello's head. There is no hint as yet of the handkerchief's peculiarity, although blood-stained cloths recur in Shakespeare as signs of death and wounding that are open to misreading: Posthumus's bloody handkerchief in Cymbeline, like Thisbe's bloody mantle, misleadingly betokens the death of the heroine.17 In this scene there is no actual blood, but it is possible that the strawberries later said by Iago to “spot” the handkerchief (3.3.436) are visible to the audience. There is nothing odd about the handkerchief at this point, however, except the virulence with which Othello rejects what is clearly a token of Desdemona's solicitude.

Yet the handkerchief's physical trajectory is unstable and resists precise plotting. The handkerchief must pass in the space of thirty lines from Desdemona to Othello, from Othello to Emilia, and from Emilia to Iago, but there is no textual indication as to how this stage minuet is to be executed. After Othello retorts, “Your napkin is too little,” neither F nor Q1 provides a stage direction. Rowe's 1709 edition inserts the stage direction “She drops her handkerchief’ (adopted by Ridley's Arden edition); Capell's 1768 edition adds “He puts the handkerchief from him, and she drops it” (adopted by Sanders); Alvin Kernan's Signet edition has “He pushes the handkerchief away, and it falls.” Othello's next line is: “Let it alone. Come, I'll go in with you” (3.3.290), and, as Kernan notes, “it makes a considerable difference in the interpretation of later events whether this ‘it’ refers to Othello's forehead or to the handkerchief.”18 Both referents are consistent with the dialogue, but nothing in the spoken text precludes Emilia from seizing the handkerchief; she is on stage throughout the couple's exchange, and Shakespeare leaves unclear what she is doing. QI indicates that Desdemona leaves with Othello, possibly leaving the handkerchief on the ground for Emilia to pick up; F indicates that Othello storms out first, so perhaps Desdemona must choose between retrieving her handkerchief and following her husband. Yet a third possibility is that Emilia takes advantage of the lovers' quarrel to filch the handkerchief directly. Perhaps the handkerchief's precise trajectory is left open so as to occlude the motives of those who handle it.19

In the first of the handkerchief's imaginative reductions, the stage empties and the action contracts to Emilia's consciousness as she, turning the handkerchief over in her mind and hand, literally toys with its possibilities. Emilia's soliloquy clarifies her pleasure at discovering the handkerchief but obscures her reasons for keeping it:

I am glad I have found this napkin:
This was her first remembrance from the Moor.
My wayward husband hath a hundred times
Wooed me to steal it; but she so loves the token,
For he conjured her she should ever keep it,
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. I'll have the work tane out
And give't Iago.
What he will do with it, heaven knows, not I:
I nothing but to please his fantasy.


Shakespeare's elision of the staging forces the actor playing Emilia to make choices that are left ambiguous by the text. Why should Emilia feel compelled to justify her actions here, and why offer the handkerchief to her “wayward” husband, a man she already has good reason to distrust, especially since she knows that it is her mistress's prized possession? Emilia accepts or feigns ignorance of Iago's intentions (“heaven knows, not I”) even though she claims he is already obsessed with the handkerchief; at line 301, Q1 provides the even more suggestive “I nothing know, but for his fantasy.” Is her nonchalance a piece of self-deception masking a need she herself may not fully fathom? Emilia's feigned ignorance of the handkerchief's whereabouts at 3.4.20 is especially puzzling if one assumes Emilia's motives towards Desdemona are benign.20 Emilia's decision to “have the work tane out” before giving it to her husband is suggestive. The syntax is ambiguous as to which “work,” the original or the duplicate, she intends to give him. Perhaps she wishes to keep the original for her own devices; perhaps she anticipates that it may give her some power over Iago. Whichever, Emilia's fascination seems motivated by the attractive “work” itself, just as Cassio's will be, rather than by any talismanic properties she ascribes to it.

Emilia's enumeration of the handkerchief's properties is intriguing, nevertheless. We learn that it was Othello's first gift to Desdemona and that she values it highly; perhaps that is the sole reason Iago covets it. In the first whiff of magic since act 1, Emilia notes that Othello “conjured” Desdemona to keep it (3. 3.296a word used by Shakespeare in two senses: to “[c]all upon solemnly, adjure” and to “[c]all upon, constrain (a devil or spirit) to appear or to do one's bidding by incantation or the use of some spell, raise or bring into existence as by magic.”21 This double meaning casts a grim retrospective irony on Brabantio's earlier accusation of witchcraft: “conjured” into accepting the magic handkerchief as her lover's first gift, Desdemona may have had no choice but to fall (or remain) in love.22 Of course we have no inkling as yet that the handkerchief contains magic in its web—though the ambiguous “conjured” might have jarred a contemporary audience—but we are told that the handkerchief is of intense interest both to Iago and to Desdemona, who “so loves the token / … That she reserves it evermore about her / To kiss and talk to” (3.3.295, 297-98).

With these lines a new interior landscape emerges. Desdemona's child-like behavior in this regard marks a peculiar emotional regression from her apparent maturity and self-possession earlier in the text and invites a psychoanalytical interpretation. On the manifest level, the handkerchief is Desdemona's stand-in for Othello: a “token” that can substitute for kissing and stroking the true object of her affections, Othello's felt absence. But at an unconscious level, Desdemona treats her gift precisely as a child treats what psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott calls a “transitional object.” In Winnicott's scheme, a child adopts a bit of cloth, blanket, or hair-ribbon as a way of holding onto the absent mother at a crucial stage in its development when its own boundaries are still inchoate. “It is a first symbol, and it stands for confidence in the union of baby and mother based on the experience of the mother's reliability and capacity to know what the baby needs through identification with the baby.”23 Transitional objects become essential to the child's security and happiness—objects “created” by the baby even if they existed, as it were, before their creation. They are themselves felt absences, neither purely objective nor purely subjective but liminal, existing both “inside” and “outside” the baby. A handkerchief is an interesting choice in this regard: it is the repository of inner bodily matter, a prophylactic extension of the permeable borders of the body's surface which itself blurs the distinction between inner and outer.24

Desdemona has a father but no mother, and Brabantio in act 1 sees his daughter as property to be guarded from unwanted male attention until she can be married off to his advantage. By trading her father's protection for Othello's, Desdemona moves from one masculine domain to another. Disowned by her father, Desdemona is utterly at the mercy of a husband whose military life she has elected to share in a military outpost far out at sea, 1,300 miles from Venice. In legal terms, she is now her husband's property. Desdemona understandably imbues her handkerchief with the sympathetic qualities of her dead mother and treats it as a confidante, a feminized ally in a masculine stronghold. In Kristevan terms, the handkerchief operates both at the level of the “symbolic,” as a token of heterosexual desire and commitment, and of the “semiotic,” as a tie to the prediscursive maternal body.25 Desdemona's mother never speaks and is mentioned only in passing (1.3.184), yet in act 4, scene 3, as Emilia prepares her for bed, Desdemona identifies herself with her mother's maid Barbary, abandoned by a lover who “proved mad” (4.3.26). Barbary died singing the “willow song” that Desdemona reprises and which itself retails Barbary's story in verse, even as the handkerchief re-stages it in death. Singing poor Barbary's song, Desdemona inserts herself into a weave of dead women abandoned by men and edged with madness.

The handkerchief, given to Desdemona by Othello and symbolizing his ownership of both, thus partakes of male and female economies simultaneously. It looks at once forward to Desdemona's sexual maturity and husband, and backward to her childhood and mother. It signals both Desdemona's readiness to enter into the patriarchal order of wifehood and motherhood and her unconscious resistance to adopting those subject positions. Desdemona's relation to the handkerchief is thus ambivalent from the outset and soon turns to panic when she discovers its absence. At the moment she loses possession of the handkerchief, Desdemona loses her self-possession along with her last link to her mother, and becomes herself possessed by a feeling of dread: “I had rather lose my purse / Full of crusadoes … it were enough / To put him to ill thinking” (3.4.21-25). The handkerchief has crossed over from the Kristevan “semiotic” to the “symbolic,” has changed from token of female companionship to fetish of male jealousy and murderous revenge.

If this psychoanalytical account seems glib, that is partly the point. Seemingly casual revelations surrounding the handkerchief—in this case, a chance remark by Emilia easily generate intriguing psychological landscapes. By momentarily focusing all our attention on the handkerchief, Emilia's charged language weaves the handkerchief into a shifting pattern of felt absences, a network of significances that increases its charm—its emotional grip on us in performance—while obscuring the source of its mysterious power over the characters to which we are never privy. The fact that Desdemona fondles the handkerchief invites us to reevaluate her relationship to Othello, which in turn invites us to reevaluate the handkerchief's meaning as a “remembrance,” and so forth ad infinitum. Emilia's monologue may occupy only a minute of stage time, but it posits a network of fraught emotional relationships (“he hath a hundred times …”). The monologue at once stresses the handkerchief's bewitching materiality and deepens its semiotic mystery. Emilia (and, perhaps, the actor playing her) knows why she wants the handkerchief, but this information is deliberately withheld from the audience even in soliloquy, the traditional place where obscure motives are revealed and clarified.

No sooner has the notion of taking out the work occurred to her than Emilia is left empty-handed: Iago appears, as if on cue, and acquires the handkerchief to plant in Cassio's lodging. Once again, the text does not indicate whether Iago grabs the handkerchief from Emilia or persuades her to relinquish it, leaving the couple's literal hold over each other open to directorial interpretation. In a bid for power, Emilia tries to use the precious object as a token of exchange (“What will you give me now / For that same handkerchief?” [3.3.307-08]) and offers a version of events which may or may not be true: “she let it drop by negligence, / And to th'advantage I being here took't up” (3.3.31314). As soon as Iago takes hold, Emilia feels the handkerchief's absence and demands it back: “Poor lady, she'll run mad / When she shall lack it” (3.3.319-20). Iago dismisses her, and once again the stage empties to a solitary figure, alone with the suggestive piece of cloth.26 It is the handkerchief which gives Iago the vague idea of implicating Cassio somehow, a strategy of which he is himself dubious: “I will in Cassio's lodging lose this napkin / And let him find it. … This may do something” (3.3. 322-25).27

Iago secretes the handkerchief just as his general reappears, Othello's own consciousness now entirely subdued to jealousy. Iago's improvised narrative at once creates and authenticates a past history of infidelity: when Iago tells Othello that he saw Cassio wipe his beard with “a handkerchief / Spotted with strawberries” (3.3.435-36), the very handkerchief that is hidden on Iago's person, Othello swears his revenge. One of the handkerchief's key stage functions, then, is to capture the imagination of those who intersect with it. In quick succession, Desdemona, Othello, Emilia, Iago, and Cassio are enmeshed in an emotional net Iago sees himself as controlling, but it is the handkerchief that allows Iago's improvisations to take root rather than vice versa. The handkerchief refuses to stay fixed in time or space; it must continually be “given over” to please another's “fantasy” before it can satisfy one's own.


Our fullest glimpse of the handkerchief's strange properties is offered by Othello as he admonishes the panicked Desdemona not to lose what is already, to her, a keenly felt absence. When Desdemona is unable to produce the handkerchief on demand, Othello launches into his story before an onstage audience of Emilia (who knows Iago has the handkerchief) and his alarmed wife (who does not). Whether Othello believes his own tale or not, its effect on Desdemona is palpable. The “magic in the web” speech puts her into a panic, and as we witness Desdemona's response via Emilia's mute presence, Emilia cues our reaction. The contagious (mimetic) structure of magic is thus triangulated through a third party. What is important here is not that Othello or Desdemona “really” believes in the charm—Othello may well be lying—but that they are seen to seem to believe in the moment of performance by Emilia, and this is what makes it “real enough” at this moment. For the space of Othello's speech, the audience's consciousness is altered. We are imaginatively drawn into a world of magic and death that eclipses the play's formerly skeptical attitude towards witchcraft, as evinced by the Venetian senate's dismissal of Brabantio's accusations in act 1.

Shakespeare reintroduces the theme of witchcraft, absent since Othello's trial, by reducing our imaginative attention to the effect of Othello's words on Desdemona; we see the handkerchief fill Desdemona's harried consciousness as it acquires an otherworldly history. Othello spins his narrative thread both backwards to include his parents, an Egyptian charmer, and the sibyl who sewed the work; and forwards, propelling the charm via Desdemona (and the mute Emilia) out to the audience in language that links the handkerchief to a supernatural domain:

That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give:
She was a charmer and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
'Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She dying gave it me,
And bid me when my fate would have me wive,
To give it her. I did so, and take heed on't:
Make it a darling, like your precious eye.
To lose't or give't away were such perdition
As nothing else could match. …
'Tis true. There's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sewed the work;
The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.


The language surrounding the handkerchief adds an eerie supernatural coloring to the familiar landscapes of sixteenth-century Venice and Cyprus that have so far dominated the play. While it is true that the handkerchief is an “emblem of Othello's exotic genealogy and hence of his family's honor,” its provenance is at once feminine and fey.28 Othello's measured, dream-like cadences limn a pagan world inhabited by psychic soothsayers, two-hundred year old sibyls in the throes of prophetic ecstasy, and dye made from lovingly preserved hearts ripped from living virgins' bodies. This is a far cry from the ordered republic of Venice we have witnessed in act 1; but Cyprus, where the bulk of the action takes place, is a contested battleground in the process of shifting from the Christian sphere of Venice to the “heathen” sphere of the Ottomans.29 Writing in about 1603, Shakespeare here followed contemporary history: Cyprus fell to the Turks in 1572 after a temporary reprieve by gales corresponding to the storm that disperses the Turkish fleet in 2.1. Cyprus itself would have constituted a recently felt absence, at least to Shakespeare's more educated audience, and Shakespeare here romantically associates Islam's exoticism with mummies, sybils, and love charms.

By invoking a pagan dimension to the world of the play, the handkerchief suggests also the historic association of Cyprus with the ancient rites of Venus, an association for which preparation has already been made by Desdemona's arrival on the island in 2.1. Arriving safely ashore, Cassio states:

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


According to legend, Aphrodite was born from the sea out of the genitals of Uranus, castrated by his son Cronos to avenge his oppression. The goddess of fertility, of love both pure and carnal, of beauty (and, especially relevant to 2.1, the protectress of sailors) then came ashore at Cyprus. The “divine Desdemona” becomes for a moment the genius loci, the goddess before whom Cassio bids the men of Cyprus kneel (2.1.84).30 But this association has its sinister side. Paphos became the site of a temple where sacrifices took place during an annual festival, the Aphrodisia, and, according to Doros Alastos, “The ritual included mysteries, the character of which we do not exactly know.”31 These mysteries may well have included human sacrifice; certainly the cult of Aphrodite involved the ritual sacred prostitution of virgins before their wedding, and these rites of Venus, according to Frazer's The Golden Bough, incorporated Near-Eastern pagan rituals we can only guess at.32

Not coincidentally, there are clear textual indications that Desdemona is still a virgin on her death night. Iago interrupts Othello and Desdemona's nuptials between 1.1 and 1.2, and Othello sets sail next morning for Cyprus. Once there, Othello leads his wife to bed with the words “Come, my dear love, / The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / That profit's yet to come 'tween me and you” (2.3.8-10), which Iago glosses as “he hath not yet made wanton the night with her” (2.3.15-16). But this second intended night of pleasure is usurped by Iago's mutiny (2.3), and the action next day is continuous until Desdemona asks Emilia to put the wedding sheets on her bed (4.2.104), an action which implies that their marriage is never consummated.

“Divine Desdemona,” then, provides a propitiatory virgin offering to her own divine image. Her handkerchief “[s] potted with strawberries” (3.3.436) becomes the emblem of a deflowering that, ironically, never takes place.33 By refusing to shed Desdemona's hymeneal blood through consummating her marriage (“Yet I'll not shed her blood” [5.2.3]), and thus by refusing to stain her wedding sheets, Othello denies himself the only real ocular and tactile proof of Desdemona's chastity he could ever have.34 In killing Desdemona, Othello is careful not to shed the virgin blood that was, by rights, to have been his but instead is consecrated to “yond marble heaven” (3.3.461).35

Once we break the spell of Othello's verse, however, the handkerchief's charm becomes impossible to quantify. In Othello's account, the charm passes down a human chain which to this point comprises the sibyl, the Egyptian charmer, Othello's mother, Othello, and Desdemona. What seems at first glance a simple repeated pattern of erotic binding is in fact so complex that it becomes very hard to say just when and how the magic is supposed to work, for the charm never acts in the same way twice. Rather than mechanically binding receiver to giver, the handkerchief adjusts its erotic valence to fit shifting circumstance.36 No erotic link exists between the Egyptian charmer and Othello's mother, for instance, nor between the latter and Othello. The charm, first conferring desirability on Othello's mother, subdues her sexual partner. Its magic then lies dormant until Othello's “fate” decrees his marriage (3.4.60). This seems to imply that Desdemona is bound to Othello, her future husband; but for the handkerchief's charm to work the same way twice, Othello should have kept it, since that is how his mother subdued his father. Yet Othello cannot keep it, because his mother tells him that he must give it away in order for the charm to work at all.

Perhaps, Desdemona's telling admission that “My heart's subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord” (1.3.24647) notwithstanding, the magic subdues Othello to Desdemona rather than vice versa. Othello's “when my fate would have me wive” is ambiguous; we cannot tell if he himself controls the timing and direction of the charm, or if he is compelled by fate to give it up at the propitious moment (something of this ambiguity is caught in the variance between QI's “wive” and F's more passive “Wiu'd”). Logically, Desdemona's receipt of the handkerchief should confer desirability on her and not on Othello. This seems borne out by the fact that, once she loses it, Othello fulfills the dreaded prospect and “hold[s] her loathed” (3.4.58). Yet because Othello prevents the initial pattern from repeating itself, by giving the handkerchief away rather than keeping it, we can never be certain if Othello charms Desdemona by giving, or if Desdemona charms Othello by receiving, or both, or neither.

Thus far the handkerchief's magic seems selective according to the hidden direction of its own inscrutable fatedness. To complicate matters still further, it is impossible to say whether the handkerchief is inherently magical or is abruptly endowed with pseudo-magical properties by Othello's mesmerizing speech. In other words, we do not know if Othello is telling the truth or improvising the magic in order to spook Desdemona—that is, whether the handkerchief is a genuine charm (the magic inheres in and originates with the object itself) or a fetish (an ordinary object Othello chooses to endow with special significance). This latter possibility is especially evident given that, as we shall see, Othello later revises his account of the handkerchief's origin and thus obscures its magical status still further. In either case, we must reevaluate the sardonic attitude towards magic that came so easily to Iago and the senators in act 1, the self-evident superiority of wit-craft to witchcraft.

As the handkerchief tightens its grip on the characters' emotions, its dramatic function shifts from that of love charm to death fetish. Othello's love turns to raging jealousy, fulfilling the fate prophesied by the sibyl. Desdemona's desperate evasions only spur Othello's demands to produce the gift, and Othello's thrice-repeated “The handkerchief!” (3.4.88-92) threatens to break down communication altogether (as it will later, when Othello falls into his fit and misses a potentially decisive encounter with Cassio), substituting the brute sound of the words for the square of cloth they signify. Desdemona can only respond by accusing Othello for the first and only time—“I'faith, you are to blame” (3.4.92)—which only enrages him further. Emilia fatally ignores the opportunity to confess to stealing the handkerchief, and act 3 ends, as we have seen, with Bianca's receiving the handkerchief from Cassio in what is almost a burlesque of Othello and Desdemona's quarrel. Shakespeare cunningly conflates Cassio's prostitute and sewing-woman, separate in Cinthio, so as to stress the handkerchief's economy of movement. Bianca's resigned jealousy over the handkerchief is a pale echo of Othello's, but her pain is apparent. Cassio's displeasure at seeing her out of doors and his insistence she return home anticipate the claustrophobic shuttering of the other women in act 5 and the chilling confinement of the death chamber.

The handkerchief continues to sew dissension and heartache as, through Cassio and Bianca, it repeats its by now familiar dance of absent presence. Bianca initially accepts Cassio's demands to copy the work (again, the text leaves open when and how it changes hands), but its charm cools and she returns to fling it back: “wheresoever you had it. I'll take out no work on't” (4.1.148-49). The handkerchief, then, repeatedly inspires, yet refuses its own duplication; what is repeated instead is the pattern of human beings seeking to replicate its unique work.37 Like a director, the handkerchief compels a repeat performance but one that is always slightly different from the previous one. In this case, the magic circuit fails (or perhaps its erotic current reverses): instead of making Bianca fall further in love with Cassio, the handkerchief turns her against him. It evidently has no romantic designs for Cassio and Bianca but uses them to provide a crucial tableau.

It is of course Iago who sets the stage for Othello's misprision of the “ocular proof,” the handkerchief's final appearance in its brief stage career. Having reduced Othello to a state of furious jealousy, Iago stages a scene in which Othello observes Iago's interview of Cassio but mistakes the latter's object of scorn (Bianca) for Desdemona. By placing Othello out of earshot, Iago encourages him to loose his imagination just he has manipulated it all along by perversely framing the general's experience as a judicious phenomenological reduction, one that sets aside all subjective value judgments: “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio; / Wear your eyes thus: not jealous, nor secure” (3.3.199-200). As fate would have it, when Bianca unexpectedly erupts into the scene bearing the handkerchief, Othello glimpses the very ocular proof he has demanded of Iago and thus allows the latter once more to improvise: “she gave it him, and he hath given it his whore” (4.1.168). While Iago has staged a “reduction” whereby Othello can see but not hear—a recipe for misreading—once again it is the handkerchief that clinches the scene. Iago's lies have transformed the handkerchief into an emblem of Desdemona's faithlessness. Ironically, Othello is so intent on the handkerchief's function as a sign that he almost misses its material presence as an image: “Was that mine?” (4.1. 166). For Othello, the handkerchief now embodies the most palpable absence of all: Desdemona's honor.

The Egyptian charmer's gift is a double-edged sword, administering love and death in equal measure. For Cassio and Bianca, the handkerchief's eros and thanatos here cancel each other out. Considering its potentially lethal powers, the characters may be said to get off lightly, at least for now. Once Bianca gives it up (always the fatal error) we never see the handkerchief again, but her line “There, give it your hobby-horse” (4.1.148) leaves open the possibility that a dumbfounded Cassio simply takes it back and hence inadvertently starts a new cycle of love and death.38 The handkerchief's felt absence is invoked one final time, however, which marks the collapse as well as the finale of its narrative. Once Montano, Gratiano, and Iago burst into the death chamber, Othello justifies Desdemona's murder to the aghast nobles by explaining that he saw Cassio with “an antique token / My father gave my mother” (5.2.215-16)—thereby revising his previous account of the handkerchief and, in effect, complicating its origins past all intelligibility. As we have seen, a “token” is not magical at all but is any object that has some significance for somebody—in other words, a sign. With one stroke, the play forces us to reevaluate Othello as an unreliable narrator. If Othello's father gave Othello's mother the handkerchief, the tale of the sibyl is mere invention, and all bets as to the handkerchief's magical properties are off.

Why does Othello revise his story? Faced with this crux, critics diverge. David Kaula notes, “Shakespeare provides no definite clue that he intends this [alteration] to be taken as the true account of the handkerchief's history and the former one as a fabrication,” but on balance he sees the “antique token” as “a more plausible love token than the horrific thing contrived by the superannuated sibyl in her prophetic fury.”39 Despite Othello's insistence that his magic fable is “most veritable” (3.4.72), Robert S. Miola takes him at his second word: the Moor's revision reveals “the more mundane truth” about the origins of the handkerchief.40 John A. Hodgson, too, agrees that Othello's revision of his earlier “wild story” reveals its untruth; Michael C. Andrews, by contrast, argues that the magic is real for Othello but no longer of interest to Shakespeare.41 Fernand Baldensperger and Mark Van Doren are also hesitant in rejecting Othello's belief in the charm.42 One of the handkerchief's apparent abilities, then, is to obscure and efface its own origin. By the play's end, all we can say for certain is that the handkerchief is an “antique token”—but of what?

The handkerchief's elusive properties bring us back to the enigma of Desdemona herself. The handkerchief emerges from Desdemona's person to become an agent of her destruction, providing an odd mirror of her own “divine” powers. If in psychoanalytic terms Desdemona projects the emotional residue of her mother onto the handkerchief, in magic terms the handkerchief slyly absorbs Desdemona's symbolic essence just as it has literally introjected the victims whose “mummy” dyes its work.43 Both Desdemona and the handkerchief share the same numinous quality, seeming at once to belong to and to transcend the frenzied masculine world of the play. Desdemona's consecration of her “soul and fortunes” to Othello (1.3.250) and her simple declaration that “I saw Othello's visage in his mind” (1.3.248) seem utterly at odds with her dogged (even shrewish) commitment to Cassio's reinstatement in 3.3. Miraculously flickering back to life, Desdemona's final words come as if from beyond the grave: “Commend me to my kind lord” (5.2.126). Her pardon of Othello marks a Christlike level of forgiveness that can only be deemed beyond the human. Like the handkerchief, she has possessed a lethal attractiveness: love of her has destroyed Brabantio and Roderigo as well as Othello and Emilia. Committing the final act of slaughter, Othello, providing the pagan gods with a final immolation, simultaneously tries and executes himself and thus acts as both faithful servant to the Venetian state and “turbaned Turk” (5.2.349); his act transforms the struggle between Venice and Constantinople into something primitive and frightening.

Like Prospero's, the sibyl's magic has drawn the characters to an island in order to involve them in a ritual action beyond their ken. From the moment Othello's mother “gave it [him] / And bid [him] when [his] fate would have [him] wive, / To give it her” (3.4.59-61), the handkerchief's fatedness has driven the plot forward. Desdemona produces the handkerchief to aid Othello; Iago happens upon Emilia just as she finds the handkerchief; Bianca returns it to Cassio just at the point when an eavesdropping Othello is close enough to recognize it. At each step the handkerchief inspires Iago to ever more lethal improvisation, and, shorn of the handkerchief in the play's last scene, he has nothing more to add. Yet the handkerchief is conjured once more in a final tableau: when Othello stabs himself and falls on the spotless wedding sheets, he replicates the pattern of the strawberry-spotted token, magnifying the play's central image in our consciousness before the bed-curtains are drawn (5.2.361). Othello's bloody climax is thus the handkerchief writ large.


In tracing the handkerchief's felt absences, its oscillation between sign and thing, I have tried to show that Othello provides two seemingly incompatible perspectives on magic. In one, a mundane object such as a handkerchief accrues value and significance through the otherworldly meaning imputed to it; in the other, a thing is inherently magical and carries its charm wherever it goes. The handkerchief exhibits both properties, and the play's final irony is that these properties' effect is identical: the charm works because people believe in it. As in the case of Winnicott's transitional object, we need never ask if the charm exists independently of our consciousness of it. It suffices that something or someone appears to be magical (or unfaithful) for the magic (or jealousy) to work. Magic is mimetic-always caught, like an infection, from someone else.44 Thus the fact that Othello seems to believe his “magic in the web” speech is enough to convince Desdemona, while the fact that she seems to believe him (“Then would to God that I had never seen't!” [3.4.73]) is enough to convince Emilia and the offstage audience—at least for the duration of the scene. In each case, the handkerchief is “magic enough” to produce real consequences.

The analogue of this ju-ju, by which something becomes real as soon as it is perceived, is jealously. Iago's success bears witness that this self-authenticating, self-consuming emotion need only be entertained as a possibility for it to become real. Iago himself is not inured to this infectious disease, which “gnaw[s] my inwards” (2.1.278). Contemplating the rumor that Emilia has slept with Othello, Iago unwittingly lays bare the mechanism at the heart of the play: “I know not if't be true / Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety” (1.3.370-72). Iago admits that it does not matter to him whether Emilia slept with Othello or not; he has bracketed the question of reality (i.e., adultery) entirely, and his untrammeled jealousy soon includes Cassio (2.1.288).

Othello reveals that the effects of magic and jealousy are identical. Jealousy—or magic—becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, like the sibyl's curse. It is as real as we think it is, which is precisely what makes it dangerous. I have outlined this mechanism in detail because I believe the play can be understood as a cautionary fable about the phenomenological power of theater.45 Just as the handkerchief invites its victims to bracket the world outside itself, with all its skepticism about magic-hence the play's Venetian prologue, a pageant of rationality to keep us in false gaze—so the theater invites us to bracket the world outside the playhouse and thus serves to reduce reality to the objects presently before our eyes. Magic is neither trick nor metaphor, Othello warns, but a psychic mechanism whose workings we ignore at our peril. The play implies that theater is a phenomenological rather than an epistemological endeavor: we go to the theater not because it represents things true but because it makes us feel things which we experience as true. Othello acknowledges the theatricality of its own magic but argues that theatrical magic should be taken seriously because it produces genuine emotions, and emotions have potentially lethal results—both in and out of the playhouse.

However opaque its moral, Othello does provide an object lesson in the dangers of hermeneutic tunnel vision. Taken to its extreme, the semiotic attitude yields an Othello-like obsession with an object's sign-function, a refusal to see the lost handkerchief as simply a lost handkerchief. Conversely, taken to its extreme, the phenomenological attitude yields Iago, a reductive ego gone berserk. Iago refuses to see the world except through the distorting lens of his own pathology, and he achieves a nightmarish solipsism in which love is lust, honor a word, marriage a farce. What remains once Iago performs his cynical reductions is not transcendence but pornography: a world of bodies without souls, “a lust of the blood and a permission of the will” (1.3.326). Iago embodies a monstrous Cartesian dualism, a mind reflecting coolly on the body's depravities. Instead of the transcendental, revelatory structures of the ego envisioned by Husserl, Iago's reductionism offers anarchy and chaos.46

The play's very topography is a metaphor for phenomenological reduction gone haywire. Venice in part represents a skeptical audience's “natural attitude” to sorcery, which is literally put on trial in act 1 as if to underscore the point. The senate is a model of rational deliberation, admirably suspicious of “pageant[s] / To keep us in false gaze” (1.3.18-19), and Brabantio is all but ridiculed for suggesting that Othello practiced charms on Desdemona. Once we reach Cyprus, however, “a town of war, / Yet wild” (2.3.194-95), the rational world of Venice is bracketed, and the passionate energies unleashed by the handkerchief engulf us. Othello's reductions on the emotional level are mirrored by reduction at the spatial level. The play forces upon us a series of near-concentric constrictions in spatial possibility—Venice, Cyprus, citadel, chamber, bed, sheets, bodies, blood—precisely to increase our sense of claustrophobic bracketing. Othello's self-stabbing, providing a visual reminder of the handkerchief, collapses everything to the dimensions of this central property.

Thomas Rymer famously derided “[s]o much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief!”47 But from the handkerchief's perspective, Othello can be seen as a witty and disturbing mediation on the magical properties of props: their liminal status in performance as both themselves and other than themselves, objects as well as symbols. It is true that, as a “token” or gift, the handkerchief can be seen as a conveniently empty counter in a series of symbolic exchanges; but in performance the handkerchief stubbornly insists on its materiality over and above its referentiality and refuses to accede to an overdetermined symbolic “absence.” In a startling reversal of a prop's usual function, Othello's handkerchief uses and discards its victims rather than vice versa. Instead of merely symbolizing its human couriers, the handkerchief absorbs and literally inscribes them as felt absences within its ghostly palimpsest. The “mummy” that forms its dye (3.4.70) is liquid drained from the embalmed bodies of its victims, an ironic parody of a handkerchief's mundane function as a repository of bodily waste. To the handkerchief, waste is all that the body is, and Othello's tragedy is merely an episode in its larger (offstage) life. The felt absence which the handkerchief embodies is Shakespeare's synecdoche for the theater itself: an alchemy whereby the word is briefly made flesh before being once more absorbed into the “work.”


  1. Giraldi Cinthio, Hecatommithi, in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, 8 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 7:246.

  2. The evil ensign (Shakespeare's Iago) steals the handkerchief directly from Disdemona and impulsively plants it in the bed of the captain (Shakespeare's Cassio). The captain decides to return it to Disdemona by the back door but runs away when the suspicious Moor reappears. Later, the ensign and the Moor happen to pass by the captain's lodging when the captain's woman is visible in a window duplicating the handkerchief's pattern—and thus providing the ocular proof of Disdemona's infidelity and sealing her doom at the men's hands with a sand-filled stocking.

  3. Othello, 2.3.337; quotations from this play in my paper are from the New Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. Norman Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

  4. According to Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), “The talisman is an object imprinted with an image which has been supposed to have been rendered magical, or to have magical efficacy, through having been made in accordance with certain magical rules” (154). Fernand Baldensperger, “Was Othello an Ethiopian?” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 20 (1938): 3-14, argues that “poor Othello's ‘handkerchief’ is an amulet—one of those powerful Ethiopian talismans, already alluded to in Heliodorus, which any specialist in superstitions ranks to-day among the most efficient of all the magic helpers of a credulous humanity” (13). Linda Woodbridge, in The Scythe of Saturn: Shakespeare and Magical Thinking (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), also will see Desdemona's handkerchief as an amulet, “a bodily protection against a magical weapon: the supernaturally powerful gaze of an enemy” (60) the “evil eye” passed from Iago to Othello to Desdemona.

  5. Bert O. States, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 8. According to States, objects are constantly mutating (via language) into signs and then back into what States calls “images.” In what could stand as an apt image of Desdemona's handkerchief, States calls the sign/image “a Janus-faced thing: it wants to say something about something, to be a sign, and it wants to be something, a thing in itself, a site of beauty” (10).

  6. Obviously not every member of all audiences for every production will understand a theatrical moment in a definitive way. By repeatedly invoking “the (attentive) audience,” however, I am trying to pinpoint moments when the text seems to demand specific effects in the theater, independent of any given production. The handkerchief itself, for example, like its own “work,” cannot be “tane out” of the play (3.3.298). If I risk imposing my own staging ideas on Othello, I do so in the hope that my arguments will be suggestive enough to provoke the reader's own sense of the play's demands in performance.

  7. Iago tells Emilia that he has “use” for the handkerchief (3.3.321) and Othello that he saw Cassio “wipe his beard” with it (3.3.439). For the erotic connotations of these terms, see David Kaula, “Othello Possessed: Notes on Shakespeare's Use of Magic and Witchcraft,” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1966): 123.

  8. Cymbeline, 1.3.7; quotations from Cymbeline in my paper are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  9. We are told the handkerchief “was dyed in mummy, which the skilful Conserved of maidens' hearts” (3.4.70-71). The handkerchief's dye is thus derived from the embalmed bodies of its victims. See A. H. R. Fairchild, “‘Mummy’ in Shakespeare,” Philological Quarterly 1 (1922): 143-46.

  10. The phrase “take out” is ambiguous. To “take out” embroidery is an idiom that means to copy, but the phrase also suggests somehow removing the embroidery itself. If we are to equate this “work” with the handkerchief's strawberry-spotted pattern, this second meaning would imply restoring the handkerchief to a state of pure whiteness—an interesting concept if we link the handkerchief's pattern to Desdemona's virginity and to her (perhaps) spotless wedding sheets, which she bids Emilia place on her bed at 4.2.104. For a reading equating the handkerchief with wedding sheets and its strawberries with virgin blood, see Lynda E. Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief: ‘The Recognizance and Pledge of Love’,” English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975): 360-74.

  11. John A. Hodgson, “Desdemona's Handkerchief as an Emblem of Her Reputation,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 19 (1977): 318.

  12. Kaula, “Othello Possessed,” 127.

  13. Paul Yachnin, “Magical Properties: Vision, Possession, and Wonder in Othello,Theatre Journal 48 (1996): 197-208. Yachnin's claim that “[t]he play's stake in the handkerchief registers the theatre's participation in English society's fetishized trade in textiles” (202) is intriguing but proceeds from very different foundational assumptions than mine about the kind of “registering” audiences (and critics) do when confronted with objects on stage.

  14. Woodbridge, The Scythe of Saturn, 67. Frances Teague, “Objects in Othello,” in Othello: New Perspectives, ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Kent Cartwright (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), notes that “the handkerchief has a range of potential meanings that are mutually exclusive: symbol of self or of jealousy, emblem of treachery, and literal magic token. The play denies none of these meanings, but it does not specify one either” (184).

  15. Robert B. Heilman, Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1956), 17.

  16. In “The ‘Arts Inhibited’ and the Meaning of Othello,Boston University Studies in English 1 (1955): 129-47, James A. S. McPeek makes the rare argument that Shakespeare's audience would have seen the handkerchief as “clearly a token of witchcraft” (143) and Iago as demonic. See also S. L. Bethell, “Shakespeare's Imagery: The Diabolic Images in Othello,Shakespeare Survey 5 (1952): 62-80. McPeek points out that the controversy over witchcraft's existence was at its peak in Shakespeare's day, and that James I had publicly weighed in on the side of belief in his Daemonologie (1597).

  17. Compare Queen Margaret's handkerchief, stained with the blood of Rutland and used to torment York in 3 Henry VI, and Orlando's “bloody napkin” in As You Like It which makes “Ganymede” swoon. In a gothic twist, Webster's The Duchess of Malfi features a handkerchief whose blood engulfs the initials of Antonio's name and presages his death. In Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo displays a handkerchief besmeared in his son's blood that becomes a token of his revenge. J. L. Styan, The English Stage: A History of Drama and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), remarks that for the Elizabethans “dipping a handkerchief in the victim's blood was a practice at public executions” (115).

  18. Alvin Kernan, ed., Othello, by William Shakespeare (New York: New American Library, 1963), 103n.

  19. It is as if Shakespeare has left it up to the handkerchief itself to choreograph the action. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), indicates that “an external symbol can mysteriously help the co-ordination of brain and body. Actors' memoirs frequently recount cases in which a material symbol conveys effective power: the actor knows his part, knows exactly how he wants to interpret it. But an intellectual knowing of what is to be done is not enough to produce the action. He tries continually and fails. One day some prop is passed to him, a hat or green umbrella, and with this symbol suddenly knowledge and intention are realised in the flawless performance” (63). I am grateful to Judith Issroff for this reference.

  20. The actor playing Emilia is given some scope here. Writing of a 1990 production at The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, for instance, the editors of Shakespeare in Performance explain: “When Emilia denies to Desdemona any knowledge of what has happened to the handkerchief, it can be an uncomfortable moment inconsistent with loyal friendship, but for Zoe Wanamaker it read powerfully as a moment in which she was prepared to have Desdemona suffer a little of the marital disharmony that for Emilia was habitual” (Shakespeare in Performance, ed. Keith Parsons and Pamela Mason [London: Salamander Books, 1995], 167).

  21. C. T. Onions, A Shakespeare Glossary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 56.

  22. In “Honest Othello: The Handkerchief Once More,” Studies in English Literature 13 (1973): 273-84, Michael C. Andrews exonerates Othello of the charge of witchcraft by begging the question: “[I]t is plain enough that Othello regards the handkerchief as ensuring the continuance of his love for Desdemona, not hers for him” (281-82). Nevertheless, the fact that Brabantio has earlier accused Othello of binding Desdemona “in chains of magic” (1.2.65) eerily resonates throughout the play.

  23. D. W. Winnicott, “Living Creatively,” in Home is Where We Start From: Essays by a Psychoanalyst (London: Penguin, 1986), 50.

  24. For a discussion of how the handkerchief mediates between the operations of the body and its apertures and “[t]he transformation of the handkerchief from locus of privileged meaning to commonplace,” see Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986): 123-44, esp. 137-39.

  25. See Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), esp. 25-30.

  26. Both acts 1 and 2 end by shrinking the stage to Iago's solo figure, and the audience's attention is thus forcibly reduced to his malevolent consciousness. The handkerchief takes up this “spotlighted” function at the close of act 3. On Iago's own capacity “to reduce imaginatively all he contemplates,” see Sanders's introduction to the New Cambridge edition, 30-34.

  27. Shakespeare here follows Cinthio: “The wicked Ensign, seizing a suitable opportunity, went to the Corporal's room, and with cunning malice left the handkerchief at the head of his bed” (Narrative and Dramatic Sources, ed. Bullough, 7:247).

  28. Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories,” 137.

  29. In his introduction to Othello, Sanders notes that for Shakespeare's contemporaries Janus-faced Venice itself “gazed in two directions: towards civilised Christianity and towards the remote eastern world of pagan infidels, the Turks, and the mighty power of Islam” (18).

  30. William Davenant adopts this topos in scene 3 of The Siege of Rhodes, Part 1 (1656). Roxolana enters Rhodes, furious that Ianthe has “stolen” Solyman. Rustan comments, “You come from Sea as Venus came before; / And seem that Goddess, but mistake her shore.” To this Pirrhus adds helpfully, “Her Temple did in fruitful Cyprus stand; / The Sultan wonders why in Rhodes you land” (The Works of Sir William Davenant, 2 vols. [1673; reprint London: Benjamin Blom, 1968], 2:14).

  31. Doros Alastos, Cyprus in History (London: Zeno, 1955), 37.

  32. James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 9 vols. (1911-15; reprint New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), Part IV, 1:31-36. Baldensperger, “Was Othello an Ethiopian?” asserts that “[i]t was quite in accord with the reputation of Cyprus, ‘dedicated to Venus,’ to have Bianca, a Venetian courtesan with a house in the island, welcoming young men from the metropolis” (6).

  33. Jean Jofen, in “The Case of the Strawberry Handkerchief,” Shakespeare Newsletter 21 (1971): 14, traces Shakespeare's association of strawberries with impotence and linen with innocence and also identifies the spotted handkerchief with “the successful culmination of the sexual act.” Jofen sees a tension between the virginal innocence of the “handkerchief’ derived from the mother and the “minx's token” of sexual promiscuity perceived by Bianca. In “The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare,” Studies in the Renaissance 7 (1960): 225-40, Lawrence J. Ross equates the strawberries with the handkerchief's “work” and explains that the strawberry emblem, classical in origin, was by Shakespeare's day ambiguous: it could represent both perfect righteousness and lurking moral corruption. Expanding Ross's insights, Kaula, “Othello Possessed,” speculates that “[i]n view of the sacramental implications of the strawberry emblem, Iago's verbal abusing of the handkerchief, like his other conversions of caritas to lust, parallels one of the more lurid features of the Black Mass, the sexual defilement of the eucharist, the theoretical purpose of which was magically to reduce the power of the white god and transfer it to the black” (123-24). McPeek, “The ‘Arts Inhibited’,” suggests that the strawberries are symbols of maidens' hearts (145). The handkerchief's strawberries, worked into the folds of the handkerchief, are a fascinating emblem within an emblem whose significance clearly merits further discussion.

  34. I am grateful to Grace Tiffany for this observation.

  35. Shakespeare may here be referring to the faux-marble underside of the stage cover in the Globe Theater. In Cymbeline, Sicilius bids Jupiter “[p]eep through thy marble mansion” (5.4.87); and after Jupiter ascends Sicilius remarks, “The marble pavement closes, he is enter'd / His radiant roof’ (5.4.120-21), presumably referring to a trap door in the stage cover itself. Both Othello and Cymbeline played at the Globe in Shakespeare's lifetime: Othello in April 1610, and Cymbeline in September 1611.

  36. It is even somewhat misleading to characterize the handkerchief's intricate exchanges in terms of “givers” and “receivers” since Othello refuses the handkerchief (3.3.289); Iago apparently snatches it (3.3.317); and Cassio finds it in his lodging and lends it to Bianca (3.4.185), who tries (and possibly fails) to return it (4.1.149).

  37. Hodgson, “Desdemona's Handkerchief as an Emblem,” is thus mistaken in asserting that “[w]hile no one, as it happens, takes out the work of Desdemona's handkerchief, we must recognize that it would be quite possible for someone to do so” (318). Yachnin, too, misses the point when he claims that the handkerchief “is not necessarily unique, but potentially only the first of a series. It could be reproduced endlessly for an endless number of owners” (“Magical Properties,” 203). In fact, the handkerchief's uniqueness reinforces States's crucial phenomenological distinction between signs and images: “Unlike the sign, the image is unique and unreproducible (except as facsimile); whereas the sign is of no value unless it repeats itself’ (Great Reckonings, 25). States goes on to quote Derrida: “a sign which does not repeat itself, which is not already divided by repetition in its ‘first time’, is not a sign” (Jacques Derrida, “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978], 246, as quoted by States, 25).

  38. Hodgson, “Desdemona's Handkerchief as an Emblem,” muses that the handkerchief might appear one last time, when Bianca tends the wounded Cassio in 5.1, which “would be intriguingly evocative of the handkerchief s first appearance, when Desdemona tries to bind Othello's aching forehead with it” (319) but this is pure conjecture.

  39. Kaula, “Othello Possessed,” 126-27.

  40. Robert S. Miola, “Othello Furens,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41. (1990): 58.

  41. Hodgson, “Desdemona's Handkerchief as an Emblem,” 315; Andrews, “Honest Othello,” 283.

  42. Baldensperger, “Was Othello an Ethiopian?” excuses Othello's deliberate lie about the “antique token” by asking rhetorically, “Among so many enlightened people, how could he speak of the fatal abduction of an amulet?” (14). Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt, 1939), suggests that “in Othello's case an element of mystery and magic, native to his original environment and in the meantime only half-forgotten, would seem to have become operative again. His voice and his very clothes have brought the scent of it along” (229).

  43. From a psychoanalytic perspective, we may say that the handkerchief identifies with its victims, given that “[i]dentification is a process in which the human subject ‘introjects’ attributes of other people and transforms them through the unconscious imagination. This identification with another is made a part of the subject by incorporation: the taking in of objects, either wholly or partially, to form the basis of an ego” (Anthony Elliott, Psychoanalytic Theory: An Introduction [Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1994], 13). In its bloodthirsty incorporations, the handkerchief may be said to take the Freudian model of ego-formation very much to heart.

  44. In this, magic resembles desire, which is also mimetic in the play. Desdemona falls in love while eavesdropping on Othello recounting his adventures to Brabantio; Desdemona then tells Othello that the way to “woo” her would be to teach his story to a friend and have him tell it to her (1.3.163-65). Even Brabantio's conviction that Desdemona has been stolen is both instantiated and confirmed by a dream (1.141-42). Narrative, it seems, works like a charm.

  45. As Bert O. States puts it in another context, “theatergoing in itself is a kind of bracketing, or epoche, in which we willingly, if not involuntarily, suspend our belief in the empirical world and attend to a half-reality already ‘reduced’ by the premeditations and manipulations of a series of prior and present artists” (“The Phenomenological Attitude,” in Critical Theory and Performance, ed. Janelle G. Reinelt and Joseph R. Roach [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992], 371-72).

  46. Edmund Husserl, Cartesian Meditations, trans. Dorion Cairns (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1977).

  47. Thomas Rymer, “A Short View of Tragedy,” in The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. Curt A. Zimansky (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 160.

Leah Scragg (essay date 1968)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6698

SOURCE: Scragg, Leah. “Iago—Vice or Devil?” Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Scragg contends that Iago, who exhibits distinct affinities with the allegorical figure of Vice found in medieval mystery and morality plays, should more properly be said to derive from stage representations of the Devil.]

For a considerable time critics have traced the characteristics displayed by Iago back to the Vice, the artful seducer of the Morality plays. Alois Brandl in 1898 included Iago among the descendants of the Vice, although apparently associating that figure with the Devil:

If we follow the role of Vice in the other English tragedies of this period and the following decades, we still find Haphazard in ‘Appius and Virginia’ as well as Ambidexter in ‘Cambyses’ as representatives of the old Morality-type, i.e. as seducer and hypocrite. In Marlowe's Mephistopheles the original diabolic character of this figure once more reaches full expression; in Marlowe's black Ithimor, Shakespeare's Aaron and Iago it is still strongly to be felt;1

and Cushman in 1900, while showing the utter disparity between the nature of Vice and Devil, explicitly endorses Brandl's derivation of Iago from the former and would add other Shakespearean villains to the list:

Why not also add to these Edmund in Lear, Richard III, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Antonio in The Tempest?2

The most recent and convincing exponent of this view is Bernard Spivack (Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, New York, 1958), who examined the typical characteristics of the Vice, proved that figures displaying similar characteristics were found in a number of Elizabethan plays and having shown Iago possessed the same attributes, concluded that he was, in fact, a descendant of the Vice playing his traditionally motiveless role beneath a mask of motivated hostility. In this way, the difficulties encountered in the play, particularly the ambiguous nature of Iago's motivation, are seen as the result of an attempt to ‘translate’ the popular, but amoral, seducer of the Morality stage into realistic Elizabethan-Jacobean drama.

However, if the characteristics which are thought to be typical of the Vice, and which are used by these critics as a kind of hallmark to detect his literary progeny, were found before, during and after the period of the popularity of the Morality play in the figure of the Devil, it would be equally arguable that it is to the Devil, not the Vice, that Iago is indebted. In this case he would revert once more from the unmotivated seducer to the motivated antagonist—from the amoral to the immoral. In the first part of this article I shall therefore attempt to show that Vice-like characteristics are not restricted to amoral beings, and in the second to suggest that the evidence within Othello points to an association between Iago and the powers of darkness which at least confirms his moral nature, if not proving his derivation from a traditional stage presentation of the Devil.


The attributes which typify ‘The Vice’, the figure which emerged after 1500 from the group of vices engaged in the psychomachia of the early Morality plays, and which are said to characterize his descendants, are as follows.3 He was a gay, light-hearted intriguer, existing on intimate terms with his audience, whom he invited to witness a display of his ability to reduce a man from a state of grace to utter ruin. He invariably posed as the friend of his victim, often disguising himself for the purpose, and always appearing to devote himself to his friend's welfare. He treated his seduction as ‘sport’ combining mischief with merriment, triumphing over his fallen adversary and glorying in his skill in deceit. So far the analogy with Iago is obvious. He provided for his audience both humour and homiletic instruction. Above all, he was an amoral being whose behaviour was completely unmotivated—he simply demonstrated the nature of the abstraction he represented. In this respect, as Spivack points out, the Devil and the Vice are completely distinct:

The purposes of the Devil are those of a complex moral being. The whole purpose of the Vice is to illustrate his name and nature and to reflect upon the audience the single moral idea he personifies. The former acts to achieve his desires, the latter only to show what he is. Between the two no ethical continuity is possible because in the nature of a personification there is nothing that is subject to ethical definition.4

But although entirely disparate ethically, in their dramatic presentation the Vice and the Devil have much in common, those characteristics which I have outlined as typical of the Vice being found in the Devil of the Mystery plays over a hundred years before the emergence of the allegorical figure—as the motivated antagonist who leaped on to the stage at York, pushing the audience aside, reveals:

Make rome be-lyve, and late me gang,
Who makis here all þis þrang?
High you hense! high myght ȝou hang
                                                                                                    right with a roppe.
I drede me þat I dwelle to lang
                                                                                                              to do a jape.

(XXII, 1-6)5

This is the introduction to Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness, but the tones in which the Devil speaks are exactly those of the Vice, with his direct, familiar relationship with the audience, his vivacity and emphasis on what is to take place as a ‘jape’. He too confides in the audience, relating the way in which he delights to bring men to eternal pain (XXII, 7-12), why he intends to tempt Christ—i.e. his motivation (XXII, 19-22), what he intends towards his victim (XXII, 39-42) and how he is going to attempt it (XXII, 43-8). In other words he invites us to witness a display of his boasted ability to bring men to sin. When he actually approaches Christ, he poses as his friend:

Þou hast fasted longe, I wene,
I wolde now som mete wer sene
For olde acqueyntaunce vs by-twene,
                                                                                          Thy-selue wote howe.
Ther sall noman witte what I mene
                                                                                          but I and þou.

(XXII, 61-6)

The Devil is naturally unsuccessful and his actions are limited by the necessity of following the Biblical narrative, but nevertheless, in this earliest surviving dramatic presentation of a tempter on the English stage, the attitudes of the later Vice figure are already evinced. The intimacy with the audience, the self-explanatory, demonstrative role for homiletic effect, the attitude to the attack on the spiritual welfare of the victim as ‘sport’, the device of posing as the friend of the person to be betrayed, are all present. The only, and very significant, difference lies in the fact that the Devil is implicitly and explicitly motivated. Since the York cycle was first presented between 1362 and 1376 and was played until 15686 this kind of antagonist was seen on the English stage long before the emergence of the Vice after 1500 and continued to be seen throughout the period of the popularity of the Morality play.

The Chester cycle, which probably originated between 1377 and 1382 and which was played until 1575, does not present such a vivacious Devil as the York plays but elements which are to be typical of the Vice may be seen—notably the emphasis on disguise:

A manner of an Adder is in this place,
that wynges like a byrd she hase,
feete as an Adder, a maydens face;
her kinde I will take;

(II, 193-6)7

and the pose as the friend of the victim:

Take of this fruite and assaie:
It is good meate, I dare laye,
and, but thou fynde yt to thy paye,
say that I am false.

(II, 233-6)

Similarly the attitude to the temptation of Christ as a game is still present:

a gammon I will assay.

(XII, 4)

The play of the Last Judgement in the Wakefield cycle (originated 1390-1410) also presents vivacious Devils eager to destroy their human victims. Their chief, Tutivillus, introduces himself on his first entrance, priding himself on his dexterity in entrapping the unwary (XXX, 211-21),8 and commenting with cynical glee on the lasciviousness and general corruption of the times which give him his opportunity to win souls (XXX, 273-304). Although a Devil, Tutivillus does not comment in any way on the motive for his antagonism. He shows no cause for his hostility towards mankind—his whole being is involved in an attitude of merriment, almost glee, not hatred and resentment. His joyful, triumphant, imaginary welcoming of the sinners to hell is typical:

ye lurdans and lyars / mychers and thefes,
fflytars and flyars / that all men reprefes,
Spolars, extorcyonars / Welcom, my lefes!
ffals Iurars and vsurars / to symony that clevys,
          To tell;
hasardars and dysars,
ffals dedys forgars,
Slanderars, bakbytars,
          All vnto hell.

(XXX, 359-67)

He has the energy, life and homiletic function which are claimed to be typical of the Vice, together with his professional pride in his work:

I am oone of youre ordir / and oone of youre sons;
I stande at my tristur / when othere men shones.

(XXX, 207-8)

And like the Vice these Devils blend comedy and homiletics as they triumph over their fallen victims:

Where is the gold and the good / that ye gederd togedir?
The mery menee that yode / hider and thedir?
Gay gyrdyls, iaggid hode / prankyd gownes, whedir?
Haue ye wit or ye wode / ye broght not hider
Bot sorowe,
And youre synnes in youre nekkys.
I beshrew thaym that rekkys! He comes to late that bekkys youre bodyes to borow.

(XXX, 550-8)

The Devil is beginning to appear on the stage with the motive for his antagonism taken for granted, while he simply exhibits his delight in evil and his dexterity in entrapping souls.

The Devil of the single pageant extant from the Newcastle plays, which originated before 1462 and were played until 1567-8, has similar characteristics. He exists on intimate terms with his audience, confiding to them his plans to corrupt Noah's wife (lines 109-13).9 He too exhibits a light-hearted approach to his deception and insinuates himself into the confidence of his dupe. His bland greeting to Mrs Noah, whom he hopes to destroy, ‘Rest well, rest well, my own dere dame’ (line 115), might well have been spoken by innumerable later Vice figures.

Quires N, P, Q, R, of the Ludus Coventriae10 (originated c. 1400-c. 1450) probably had a separate existence before their inclusion in the cycle and the Devil of these sections is of a very different kind from the demon filled with overt hatred found in other parts. He shares the characteristics noted in earlier Devils, particularly the intimacy with the audience to whom he introduces himself (26, 1-2), recounts with pride his aim in the world:

I am Norsshere of synne · to þe confusyon of man
To bryng hym to my dongeon · þer in fyre to dwelle

(26, 5-6)

and recites his past triumphs and his skill in entrapping souls (26, 23-4). He also confides to them his plans for the destruction of Christ (26, 50-3), invites them to become his friends (26, 61-3) and finally departs with a declaration of alliance (with obvious homiletic significance) between himself and his listeners:

I am with ȝow at all tymes · whan ȝe to councel me call
But for A short tyme · my-self I devoyde.

(26, 123-4)

The Devil here has much in common with the Vice and clearly shows that Vice-like characteristics are not solely the province of amoral beings. The Devil, as Satan, also has a speech addressed directly to the audience at the opening of Play 31, in which, having introduced himself, he confides to the audience his fears about Christ, and outlines his plans for revenging the rebuff given to him by Christ when he tempted him in the wilderness:

Þat rebuke þat he gaf me · xal not be vn-qwyt
Som what I haue be-gonne · & more xal be do
Ffor All his barfot goying · fro me xal he not skyp
but my derk dongeon I xal bryngyn hym to.

(31, 486-9)

The Devil, the original motivated revenger of English drama addresses his audience here in tones very like those of innumerable self-explanatory villains of the Elizabethan stage. When the other Devils are appalled at the prospect of Christ coming to hell and Satan realizes that he has over-stepped himself, it is in terms of his ‘sport’ that he laments:

A · A · than haue I go to ferre
but som wyle help I haue a shrewde torne
My game is wers þan I wend here
I may seyn · my game is lorne.

(31, 507-10)

Once more the Devil anticipates the Vice.

All that remains of the Norwich Mystery cycle are two versions of the pageant of Adam and Eve where the Devil appears simply as the Serpent. However in the version composed after 1565 he shows his kinship with the traditional tempter—taking his audience into his confidence and revealing to them his intention to disguise himself to further the temptation (lines 38-41).11 The motive for the antagonism displayed by the Serpent is not commented upon; like Iago he simply ‘can yt nott abyde, in theis joyes they shulde be’. Antagonism from the Devil, in whatever form he appears, is understood.

Thus in three out of the four major Mystery cycles extant (if the Chester cycle is regarded as a partial exception), as well as in those pageants surviving from the Newcastle and Norwich plays, the Devil shows many of the characteristics which typify the Vice, and which have been identified by Brandl, Cushman and Spivack as vestigial traces of the Vice in the self-explanatory villains of the Elizabethan-Jacobean stage with their curious combination of malice and merriment. It seems fairly safe to assume that these Devils were typical of those in the Mystery plays as a whole, which originated before the emergence of the allegorical drama, were performed throughout the period when the Morality play enjoyed its popularity, and, judging from the number of copies made at the close of the sixteenth century, would still have been familiar after they had actually disappeared from the stage.

However, the Devil was presented as the seducer of mankind in the Morality plays themselves before ‘The Vice’ as distinct from a number of vices, emerged into dramatic prominence. In the first complete Morality play extant, The Castle of Perseverance (1405-25), it is the Evil Angel, not the subsidiary vices, nor even The World or The Flesh, who is Humanum Genus's chief enemy. His method of seduction is the traditional one. He poses as man's friend supporting him against the ‘bad’ counsels of the Good Angel (IV, 340-8)12 while instructing the vices on the means to be used to procure Humanum Genus's downfall (V, 547-51). But he is not simply the artful contriver of the hero's ruin—he also displays the irreverent humour and contempt for virtue shown by Spivack to be typical of the Vice, for example:

ȝa! whanne þe fox prechyth, kepe wel ȝore gees!
          he spekyth as it were a holy pope.
goo, felaw, & pyke of þe lys
          þat crepe þer up-on þi cope!

(VI, 804-7)

—a speech addressed to the Good Angel! When Humanum Genus finally dies in sin, he triumphs over him as the Vice is to triumph over his victim and as Iago is to triumph over the fallen Othello.

Similarly, in Mankind13 (1465-70), the second complete Morality play extant, it is not the vices—Nought, New-Guise and Now-a-days—who are Mankind's most potent adversaries, for he is easily able to repel them by beating them away; it is their cunning chief, Titivillus, who brings about his downfall. Mr Spivack devotes a long section to Titivillus (op. cit. pp. 123-5) showing, step by step, how his actions and speeches provide a pattern for the behaviour of a Vice,14 but in fact, as Spivack barely notices, he is not a Vice at all. The playwright makes his nature perfectly clear when he declares, ‘propy[r]lly Titiuilly syngnyfyes the fend of helle’ (III, 879). He is not an unmotivated amoral figure representing an inner moral frailty, he is the motivated antagonist of Mankind, the moral being devoted to his spiritual destruction. It is true that the role he plays is soon to be taken over by the Vice because, as Mr. Spivack rightly observes, the Devil ‘is not a personification but an historical figure out of Christian mythology and folklore, and an illogical intrusion, therefore, into the drama of abstraction’ (op. cit. p. 132), but the dramatic qualities the Vice comes to represent are surely derived from him.

The Devil also acts as seducer in the third of the so-called Macro-morals, Mind, Will and Understanding (1450-1500). Here he enters immediately after Mind, Will and Understanding have been presented and in typical manner quickly takes the audience into his confidence, revealing who he is:

I am he þat syn be-gane

(line 332)15

and what has motivated his animosity:

My place to restore,
          God hath mad a man.

(lines 327-8)

In Vice-like manner he boasts of his cunning (lines 341-2) and then proceeds to share with the audience his intention to corrupt Mind, Will and Understanding, thus bringing the soul to damnation (lines 365-70). Most significantly, however, he disguises himself before proceeding to the temptation, showing once more that the disguise motif, associated with the pose as the friend of the victim, originated with the Devil:

For, to tempte man in my lyknes,
yt wolde brynge hym to grett feerfullness,
I wyll change me in-to bryghtnes,
                                        & so hym to be-gy[le].

(lines 373-6)

In the role of well-wisher, he then dupes the trio into believing that a life of prayer and contrition is not pleasing to God, brings them from piety to depravity and triumphs to his intimates, the audience, on his good success, while he proceeds, Iago-like, to tell the ultimate goal of his operation:

That soule, God made in-comparable,
To hys lyknes most amyable:
I xall make yt most reprouable,
          Ewyn lyke to a fende of hell.
At hys deth I xall a-pere informable,
Schewynge hym all hys synnys abhomynable,
Prewynge hys soule damnable,
          So with dyspeyer I xall hym qwell.

(lines 536-43)

Similarly in Mary Magdalene (c. 1480-1520), a curious combination of Mystery and Morality, it is the Devil, as Satan, who is once more the cause of the central character's downfall. He enters in the seventh scene to confide to the audience both the motive for his hatred of mankind and his desire for their destruction (lines 366-71).16 It is he who initiates the attack on Mary Magdalene, inviting the help of The World and The Flesh, and his is the principal triumph and joy at the news of her downfall (‘a! how I tremyl & trott for ȝese tydynges!’). It is he who severely punishes his agents when Mary escapes his clutches and he who, with the Seven Deadly Sins under his command, provides the combination of temptation and comedy associated with the Vice.

John Bale's anti-catholic Mystery play The Temptation of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Satan (1538) also gives a picture of a Satan who is a fitting heir to the traditional archetypal adversary of the Mystery stage. He enters immediately after Christ's first speech and proceeds to explain his name and function to the audience in the manner typical of the Vice. The only difference lies in the motivated hostility displayed:

I am Satan, the common adversary,
An enemy to man, him seeking to destroy
And to bring to nought, by my assaults most crafty.
I watch everywhere, wanting no policy
To trap him in a snare, and make him the child of Hell.

(p. 155)17

He then confides his fears of Christ's coming (p. 155) and reveals his purpose towards him. He intends to deceive him by guile and will adopt a disguise frequently used by Vices for the same purpose:

I will not leave him till I know what he is,
And what he intendeth in this same border here:
Subtlety must help; else all will be amiss;
A godly pretence, outwardly, must I bear,
Seeming religious, devout and sad in my gear.
If he be come now for the redemption of man,
As I fear he is, I will stop him if I can.

(pp. 155-6)

He then disguises himself as a hermit, approaches Christ and poses as one well-disposed towards him (p. 156). Having insinuated himself into his company, he begins to flatter him, to seem solicitous for his welfare, while at the same time trying to instil doubts into his mind beneath the cloak of friendship—just as Iago is later to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of his victim:

Now, forsooth and God! it is joy of your life
That ye take such pains; and are in virtue so rife
Where so small joys are to recreate the heart:

(p. 156)

—compare his exclamation on hearing how long Christ has fasted:

So much I judged by your pale countenance.

(p. 156)

In his attempt to persuade Christ to change the stones to bread, he emphasizes that his sole thought is upon the well-being of his friend:

My mind is, in this, ye should your body regard;
And not, indiscreetly, to cast yourself away.

(p. 157)

His attitude throughout the temptation is that of an honest man showing his friend the ‘folly’ of his behaviour. He is the man of the world, offering his knowledge of things to the unrealistic idealist—the analogy with Iago is obvious:

I put case: ye be God's son—what can that further?
Preach ye once the truth the bishops will ye murther.

(p. 157)


Alas! it grieveth me that ye are such a believer:

(p. 164)


If I bid ye make of stones bread for your body,
Ye say man liveth not in temporal feeding only.
As I bid ye leap down from the pinnacle above,
Ye will not tempt God, otherwise than you behove.
Thus are ye still poor; thus are ye still weak and needy:

(p. 164)

and the supreme counsel of the down-to-earth man of the world, the counsel Iago gives Othello: renounce your faith, it is foolish:

Forsake the belief that ye have in God's word,
That ye are His son, for it is not worth a turd!
Is he a father that see his son thus famish?
If ye believe it, I say ye are too foolish.
Ye see these pleasures—if you be ruled by me,
I shall make ye a man: to my words, therefore, agree.

(p. 164)

Defeated, Satan, the eternal antagonist, like Iago, vows eternal defiance:

I defy thee … and take thy words but as wind.

(p. 166)

This Devil with his pose of friendship, his man of the world attitude and his subtlety, is a direct pointer to the kind of Devil Iago is.

The Devil continued to appear, sporadically, as the antagonist of mankind throughout the history of the Morality play. He was the chief enemy of Youth in Lusty Juventus (1547-53), he had a less important role as Satan in All For Money (1559-77) when the transition from allegorical to literal drama had begun, and, while the Morality play was foundering in the closing decades of the century, he took new life as Mephistophilis in Dr Faustus (1588-92).

Thus not only did the Devil possess many of the characteristics of the Vice long before the emergence of the latter figure (such Devils as Titivillus anticipating the Vice in every respect), he continued to appear on the stage as tempter throughout the history of the Morality play. Moreover, a number of plays show that in fact a certain confusion between the respective roles of Vice and Devil existed in the minds of at least some Tudor dramatists. In The World and The Child (1500-22), when Conscience hears that Manhood has been seduced by the Vice, Folly, he exclaims:

Lo, sirs, a great ensample you may see,
The frailness of mankind,
How oft he falleth in folly
Through temptation of the fiend:

(p. 267)18

which suggests that even if Folly does not partake of the nature of the Devil, he somehow acts under his guidance. Similarly, in Bale's Three Laws of Nature, Moses and Christ (1538), Natural Law exclaims to the Vice, Infidelity,

I defy thee, wicked fiend.

(p. 15)19

This Vice is called ‘fiend’ more than once in the course of the action and Natural Law declares that he shuns his company as he would ‘the devil of hell’ (p. 16). Confusion of this kind is most apparent in the 1578 edition of All For Money. In addition to the usual stage directions this edition provides elaborate instructions for the costumes of the various characters, including:

Here commeth in Gluttonie and Pride dressed in deuils apparel.

(B iii r)20

Later in the same play we are told that ‘Here all the deuilles departe’ (B iiii r) when it is clear that Satan, Gluttony and Pride have gone out. Ethically disparate as they undoubtedly are, the Vice and the Devil have a similar function and share a fund of common characteristics which makes confusion between their dramatic roles possible.

Finally, the Devil was still seen on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage long after the decline of both Mystery and Morality play—Grim the Collier (1600), The Merry Devil of Edmonton (1599-1604), If it Be Not Good, The Devil is in it (1611-12), The Birth of Merlin (1597-1621), etc., all testifying to the perennial popularity of the figure of the supreme antagonist. For, ultimately, it is the Devil who, in Christian myth, and thus in Christian drama, is the implacable enemy of mankind. The Vice, the allegorical representation of an inner moral frailty, takes over the role of seducer in the Morality play, but he continues to show the traditional attitude to the part—the intimacy with the audience, the self-revelation, glee, irreverence, triumph over the fallen victim, etc. Freed from the confines of the Biblical narrative and the limitations of a narrowly defined moral status, he is able to develop these characteristics to a more marked degree, and by virtue of his amoral demonstrative nature and consequent detachment from the fate of his victims, he is able to pass naturally and easily, as Spivack has shown, into non-allegorical farce. But, fundamentally, the operation of the Vice is the operation of the Devil adapted to fulfil the needs of the dramatized psychomachia, and it is as the Devil that the figure passed into Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. If, therefore, the characteristics Iago displays were derived from an earlier figure, it seems extremely likely that it is to the Devil rather than the Vice that he is indebted, and that far from being a basically motiveless, amoral figure, he is a motivated being, engaged in the pursuit of some kind of revenge.


There is much evidence in Othello to confirm the suggestion that Iago is related, in some way, to the powers of darkness, and critics have long commented upon the diabolism that surrounds the figure of the ‘villain’ and invests the imagery of the play. Coleridge called Iago ‘a being next to devil, and only not quite devil’,21 Bradley disputed the point22 and modern critics continue to argue the question. Among those who support the view (in one way or another) that Iago partakes of the nature of the Devil, Stoll has pointed to the ambiguity of his motivation:

None of the motives at which Iago glances—the grievance in the matter of the promotion, or his lust for Desdemona, or his fancy that Othello or Cassio may have played him foul with Emilia—is sufficient for the vast villainy of his nature …

and concluded that:

He is a son of Belial, he is a limb of Satan.(23)

Wilson Knight has seen the play as a cosmic battle for the soul of man with Iago as a ‘kind of Mephistopheles’,24 Maud Bodkin sees Iago as an archetype of the Devil, defining ‘Devil’ as ‘our tendency to represent in personal form the forces within and without us that threaten our supreme values’,25 and S. L. Bethell analysing the distribution of the diabolic imagery in the play concludes that:

The play is a solemn game of hunt the devil, with, of course, the audience largely in the know. And it is in this game that the diabolic imagery is bandied about from character to character until the denouement: we know the devil then, but he has summoned another lost soul to his side.26

Heilman, discussing Iago's loss of humanity and the function of the serpent imagery in this respect, has suggested the way in which Iago's diabolism functions in the play:

As Iago's diabolism thus emerges distinct from the interwoven texture of action and language, we see how the myth of the devil enters into the play—not as a formula which squeezes out the individuality of Iago, nor as a pure idea of which the dramatic parts are an allegorical projection, but as an added dimension, a collateral presence that makes us sense the inclusiveness of the fable.27

But against this view stands Dr Leavis with his famous pronouncement that Iago is no more than ‘a necessary piece of dramatic mechanism’ designed to trigger off Othello's jealousy,28 and Marvin Rosenberg who emphasizes Iago's humanity (showing him to be a recognizable psychological type) and repudiates his fiendishness29 in spite of the fact that his study of the stage history of the play shows that Iago's role is most powerful when played, as Macready played it, as ‘a revelation of subtle, poetic, vigorous, manly, many-sided devilry’.30

To attempt to analyse the diabolic element in the play when this has been done so fully by the critics cited would be superfluous, but for the purpose of this article it is necessary to summarize very briefly the evidence in support of the view that the myth of the Devil does enter, at some level, into the play. From the very opening of the action, Iago's relationship with the powers of darkness is continually emphasized—it is towards hell that he looks constantly for inspiration, hell and the Devil are for ever in his mouth, continually invoked by him; compare

                                                                                                    Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light

(I, iii, 397-8)


                                                  Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now:

(II, iii, 339-42)


I do hate him as I do hell pains

(I, i, 155)

where his very tones suggest familiarity with the pains he speaks of. Examples could be multiplied. As Heilman has shown, when Othello falls a victim to Iago's temptation, he catches from him not only his debased view of life but his field of reference:

Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her!
Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil.

(III, iii, 479-82)

Naked abed, Iago, and not mean harm!
It is hypocrisy against the devil.

(IV, i, 5-6)

Fire and brimstone!

(IV, i, 228)

The word ‘devil’ is passed constantly from mouth to mouth. Much of the action of the play seems to take place in the darkness and horror of hell itself—the confusion and darkness of the night scene before Brabantio's house, the quarrel during the night watch, the attempted murder of Cassio—scenes of darkness and mischief over which Iago presides like an evil genius. But it is the final scene of the play that provides the most convincing evidence for Iago's diabolism when the accumulated reference of the play is finally crystallized and centred on him as Othello, in a moment of terrible clarity, realizes the truth:

I look down towards his feet—but that's a fable.
If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

(V, ii, 289-90)

His failure to do so and Iago's derisive reply,

I bleed, sir; but not kill'd

(V, ii, 291)

surely provide a comment on Iago's ultimate nature. Othello, at least, has no doubts about the nature of the deception that has been practised on him.

Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnar'd my soul and body?

(V, ii, 304-5)

Indisputably Iago is engaged in the elaborate seduction of a representative of mankind and the destruction of the values that he represents. But although he undertakes this attack with joy, almost light-heartedness, he reveals that, however gleeful he is in pursuing the downfall of his victim, his hatred of him, of the virtues he possesses, is malevolent in the extreme. Note the intensity of the hatred in the following:

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

(I, i, 42)

So will I turn her virtue into pitch;
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.

(II, iii, 349-51)

                                                  If Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.

(V, i, 18-20)

These are not the tones of an amoral figure acting under the necessity imposed by dramatic convention to demonstrate his own nature, but the accents of a moral being impelled by a burning desire to feed fat a consuming hatred with revenge.31

But if Iago is to be regarded on one level (Heilman's ‘added dimension’) as a Devil rather than a Vice, his famous motives may no longer be regarded as the realistic trappings designed to cloak his allegorical origins, and fit him for the literal stage. They must be organic rather than functional. The proposition that Iago is a Devil in some sense of the word32 implies that it is his nature to envy those whose character or situation is in any way superior to his own, to suffer from a sense of injured merit and to seek to destroy anything which by its very superiority threatens his self-love. Hence, locally, he feels he has been slighted by Othello in the promotion of Cassio, he asserts that Othello and Cassio have cuckolded him from his conviction that they cannot be as virtuous as they appear, and from his diseased belief that he is being constantly slighted. His ‘love’ for Desdemona is his desire to possess that object which is clearly highly desirable and belongs to someone else. But the ultimate motive for his hatred of Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio is his denial of the values they affirm, his fixed opposition to the virtues they represent. It is the hatred of Satan for the sanctity of Adam and Eve, the hatred of a being who is forced to recognize a virtue he cannot share and constantly desires. Hence the ‘daily beauty’ of the lives of Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona is a constant affront to him. The myth of Satan depicts him as falling from heaven from a sense of being undervalued; he tempted Adam and Eve both because they were superior to him, and therefore an object of envious hatred, and because he desired to avenge a supposed injury. Iago's motivation is very similar. At the close of the play, when he has corrupted Othello's mind, destroyed both him and Desdemona, when, for them, Paradise has been lost, Iago is dragged away to the tortures that are his element. He does not die at the end of the play, he is not to be put rapidly to death. He is to linger in pain like the powers of whom he is the instrument. Iago follows the pattern laid down in the garden of Eden and repeated over and over again in Christian literature by the archetypal adversary of mankind. Antagonistic to all forms of virtue, obscurely envying a state he constantly denies, he is the inveterate opponent of virtue, the seducer of mankind, who reduces his victims by guile from their original state of bliss to grief, death and hell.

It is clear that the characteristics displayed by Iago could well have been derived from the Devil rather than the Vice and that this proposition is reinforced by the emphasis on devilry in the play and the nature of Iago's attitude to his victims. But it would be overstating the position to assert categorically that Iago's characterization is necessarily derived from a traditional stage presentation of the Devil. All that can be claimed is that the Devil's claim to be Iago's forefather is at least as good as that of the Vice, and is supported by evidence in the play. Thus, while the Devil cannot be proved to be Iago's ancestor, his contradictory claim clearly invalidates the view that Iago must be regarded as a descendant of the Vice because of the dramatic characteristics he displays. Literary origins make dubious discussion at best, and it would be highly lamentable for Iago to be deprived of his motivation on the grounds that he is an amoral survivor from the psychomachia, roughly clad in the garments of realism, when the very characteristics which have reduced him to this exigency, together with the corroborative evidence from the play, suggest that he is not a Vice but a Devil.


  1. Quellen des weltlichen Dramas in England vor Shakespeare (Strassburg, 1898), p. xciv.

  2. ‘The Devil and The Vice in the English Dramatic Literature before Shakespeare’, Studien zur englischen Philologie, Heft VI (Halle A. S., 1900).

  3. This summary is drawn from Mr Spivack's analysis of the figure.

  4. Spivack, op. cit. p. 134.

  5. References are to York Plays, ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith (Oxford, 1885).

  6. The dates of all plays are those given in Annals of English Drama 975-1700, by Alfred Harbage, revised by S. Schoenbaum (1964).

  7. References are to The Chester Plays, Part I, ed. Hermann Deimling, E.E.T.S. E.S. LXII (1892).

  8. References are to The Towneley Plays, ed. George England and Alfred W. Pollard, E.E.T.S. E.S. LXXI (1897).

  9. References are to the text of this play included in The Non-Cycle Mystery Plays, ed. Osborn Waterhouse, E.E.T.S. E.S. CIV (1909).

  10. References are to Ludus Coventriae or The Play called Corpus Christi, ed. K. S. Block, E.E.T.S. E.S. CXX (1922).

  11. References are to the text included in The Non-Cycle Mystery Plays (see n. 9 above).

  12. References are to the text in The Macro Plays, ed. F. J. Furnivall and Alfred W. Pollard, E.E.T.S. E.S. XCI (1904).

  13. A text of this play may be found in The Macro Plays (see n. 12 above).

  14. Cp. ‘The pivotal action of the allegorical drama, repeated as many times almost as there are plays, is a more sophisticated version of just such a demonstration and such a lecture’ (Spivack, op. cit. p. 125).

  15. References are to the text of the play included in The Macro Plays (see n. 12 above).

  16. References are to the text of the play in The Digby Mysteries, ed. F. J. Furnivall, The New Shakespeare Society (1882).

  17. References are to The Dramatic Writings of John Bale, ed. John S. Farmer, Early English Drama Society (1907).

  18. References are to Dodsley's Old English Plays, vol. I, ed. W. Carew Hazlitt (4th ed. 1874).

  19. See n. 17 above.

  20. Cp. All For Money, Old English Drama, Students Facsimile Edition (1910).

  21. Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare, ed. Mrs H. N. Coleridge (1849), I, p. 262.

  22. Lecture VI (Othello), Shakespearean Tragedy (St Martin's Library, 1957), pp. 185-6.

  23. Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1933), p. 97.

  24. Cp. ‘The Othello Music’ in The Wheel of Fire (1930).

  25. Cp. Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Oxford Paperbacks, 1963), p. 223.

  26. Cp. ‘Shakespeare's Imagery: The Diabolic Images in Othello’, Shakespeare Survey 5 (1952), p. 72.

  27. Cp. Magic in the Web (Lexington, 1956), p. 96.

  28. Cp. ‘Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero’ in The Common Pursuit (Peregrine Books, 1962), p. 138.

  29. Cp. The Masks of Othello (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1961), pp. 170-1.

  30. Ibid. p. 124.

  31. Rosenberg's study of the stage history of Othello is again illuminating here, for he shows that Iago's role is unsatisfying when played as Vice rather than Devil. Thus an Iago of 1912 ‘tended to be impish rather than devilish … the real venom … seldom emerged’ (p. 156) and Maurice Evans failed in the part because ‘young, open of countenance, light and gay of speech and step’ as his Iago was, his evil lost its point, was ‘too much akin to irresponsible mischief making’ (my italics). He was clearly amoral rather than immoral.

  32. He has been variously regarded as a Devil on the metaphysical level, as a Devil incarnate, as a man possessed, and as a man in the process of becoming a Devil by the denial of the basic facts of his humanity.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9919

SOURCE: Tsomondo, Thorell Porter. “Stage-Managing ‘Otherness’: The Function of Narrative in Othello.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 32, no. 2 (June 1999): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Tsomondo analyzes the narrative and dramatic strategies of Othello, concentrating on the construction of Othello as “Other” in terms of its implications within the play and for Shakespeare's canonical status in the postcolonial epoch.]

New historicist and postcolonial research has lent to narratology's concern with voice and location of voice a heightened awareness of the sociopolitical as well as ideological functions of narrative discourse and the ways that literary texts inscribe and exploit these functions. In Hayden White's view, narrative is “not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events … but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications” (ix). More concretely, Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and Said's Culture and Imperialism, draw critical attention not only to the sociopolitical and psychic dimensions of narrative discourse but to questions of power relations that inform narrative structures and practices.

Although Shakespeare's Othello is a dramatic rather than a narrative work—or perhaps because it is drama in which racially-turned narrative performance is conspicuously, structurally staged—the play offers a fascinating, if unusual, site for examining narrative production and use. The plot in itself is simple enough: Othello, a General in the Venetian army and a Moor, secretly weds Desdemona, the young daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello's ensign, beguiles him into believing that Desdemona has been adulterous with the lieutenant, Cassio, and in a jealous rage, Othello murders Desdemona. The period in which the play was written—the Elizabethan age of exploration and colonial expansion, a time of shifting geographic boundaries and of unprecedented cross-cultural transaction—has already attracted considerable attention on the part of theorists concerned with the constitution of institutionalized sociopolitical structures and the textualization of these structures, as well as those concerned with modes and processes of literary representation and the ideological and rhetorical tensions that it necessarily inscribes. What needs more attention, however, is how these features are concretely conjoined in a work like Othello and how this play makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the politics and poetics of the Elizabethan period.

Thus in the following essay, I want to focus on the significance of the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs in Othello, arguing that these strategies subtly distinguish and operate along the geographic, political, and cultural boundaries that the play's Renaissance world stage draws. With a view to showing how the contrastive interplay of these generic techniques enacts the ideological accountability of narrative functions in general as well as of Shakespeare's manipulation of these functions, I will first analyze Shakespeare's use of these formal literary devices in the play to create a thematics of absence/presence that comments tellingly on Othello's dubious identity in Renaissance society. Then, I will elaborate on Shakespeare's procedure by linking it to the dynamics of fiction-making in general, going on to explore what his particular construction of Othello reveals about his poetic agenda. Finally, I will expand my argument to explore relations of power in imperialist culture and the signs of this power in Shakespeare's art and canonic status. In this way, I wish to demonstrate not only how Shakespeare's schizoid casting of the Moor as, at once, central subject and marginalized object reflects colonial power relations but also how the play's colonializing instrumentality extends beyond the literary text and pertains to Shakespeare scholarship and criticism of the play as well.

In the last scene of Othello, the protagonist, aware of how he has been duped by Iago, is confined with the corpse of his wife whom he has just murdered; the time seems to have come finally for what Othello has not yet done: self-examination in the heroic tradition of Shakespearean tragedy. Though Othello's predicament is markedly different from that of Richard II, one might expect that like Richard he would study how to “compare this prison … unto the world,” and engage in setting “the word itself against the word” (5.5.1-14). Given his knowledge of Desdemona's innocence—the sight of “the tragic loading of this bed”—and the realization that he has been nothing more than a comic actor in Iago's deadly play, one might have expected Othello to be teased into thoughts of the kind that Macbeth utters upon hearing of the death of his wife:

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
… Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Macbeth's aside, indeed, captures the meaning that Iago has imposed on Othello's life and what must have seemed to Othello to be the significance of his life as he gazes on its deadly outcome.

Othello, however, has no capacity for reflection of this kind, either in personal or general humanistic terms. Faced with the tragic results of his poor judgment, he musters an audience and, predictably, tells another story: “I have seen the day / That with this little arm, and this good sword, / I have made my way …” (5.2.261-63). Earlier, goaded into believing that Desdemona is guilty of adultery, he disintegrated into apoplectic incoherence: “Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her … Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief—… Pish! Noses, ears, and lips…’ (4.1.36-42). When faced with similarly disillusioning circumstance, Hamlet (though it is highly unlikely that he could be tricked by Iago) protested:

… O God, God,
How [weary], stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't, Ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come [to this]!
But [two days married], nay, not so much, not two.
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!


Though one cannot applaud Macbeth's oblique assessment of his dilemma nor endorse Hamlet's misogyny, one is aware that their commentaries represent stages in their moral and intellectual delineation. The closest Othello comes to soliloquizing in the vein characteristic of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is in his paranoiac(ally) telescoped aside:

Haply for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberes have, or for I am declin'd
Into the vale of years (yet that's not much),
She's gone. I am abus'd and my relief
Must be to loathe her.


In these lines, Othello's insuppressible urge to tell his story points not inward to a heightened consciousness but outward to the narrative signs of his insecurity.

Othello (1604) was written four years after Hamlet, one year before King Lear and two years before Macbeth, the three plays with which it is usually ranked. Yet Othello is not invested with any of the self-searching, self-revelatory monologues that endow Shakespeare's tragic heroes with their special poignancy. Othello does not experience those ennobling moments when with lyric intensity the protagonist faces a personal crisis and gains and imparts insight into self and the vicissitudes of human life. In Shakespeare, the soliloquy is one means of bringing the hero closer to the audience; it magnifies and at the same time humanizes him. Lear's self-excoriating “unaccommodated man,” Hamlet's benumbing “heartache and the thousand natural shocks / that flesh is heir to,” Macbeth's sobering “brief candle,” all involve their audiences in moments of intense moral reckoning and philosophic contemplation.

Notably, in Othello, instead of the Moor, it is Iago, his white ensign, who is given to self-communing and his primary role is to diminish, through calculated psychic violence, Othello's humanity. As part of this function, Iago's privileged soliloquizing installs him between the protagonist and the audience even as it signalizes his own impressive intellectual capabilities and psychological astuteness. With this edge, Iago interprets, manipulates, even forecasts the hero's thought and actions for the audience, flattening the character, rendering increasingly evanescent verbal profundities like those allowed to Hamlet and Lear. Othello himself, in contrast, is limited to retailing his history, telling stories about his past exploits.

The predominance of narrative in Othello, that is “the presence of a story and a storyteller” (Scholes & Kellog 4), distinguishes the play and, in turn, has prompted much critical dispute, which inevitably turns on Othello's verbal proclivities and therefore his character. In a well-documented critical dialogue, when A. C. Bradley defined Othello as a poetic romantic victimized by Iago's “absolute egoism” (179), T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis respectively responded by describing Othello as someone given to “dramatizing himself” (111) and as doomed by his own “noble,” “brutal egoism” (146). More recently, Stephen Greenblatt has described Othello as self-fashioner of an “identity” that is dependent upon “constant performance … of his story” (81); Martin Elliott, in turn, has noted what he sees as a “habit of self-publication” (108), and Valerie Traub has argued that Othello essentially becomes a “signifier only of another signifier” (36). James Calderwood goes even so far as to suggest that Othello's preoccupation with storytelling comes close to jeopardizing the drama: “For a moment we seem on the edge of an Arabian Nights infinite regression of stories: Shakespeare's dramatic story yields to Othello's senatorial story, which disappears into stories of cannibals and Anthropophagy which might disappear into. … But fortunately they do not” (294). While these assessments accord with the play's own depiction of Othello's “bumbast circumstance / Horribly stuff'd with epithites of war” (1.1.13-14), in doing so they also point to a number of questions that need to be asked of Othello and its author. Why this yielding to the narrative impulse in this drama? Why in this play more than in any other is Shakespeare's dramatic art in danger of being upstaged by the characters' storytelling? What necessary dramatic function does narrative serve in Othello?

Drama and narrative are not, of course, mutually exclusive generic provinces, and Derrida's observation that a text may participate in more than one genre—thereby not belonging to any one specifically (61)—seems particularly applicable to Shakespeare. Harold Bloom, indeed, rates Shakespeare as one of the “great originals among the world's strongest authors” on the grounds that he “violates known forms”: “Shakespeare wrote five-act dramas for stage presentation, yet Shakespeare wrote no genre. What … is Troilus and Cressida? It is comedy, history, tragedy, satire, yet none of these singly and more than all of them together” (18). While one could similarly ask whether Othello is drama or narrative singly or more than both combined, and while it is true that Shakespeare resists generic prescriptives, one also needs to bear in mind that “violation of forms” does not erase form, and that there can be no infringement where there are no boundaries. Todorov's solution is to regard theory of genre as “hypothesis” or proposition merely; he maintains that study of literary works from a generic viewpoint will “discover a principle operative in a number of texts rather than what is specific about each of them” and that the best procedure is to begin by “presenting our own point of departure” (1,19-20).

For my purposes, then, a helpful starting point is Robert Scholes's contrastive definition of the two genres: “drama is presence in time and space; narrative is past, always past” (206; emphasis mine). Because narrating can take place only in the “once upon a time” of the story that it relates, in the dramatic here and now of the play, the staged present of the tale that Othello tells about himself is not the events he recounts or the “self” he re-creates but the act of narration. This act or role directs attention to past events and to a protagonist (the hero of his narrative) whose experiences are framed in an earlier time than stage time, the time of the narrating, and in unfamiliar, distant locations. Interpreted in this context, Scholes's definition may be reworded thus: narrative is a sign of absence, whereas drama is a sign of presence. To some extent, then, drama and narrative could work at cross-purposes. And when, as in Othello, narrative is woven extensively into the dramatic work, the significance of Scholes's “time” and “space” translates into stage-time and stage-space and thereby into commentary on the play's dramatic representation.

In Othello, the “pastness” which narrative re-presents, functions as a “distancing” device which enables Shakespeare to locate the Moor or alien on the Elizabethan stage and by extension in the European community. Through juggling of narrative and dramatic devices, Shakespeare is able to manipulate stage time and space so that much of the action that defines the protagonist is located offstage, outside the cultural and geographical purviews of the Elizabethan audience, in revealing contradistinction to his central, heroic stage position. Thereby the playwright renders largely innocuous the threatening or “undramatizable” elements of his material he displaces them into the storied realms of distant lands and times. Just as within the play the Turks' diversionary military tactics are described as “a pageant / to keep us in false gaze” (1.3.18-19), so there may be something deceptively seductive about Shakespeare's recourse to narrative strategies.

In the terms used by critics to define Othello's self-expression—“self-fashioner,” “self-publication,” “signifier … of another signifier,” “disappearing” stories, “bumbast”—one can detect a tacit articulation of a sense of lack or absence, and at the heart of this absence and lending it validity is Othello's blackness. It is this otherness that necessitates and gives impetus to his narrative “I am” and correspondingly to his individuated expansive rhetoric, just as conversely it is Shylock's otherness that induces his startlingly callous economy of speech. According to Greenblatt, “the telling of the story of one's life—the conception of one's life as a story—is a response to public inquiry: to the demands of the Senate sitting in judgment, or at least to the presence of an inquiring community” (42; emphasis mine). Othello's self-declarative stories, however, register less his presence than they do a palpable absence. This dilemma is due in part to the nature and utility of narrative itself. It is Othello's awareness of his cultural disconnectedness that makes his narrative performance necessary. At the same time, it is this awareness that further cultivates and intensifies the very sense of discontinuity that his story attempts to dispel—the story can be told from the beginning, his childhood, but only up to the point at which he is required to tell it. So, Othello must repeat his history later for Desdemona and later still for the Senate in a seemingly endless effort to establish an identity. In this light he is, for the most part, a potential presence only, his dramatic contextualization, his presence, being seriously undermined by his narrative (dis)position.

In an attempt to fix this problematic characterization, Leslie Fiedler makes a telling remark: “mythologically speaking, Othello is really black only before we see him; after his first appearance [on the stage], he is archetypally white, though a stranger still, as long as he remains in Venice: a stranger in blackface” (185). Since the dramatic tension throughout the work rests upon Othello's blackness, Fiedler's comment also raises questions about representation. Is the “lascivious Moor”—“the old black ram” with “thick lips”—of Scene 1 indeed transformed into and replaced by a disguised European in Scene 2? Does the audience, or rather can the audience, dispel the scathing image of blackness so pointedly drawn in the first scene when the disguised “white” Othello later enters the stage? Or does the audience, cognizant of the essential discrepancy, merely sit back and enjoy the power of dramatic irony?

What Fiedler reads as the substitution of identities—familiar for strange—is a strategic stage dislocation: a shift in the Moor's figurenposition, as Robert Weiman terms “the actor's position on the stage and the speech, action, and degree of stylization associated with that position” (224). The shift in Othello's figurenposition is from a narrativised presentation in Scene 1 to a dramatic representation in Scene 2, in other words, from a figural absence to a symbolic presence. The play between these two modes of enactment creates the ironic illusion of the color-coded color blindness that Fiedler's statement describes: black and white being interchangeable, racial difference is neutralized; Shakespeare is vindicated. In the debate about Othello's color, Fiedler takes his place among those critics who abstract the sign of Othello's presence and name it “white.” The early scenes of the drama invite this interpretation by splitting the character into competing fragments: a narrativised (alien) half and a dramatized (familiar) counterpart. Besides, this interpretation is necessary if the tragedy of a noble-mind-in-a-black-body corrupted by a black-mind-in-a-noble-body is to work.

The question of race continues to be a vexed one in Othello criticism. In her study, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, Ania Loomba points out that whereas there has been controversy about Othello's ethnicity, there has been no debate concerning the racial identity of Aaron the Moor of Titus Andronicus; Aaron, “unlike Othello,” corresponds easily to “the stereotype of black wickedness, lust and malignity”—he, as well as other characters repeatedly link his intractably evil nature to his “physical features” (46). In an essay titled “Race,” Kwame Appiah cautions against attributing such bias to Shakespeare's works since, he argues, in Elizabethan England Jews and Moors were hardly an “empirical reality”; stereotypes were based largely on the non-Christian standing of these ethnic groups, not on experience of them (277).

Some critics, however, see things differently, arguing that Elizabethans had access to much more than inherited theological beliefs. Eldred Jones, for example, marshals a wealth of research data to support his contention that factual information concerning peoples of Africa was available: classical historical documents, popular digests, and eyewitness “accounts of actual sea voyages and land travels” (1). Noting as well that black slaves were introduced into England as early as 1554, several years before John Hawkins's first voyage (15-16), Jones concludes that Othello derives from “conflicting material” from various sources (14). Similarly, Jack D'Amico traces a “Moroccan connection” of extensive trade and diplomacy between England and Morocco from circa 1550-1603; as he sees it, Othello represents the sum of Elizabethan images of the Moor as “everything” from the noble to the monstrous, and that in creating him Shakespeare explores the inherent contradictions (177-96).

In addition to “conflicting material” and complexity of issue, it is likely that, given his subject matter, Shakespeare had to deal also with his own divided impulses regarding Africans. His extended deployment of narrative in a dramatic work and the tension created by the dynamics of the two generic modes may be evidence of this division. Of course, shifting perspectives is nothing new in his art. John Keats lauds as “Negative Capability” this quality in Shakespeare. John Bayley sees as a mark of genius the irresolution and reserve that characterize the dramatist's works (15). Herman Melville identifies Shakespeare as a master “of the great Art of Telling the Truth” “not so much for what” the playwright “did do as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing” (65-66). However, unsettledness and reticence do not signify neutrality, and in the case of Othello, moreover, we have the kind of social and political baggage that has a charged ideological resonance in whatever context the subject appears and by whomever it is addressed.

Through the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs, Othello reveals, among divided impulses and motives, some instructive exclusions, emphases, and suppressions. Othello's initial introduction to the audience takes place in his absence and in the form of gossip between Iago and Roderigo. This gossip may be likened to the third person narrative point of view which voyeuristically creates the character it describes. Shakespeare's use of this means of introducing Othello is felicitous. The familiarity that is apparent in Iago and Roderigo's conversation, in the coarse language they use and in their interrelationship, is soon seconded by the concordant sentiments that their “concern” about Desdemona's elopement awakens in the socially and politically privileged senator and parent, Brabantio, who endorses Roderigo: “O would you had had her” (1.1.175). This breakdown of reserve between social classes and individuals signifies the existence of common cause with the Elizabethan audience; it articulates the society's deepest fears: sexual deviation and miscegenation. Already, before the audience sees him, Othello is guilty of a cultural transgression; he has seduced the senator's daughter, married her without parental consent. Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio react within the bounds of a shared cultural understanding that makes Othello a threatening otherness. Aptly, therefore, their conversation locates him offstage, out of sight.

By contrast, in Macbeth, the absence of the protagonist and the use of a third person, formal narrative to introduce him, locates him centerstage. The sergeant's story of Macbeth's battlefield prowess and the king's response establishes the protagonist as defender, kinsman, hero whose past as well as destiny is also the community's. In this case, the distance that narrative signals is temporary only; the past, because it is shared, is retrievable. In a similar vein, Prospero's story of his past provides Miranda with a history, bridges the reserve between father and daughter and preludes their return home. In these instances, narrative creates a sense of distance the better to dramatize presence and continuity.

This is not to say that narrative always works in the same way in Shakespeare or generally. The distance inherent in and implied by narrative performance varies in its schema and function. The form it takes will depend upon the relation between teller, story, and audience and what is at stake. For example, Caliban and Prospero tell similar stories of loss and dispossession but from different standpoints. Prospero's story subjects Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (5.1.275). And even if, as is commonly believed, Caliban is Prospero's psychological double, it takes a degree of “heroic” suzerainty to claim the “dark” or alien thing, whether one does battle with it like Ahab or, like Prospero, puts it to work. The encoding of removedness in the stories that characters tell or that are told about them, therefore, is determined largely by the text's discourse on power and power relations, whereby it is of some significance, then, that even when Othello is located physically in the presence of an audience—on the stage or in the Senate—his stories place him figurally elsewhere.

In Elizabethan drama, as John Draper observes, “the initial appearance of a character generally strikes a fundamental keynote in his nature” (91), or, to put it another way, in the way a figure is characterized. In addition to the symbolic significance of the subversive introduction of Othello and of his strategic location offstage in the opening scene, there is his problematic first actual appearance on the stage. His dignified response to Brabantio and the Senate tends to minimize the fact that he enters under siege, that he is on trial for a cultural infraction, and that the terms of Iago's devaluation of him are a central part of Brabantio's suit as well as of the outcome of the play.

Othello is on trial before the Senate, before all Venice and, simultaneously, before all audiences wherever the play is produced for as long as it continues to be acted or read. Ironically, the charges against him—“she [Desdemona] is abus'd, stol'n from me and corrupted. …” (1.3. 60-61)—as well as his defense are bound up with the very thing that marks his alienness, his history. His story chronicles “most disastrous chances” and “hairbreadth scape” involving cannibalism, threatening landscapes, human anomalies. These foreign, uncultivated, and therefore unreclaimable elements constitute a heritage and persona with which Venetians and Elizabethans can have little empathy. Later, this sign of (dis)location will be emphasized metonymically in the way that Desdemona's handkerchief, token of the bond between the lovers, also signifies spatial and temporal disjunction; in its Egyptian legacy of ancient magic, “prophetic fury” and mummy's dye it symbolizes the social gulf between the couple. Although Othello is aware, albeit subconsciously, of his disarticulation, he must nevertheless depend on the past to sway the Senate: “My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his [Brabantio's] complaints” (1.2.18-19). They do.

Othello's exoneration, however, has been anticipated and subverted by Iago's declaration in Scene 1 that the State needs Othello “to lead their business” and cannot “with safety cast him” off (1.1147-53). Iago's unreliability notwithstanding, the implication that the Senate, like he, must “show out a flag and sign of love / which is indeed but sign” renders suspect the Duke's ready capitulation: “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (1.1.156-57). It also draws attention to the Duke's double-edged conciliatory advice to Brabantio: “Take up this mangled matter at the best; / Men do their broken weapons rather use / Than their bare hands: (1.3.173-75). This caution is more relevant to the Senate than to Desdemona's father; Othello is Venice's only weapon against the advancing Ottomites. Significantly, Brabantio leaves the Signiory to die of “pure grief”—Desdemona's “match [being] mortal to him” (5.2.205)—and his dissenting, estranged, and foreboding voice may be representative of the protesting attitudes of civilian Venice. Thus in 1693, Thomas Rymer was to cite Othello as “a caution to all Maidens of Quality, how without their parents' consent they run away with Blackamoors” (89).

Othello is distanced also by the manner in which he tells his story. Storytelling around the cottage hearth served an important social function in early modern Europe; it had the power to unite the community by bringing together its diverse elements. As Dennis Kay notes, Renaissance England, in particular, was not only a “storytelling culture,” but also “a world of ritualized social narrative,” which some of its writers exploited by interpreting and moralizing “the act of storytelling” in their art (209, 211). It is of particular interest, then, that Shakespeare's audience hears Othello's history at the trial and therefore at great remove from the domestic “ritualized” fireside setting in which Desdemona and her father would have heard it. By placing the domestic scene offstage, the dramatist conjures and rejects at once the familiarity that the retelling can only insinuate, whereby the Elizabethan ritualized social pastime becomes a means of identifying and excluding the Moor. Further, Othello recounts not his story but the story of his storytelling and its outcome. In the process, he locates himself in another place at an earlier time, telling a story that situates him in yet a more distant place and time in seemingly endless regression. In addition to denoting his receding figurenposition, the narrative retrogradation imbues Othello's speech with a more literary than spoken quality, thus proclaiming a lack of the full presence that drama by its very definition signifies. The play of difference, spatial and temporal, within the mimetic cosmos of the dramatic stage provides a striking commentary on Othello's tenuous identity and place.

The series of narrative displacements inscribed in Othello's story also serves to move offstage another significant social ritual. The audience does not witness Othello's wooing of Desdemona but hears of it rather in the context of a trial in which the audience is being asked to judge. Interestingly, the tale that Othello relates on this occasion begins not with his courtship of Desdemona but, aptly, his relationship to Brabantio: “Her father loved me, oft invited me; / Still question'd me the story of my life” (1.3.128-29). In this public, male, juridical emplotment, Desdemona's love is the unforeseen, unsought outcome of a domestic travesty which implicates her father, who, in inviting the stranger to the hearth, unwittingly exposed her heart.

The significance of this situation becomes even clearer if we note that in Romeo and Juliet the wooing scene is by contrast an important dramatic exponent. The play resembles Othello in plot; both works test the boundaries of forbidden love. In the former play, however, Shakespeare's task is to reconcile coequals—“two houses both alike in dignity”—whereas in Othello his problem is more challenging; he must unite the irreconcilable. It is a tribute to the playwright's skill that in neither case does he espouse any easy solution, for while in Romeo and Juliet reconciliation does succeed, it is at great cost to the two houses. In that play, at first the stage bustles with energy, the possibility of and necessity for change taking place against the backdrop of habituation and impotence. The wooing, which lasts for an entire scene of approximately one hundred ninety lines, registers that energy with a whole gamut of emotions and impulses: rebellious idealism—“deny thy father and refuse thy name” (2.2.34); fascination/fear—“this contract tonight, / It is too rash, too unadvis'd, too sudden / Too like the lightening” (2.2.117-119); romantic optimism—“this bud of love / … may prove a beauteous flow'r when next we meet” (2.2.120-22). Ultimately, however, as Romeo and Juliet pledge their love in the moonlight, they also court and win favor with the audience. In contrast, the wooing scene in Othello is screened from view. Is it that the Moor is not easily integrated into the role of lover on the Elizabethan stage? And by way of answer here consider how, unlikely lover though he is, the diabolical Richard III, in the midst of a funeral procession and in full view of the audience, substitutes one ritual (wooing) for another (mourning) with the dramatic facility that only an insider could.

By narrativising where he might have dramatized Shakespeare also displaces Othello's much touted heroism with fairy-tale sleight of hand: “our wars are done; the Turks are drown'd” (2.1.202). Provided with the equivalent of neither a Dunsinane nor a Bosworth Field, with no heraldic account of triumph and no heroic battle-scarred stage entry, Othello's martial courage remains a matter of repute. Besides, if Anthony Hecht is right, the “valor” with which Othello is credited may bear ironic implications:

An Elizabethan audience would not have been willing to grant Othello the unlimited admiration he receives from Cassio, Desdemona, the Duke, and his senate at the beginning of the play. He would have been recognized from the start as an anomaly, not only “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / of here and everywhere,” who has no real home, and therefore no civic allegiance, but, far more suspiciously, one who, had things only been slightly different (and perhaps more normal) would have been fighting on the enemy side, with the Turks against the Venetians. (123)

And yet, unquestionably, Shakespeare invests Othello with regal bearing and dignity, particularly in the early scenes of the play. In Venice, he faces Brabantio's aggression with authoritative restraint and the Signiory with aplomb, and the positive aspects of his portrayal are especially evident in contrast to Shakespeare's other “black” characters who fare poorly with regard to cherished heroic tropes like valor, honor, and romantic love. Aaron is an “irreligious Moor,” a self-styled “black dog” who instigates rape and mutilation and fathers a “tawny slave,” even if later his courageous attempts to save his son earn him a measure of humanity; Caliban is a would-be rapist; the Prince of Morocco chooses in love as badly as Portia wishes that all those of his “complexion” would; Shylock is a shocking figure of inhumane greed. In comparison to the way that these characters are cast, Othello is not only hero of the play but initially his sterling reputation and his endearing tenderness with Desdemona bespeak the playwright's attempt to paint the Other in humanistic strokes.

It is significant, though, that the opportunities for dramatizing various features that would bolster Othello's heroic profile are transposed into narrative and, therefore, are not staged. Did Shakespeare experience a greater sense of division in treating Othello than he did with his other tragic heroes? He figurally displaces Othello even while ostensibly setting him at the center of the stage, through deft manipulation of narrative/dramatic modes. This explains why the play is often interpreted from Iago's perspective. It also explains why the Moor is never a serious threat to the Venetian social order. The catastrophic ending of the drama is inscribed in the apprehensive beginning which, in turn, is validated by the violent conclusion. That is, the concluding tableau—the “tragic loading” of the “bed” that “poisons sight” and must be “hid”—harks back to the opening of the play or the fearful bed that Brabantio had tried to forestall: “the black ram … tupping your white ewe.” By focusing on this loaded bed—ironically one of the rare “domestic frames” in this “domestic tragedy”—the play exposes that at its very center, the bedroom, there is the following proscription: “if such actions may have passage free, bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (1.2.98-99). Not surprisingly therefore, Othello's suicide is usually viewed as propitiatory: the protagonist's Christianized half destroys the Moorish part and Othello defers to Venetian society in a final attempt to (re)gain entry into the civilized world against which he has transgressed.

But far more than conciliation, Othello's suicide represents his final (dis)location. Othello's death occurs at a telling juncture; it coincides with, indeed impels the past (“in Allepo once”) into the present (“I took … / And smote him thus”). In other words, as Othello stabs himself, narrative translates into drama, signifying his conscious emergence into the dramatic now. This coming forth, however, is insupportable in the world of the play; the Moor's psychic debut is synonymous with suicide. Othello dies into, and with, his story, to be re-created in Lodovico's narrative. But, unlike Hamlet who need only call upon Horatio's loyalty and intimate knowledge of his affairs to speak for him—“Absent thee from felicity a while / … To tell my story” (5.2.347-49)—Othello, outsider, feels distrustful; he pleads for fair accounting and anxiously attempts to dictate his own narrative terms: “Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice” (5.2.342-43). Since Othello's audience is made up primarily of the Venetian deputation, the episode repeats the early trial scene in the Signiory, and implicitly indicts the protagonist even as he publicly executes himself. Othello's story will be recreated by Lodovico, therefore, in the only format possible for a Moor: Lodovico's story will be a Venetian narrative in and to which Othello is subject.

Actually, Othello's subjection has been apparent to the audience, though not to him, from the moment Iago fabricates a tale with which “to abuse Othello's [ear] / That he is too familiar with his wife” (1.3.395-96). Iago's declared aim is to convince Othello that “he” (Cassio) is having an affair with Desdemona, but as Greenblatt notes, the use of the vague pronoun carries the implication that Othello's relationship with his own wife is also transgressive. Through Iago's ability and the privilege to fashion a story and the power to translate it into drama, he accomplishes what Othello cannot; within the given cultural context, Othello cannot locate his history and himself in the present, and therefore he also cannot exert control over his future. Because of the difference in their narrative trajectories, Iago is able to make Othello into the audience of a play in which the latter is unwittingly also the main actor; he makes Othello spectator to Othello's own life. In the process, Iago not only dramatizes but parodies Othello's dubious figurenposition, his figural absence, thereby baring the divide that invites and accommodates his (Iago's) plot.

Notwithstanding Iago's elaborate metaphor of conception and birth: “It [his scheme] is engend'red. Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light” (1.3.403-05), his story is largely the appropriation and exploitation of one of the potential narratives that are inferable, given the immediate social scenario, from Othello's history up to the time that he himself can relate it. In her discussion of “Narrative Versions,” Barbara Herstein Smith suggests the dynamic that functions here when she observes:

For any particular narrative, there is no single basically basic story subsisting beneath it but, rather, an unlimited number of other narratives that can be constructed in response to it or perceived as related to it. … [For] basicness is always arrived at by the exercise of some set of operations, in accord with some set of principles, that reflect some set of interests, all of which are, by nature, variable and thus multiple. … Whenever these potentially perceptible relations become actually perceived, it is by virtue of some set of interests on the part of the perceiver.


One may speculate, then, that had it suited Iago's purpose, he would have fabricated, in response to Othello's story, a very different “play.” He could have produced, for example, an “and they lived happily ever after” romance. And so, of course, could Shakespeare. To examine the way that, instead of opting for some of the other potentially available stories, Iago construed from Othello's history a tale of sexual anxiety, lust, betrayal, and murder, is also to raise questions about Shakespeare's perceptions. Using Hernstein Smith's terms, we might ask what “set of operations,” what “principles,” what “interests” motivated the playwright to construct—out of the multiple other narratives open to him—this Othello?

By way of answering this question, it is instructive to consider the earlier narrative upon which Shakespeare based his tale. Generally, Shakespeare exercises great license in utilizing his sources, and in writing Othello, his use of the Italian novella from Cinthio's collection, Gli Hecatommithi, is no exception. In Cinthio's fiction, the Moor and “Disdemona” have been a happily married couple for some time when they set out for Cyprus, and Iago's motive for ensnaring them is clear: a jealous lust for Disdemona. In addition, as John Gilles points out, Disdemona and her unnamed Moorish spouse are both commoners and of equivalent age, whereas in Shakespeare's play, there is a discrepancy in their ages and both are of higher rank—Desdemona is the young daughter of a senator, Othello is a Venetian General “declined / Into the value of years.” Paradoxically, however, Othello's military rank does not allay the unease that the biracial coupling fosters. Instead, Gilles further notes, “as in the myth of Tereus,” Othello's position is presented as a “circumstantial anomaly, enabling a bizarre exception to the rule rather than legitimizing miscegenation per se”; these elements of the text added to Othello's “utterly black and physiologically Negroid” appearance make the marital pairing pointedly “transgressive” and therefore pointedly indecorous (26).

Mindful that the language of “racial difference” in the play is symptomatic of the embedded discourse of racial divide in the dramatist's culture, Virginia Mason Vaughan concludes that “when Shakespeare tackled Cinthio's tale of a moor and his ancient, he had no choice but to use this discourse” (Contextual History 70). I agree with Vaughan only partially. While the paradigmatic dimension of this discourse is not uniquely Shakespearean, the syntactic structure, the choice, combination, and sequence of vocabulary, statements, and concepts are the playwright's own. And it is also from this standpoint that Shakespeare's most inventive departure from Cinthio—his prescribing for the Moor a storytelling definition and role—makes most sense.

A number of issues bear emphasis here. First, in making Othello and Desdemona newlyweds, Shakespeare changes what in Cinthio's tale was an established relationship into a question about the possibility of such a marriage, while by interjecting a sense of “indecorum” he implies the “proper” response. Second, in making Iago's motive equivocal the playwright ensures that, at any given moment in the play, the audience has no stable ground on which to take a decided stand against the villain, as one is likely to do in the case of Edmund in King Lear. Rather, Iago inspires in the audience a deep fascination for his craft, a fascination that widens the distance between them and the protagonist since the latter's otherness is intensified by his facile surrender to Iago's subterfuge. The audience may feel pity for, but cannot empathize with, Othello. In effect, Shakespeare induces the audience's complicity in Othello's duping and thereupon communalizes Iago's “motives,” subtly reinforcing the reservations voiced at the outset concerning the propriety of the fateful match. Finally, in making Othello the teller, audience, subject, and target of stories, Shakespeare circumscribes the protagonist in the narrative outskirts of the dramatic here and now. In so doing, he provides an acceptable, reassuring profile of the exotic barbarian and of the controlled, safely exploitable space that he does and must inhabit.

Narrative/dramatic space in Othello bears a strong kinship with Renaissance colonial plots; both are caught up in the politics of space. In many respects, therefore, both may be defined as what Foucault calls “disciplinary space,” whose purpose is to “establish presences and absences,” to categorize and “locate individuals” and groups, to “set up useful communications, to interrupt others” (143). Disciplinary space is “a procedure, therefore, aimed at knowing, mastering, and using” (193); it fabricates reality. Though these insights are based on Foucault's study of post Renaissance penal systems, they are crucial, as he himself makes clear, to understanding the structure and operation of other institutions such as education, religion, the military, as well as colonization and slavery, to name a few. On a general plane, Foucault's analysis probes the “technology of power” that produces, indeed fabricates, western society and that accounts for the kinds of individuals that comprise that society. Central to disciplinary space, according to Foucault, is an “apparatus of production”—commerce and industry marked by “conflict” and governed by “rules of strategy” (308), which include “techniques” and “methods” for the distribution and “control and use of men” (141). In the course of this mass location and exploitation of people, strategy becomes normalized and the distinction between the concocted and the real breaks down. In Othello, “disciplinary space” aptly defines the organization of representational space; we might say that the play anticipates Foucault, exposing the common ground that dramatic representation shares with the colonialist enterprise: spatial politics and the construction of its machinery of production and control.

The case for viewing certain of Shakespeare's plays, most notably The Tempest, as a commentary on colonialism has a well documented history. Especially since the new historicists, it has also become commonplace to read Othello as, among other things, a discourse on the complex relationship between colonist and colonized. From this perspective, my critique of the “narrativising” process in Othello supports what Greenblatt defines as “the process of fictionalization,” a procedure whereby “another's reality” is transformed into a “manipulable fiction” (“Improvisation and Power” 61). Such a “process” will betray, of course “some set of operations” and “principles” that both reflect and promote the colonizer's agenda. We will recall that Iago produces Othello's life by weaving into Othello's history a seemingly logical and predictable part. This sequel is dictated not by Othello's interests but by those of Iago and of the larger Venetian community. In Foucault's terms, “a real subjection is born mechanically from a fictitious relation” (202). Commenting on racial difference in this play, Loomba has observed:

Othello is valuable as a Christian warrior, or the exotic colonial subject in the service of the state. In the Senate scene, the Venetian patriarchy displays an amazing capacity to variously construct, co-opt and exclude its “others.” Brabantio is certain that the Senate will back his opposition to Othello's marriage, and if it appears strange (or remarkably liberal) that they don't, we need only to recall their concern with the Turkish threat. Othello, the warrior is strategically included as one of “us” as opposed to the Turkish “they” (50).

Greenblatt regards the chameleon “ability to capitalize on the unforeseen and transform given materials into one's own scenario,” as a form of “improvisation” which on a larger scale can be viewed as “a central Renaissance mode of behaviour” whereby “the Europeans … again and again … insinuate themselves into the preexisting political, religious, even psychic, structures of the natives and … turn those structures to their advantage (60,63,60). In this light, Greenblatt suggests, Shakespeare the “master improviser” is neither “rebel” nor “blasphemer”; he is a conservative Elizabethan extemporizing a part of his own within his culture's “orthodoxy” (90).

While Greenblatt's conclusion accords with my reading of Othello thus far, we still have to consider what all this means in Shakespeare criticism, including the way that my own conclusions, for example, seem to be drawn from arguments founded largely on assumptions that are binarily opposed—black/white, drama/narrative, one/other—and which, therefore, are suspect. This limitation raises questions about the nature and roles of our own “extemporizations” as literary critics, our recourse to ideological or “colonizing” narrative productions in the continuing process of fictionalization. Here, again, Greenblatt is helpful when he observes that in order to be successful, “improvisation” must mask itself, conceal its true purposes. So, “if after centuries” Shakespeare's “improvisation” has been revealed to us as embodying an almost boundless challenge to [his] culture's every tenet, a devastation of every source” (90; emphasis mine), that is hardly surprising.

Greenblatt's claim has far-reaching implications, and what I now wish to contend is that what Shakespeare's art “reveals” to us at any given critical juncture will depend largely on the kind of story that we have need to devise. If my contention has validity, then Greenblatt's further commentary—in “The Improvisation of Power,” his 1987 version of his earlier 1978 “Improvisation and Power”—has a certain efficacy in Shakespeare criticism. In this updated version, he returns to a familiar issue: Shakespeare's elusive, because constantly shifting, point of view:

If any reductive generalization about Shakespeare's relation to his culture seems dubious, it is because his plays offer no single, timeless affirmation or denial of legitimate authority and no central, unwavering authorial presence. Shakespeare's language and themes are caught up, like the medium itself, in unsettling repetitions, committed to the shifting voices and audiences, with their shifting aesthetic assumptions and historical imperatives, that govern a living theater.


Greenblatt concludes, therefore, that “all that can be convincingly demonstrated, is that Shakespeare relentlessly explores the relations of power in a given culture” (59). Christopher Norris would agree; in Shakespearean criticism from Johnson to Leavis he detects “a certain dominant cultural formation,” “an effort” to secure “ideological containment,” and “harness the unruly energies of the text to a stable order of significance,” whereas what is needed, he feels, is the recognition that Shakespeare's “meaning” cannot be reduced to suit notions of “liberal-humanist faith” nor of “pristine incorrupt authority” (66).

That Shakespeare's plays have an exploratory energy cannot be denied, and unquestionably it behooves the critic to avoid reductive generalizations. Yet one wonders whether insistence on and submission to what Norris calls “the lawlessness of Shakespeare's equivocating style” (55) is not another kind of “effort of ideological containment,” an attempt to release the “unruly energies of the text” from implication in its own “ideological compulsions.” Equivocation is open to analysis, and equivocation, as Shakespeare himself demonstrates through Iago and Macbeth, can also be the instrument by which “meaning” is insinuated and by which the individual is (mis)led. If we have reason for celebrating this “equivocating lawlessness,” therefore, we also have reason for resisting it. What about those elements, social and historical, for instance, that are discernible among its shifting accents and which enter into its discourse? Criticism's “shifting aesthetic assumptions and historical imperatives” may highlight or background these elements from time to time, but they seem to persist.

If one may judge from Othello and from the socio/political climate of the 1990s, “race” and attitudes toward it have altered little since the Renaissance. In fact, racist attitudes of the kind that Iago represents have deepened in ways that affect people's lives as profoundly as they affect Shakespeare's fictional characters. Colonialism, too, became a force that shaped our world irrevocably. With respect to his handling of race and colonial discourse in Othello, Shakespeare's so-called challenges to his culture's “every tenet” are difficult to demonstrate when Othello's narrative circumscription within the dramatic text is viewed not as the result of the character's peculiar rhetorical tendency but as the playwright's brilliantly devised stratagem. For then the burden of proof shifts from apprehension of the fictional character as a living volitional being to character as an ideologically crafted device.

Further, the claim that Shakespeare poses a challenge to his culture's “every tenet” and “every source” must be assessed against the culturally unchallenged ascendancy of the Shakespeare canon and the global role that it has played in the promotion and dissemination of his culture. To say that Shakespeare's art conceals multiple levels of meaning cannot satisfactorily explain why, for instance, in spite of the blatant racist language and stereotypes that they display, works like Othello, Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and The Tempest have been handed down uncritically from generation to generation of students on various levels, not only in the West but in the colonized areas of Africa, the African Diaspora, and Asia. Presented as works not concerned with race or even otherness, such plays have been lauded as dealing unequivocally with universal human issues such as jealousy, justice, greed, betrayal, good/evil, to name a few. Neither can the notion of Shakespeare's “elusiveness” explain why contemporary American students “do not readily recognize racism as an issue within Othello,” as Vaughan observes in her 1991 introduction to “New Perspectives” on the play (22), and wherein she suggests that perhaps these students do not see racism as a concern in their own lives.

Of course much has happened since 1991 to draw national attention to racial discourse in American Society—the highly publicized Rodney King affair and the O. J. Simpson trial come to mind. At the same time, however, it would seem that Hollywood—that trendsetter in, as well as gauge of, the American cultural mass market—has not been sensitized. In spring of 1996, a film version of Othello was produced by Castle Rock, a subsidiary of Columbia Studios, in which Othello's otherness and its implication in the tragedy are dismissed, and it is the jealousy theme that is emphasized. Oliver Parker, scriptwriter and director, may have pursued this angle because it produces a comfortable, totalizing and commercially prudent narrative, but the general blindness to the sociopolitical issue in the text may also have something to do with Shakespeare's reputation. Readers and viewers tend to approach the playwright with reverence; his mammoth literary stature precludes what is, for them, a diminishing, if humanizing, factor. They are caught in the kind of “cultural trap” that Lawrence Levine experienced in writing Highbrow/Lowbrow, his study of Shakespeare's transformation from 19th-century American popular theater to 20th-century sacred author who warranted protection from the intellectually uninitiated and/or unsuitably appreciative. As Levine explains, before he could commence his study, he had to overcome an intimidating cultural “legacy”: the belief that so formidable a talent as Shakespeare could be approached “only with great humility” (4-5).

One issue that thus becomes clear as one studies Shakespeare and the critical responses to his works is the extent to which criticism itself is a stratagem, a form of what Greenblatt terms “improvisation.” Literary tradition has made of Shakespeare an institution and a cultural enterprise. Under the auspices of the literary dealers in cultural commerce, Shakespeare, like the Christian God, is made to embrace all—Jew and Christian, African and European, king and slave—with impartial, universal, cultural largesse. In fact, the Shakespeare canon has provided Britain with one of its most powerful and enduring colonizing commodities, second in its appeal perhaps only to the King James Bible. On the colonial front, Shakespeare (unlike Othello in Venice) is confidently cast. Billed, installed, and received centerstage, even when Shakespeare is perceived as historically Other, he is never regarded as strange, exotic or transgressive. His works, authorized on multiple levels, speak in the here-and-now of other cultures and times with the soliloquizing, “humanizing” comprehensiveness of a Hamlet or a Lear, while with the narrative inventiveness and chameleon dominion of an Iago they locate and direct alien players in their many parts.

This unexcelled canonical power may be measured in laudatory comments such as that by Caribbean artist, V. S. Naipaul: “all literatures are regional; perhaps it is only the placelessness of a Shakespeare … that makes them less so” (29). Similarly, in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, Bengali writer Nirad Chaudhuri recalls: “our first notion of Shakespeare was of a man whose writings all grown-up persons were expected to discuss and, what was even more important, to recite” (99). The extent to which the Shakespeare canon served as a cultural catechismal text for Indians can also be seen in Chaudhuri's dedicatory epigraph:

          To the Memory of the
          British Empire in India
Which conferred Subjecthood on us
          But withheld citizenship;
                              To which yet
Every one of us threw out the challenge
                    “civis Britannicus sum”
All that was good and living
                    Within us
was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.

The astonishing because unintentional irony in this 1951 eulogy comments forcefully on the phenomenon of cultural imperialism, a subject which prompted African writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, to protest in 1986 that “it is the final triumph of a system of domination when the dominated start singing its virtues” (20).

Discussing the effects of a colonial identity bound by a “logic … embodied deep in imperialism,” Ngugi contends that “regardless of the extent to which the imported literature carried the great humanist tradition of the best in Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, Gorky, Brecht, Sholokhov, Dickens,” the point to be noticed and decried is the way that European history and culture became for the African the “center” of his universe (18). Eight years earlier, writing about Rhodesia during the war for independence, Shona artist and rebel, Dambudzo Marechera, had similarly chafed: “When I was a student I had discovered late that however much I tried to be objective in my criticism of Shakespeare … (in Titus Andronicus, Othello, and The Tempest) … there was always at the back of my mind a smouldering discontent which one day would erupt” (122). Not surprisingly, therefore, some of the fiercest academic battles waged in post-independence African schools and universities have been over Shakespeare: how to dislodge the canon from its curricular eminence to make room for the indigenous literature.

Naipaul's and Chaudhuri's testimonials, as well as Ngugi's and Marechera's apostasy, attest to the insidious nature and force of ideological domination and the part that literature may play. They also call attention to the reciprocally constituted position of the dominated in relations of power and in transmission of knowledge. This reciprocity, indeed, is what leads Foucault to object to the use of negative terms—“it excludes,” “it represses”—for describing the effects of power. As he sees it, “power produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (194; emphasis mine). The individual, whether dominant or subjected, and whatever we know about him/her are the products of this transmission of knowledge.

The forever elusive, the non-partisan Shakespeare—or what, by another route is but a covert re-visioning of the placeless, timeless artistis a fictional construct, a product of cultural commerce and a means for ideological containment. Though Norris is right in maintaining that the narratives we write of Shakespeare's texts are but “partial and complicated stories of our own devising” (66), we need also to note that collectively these stories have erected a monument that is at its most powerful when it most insists on a Shakespearean canon that is voiceless in both the authorial and authorizing sense. But the literary text, like all criticism itself, is bound by the politics of space and cannot escape the “disciplinary” grammar of boundaries. It is within such a context, therefore, that I have attempted to show that Shakespeare's use of narrative/dramatic strategies in Othello reveals not only a great artist but also an Elizabethan who explores—at a time when Europe was redefining its geographical, economic, and psychic boundaries—a topical issue: the relationship between “civilization” and Other. In his narrative (dis)position of the hero, as I see it, the dramatist takes a distinctly conservative stand: he effects artistically and ideologically a spatial reserve that discourages the very kinds of cross-boundary communication that his society fears, and in the process defines the limits of the “barbarian” located within the European “economy of power.”

To this end, the conclusion of Othello can be seen as one of Shakespeare's most trenchant. The irony in the protagonist's anxiously attempting to relinquish in death that which he unwittingly forfeited several scenes ago—that is, his power to control his history—demonstrates as forcefully as the playwright's worldwide appeal does today that power does create. These insights make palpable the at once fragile yet compelling utility of language, of narrative constructions and their commodification, and how they function both among individuals as well as among peoples.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Race.” Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 274-87.

Bayley, John. The Uses of Division: Unit and Disharmony in Literature. London: Chatto, 1976.

Bloom, Harold. The Book of J. New York: Grove, 1990.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. New York: St. Martins, 1985.

Calderwood, James. “Speech and Self in Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38(1987):293-303.

Chaudhuri, Nirad C. The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. Berkeley: U of California P, 1951.

Cinthio, Giovanni Giraldi. “Gli Hecatommithi.” Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. Vol. 7. New York: Columbia UP, 1973.

D'Amico, Jack. The Moor in Renaissance Drama. Tampa: U of South Florida P, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Mitchell 51-77.

Draper, John W. “Monster Caliban.” Caliban. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1992. 89-94.

Eliot, T. S. “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca.” Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, 1932.102-20.

Elliott, Martin. Shakespeare's Invention of Othello. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Fiedler, Leslie A. The Stranger in Shakespeare. London: Croom Helm, 1972.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Random, 1979.

Gilles, John. Shakespeare and the Geography of Difference. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Greenblatt, Stephen J. “Improvisation and Power.” Literature and Society: Selected Papers from the English Institute. Ed. Edward W. Said. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1978. 57-99.

Hecht, Anthony. “Othello.” Othello. Ed Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea, 1987.123-41.

Jones, Eldred D. The Elizabethan Image of Africa. Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1971.

Kay, Dennis. “‘To hear the rest untold’: Shakespeare's Postponed Endings.” Renaissance Quarterly 37.2(1984):207-27.

Leavis, F. R. “Diabolic Intellect and Noble Hero.” The Common Pursuit. London: Chatto, 1952.136-59.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.

Loomba, Ania. Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama. New York: St. Martin's, 1989.

Marechera, Dambudzo. The House of Hunger: A Novella and Short Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” The Apple-Tree Table and Other Sketches. New York: Greenwood, 1922. 53-86.

Mitchell, W. J. T. ed. On Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.

Naipaul, V. S. “Jasmine.” The Overcrowded Barracoon and Other Articles. New York: Knopf, 1973. 23-29.

Norris, Christopher. “Post-structuralist Shakespeare: Text and Ideology.” Alternative Shakespeare. Ed. John Dukakis. New York: Methuen, 1985. 47-66.

Rymer, Thomas. A Short View of Tragedy. New York: Garland, 1974.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Random, 1994.

Scholes, Robert. “Language, Narrative, and Anti-Narrative.” Mitchell 200-08.

Scholes, Robert, and Robert Kellog. The Nature of Narrative. New York: Oxford UP, 1966.

Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Smith, Barbara Hernstein. “Narrative Versions, Narrative Theories.” Mitchell 209-32.

Thiong'o, Ngugi wa. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1986.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973.

Traub, Valerie. Desire and Anxiety: Circulations of Sexuality in Shakespearean Drama. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Vaughan, Virginia Mason. Othello: A Contextual History. New York: Cambridge UP, 1994.

———. “Introduction.” Othello: New Perspectives. Ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Kent Cartwright. Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1991. 13-25.

Weimann, Robert. Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.

Emily C. Bartels (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Bartels, Emily C. “Strategies of Submission: Desdemona, the Duchess, and the Assertion of Desire.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 36 (spring 1996): 417-33.

[In the following essay, Bartels offers a feminist assessment of Desdemona's assertive qualities, explicating her impulse to question and destabilize the repressive hierarchy of patriarchal social order in Othello.]

Chaste, silent, shamefast, and obedient—these have become the buzz words in feminist discussions of early modern women: the dictates of an anxious patriarchal network, intent on regulating inevitably unruly female voices and bodies; the signs that women, continually accosted by sermons, marriage tracts, conduct books, communal rituals, and laws espousing these terms, really could not have had a renaissance.1 Renaissance women seem to have known it too. Why is it that Queen Elizabeth, visibly the most powerful woman in England from the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth century, “speak(s) a discourse of apparent abjection,” alternately adjuring her femaleness and acknowledging its weaknesses?2 Why is it that “Jane Anger” (probably a pseudonym for an English gentlewoman) begins her proto-feminist “Protection for Women” (1589) with a letter to “the Gentlewomen of England” “crav(ing) pardon” for speaking out “rashly”?3 Why is it that Aemilia Lanyer introduces her bold poetic defense of women, Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (1611), by critiquing the “powers of ill speaking” exhibited “unadvisedly” by “some women”?4 Why is it, that is, that even the most outspoken women of the early modern period reiterate the terms that would prevent women from “inhabiting their own subjectivity”?5

The easy—and recently, automatic—answer is, of course, containment, brought into currency not only by New Historicists, whose preoccupation with power marginalized the subject of women, but also by feminists themselves. The necessary project of exposing the long-ignored but long-standing oppression of women has almost destined us, when we focus on women, to focus on their circumscription. Couple that to a tradition of representation in which rebellious, outspoken, or desiring women habitually end up married, muted, or dead, and there seems to be no escape, even for those subjects who show remarkable autonomy before they go. Yet women such as Lanyer and Anger (literally) were making names for themselves. And if we continue to read their acts of compliance as signs of limitation, we ourselves put serious limits on their agency, subjectivity, and voice.

Part of the problem is our hesitancy to think of early modern women—who, after all, had no place on the stage—as actors. Recent work has begun to uncover multiplicity and conflict within established positions of those in and out of power, but we still tend to take women's voices, whether represented or real, at face value.6 Men get to play all the parts, to fashion states, society, selves, and even femininity.7 Since, in this period, self-making is an activity of the public sphere, we do not expect women (other than the queen) to do it—at least not with the same self-consciousness, manipulativeness, and control. They fill, rather than construct, roles. By and large, we recognize only the most exceptional or “unruly” figures as exceptions—figures such as As You Like It's Rosalind (1599-1600) or Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker's “roaring girl” (1608-10?), who mastermind strategic, self-serving if not self-affirming, fictions, albeit through male voices and bodies and sometimes in male drag.8 Even then, we allow more license to fictive characters than to “real” disorderly women, and we privilege punishments over “crimes” which sometimes evidence impressive autonomy.9 In any case, these stories predestine us to see female agency only in and as resistance, itself delimited (whether contained or not) by the challenged terms.

Indeed, when these or other women play by the rules, into obedience, chastity, shamefastness, and silence, we routinely assume them either constrained or restrained, despite histories that suggest otherwise.10 When aggressively outspoken women such as Jane Anger apologize for their rashness, we have read their gestures as a sign that they “accepted silence as a feminine ideal” or, at best, “felt constrained” to comply with it.11 Less consistently aggressive figures fare even worse. Although Desdemona has the audacity to elope with a Moor and follow him to Cyprus, that she is “so good a wife” (V.ii.234) makes us lose faith in her daring.12 She becomes “the perfect wife,” who “remains perfectly submissive to the end” and whose “very self consists in not being a self, not being even a body, but a bodiless obedient silence.”13

Wives, like Desdemona, are particularly susceptible to this kind of critical circumscription, perhaps because they were among the most (if they were not themselves the most) vigorously regulated of early modern women. Yet, as historians have shown, across the classes they had substantial power within their households.14 Consider, for example, the case of Margaret Ferneseede, a one-time prostitute and bawd, who apparently ‘“barred” her husband ‘“of the possession and command” of their (legally his) home, who lived prosperously (probably with her lover) on her own, and who, upon her husband's death, openly mocked him, saying she scarcely expected to “hear so well of him.”15 Margaret was ultimately condemned for murdering her husband, largely on the grounds that she showed such “slight regard” for him in life and such “careless sorrow” at his death (p. 355). As her case suggests, what wives lacked was not power, but authority, terms which Constance Jordan has usefully separated.16 At home wives could take charge, make decisions, and act on them. But in the world at large, that power gave them no authority, no means to legitimate their capacities or agendas outside those compatible with a patriarchal scheme. With power and not authority, Margaret Ferneseede was surely doomed.

According to Jordan, contemporary defenses of women (most authored by men) offered a wife only two strategies for validating her worth: either she could “reaffirm the value of her duties as her husband's subordinate,” or she could “reject the grounds upon which she ha(d) been assigned her role and discover others that provide(d) her with greater scope.”17 The cost in each case is self-sacrifice: either the wife remains fully subordinate (though she elevates the value of her subordinate part), or she risks incrimination (as a scold or worse) for options that, if legal, may have been only theoretically available.

There is, however, a middle ground that proffers the safety of the first option with the radicality of the second and allows women to be actors: to speak out through, rather than against, established postures and make room for self-expression within self-suppressing roles. Under the cover of male authority, women could modify its terms and sanction their moves without direct resistance. They could be good wives and desiring subjects, obedient and self-assertive, silent and outspoken. In Julius Caesar (1599), Portia is unable to gain her husband's confidence by appealing to “the right and virtue of (her) place” (II.i.269) as wife and trying to give that place a “greater scope.” But when she recasts herself as subordinate—when she kneels before Brutus, “grant(s)” that she is an implicitly inferior “woman” (II.i.292), and gives herself value in terms of men, as a woman nobly “father'd” and “husbanded” (II.i.297)—she gets what she wants, Brutus's promise to disclose to her “the secrets of (his) heart” (II.i.306).

Portia's role and desires become subordinated as the action moves back to its hyper-male spheres, but elsewhere on the stage, where only men had the chance to act out modes of self-presentation, women's capacity to perform and construct strategic selves emerges as a central subject. Importantly, what figures there as a key device for radical self-expression is the posture of obedience. I want to look here at two examples, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi and William Shakespeare's Othello, whose female leads seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum of behavior: the one (the duchess) a willful and defiant actor, and the other (Desdemona) a self-effacing and compliant victim. Yet the stories they tell are similar. For in each, gestures of submission paradoxically enable the expression of desire, showing female figures who inhabit their subjectivities, who are able to seem as well as be and, consequently, be as well as seem.

The Duchess of Malfi is ostensibly a story of resistance of a willful widow who actively defies her brothers' wishes and refuses to be constrained by (male) authority. While her brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal, “would not have her marry again” (I.i.265), she immediately sets out to do so, declaring: “If all my royal kindred / Lay in my way unto this marriage, / I'd make them my low footsteps” (I.i.348-50).18 When she does marry (soon after), she not only marries in secret, she also marries out of class, choosing Antonio Bologna, her household steward. Before we know it, she has also had several children—provocative signs to her brothers (who have little room to talk) of a sexuality gone wild. Her actions peg her as a woman willing and eager to fight back, to prevent anyone (even her new husband, who is already her subordinate) from taking charge of her body and desires.19 She does have grounds for asserting such authority. She is, after all, an aristocratic widow with claims on a duchy and with autonomy so legitimate that her brothers must use clandestine means to restrain her.20 Yet at stake in the play is not merely the question (or problem) of a widow's unique rights, independence, and power and how they can or cannot be contained by male authority. At issue too is the prospect of female self-fashioning and the kind of voice and agency it carries. Though in part The Duchess of Malfi dramatizes what men can do to women, at its core is rather what women can do to men.

That the duchess will act on her will comes as no surprise, given her initial asides. What is puzzling, and revealing, however (especially since she seems to have married as much to exhibit her autonomy as to satisfy herself), is that she does so through submission. On the one hand, she dares “old wives” to report that she “winked, and chose a husband” (I.i.355-6). On the other, she keeps her move into marriage and sexuality under close cover. When the “deadly air” (III.i.56) of a “scandalous report” (III.i.47) actually approaches her, her honor, and her brothers, she proclaims her innocence. In the face of the suspecting Ferdinand, she denies the truth and assures him that she will marry only “for (his) honor” (III.i.44). Pretending to be deeply troubled by rumors “touching (her) honor” (III.i.48) and helpless to intervene, she leaves the remedy in his hands. It is only later, when he overhears her speaking of her closeted sex life (she thinks to Antonio), that she confesses to her marriage. Yet when she does, she strategically hides her husband's identity and his problematic social standing and underplays the implications of all her secrecy, insisting: “I have not gone about, in this, to create / Any new world, or custom” (III.ii.111-2).

To some degree, the duchess's posture of “innocency” (III.i.55) is a matter of survival, forced upon her by a family and society intent on keeping the widow under wraps. At the end of the play, when her secret is out, her time to live is up. Importantly, however, hers is not a simple case of co-optation, a forced relinquishing of her desires. Instead, her ostensible compliance marks a move into will and desire, giving her significant leverage to do as she pleases, to have her cake and eat it too in a society that would have no more cakes and ale.21

Her gains are truly extraordinary, at least for a female character on the early modern stage, and the play amplifies their significance by underscoring the pressures that surround her. By the end of act II, the duchess's reputation is under siege and her life threatened. Ferdinand, an early modern Wolfman, vilifies her as “a notorious strumpet” and is ready to “purge” her “infected blood” (II.iv.26) and, even to the Cardinal's horror, “(hew) her to pieces” (II.iv.31). At the beginning of act III, her infamy has spread to the “common rabble,” who, according to Antonio, “do directly say / She is a strumpet” (III.i.25-6). Yet in the meantime, during a leap of two children and several years, this “excellent / Feeder of pedigrees” (III.i.5-6) is living and producing heirs at liberty. And her brothers, the representatives of church and state, have not said a word, at least not one that stops her. To some degree, the play smooths over this gap in time and plot, unprecedented in Jacobean tragedy, by having characters talk about it, about how time and children fly. Nonetheless, it remains so jarring that critics have questioned the text's authority and coherence. But whatever its textual origins, the break works dramatically to underscore the duchess's unprecedented freedom, to highlight the remarkable, though invisible, license that comes with visible compliance. Secretly autonomous, she is overtly submissive to her brothers' constraints; overtly submissive, she seems at once untouched and untouchable. Under the cover of patriarchal authority, she can act on her will.

In the end, of course, the duchess is caught, confined, tormented by madmen, and turned into “a box of worm seed” (IV.ii.124) at the murderous hands of Bosola, Ferdinand's righthand man. Yet tellingly, when her subjugation becomes reality, a matter of force rather than choice, she no longer complies. When there is nothing left to gain from submission, she asserts her will directly, making clear the uncompromised and uncompromising nature of her voice. As long as there is hope for release, as long as Ferdinand (as Bosola pretends) will entertain reconciliation, the duchess displays “a behavior so noble / As gives a majesty to adversity” (IV.i.5-6), and asks for her brother's pardon, still (if Bosola is right) “passionately apprehend(ing) / Those pleasures she's kept from” (IV.i.14-5). But once Ferdinand himself gives up his guise of innocence and betrays his undaunted aggression, so also does she. When he brings her the hand of (he pretends) Antonio and denounces her children as “bastards” (IV.i.36), she lambastes him for denying the legitimacy of her marriage and “violat(ing) a sacrament o' th' Church” (IV.i.39)—once again invoking a patriarchal authority to authorize herself, but this time openly against him. It is then that she “account(s) this world a tedious theater” where she “play(s) a part … 'gainst (her) will” (IV.i.83-4), and then that she refuses to play it. It is also then that she resists Bosola's efforts to dominate and destroy her, and then that she declares herself “Duchess of Malfi still” (IV.ii.142).

In locating this, her signal moment of self-assertion, in the midst of her confinement and immediately before her death, Webster may be underscoring the vacuity of such expression in an era only beginning to come to terms with interiority, as some have argued.22 But he may also be dramatizing what he has been showing throughout—the possibility of self-assertion within circumscription. Even if the self in question is not yet fully interiorized, articulated, or defined, the duchess's claim is neither vacuous nor defeating. For it is she who ultimately gets the last word.23 After her death, her voice reverberates from the grave, echoing warnings to Antonio that could (if this were not Jacobean tragedy) save his life. And at the end of the play, we hear that one of her and Antonio's sons will inherit the duchy—importantly, through his “mother's right” (V.v.113). She is “Duchess of Malfi still.”

Significantly, it is from a position as wife and not widow, the ruled rather than the unruly, that the duchess has established her “right”; through marriage and not widowhood that she has acted on her desires. In Elizabethan drama, when marriage figures as a means to power, it is predominantly as a means to male power—a means for men to safeguard (male) society from oversexed and overactive women, to manipulate, appropriate, traffic in, and otherwise dominate women. Yet in The Duchess of Malfi and plays emerging in the surrounding decades, when the debate about women is also in full and vigorous swing, the illusion (probably always an illusion) that women could be contained through marriage is seriously challenged.24 Indeed, in Middleton's Women Beware Women (ca. 1620), Isabella (who has pledged herself to the doltish Ward in order to have an incestuous affair with her uncle) celebrates marriage as “the only veil wit can devise / To keep our (illicit) acts hid from sin-piercing eyes” (II.i.237-8)—a veil for her use, protection, and pleasure.25

In the cases of Isabella and the duchess of Malfi, of female figures who let us in on their secrets and come out fighting from the start, it is easier to see compliance for the strategy that it, in these cases, is. But what about wives or would-be wives who do not talk to us? who are less transgressive at the beginning and less assertive at the end? What about “so good a wife” as Desdemona?

Although Desdemona seems much less a player than the duchess of Malfi, she is, in some ways, more—so much so that she has continually eluded our critical grasp. Desdemona gives us, in effect, two selves to choose from: the one, a fully sexual “woman capable of ‘downright violence’” (I.iii.249); and the other, “‘A maiden, never bold’” (I.iii.94), as Peter Stallybrass has argued.26 The first escapes her father's “guardage” (I.ii.70) to elope with a Moor and insists on accompanying her husband to Cyprus—a military outpost in the play and the locus of Venus and “very wanton” women in classical and other contemporary accounts—a dangerous place for a new wife to be on both counts.27 Too, this first self notices, while undressing, that “Lodovico is a proper man” (IV.iii.35). The second, that “perfect wife” and “bodiless obedient silence” mentioned above, emerges primarily in the play's second half and stands passively by as her husband destroys her reputation and her life. She then takes responsibility for the deed and clears his name.

When Hamlet, the prince of players, moves in and out of madness, inertia, and love, we readily entertain the possibility that he indeed knows “seems,” that he is a man of many masks (if not of all mask and no interior). When Desdemona, the good wife, shows two ostensibly incompatible sides, our tendency has been to treat them as a dramatic or characterological disruption, as something that impedes rather than enables her emergence as a subject. Attempting to resolve the problem of these dueling personas, critics have either argued for one at the expense of the other or located a gap within the characterization, a moment (in the middle of act III) when type A Desdemona becomes type B.28 Or they have displaced the conflict onto culture: Desdemona becomes a site of ideological production and supports the normative “sex/race system” even as she “deviate(s)” from its “norms,” or unwittingly threatens it just by being sexual and female.29 As astute as many of these readings are, what they occlude is the possibility that Shakespeare creates a Desdemona who, like her male or more rebellious female counterparts, stages different selves.

It is clear from the start that Desdemona is an actor, as adept as Iago, Othello's second wife, at manipulating the system from within. When Othello wants to exonerate himself from charges of bewitching Desdemona, he writes her into his narrative of exoticism, portraying her as a vicarious adventurer, hungry to hear of his “disastrous chances” (I.iii.134) and frustrated by “house affairs” (I.iii.147). When Desdemona herself testifies, she—to the contrary and better advantage of both—stresses her conventionality and cloaks her unprecedented marital choices in social and familial precedent. Paying due respect to her “noble father” (I.iii.180), she acknowledges that she is “bound” to him “for life and education” (I.iii.182), that he is “the lord of duty” (I.iii.184), and that she is “hitherto (his) daughter” (I.iii.185). She then insists that her marriage fulfills her “duty” to turn from father to husband, as daughters must and as her mother did, “preferring (Brabantio) before her father” (I.iii.187). Significantly, in aligning herself with her mother, she strategically glosses over two factors that make her own marriage radically different and socially taboo: that she has eloped and eloped with a Moor. She further deflects attention from the incriminating specifics of her case by finding fault with society for assigning women an impossible “divided duty” (I.iii.181) to both fathers and husbands. In her hands, acts of filial disobedience and miscegenation (brilliantly) become not only acceptable but also expected behavior. Brabantio, the one protesting against those acts, has no choice but to give up and in, as indeed he does.

Similarly, when Desdemona seeks permission from the duke to go to Cyprus rather than, as he suggests, stay with Brabantio, she presents her plan as better for her father, whom she would otherwise put “in impatient thoughts / By being in his eye” (I.iii.242-3), and then humbly begs assistance for her “simpleness” (I.iii.246). Not surprisingly, one scene later, she is in Cyprus, welcoming her “dear Othello” to the shore (II.i.182).30

In these instances, Desdemona's interventions do not markedly disturb the political system, since what she wants (to be in Cyprus as Othello's wife) does not alter what the Venetian court wants (to have Othello there, wife or no wife). Yet on the domestic front, as critics have argued, her desires do go beyond Othello's, who is determined to keep Cupid's “lightwing'd toys” from blunting his “speculative and offic'd (instruments)” (I.iii.268, 270) and housewives from making “a skillet of (his) helm” (I.iii.272). When she acts on those desires, albeit to enhance rather than subvert her marital relations, she, in effect, counters the terms of those relations. In these cases, the stakes in her staging of submission are higher. For through it she not only gets what she wants; she also challenges the very system that makes what she wants taboo.31

Desdemona's most blatant expression of her desires comes as she mediates for Cassio, under the patriarchally sanctioned authority of his voice.32 She (and Shakespeare) make clear from the outset that, while the agenda is Cassio's, at issue is her will and her right to voice it. When agreeing to intercede, she promises (in the space of less than thirty lines):

Be thou assur'd, good Cassio, I will do
All my abilities in thy behalf.


Do not doubt, Cassio,
But I will have my lord and you again
As friendly as you were.


Do not doubt …
I give thee warrant of thy place. Assure thee,
If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it
To the last article.


And perform she does, in ways that license her self-expression and desire at the expense of male authority.

Her performance exploits and collapses the two male fantasies that most define early modern wives: the one, negative, of the shrew, and the other, the ideal of the submissive subordinate. Lest we believe the stereotypes and think Desdemona truly shrewish, she announces that she will play the shrew—that she will “talk (Othello) out of patience” (III.iii.23), “intermingle every thing he does / With Cassio's suit” (III.iii.25-6), make his bed “a school” and “his board a shrift” (III.iii.24), and assault him verbally at every turn until he again embraces the lieutenant. True and alert to form she does so, hounding Othello to meet with Cassio “shortly,” “to-night at supper,” “To-morrow dinner,” “to-morrow night,” and so on (III.iii.56-60). Othello responds as if she were indeed a shrew, overstepping the proper bounds of female speech. Although he insists “I will deny thee nothing” (III.iii.76), his acquiescence serves to cut her off at the pass. In response, Desdemona outdoes his own illusory submission and rewrites her outspokenness as part of, and not subversive to, her duty as wife, as a gesture that neither threatens his position nor advances hers. “Why, this is not a boon,” she tells him:.

'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm,
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person.


When Othello misses the point, again asserts “I will deny thee nothing” (III.iii.83), and asks to be left “but a little to myself” (III.iii.85), Desdemona reiterates the submissiveness of her pose. “Shall I deny you?” she asks, echoing Othello's own denial of denial, and answers with a firm “No” (III.iii.86). She then assures him, “Be as your fancies teach you; / What e'er you be, I am obedient” (III.iii.88-9)—presenting an assertive “I am” boldly in line with obedience.

In merging the postures of good wife and shrew, Desdemona indirectly challenges the presumption of their difference enforced in marriage handbooks, homilies, church courts, misogynist pamphlets, and the like. Her performance highlights what that discourse masks: that to be a shrew is, in fact, to follow the rules, to be obediently disobedient, to fill a role created by (male) authorities who needed shrews in order to contain, by criminalizing, female speech. Conversely, Desdemona also places outspokenness within the perimeters of appropriate wifely behavior, insisting that to speak out against her husband (and his refusal to see Cassio) is to “do a peculiar profit to” him.

While Othello uses acquiescence to repress, Desdemona uses it to assert herself, to sanction the expression of her own desires.33 After declaring that what she seeks is “not a boon,” she warns Othello that someday she may seek one:

when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficult weight,
And fearful to be granted.


Although she only promises here to make “fearful” and “difficult” personal demands in the future (notably a “when” and not an “if”), she claims the right to do so now, to be a desiring subject, to command Othello's love, and to “mean.” It is no wonder that Othello tries to curtail their interchange or that, immediately after (and not before), he begins to pick up on Iago's incriminating hints that Desdemona has been untrue. For Desdemona's message comes through loudly and clearly; her “meaning has a meaning” that is decidedly her own.34

What then are we to do in the play's second half when, as the going gets rough, Desdemona seems to fall apart at the seams and slide into a fatal passivity, the woman capable of “downright violence” subsumed by the “maiden never bold” whom she has staged? What happens to the space Desdemona and Shakespeare have opened for her voice? We still see hints that Desdemona will stand her ground under the cover of obedience. When Othello strikes her in public, for example, she both protests that she has “not deserv'd this” (IV.i.241) and then withdraws, as Lodovico notes, like an “obedient lady” (IV.i.248). Later, in the face of Othello's mistrust, she declares that she is “honest” (IV.ii.65) while addressing herself to his “will” and “pleasure” (IV.ii.24-5). Like the duchess of Malfi, she also calls on heaven—on the fact that she is a Christian and “shall be sav'd” (IV.ii.86)—to support her stance, using male authority to dispute Othello's. Yet by and large, in the last acts of the play, Desdemona's interactions with her husband show her to be increasingly silent and submissive and her desires increasingly at bay. Although she promises to mediate further for Cassio, she gives up speaking for herself, admitting that, for his case, “What I can do, I will; and more I will / Than for myself I dare” (III.iv.130-1). Presenting herself as “a child to chiding” (IV.ii.114) who cannot negotiate for herself, who “cannot tell” how it is with her (IV.ii.111) or whether or not she is “that name,” whore, that Othello has called her (IV.ii.118), she enlists Iago to help her “win my lord again” (IV.ii.149).

Yet in her case as in the duchess's, what has changed is not Desdemona but the circumstances which surround her—circumstances that force her, not to give up her voice, but to redirect it. Once Othello decides that she is a whore, her gestures of obedience cease to have any meaning and any power to safeguard her speech. Desdemona, of course, does not know the whole story, does not know, that is, what drives Othello's “strange unquietness” (III.iv.133). Even after he has accused her repeatedly of being false, she continues to ask “What's the matter?” (V.ii.47). But she is aware that she has a husband she “nev'r saw … before” (III.iv.100), one whose erratic responses give her no readable text to play into. And two things more are clear: outspokenness may hurt her and obedience will not help her. In the face of Othello's distraction, Desdemona senses that her “advocation is not now in tune” (III.iv.123) and admits for the first time that she has “stood within the blank of (Othello's) displeasure / For (her) free speech” (III.iv.128-9). She twice evokes the possibility that she could be “beshrewed”—telling Emilia, at one point, to “beshrew me much” (III.iv.150) for “arraigning (Othello's) unkindness with my soul” (III.iv.152) and, at another, to “beshrew” her if she were ever to be unfaithful (IV.iii.78)—as if she now understands speech as dangerous. Othello also makes all too clear to her that submissiveness is no antidote. After Lodovico has praised her obedience, Othello harshly mocks it, retorting (to Lodovico):

Ay, you did wish that I would make her turn.
Sir, she can turn, and turn; and yet go on
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient;
Very obedient.—Proceed you in your tears.—
Concerning this, sir—O well-painted passion!—


Obedience, the very thing that has made her self-assertions safe, now leaves them and her defenseless, blurring into her tears as a “well-painted passion.”

Importantly, though, while Desdemona does become less willing to assert her desires in Othello's presence, she continues to define herself as a desiring subject and to set the terms in which she is to mean. While she seems, to feminists' dismay, to defend Othello to the end (and even after) at her own expense, she actually exonerates herself and implicates him. She presents herself as a loyal wife, willing to sacrifice herself for love. But registered within her narrative of self-sacrifice is what we have been waiting desperately for her to produce—testimony of her fidelity and Othello's error. She vows in front of Emilia and Iago: “Unkindness may do much, / And his (Othello's) unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love” (IV.ii.159-61). She uses the story of her love to render his “unkindness” questionable. As she prepares herself for the bed that (as she too anticipates) will be her deathbed, she recounts the tragedy of her mother's maid Barbary and, through it, sets herself in the context of other women who suffered or died wrongly at the hands of their lovers. Recent interest in issues of race has brought the seemingly digressive tale into currency for its evocation of Africa. As significant as that context is in a play about a Moor, that Barbary is a woman, and a woman wronged in love, is, I think, more significant still, at least as far as the representation of Desdemona is concerned. For Barbary's story and song provide a crucial model for Desdemona's own self-fashioning and a critical key for our interpretation of it.35

The story itself is simple: Barbary “was in love” with one who “prov'd mad / And did forsake her”; as a result, she died, singing “a song of ‘Willow,’” “an old thing” that “express'd her fortune” (IV.iii.27-9). That song (which Desdemona admittedly cannot get out of her mind and so sings) tells of a woman, “I,” who “sat (sighing) by a sycamore tree” (IV.iii.40), mourning a lover, and declaring: “‘Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve’” (IV.iii.52). Her approval, however, seems more strategic than sincere. When Desdemona reaches this final line, she notices that “that's not next” (IV.iii.53) and inserts what should have preceded, what explains the speaker's acquiescence—the possibility that she herself will be slandered:

I call'd my love false love; but what said he then?
Sing willow, willow, willow;
If I court moe women, you'll couch with moe men.—


In refusing to blame her lover, the speaker (followed by Barbary) keeps blame from herself. For as the male voice within the ballad threatens, her incriminations of him will only lead to his recriminations against her: if she accuses him for courting more women, then he will accuse her of “couching” with more men. Admittedly, by loyally “approving” his scorn, she seems to be subdued by her husband. But by exposing the circumstances that surround her submission, she exposes also the falseness and vacuity of his position.

And so it is with Desdemona. When direct attempts to modify the system promise only recrimination, she turns to indirection and tells, rather than acts out, her story. Yet even though at the end she is forced to play defense rather than offense, she continues to play, to creative a submissive counternarrative that challenges and changes the order of things. In the final act, when she speaks after death, she breaks through the code of silence expected of the dead as of women and not only declares her death “guiltless” (V.ii.122) and herself “Oh falsely, falsely murder'd” (V.ii.117), but also, enigmatically, insists that “Nobody; I myself” (V.ii.124) killed her. Her “nobody” points suggestively back to the Willow Song, to the speaker's directive that “nobody” blame her lover, and reiterates the loyalty that has defined the speaker, Barbary, and Desdemona. Although critics have routinely heard the “nobody” rather than the “I” and turned her into a “bodiless obedient silence,” Desdemona has both voice and body here. Given the dramatic context surrounding her assertion, and her characterization throughout, the real enigma here is that we take her answer, literally the lie direct, at face value, her performance as passivity.

In fact, the onstage audience hears her. And her dying voice destabilizes the master narrative that has defamed her and puts incriminating words in Othello's mouth. Ironically, in order to prove her a liar (which is, to him, a whore) and to usurp the claim to truth, Othello confesses to the crime, insisting “'Twas I that kill'd her’” (V.ii.130), undoing himself in order to undo her. Her voice also licenses Emilia's revolt against Iago. It is only after Desdemona has spoken that Emilia questions her husband's honesty, vows to “ne'er go home” (V.ii.197), and dies testifying against him. Tellingly, as Emilia “speak(s) as liberal as the north” (V.ii.220) before she too dies at her husband's hand, she reinvokes the Willow Song and, as she says, “die(s) in music” (V.ii.248) like her lady—music that is the food not just of love but also of female affirmation.

Desdemona, Emilia, Barbary, and the ballad's anonymous speaker all submit and die, but not before speaking out through a male-authored narrative that would otherwise occlude their voices. Each, in effect, tells her own story, registering desires not suitable for women through postures of obedience that are. Singing “willow” under a sycamore tree, they turn “nobody” into “I.” There are reasons that lead Othello to cry whore and Ferdinand to cry wolf—reasons that caution us against taking conventional postures, in general, and conventional female postures, in particular, as authentic rather than posed. Shakespeare, Webster, Jane Anger, and Aemilia Lanyer may have different reasons for staging female compliance. But however their representations promote, remodel, resist, or otherwise respond to the possibility of such performance, together they testify to a prominent cultural awareness that all the world was indeed a stage, and its men and women players.36


  1. The signal essay is Joan Kelly-Gadol, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?”, in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), pp. 137-64. Other important studies include: Constance Jordan, Renaissance Feminism: Literary Texts and Political Models (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990); Linda Woodbridge, Women and the English Renaissance: Literature and the Nature of Womankind, 1540-1620 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984); the introductory material in Katherine Usher Henderson and Barbara F. McManus, Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1985), pp. 3-130; and Suzanne W. Hull, Chaste, Silent, and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640 (San Marino CA: Huntington Library, 1982), pp. 1-143. See also Gail Kern Paster, The Body Embarrassed: Drama and the Disciplines of Shame in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1993).

  2. Barbara Hodgdon, “The Making of Virgins and Mothers: Sexual Signs, Substitute Scenes, and Doubled Presences in All's Well that Ends Well,PQ 66, 1 (Winter 1987): 47-71, 66. For full discussion of Elizabeth's self-representations, see Mary Thomas Crane, ‘“Video et Taceo: Elizabeth I and the Rhetoric of Counsel,” SEL [Studies in English Literature] 28, 1 (Winter 1988): 1-15, and John M. King, “Queen Elizabeth I: Representations of the Virgin Queen,” RenQ [Renaissance Quarterly] 43, 1 (Spring 1990): 30-74.

  3. “Jane Anger, Her Protection for Women” (London, 1589), in Henderson and McManus, pp. 172-88, 173.

  4. From Aemelia Lanyer's letter “To the Vertuous Reader” prefacing Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum (London, 1611). See also Hull, pp. 98-9.

  5. Maureen Quilligan, “Staging Gender: William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Cary,” in Sexuality and Gender in Early Modern Europe: Institutions, Texts, Images, ed. James Grantham Turner (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1993), p. 208. Quilligan is discussing Gayle Rubin's important essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review, 1975), pp. 156-210.

  6. See, for example, The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Valerie Wayne (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1991).

  7. Ironically, Karen Newman's interesting study Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1991) focuses primarily on the ways men “fashion femininity.”

  8. Unruly women were also doing remarkable things in the street literature of the period. For a useful survey of it, see Joy Wiltenburg, Disorderly Women and Female Power in the Street Literature of Early Modern England and Germany (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1992).

  9. See the case of Margaret Ferneseede, discussed below.

  10. One notable exception is Michael C. Schoenfeldt's intriguing essay on “Gender and Conduct in Paradise Lost,” in Turner, pp. 310-38. Schoenfeldt sees in Eve's “artful expression of blind obedience,” not “the intellectual and ontological inferiority it ostensibly declares,” but “impressive verbal dexterity” (p. 325). “Gestures of submission in Milton,” he argues, “are at once static and dynamic, unquestioned declarations of one's place in a hierarchy and the necessary condition for rising,” and Paradise Lost “uses the constrictions of courtesy literature to construct a space—albeit limited, and only sporadically inhabited—for the conception of active female virtue” (p. 336).

  11. Henderson and McManus, p. 54.

  12. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  13. Michael D. Bristol, “Charivari and the Comedy of Abjection in Othello,” in True Rites and Maimed Rites: Ritual and Anti-Ritual in Shakespeare and His Age, ed. Linda Woodbridge and Edward Berry (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1992), pp. 75-97, 92; Quilligan, p. 229.

  14. Two central studies are Susan D. Amussen, “Gender, Family, and the Social Order, 1560-1725,” in Order and Disorder in Early Modern England, ed. Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 196-217; and Keith Wrightson, English Society, 1580-1680 (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1982), esp. pp. 89-104.

  15. “The Arraignment and Burning of Margaret Ferneseede” (1608), in Henderson and MacManus, pp. 351-9, 358, 354. Subsequent page references appear in the text.

  16. Jordan, pp. 3-5.

  17. Jordan, p. 13.

  18. All quotations from the play come from Drama of the English Renaissance II: The Stuart Period, ed. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin (New York: Macmillan, 1976).

  19. Compare Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 206-7, who reads the marriage as an expression of romantic love.

  20. See Lisa Jardine on how the duchess's widowhood affects her place (Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (1983; rprt. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 78-93).

  21. Compare Jardine, who sees the duchess as a flagrant “strong woman,” who “must be systematically taught the error of her ways” (pp. 68-102, 98).

  22. See, for example, Belsey, pp. 35-41.

  23. Compare Kathleen McLuskie, Renaissance Dramatists (Atlantic Highlands NJ: Humanities Press, 1989), p. 145, who argues that the duchess is overcome by her brothers' power. See also McLuskie, “Drama and sexual politics: the case of Webster's Duchess,” in Drama and Sexual Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 77-91.

  24. Because of the prominence of this challenge, I would argue against the assumption that “misogyny is generally on the rise in the drama of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean years,” reiterated most recently in Steven Mullaney, “Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I, 1600-1607,” SQ 45, 2 (Summer 1994): 139-62, 144.

  25. Thomas Middleton, “Women Beware Women,” in Jacobean and Caroline Tragedies, ed. Robert G. Lawrence (London: J. M. Dent, 1974).

  26. Peter Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” in Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe, ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy Vickers (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 123-42, 141.

  27. The information about Cyprus comes from James F. Gaines and Josephine A. Roberts, “The geography of love in seventeenth-century women's fiction,” in Turner, p. 292.

  28. See Bristol, Quilligan, and Stallybrass, “Patriarchal Territories.” For an excellent alternative, see also Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 40, 4 (Winter 1989): 383-412.

  29. Karen Newman, ‘“And wash the Ethiop white: Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, ed. Jean F. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor (New York: Methuen, 1987), pp. 142-62, 153; see also Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 222-54.

  30. See also II.i., where Desdemona points to her role-playing, her plan to “beguile / The thing (she is) by seeming otherwise” (II.i.122-3).

  31. For a powerful essay on the discourses that surround Desdemona, see Valerie Wayne, “Historical Differences: Misogyny and Othello,” in The Matter of Difference, ed. Wayne, pp. 153-79.

  32. I have sketched out the beginnings of this argument in “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” SQ 41, 4 (Winter 1990): 433-54, esp. 452-4.

  33. Related is the instance of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, which, if Quilligan is right, seems “to grant Kate the exercise of her own biologically gendered sexual desire at the moment of her most freely chosen obedience” (p. 223).

  34. The Jew of Malta, IV.iv.106, from Christopher Marlowe, The Complete Plays, ed. J. B. Steane (London: Penguin Books, 1969).

  35. Compare Stallybrass, who argues that as a “single” but doubly resonant “signifier,” Barbary “slides between male and female” (“Transvestism and the ‘body beneath: Speculating on the Boy Actor,” in Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage, ed. Susan Zimmerman (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 64-83, 73).

  36. I have presented versions of this paper at the Shakespeare Association of America Convention, Kansas City, April 1992, and to the Columbia Shakespeare Seminar, Columbia University, October 1992, and am indebted to the participants in both, especially to Rob Watson, Maurice Charney, and Jean Howard, as well as to the reader at SEL. Finally, very special thanks to Jim Siemon, whose comments and encouragement have been vital.

Charles Isherwood (essay date 17-23 December 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045

SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “Review of Othello.Variety 385, no. 5 (17-23 December 2001): 42-3.

[In the following review of the Public Theater's 2001 Othello, Isherwood remarks on the weakening of the drama's tragic anguish caused by its focus on Iago as enacted by Liev Schreiber—a performance unmatched by Keith David's “respectable” Othello or those of the remainder of the cast.]

Destruction is raised to the level of art in Othello, and audiences couldn't ask for a more captivating creator of chaos than the Iago of Liev Schreiber, the latest and finest in this exemplary young actor's growing gallery of Shakespeare performances for the Public Theater. Title notwithstanding, Shakespeare's tragedy is dominated on the page and often on the stage by its nihilistic antihero, and such is the case with Doug Hughes' clean-lined, efficient production. Keith David's performance as the manipulated Moor has many fine attributes, but it ultimately lacks the grandeur to wrest the play from the cool, confident grasp of Schreiber's bewitching Iago.

Schreiber, who has previously won major acclaim for his Iachimo (in Cymbeline) and his Hamlet in Public Theater productions, is the rare American actor of any generation who lives so comfortably inside the sound and sense of Shakespearean verse that centuries of developments in syntax, vocabulary and grammar seem to evaporate as soon as he opens his mouth. While some actors merely bellow fancy language at us (here Jack Ryland's overacted Brabantio is an egregious example), Schreiber seems to be whispering Iago's thoughts clearly into our ear.

That's a particularly happy aptitude for this inventive schemer, who makes the audience his unwilling confidante by way of some of Shakespeare's richest soliloquies. The role is significantly larger than Othello's, and one of the longest in the canon, but it's also multifaceted and mysterious, and the great achievement of Schreiber's Iago is that we can never pin him down.

At first he seems unhinged, as the show opens with a whirl of whispering voices inside his head (David Van Tieghem's aggressive sound design and electronic music have both effectively unsettling and overbearing moments). A certain twitchiness, a straining of the neck as if to escape the sufferings of his skin, arises when Iago speaks of his humiliation at being passed over in favor of Cassio for promotion by Othello, and he seems equally disturbed at the rumor of his wife's infidelity with the Moor, His eyes become slits, his voice takes on a seething, sullen tone when the subject of women arises.

But most of the time, Iago's cool as a cucumber, a puppeteer pulling strings and taking a cheeky, casually chilling pleasure in doing so. The scene in which Iago languidly plants the suggestion of Desdemona's unfaithfulness in Othello's gullible heart is brilliantly played here by both actors. Throughout, as Iago flits between a kind of seething incipient madness and nearly diffident manipulation—his famous avowal “I am not what I am” made manifest—Schreiber's seductive voice, his sly charm and sheer intelligence lend Iago's machinations more than enough of the malignant fascination that are necessary to keep us from recoiling; on the contrary, when he's offstage, and we're watching his plots unfold without his sardonic commentary, we miss him. (The production's sharp, expressionistic lighting design by Robert Wierzel also serves to emphasize the character's centrality: The play ends with the spotlight not on the doomed lovers but on the shivering figure of Iago, for instance.)

Poised in opposition to the negative energy of Iago is the love between Othello and Desdemona, of course, and the piteousness of the play comes from our discovery of how easily the match is won by Iago's wanton destructiveness. The play offers a sad commentary on the fragility of faith in the face of reason, of love when opposed by hate: Our hearts should break at the ease with which Othello's great love for Desdemona is undone by the insinuating arguments and feeble “proofs” Iago puts before him.

Here Hughes' production disappoints—it doesn't give rise to real anguish. For the play to acquire the tragic dimension it needs to transfer our engagement from the mind of Iago to the heart of Othello, the profundity of Othello's love and the paralyzing pain of its loss need to come across forcefully. It doesn't quite, here.

David is in many respects a fine, respectable Othello. He cuts a virile figure, and the sensual attraction between his Othello and Kate Forbes' serene, sensible and lovely Desdemona is palpably felt. He is an experienced, accomplished handler of Shakespearean verse, too, and has a baritone of supple richness to do it full musical justice.

Othello's jittery unease as Iago's poison works its way into his heart is effectively rendered, but as we listen to David's handsome voice rise in anger or drop suddenly to a smooth basso aside, it's often the sculpted phrases we hear, not the volcano of feeling behind them. The superficial nobility of the warrior and hero are here, but the greater nobility of the full-hearted lover, in which resides the character's grandeur and significance, is not. As a result, Othello's duping is a sad waste, but not quite tragic, so its consequences don't carry the horrific force they should, despite Forbes' fine work in the last scene.

The supporting cast, clad in Catherine Zuber's handsome if somewhat generic 18th-century garb, is competent. Becky Ann Baker's Emilia is surprisingly lacking in color, as is, less surprisingly, Jay Goede's Cassio (that's a reflection on the character, not the actor). The set design by Neil Patel is an odd mixture whose cement pillars and walls sometimes recall contemporary Venice, Calif., more than Venice, Italy, and Cyprus.

But the evening belongs to Schreiber's Iago, and he's no less fascinating at the conclusion than the start. The character's final lines, in answer to Othello's demand to know the cause of his hate, are among the most bluntly stunning in Shakespeare. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.” Iago's sudden silence is a rebuke to the comforting idea that human evil has a cause, and thus a cure. All we really know about Iago, in the end, is that he's awful and he's fascinating. And, thanks to the lucid complexity of Schreiber's performance, he's disturbingly real.

Edward Washington (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8843

SOURCE: Washington, Edward. “‘At the Door of Truth’: The Hollowness of Signs in Othello.” In Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, edited by Mythili Kaul, pp. 167-87. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Washington locates Othello's personal flaw in his tragic “dependence on image at the expense of truth, reality, and hope” and details the process of his downfall within the context of race.]

Even in this time of diverse, sophisticated, and politically progressive critical methodologies, Kenneth Burke's formalist statements (144, 149) remain a valuable guide for critics of Othello who wish to avoid the dubious conclusions that ensue from ill-premised racist ideology. In the first detailed account of racism's influence on Othello scholarship, Martin Orkin exposes and denounces the long tradition of racist discourse that pervades even the highest echelons of Othello criticism. Several scholars have since taken up the issue of race in Othello seemingly in response to Orkin's implicit challenge to critics to construct unbiased (that is, reliable if not precisely “objective”) evaluations of the drama's racial dimensions. Although most of these more recent essays strive to establish critical positions that eschew hasty racial prejudgments, no reading of the play has yet emerged that fully sets forth the semantic complexity of Othello's blackness.1 There are two reasons for this. First, Othello scholarship has relied too heavily on historical and anthropological methodologies to explain the significance of Othello's blackness and has neglected available alternative meanings of blackness within the play.2 Second, critics tend to evaluate Othello's motivations and actions from the delimiting (or delimited) gaze of the dominant white Venetian society, thereby precluding an unsentimentalized view of “the action as a whole” from Othello's perspective—that is, from the perspective of an “all sufficient” (IV.i.261) black figure ascribed a culturally marginal position by white “others.” In the effort to address these two critical deficiencies, and to supply the interpretive lacuna regarding racial blackness in Othello, this essay will explore the relationship between the play's racial signifiers and the transmutations of convention in the text. More important, given the ways in which the authority of Shakespeare—and by extension that of his critics—continues to shape normative cultural values, this essay will also seek to determine the degree to which Shakespeare's Othello reconfigures, rather than confirms, conventional cultural stereotypes of blacks.

The difficulty in defining Othello's blackness as either a conventional or unconventional literary sign (or trope) is illustrated by the sharply varying opinions of critics who question its moral and aesthetic value. Thus, whereas Eldred Jones, Gwyn Williams, and Martin Orkin see Othello as admirable (that is, finally unstereotypical and unconventional) because of his intrinsic but tragically vulnerable honor and nobility, others such as Lemuel Johnson and Anthony Barthelemy see Othello's blackness as an artfully devised ironic mask, a black patina of virtue and nobility that obscures the more conventional meaning of the sign. And although cultural materialist Ania Loomba believes that Othello's “barbarity” is an “ideological construct” rather than a quality “natural” to blacks, she warns against glossing the faults in Othello that do in fact uphold insidious racial stereotypes. This variety of critical opinion leaves unresolved the question of whether blackness in Othello is good or evil, literal or symbolic, conventional or unconventional, stereotypical or typically human. As Elliot Tokson laments:

Arguments have been raised both for and against the view of Othello as a noble Moor … and the problem of that nobility—or barbarism—unavoidably has turned attention to the question of Shakespeare's racial tolerance or bigotry. Some critics believe that Shakespeare was uninterested in the racial aspects of the tragic situation altogether while others hold that Shakespeare was so deeply concerned with Othello's blackness that to miss that theme is to miss the heart of the play. … Whether Shakespeare's imagination probed more deeply than any other writer of this period into the possibilities of the black man, or whether he basically followed the stereotyped pattern on which he traced the outline of Othello's character, or whether he combined popular notions with original perspective are gritty questions that one could more fruitfully pursue were there available some suitable materials with which Othello could be compared.


Tokson's frustration with the inconclusiveness of meaning inherent in Othello's blackness is, however, exactly the point: that is, the ambiguous mixture of virtues and deficiencies in Othello is what makes him both more mimetically “human,” and tragically complex. This is not to suggest (as many have) that Othello's blackness is simply incidental (or coincidental) to the “larger” meanings in the play. On the contrary, although Othello's blackness is not a one-dimensional emblematic signifier, it does represent an essential element in his dramatic characterization—like Richard III's deformity, Shylock's “Jewishness,” Falstaff's rotundity, or Lear's age. That is, blackness in Othello's character provides the rationale for why he thinks and acts the way he does in the given dramatic context.


Bernard Spivack, Mark Rose, and Howard Felperin (among others) draw attention to a metaphorical relationship that exists between the play's dramatic realities regarding race and the play's dramatization of blackness as an unconventional Shakespearean literary emblem. They see Othello as a struggle between two traditional literary genres—(chivalric) romance and morality drama—each vying with the other for ascendancy in the play.3 To the extent that Othello knows his “cues” and can play his part “without a prompter” (I.iii.82-83), he would have us see the play as a romance: more particularly, I would argue, as his version of the romantic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast.” In this tale, Othello plays the part of the black prince, once thought to be beastly, but whose true beauty is revealed through the love of the fair woman whom he marries. Iago, on the other hand, in his role as playwright or stage director, prefers to have us see the play as a morality drama, with himself in the role of Chief Vice. Through deceit and innuendo, Iago seeks to destroy Othello's romance by turning the virtue of the would-be fairy tale into the pitch of tragedy. Taken together, Iago's lies and innuendos make up a false story, a parallel second plot that constitutes a morality drama test for the Beauty and Beast of Othello's plot. As the author of this false second story, Iago strongly resembles the dark tempter Archimago in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Like Archimago, Iago deceives his victim into believing that his love has been unfaithful to him. Like Archimago, Iago also achieves his goal by deluding his victim with falsehoods so realistic that the false seems truer than the true. Like the Redcrosse Knight, once Othello is taken in by these potent lies, he loses faith in real love.4

In the balance of the struggle between Iago and Othello hangs not only the play's tragic outcome but also the fate of the image that Othello has carefully built up of himself. That is, depending on the outcome of the struggle, Othello's reputation as an “all-sufficient” black soldier will be either furthered or destroyed. Similarly, on the level of metadrama, Othello's (or Shakespeare's) poetic image of unconventional black beauty either will be confirmed through romance or, should Iago prevail, will revert (as many critics argue it does) to stereotypical definitions of beastly blackness.


In spite of Othello's relatively secure situation in Venice, his role in the drama is circumscribed (more than has been generally recognized) by the social realities of race-centered marginalization, or racism. This racism is not always overt (Othello is held in high regard by many); rather it is most often a latent and muted hatred of blackness that surfaces suddenly with vituperative and sometimes destructive force, with or without the necessity of demonstrably “Moorish” behavior by Othello. For example, throughout the play, Emilia either implies or states outright that Othello is unfit for Desdemona because of his blackness; Roderigo glosses over his own unsuitability for Desdemona by denigrating Othello as “the thick lips” or the “gross … lascivious Moor” (I.i.66, 126). Iago of course claims to hate the Moor for particular and perhaps for general reasons, and it is significant that he (and Roderigo) incite the ire of Brabantio, the “good” (that is, white) citizen and cheated father, by resorting to racebaiting.

Brabantio himself reflects most sharply the quite real and unpredictable nature of antiblackness in Venice, dangerous even to a black figure as well-situated as Othello. Having once been the charitable host to Othello, Brabantio suddenly becomes not simply a wounded father who has lost his daughter to an “unlawful” suitor but a racist demagogue who would brand Othello a conjuring black witch, to be imprisoned (and burned at the stake, we might imagine, should the accusations be sustained). Thus, although Othello has found some acceptance in Venice, his blackness is nevertheless susceptible to the dangers of white racism that erupt when he transgresses Venetian definitions of racial acceptability.

Although recent critics have begun to acknowledge the role of racism in the play, few have pursued in much depth the degree to which the play shows Othello himself to be keenly aware of forces that stand ready to reject his blackness at the least provocation. It is unlikely that Othello could have achieved the success he has over a period of years without being cognizant of the latent (and overt) racism in society. Despite the fair number of critics who maintain that Othello's tragedy results from his being an outsider in Venice, one wonders how Othello could have not only survived but thrived here, without having understood a good deal about this society's dangerous racial waters. I would suggest that Othello has survived Venice's latent racism by cultivating a reputation and respect strong enough to hold back the tide of antiblackness. The bedrock of this reputation is, of course, military prowess, but Othello is no mere brute soldier. He has the charisma of a commander, and he emphasizes the ceremonial aspects, the pomp and circumstance of the position he holds. But more than this, Othello has established himself socially in Venice: he is well liked, much respected, and welcomed into the homes of Venetian aristocrats like Brabantio. He inspires so much respect in fact that he is able to defuse, without much effort, the racial protest against a marriage that few dominant groups would allow to an outsider. (Even the Jewess Jessica in The Merchant of Venice must turn Christian in order to marry Lorenzo.)

Othello achieves this acceptance by his politic behavior. We see it in his conduct of military affairs: in the selection of the highly regarded Cassio as his lieutenant; in the way he halts the impending clash on the streets of Venice; in the “full liberty” he grants his men after the defeat of the Turks (and before they begin their new duties in Cyprus). We also see it in Othello's judicious handling of Cassio's drunken brawling on the island: Othello demotes Cassio, not because he believes him unworthy but rather to “make … an example” (II.iii.242) of him to the other soldiers. (As Iago says, the demotion is “a punishment more in policy than in malice” [II.iii.265-66]). We see it again in his timely reminders to Venice of how much it has benefited from his military service. Othello's politic abilities are not limited to war matters, however; in social situations, too, he uses his intelligence and his grandiloquence (G. Wilson Knight's “Othello music”) in a manner that serves to distance him from conventional white notions of blacks as barbarians and beasts.5 More than being simply articulate and sonorous, Othello is a consummate storyteller whose tales impress not only Desdemona but even the Duke, who observes that Othello's story “would win [his] daughter too” (I.iii.171). Othello's wondrous stories invariably draw attention to his stellar accomplishments—but in addition to presenting images of all sufficiency, they are infused with a pathos that gains him generous sympathy and tolerance from the Venetians.

There are times also when Othello goes to great lengths to efface himself, ingratiate himself, and evoke pity. Many critics have argued that Othello's excessive deference to the Venetians denotes a callow disavowal of his identity as a black outsider, and that this naivete about his “place” as a black in Venice explains why he is so easily duped by the lies of a “true” Venetian like Iago. This view of Othello leads Anthony Barthelemy to conclude that Othello, as a Shakespearean black character, “never possesses the power or desire to subvert civic and natural order” (161).

To this charge of co-optation or “Uncle Tomism” in Othello, I would respond that Othello uses ingratiation, purposely, to smooth his way in a racist Venice. His intent is to achieve success and humanization for his blackness in moderate fashion. Othello's mode of achieving change differentiates him from Aaron, who would avoid racial conflict by leaving Rome to return “home”; from the “dark lady,” who seemingly never appears in public with her white lover; and from Caliban, who attempts to raise violent revolt against his oppressors. Most simply, the choice between militancy or moderation in the need for change is endemic to all political contexts in which weaker forces struggle against those with more power. (In black-white race relations, the best example of this conflict is the militancy of Malcolm X and the moderation of Martin Luther King, Jr.) Hence, Othello has not forgotten that he is black, nor does he forget his cultural heritage or his history of enslavement. Rather he has taken a moderate course as he seeks to achieve personal success through the politic “humanization” of his blackness in Venice.

In a broader sense, Othello's deference to forces that have power over him is part of a larger issue of decorum and “place” in the play. That is, all the characters are very much concerned with their status in social hierarchies—whether in terms of public influence, like Brabantio; military rank, like Iago and Cassio; the proper place of fathers, daughters, wives, and “men”; or the proper “place” of a black in white Venice. Like Othello, the other characters are concerned with either maintaining their achieved “place” by any means they can or trying to improve their given status through some form of deference or ingratiation to those who have power to grant them what they seek. In one way or another, everyone has to be politic.

Thus, when Othello tells the Duke, “Rude am I in my speech … / And therefore little shall I grace my cause / In speaking for myself” (I.iii.81-89), we realize that this is far from true. And when Othello claims that “little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broils and battles” (I.iii.86-87), we sense, likewise, that he exaggerates the extent to which his life has been “a flinty and steel couch of war” (I.iii.230). And after the bold fait accompli of his elopement with Desdemona, Othello is again politic—in deferring to the Duke's judgement, and by downplaying his sexual desires—thus refashioning the stereotype of blacks as lascivious beasts, which Iago and Roderigo have invoked to incite Brabantio (that is, the black ram tupping a white ewe). As Othello says:

And heaven defend your good souls that you think
I will your serious and great business scant,
For she is with me; … 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 estimation!


Although several critics have argued that these statements reveal the central patriarchal flaw in Othello's “love” for Desdemona, it seems to me that they are the finishing touches Othello gives to a muted image of black sexuality, an image that attempts to assuage conventional white fears of black lasciviousness.

This politic behavior determines, in part, Othello's unlikely marriage. Because Othello asks himself why he ever married (III.iii.246), we might presume that he had some reason for not marrying earlier. The most likely explanation for his extended bachelorhood is that the soldier's life has not allowed “skillets” to interfere with “service”; but it is interesting to speculate on the circumstances (beyond love) that lead him to marry this particular woman at this particular time, especially given the potential racial dangers of such a marriage.

After world travel, exploits, and wars, Othello has seemingly found a place for himself in Venice, even before his marriage to Desdemona. He is the Venetians' chief military officer; he speaks their language and is a Christian; he seems well connected socially and has loyal supporters; he has “fortunes” that revert to Venetian legal “relatives” on his death. Thus, despite his blackness, Othello is more integrated into the dominant community than are other Shakespearean black characters, and he is less socially isolated than Venice's own Shylock. Yet, although the cornerstone of black Othello's acceptance in Venice is his military indispensability, it is also true that this indispensability is subject to time. Being “no god” (III.iv.146), the strength of his mighty arm will decline as he ages—and Othello is already “getting older” at the start of the play. Thus, when we meet Othello, he is a man at the apex of his career and at a point in life where it would be plausible for him to be more open to the prospect of settling down. In this context, marriage to an admired and well-placed Venetian woman might bestow on him an ideal image of social (and human) sufficiency that would protect his blackness in Venice in his declining years.6 This is not to suggest that Othello calculatingly directs his life toward this end, nor to doubt that he “loves the gentle Desdemona” (I.ii.25) as he says he does. Rather, the dramatic givens of the play—racism, Othello's age, and later, the correlation Othello sees between a successful marriage and a successful military “occupation”—simply emphasize the further advantages of his marriage to Desdemona at present.7 As in “Beauty and the Beast,” she will be the beautiful wife who will help to reveal the full humanity in Othello's blackness.

In the light of the discussion thus far, it is not surprising that Othello's concern for his image, especially in the context of his marriage, becomes the vulnerable spot that Iago attacks when he selects the marriage as the vehicle through which he will destroy the Moor.


The beginning of Act II presents an Othello who has defended himself in a judicious and politic manner against each racist charge leveled against him, an Othello at the high point of his powers. His facile victory over the Turks only further confirms the security of his place in Venice. At this point, Othello's romance seems “well-shipped” (II.i.47).

But Iago perseveres in his Vice-like effort to discredit the Moor and to transform this blithe romance into a dark morality drama. In seeking to turn Othello's unconventional virtue into conventional pitch, he applies jealousy, a potent morality drama temptation that might cause anyone to miss a step. The jealousy that Iago grafts on Othello is, however, simply the catalyst that brings to the fore a more prominent vulnerability in Othello—a vulnerability of which not even Iago is fully aware and one that Othello can least defend himself against (as seems indicated by his swift, easy, and complete collapse): his fear of the loss of his image of “all in all” sufficiency in Venice. Thus, while the thought of Desdemona's unfaithfulness touches a raw nerve in Othello, it also raises the specter of a dashed opportunity (at a key point in his career) to preserve and even enhance the possibility of a safe and viable life in Venice—a city whose acceptance of blackness would seem to be contingent on his maintaining a flawless image of all-sufficiency.8 Thus when Iago mounts his assault, the Moor loses rational control of a situation that, earlier in his life, he might have been able to control; or had Iago's evil not been quite so pernicious,9 one he might have been able to ward off (as he does Brabantio's less potent challenge earlier on).

After what appear to have been years devoted to promoting an image of ideal blackness that allows him to claim his due and protect his place in Venice, Othello has, in fact, begun to reason and act on images of truth as if they were truth itself. His storytelling, for example, shows him using vivid and effective images of his past to win hearts and minds in Venice. These imagistic tales are essentially true but sound suspiciously similar to those titillatingly imagistic (but apocryphal) travel book stories so popular at the time. Even Othello's beautiful language is sprinkled with high-sounding neologisms (provulgate, exsuffligate) whose actual meaning and application are vague. Significantly, the things he cherishes most about his life as a soldier involve the outward trappings of war, the images of war rather than actual fighting:

Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue; O farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!


Ironically, there is a vast discrepancy between the image and the reality—between Othello's gestures and the fact that there is little or no concrete action to back them up. Othello helps to keep the peace in Venice (“Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust'em” [I.ii.58-59]), but no fighting actually occurs. In the ensuing sea battle with the Turks, strangely, a storm sinks the enemy ships, and Othello receives accolades without having fired a shot. Othello's scapegoating of Cassio on Cyprus saves him from having to “lift [his] arm” (II.iii.199) to quell further quarrels among his men.

The same dearth of substantive action prevails in situations occurring after Iago's lies about Desdemona have begun. For instance, the Moor's menacing threats against Iago in Act III and Emilia in Act V fall flat, as Iago slithers to safety and Emilia proclaims, “Thou hast not half the power to do me harm as I have to be hurt” (V.ii.163-64). Othello invokes black vengeance against Cassio but shuffles the job off onto Iago, and in the end, he sees the murder attempt fail. He is disarmed by Montano, and his final avenging lunge at Iago is ineffective. The only person he is physically violent with is Desdemona—and as Lodovico says, violence against a woman is not valorous. Othello does manage to take his own life—but this represents less an act of warlike power than the supreme gesture of powerlessness.10

The same empty gestures mark Othello's sexual power in the play. That is, despite all the talk about sexuality in Othello, there is little of it in the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. Although I disagree with those who suggest that Othello and Desdemona never consummate their marriage, the dramatic action of the play is orchestrated in a way that suggests that the couple's private time together suffers constant interruption. And after Iago's lies, sexual relations between the two seem simply unlikely. Also, although little reason exists to doubt that Othello loves Desdemona, many have noted how Othello often speaks of her in idealized Petrarchan terms—revealing his sense of her as a wonderful “image” of womanhood rather than as a real woman to love. Thus, for Othello, Desdemona appears a “rose,” a “perfect chrysolite,” a “pearl” with skin as “white as snow” and as “smooth as alabaster”; his “soul's joy” to whom he would “deny nothing.”

Given this tendency to objectify Desdemona as an “image” of beauty, and the way in which the play obscures real sexuality between them, Othello's reactions to Desdemona in the bedchamber scene just prior to her murder not only raise questions concerning his sexual power but also accentuate what lies at the heart of Othello's susceptibility to Iago's evil: his general propensity to treat abstract images as concrete realities. When Othello contemplates the sleeping Desdemona, with genuine ardor he murmurs words of Petrarchan praise and love. Then, when she wakens and invites him to bed, offering him, it seems, an opportunity to give his romance story a happy ending after all, the prospect of an enlivened and desirous Desdemona (as opposed to an alabaster figure) disorients Othello, and he draws back from the prospect of love made concrete and actual. Although it is easy enough to see Othello's withdrawal as the steeling of his resolve to carry out the execution, it also seems clear that it is not within the scope of his capabilities to move beyond an imagined view of love to its concrete reality. At the very end of the play, we do find Othello and Desdemona lying together on the bed; but the lifeless bodies only underscore the lost potential for real love—and even this final image of unity is disrupted by the presence of Emilia lying beside them.


Othello's too-strong dependence on gestures and images—his taking them for truth—is the Achilles heel Iago exploits. Such gestures include the false images of Cassio's nonexistent dream, the misrepresenting dumb show of Cassio's cuckolding brag, and generally speaking, all circumstantial signs “which lead … to the door of truth” (III.iii.412-13). This dependence on image prevents Othello from seeing that the white antagonism he would defend himself against has undergone a change for the better—perhaps due to his own influence. That is, even with its dangers, Othello's Venice is not the antiblack and antilife “wilderness of tigers” that Aaron contends with in Titus's Rome; even the Venetians in The Merchant of Venice are more superciliously intolerant of cultural others, among them Moroccan princes and rich Jews, than is the case in Othello. In fact, given Renaissance England's and Renaissance drama's image of Italian cities as hotbeds of intrigue and sin, all in all, Othello's Venice seems remarkably civilized. This is not to suggest that Venetian society is ideal; however, in key ways, it is more tolerant and accepting of Othello than he realizes. Othello's inability to perceive this, however, makes it impossible for him to read the signs of hope that exist for him in Venice—positive signs that would allow him to resist the fearful images of lost love, lost marriage and lost occupation, painted by Iago.

The leaders of the State indicate this change and hope. They ferret out the truth and have a clear sense of justice—traits that bode well for a black man wary of racist stereotypes, assumptions, and prejudgments by whites. The best examples of the State's pursuit of truth occur during the War Room scene in Act I. The Duke and several other leaders receive a flurry of confusing and conflicting reports about the strength and strategy of the enemy Turks. Obviously, these false reports foreshadow the seemingly true falsehoods that Iago will unleash on Othello during the course of the play. Through patience and good judgment, however, the Venetian leaders uncover the truth about the Turks, seeing through the false report of Angelo, one who, like Iago, should be “honest” but is not. Later, the State, through the Duke, challenges and dismisses Brabantio's accusations against Othello as “thin habits and poor likelihoods” (I.iii.108) and finally adjudges Othello a suitable husband for Desdemona. Further, no leader in the State denigrates Othello; and even when the truth of Othello's crime is known, Lodovico responds more in sorrow than in anger.

Corroborating and extending the idea that these Venetians are more unconventionally accepting of Othello's blackness than he realizes are the suggestions that Othello is not the only “outsider” in Venice, a remarkably healthy political and religious state whose power and success derive from cultural heterogeneity rather than from narrow ethnocentrism. This sense of Venice as an expansive, inclusive, and fluid society comes to us in part from the many references to people, places, and things that originate outside the city's ethnic and geographical boundaries but that, nevertheless, seem integral to Venetian life and perspective. The characters, for example, allude to crusadoes, carracks, guineas, coloquintidas, and Spanish swords; they have some knowledge of monkeys, baboons, aspics, crocodiles, locusts, and Barbary horses; they have been to or know about Aleppo, Rhodes, Cyprus, Egypt, Mauritania (and Moors). Cited also are the Pontic, the Propontic, and the Hellespont, as well as England, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Rome, Sparta, and Verona. Venetian men are said to be partial to “foreign laps” (IV.iii.88), and the Venetian women would proverbially “walk barefoot to Palestine” (IV.iii.38-39) to find a good husband. All of these references connote a sense of cultural and geographic expansiveness. Then too, there is the well-known passage in which Emilia speaks to Desdemona at length about what she would do to gain “all the world”: the “huge thing” of “great price” that she would risk “purgatory for” if she could have it for her labor (IV.iii.65-75). Even here, Emilia's reference serves as the culminating epiphany to over thirty allusions to the “world” in this play—from Brabantio who wants to be judged by “the world” (I.ii.72) if his accusation of Othello is false, to Iago's desire to bring his monstrous evil “to the world's light” (I.iii.402), to the Clown who would “catechize the world” (III.iv.13) to find Cassio.

Admittedly, other Shakespearean plays allude to places outside of the immediate dramatic setting. In Othello, however, the Venetians are construed to be the leaders of a group of Christian “others” who join together to oppose, not non-Venetians, but rather nonbelievers—in this case the infidel Turks: Florentines, like Cassio; Greeks, like Marcus Luccicios; Cypriots, who are old friends; black Moors “of here and everywhere” (I.i.137) like Othello. In fact, as Venice's field general, it is Othello's “occupation” to unite Florentines, Greeks, Cypriots, and Venetians alike under the Christian banner of the Venetian State and to serve the State in places like Aleppo, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Mauritania.

This general acceptance of heterogeneity and of the Other is particularized in Desdemona. She is the center of moral rightness and truth in the play,11 and it follows that her views on blackness provide the best instruction regarding its meaning in the play. At the beginning of the drama, we are told that Desdemona's love for Othello derives from having seen “his visage in his mind” (I.iii.252), thereby rendering Othello's racial blackness a moot issue in her affections for him. In Act III, after Desdemona discovers that she has misplaced the handkerchief, Emilia asks her if the Moor is jealous. Desdemona replies, “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humours from him” (III.iv.26-27). Here, not only does Desdemona reject the conventional stereotype of black jealousy, but her speculation that Africa's hot climate is actually beneficial opposes the standard Renaissance view of Africa as the “foul furnace”12 that turned Africans into hellish black devils. Futhermore, in a play that so earnestly questions whether the “best” women in a society ought not to marry their own kind, it is significant that, even after she has been called a “whore” and struck in public, Desdemona asserts that Othello's “[u]nkindness may do much, / And his unkindness may defeat my life, / But never taint my love” (IV.ii.161-63). When Desdemona affirms her love for Othello despite his behavior, the figurative sense of “unkind” as “unnatural” and thus “racially different” is heard as well, and Desdemona vows that—no matter what Othello has done, or why—she will not capitulate to the temptation to scapegoat his racial Otherness.

The idea of Othello's Venice as a heterogeneous state (and therefore more accepting of Othello than he realizes) is nevertheless confused by the racism and ethnocentrism that Iago advances in order to create a larger “place” or status for himself at the expense of an outsider. Moreover, although Roderigo, Brabantio, and (to a lesser degree) Emilia also foster racial divisiveness, these Venetians are as much under Iago's spell as Othello or Cassio.13 It is Iago who sabotages the friendship, camaraderie, and love that has developed around, or in spite of, difference. He helps to poison the friendship between Brabantio and Othello and between Othello and Cassio; he tries to divide Cassio and Montano, the respective lieutenants of the newly combined Venetian and Cypriot forces. Most important, he poisons the love between Othello and Desdemona, in part by emphasizing their differences:

Not to affect many proposed matches,
Of her own clime, complexion and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends;
Fie, we may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural.
.....I may fear
Her will, recoiling to her better judgment,
May fall to match you with her country forms,
And happily repent.

(III.iii.233-37; 239-42)

In general then, Iago seeks to turn fathers against daughters, husbands against wives, men against women, whites against blacks, and ultimately a heterogeneous Venetian society against itself.

Despite Iago's antiblackness, the play itself intentionally undercuts blackness as a signifier of evil by investing the white characters (even the more likable ones) with traits that are dark and sinister: Brabantio is exposed as a hypocrite and a racist; Roderigo is a fortune-hunter, a racist, and a would-be murderer; Emilia's loyalty and egalitarianism are diametrically counterposed by her slavishness, her deceit, and her bigotry; the suave Cassio has a nasty temper and a coarse side to his view of women. Even Desdemona seems to sway in the wrong direction when she attempts to redress Othello's demotion of Cassio. And Iago, of course, epitomizes the play's conversion of white to black as he plays the part of a Renaissance white devil. But the character who best exemplifies how the play transmutes the conventional meanings of black and white in Othello is Bianca.

Giving the name Bianca (that is, white in Italian) to a relatively substantial character in a play with a major black character is highly suggestive. As the character signifying whiteness, Bianca should, according to convention, be an ideal Petrarchan woman—which she is not. Yet, confusingly, a further reversal in Bianca's unconventionally “evil” whiteness occurs when she is said to be a whore in order to obtain the essentials of “bread and clothes” (IV.i.95). Also, in a play so obsessed with fidelity, Bianca loves but one man (although her profession gives her license to “love” many [IV.i.97]), and like Desdemona with Othello, she remains devoted to Cassio despite his ill-treatment of her.

But Bianca's most positive aspect is her implied rejection of Iago's hypocrisy and falsehood. At the end of Act IV, she rebels against Iago's and Emilia's efforts to bewhore her and to implicate her falsely in the wounding of Cassio. Even more significant is Bianca's earlier refusal to make a copy of Desdemona's stolen handkerchief: in refusing to fall in line with Iago's surreptitious effort to create a second (morality drama) story of infidelity with the handkerchief, she refuses to fabricate a false signifier of Othello's and Desdemona's romance. Moreover, in declining to “take out the work” (that is, destroy through replication) of the true love token (IV.i.153), Bianca is the first to reject outright Iago's evil designs. Her defiance signals a major turning point in the play, the point where other manipulated characters begin to throw off Iago's influence, thus bringing his plot to light.

The point here is that the conventional forms of antiblackness in this play occur almost exclusively in the context of Iago's fabrications about Othello and Desdemona. The racist sentiments in the play are uttered either by Iago or by characters over whom he has gained power through an exploitation of their frailties. As such, Iago spins an Archimago-like illusion of racial intolerance that distorts a truer (though certainly not perfect) reality of Venice that Othello does not discern.


Despite any sympathy we might have for Othello's need to foster an ideal black image in Venice, and despite our awareness of Iago's potent malignity, Othello remains culpable. Although his culpability ensues neither from his emblematic blackness nor (up to a point) from his “human” susceptibility to error and sin, Othello may be held accountable for his failure to read and understand the unconventional signs of hope in Venice that could have allowed him to see through Iago's false images.

In a sense, the question of Othello's culpability ought to be resolved when he realizes that he has foolishly killed a faithful wife, and seeing his error, embarks on what appears to be a reconciling course of tragic resolution. With good tragic form, Othello confesses his mistakes and then takes his own life in order to atone for his tragic folly. Thus, although Othello fails in his attempt to remake “Beauty and the Beast,” he does manage to rework his part to fit that of the hero in a tragic romance (“I will kill thee, / And love thee after” [V.ii.18-19]). After all, to die by one's own hand while in the arms of one's slain lover is the stuff of tragic romance in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. The point, however, is that although Othello realizes that he has mistakenly killed a faithful wife, and that a scheming ensign has gulled him, he never recognizes how his own too-strong dependence on images has contributed to the crime he has committed. This lack of recognition reveals his inability, even at the end, to see the whole truth. Thus, Othello's noble reconciliation at the end of the play is more ambiguous than it initially appears, and there is much in Othello's last words and deed to suggest that the image of blackness in this play is not redeemed.

For example, something seems awry in Othello's perception of reality when he describes Montano, the soldier who has disarmed him, as a “puny whipster” (V.ii.245). He understates the soldierly abilities of Montano and overstates his own capabilities. Some lines later, he seems to come to terms with his actual powerlessness when he admits that his threat against Gratiano is but a “vain boast” (V.ii.265). Yet it is disquieting that Othello should define his lost power as his inability to “control … fate” (V.ii.266), since he is at least partly to blame in the death of Desdemona. Othello cannot have fully come to terms with his own failings if he can refer to the Desdemona he has murdered as an “ill-starr'd wench” (V.ii.273). Just a few lines further, Othello asserts that Desdemona's faultless spirit “will hurl [his] soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch at it” (V.ii.275-76); but despite his genuine anguish, he again misses the point when he fails to acknowledge not only Desdemona's commitment to their conjugal love but also the forgiveness and redemption she offers when she assumes responsibility for his crime.

The most telling instances of ambiguity concerning Othello's redeemed vision occur in his very last speech. Although the tone of Othello's once again noble words is lofty, the words themselves raise many questions about the clarity of Othello's vision and his motivations at the end. That is, although Othello claims to be heart-stricken over the senseless loss of the woman he loves, he begins his final speech with, “Soft you, a word or two … / I have done the state some service, and they know't” (V.ii.339-40). We have seen how Othello has used this ploy, understandably but manipulatively, to defend his ideal black image from racist attacks; but here, Othello's reinvocation of an earlier politic defensiveness seems uncontritely self-serving and unredeemingly out of place, not only in the light of his contrition but also in the light of his culpability in Desdemona's death.

Shortly thereafter Othello almost literally spells out how his part in recent events should be represented, in writing, to the Venetian State. As he has done in the past, Othello idealizes the image of himself that he would have Venice remember. When he tells Lodovico to “speak of my deeds as they are; nothing extenuate” (V.ii.343), he should mean, “Don't spare the awful truth”—but he probably does not. Further, in instructing Lodovico not to “set down aught in malice” (V.ii.344), Othello seems to say, “Don't tone down anything about me (for I am great of heart), but also, don't say anything that suggests that you don't approve of me.” Othello thus asks us to keep our image of him not only grand but also uncritical—for his errors are but the consequence of “unlucky deeds” (V.ii.342). He goes on to fashion his future storied image of himself as “one that lov'd not wisely, but too well: / Of one not easily jealous” (V.ii.345-46). But is he completely truthful when he claims to have loved Desdemona “too well”? Did he love her so well that he judged her guilty on evidence that even Iago called circumstantial? Did he love her too well when he denied her the right to prove herself innocent? Can we ever accept his view that in killing Desdemona quickly he has somehow been “merciful” (V.ii.88)? And can we accept, without question or qualification, his assertion that he is not easily jealous in the absence of all resistance on his part against the lies of Iago? To raise such questions is to deny neither Othello's love for Desdemona nor the pernicious evil of Iago, but rather to gauge the degree to which Othello fully sees, understands, admits to, and mends the weaknesses within himself that have allowed Iago to bring forth the hideous scene that lies before him.

In short, the other characters in Othello come to terms with the truth, confess their disastrous errors, and go on to gain either real or symbolic salvation. Although Othello appears to undergo a similar process, his continued posturing prompts us to question whether he has recognized how his dependence on image has contributed to the tragic events—and in turn, to wonder if in fact he redeems himself with his dramatic self-sacrifice. In questioning the soundness of Othello's tragic resolution, we must also question whether he has seen the avenues of hope before him that might have saved his wife, his life, and his soul in Venice. That is, has Othello understood that Desdemona accepted him, loved him, and then saved him with her forgiveness? Does Othello (despite his error) see the possibility of redemptive vindication at the hands of a clear-sighted, just, and tolerant white Venetian state? And, in the context of the play as a morality drama, has Othello faith enough to believe that he will receive grace despite his earthy trials and sins?


The last half of Othello's last speech is an imagistic travelogue of his sojourns culminating in his story of the slaughtered infidel. Othello then transposes the image of the slain infidel into a metaphorical image that represents his own faithlessness and penitent suicide. Putting a knife to his own throat is Othello's last grand gesture. Yet Gratiano startles us with his deflating observation that Othello's ostensibly noble and redeeming act mars “all that's spoke” (V.ii.358).

In the context of morality drama, Othello's suicide (especially with the signs of change and hope in Venice) denotes his capitulation to the last and most subtle deception of Vice—despair—the hopelessness that blinds one to the grace of God. Hence, at the end of the play, we find Othello to be in much the same predicament as Spenser's Redcrosse as he nears the end of his trials. Like Othello, the image-bound Redcrosse struggles with his fiend in an effort to come to terms with his lack of faith in a faithful woman. Having seen his errors, Redcrosse, like Othello, would redress his sins by doing away with himself at knifepoint:

[The fiend] to [Redcrosse] raught a dagger sharpe and keene,
And gave it him in hand: his hand did quake,
And tremble like a leafe of Aspin greene,
And troubled bloud through his pale face was scene
To come, and goe with tydings from the hart,
As it a running messenger had beene.
At last resolved to worke his finall smart
He lifted up his hand, that backe againe did start.


But unlike Othello, in the end, Redcrosse remains open to the truth of Una's love and forgiveness and God's grace—and pulls back from the pit to gain his salvation:

“Come, come away, fraile, feeble, fleshly wight,
Ne let vaine words bewitch thy manly hart,
Ne divelish thoughts dismay thy constant spright.
In heavenly mercies hast thou not a part?
Why shouldst thou then despeire, that chosen art?
Where justice growes, there grows eke greater grace,
The which doth quench the brond of hellish smart,
And accurst hand-writing doth deface.
Arise, Sir knight arise, and leave this cursed place.”
.....So up he rose, and thence amounted streight.

(I.ix.53; 54)

The trials of Redcrosse reflect the trials of morality drama protagonists generally; and to the degree that Othello is a play that incorporates the form and substance of morality drama, Othello's attempt to redeem himself through an otherwise noble suicide inadvertently leads him directly into the clutches of a hellish Vice. Thus, in the metadramatic struggle between genres, morality drama bests romance; for as Lodovico observes to Iago as the curtain is closed on the tragic bed, “[T]his is thy work” (V.ii.365).

My argument is that Othello's dependence on image at the expense of truth, reality, and hope (what the play calls “matter”) is the “cause” of his downfall. More specifically, in the context of race, Othello continues to view his salvation in terms of his ability to build and live up to an ideal image—as valiant soldier, as fairy-tale husband, as the hero of a tragic romance—in order to redeem the integrity of his black humanity from denigration at the hands of conventionally hostile white “critics” (II.i.119) like Iago (or even those cited by Orkin). In this context of black survival, Othello's aims are fatal but not ignoble; consequently, his fall is more dramatically tragic than stereotypically evil—especially because the black image he strives to protect has found some measure of acceptance in Venice.


  1. See Neill, Loomba, Newman, Braxton, Dollimore, Berry, Cantor, and Bartels. These critics, however, almost invariably discuss the issue of race in Othello in conjunction with a “related” subject, such as colonialism, Renaissance ideologies of gender, sexual mores of the audience, and psychosocial functions of perversion. In Othello criticism, the introduction of such “larger” issues tends to obfuscate rather than reveal fully the complexities of racial blackness in the play. In this regard, Loomba, Berry, and Bartels are more focused, and many areas of agreement exist between their arguments and my own.

  2. Leah Marcus has outlined the essential problem of historical analyses of Shakespeare as follows: “What we call Shakespeare is somehow mysteriously different, impervious to history at the level of specific factual data, the day to day chronicling of events” (xi). See also Graham Holderness.

  3. Spivack examines the play in relation to morality drama allegory; Rose presents a convincing case for his view of Othello as a chivalric romance; and more broadly, Felperin asserts that several literary forms (morality drama and romance inclusive) are showcased in Othello—varied forms that ensue from the tendency of most of the characters to present, and represent, themselves in an array of conventional literary roles. Most recently, Paul Cantor has described the play as a “generic … displacement … [of] martial epic … into Italian bedroom comedy” (297).

  4. Rose cites this analogy (295).

  5. The idea that Othello's way with words, his “music,” is related to issues of race in the play would seem to be confirmed by New York Times editor Brent Staples, in his essay “Black Men in Public Space.” In this essay, Staples discusses the problems of “image” encountered by people of color in U.S. cities today. He says: “Over the years, I learned to smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal. Not to do so would surely have led to madness. I now take precautions to make myself less threatening. [For example] I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax, and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn't be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi's Four Seasons.” Staples's frequently anthologized essay first appeared in Ms. magazine, September 1986.

  6. Othello is not enfeebled; however, we may note that the play encourages us to accept the idea of aging as a motif of some consequence. We know that Othello contemplates his own “declin[e] / Into the vale of years” (III.iii.270) as a possible reason for Desdemona's ostensible unfaithfulness. More to the point is Iago's suggestion that no matter how faithful a man's service to the state, “when he's old” he is sure to be unceremoniously “cashier'd” (I.i.48).

  7. Felperin sums up this line of argument succinctly: “As the living symbol of high Venetian culture, Desdemona is not simply a wife to Othello but the legitimating agent of his acculturation” (78). Peter Stallybrass states more simply: “Desdemona is the active agent of Othello's legitimization” (272).

  8. It should be underscored again that, although Othello's preoccupation with image makes him more vulnerable to Iago's lies, this vulnerability should not be construed as an attribute of “blackness” that confirms him to be a stereotypical racial emblem. Like other somewhat less than ideal qualities in Othello, the Moor's anxious concern to be seen as all-sufficient derives largely from his desire to achieve his deserved place in Venice: to defend himself against a race-based antiblackness that would deny him his just rewards.

  9. The play encourages us to equate Othello's vulnerability to Iago's lies with Cassio's susceptibility to wine. Hence, like Cassio, Othello is imbued with a poisonous force powerful enough to swiftly and completely bring about the destruction of his better self and give rein to his weaknesses and fallibilities.

  10. The absence of concrete military power in Othello might be seen to further confirm his need to look ahead to a time when he would no longer be able to sustain his ideal soldier's image: a good marriage would be a hedge against any resulting loss of place in Venice.

  11. Despite Desdemona's Christian intention to mend evil with good, and her Christ-like sacrifice at the end, many critics have found fault with her as the voice of right reason in the play. Some have judged her to be a weak white foil who exists only for the purpose of dramatizing the black deeds of men; others have seen her as a beautiful, but naive and wayward romantic who wanders into dark and forbidden waters; still others have claimed that her Christ-like forgiveness of Othello is so ideal that it unfits her as a true sounding board for meaning in a mature Shakespearean tragedy. Notwithstanding these criticisms, Desdemona is the beacon of moral rightness in Othello, and her viability in this role is sustained in part by the fact that she is not the stock good angel of a morality drama or fairy-tale romance. That is, Desdemona is as prone to error and flaw as any character in the play; but, to a greater degree than all other characters, she has the ability to adapt and grow, and ultimately, through love and faith, to find out truth.

  12. See Chapter 1 of E. Jones and pages 433-42 of Bartels for fuller treatments of sixteenth-century England's view of Africa.

  13. In addition to hoodwinking both Othello and Cassio, Iago exploits Roderigo's desire for Desdemona and her “full fortune,” Brabantio's paternal possessiveness, and Emilia's love for him.

Works Cited

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 41 (1990), 433-54.

Berry, Edward. “Othello's Alienation,” Studies in English Literature, 30 (1990), 315-33.

Braxton, Phyllis, “The Moor and the Metaphor,” South Atlantic Review, 55 (1990), 1-17.

Cantor, Paul A. “Othello: The Erring Barbarian among the Supersubtle Venetians,” Southwest Review, 75 (1990), 296-319.

Dollimore, Jonathan. “The Cultural Politics of Perversion: Augustine, Shakespeare, Freud, Foucault,” Genders, 8 (1990), 1-16.

Felperin, Howard. Shakespearean Representation, Princeton, Princeton UP, 1977.

Holderness, Graham. Shakespeare's Histories, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Jones, Eldred. Othello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama, London, Oxford UP, 1965.

Loomba, Ania. Gender, Race and Renaissance Drama, Manchester, Manchester UP, 1989.

Marcus, Leah. Puzzling Shakespeare, Berkeley, U of California P, 1988.

Neill, Michael. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly, 40 (1989), 383-412.

Newman, Karen. “Femininity and the Monstrous in Othello,Shakespeare Reproduced, ed. Jean Howard & Marion O'Connor, New York, Methuen, 1987.

Rose, Mark. “Othello's Occupation: Shakespeare and the Romance of Chivalry,” English Literary Renaissance, 15 (1985), 293-311.

Spivack, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil, New York, Columbia UP, 1958.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed,” Othello: Critical Essays, ed. Susan Snyder, New York, Garland, 1988.

Lucille P. Fultz (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5867

SOURCE: Fultz, Lucille P. “Devouring Discourses: Desire and Seduction in Othello.” In Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, edited by Mythili Kaul, pp. 189-204. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Fultz interprets Othello as a drama of linguistic subversion represented by Iago's desire to discursively seduce and manipulate Othello, Desdemona, and the other principal figures in the drama.]

In her “Introduction” to Othello: New Perspectives, Virginia Mason Vaughan delineates the genealogy of Othello criticism, which according to her, “remained … a bastion of formalism and psychological analysis” well into the 1980s (13). Prior to this period, according to Vaughan, Othello critics were concerned with issues of textual history and authority, while debates swirled around issues of definitive editions and textual conflations. Vaughan maps the movement of criticism from controversies surrounding “which version was better” or “closer to Shakespeare's original text” to analyses of patterns of language and imagery, symbolism, and psychological motivations of characters. A major turning point in Othello criticism occurred in the 1980s with a shift toward feminist critique, deconstruction, and performance (14-18). Georgianna Ziegler, speaking of Hamlet criticism, contends that “in every age Shakespeare's text[s] [have] been subjected to the interests and the view of that generation” (1), and Jean E. Howard observes, “[W]e need more new readings of Shakespeare: readings which continue to bring to bear on these plays the human concerns which press on us now” (145). This is particularly applicable to Othello at present.

My own critique of Othello is situated in a postmodern moment that foregrounds discursivity as constitutive of the self and the worlds the self inhabits. Such a reading seeks to expose Iago's desire to locate power in discourse, a power that ultimately leads to Desdemona's murder and Othello's suicide. In other words, this study examines the ways in which Iago discursively problematizes Othello's marriage to Desdemona. To this end, Iago engages in what Michael Neill terms an “operation … principally aimed at converting the absent/present bed into a locus of imagined adultery by producing Othello's abduction of Desdemona as an act of racial adulteration” (391). Iago's campaign against the marriage begins in the opening scene and continues until he has ensnared Othello into his trap of “racial adulteration” by convincing him that Desdemona is unfaithful to him mainly because of his race. By opening the play with Iago's base commentary on Othello's marriage, Shakespeare foregrounds marriage as the thematic and discursive issue in the play. Commenting on Iago's influence and Othello's vulnerability as an alien in Venice, G. M. Matthews contends that despite his physical and cultural difference, Othello is “a great human being who … recognizes (within the limits of his social role) only universal humane values of love and loyalty,” which he loses once he allows himself to become “vulnerable to irrational, unhuman forces, embodied in Iago” (123).

Othello offers an expansive view of the ways in which language works against certain speakers and is twisted and perverted in the mouth of a dishonest practitioner. By playing on the ambiguities and ironies inherent in language, Iago is able to use the seductive dimensons of discourse to achieve diabolical ends. Through a consciously selective use of language, Iago distorts reality and manipulates others so that they unwittingly play into his hands. In short, Iago listens for the spaces and slippages in discourse in order to play upon latent and manifest fears. As Kenneth Burke observes, “Iago, to arouse Othello, must talk a language that Othello knows as well as he, a language implicit in the nature of Othello's love as the idealization of his private property in Desdemona.” Although Iago's language is the “dialectical opposite of Othello's,” Burke continues, “it so thoroughly shares a common ground with Othello's language that its insinuations are never for one moment irrelevant to Othello's thinking” (414). Ultimately, Iago's double discourse destroys Othello and Desdemona by distorting their love and their most intimate relationship. I wish to argue that by analyzing Iago's control and manipulation of discourse, we can better understand Othello's downfall.

Othello is at one level a dramatization of the mechanism and failure of language, a dialectic between reality and “invention.” Iago's diabolical, insatiable desire, bounded only by Desdemona's death, moves within a socially established discourse that feeds on itself and devours other discourses in its wake. Language in Othello is, then, not merely a dramatic vehicle or tool; language is the element of thematic concern. Language confirms, indicts, and convicts.

The marriage of Othello and Desdemona, with which the play opens, seems to suggest that deeply entrenched prejudices—suspiciousness of other races and cultures, of those who are “alien” and do not seem to belong—are about to be overcome and there is a possibility of social transformation. But such a possibility is challenged at the very moment of its inception, even before the marriage is consummated, because Iago insists—even in the face of Brabantio's acquiescence (“Gone she is, / And what's to come of my despised time / Is nought but bitterness” [I.i.159-61]) and the Duke's sanction of the marriage on the grounds of Othello's character (“If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” [I.iii.285-86)])—that marriage to a black man is not proper for a Venetian woman. Consequently, Iago jealously guards what is putatively now his exclusive sphere of influence in order to avenge himself on the Moor by challenging his humanity and coextensively his right to be wedded to Desdemona.

Through a shrewd insight into the desires and fears of others, and through a radical inversion of their discourses, Iago fulfills his own desire for revenge and control. Anthony Kubiak argues that Iago's “terrorist discourse” is far “more potent” than Othello's physical violence because it “operates through the effect of discourse on seeing.” Such a seeing, Kubiak further states, “engenders the perjury and its vengeance” (63). Thus, in order to manipulate and/or forestall truth/proof, Iago constantly resorts to this terrorist discourse by substituting a “manifest discourse” (Baudrillard, 53) for ocularity and by positing a discourse that contradicts or delays verification. In short, Iago manipulates discourse as a medium of power.

Iago's desire constitutes and controls the dramatic movement of Othello. His conviction that Brabantio will object to his daughter's marriage on racial grounds provides Iago with the terms for a disruptive discourse, the first in a series of rhetorical gestures that jeopardize rather than undermine and dissolve Desdemona's marriage to the Moor. Iago intends not merely to call attention to “a sexual union represented as a form of pollution” (Tennenhouse, 89) but to destroy the partners in this union as well. As Michael Neill observes, Iago keeps the “real imaginative focus of the action always the hidden marriage-bed … within which [he] can operate as a uniquely deceitful version of the nuntius, whose vivid imaginary descriptions taint the vision of the audience, even as they colonize the minds of Brabantio and Othello” (396).

The structure of any play resides, in large measure, in the words of characters. The structure of Othello resides in the words of the character who simultaneously has control of her or his own discourse and the discourse of others. Both Desdemona and Iago evince their ability to expropriate other characters' discourses. But in the final analysis, Iago subverts Desdemona's linguistic power, not so much by dominating her discourse directly as by controlling the discourse of those in close communication with her.

It is interesting to note that near the opening of the play, Iago tells Roderigo to call up Brabantio, rouse and incense him with “timorous accent and dire yell” (I.i.74). Iago's directive is metalinguistic, one that announces Iago's awareness of language and its power to persuade, to excite and incite. He says as much in a soliloquy:

When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows
As I do now. For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I'll pour this pestilence into his ear.


The lines to Roderigo, then, indicate Iago's modus operandi. In order to “poison” Brabantio's “delight,” Iago bombards him with gross images of Othello:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. …
… the devil will make a grandsire of you.


Iago posits physicality and sexuality as the essential markers of the Moor's humanity and continues this line of discourse in the face of Brabantio's disbelief. But Iago's language and intent are so egregiously offensive that poetic discourse cannot accommodate them and gives way to debased prose:

[Y]ou'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have coursers for cousins, and jennets for germans.


In notable contrast to Roderigo's discourse which invokes Othello's race (“thick lips,” “lascivious,” and “extravagant and wheeling stranger”), Iago's “diseased preoccupation” (Neill, 397) with Othello's sexuality results in a bestialization of the Moor and a devaluation of his marriage by making it sound obscene. His vision, as Kubiak points out, is “transformative and perjured” (24), a vision he imposes through language. Principally, Iago's aim is to control the discursive field. Such control resides in the hybrid nature of his discourse. Thus, Othello is as much about the ways in which one discourse is able to devour other discourses as it is about Iago's diabolical revenge on the Moor. In short, Othello is about the failure or fulfillment of desire through the loss or adroit use of discursive power.

Iago, as Margaret Ranald observes, is a “skillful opportunist who turns situations to his own account.” His discursive power is cumulative; it relies on repetition and insinuation. He is aware of Desdemona's naivete about the “wickedness of the world outside” and knows “inexperience and decency blind her to the possibility that her motives might appear questionable and her actions capable of misconstruction” (136, 137). As Ranald further observes, Iago uses this naivete to undermine Desdemona's virtue and invert the “warm[th] and vital[ity]” she evinces in her spontaneous espousal of Cassio's cause (144). She is, thus, caught in a web of words spun by Iago from the matrix of male domination, “the pernicious effects of chastity … a doctrine men impose upon women” (Snow, 387). To achieve his purpose of undermining Desdemona's chastity, Iago concludes that his most effective method would be “to abuse Othello's ear / That [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife,” since Cassio has “a smooth dispose / To be suspected, framed to make women false” (I.iii.378-81). Although Othello is to be the dupe of Iago's performative gestures, it is clearly Desdemona who must suffer character assassination via the male order.

At this point, a review of Jean Baudrillard's theory of seduction might help us better articulate the theater of discourse in Othello, since his theory accommodates my reading. Baudrillard observes that “in seduction … it is manifest discourse—discourse at its most superficial—that turns back on the deeper order (whether conscious or unconscious) in order to invalidate it, substituting the charm and illusion of appearances” in contrast to “all meaningful discourse [which] seeks to end appearance.” But, Baudrillard continues, “inexorably, discourse is left to its appearances, and thus to the stakes of seduction, thus to its own failure as discourse” (53-54). It is in this light that we might examine the use of discourse in Othello, especially discourse as manipulated and enjoyed by Iago, who, as Roy Roussel observes, shows the “seducer's fascination with the spectacle of his own manipulation and control” (725). In other words, Iago is seduced by his own ability to seduce. Baudrillard describes this autoseduction as the moment when “perhaps discourse is secretly tempted … by the bracketing of its objectives, of its truth effects which become absorbed within a surface that swallows meaning. … [I]t is the original form by which discourse becomes absorbed within itself and emptied of its truth in order to better fascinate others: the primitive seduction of language” (54).

Reading Othello in the context of Baudrillard's seduction theory permits us to examine discourse motivated by desire. To begin with, it is worth remarking that marriage between Desdemona and Othello stems from Desdemona's desire for knowledge about Othello and the seductive power of that desired knowledge. For example, when asked about his use of charms to win Desdemona's affection, Othello argues that his narrative discourse was the charm, the power, he employed. Observing Desdemona's eagerness to hear him recount his exploits, Othello states that he:

Took once a pliant hour and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That would all my pilgrimage dilate
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively. I did consent.


Desdemona confirms the force of Othello's narrative discourse, its seductive power, by hinting that he propose marriage, by preferring him to men of her own race and class:

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


“I saw Othello's visage in his mind” is the critical line because it simultaneously discloses Desdemona's awareness of Othello's race and her ready acceptance of his mind (his intellectual and narrative powers) above any thoughts of race. She insists that she has looked beyond the physical—which on the surface seems of no consequence to her—into the soul of the Moor and likes what she discovers. But her dismissal of his face underscores her recognition of the fact that Othello's race does matter. At the same time, she readily submits to his maleness as evinced by her unquestioned “duty” to him—a duty dictated by tradition and gender.

Desdemona's statement cannot be contradicted by Brabantio, but it is too much for him to accept. And he is prepared to lose his daughter rather than accept the Moor as an affine:

I here do give thee [Othello] that with all my heart
Which, but thou has already, with all my heart
I would keep from thee.


Brabantio's pronouncement on his daughter's behavior in marrying Othello without permission is precisely the utterance that opens a space for Iago to work his will on the Moor and undermine the union that Iago himself finds most repugnant: “Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceived her father and may thee” (I.iii.288-89), words Iago will later reiterate to Othello.

Othello and Desdemona use language to “deliver” what Baudrillard terms “real meaning,” “truth,” or honest discourse, in contradistinction to Iago's manifestly perjured discourse. If, as Baudrillard observes, seduction sports “triumphantly with weakness, making a game of it with its own rules,” then we cannot rightly call Othello's narrative of his personal history, recited at Brabantio's and Desdemona's requests, a seductive act. Seduction robs discourse of its “sense and turns it from truth” by causing “manifest discourse”—the surface meaning—to “say what it does not want to say; it causes determinations and profound indeterminations to show through in manifest discourse.” It is, then, the responsibility of interpretation to “break the appearance and play of the manifest discourse” (53). Interpretation is vital to a deeper understanding of the ways by which discourse operates in Othello, where, as Kubiak convincingly argues, “we can begin to see how the language of the theatre within the theatre is … always eminently terrorist because of language's failure to adequately state its intentions” (63). Yet early in Othello, language does achieve what Roland Barthes terms its “adequation of enunciation” (208) through Othello's and Desdemona's performative gestures.

For example, when Othello is accused of bewitching Desdemona, and thus marrying her without her “knowing” what was happening to her, he defends himself on discursive grounds: he argues from the force of his narrative, categorically stating that it was language's power to recreate the images of his exploits that merited Desdemona's affection. [Though he declares at one point that he is “rude” of speech “[a]nd little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81-82), we are perhaps not meant to take the declaration seriously.] Othello won her father, too, initially:

Her father loved me, oft invited me,
Still questioned me the story of my life
From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.


Othello—like any “author” recognizing that his words have not merely conveyed their intentions but have moved to another level of meaning beyond their author's expectation—realizes that the more he reiterates his deeds of valor and his triumphs over adversities, the closer Desdemona is drawn to him:

This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline;
.....She would come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse.


In other words, Othello tells the Venetians, Desdemona was moved by his deeds and seduced by his discourse:

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.


In fact, Othello's rehearsal of the scene clearly reveals that Desdemona, not he, was the seducer:

Upon this hint I spake:
She [first] loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I [in return] loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used.


Asked to corroborate Othello's testimony, Desdemona, like Othello, preempts her father's argument by taking the discursive initiative: she expropriates her father's discourse of “obedience” and, like Othello, demonstrates language's ability to state the bald truth as she understands it, a truth by which she lives. She brilliantly turns her father's discourse on duty back on him without hint of conscious irony, but rather by a conscious rhetorical gesture. Because she wants desperately to have his approval, she reaches for the best way to articulate that duty—by placing her duty on par with her mother's, a claim her father cannot gainsay:

My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are lord of all my duty;
I am hiterto your daughter. But here's my husband;
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.


Both Desdemona and Othello demonstrate that “real meaning” and “manifest discourse” are not necessarily mutually exclusive, that they can operate simultaneously toward a mutual telos at this juncture. The tragedy occurs when the two pull in opposite directions and when Othello and Desdemona, especially Desdemona, lose the discursive advantage.

Iago's observation of Desdemona's “seduction” of Othello and her discursive power over her father, no doubt, warns Iago against a direct attempt to seduce her to leave Othello. Having seen her turn male discourse back on her father and the Senate in her resolve to remain with Othello by arguing that it was she, not Othello, who did the seducing and by requesting and obtaining from that august body permission to join Othello in Cyprus, despite the fact that it is a site of battle, Iago surely realizes that Desdemona can discursively match him. Witness, for example, her astute comparison of her decision to marry Othello to a battle and her boldness in trumpeting the implications of that decision to the world:

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


Iago most surely observes that Desdemona belies what Teresa De Lauretis terms “the web of the male Oedipal logic” in which “the little girl has no other prospect but to consent and be seduced into femininity” (52). Desdemona preempts her father's traditional right to make a “proper” choice for her.

Iago's power to manipulate discourse, however, gives him the dramatic edge over Desdemona. The motivation for linguistic manipulation, and thereby manipulation of human beings, stems from Iago's perception—whether real or imagined—that he has been superseded by an inferior military man, namely Cassio, and that he has been cuckolded by Othello. Furthermore, he “smarts under neglect” by a general he deems racially inferior to himself. This conviction that he has been slighted, Harley Granville-Barker contends, is the “immediate spring” of Iago's desire to denigrate the Moor (125).

Lacking a sphere of influence within the civil and military hierarchy, Iago locates his power in the manipulation of discourse. And, ironically, in the final analysis, Othello is seduced by his own discourse because the language Iago employs to defame Desdemona and challenge Othello's manhood is Othello's, albeit perverted and polluted.

Iago plays upon what Philip McGuire terms the “deliberate disjunction of action and feeling” to accomplish his goal of turning Othello into an animal. In other words, Iago employs “rhetoric to undercut reason” (205). The play is, then, to borrow from McGuire again, “an imitation of an action of knowing and judging”; an “assay on the limits of intelligence and natural passion, deception deftly and most intelligently practiced” (209) through terrorist discourse. Kubiak adds to this when he states that Iago “terrorizes Othello with the most subtle shift of seeing refracted through an almost imperceptible misdirection of the eye—a misdirection effected through Iago's words” (63-64).

Roderigo and Othello challenge or try to circumvent such terrorist discourse when they ask Iago to substantiate his verbal claims with objective proof. They, especially Roderigo, recognize the tension between Iago's discourse and objective reality; yet ironically, they must rely on Iago, whose discourse they question, to resolve that tension. Although Othello is satisfied to have Iago supply the evidence, Roderigo threatens to see for himself—to confront Desdemona directly now that he has begun to “find [him]self fopped” (IV.ii.190). When threatened by Roderigo's decision to confront Desdemona, however, Iago proves that he still controls the discourse, which he quickly interposes between Roderigo's demand for proof and his own will to power. Moreover, according to Kubiak, Iago knows that “ocularity in which [Roderigo] seeks his truth is as much a failure as the language that directs it.” Kubiak describes the failure of ocular proof in Othello as the “violence of failed seeing—the desire to see, seeing desire, seeing what one has been told (not) to” and adds that “both seeing and speaking” in Othello are ensnared by a “falsely assumed empiricism” that relies not on proof but on Iago's capacity “to reproduce or rehearse ‘the Same,’ that impossibility” (66). If sight is not to be trusted, then discourse must bear the greater responsibility for proof, which should, therefore, be an incontrovertible proof that does not rely on but rather opposes and exposes seduction. Baudrillard formulates this opposition between ocularity and discourse: “All appearances conspire to combat and root out meaning (whether intentional or otherwise), and turn it into a game … one that is more adventurous and seductive than the directive line of meaning” (54).

Roderigo first challenges Iago's discourse in Act IV when he realizes that he has been duped: “I heard too much; for your words and performances are no kin together” (my emphasis). He protests Iago's failure to deliver on his promises and decides to “make [him]self known to Desdemona”:

If she will return my jewels, I will give over my suit and repent my unlawful solicitation; if not, assure yourself I will seek satisfaction of you.


There will be no further deliberation on this issue, and Iago knows it. Now he must retreat from dilatory,1 verbal strategy to direct action. Hence the fabrication about Cassio's delivering a message that will send Othello and Desdemona to Mauritania and the proposal to murder Cassio: “I will show you such a necessity in his death that you shall think yourself bound to put it on him” (IV.ii.231-32). Iago's “show” will, of course, be verbal.

Roderigo's recognition that Iago's words are at odds with his actions—promises without proof, discourse without substance—begins the ineluctable drive toward the failure of Iago's disruptive discourse. Roderigo's threat to confront Desdemona engenders a quick and strategic discursive move on Iago's part. Roderigo's suspicions coupled with Othello's desire for “ocular proof” sorely undermine Iago's discourse. Thus, discourse cannot serve Iago in this crisis of credibility and therefore must be “redeployed as action” (Baudrillard, 54). He must stage another scenario while he recovers the discursive ground, first, by praising Roderigo's decision and then by forestalling that decision. It is noteworthy that at this juncture, Iago shifts from poetic discourse to prose, a clear indication of his failure to control his best weapon, language, and of his diminishing power to manipulate Roderigo:

Why, now I see there's mettle in thee, and even from this instant do build on thee a better opinion than ever before. Give me thy hand, Roderigo. Thou has taken against me a most just exception; but yet I protest I have dealt most directly in thy affair.

Roderigo counters that he has seen no evidence to support Iago's claims: “It hath not appeared.” Iago concedes as much but does not stop at mere concession: he inverts Roderigo's argument:

I grant indeed it hath not appeared; and your suspicion is not without wit and judgement. But, Roderigo, if thou hast that in thee indeed, which I have greater reason to believe now than ever—I mean purpose, courage, and valour—this night show it. If thou the next night following enjoy not Desdemona, take me from this world with treachery, and devise engines for my life.


Clearly, Iago is weakened by Roderigo's threat of intervention, a threat that not only will expose his machinations vis-à-vis Roderigo but also will expose Iago's entire charade. Iago skillfully diverts Roderigo from his failure to deliver on his promises. This scene brillantly illustrates Baudrillard's observation that sedution stems from weakness, not power: “To seduce is to appear weak. To seduce is to render weak” (83). Iago is unquestionably the “seduced” in this scene because Roderigo has weakened Iago's ability to control him by words alone.

Othello is marked by a series of seductive gestures that lead to the untimely and unwarranted death of Desdemona. In Othello, the contours of desire are shaped by individual discourse and gestures of seduction. Iago's desire to bend Othello to his will is contingent upon his power of seduction. Iago's desire constitutes and controls the dramatic center, while Desdemona's position as object of male desire—her marriage to the Moor and Roderigo's desire for a sexual union with her—constitutes the thematic center of the drama. Iago's actions circulate around this marriage plot. Desdemona's elopement with a black man provides the basis for Iago's seduction of Roderigo, Brabantio, and Othello, while her position as Othello's wife provides the ground on which Iago's vengeance operates.

Iago recognizes power when he meets it. He recognizes the strength of Desdemona's resolve, which makes the Senate agree to her remaining with him even in Cyprus. Thus, Iago elects to work toward denying Desdemona her desires by manipulating those around her and by subterfuge, or what Baudrillard calls seduction or a turning “from one's own truth” or leading another “from his/her truth.” It is precisely Iago's desire to lead Desdemona from the Moor's bed that results in her tragic death. Very early on, Iago insists to Roderigo that Desdemona will turn from Othello once his narrative becomes tiresome and she is forced to see him in racial terms, that is, see him as black. He insists that Desdemona's violent love for the Moor, engendered by his “bragging and telling her fantastical lies” (II.i.213), will eventually be destroyed by ocularity: “Her eye must be fed. And what delight will she have to look on the devil?” (II.i.215-16). Being sated, Iago contends, Desdemona will see the physical reality of Othello:

When the blood is made dull with the act of sport, there should be, again to inflame it and to give satiety a fresh appetite, loveliness in favour, sympathy in years, manners and beauties: all which the Moor is defective in. Now for want of these required conveniences, her delicate tenderness will find itself abused, begin to heave the gorge, disrelish and abhor the Moor.


Iago articulates this thesis of Desdemona's “momentary” infatuation with the Moor and true attachment to the younger, handsome Cassio not only to Roderigo but to Othello as well. Only instead of stating it openly, he makes insidious suggestions—“Did Michael Cassio, / When you wooed my lady, know of your love?” (III.iii.93-94)—that force Othello to voice doubts about Desdemona's fidelity. The conversation proceeds with Iago's saying little by way of direct accusation but suggesting a great deal, insinuating his thoughts into Othello's psyche:

By heaven, he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown.


Finally, Othello, seduced into believing his wife has been unfaithful, becomes totally confused about his own thoughts. So muddled, in fact, is Othello at this juncture that he fails to note and pick up Iago's overt admission of treachery, “[O]ft my jealousy / Shapes faults that are not” (III.iii.148-49), or heed his warning, “O beware, my lord, of jealousy” (III.iii.167).

Othello, at first, defends Desdemona's virtue, her playful spirit and easy show of affection for others: “Where virtue is, these are more virtuous” (III.iii.188). He defends her honesty on the grounds that she chose him despite his race. But Iago returns to his discursive strategy by echoing Brabantio's warning:

She did deceive her father, marrying you;
And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks
She loved them most.


Edward Snow brilliantly observes that the “decisive moment in Iago's seduction” occurs when Iago gets Othello to see Desdemona “in terms of Brabantio's warning” (399). Snow further argues that Othello's reference to Desdemona's reputation being as “black as [his] own face” suggests that he is being manipulated by a language “calculated to make him despise himself because he is black” (401).

Subtly goaded by Iago, Othello admits, “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not, / I think thou art just, and think thou art not” (III.iii.385-86). But, Othello continues, Desdemona has made an unnatural match by marrying him, her “nature erring from itself” (III.iii.229), a point Iago seizes on to undermine Othello's faith in Desdemona's love and acceptance of him. He reminds Othello that Desdemona refused numerous “proposed matches / Of her own clime, complexion and degree” (III.iii.231-32), implying that Othello is not on the same human level as the Venetian suitors.

Doubting/trusting both his wife and Iago, Othello asks Iago for a “living reason,” actual proof of Desdemona's infidelity. Iago obliges with a performance calculated to remove all doubt: Cassio's discourse of love ostensibly spoken during sleep. Iago cleverly reminds Othello that what he has reported is only a dream; Othello counters that it is “a foregone conclusion” (III.iii.429). At this juncture, Iago sets the discursive stage for the tragic conclusion. All that remains is ocular proof misdirected and interpreted by Iago. Finally, what Othello sees is infected by his desire, a desire informed through Iago's words. Othello's murder of Desdemona results from his own victimization by Iago. Iago is partially correct when he tells Emilia, “I told [Othello] what I thought, and told no more / Than what he found himself was apt and true” (V.ii.175-76).

The circulation of desire in Othello and the concomitant acts that affect desire provide an insight into Iago's decision to manipulate others discursively. Iago's narrative is directed toward a conclusion that satisfies his desire for power through discursive control, whereas Desdemona's narrative moves along an axis of desire for happiness through a shared experience. Iago's and Desdemona's interlocking desires collide through Iago's attempts to break Othello's hold on Desdemona and through Desdemona's efforts to influence Othello on Cassio's behalf. Out of this matrix of interlocking and conflicting desires comes Iago's seduction of Othello.

Iago's seductive power is situated in his ability to manipulate the sociolect,2 a hybridization of a desire to manipulate and destroy Othello, who is for Iago the locus of misplaced power and the object of illegitimate desire. Iago's enterprise is, then, to desempower Othello, not by making Othello undesirable to Desdemona (which he realizes he cannot do) but by turning Othello against Desdemona.

To achieve this end, Iago employs another of his dramatic skills—acting. Granville-Barker observes that Iago assumes a dual acting role—he his both the persona Iago of the play Othello and the character who exploits the role of actor to accomplish his desired goal:

The medium in which Iago works is the actor's; and the crude sense of pretending to be what he is not, and in his chameleonlike ability to adapt himself to change of company and circumstance, we find him an accomplished actor.


Both the pleasure and the success of Iago's enterprise are contingent upon what Roussel terms the “seducer's fascination with the spectacle of his own manipulation and control” (725), while Baudrillard argues that seduction derives its “passion” and “intensity” not from an “energy of desire” but rather “from gaming as pure form and from purely formal bluffing” (82). “Gaming” and “purely formal bluffing” describe Iago's method precisely and completely.

The so-called “brothel scene” represents the triumph of Iago's gaming and bluffing. Iago's strategy proposes to expose Othello's gullibility and confirm his contention that Othello is not quite on the same human level with Desdemona and is therefore not a suitable mate for her. This strategic move by Iago clearly indicates that Othello is the object of Iago's seduction, not Desdemona. It is as though Iago seeks Othello's moral and mental downfall, in part, because he cannot match Othello's physical prowess and narrative skill. What he seeks, and what he succeeds in effecting, is the undermining of the Moor's intelligence and coextensively his humanity. The outcome of the play turns, then, on Iago's seduction of Othello and Othello's collusion in his own downfall, and that collusion becomes the ultimate sign of Iago's mastery of multiple discourses.


  1. Patricia Parker notes that Iago gains power over Othello “at the threshold of the great temptation scene … through those pauses, single words and pregnant phrases which seem to suggest something secret or withheld, a withholding which fills the Moor with the desire to hear more” (54).

  2. Michael Riffaterre notes that the socioelect is the site of “myths, traditions, ideological and esthetic stereotypes … harbored by a society,” as well as the site of “ready-made narrative and descriptive models that reflect a group's idea of or consensus about reality.” Iago refers to Othello in animalistic terms to play to the Venetian socioelect. His references to Othello as “an old black ram,” “the devil,” and “a Barbary horse” reveal Renaissance stereotypes and, more important, play upon the racial fears of the Western male (130).


Parker, Patricia. “Shakespeare and Rhetoric: ‘Dilation’ and ‘Delation’ in Othello,Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, New York, Methuen, 1985.

Riffaterre, Michael. Fictional Truth, Baltimore, John Hopkins UP, 1990.

Millicent Bell (essay date spring 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5122

SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Shakespeare's Moor.” Raritan 21, no. 4 (spring 2002): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Bell explores the racial dynamics of Othello's character and contends that he ultimately suffers from his inability to completely assimilate into a community that deems him a racial outsider.]

Othello's whole life seems to be shaped by a society—like Shakespeare's England—in which self-transformation as well as the transformations effected by the forces of social change, or even by mere accident, operate to alter what one is, shift one's very selfhood from one template to another. Before he became the hero who won the regard of the Venetian state and the love of Desdemona, he had been someone we can only dimly imagine. Somehow, his career had begun by exile from an origin we never see directly. We can merely suspect its vast difference from his present condition. What he might have been as a person of station in his native place we will never know.

We do not even know without doubt that he is a “blackamoor,” a Negro from sub-Saharan Africa, like “raven-coloured” Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus who is described as having a “fleece of wooly hair” and whose child is called a “thick-lipped slave.” Roderigo slurringly refers to Othello as “the thick lips,” and he is called “black” throughout the play and says, himself, “Haply for I am black.” But, perhaps, he is a “tawny Moor” from the Mediterranean rim, like the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, or a Berber or “erring Barbarian,” as Iago puns, or the “Barbary horse” who has “covered” Desdemona, as the same racist provocateur vulgarly tells Brabantio. Shakespeare does not remove all doubt, but he seems willing to let us visualize “a veritable negro,” to use Coleridge's phrase for the Othello whose love for a white woman he found “something monstrous to conceive.” Elizabethans might not have reacted as Coleridge would come to do. Othello was played as a black man on the stage in Shakespeare's own day and for over a century and a half after. And so again we feel that the part must be played today, though the nineteenth and a good portion of the twentieth century were able only to tolerate a sort of light-skinned Arab sheik to represent him.

But one way or another, his exact beginnings remain obscure to us. Though he has told Desdemona as well as her father “the story of [his] life / From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes / That [he] passed … even from [his] boyish days”—his summary to the signory of Venice is vague, and the “travailous history” he offers of wars and wanderings, of captures and escapes, and of encounters with monsters and cannibals is mythically Odyssean. One thing we know is that he had once experienced the ultimate degradation that had come when, “taken by the insolent foe,” he had been “sold to slavery.” Somehow, he found his freedom, and we can presume that he was converted from his original Muhammadanism, but we are ignorant of when or how. Already, when we first meet him, he is a Christian and a “self-made man” who has made the most of opportunity and his own genius and has overcome the handicaps of being foreign and black in the white Venetian world in which he has found a place. This stranger with an exotic, almost mythical otherness has acquired a place within the order of Venice by his own efforts on behalf of a colonial empire. And yet, in the end, he cannot sustain this new personhood, this transformed social being donated by altered occasion, forged by his own will.

The curtain rises for good reason on a discussion about jobs and how one is qualified for them. Iago's declared envy of Cassio's promotion is plausible, even though he expresses this resentment only in a single remark to Roderigo. It serves to relate the play to a new seventeenth-century social climate that gave rise to uncertainty about personal identity—and gives a historical meaning to the way Iago comes before us as the man who believes that one is only what one appears to be, what role one is able to personate successfully. Iago's most significant statement of this view is the skeptical declaration he makes to Roderigo—“’tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to which our wills are gardeners”—which is almost sincerely his own philosophy, though it hardly serves the feckless Roderigo to whom it is addressed. Iago calls Cassio, just appointed lieutenant, a mere classroom soldier, “a great arithmetician … / That never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster.” Practical field experience is a legitimate requirement for the promotion Cassio has gained—and something different from the mere entitlement of class and even the textbook theory he has acquired. In contrast, Iago has served in battle, as he reminds Othello: “in the trade of war I have slain men.” Iago professes to believe in promotion for merit and resents the arbitrary advancement of the candidate, like Cassio, who is part of an old boys' network. He also claims the earned rights of seniority rather than preferment gained by letters of recommendation from influential somebodies.

Preferment goes by letter and affection
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to th' first.

But though he makes his claim by referring to a system of respect for service he calls “old gradation,” he himself has tried to go up the ladder by the aid of “letter and affection” and secured the support of “[t]hree great ones of the city.” He is one of the new breed of men who not only claim advancement by merit but will manipulate and scheme for advancement—and by either means expect to escape assignment to a fixed definition. That he has not received his deserved promotion and must prosper just the same is something he is prepared for as a master of Machiavellian elasticity. He deprecates title and position and even the old division into masters and followers that organizes society:

We cannot be all masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time much like his master's ass
For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves!

Others, adapting to a new social climate, know the meaninglessness of the identities society assigns. Taking instruction from Machiavelli, they make the most of opportunity, and, though observing the old boundaries of outer behavior,

                    trimmed in forms, and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by them, and when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage; these fellows have some soul
And such a one do I profess myself.

But not all have Iago's confidence. In a mobile society, one is always likely to lose one's footing and become a nobody—that is, to cease to exist in a social sense. The play is full of implicit references to a milieu in which, as in today's corporate world, there is no longer a guarantee of tenure. Demotion breaks Cassio's heart. Othello remembers with grief how he had “done the state some service” before his replacement as general and administrator of Cyprus.

Unlike the aristocratic Cassio, Othello, who may once have been a prince, has been a mercenary soldier and before that even a slave in another world. But, as the play begins, he is in command of the Venetian forces in defense of Cyprus against the Turks. A Renaissance idea of fame, or of “making a name” for oneself, is invoked in the play, as is Iago's Machiavellian idea of “thriving.” It is the heroic character Othello has made for himself that achieves his success in his wooing. He makes Desdemona put aside the prerequisites of class and race assumed for her appropriate suitor. She says she “loved [him] for the dangers [he] had passed,” though her father, who looks for inherited credentials he understands better in the sons of Venetian aristocracy, calls Othello's recounting of his history “witchcraft.” And perhaps such self-fabrication, such transformation by which one of the colonized joins the military elite of a colonial power, is a kind of magic. For Brabantio, miscegenation is, classically, a threat of redefinition not to be made less threatening by proof of Othello's worthiness. “For if such actions may have passage free / Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be,” he shouts in an outburst of class panic. Iago will remark a bit later to Cassio, “he to-night hath boarded a land carrack,” implicitly comparing Othello's sexual conquest to the seizure of a Spanish or Portuguese treasure ship (a “carrack”) by an English privateer—in other words, an act of social piracy.

Yet nothing can be more fragile than Othello's self-making, which has none of Iago's confidence in being whatever, for the occasion, he wills himself to be. His attempt to give rebirth to an ancient ideal of epic heroism is vulnerable to the spirit of the later time represented by Iago. As his nobility is erased by rage and despair in the middle of the third act, he mourns,

                                                                                                    O now for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O ye mortal engines, whose wide throats
Th' immortal Jove's great clamours counterfeit,
Farewell: Othello's occupation's gone.

The strangeness of this wonderful speech is seldom commented on. There is no real reason why Othello should say goodbye at this point to his soldier's profession, which has given him an epic selfhood. His terrible crime, for which he only escapes punishment by performing his own execution, is still ahead of him. But the collapse of personal being he is already experiencing is inseparable from the loss of occupation. Before he embraces his literal self-destruction at the last, he refers to himself in the third person, saying “Where should Othello go?” as though the man he was is no longer speaking. Afterwards, when Lodovico comes looking for him with “Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” he replies, “That's he that was Othello? here I am.” Then, he remembers his former self—the self created by his public career—as having once defended the Venetian State even as, at this ultimate moment of further transformation, he identifies himself with the “circumcised dog” he once killed. Critics are mistaken who have spoken of Othello's “recovery” in the final scene when he seems to become, again, a fearless soldier and romantic lover who dies by his own hand. It is hard to admire Othello uncritically once having read T. S. Eliot on this hero's famous final speech (“What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavoring to escape reality”). But Eliot did not observe that what happens at this last moment is tragic acceptance rather than escape, an acceptance of his original status as a racial outsider, which neither his military achievements nor his marriage have succeeded in permanently altering.

His marriage has proved to be the theater in which the issues of self-realization, the issues that beset men in society at large, are acted out for Othello on the scale of intimate relations. Marriage to a woman of a rank above one's own has been a universally practiced means of male self-advancement throughout human history, of course, but the marriage of Othello to Desdemona has provided a precarious bridge over the gaps between them. Shakespeare hints that Othello's jealous anguish and distrust of his own perceptions may be caused by the interracial character of his union with a daughter of his Venetian masters. All those reminders by Iago of the impossibility of establishing Desdemona's adultery—a privacy invisible directly—refer one back to a miscegenation over whose consummation a cloud of unknowableness also hangs. The real but equally transgressive relation of Othello and Desdemona is even less easily viewable than the adultery of Desdemona with Cassio that did not take place but was so vividly supposed. This marriage becomes, by implication, something not to be made “ocular,” as though it is obscene, as though it can be fairly represented only by animalistic metaphor in Iago's description to the shuddering Brabantio at the beginning of the play: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe!” Just as he will cause Othello to hallucinate the false image of Desdemona and Cassio locked in naked embrace, Iago rouses her father with his wizard evocation, setting into the mind of the old man the animal coupling that represents their racial transgression as “making the beast with two backs,” and figuring Othello as a black ram as well as a Barbary horse.

It seems probable that, at this early point, Othello and Desdemona have not yet had the opportunity of establishing the union they have secretly contracted. The newly married pair could not have enjoyed their nuptial rapture for long during their first night in Venice when a midnight summons from the Duke posts the bridegroom to the defense of Cyprus. But not only circumstances or conditions keep this marriage from being consummated. The play suggests that Othello himself is engaged in a deferral of this forbidden act. Othello portrays himself convincingly at his trial before the Venetian Duke and Senators as one more used to the “flinty and steel couch of war” than to the “downy” bed of love. This war-hardened soldier hasn't had much experience of love's soft delights. He confesses: “since these arms of mine had seven years' pith, / Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used / Their dearest action in the tented field.” He is no Marc Antony. Though Desdemona will accompany him to Cyprus, he is at pains to remind the Duke how largely his military preoccupation will absorb him:

And heaven defend your good souls that you think
I will your serious and great business scant
When she is with me. No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instrument
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm.

He tells Desdemona, as he assumes his new assignment, “I have but an hour / Of love, of worldly matter and direction / To spend with thee. We must obey the time.”

Desdemona may still be a virgin when they are reunited after separate crossings to Cyprus, and Othello says, “The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue. / The profit's yet to come 'tween me and you.” He gives orders for a wedding party while he leads his wife to bed, but the party grows wild and brings Cassio into disgrace, and Othello and Desdemona are interrupted once more-after which Othello lingers on with the wounded Montano, saying to his wife, with some equanimity, “Come Desdemona: lis the soldiers' life / To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.” Shakespeare may have wanted us to wonder how well their lovemaking had gone or if it had even got under way, and to sustain the doubt in Iago's earlier question, “Are you well married?”

We may connect the jealousy aroused so readily in Othello with one of those postnuptial awakenings that come to men unprepared for the active sexuality of the women they marry. Was Desdemona too quick or he too slow? It has been evident from the start of the play that she can take the initiative. We recall that when she first heard Othello's narrative of his past exploits she told him that “she wished / That heaven had made her such a man”—a remark that either expresses her longing for masculine roles or her bold invitation to him to make himself hers. She prompted Othello by telling him that if he had a friend who loved her, he “should but teach him how to tell” such a story as his own, “and that would woo her.” She herself admits to the Duke of Venice, “That I did love the Moor to live with him / My downright violence and scorn of fortunes / May trumpet to the world,” and so she pleads to be allowed to accompany him to Cyprus rather than to be left behind, “a moth of peace.” When Othello lands in Cyprus to find her already there waiting for him he greets her, “O my fair warrior!” Perhaps she already is what Cassio calls her, his “captain's captain.” Her father may not have known the daughter he describes as “[a] maiden never bold, / Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion / Blushed at herself.”

Her activeness may be sexual. She had insisted to the Duke that if she were left behind, “the rites for which I love [Othello] are bereft me.” Later, convinced that she has made love to Cassio, Othello will come to say, under Iago's influence, “O curse of marriage / That we can think these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites!” Iago will have laid the ground for such a disillusion by his suggestion that Desdemona had already been an awakened woman before her marriage, a “super-subtle Venetian”: “In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands.” Brabantio charged Othello before the Venetian signory with having bound Desdemona in “chains of magic”—for how, otherwise, could she, “so opposite to marriage that she shunned / The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation” and incurred “the general mock,” have “run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing”? But Othello knows he has used no witchcraft, and to him Iago suggests “a will most rank, / Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural” in Desdemona. And with this disbelief in her genuine love for him, along with a suspicion of her too-ready sexual forwardness, he is lost. Perhaps he suspects a racial will to dominance in her sexual “appetite,” which declares that she is not his but that he is hers as a slave belongs to his owner.

This, of course, is a counterpart to the white master's fear of the slave's rebellion, which expresses itself in the racist presumption of the dangerous lustfulness of the oppressed and repressed—the cliche of a primitive savagery more powerful than the white man's, a lust threatening white womanhood. Someone like the stupid Roderigo, who has failed to get Desdemona even to glance at him, will refer to the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” when he attempts to arouse Brabantio against Othello. Iago works this vein when he portrays Othello as someone of mere impulse. “These Moors,” he says, “are changeable in their wills.” He even claims to believe that “it is thought abroad” that his General's unbridled lust has extended to Emilia, and cuckolded him. “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat,” he says, and though he may not really think this possible, he repeats his half-belief in this suggestion that Othello had “done [his] office 'twixt [his] sheets,” while confessing that he is only looking for specious causes for his animosity: “I know not ift be true, / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety.” Perhaps the same promptness to such presumption has infected the minds of some of the plays readers ever since, despite Shakespeare's exposure of the motives of both Iago and Roderigo in seizing so readily upon the ancient stereotype of the “lusty Moor.” A refined version of it has even been discovered in Othello by so distinguished a modern Shakespeare scholar as E. A. J. Honigmann, the editor of the latest Arden Edition of the play, who speaks of Othello's “exceptional sensuousness, though not necessarily ‘racial’” to be found in some of Othello's tributes to Desdemona's effect upon him. Honigmann cites, particularly, Othello's swooning recall of her appeal to his sense of smell—as when he exclaims, in his culminating anguish, “O thou weed / Who art so lovely fair and smellst so sweet / That the senses ache at thee.”

But, in fact, Othello himself, as Shakespeare shows, is quite the reverse of the stereotypical “lusty Moor.” To respond to the call of arms, Othello delays his wedding-night happiness without hesitation, almost welcoming, in a curious way, as I have noted, the deferral of his bliss. Moreover, he himself goes so far as to deny the sensuality of his feelings for his beautiful bride. He supports her plea to accompany him to Cyprus with the odd observation to the Duke: “I … beg it not / To please the palate of my appetite / Nor to comply with heat, the young affects / In me defunct, and proper satisfaction, / But to be free and bounteous to her mind.” This renunciation of sexual urgency almost removes his color for his grateful employers as though to refute the convention that attributes “savage” sexuality to the black man. “Your son-in-law is far more fair than black,” the Duke tells Brabantio as Othello accepts his mission. It is Desdemona rather than himself who is to be suspected of illicit lust, as Iago will soon persuade him when he stresses the positive unnaturalness of her love for her husband instead of for a social and racial equal—knowing, rightly, how such a thought will promote that jealous insecurity he wishes to arouse. He responds to Othello's protest that Desdemona's betrayal would be an incredible case of “nature erring from itself” by suggesting that it is her marriage itself, her inclination for Othello, that is a perversity.

Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see, in all things, nature tends—
Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion; thoughts unnatural.

We can imagine how these suggestions affect Othello, most especially the reference to “complexion.” Paradoxically, Iago actually increases Othello's self-doubt when he suggests that Desdemona has not freed herself from her father's racism. Is not this borne out by a love that began with her vision of her lover's “visage in his mind”—rather than in the black face gazing at her? To match this, Othello's disclaimer to the Duke and Senators of Venice of his physical desire for his wife may be connected to his fear of their physical union stated in almost the same terms when he declares that all he looks forward to is “but to be free and bounteous to her mind.”

So, Othello seems to suffer the insecurity of someone who has crossed the racial line yet feels reproved for it when his white wife is reclaimed by her social and racial world in her supposed affair with Cassio. Iago can count on the self-hating that afflicts the victim of prejudice who cannot, himself, believe that he is loveable to someone of the other race. He has been compelled to hallucinate her intimacy with a white man, but can hardly imagine his own union with her. She may be expected to retain an inclination for such a familiar species as Cassio. Only moments before she is murdered she will remark upon the Venetian nobleman to whom she is related by blood as well as class, “This Lodovico is a proper man.” To which Emilia replies, woman-to-woman, “I know a lady in Venice would have walked barefoot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.” For this is how, according to the code of Venice, a Venetian woman should feel; it is perfectly “natural.” When Desdemona is called a “whore” by an Othello reduced to the racial enemy's language by his jealousy, Emilia exclaims, “Hath she forsook so many noble matches, / Her father, and her country, and her friends, / To be called whore?” But this is exactly what her social desertion must seem to white society, something more adulterous, indeed, than the affair with Cassio of which she is falsely accused.

Othello's collapse into murderous violence would seem to be an illustration of the way, according to the racist view, the coating of civilization must slide readily off the “savage” personality. But Shakespeare's readiness to admit the instability of personality—as though he is ready to entertain Iago's denial of intrinsic and permanent character—is apparent in all his tragedies. The Macbeth who is held by his wife to be too full of the milk of human kindness before his murder of Duncan is not the same as that “dead butcher” whose head is triumphantly carried onto the stage on the uplifted lance of Macduff at the end. Certainly, in Othello, the serene and just commander of himself and others we first meet is not the madman who shrieks, “I will chop her into messes,” as he accepts the view that his wife has betrayed him. The play exhibits that mutability in the alteration of his very language from a majestic poetry that has been called the “Othello music” to a debased tone from which all music has gone. But this alteration is only temporary. The play does not justify the racist theory of the uneducable savage. Othello is always too noble even in his preposterous delusion and degradation, too superior to everyone else on the scene, for such a view. And yet, again, though many have seen in Othello's final end a full recovery of tragic greatness, Shakespeare's vision may be too pessimistic to allow that either.

There are no more romantic lovers in all of Shakespeare than the almost virginal warrior and the high-minded virgin Lady whose love he wins by recital of his heroic past. But they also recall the May-December prototypes of farce; Othello feels his head for horns like the deluded old husband of a thousand comic tales. Despite the grimness of this tragic history, the comic foregrounding of sex, as in farce, is both invoked and obscured in a play in which so much of the time the marriage bed is at least present to mind even if offstage, just guessed at, though unseen, like the sexual union enacted there. Othello's sexual secret discloses itself, however—rather than being merely suspected or hinted—on the deathbed that has been laid with his and Desdemona's wedding sheets—“sheets” being an evasive metonymy for the bed and for the lovemaking that takes place upon it. When Iago claims to hate Othello because “twixt my sheets / He's done my office,” or when he remarks to Cassio on Cyprus, “Well, happiness to their sheets!” the same figure of speech, along with the sniggering euphemism of “office,” has been employed. Like Desdemona's honor, which Iago thinks of as “an essence that's not seen,” her sexual union with Othello, though sanctified by marriage, has not been directly imaginable till now when it is revealed to the prurient gaze as the curtains of the marriage bed are drawn apart. “My mistress here lies murdered in her bed,” Emilia announces, as though the bed of marriage, with its “tragic lodging” of dead bodies-one black, the other white, lying side by side-is what horrified vision must take in at last. “Lodging” even implies the living together, the cohabitation of the lovers. The change of the word to “loading” in the Folio version of the text recalls Iago's plundered “land carrack.” When Lodovico says, “the object poisons sight, / Let it be hid,” the horror he feels is for a forbidden union as much as for the deaths this union has caused. To intensify that horror and to further emphasize the perversity of their sexual relation, there is a hint of necrophilia in the implication that now, at last, their love is consummated. Othello tells his victim, “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee / And love thee after,” and then, having done so, “I kissed thee are I killed thee. No way but this: / Killing myself to die upon a kiss,” giving “die” its usual Elizabethan double sense as orgasm.

The play makes it seem, even if we are sure of the contrary, that only their deathbed unites their bodies in ultimate union. “Starcrossed” by racial difference, they resemble Romeo and Juliet, their prototypes in the enactment of a Liebestod climaxing a forbidden love, forbidden for both pairs of lovers even in marriages that constitute social adultery. We must recall that Othello's anticipations of bliss had prompted thoughts of death:

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

It is one of those flights of Othello's hyperbole that suggests too much before the fact, and Desdemona herself reins him in with, “The heavens forbid / But that our loves and comforts should increase / Even as our days do grow.” To think that one will reach the peak of happiness—and so be ready to die—is a traditional poetic extravagance, but here more sinister, forecasting as it does the death which will actually be the consequence of their love-and Desdemona's literalism seems to express an appropriate caution. And well it might, for in the calculus of their unanticipated difficulties Shakespeare has added something besides the uncertainty of the bridegroom, the too-readiness of the bride. In this play about love and jealousy, which shows how love is a moment's hazardous leap over vast distance, he has included the crippling prohibition of racial difference.

At the last, Othello surrenders himself to the prison of race he thought he had escaped. He is not able, in the end, to cast away the role and character which societal convention prescribed to him at the beginning of his career in the white colonial world. He recalls an exploit of his adopted Venetian identity when he remembers how, “in Aleppo once,” he had taken by the throat a “turbanned,” that is, unconverted, Turk (wearer of what Shakespeare calls in Cymbeline an “impious turband”) who “[b]eat a Venetian and traduced the state.” He remembers how he “smote him-thus,” as he turns his dagger toward himself. This has generally been taken as splendid coup de theatre—but it is more. Reenacting that killing of an infidel by his transformed Christian self, Othello becomes again what he was before his conversion and enlistment in the service of Venice. His magnificent self-making has been undone and he now kills, again, the irreversibly circumcised, unassimilable racial other that he is.

Michael Feingold (essay date 18 December 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1635

SOURCE: Feingold, Michael. “Less Is Moor.” Village Voice 46, no. 50 (18 December 2001): 71.

[In the following review of Doug Hughes's 2001 Othello staged at New York City's Public Theater, Feingold acknowledges the overall merit of this production, but finds its passion “distressingly contained.”]

Greed is the drama critic's prevailing sin. Not greed for power or money—though none of us would complain if the artists all did exactly what we told them, and offered us bushels of cash to praise them for doing it—but greed for greatness. Offer me passable, I want good; give me good, I demand excellent; grant me excellent, and I say, “What ever happened to sublime?”

Take Doug Hughes's staging of Othello. It is a solid, handsome, intelligent, and skillfully acted production, at which I had a good time. And now I shall prove almost as ungrateful as Iago, who had a good job and hated his employer for not giving him a better one. Othello is such a good job that I want it to be great. It ought to be great; the people involved are capable of greatness, and some of them have occasionally demonstrated it. Why the show isn't great, I don't know. Whether it will be great in a few more weeks, I can't predict. Right now it is a good job; if you've never seen a great Othello, or great performances of the individual roles, and so have no yardstick by which to gauge its greatness, this solidly competent production will introduce the play to you very effectively.

I should add in fairness that great Othellos are not easily come by. The play is the most concentrated of Shakespeare's late tragedies, with virtually no spectacle or battle to distract from the central story. Its one perfunctory clown scene is always blessedly cut (most people don't even know it exists), and one of the few better-than-good things in the current production is Christopher Evan Welch's demonstration that Roderigo is a brave, albeit foolish, gentleman and not the usual pratfalling fop who provides alleged comic relief. This leaves, to interrupt the main characters' tragic conflict, only the party scene where Cassio gets drunk, staged here by Hughes with the same taut, abstemious lucidity as everything else. No, there's never a lot of diversion in Othello: Its pleasure lives in the acting and the word—music of two of the most arduous and complex roles in the canon (Iago is actually the longest role in Shakespeare), flanked by four supporting roles, all of which must also be played superbly for a production to take flight. Like you, I've never seen it happen, though I've seen sublime performances of all six roles individually.

Hughes's cast is a handsome one, astutely assembled. Before we even got to the meaty central acts, I liked Welch's clash of dignity and tempted gullibility; I liked Jack Ryland's tantrummy bulldog of a Brabantio; and I grinned with an old playgoer's satisfaction at George Morfogen's foxily soft-spoken Duke of Venice. But even in Venice, both Keith David's Othello and Liev Schreiber's Iago gave warning signs of acting trouble ahead. Or maybe one should say “lack-of-warning” signs, since the problem stalking this production seems to be that neither actor knows exactly who he is—a surprising letdown for Hughes, whose Delacorte Henry V was so good precisely because Andre Braugher's Henry knew more about himself, and made us learn more, with every scene. There a director and an actor reaffirmed the central reality of drama: It progresses through time and reveals over time. Schreiber and David have many colors to their acting, but the colors are laid intermittently, and sometimes not at all; they don't build over time to reveal a complete picture.

David fares the better of the two. Amiable and genteel at the beginning, he has moving bursts later of both rage and a pathos just this side of self-pity. At the end, he offers a fierce dignity—we see his power as a military commander best when he's with Desdemona—and a sense of loving desperation that, abetted by Kate Forbes's ripe sincerity, makes the familiar death scene deeply stirring. When David hits these high marks, the production seems fresh and electric. Catherine Zuber's handsome, somber-toned costumes put the play in the Regency era, evoking images of Lord Nelson or the Napoleonic Wars; they give David's African-sculpted good looks a Byronic touch.

But the beautiful touches in David's performance dissipate as quickly as they come. He has rage and tenderness, but not, apparently, the inner dynamic to produce both at once. Othello is a man riven by contradictions; one reason the play has such resonance for us is that he sees himself—like so many Americans, black and otherwise—as an outsider, who has won status in a society where he still feels alien, a poetically articulate man who apologizes for his rudeness of speech. Iago succeeds with him by playing on fears that are already there. Never wholly believing that Desdemona can love him, Othello lets himself be convinced that she doesn't. Under his early affirmations, we need to see the fears; under his late rages, the nagging doubts. With David, until the death scene, they come one at a time, or not at all.

Then there is the question of pomp. Othello's rage is often linked to his stature and power: Between the first and fifth acts, virtually everyone we see is under his command, and Shakespeare gives him plenty of word-music in which to affirm his grandeur. Giuseppe Verdi made the old way of playing the role as pure word-music unfeasible. Next to what he achieved with a heroic tenor voice and a full orchestra, even Paul Robeson, at least on record, pales by comparison. In the shadow of such competition, David and his director seem to have decided consciously to keep the role low-keyed. You would never know, hearing David, that the passage about the Propontic and the Hellespont was one in which all English-speaking actors used to dream of displaying their most vibrant tones, just as you wouldn't know, from his suavely gentle first act, why Salvini was described as playing it like “a smoldering volcano.” For a play with so much fevered passion and blood in it, the performance is distressingly contained.

As is, even more distressingly, Schreiber's Iago. Here is an actor whose power in this realm was proved several years back, when he played what might be called the junior version of the role (Iachimo is the diminutive of Iago) so gloriously in the Delacorte production of Cymbeline. Expecting the best, what we get here is merely all right. Even more complex than Othello, Iago is also a more elusive figure. Far from having no motive, his malignity has almost too many: Othello gave someone else the better job; he may have slept with Iago's wife; the fellow he gave the job to, Cassio, is unqualified. There is a class issue—Cassio is a gentleman, Iago a professional soldier—to go with the race issue. Modern eyes have seen a homosexual element in Iago's fixation on Othello's love life (Hughes's staging relocates his interest in Roderigo), and a degree of projection that suggests his desire to replace not Cassio but Othello. Two of Schreiber's most striking moments come when he nearly kisses Desdemona, and when, plotting Cassio's murder, the notion of taking command himself seems to cross his mind. Such moments are like lightning flashes of the great Iago Schreiber ought to be.

For the most part, though, what we get is solid, not quite stolid, impassivity. Like David avoiding the trumpet tones of pomp, Schreiber shuns the temptation to revel in his evil with shriek and rant, which has destroyed countless Iagos (the worst ever was Christopher Plummer's, so openly demented that even Roderigo would have had him put away). But in dodging the one trap, Schreiber falls into its opposite, enjoying his evil so little that it lacks credibility. The best Iago I ever saw, because the most convincingly scary, was Christopher Walken. You could see why the other characters accepted him as sane, though he was clearly unhinged; he rarely raised his voice, but it was easy to believe that he might want to kill any number of people. Schreiber dutifully declares that he hates the Moor; he goes efficiently through the motions of killing Roderigo and Emilia; but the person whose thoughts we've been privy to, through lines and lines of lucidly spoken soliloquy, doesn't appear to have any strong connection to these acts. You expect his alibi to be “The script made me do it.” Mary McCarthy praised Jose Ferrer (playing opposite Robeson) for finding in the role the visionary “who makes his dream of evil come true on earth.” Maybe that was more readily imaginable in the late 1940s, with Hitler just destroyed and Stalin still alive. But surely we have examples enough all around us today; bringing them to imaginative life, so that we can exorcise them from ourselves through the ritual of playgoing, is the difficult part.

As if trying hard not to steal the muted thunder of these centerpieces, Hughes's supporting actors often tend to come in just slightly under their best work. Even Forbes, a strong and beautiful Desdemona, occasionally gets too soft-spoken for the Anspacher's three-quarter stage. The good work by oldsters Ryland and Morfogen at the start is balanced, later on, by two appealing youngsters in tiny roles: Natacha Roi (Bianca) and Dan Snook (Lodovico). Jay Goede is a likable, slightly callow Cassio, and Becky Ann Baker a firm but oddly unincisive Emilia. Some of the limitation involved may come from Hughes, whose austere approach consciously leaves blank many moments that beg for supportive detail. Just as drama critics, getting the good, always beg for the better.

John Simon (essay date 24 December 2001)

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SOURCE: Simon, John. “Moor is Less.” New York Magazine 34, no. 49 (24 December 2001): 109.

[In the following review of the 2001 Public Theater staging of Othello directed by Doug Hughes, Simon faults Hughes's casting and interpretive decisions, claiming that they obscured the tragic grandeur of Shakespeare's play, burying its loftier, philosophical qualities among the sordidness of domestic drama.]

What a chance for timeliness was missed by Doug Hughes's staging of Othello! By reducing the play to domestic drama (which on one level it is), the Public Theater has deprived it of its political and metaphysical half: the war between civilized goodness (Venice, Christianity, order) and barbarous evil (the Turks, treachery, chaos). That may have cut too close to the bone and required a larger, grander production than the impoverished one here. But how sad to see a shatteringly relevant historical and philosophical clash shrunk to a chamber piece of mere personal conflict, and even that poorly executed.

The casting of the principals demands a keen aesthetic sensibility. Whereas it is right to give nearly central importance to Iago, he should not physically dominate Othello, yet the hulking Liev Schreiber as Iago does precisely that. By making Iago smaller and physiognomically more trustworthy, the power of unperspicuous, insidious evil is more graphically highlighted. Othello, though decently acted by Keith David, needs to be of more heroic stature, more purblind nobility, and, eventually, of more pitiable, poetic grandeur than mere competence can summon. An even greater problem is Desdemona, surely the most demanding female role in the Shakespeare canon, a role of feminine and human perfection, neither of which the visually and histrionically ordinary Kate Forbes can approximate.

It is a costly mistake to have a Roderigo (Christopher Evan Welch) more interesting than Cassio (Jay Goede); to turn Lodovico (Dan Snook) into an immature and prissily spoken hunk; to cast an Emilia (Becky Ann Baker) who looks more like Iago's sexless aunt than his jealousy-provoking wife; and to give us a Bianca (Natacha Roi) more desirable than Desdemona.

Schreiber does wring a good deal out of Iago, but much of it is literally and figuratively misdirected. Although lechery for Desdemona may be a minor cause of his intrigues, directing him to clasp, cradle, and fondle her consolingly is socially and dramatically unacceptable. And the final image of Iago—already reduced to cowering from a mighty blow of Othello's Notung-like sword—left standing tall above the three corpses of his making is absurd. What's called for is his being dragged off to punishment. For him to start twitching in what looks like remorse as the lights go down is even more preposterous.

Thomas Moisan (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Moisan, Thomas. “Relating Things to the State: ‘The State’ and the Subject of Othello.” In Othello: New Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 189-202. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following essay, Moisan considers the role of the Venetian state in shaping the characters and tragic outcome of Othello.]

Yea and some forrain men and strangers haue beene adopted into this number of citizens, eyther in regard of their great nobility, or that they had beene dutifull towardes the state, or els had done unto them some notable seruice.

(Contareni, 18)

Men in Great Place, are thrice Seruants: Seruants of the Soueraigne or State; Seruants of Fame; and Seruants of Businesse. So as they haue no Freedome; neither in their Persons; nor in their Actions; nor in their Times.

(Bacon, “Of Great Place,” 42)

From “honest” to “dilate,” from “what's the matter?” to “My husband?” Othello has been shown to be home to a number of aurally and thematically resonant expressions, expressions that ramify in significance even as they impress themselves reiteratively upon the ear, contributing to what G. B. Shaw, writing of Othello, termed “the splendor of its word music” (135).1 One is reminded of such expressions by the collocation whose occurrence, and recurrence, draw the attention of this essay, namely, “the state.” On the face of it, to be sure, the interpretative possibilities annunciated by “the state” seem modest. Lacking the ironic power that builds in the numerous variations we hear on the word “honest,” and less susceptible to the revealing paranoumasic dissonances that Patricia Parker has heard in “delate” and “dilate,” references to “the state” seem to be what their contexts suggest: collectively an ellipsis for Venice the city-state, metonyms for the Venetian polity, for Venice in its governing authority and power. Indeed, context would seem to render it difficult to hear in the phrase a reference to “state” as “condition”; we do not hear anyone complain that there is something rotten in, or with, the state of Venice. Nor is the word “state” paired off against its etymological and phonological kin, “estate,” which does not occur in the play. Instead, with the long vowel of its iamb giving it insinuatingly easy entree to the rhythms and sound of both prose and verse,2 references to “the state” make the domain and claims of public affairs audible and rather talismanic presences in the opening act of the play and in its closing minutes: the claims of “the state” set the geographical agenda of the play; the recollection of service done “the state” brings the play to its “bloody period”; the intent to “relate” what has happened to “the state” brings the play to its smoothly rhyming close.

“The state” occurs more frequently in Othello than in Hamlet, with its princely protagonist and “statist” preoccupations; it occurs more often than in Shakespeare's earlier “Venetian” play, The Merchant of Venice, where a spate of references to “the state” clustered in the “trial” scene intones what Venice is legally exacted to permit and what it is legally permitted to exact (4.1.222, 312, 354, 365, 371, 373; also, 3.2.278; 3.3.29).3 Indeed, references to “the state” occur more frequently in Othello than in any other of Shakespeare's plays except Coriolanus, a coincidence that would seem anomalous. For, however one assesses the various topical political readings that have been offered for Coriolanus, Coriolanus is still a play whose fable centrally concerns “the state,” something that would seem less self-evidently true about Othello. In Coriolanus “the state” of Rome is part of the focal agon of the play, making Coriolanus and undoing him quite, its presence sustained and citations of it evenly distributed over the five acts of the play; in Othello, on the other hand, the role of “the state” and the Venice it represents seem thematically relegated to the margins they help spatially and aurally to define, the public sphere they evoke in acts 1 and 5 muted in and displaced by the domestic and claustrophobically private action of acts 2, 3, and 4. In short, “the state” seems integral to the subject of Coriolanus, but not to that of Othello.

Or so at least we might infer from Verdi and his librettist, Boito, who, locating the operatic center of the play in, in fact, the heavily domestic and claustrophobically private action on Cyprus, effectively mute references to “the state” by excising Shakespeare's entire first act along with Venice and “the state.” In doing so, however, Verdi and Boito are only subtracting what Shakespeare appears to have added, at least if we follow Geoffrey Bullough's lead in taking as the principal source for Othello Cinthio's story of the “Moorish Captain.” In Cinthio Shakespeare would have found references to the Signoria (Bullough, 242; 252)—which he absorbs (1.2.17)—but not to “the state.” What difference does the addition of “the state” make? Most obviously, the presence of “the state,” with its foreign strategic concerns and its debate over whether it is Rhodes or Cyprus that is likely to be in danger, brings into the discourse of the play the threat of the Turk, “the angrie Turke” whom “of all others,” Richard Knolles wrote (1603) “that understanding and provident State” of Venice “most dread” (Bullough, 262). How potent was the fear of “turning Turk” or forced conversion to the infidel for an early modern English audience has been interrogated recently by Daniel J. Vitkus (“Turning Turk in Othello”), and it may have had an especial immediacy for the original audience of Othello, who, as Virginia Mason Vaughan has suggested, were likely to have known about the fall of the historical Cyprus to the Turk some years before the play, and might have seen in the ruination of Venice's chosen general an admonition for the Christian West (34). Less obvious, perhaps, is the effect the presence of “the state” has upon the definition of the general himself. At the very least, to make Othello the most significant servant of the mysterium of Venetian power invests Othello and his story with a tragic gravitas that his counterpart in Cinthio's fiction—a fiction that evokes those steamy “enchantments of Circe” Roger Ascham derides in Italian novelle (67-68)—simply does not have. The repeated reference to Venice in act 1 as “the state” elevates Othello from mere employee of the city to savior of the nation—or at least part of its commercial empire—someone so vital that “the state” “[c]annot,” as Iago remarks, “with safety cast him” (1.1.148).

Yet references to “the state” do more than provide a courtesy upgrade to this tragedy without a crowned head. Rather, in what is to follow I would suggest that “the state” and Othello are tied to each other in a relationship both mutually exploitative and mutually revealing, one that leads Othello to define himself by his reading of “the state,” and that makes “the state” an interested participant in Othello's tragedy. Moreover, even as a number of recent analyses have invaluably drawn our attention to the culturally charged images in the play of disclosure, to the darknesses that whet the obsession within the play with “ocular proof” (Patricia Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins; Michael Neill, “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello, Issues of Death, 141-67; and Arthur L. Little, Jr.), a consideration of the role of “the state” complicates our appreciation, not simply of the discursive in the play, but of the sense in which the play draws attention to discourse, and to its medial and ultimately repressive relationship with the visual. It is for “the state” that certain accounts get delivered; it is with the intent of “relating” things to “the state” that the stage is cleared and the sight blocked off of “the tragic loading” of the bed. Indeed, though Richard Helgerson's caution against reading the early modern notion of “state” through anything even as little removed in time as a Hobbesian lens (295) makes us cautious in treating “the state” as an abstraction of political theory, still, the discursive interaction of protagonist and “state” in Othello, with “the state” vetting discourse and Othello shaping discourse on “cue,” evokes the relationship of two powerful institutions whose negotiation was an ineluctable reality of Shakespeare's existence: the state—or the crown with which the state was identified—and the theater.

But what is “the state” in Othello, and would a contemporary audience have heard in the term anything but a transparent marker for Venice? Though it is unlikely that the audience would have felt invited to ponder the term as an abstraction, surely even an early Jacobean audience was not unfamiliar with efforts to describe the workings of “the state,” or its equally familiar—if less prosodically commodious—synonym, “the commonweal.” “Amongst many the great and deepe deuices of worldly wisedome, for the maintenance and preseruing of human societies (the ground and stay of mans earthly blisse) the fairest, firmest, and the best, was the framing and forming of Commonweales …” So Knolles alliteratively opines at the outset of a work he produced not long after his The Generall Historie of the Turkes, his translation (1606) of Jean Bodin's The Six Bookes of a Commonweale (“To the Reader,” iv). Still, in Othello the reiterated appearances of “the state” have the effect of underscoring Venice in the exercise of its governing power and leaving unstated anything that would suggest that large complex organism Bodin and Knolles thought of as the “commonweal”; when, after all, Othello refers to “the state” as anything but “the state” or Venice he chooses a transliteration for the Venetian version of an executive council, “the signiory” (1.2.17).

And, to be sure, in this case any hint of mystery and abstraction that builds in the repetition of “the state” may well have reminded the audience how little they understood Venice itself. After all, as editors have observed, it is not clear that the playwright himself had fully mastered the technicalities of various Venetian governmental offices (Saunders, 64; n. 1.2.14; Honigmann 128, n. 1.2.13-14)—perhaps a reason in itself for referring to matters of state as often as possible by the umbrella term … “the state”! Nor if, as has been frequently suggested, the playwright looked at Lewis Lewkenor's translation of Gasparo Contareni's The Commonwealth and Gouernment of Venice (1599), would he have found the picture it presented of the intricate formulation of the Venetian system of government uniformly lucid, either in the model of government produced, or in the means that produced it.4 “Shakespeare saw Venice as part of his world,” E. A. J. Honigmann has observed, “but not so Cyprus” (11), a valid distinction if on no other grounds than that by the time of the play Cyprus had succumbed to Ottoman invasion, while Venice was still at least in the Christian orb. And the sense that Venice, for all its celebrated, or notorious, opulence was nonetheless culturally familiar has been helpful to a reading of the play that would parse it in culturally oppositional terms, with Othello the “outsider” and “extravagant and wheeling stranger” and Venice, or “the state,” the establishment, indeed, a reading to which Brabantio, Roderigo, and Iago all in various ways find it convenient to subscribe: “This is Venice; / My house is not a grange” (1.1.105-106). Still, a glance at the commentary Lewkenor provided at the outset of his translation suggests that for this Englishman at least, unblushing purveyor, as Vaughan has noted, of the myth of Venice (17), “the state” of Venice was best appreciated as an exciting, “culturally broadening” conundrum. From the preface “To the Reader” to Lewkenor's translation of Contareni it is Venice itself that emerges as the “extravagant and wheeling stranger.” Recalling that Homer especially praises Ulysses for the breadth of his travels, for the fact that “Multorum mores vidit & urbes” (Ad), Lewkenor—who might have agreed with the Duke that Othello's adventurous “tale would win my daughter too”—offers a paean to the difference that is Venice in which two notes predominate: the “strangeness” of everything connected with Venice—its history, its government, its prosperity, its physical situation; “wonder” at having observed these things. Venice, the veritably floating signifier? Lewkenor signifies the intensity of his wonder at the thought by employing as an adverb of “otherness” a word we hear repeatedly in Othello to suggest moral hideousness: “what euer hath the worlde brought forth more monstrously strange, then that so great & glorious a Citie should be seated in the middle of the sea. … ?” (A3v).5

Not, of course, that “the state” remains an abstraction throughout the play, and, indeed, it is in its selective moments of demystification that “the state” and the Venice it represents come to be drawn into the play as actors, at least as proximate occasions, in the circumstances that shape Othello's tragedy. In no scene are the officers and workings of “the state” rendered more humanly recognizable than in the momentous council scene (1.3), and particularly in the first forty-five lines, where we come upon the Duke and two senators attempting to puzzle out the sense of conflicting reports they have received on the Turks' intentions (1-43), a scene that seems especially demystified when compared with the description of the Great Council of three thousand described by Lewkenor, that body which deliberates so efficiently, and with so divine a peaceableness, and so without all tumult and confusion,” Lewkenor gushes, “that it rather seemeth to bee an assembly of Angels, then of men” (A2d). Decidedly more sublunary, the effort of the three officers of “the state” at disambiguation puts “the state” in the business of reading signs and thus gives “the state” something in common with numerous enigma-pondering characters throughout the play, with the notable difference that the Duke and his colleagues actually manage to reason their way to a correct answer.6 Nor is it the only time in the play at which “the state” turns out to refer to personages or collectivities. In an instance we noted earlier, Iago, who has already displayed a knack for demystifying august Venetian institutions—parrying Brabantio's charge, “Thou art a villain,” with “you are a Senator” (1.1.117)—and can always be relied upon to “demystify” anyone or, in this case, thing by attributing to it a recognizably humanly self-serving motivation, and follows hard upon Roderigo's hendyadic invocation of “the state” as some abstract guarantor of justice—“the justice of the state” (91.1.139) to predict, correctly, that “the state” will find Othello too valuable to “cast him” (1.1.147). Brabantio, anxious to assert his importance at a moment when that importance seems to have been disregarded, makes the state a fraternity to which he belongs, certain that the Duke or any of his “brothers of the state” would feel his grievance (1.2.96). And in its most impersonated form, “the state” “becomes a “they,” when Othello reminds those about to lead him away that he had “done the state some service, and they know't” (5.2.354).

Still, when read in the diverse contexts in which it is cited, “the state” as an entity appears something of a chimera, less a thing or concept with definable terms than a rhetorical inflection. We encounter it as an affiliative tag-on that enables Brabantio both to flash his influence and ground his personal outrage and complaint in a presumption of socio-political empathy: “The Duke himself, / Or any of my brothers of the state, / Cannot but feel this wrong as 'twere their own” (1.2.95-7). We hear it invoked to justify why something is to be done, not done, or done later; a piece of allusion and illusion central to praeteritive devices of which Iago is only the most malevolent, not the sole, practitioner. “What if I do obey?” asks Othello, of course rhetorically, when Brabantio orders him to prison. “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?” (1.2.87-91). And having enabled Othello to elude detention at the beginning of the play, the discourse of “the state” serves Othello at the end as well in the literally breathtaking praeterition with which Othello takes his leave, putting his “bloody period” to a lively demonstration of the sort of service to “the state” that he had begun this nineteen-line, “word or two” speech by reminding the assembled emissaries of the state that he would not continue to remind them of: “I have done the state some service, and they know't—No more of that” (5.2.339-40). “The state” occupies the final rhyme and image of the play, but its concluding centrality as the authority offstage to which Lodovico will “[t]his heavy act with heavy heart relate,” not to mention the nature of the report it is likely to receive, are complicated by the image onstage of the tragically loaded bed, the “object” which “poisons sight,” and which Lodovico orders to be “hid.” In the final piece of praeterition perpetrated in the play “the state” is kept in shadow: the audience is invited to pass over what it has seen and is not likely to forget; to look forward to a report it will never hear to an entity it cannot see; instead of enjoying a privileged position as the repository of what has happened, “the state” is relegated to an alternative realm of report, a realm and report rendered necessarily more shadowy in the degree to which they are to be denied the fullness of sight, a realm and report associated through the words of Lodovico with suggestions of repression and censorship.

Shadowy as the representation of “the state” may be, things still get done in its name; indeed, it is an insight of the play into the paradox of Venetian power, and perhaps the power of states in general, that we never discern the power of Venetian authority so much as when we do not see it. When, for example, Lodovico exercises his authority to announce to Othello after his murder of Desdemona has been discovered that “Your power and your command is taken off, / And Cassio rules in Cyprus” (5.2.331-32), we may initially feel that we are in the presence of Venetian justice, until we recall that what sound like penalties meted out to Othello for his crime are performative statements of administrative actions that “the state” had already taken, news of which, it is supposed, Lodovico had brought to Othello in the letter from Venice (4.1.225). Since Othello had only arrived in Cyprus in act 2, clearly “the state” had wasted no time, or, rather, operated offstage and by its own “dilatory” time to remove the Moor once, presumably, it had somehow ascertained that the military threat to Cyprus had passed. Othello's transgression only allowed “the state” to give a punitive articulation and formality to actions intended to be muted in the silences of the epistolary form.

Yet as the visit of Lodovico to Cyprus can by itself only hint, the nature of “the state” in Othello is most fully on display in the complexities of its relationship with its “all in all sufficient” general. That Shakespeare seems to have conned the notion that aliens were permitted, even encouraged, to contribute their talents and services, artisanal, commercial, or military, to the Venetian state is evident, and A. D. Nuttall makes a useful observation when he declares that for Shakespeare Venetian tolerance, indeed, use of the exotically different would merely have been a reflection in its political culture of the exoticism and difference that defined Venice's physical environment. “Venice,” Nuttall remarks, listing just a bit towards the coloratura, “is for Shakespeare an anthropological laboratory. Itself nowhere, suspended between sea and sky, it receives and utilizes all kinds of people” (141).

That Shakespeare was aware that the Venetian state received “all kinds of people,” at least as business traders, was clear in The Merchant of Venice (3.3.27). His sense—and his character Othello's sense—of how Venice utilized “strangers” could only have been complicated by exposure to Contareni, who at once celebrates the welcome aliens received, while giving clues of the limits the Venetian state placed on its inclusiveness, particularly in its relationship with aliens it retained to address its military affairs. In Lewkenor's translation of Contareni one finds, for example, an accounting of the special legal processes instituted to expedite suits brought by “strangers,” with the ostensibly benign rationale that they “should not be molested and lingred off with long delayes, but quickly come to an ende of their suites” (105). Implicit, of course, in the very attention paid to the benign and genuinely more than just treatment of “strangers,” is the fact that aliens normally remain aliens and outside the citizenship reserved for “Venetians,” natives of “the state,” and far from all of those. One thinks of the norm when Contareni duly notes a significant exception, an exception for merit, one that echoes memorably in Othello's parting apologia—even in its association, by proximity, of “the state” with a plural pronoun. It happens, Contareni observes, that “some forrain men and strangers haue beene adopted into this number of citizens, eyther in regard of their great nobility, or that they had beene dutifull towardes the state, or else had done vnto them some notable seruice” (18). “[S]ome notable seruice,” naturally, could refer to the deeds done by those mercenary generals who tend to Venice's military foreign policy, by the likes of Othello and, perhaps, the as yet unidentified Marcus Luccicos, for whom the Duke sends along with “the valiant Moor” (1.3.45-8). Yet a scan of Contareni's comments on the attitude of “the state” towards affairs and personages military reveals an ambivalence that would render any mercenary general's hold on public esteem precarious. With an early modern nod to the policy of preparedness, leaders are encouraged to cultivate “the offices of warre,” but only “for the cause of peace” (9), while a historical aside reminds the reader that the founders of “the state” “alwaies with greater regard and reckoning applyed their minds to the maintenance of peace then to glorie of warres” (15). So much for “the plumed troop, and the big wars / That make ambition virtue” (3.3349-50); to thrive in Venice Othello's occupation might indeed be gone, or rather, the cast of mind that could find “content” (348) in battle might well be distrusted. That distrust surfaces, as it were, in a Venetian law that gives ancient Roman practice a nautical twist and prohibits any returning “Generall, Legate, or Captaine of a nauie” from bringing his war gallies into the city of Venice, and obliges him to disband at a point about a hundred miles away from Venice. And though, as Honigmann reminds us (7), Lewkenor's translation mentions that the “Captaine Generall” of the Venetian army is always a “straunger,” the text adds the significant qualification that the “Captaine Generall” “hath no authority to doe or deliberate any thing without the aduice of the Legates,” the political officers “who neuer stirre from the side of the Captaine Generall” (132). In Othello this anti-militarism attributed to the Venetian state goes unvoiced, conveniently displaced by the threat posed by the Turk, not to Venice itself, but to a colonial and commercial vital interest, and a threat not unacknowledged. Yet the cultural anxieties that, as Emily Bartels has shown, a Western audience was likely to have brought towards a Moorish protagonist may only have been reinforced by the peculiar symbiosis of Venice and its military factotums. Read in this context, the determination arrived at offstage by “the state” to have Othello replaced for unspecified reasons by Cassio—a change that seems all the more peremptory to an audience that has not been given any reason to believe that a substantial amount of time has elapsed in the play—seems merely to give dramatic emphasis to the uncertain position of the warrior and the stranger in Venice recorded in Contareni and Lewkenor.

That Othello reflects the uncertainty of the soldier's and stranger's position in the Venetian state helps, of course, to define the vulnerability that is his undoing with Iago in act 3. My concern here, however, is not to revisit the psychic dynamics of that scene, and ask why Othello falls or falls so rapidly in it, but to consider the role “the state” has in shaping the vulnerable self that Othello exhibits in the play, in the beginning and at the end. We observed above that Othello's memorable protest, at “the end,” that “I have done the state some service—and they know it” recalls closely the section in Lewkenor's translation that describes how “forrain men and strangers” can attain citizenship by “Notable seruise,” by merit and deeds. The recollection is worth noting because Othello's outcry very much sounds like the protest of injured merit, or of merit unrecognized, or, rather, of someone who believes that “the state” about to cart him away would be susceptible to arguments from merit—“and they know it.” The particular line Othello employs here to buy time with which to dictate his statement and do away with himself is interesting. For one thing, we had not been acutely aware that Othello was suffering the pangs of injured or unrecognized merit, and the circumstances seem hardly propitious for raising questions of merit. On the other hand, however, the tack Othello takes here reminds us of Othello's first appearance in the play, when Othello dismisses the concerns Iago so helpfully raises about the harm the enraged Brabantio may do, on the grounds that “[My services which I have done the signiory / Shall outongue his complaints” (1.2.18-19). Michael Neill has referred to the “civil self” of Othello from which Iago strips away the fabric to expose the “dark” secrets Iago “has taught the audience to expect“(Issues of Death, 167). In Othello's comment to Iago in this first appearance we get a hint of what the fabric of that “civil self” may consist. Othello stakes his survival and advancement on the very Venetian notion of a meritocracy; that is, he defines himself according to what he believes “the state” will recognize and reward. In doing so, however, he chooses to suppress another part of himself, or, indeed, another version of himself, that part “’Tis yet to know,” the lineage of “royal siege,” of which, in the first piece of praeterition in which he engages in the play, he at once brags while claiming he will not brag of it until bragging is in vogue (1.2.19-23). Praeterition it is, but it is a piece of praeterition that ultimately gets nullified, in that that other self Othello claims he will suppress for awhile actually stays suppressed. “Men in Great Fortunes”, Bacon claims in the essay that provides one of the epigraphs to this essay, “are strangers to themselves” (42). Othello has not defined himself by his fortune, but he follows the path Bacon sees men “Of Great Place,” who are enslaved to “the state,” following to self-alienation. Small wonder that in his final speech, just when he has ensured himself a captive audience and can say anything he might want to say about himself, his sense of subjectivity should lead him to reenact an episode from his vita and subsume, indeed, extinguish himself in deeds done for “the state.”

Still, as Othello tells Iago, it is not exactly his deeds that Othello claims will redeem him with “the state,” but the ability of his deeds to “outongue” Brabantio's complaints. At a glance one might take this to be Othello's appeal to meritocracy and a deprecation of rhetoric, an assertion that his deeds “speak for themselves,” or that “actions speak louder than words.” Yet as the scene in the council meeting unfolds, “outongue” proves, of course, to be less metaphoric, or closer to personification than one at first supposes. For rather like “the state” itself, Othello's deeds in the play exist as rhetorical fodder, allusions to accomplishments designed to make points for or about Othello. It is not, we know, Othello's deeds as such that lead the Duke to “think” that “this tale would win my daughter too” (1.3.171), or even the tale itself, but a metatale, Othello's telling of how he had been accustomed to telling it, or as James Calderwood has described it, “a voice telling about himself telling about himself” (294). In approving that voice, “the state” does more than vet the rhetoric in which Othello fashions himself; rather, “the state” helps to define that self as rhetorical.

And well might “the state” claim some authority at judging rhetoric, since “the state” itself proves attentive to rhetoric, if ultimately transparent at its use, when it serves its interests. Nowhere is this more on display than in the council scene, where Shakespeare gives “the state” its fullest personification in the play and gives most audible voice to the celebrations of Venice's deliberative wisdom he might have found in Contareni and Lewkenor. That “the state” has interests is dramatically underscored when its spokesmen come to perceive those interests to be threatened, when in rapid succession the Duke and the senators deduce the threat to Cyprus only to hear Brabantio bring charges of witchcraft against their best hope at resisting that threat. “We are very sorry for't,” the response of “All” to Brabantio's accusations (1.3.73) is heartfelt, even though the sentiment it embodies probably transcends fraternal regard for the injury suffered by their “brother of the state,” Brabantio. And, indeed, it is a measure of their moral sense, or at least of their desire to live up to the moral reputation of the Venetian state, that its representatives on stage should feel an ethical dilemma at the possibility that defending Cyprus and avenging Brabantio might not be compatible goals, a dilemma that is made all the more embarrassing by the firm pledge of judicial severity the Duke issues—“yea, though our proper son / Stood in your action” (1.3.69-70)—immediately before he learns who the accused is. When “the state” is spared the necessity of condemning its military champion, it is, of course, still left with the dilemma of reconciling itself, and Brabantio, to the marriage of the fair skinned-Desdemona and the dark-skinned Moor. Wooed by Othello's own rhetoric and bound by Venice's reputation of toleration towards strangers, especially strangers that are to help it defend its possessions against the Turk, “the state” in the cloying balm of the Duke's rhymed couplets, employs a trope to deny the seemingly undeniable fact of skin color, in the process endorsing the sort of color-coded metaphysics that, as Neill has demonstrated, ultimately enables Othello to demonize Desdemona by demonizing himself (Issues of Death, 144-44):

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


What the Duke so fecklessly does here, Lodovico will much more effectively do later, in fact ending the play in the process. That is, both align the authority of “the state” and rhetorical discourse to deny nothing less than the evidence of sight: the Duke formally bolsters the authority of his rank with the authority of rhymed couplets to claim that black can really be white; Lodovico, as we have noted before, forcibly averts everyone's glance from the sight-poisoning bed and diverts attention to a narrative to come, the narrative to be “related.” In the process, the invention of “the state,” its extrapolation on Shakespeare's putative source in Cinthio, provides a vehicle by means of which Othello appears to tame the narrative it has staged, devising strategies of domestication, familiarization, and ultimately recuperation while calling attention to the ways in which that narrative ultimately eludes control. Indeed, we get a hint of this in the scene in the council meeting when the Duke first calls for and then blesses Othello's account of how he used to account for his past and its adventures. Again, what wins Othello sympathy in this speech, before Desdemona arrives to exonerate him formally, is as much the performance of the speech as its content, its collection of wild and unfamiliar things and experiences harnessed within Othello's recognizably and sonorously attractive delivery. The Duke's prompt, “Say it, Othello” (1.3.126), or what Honigmann calls an unusual turn of phrase” (143, n.1.3.128), does not so much command Othello to speak as cue him to perform, and exemplifies both the way in which “the state” domesticates Othello's “extravagant strangeness” and part of the “service” through which Othello ingratiates himself with “the state.”7 In “Othello Furens” Robert S. Miola has charted a number of instances in which Othello's language is suffused with recollections of Seneca's Hercules Furens, a possible source of the argot that Iago claims is laden with “bumbast circumstance / Horribly stuff'd with epithites of war” (1.1.13-14). Invested with a familiarly theatrically wild, heroic language that, much to Iago's stated chagrin, is part of the winning persona Othello wears in “the state,” Othello and “the state” demonstrate the terms of their peculiar, mutually cultivating, mutually exploitative relationship. Indeed, that moment so central to Othello's need for ocular proof, the scenario Iago stages with Cassio for Othello's benefit (4.1.103-68), only demonstrates the way in which the imposition of a conventional dramatic form can hide sight and misinform, since Othello becomes enraged, less at what he sees than by the words he thinks he hears, the script from familiar plays he is imaginatively writing into what he sees before him, with Cassio a swaggering stage Roman: “Do [you] triumph, Roman? Do you triumph?” (4.1.118).

Finally, Lodovico's determination at the end of the play to hide the bed and what it reveals and his announcement of his intention to “relate” what had happened to “the state” enlist “the state” in a recuperative strategy that attempts to rewrite what has happened in familiarly, manageably, and conventionally tragic terms, terms that exempt us from having to pose or cope with the harder questions the events onstage force. To Iago, now conveniently demonized as “O Spartan dog” (5.2.361), incomprehensibly evil but, then, beyond the need to comprehend because undeniably inhuman, is shifted all of the responsibility for “the tragic loading of this bed; / This is thy work” (5.2.363-64). Simultaneously Othello emerges as a tragic icon and victim: his suicide provides a theatrically familiar demonstration that “he was great of heart” (5.2.361), and spares “the state” the burden of having to learn from his own testimony “the nature of [his] fault.” In the degree to which the recuperative strategy doesn't work, leaving in our sight the bed and the questions it provokes, underscoring as a strategy of denial the narrative Lodovico will present to “the state,” and affiliating “the state” itself with the agency of censor, Othello presents as an undomesticatable form drama itself.


  1. See Granville-Barker, 130; Moisan; Parker, “Shakespeare and Rhetoric: ‘dilation’ and ‘delation’ in Othello, 54-74, Shakespeare from the Margins 229-72; Shaw.

  2. So “the state” slips seems to slip formulaically into the rhythm of an editorial gloss by Kittredge on the name Marcus Luccicos, who Kittredge surmises is “[d]oubtless some foreigner in the service of the Venetian state” (16, n.1.3.44).

  3. Unless otherwise stated, references to Shakespeare's text are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans, 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997). References to “the state” are not affected by the notorious variations between Folio and Quarto.

  4. So, for example, we have Contareni's account of Venice's “great counsell”—the Duke's voting powers on which Shakespeare has been said to have misrepresented—wherein “the shew of a popular estate” is seasoned, somehow, by just enough of “entermixture of the gouernment of the nobility” to ensure a meritocracy, a salutary hybridity that draws the marginal gloss, “The commonwealth of Venice is neither a popular estate, nor an Olygarchy, but a wel tempered gouernment betweene both” (33-4).

  5. Kenneth Muir (187) has detected resemblances between Lewkenor's language and the language of the play in the Council Scene (.3), including the parallel between the modesty topos with which Othello prefaces his defense against Brabantio's accusation (1.3. 81-2)

  6. Vaughan (20-21) cites speculation, or as she dubs it, “wild surmise,” that the representation of the deliberations of the Venetian Senate in 1.3 could have had a topical significance and coincided with a visit by Venetian ambassadors to the English court around the time when Othello was first performed.

  7. Indeed, as the play unfolds, Othello's standing with “the state” continues to be, in modern bureaucratic parlance, “performance based,” but his “performance” is measured by criteria other than his military prowess, which, after all, becomes moot once nature intervenes to destroy the Turkish fleet. When Lodovico's arrival in Cyprus triggers Othello's outburst against Desdemona, Lodovico's indignant question, “Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient” (4.1.264-5), suggests that “the state” reserves the right to define “sufficiency” by a number of criteria, including the decorum of one's public behavior. When Lodovico rebukes Othello for striking Desdemona by invoking Venice as an arbiter, “this would not be believ'd in Venice” (4.1.242), “the state” emerges as much as an aesthetic and theatrical critic as a moral censor.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. Essays. London. Oxford University Press, 1966.

Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 433-54.

Bodin, Jean. The Six Bookes of a Commonweale: A Facsimile Reprint of the English Translation of 1606. Ed. And Introduction by Kenneth Douglas McRae. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1962.

Calderwood, James L. “Speech and Self in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 293-303.

Contareni, Gasparo. The Commonwealth of Venice. Trans. Lewis Lewkenor (1599) Amsterdam: De Capo Press, 1969.

Granville-Barker, Harley. Prefaces to Shakespeare. 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947.

Helgerson, Richard. Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.

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

Miola, Robert S. “Othello Furens.Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 49-64.

Moisan, Thomas. “Repetition and Interrogation in Othello: ‘What needs this Iterance?’ or, ‘Can anything be made of this?’” Othello: New Perspectives. Ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan and Kent Cartwright. London: Associated University Presses. 48-73.

Muir Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.

Neill, Michael. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 383-412.

———. Issues of Death: Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Nuttall, A. D. A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and The Representation of Reality. London: Methuen, 1983.

Parker, Patricia. Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Parker, Patricia, and Geoffrey Hartman. Ed. Shakespeare & The Question of Theory. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. George Lyman Kittredge. Rev. Irving Ribner. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969.

———. Othello: The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Ed. Norman Sanders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

———. Othello: The Arden Shakespeare. Ed. E. A. J. Honigmann. 3rd Edition. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1997.

———. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Shaw, John. “‘What is the Matter’ in Othello?” Shakespeare Quarterly 17 (1966): 157-61.

Vaughan, Virginia Mason. Othello: A Contextual History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Vitkus, Daniel J. “Turning Turk in Othello: The Conversion and Damnation of the Moor.” Shakespeare Quarterly 48 (1997): 145-76.

Caryn James (essay date 21 January 2002)

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SOURCE: James, Caryn. “Review of Othello.New York Times 151, no. 52005 (21 January 2002): E1, E5.

[In the following excerpted review of a BBC television adaptation of Othello directed by Geoffrey Saxe in 2002, James emphasizes the film's contemporary, racially charged setting and overall merit, despite its flawed depiction of a simplified dramatic villain.]

[I]nstitutional racism is the backdrop for [a televised] Othello, which entirely abandons Shakespeare's language. It cuts from a passionate scene of Othello in bed with Dessie (the cloyingly contrived name for Desdemona) to an episode in which the police beat a black suspect to death.

The film is richly photographed and stylized. Eamonn Walker, an English actor known for his utterly convincing role as the American Muslim Said in HBO's prison series, Oz, is Othello. He makes his name by standing outside his station house on the the night of the attack, raising his arms and declaring to an angry crowd that if the police acted badly they will be held responsible. Set against a dark sky and the glare of lights, this scene is one of many (directed by Geoffrey Saxe) that has an iconic, theatrical feel yet firmly reflects reality. Soon Othello is the new police commissioner, and Jago is incensed at being passed over.

[T]his film does not bludgeon viewers with social commentary. Instead, the story of Othello's love for and jealousy of Dessie, and of Jago's ambition and manipulation, is set against the backdrop of a racist, media-driven society. When Othello marries Dessie (Keeley Hawes), a white heiress who works as a journalist, they become media darlings. Michael Cass (Richard Coyle), the updated Cassio, is a police officer sent to protect Dessie after racist thugs throw stones through her window—the perfect setup for Jago to hint that Dessie and Cass are having an affair. Mr. Walker creates a convincingly strong, impassioned Othello, though at times he seems to sigh more than Al Gore at a political debate, reducing Othello's growing suspicions to simple exasperation.

This fascinating, multilayered film suffers from one central flaw, though. Jago's character, as written and as acted by Christopher Eccleston, is too transparent, so obviously slimy that it is hard to believe Othello would fall for his pretence at friendship. Characters in many other films written by Mr. Davies talk directly to the camera, as Jago needlessly does here.

“It was about love,” he says at the start and again at the end of his story. “Don't talk to me about race, don't talk to me about politics—it was love, simple as that.” By the end, he is more clearly alluding to his own love for Othello, but of course he is wrong about other things. …

Further Reading

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Bartels, Emily C. “Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race.” Shakespeare Quarterly 41, no. 4 (winter 1990): 433-54.

Probes the Renaissance racial discourse that informs Shakespeare's characters Othello and Aaron, the Moor in his drama Titus Andronicus, as exotic threats to the social order.

Caro, Robert V. “Ignatian Discernment and the World of Othello.Cross Currents 44, no. 3 (fall 1994): 332-44.

Applies the concept of spiritual discernment and analysis of spiritual disintegration proposed by St. Ignatius to an understanding of Othello's murder of Desdemona in Othello.

Ghazoul, Ferial J. “The Arabization of Othello.Comparative Literature 50, no. 1 (winter 1998): 1-31.

Surveys the reception of Othello in the Arab world through translation, interpretation, and literary adaptation.

Hunt, Maurice. “Predestination and the Heresy of Merit in Othello.Comparative Drama 30, no. 3 (fall 1996): 346-76.

Explores Othello as a Christian morality play in which the traditional Catholic theology of free will and temptation clashes with the Reformed Protestant doctrine of predestination.

Kaul, Mythili, ed. Othello: New Essays by Black Writers. Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997, 223 p.

Collection of fourteen essays by various contributors on issues of theatrical, literary, or academic interest in regard to Othello, with a general emphasis on the racial aspects of Shakespeare's drama.

Kolin, Philip C., ed. Othello: New Critical Essays. New York: Routledge, 2002, 458 p.

Comprised of twenty contemporary, interpretive essays on Othello from a range of scholars, preceded by a survey of critical, stage, and filmic interpretations of the drama by the volume editor.

Slights, Camille Wells. “Slaves and Subjects in Othello.Shakespeare Quarterly 48, no. 4 (winter 1997): 377-90.

New historicist assessment of Othello that considers the drama as it exposes attitudes toward slavery and selfhood in early modern England.

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

Examines Renaissance plays, including Othello and other works by Shakespeare, that incorporate a chastity theme and dubious tests of honor to the detriment (or in extreme cases, fatality) of innocent wives.


Othello (Vol. 68)


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