Leo Kirschbaum (essay date December 1944)

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SOURCE: Kirschbaum, Leo. “The Modern Othello.” ELH 11, no. 4 (December 1944): 283-96.

[In the following essay, Kirschbaum argues that many modern critics have misread Othello's character by viewing him as an essentially noble figure who is misled by others. Instead, Kirschbaum contends that Shakespeare intended Othello to be a tragically noble figure whose fate is attributable to his own character flaws.]

Is the Othello of modern critics Shakespeare's Othello?

Here are three representative opinions. To Sir Edmund Chambers, Othello is “the simple open-hearted soldier,” “a gracious and doomed creature” who is an “easy victim.”1 For Kittredge, he is “an heroic and simple nature, putting full trust in two friends, both of whom betray him, the one in angry malice, the other by weakness and self-seeking.”2 Stoll sees him as a very noble dramatic puppet who evinces no psychological consistency in his passage from love to sudden jealousy and who must fall because of the dramatic device that every one trusts the villain: Iago is Othello's nemesis.3

I do not think that this Othello is Shakespeare's Othello. I do not think that this is the Othello whom the judicious reader or spectator or actor sees. I do not think that this is the Othello whom an Elizabethan audience saw. Theodore Spencer is more cautious: “It is solely because Othello is the kind of man that he is that a man like Iago can destroy him.”4 Yet what kind of man is the Moor? I think that Shakespeare gives the answer partially by means of contrast within the play.

Consider the following speech of Iago to Roderigo in I, ii, when the latter says that it is not in his power to control his love for Desdemona:

… 'tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions; but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect or scion.

Shakespeare, says Kittredge, uses Iago “for the utterance of great truths.” “Of all these the most remarkable is his sublime assertion (to Roderigo) of the supremacy of will and reason in the cultivation of the moral faculties. … That is a saying of which Hamlet himself might be proud, and to which the noble Brutus would assent with enthusiasm.”5 Yet Iago's statement is simple Christian catechism. It is “the true doctrine” which is uttered by Jack Cade in the Mirror for Magistrates.6 If this doctrine be noble, then the Othello of modern critics is not noble, for they assert that he is not the maker of his own destiny: Iago is. But if we are going to insist on understanding Elizabethan dramatic artifice, let us also insist on examining Othello according to the traditional values which Shakespeare has injected implicitly and explicitly into the play. Actually by stressing Othello's innocence, modern critics have robbed the character of what the Elizabethans considered man's highest dignity—his own responsibility for his own life and character. Othello...

(This entire section contains 5565 words.)

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is less innocuous than modern critics conceive him because he ultimatelyis responsible for his terrible fate. On the other hand, precisely because of this responsibility, he possesses a stature as tragic protagonist which without this responsibility he could not possess.

Modern critics exonerate Othello. The noble hero is not responsible for the catastrophe. It is the devil-man, Iago, who is. But Othello is not the only noble character in the play who falls because of the wiles of Iago. Cassio does too. But Cassio does not excuse himself of culpability. He, too, follows the doctrine laid down by Iago above. Let us examine II, iii, 278-312. Knowing that he should not drink, Cassio has listened to the tempter, Iago, has become drunk in consequence, has created a scene, and has been dismissed from office:

I will rather sue to be despis'd than to deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, and so indiscreet an officer. Drunk? and speak parrot? and squabble? swagger? swear? and discourse fustian with one's own shadow? O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil! … I remember a mass of things, but nothing distinctly; a quarrel, but nothing wherefore. O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!
Why, but you are now well enough. How come you thus recovered?
It hath pleas'd the devil drunkenness to give place to the devil wrath. One unperfectness shows me another, to make me frankly depise myself.
Come, you are too severe a moraler. As the time, the place, and the condition of this country stands, I could heartily wish this had not befallen; but since it is as it is, mend it for your own good.
I will ask him for my place again; he shall tell me I am a drunkard! Had I as many mouth as Hydra, such an answer would stop them all. To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast! O strange! Every inordinate cup is unbless'd and the ingredient is a devil.

Clearly Cassio considers that his succumbing to the devil was his own fault. He does not exonerate himself of responsibility for his own ruin. An Elizabethan audience would not have understood a dramatist who implied that the Devil was man's nemesis. Man had free will.

But, says Stoll constantly, the question of free will does not enter into the matter of Othello's believing Iago. It is a dramatic convention that Iago's mask is impenetrable. All the characters believe him to be honest. Hence, Othello must believe Iago's slander against Desdemona.

It is true that Shakespeare has artfully maintained the fiction of Iago's honesty among the dramatis personae. But Shakespeare is more artful than Stoll notes. There are three clean-cut occasions in the play when the characters do not believe Iago. And each of these occasions occurs when he suggests that Desdemona is unchaste! Or let us put the matter a different way. Iago tells four of the characters that Desdemona is unchaste—and the only one who believes this accusation is Othello! It may be stated categorically that, contrary to Stoll, Shakespeare has underlined the premise that Othello need not have believed Iago's imputations.

In II, i, after the arrival scene in Cyprus, Iago asserts to Roderigo that Desdemona is in love with Cassio (220-1) “With him? Why, 'tis not possible.” Iago persists (223-53): Cassio is “a pestilent complete knave, and the woman hath found him already.” But Roderigo answers, “I cannot believe that in her. She's full of most bless'd condition.” And when Iago points to seeming proof, “Dids't thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Dids't not mark that?”, Roderigo refuses to believe him: “Yes, that I did; but that was but courtesy.” The next scene but one (II, iii) is the scene of Cassio's downfall. But though Iago can tempt Cassio to drink, he cannot tempt him to disbelief in Desdemona's chastity:

Welcome, Iago; we must to the watch.
Not this hour, Lieutenant; 'tis not yet ten o' th' clock. Our general cast us thus early for the love of his Desdemona; who let us not therefore blame. He hath not yet made wanton the night with her; and she is sport for Jove.
She's a most exquisite lady.
And, I'll warrant her, full of game.
Indeed, she's a most fresh and delicate creature.
What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation.
An inviting eye; and yet methinks right modest.
And when she speaks, is it not an alarum to love?
She is indeed perfection.
Well, happiness to their sheets! Come, Lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine; and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello.

And the very denouement of the play depends on one character's having more faith in Desdemona than in Iago. When Emilia first hears that her own husband has said that Desdemona was unfaithful, she cries, “He lies to the heart” (V, ii, 156). Thus, by having Iago always believed except in the matter of Desdemona's morality and believed in this matter only by Othello, Shakespeare is certainly using the dramatic device of contrast for a purpose. And what can this purpose be but to indicate that there is something in Othello's character which leads him to believe Iago's calumny concerning his wife?

But what is this something? T. S. Eliot has made an illuminating statement concerning Othello's final great speech, “Soft you; a word or two before you go, etc.” (V, ii, 338-56):

What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatizing himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.7

But Eliot could have gone much further. In this last scene there is much evidence that Othello refuses to look squarely at his crime. Fate was responsible: “But, O vain boast! Who can control his fate? 'tis not so now” (264-5). Or it was the stars: “O ill-starr'd wench!” (272). Or his motive was of the best: He is “An honourable murderer. … For nought I did in hate, but all in honour!” (294-5). Contrast this self-exculpation with the attitude of Cassio toward his fall which we discussed earlier. There is little doubt, I believe, that the Othello of the last scene is not quite so strong a character as critics have made him out to be.8 He is understandably human—but he is not greatly noble.

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

Stoll maintains that Othello's belief in Iago is not grounded in Othello's psychology but is merely Shakespeare's dramatic device. “And it is only … by means of a specious and unreal psychology that he is made incapable of distrusting the testimony which his nature forbids him to accept, to the point of distrusting the testimony and character of those whom both his nature and their own forbid him to discredit.”9 Accordingly, Stoll belabors those critics who have attempted to see Othello as a psychologically consistent character.

It is interesting to see the way Stoll reasons. Again and again, when in discussing characters he says that Shakespeare substitutes artifice for authentic psychology, it is always Stoll's own concept of psychology which is the criterion. It may be, indeed, that the “psychology” of the critics whom Stoll attacks is entirely false. It does not follow that the “psychology” which Stoll employs to disprove them is correct. It is possible that Shakespeare's knowledge of how certain human beings operate in given situations is better than Stoll's. One is very much inclined to believe this merely on a priori grounds when he reads the following sentence in the midst of Stoll's rebuttal of those who have tried to read Othello's character: “Psychology, like law, is common sense, though art itself need not be.”10 No one who has any knowledge of the human heart and mind—whether he be a psychiatrist, or a psychologist, or a literary critic interested in determining to what extent art reflects life, or a spectator in the theater—will be inclined to agree with Stoll.

As a matter of fact, so irrational can human behavior be that in order to create probability the dramatist has to make his characters more consistent than people are in real life. It is a measure of Shakespeare's greatness that his probable characters are also possible characters.11 When Shakespeare created Othello, he was merely imitating a life that produces a Rousseau or a William Blake, romantic idealists who swing from overtrust to unjust suspicion in a twinkling. Emotional polarity is one of the commonest traits of humanity. We all have a touch of paranoia in us. To the extent that we acclaim our own greatness (i. e., escape reality), to that extent do we suspect others. This is not common sense—but it is life. And Shakespeare imitates life. And the spectator reacts to this imitation not with technical knowledge but with awareness of human nature.

Othello from the beginning is too much of a romantic idealist—in regard to himself and others. He considers human nature superior to what it actually is. He overvalues Desdemona as much as he overvalues Iago—and himself.12 In IV, iii, Emilia discusses sex in blunt unromantic terms. And her husband tells Othello in III, iii, 138-141:

                                                            Who has that breast so pure
But some uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and law-days and in sessions sit
With meditations lawful?

And even Desdemona in III, iv, 148, says: “Nay, we must think men are not gods.” But now listen to Othello when we see him and Desdemona together for the first time, when she has just pleaded to be allowed to go to Cyprus with him (I, iii, 261-79):13

Your voyces Lords: beseech you let her will,
Haue a free way, I therefore beg it not
To please the pallat of my appetite,
Nor to comply with heate, the young affects
In [me] defunct, and proper satisfaction,
But to be free and bounteous of her mind,
And heauen defend your good soules that you thinke
I will your serious and good businesse scant,
For she is with me;—no, when light-wing'd toyes,
And feather'd Cupid foyles with wanton dulnesse,
My speculatiue and actiue instruments,
That my disports, corrupt and taint my businesse,
Let huswiues make a skellet of my Helme,
And all indigne and base aduersities,
Make head against my reputation.
Be it, as you shall priuately determine,
Either for stay or going, the affaires cry hast,
And speede must answer, you must hence to night,
To night my Lord?
This night.
With all my heart.

Note how carefully Shakespeare distinguishes between Desdemona's cry (This is their wedding night!) and Othello's almost inhuman, “With all my heart.”

Just as Othello flees from facing what he is in the last act, so too does he flee from what he is in the above speech in the first act.14 That which makes him psychologically consistent is his refusal to see himself as ordinarily human.15 The importance of I, iii, 261-75, in which Othello disclaims sexual feelings, is that it furnishes the spectator with the first clear indication that Othello considers himself above human passions. From that time on the spectator will watch for repetition of this dangerous self-delusion and evidence that indicates it is a delusion. The spectator will contrast the Platonic exhilaration of the “O my fair warrior!” passage (II, i, 185 ff.) with the sexuality of “Come, my dear love, etc.” (II, iii, 3-10). The spectator will be prepared for the outbreak of passion dissolving judgment in III, iii, by Othello's outburst toward the drunken Cassio in II, iii, 204-7:

                                                                                Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule;
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way.

Here, for the first time, the god pose clearly dissolves. The spectator will observe self-delusion permeating the temptation scene (III, iii) in which Othello disclaims attitudes and emotions which he immediately exhibits. The spectator will see Othello holding on to his high opinion of himself in IV, i, 39-40: “Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus.” When Iago tells Othello that he must have patience or the former will consider him “all in all in spleen,” the spectator will hear Othello say, “I will be found most cunning in my patience” (IV, i, 88-91) though word and act deny him. The spectator will see grating sensuality and the god pose held concomittantly in V, ii, 13-22. The conjunction of “I'll smell it on the tree” and self-justification is pretty ghastly. I quote Kittredge's note in his individual edition on lines 21-22: “This sorrow's heavenly … love”: “My sorrow is like that which God feels when he punishes the guilty: he loves the sinner, yet punishes the sin. Cf. Hebrews, xii, 6: ‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.’ Here again we see that Othello regards himself as the agent of divine justice. He strives to maintain this attitude of mind throughout the scene, but in vain.” In short the spectator will not, like Stoll, accept Othello's description of himself as “one not easily jealous” in V, ii, 345, as a trustworthy remark, for it comes from one who from the first has believed himself to be what actually he is not.

Othello's romantic idealism has made him overidealize himself and Desdemona from the first. And like other romantic idealists, his overtrust speedily shifts to undertrust on the first provocation. Careful readers of the temptation scene (III, iii) will observe how Othello cooperates with Iago, how Iago seems rather to make Othello see what corruption is within himself than to put something there which has not been there.

There is terrible truth in the reflection that if a man is wedded to his fantasy of woman as the steadfast hiding-place of his heart, the fountain whence his current flows, so that he grows frantic and blind with passion at the thought of the actual woman he has married as a creature of natural varying impulse—then he lies at the mercy of life's chances, and of his own secret fears and suspicions.16

Paradoxically, Othello loves Desdemona so much that it is questionable whether in human terms he loves her at all. He loves not Desdemona but his image of her. (Shelley was such another.) To Othello, his wife is not a woman but the matrix of his universe.17 And to Othello he himself is not a man but a super-being without ordinary human emotions. I never read the Othello speech above without recalling Juliet's passionate hymeneal, “Gallop apace, etc.” (III, ii, 1-31). Why does Iago say of Othello in relation to Desdemona (II, iii, 345-54)?

                                                                                And then for her
To win the Moor, were't to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfettr'd to her love,
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function.

Othello, Iago is indicating here, keeps no proportion in his love. And there is no proportion in his fall. What makes of him a consistent character is a species of romantic idealism which soars, shatters, and partially recovers—which at no time, Shakespeare indicates by contrast, is ever to be taken on its own terms as modern critics tend to take it—which at no time, one can say, is completely equivalent with a nobility based on what the world is and not on what it is not.

Concerning this view, however, critics may say that I avoid the crucial descriptions of Othello by Iago:

The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th' nose
As asses are.

(I, iii, 405-8)

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he'll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband.

(II, i, 297-300)

Of course both these statements are choral. The first supports my analysis. It is a cynically realistic judgment of Othello's particular kind of nobility. What better definition of a romantic idealist can we find than that he is one “That thinks men honest that but seem to be so”—including himself? And the second statement is followed by lines which indicate that Othello can be made jealous “Even to madness.” There is no difficulty here in reconciling how Iago sees Othello and how the spectator sees him. The trouble is that critics tend to see him as he sees himself. Do we take other self-deluded characters on their own terms—Angelo, Romeo, Lear, Timon, Hotspur?

For Othello is not the only self-deluded character in Shakespeare's plays who thinks himself more ideal than actuality permits. Consider Romeo in his relationship with Rosaline.18 Remember what happens to Angelo in Measure for Measure. Of him, at the opening of the play, the Duke says (I, iii, 50-4):

                                                                                          Lord Angelo is precise,
Stands at guard with envy, scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone; hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be.

There is probably more likeness between Othello and Angelo than critics care to find.19 Doesn't Othello fail in the test too? And there is one other Shakespeare character who suddenly swings from the high pinnacle of an idealism which is not based on reality to a ghastly misanthropy which, also, is not based on reality. Of Timon of Athens, Apemantus says, “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends” (IV, iii, 300-1). How apt these words are for Othello too! That an outwardly noble character could fall because of an inner flaw, Shakespeare had indicated by means of Proteus even in the early The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And what of the thrice-noble Macbeth?

In short, it seems to me that by means of Iago's soliloquies; by means of character contrast with the brutally clear-eyed Iago, the earthy Emilia, the self-honest Cassio (who, also, be it remembered, openly admits his relationship to Bianca); by means of action contrast in the rejoinders of Roderigo, Cassio, and Emilia to the proposal that Desdemona is unchaste; by means of Othello's own words in the first and second acts; by means of a carefully drawn Othello in the temptation scene who considers himself much stronger than he actually is; by means of sundry touches throughout which show Othello refusing to recognize his own passionate nature; by means of a broken Othello in the last act, who tries to hang on to his nobility by refusing to face the fact of his murder—by means of all this Shakespeare has shown us that his hero is not as strong or as good a man as he thinks he is, that the hero's flaw is his refusal to face the reality of his own nature. This Othello, who (I think) is the Othello Shakespeare intended to convey, is rather different from the modern Othello, who is always thoroughly noble—before, during, and after his downfall. The truly noble aspects of Othello I have not stressed. They are obvious. The blots on the scutcheon I have stressed, for critics have obscured them.

The Othello that Shakespeare presents is nobly tragic in the same sense in which Macbeth and Antony and Coriolanus and Lear are nobly tragic. Shakespeare's tragic protagonist is noble, but he is not altogether noble. He represents Aristotle's dictum:

A man not preeminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment, he being one of those who enjoy great reputation and prosperity. … The change in the hero's fortunes must be … from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part; the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that.

(Poetics, Chapter 13)

It is not the hero's nobility in Shakespeare's tragedies but the flaw, the sin or error that all flesh is heir to, that destroys him. It is the close interweaving of great man, mere man, and base man that makes of Othello the peculiarly powerful and mysterious figure he is. In him Shakespeare shows the possible greatness, the possible baseness not only closely allied in what is after all mere man but also so causally connected that one must perforce wonder and weep.20


  1. Shakespeare: A Survey (London, 1935), pp. 219, 225.

  2. Shakespeare (Harvard University Press, 1930), p. 35.

  3. Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press, 1933), pp. 6-55, 173-4, passim; Shakespeare and Other Masters (Harvard University Press, 1940), pp. 59-84, passim; “Source and Motive in Macbeth and Othello,RES [Review of English Studies] 19 (1943). 25-32. The opinions of Stoll, Chambers, and Kittredge have been arbitrarily selected. Further examples of the same view can easily be found. For example, Dover Wilson says that “Iago's victim is blameless”; The Essential Shakespeare (New York and Cambridge, 1932), p. 120. For a most interesting consideration of Othello, far different from most, one which takes the Moor as a not totally assimilated black barbarian, see Mark Van Doren's Shakespeare (New York, 1939), pp. 225-37. To Van Doren, Othello “deserves his tragedy.”

  4. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (New York, 1942), p. 124.

  5. Op. cit., pp. 45-6.

  6. E. M. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture (London, 1943), pp. 53-4.

  7. “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” in Selected Essays: 1917-1932 (London, 1932), pp. 130-1. Though this viewpoint can be supported much more than Eliot supports it, as I indicate above, Stoll takes issue with it in Art and Artifice, pp. 173-4. “As I have shown elsewhere this is a self-descriptive method … : if taken as a bit of self-consciousness, it much troubles the noble and heroic impression.” The answer to this is, simply, that apparently Shakespeare did want this impression to be troubled. One cannot possibly take Othello on his own terms. Every single thing that he says about himself in III, iii, 177 ff., “Think'st thou I'ld make a life of jealousy, etc.” is immediately disproved by the way he acts in the lines immediately succeeding.

    Although Stoll constantly rebukes other critics for their “psychology,” in answering Eliot he does not hesitate to invent his own “psychology”: “And even as dramatic psychology—that is, such as does not press and peer behind drama and poetry—the speech is finely appropriate. After such an experience and such depths of despair Othello must, in sheer reaction and relapse, think a little well of himself. It is one of the glories of Shakespeare that … he recognizes the limits of human nature. …”

    Then does Stoll agree with Eliot? The issue seems to be that the former sees the hero as thoroughly noble, the latter as imperfectly noble. However, Eliot also indicates the tension between these two viewpoints going on at one and the same time in the spectator, for Eliot himself is a spectator.

  8. The final Othello is not a pretty sight to watch. Consider his whimpering (243-5 and 270-1), his refusal to be by himself (257-8), his uncontrolled screaming (277-82). I cannot see how Schücking can write of Othello that “Shakespeare's intention … was to create a hero who, for all his weakness in the matter of jealousy, never falls so low as to lose his dignity”; “The Baroque Character of the Elizabethan Tragic Hero,” Annual Shakespeare Lecture of the British Academy (1938), p. 27. Critics state—but do no more than state—that Othello at the end is a better man than he has been before; see A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London and New York, 1906), p. 198; R. W. Chambers, Man's Unconquerable Mind (London and Toronto, 1939), pp. 261, 303; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1938), pp. 17, 21. G. Wilson Knight, “The Othello Music,” in The Wheel of Fire (Oxford University Press, 1930), p. 130, does not claim growth but does claim that during the last scene “Othello is a nobly tragic figure.”

  9. Othello (University of Minnesota Press, 1915), p. 33; quoted with a few changes in Art and Artifice, p. 16.

  10. Art and Artifice in Shakespeare, p. 17.

  11. The underlying premise of the present paper is that expressed by W. W. Lawrence, “Artifice must always be sustained by a due proportion of nature, of psychological consistency.” “Hamlet's Sea Voyage,” PMLA 59 (1944). 69.

  12. See Maud Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1934), pp. 217-24, 245, 332-4. This is probably the best psychological discussion of Othello to be found. But Miss Bodkin is interested in much broader matters than I am.

  13. I quote from the first quarto because folio omits Desdemona's question and the Duke's reply in 279. Modern texts differ, some following Q, some F.

  14. Of this speech, Theodore Spencer (op. cit., pp. 127-8) writes: “His love for Desdemona is in keeping with such a character; entirely unlike the love of Troilus for Cressida, it has no sensuality in it. When he asks to be allowed to take Desdemona to Cyprus with him, he explicitly describes—in the terms of Elizabethan psychology—the exalted quality of his devotion: [Spencer quotes the speech.] Like Horatio, Othello appears to all the world as a man who is not passion's slave. His higher faculties, his ‘speculative and offic'd instruments,’ are apparently in complete control.”

    Is Othello, then, displaying sensuality when in Cyprus, in II, iii, 8-10, he says to Desdemona:

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

    Is Desdemona displaying “sensuality” when she cries, “Tonight, my lord?” Othello may play the noble stoic concerning marriage in I, iii. But he talks like a normal man concerning marriage in II, iii. And unless Shakespeare was extraordinarily careless, the two speeches were meant to contrast. In the first Othello indicates that he is above men; in the second, that he is a man. He is a good man in the second, an extraordinary man (if honest) in the first. But since the second contradicts the first, Othello is neither extraordinary nor honest. Certainly an audience feels if it does not see something wrong in the first. One function of Iago's filth in I, i, is certainly to indicate to the audience the sexual aspect of marriage.

  15. Compare Othello's opinion of himself with Henry the Fifth's (HV, IV, i, 104-12):

    For, though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it does to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing.

  16. Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns, p. 222.

  17. “My life upon her faith” (I, iii, 295). Iago's opinion (II, iii, 348-54), quoted above. “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, etc.” (III, iii, 90-2). “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!” (III, iii, 278). “O, now for ever Farewell the tranquil mind! etc.” (III, iii, 347-57). The most notable expression of the total dependence of Othello on his image of Desdemona is in IV, ii, 47-64, “Had it pleas'd heaven, etc.” But these are explicit statements. His whole bearing toward Desdemona, especially in II, i, the arrival in Cyprus scene, implies this view of her.

  18. Objective analysis of this relationship is supplied by Friar Laurence in II, iii, 64-82.

  19. With Othello's denial and Iago's admission of human frailty cited above, cf. Isabella to Angelo (II, ii, 136-41):

                                                                                                                            Go to your bosom;
    Knock there, and ask you heart what it doth know
    That's like my brother's fault. If it confess
    A natural guiltiness such as is his,
    Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
    Against my brother's life.
  20. Since writing the above, I have read an important little book, Allardyce Nicoll's Studies in Shakespeare (Hogarth Lectures No. 3, London, 1931). Since students of Shakespeare tend to distrust—and rightly—any character interpretation that differs sharply from the traditional view, I am happy to record that Professor Nicoll (though he uses a different approach, less inductive and comparative than impressionistic) has come to the same conclusion as this paper presents—that Othello is a self-deceiving romantic idealist. Though he merely outlines rather than fills in in detail (as this paper attempts), yet our interpretations even to the use sometimes of the same passages coincide remarkably. But I do not think that Professor Nicoll sees Othello as in tension between conflicting inward forces: he tends to strip him bluntly of all nobility. I suppose I should say that when it comes to Desdemona and Iago, I accept the traditional interpretations rather than Nicoll's.


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Othello (c. 1604) is one of Shakespeare's most revered and frequently performed tragedies. Its enduring appeal stems partly from its timeless subject matter—the possessive and jealous love of a husband for his wife. Set in Venice and Cyprus, the play recounts how the respected Venetian general Othello falls victim to the treachery of his ensign Iago. Recently wed, Othello's seemingly happy relationship with his wife Desdemona disintegrates due to the deceitful machinations of Iago, who convinces his commander that Desdemona has been having a sexual affair with his lieutenant Cassio. Othello quickly descends into a jealous rage and murders his innocent wife. After discovering that Iago's accusations were lies, Othello takes his own life. 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. Throughout the centuries, commentators have been drawn to the play's fascinating figures: Iago, the quintessential Shakespearean villain whose murky motivations for evil have remained elusive; Desdemona, a complex combination of feminine submissiveness and willful determination; and Othello, a tragic hero who transforms from a loving husband into a jealous killer.

Critics have frequently debated Othello's character and the degree to which he is responsible for his actions. In the opinion of some scholars, Othello possesses an essentially noble character, and his simple and trusting nature is exploited by Iago's ruthless actions. Others, including Leo Kirschbaum (1944), contend that Othello follows the traditional pattern of the tragic hero who comes to grief because of flaws within his character. According to Kirschbaum, Othello is “understandably human—but he is not greatly noble.” R. N. Hallstead (1968) also attributes the murder to Othello's flawed disposition. The critic emphasizes the Moor's “idolatrous love,” arguing that Othello's descent into uncontrollable rage results from the fact that he cannot reconcile his idealized image of Desdemona with her sexuality. Piotr Sadowski (2003) applies psychological theory to the actions of Othello and finds him to be a “static personality” who requires accepted rules to guide his life. According to Sadowski, when the accepted rules are thrown into doubt, such as when he perceives that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Othello experiences extreme turmoil. Sadowski notes that Othello, like most static figures, demands that his sense of justice be satisfied, and realizes this through Desdemona's murder. Critics are also interested in the ambiguous and despicable character of Iago. Hugh Macrae Richmond (see Further Reading) maintains that Iago is the central character of Othello and that his self-awareness is the key dramatic device in the play. Estelle W. Taylor (1977) examines Iago as the initiator of the play's central irony: that illusion is mistaken for reality. The critic notes that Iago himself becomes victimized by this misconception, as do most of the other characters in Othello.

Despite the popularity of the Othello, commentators have been frequently disappointed with the play in performance. The play's stage history documents that few Othellos have emerged critically unscathed, and many prominent actors have been frustrated in their attempts to interpret the Moor's transition from noble commander to misled murderer. Geoffrey Bent (1998) analyzes the impact that different actors have had upon the play's meaning through their portrayals of Othello. Bent focuses on two motion-picture adaptations of Othello, from 1952 and 1995, and a filmed version of the 1964 National Theatre of Great Britain production. In his analysis of the three famed actors—Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, and Laurence Fishburne—Bent finds that Welles presented Othello as a sympathetic figure, Olivier played up the character's flaws and his race, and Fishburne oversimplified the general's complex emotions. Ray Fearon's portrayal of Othello in the 1999/2000 Royal Shakespeare Company production directed by Michael Attenborough received mixed reviews. Alastair Macaulay (2000) argues that although Fearon's performance as Othello was good, there was “no greatness about this Moor.” Macaulay reserves his highest praise for Aidan McArdle's Roderigo, who “listens better than most actors speak, and he speaks with absolutely characterful naturalness.” Similarly, Paul Taylor (see Further Reading) praises the production's energy but contends that Fearon was too young to be convincing in the role of Othello. Katherine Duncan-Jones (1999) also admires the liveliness and clarity of the staging, but finds the “assured and charismatic” performance of Fearon as Othello to be one of the highlights of the production.

Critics of Othello are particularly interested in the play's treatment of race. Martin Orkin (1987) considers attitudes toward race in England in the late 1500s and early 1600s and focuses on the way that Shakespeare treated the subject of race in Othello. Orkin concludes that the playwright opposed racism and argues that Shakespeare was “working consciously against the color prejudice” that is voiced by some characters in the play. A similar point is made by R. V. Young (2004), who claims that Othello “highlights the danger of racial categorization” by presenting a nonwhite protagonist who embodies both noble qualities and human vulnerability. In his 1987 essay, Anthony Gerard Barthelemy traces the transformation of Othello within the course of the play. The critic notes that although Othello begins as the antithesis of the stereotypical black characters presented on stage in the late 1500s and early 1600s, by the play's end Othello has tragically relapsed into “the stereotypical Moor.” Michael C. Andrews (1973) examines the significance of the handkerchief in the play. Andrews is particularly interested in the different accounts that Othello gives of the handkerchief's origins, maintaining that the first account is true and that the second account is false. The critic contends that Othello changes his story in order to downplay his superstitious beliefs, which would have been viewed negatively by the Venetians. In her feminist interpretation of Othello, Lynda E. Boose (see Further Reading) focuses on the bedroom murder scene. According to Boose, Othello shares elements with pornographic literature, particularly in its emphasis on voyeuristic watching and the way in which Desdemona is silenced by erotic violence.

Michael C. Andrews (essay date spring 1973)

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SOURCE: Andrews, Michael C. “Honest Othello: The Handkerchief Once More.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 273-84.

[In the following essay, Andrews examines the different accounts that Othello gives of the handkerchief's origins in Othello, maintaining that the first account is true and that the second account is false. The critic contends that Othello changes his story in order to downplay his superstitious beliefs, which would have been viewed negatively by the Venetians.]

The fact that Othello gives two different versions of the history of the fatal handkerchief has, predictably, not passed unnoticed.1 In his first and more elaborate account (III.iv.53ff.), Othello tells Desdemona that the handkerchief is a love-controling talisman his mother received from an Egyptian “charmer”:

                    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 present of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathly, 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, or give't away, were such perdition
As nothing else could match.


Desdemona, shocked and at least momentarily incredulous,3 asks “Isn't possible?” Othello then continues:

'Tis true, there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to make two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful
Conserve of maiden's hearts.


At the end of the play, however, when Othello is pathetically attempting to justify Desdemona's murder, he merely refers to the proof of guilt afforded by Cassio's possession of “the recognizance and pledge of love, / Which I first gave her; I saw it in his hand, / It was a handkerchief; an antique token / My father gave my mother” (V.ii.215-218).4

Although critics have offered ingenious interpretations whereby the substitution of Othello's father for the “Egyptian” and the omission of any mention of the magical properties of the handkerchief become fraught with significance, it seems to me that all attempts to explain Othello's words to Desdemona as prevarication are liable to the same criticism Nevill Coghill so devastingly levels at T. S. Eliot's reading of Othello's suicide speech. To Eliot, of course, Othello's final speech is an “exposure of human weakness” rather than an expression of “the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature.” After quoting the speech (V.ii.339-357), Eliot offers his influential analysis:

What Othello seems to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself … Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatizing himself against his enrivonment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself.

“I do not believe,” Eliot concludes, “that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”5 To this Professor Coghill replies, with I think unassailable logic, that Eliot's interpretation is unworkable in the theater: “What tones of voice, what move or gesture, can an actor use to suggest a Bovarist cheering himself up?” And how is the audience supposed to determine “whether Othello is cheering himself up for being so gross a fool and a failure, or whether he is cheering his audience up by showing once again, and at the last moment, a true flash of that nobility for which they had first honoured him?” Moreover, as Professor Coghill points out, Eliot's Shakespeare would have to be considered a remarkably clumsy dramatist:

For if Shakespeare had wished to convey the “terrible exposure of human weakness” that Eliot sees in Othello's speech, he could very easily have made this single purpose plain, unless he was a bungler, or quite indifferent to the effect he was creating. For if Mr. Eliot is right, the better this speech is spoken and acted, the more it must deceive the audience; and this is, in effect, conceded by Mr. Eliot, who says Othello “takes in the spectator.”6

The handkerchief speech seems to me an analogous instance. How are we to know that Othello is fictionalizing?7 For whether one says that Othello is speaking symbolically and is really “asking Desdemona to restore to him the sacredness of love,”8 or simply trying “to cover up the real reason for his disproportionate passion over such a trifle,”9 the lines are designed, in Eliot's phrase, to take us in. To adopt Professor Coghill's argument, “the better this speech is spoken and acted, the more it must deceive the audience”;10 the more, in short, we are willing to accept the handkerchief as an authentic element from Othello's exotic and fabulous past.

To say that Othello is concocting a horrific primitive legend is symptomatic of modern skepticism with regard to the heroic,11 and is perhaps more revealing of our age than apposite. Once on this road, it is easy to push onward—to suggest, for example, that Othello is also lying when he assures the senate that physical desire plays no part in his eager support of Desdemona's request that she be allowed to accompany him to Cyprus (I.iii). And this, of course, has happened. Othello, we are told, knows Moors are considered lustful, and consciously attempts to “side-step” such an imputation: “But the fact is that Othello is not nearly so indifferent to the physical aspects of love as he makes out. In Cyprus, where the strains of his position are more relaxed, his behaviour is perfectly natural and warm.”12 This seductively plausible psychologizing is perhaps inevitable today, since we tend to forget that Shakespeare is neither a novelist nor, after all, our contemporary. From a less modern point of view it should be obvious that Shakespeare is effectively (if not “realistically”) emphasizing Othello's lack of self-knowledge, later an essential aspect of the play. One thinks, for example, of the difference between Othello's conception of Desdemona's death as a “sacrifice” and his actual conduct in V.ii. Surely Othello is not lying to us when he speaks of the abstract justice of his “cause.” As a general principle of his dramaturgy, Shakespeare is at considerable pains to alert us to the deceptiveness of those who “lie like truth.”

The reductio ad absurdum of skepticism concerning the credibility of Othello is easy enough to imagine, and is in fact to be found in that John the Baptist of the debunking critics, Bernard Shaw, whose Hesione Hushabye is not only confident Othello fabricated a portion of his romantic past, but suspects that he killed Desdemona to prevent her discovering that some of his fine-sounding stories were lies.13

It is interesting how few critics have attempted to argue that Othello's first account of the handkerchief should be taken as the literal truth.14 There is some piquancy in the fact that, starting from opposite directions, modern skeptics and idealizing traditionalists back into each other, and find themselves in agreement. The traditional view, as expressed in the Variorum, is presumably based on the assumption that Othello simply cannot harbor such primitive notions: he must remain a civilized European gentleman if he is to be worthy of our regard. One thinks of the artless confession of the immortal Miss Preston: “In studying the play of Othello, I have always imagined its hero a white man. It is true the dramatist paints him black, but this shade does not suit the man … Othello was a white man.”15 On a somewhat higher level, the Prestonian refusal to accept what the play gives us is still to be encountered. We see Othello's visage in our minds, and if it is not white it is (despite Roderigo's “thick lips” I.i.66) at least un-Negroid. Discussing what he calls the “confusion of colour and contour,” M. R. Ridley speaks of the kind of black man the role requires:

One of the finest heads I have ever seen on any human being was that of a negro conductor of an American Pullman car. He had lips slightly thicker than an ordinary European's, and he had somewhat curly hair; for the rest he had a long head, a magnificent forehead, a keenly chiselled nose, rather sunken cheeks, and his expression was grave, dignified, and a trifle melancholy. He was coal-black, but he might have sat to a sculptor for a statue of Caesar, or, so far as appearance went, have played a superb Othello.

(p. li)

Ridley is correcting Miss Preston, so the unconscious irony of this passage is particularly delightful: one is especially grateful for the “keenly chiselled nose.” Surely the contrast between Othello's appearance (by the standards of the play, not only unlikely to inspire love but even frightening) and his inner worth is one of Shakespeare's basic points. Appearance belies reality: Iago, after all, is the sort of man who inspires confidence. I do not go so far as Laurence Lerner, who infers that “Shakespeare suffered from colour prejudice,” and sums up the play as “the story of a barbarian who (the pity of it) relapses.”16 But I am certain that Othello's personal and racial background are vital to the play. Paul Robeson insists that Othello's “color is essentially secondary—except as it emphasizes the difference in culture.”17 But this is only partially true. Iago's temptation of Othello depends upon the kind of naiveté Robeson has in mind; but his impassioned behavior when Iago's “medicine” works (e.g., his speech at IV.i.31ff. and passion-induced trance) reflects Shakespeare's acceptance of the popular notion that blacks are more passionately emotional than whites. This does not seem to me to be the same thing as prejudice, provided that the view is not dramatized with prejudicial intent. In Othello it is not; and the protagonist's more than European capacity for violent emotion once his defenses are down is an example of the same attention to decorum—to cite an opposite extreme—which led Shakespeare to characterize Brutus as a Stoic. Othello is a type; he is also an individual, whose terrible suffering Shakespeare presents with imaginative sympathy and absolutely no condescension.

I see, then, no reason to doubt that Shakespeare intended Othello to have some beliefs in keeping with his background. But I also see no reason why belief in the efficacy of magic should, in itself, render Othello any the less noble or imposing as a tragic hero. But we still do not fancy a supersitious Othello—superstition being for us (though not for Shakespeare's audience) far less acceptable than untruthfulness—and the tendency is to give credence to the speech without taking account of its implications,18 or to reject it and avail ourselves of whatever evidence this debunking furnishes that Othello is really “one of us.”19

The speech cannot mean what it appears to mean; therefore it must mean something else. But must it? Setting aside the matters of dramatic representation and dramatic convention, one may attempt to answer the skeptical critics on their own grounds. What evidence does a close reading of the text provide that Othello really regards the handkerchief as a potent love-charm?

The first phase of the temptation scene (III.iii) ends when Desdemona's appearance momentarily counteracts the poison of Iago's words: “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself, / I'll not believe it” (ll.282-283). Almost immediately after this Desdemona drops the handkerchief; Emilia, remarking that Othello “conjur'd [Desdemona] she should ever keep it,” gives it to Iago. (At this point Othello's great concern that his wife keep the handkerchief with her strikes one as surprising: first gifts have their sentimental value, but Othello seems to be overdoing it.) The next phase—which is decisive—follows. Othello's occupation's gone—but he still demands “the occular proof” (1.366). Iago promises to lead him to “the door of truth”; Cassio's dream, and the handkerchief, are his two means of clinching his case. To the dream (in which Cassio is said to have embraced Iago, bemoaning “Cursed fate, that gave thee to the Moor!”) Othello reacts with untrammeled ferocity: “I'll tear her all to pieces” (1.438). But it is the gift of the handkerchief that is directly associated, in Othello's mind, with the perdition of love:

Nay, but be wise, yet we see nothing done,
She may be honest yet; tell me but this,
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief,
Spotted with strawberries,(20) in your wife's hand?
I gave her such a one, 'twas my first gift.
I know not that, but such a handkerchief—
I am sure it was your wife's—did I to-day
See Cassio wipe his beard with.
                                                  If't be that,—


Now do I see 'tis true; look here, Iago,
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven, …
'Tis gone.
Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell,
Yield up, O love, thy crown, and hearted throne,
To tyrannous hate. …

(ll.339-346; 451-456)

The sacred vow of vengeance follows.

It is in this context, then, that Othello speaks, revealing for the first time (and too late) the full significance of the handkerchief, whose loss directly symbolizes the loss of love.21 He is addressing Desdemona, by whom the amulet must be guarded. For him to have given her such a charm does not mean that Brabantio was right in suspecting that Othello won his daughter through witchcraft; it is plain enough that Othello regards the handkerchief as ensuring the continuance of his love for Desdemona, not hers for him.22 His first gift to Desdemona, it was given after the inception of love in order to render it perpetual. Till this instant, perhaps, neither Desdemona nor the audience is aware how remote Othello is from the world in which he is a sojourner.23 He comes from the ancient places of the earth; prophetic sibyls and magic in the web need not be alien to one who has traveled among the Anthropophagi. Desdemona, who seems convinced for one horrified moment (“Then would to God that I had never seen it!”), soon pushes this knowledge from her. Her unwillingness to accept the story indicates her rejection of an aspect of Othello's character that is real enough to us, and is no less naive than her failure to detect jealousy; for the handkerchief is in harmony with what we know of Othello. It was given, he tells Desdemona, when his fate would have him wive; even at the end of the play he retains this sense of fated action: “O vain boast, / Who can control his fate?” (V.ii.265-266).24 Human resolve matters little. Like Oedipus, he sees his terrible error as forced upon him from the outside, not simply his own responsibility; and he justly punishes himself for the act he committed in ignorance. It would not be in accord with Othello's character to emphasize his own role. He is “wrought” by Iago; this too is part of his fate.

At the end of the play, Othello is speaking in a public rather than an intimate context, and is on the defensive (“I know this act shows horrible and grim” [V.ii.203]). He speaks of the handkerchief to Gratiano, Desdemona's uncle. We should scarcely exhibit anything but a natural reluctance to allude to the handkerchief's magical powers before an audience for whom his belief in such a talisman would be further evidence of his barbarism.25 And if it is not simply a careless error on Shakespeare's part, the same thing may be said of the substitution Othello's father for the Egyptian “charmer” of the first version.26 Certainly it is hard to believe that Shakespeare intended this one half-line (“My father gave my mother” [V.ii.218]), virtually always overlooked by readers and spectators alike, to serve as a dramatic revelation of the truth. And it would have been a serious (and most un-Shakespearean) error to have attempted anything of the sort: the less Shakespeare he. More is involved here than the question of Othello's earlier honesty: our minds should not be deflected from the main business at hand, Othello's tragic realization of the meaning of what he has done. For the truth is that the talismanic significance of the handkerchief is no longer relevant. The idea does not require repetition now. Desdemona is dead.

The handkerchief, then, is a crucial element in interpreting Othello. My reading seems to me in accord with the impression conveyed by the play as a whole, before it has been subjected to the sort of too-curious scrutiny that reverses a powerful initial response—one that in this case, as Helen Gardner argues, “contradicts that immediate and overwhelming first impression to which it is a prime rule of literary criticism that all further analysis must conform.”27 Much recent criticism, in assiduously striving to save us from being duped by Othello's grandiose image of himself, exhibits, from this point of view, what Edward Hubler has called “the triumph of sophistication over sense.” We do not, in fact, see Othello precisely as he sees himself; but this does not mean that Iago's angle of vision is closer to the truth, or that we should confidently proclaim that the play's deceptiveness is such that the most rigorous study is necessary to counteract our initial sense of Othello's nobility.28

The dangers of criticism divorced from both the practical realities of theatrical presentation and historical perspective are evident enough, but nowhere more than with Othello. In the case of handkerchief, historical scholarship may provide a vital service by placing the play in the context of Shakespeare's time. At the end of his learned but strangely neglected essay, Fernand Baldensperger concludes that “Rymer was right: Desdemona had to die because of a handkerchief; but a token of supernatural powers is not a mere trifle, as Shakespeare seems to have understood it—in spite of the trend of post-Baconian times, more and more adverse to beliefs which have now to be reconstructed in their proper connotations” (p. 14). I do not have any notion what Shakespeare himself believed. But the relevant question is Othello's view of the handkerchief, and the audience's understanding of that view. The handkerchief must be reckoned with; it earns a place in the story.


  1. See Variorum Othello, 2nd ed. (1886), p. 317. The interpretations offered here, and those of subsequent writers, will be dealt with later in this paper.

  2. All references are to the Arden Othello, ed. M. R. Ridley (1958, rpt. with minor corrections, 1962).

  3. Desdemona asks a second time if the story is true; being assured that it is “most veritable” she declares: “Then would to God that I had never seen it!” (III.iv.75). After Othello departs in a jealous rage she appears perplexed but unconvinced: “Sure there's some wonder in this handkerchief …” (1.99).

  4. There are other brief references to the handkerchief in the play, none mentioning magic. Too much, I think, has been made of this.

  5. “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” (1927), Selected Essays (New York, 1950), pp. 110-111. See also F. R. Leavis, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero,” Scrutiny, IV (1937), reprinted in The Common Pursuit (New York, 1952); D. A. Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare 2nd ed. (Anchor Books, 1956), pp. 148-149; Leo Kirschbaum, “The Modern Othello,” ELH, II (1944), 287, 295; Robert B. Heilman, Magic in the Web (Lexington, Ky., 1956), pp. 164-68; Paul A. Jorgensen, “‘Perplex'd in the Extreme’: The Role of Thought in Othello,Shakespeare 400, ed. James G. McManaway (New York, 1964), p. 275.

  6. Shakespeare's Professional Skills (London, 1964), pp. xiv-xv. Cf. Dover Wilson, Introduction to the New Cambridge Othello (1957), pp. 1i-1iii.

  7. “O hardness to dissemble!” (Othello's aside at III.iv. 30) calls attention to how difficult it is for Othello to pretend nothing is the matter. Indeed, his early responses show that he dissembles very badly. Nor—for reasons to be mentioned later—should Desdemona's apparent skepticism be construed as Shakespeare's way of alerting us to the “truth.”

  8. Winifred M. T. Nowottny, “Justice and Love in Othello,UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly], XXI (1951-1952), 337. Cf. Heilman, Magic in the Web, pp. 208-218. I have no quarrel with symbolic readings of the handkerchief; I merely wish such readings would begin with the literal meaning, and build outward, rather than treating it as pure metaphor.

  9. Eldred Jones, Othello's Countrymen (London, 1965), p. 102. Cf. Variorum, p. 317, for the opinions of Cowden-Clark and Steevens. Steevens' view—Othello is “purposely ostentatious, in order to alarm his wife the more” (later he tells the truth)—is endorsed by Christopher Ricks, EIC [Essays in Criticism], X (1960), 117; cf. Moody E. Prior, MP [Modern Philology], XLIV (1946-47), 231-232; Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (Anchor Books, 1953), p. 197. Tucker Brooke and Laurence Mason declare that “Othello is inventing marvels … to try his wife's conscience” (Yale Othello [New Haven 1948], p. 163. See also Laurence Lerner, “The Machiavel and the Moor,” EIC, IX (1959), 358.

  10. Coghill, p. xv. Professor Coghill's conclusion is also relevant here: “It follows … that what begins as an attack on Othello's character turns out as undermining Shakespeare's craftsmanship.”

  11. See Helen Gardner, “The Noble Moor,” British Academy Shakespeare Lecture (1955), in Shakespeare Criticism 1935-1960, ed. Anne Ridler (London, 1963), pp. 348-370. See also Peter Alexander, “‘Under Which King, Bezonian?’” Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies Presented to Frank Percy Wilson (Oxford, 1959), pp. 167-172. In Shakespeare Survey, 21 (Cambridge, 1968), p. 7, Helen Gardner shrewdly suggests that Eliot is really attacking “Shakespeare's inadequate [to Eliot] view of life and death rather than Othello's …”.

  12. Jones, p. 96. Cf. his assertion that Othello, in the murder scene, “shows an enthusiasm for Desdemona's body which he had deliberately concealed from the senate” (p. 97).

  13. Heartbreak House, Act. I.

  14. Critics giving their reasons for accepting this speech include G. R. Elliott, Flaming Minister (Durham, N.C., 1953), pp. 145-148; John Wain, The Living World of Shakespeare (Pelican Books, 1966), p. 147; and Fernand Baldensperger, “Was Othello an Ethiopian?,” Harvard Studies and Notes in Philogy and Literature, XX (1938), 3-14. Baldensperger who provides an invaluable fund of information concerning Elizabethan attitudes towards amulets, considers the handkerchief “one of those powerful Ethiopian talismans … which any specialist in superstitions ranks to-day among the most efficient of all the magic helpers of a credulous humanity” (p. 13). R. B. Heilman does not mention Baldensperger's essay, but quotes from a personal letter: Othello is “an inborn fetichist,” for whom the handkerchief is “an amulet without equal” (Magic in the Web, p. 283, n. 83). See also James A. S. McPeek, “The Arts Inhibited’ and the Meaning of Othello,BUSE, I. (1955), 129-147; and W. H. Auden, n. 22 below.

  15. Variorum, p. 395; quoted by Ridley, Arden Othello, p. 1i.

  16. “The Machiavel and the Moor,” pp. 359, 360. Lerner is effectively answered by Eldred Jones, EIC, X (1960), 238: “Othello is a complex story of how a noble and upright man is subjected to temptation in the area of his being where he is most vulnerable—his difference in race.” See also G. K. Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” PBA [Proceedings of the British Academy] LIII (1967), 139-63; K. W. Evans, “The Racial Factor in Othello,ShaKs. [Shakespeare Studies], V (1969), 124-140.

  17. Quoted in Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Othello (University of California Press, 1961), p. 195.

  18. Heilman, Magic in the Web, p. 213; Harry Levin, Centennial Review VIII (1964), 13. Other examples include Theodore Spencer, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man (Collier Books, 1966), p. 128; G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, 5th ed. (Meridian Books, 1957), p. 109n. See also George Lyman Kittredge, Sixteen Plays (1946), p. 1298.

  19. E.g., Jones, Othello's Countrymen, pp. 101-103. Jones retains the belief that Othello is essentially noble; one imagines what someone less charitable—say Dr. Leavis—would have done with this reading of the speech. A third possibility remains: to take the passage, as Elliott does, as “an indirect confession that from the very beginning Othello was predisposed to mistrust his wife and, far more fatefully, to hide that mistrust” (Flaming Minister, p. 145). McPeek argues for a more sinister variation of this position, finding Othello guilty of necromancy, “the original sin of his mother”—though he raises the possibility that Othello is dissembling (“The ‘Arts Inhibited’ and the Meaning of Othello,” pp. 143-144). Both Elliott and McPeek proceed on the assumption that the handkerchief is supposed to keep Desdemona faithful; see n. 21 below.

  20. See Laurence J. Ross, “The Meaning of Strawberries in Shakespeare,” SRen [Studies in the Renaissance], VII (1960), 225-240. David Kaula, to whom I am indebted for this reference, notes that the two iconographic meanings of the strawberry—righteousness and hypocrisy—are deftly exploited: “The former meaning is appropriate to Desdemona as she really is, the latter to Desdemona as Iago is making her appear …”. “Othello Possessed: Notes on Shakespeare's Use of Magic and Superstitution.” ShaKs. II (1966). 123. See also P. G. Mudford, “Othello and the ‘Tragedy of Situation,’” English, XX (1971), 4-5. Mudford, whose study appeared after my own essay had been completed, views the handkerchief as Othello's “sacred” love-charm; he notes that “Thy bed, lust-stain'd, shall with lust's blood be spotted” (V.i.36) echoes the description of the handkerchief.

  21. Cf. Evans, pp. 134-136. Evans is uncertain whether to accept or reject Othello's account of the handkerchief, but argues that Othello's “mind reverts … to a magical world in which he has always faintly believed, despite his professed Christianity. He comes to accept that only magic made his extraordinary marriage possible …” (p. 134).

  22. Cf. Elliott, pp. 145-146; Lerner, “The Machiavel and the Moor,” p. 358. In addition to what Othello says in III.iv, see II.iii.91-93: “Excellent wretch, perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again.” It is hard to see that Othello's “That handkerchief which I so lov'd, and gave thee, / Thou gavest to Cassio” (V.ii.48-49) is designed to contradict the meaning established here.

  23. Cf. W. H. Auden on Desdemona's refusal to admit she has lost the handkerchief: “she is frightened because she is suddenly confronted with a man whose sensibility and superstitions are alien to her” (Encounter, August, 1961, p. 13).

  24. Cf. “this forked plague is fated to us / When we do quicken” (III.iii.280-281).

  25. Cf. Baldensperger, p. 14.

  26. Kittredge unconvincingly rationalizes the discrepancy by arguing that “the enchantress gave [the handkerchief] at the request of Othello's father, so that it was in effect a gift from him” (Sixteen Plays, p. 1309). McPeek, who quotes this explanation, is uncertain whether Othello is now telling the truth; but “if Othello wished to stress to Gratiano the importance of the gift he would represent it as a gift from the father to the mother” (“The ‘Arts Inhibited’ and the Meaning of Othello, p. 146).

    See also David Kaula, “Othello Possessed, p. 127, who finds that “the magical associations of the handkerchief … are symptoms of the delusion which grips the hero in the middle phase of the tragic action.” At the end of the play Othello “is beginning to see [love and marriage] no longer as the province of exotic and barbaric female superstition but as civilized activities in which both sexes are equally and voluntarily engaged.”

  27. Gardner, “The Noble Moor,” p. 349.

  28. Cf. Heilman, Magic in the Web, p. 137: “I began my study holding the orthodox view of Othello's ‘nobility’ but found the impression gradually modified by repeated readings of the lines” (emphasis added).

Geoffrey Bent (review date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Bent, Geoffrey. “Three Green-eyed Monsters: Acting as Applied Criticism in Shakespeare's Othello.Antioch Review 56, no. 3 (summer 1998): 358-73.

[In the following essay, Bent focuses on two motion-picture adaptations of Othello, from 1952 and 1995, and a filmed version of the 1964 National Theatre of Great Britain production. The critic analyzes the impact that different actors have had on the play's meaning through their portrayals of Othello, Iago, and Desdemona.]

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”

Although the end result of an actor's labor is called an “interpretation,” the scholarly dimensions of that word are rarely intended. If someone wants to know what a Shakespearean play is “about,” they turn to heavily footnoted dissertations in university journals. Scholars seem sage, while actors are compromised by their greasepaint and fright wigs.

But, as a hermeneutic, acting shares many of the virtues of scholarship and even adds a few to the pile. While the academic critic can occasionally bolster an outlandish interpretation with a few quotes taken out of context, an actor is forced to make his case to a live audience through the bulk of the text. While illuminating a work as clearly as any scholar, the actor also transcends this ancillary function: a play can easily do without critics, but a play without actors is incomplete, a blueprint lacking plaster and lumber. The cohesiveness and consistency of an actor's interpretation must sway the audience; it must edify as well as clarify. This is particularly true with the theatrical texts of Shakespeare, who never collected his plays in his lifetime and rarely included stage directions. One could make a case from this that the Bard of Avon viewed his plays as experiences restricted to the domain of performance.

If, then, the actor has the job of critically interpreting a text (and the tougher the text, the greater the interpretive challenge), there can be no greater challenge than Shakespeare's Othello. Of all his tragedies, Othello is Shakespeare's most relentless and excruciating, in part because the focus is the most narrow and sustained. King Lear leaves the entire world in ashes; Othello, on the other hand, concentrates on the systematic immolation of one man. Iago attaches himself to his general with the single-mindedness of a lamprey. Even at the very end when the truth is finally revealed, Iago can't resist stoking his victim's pain with frustrating silence: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word.” At some deep level, Shakespeare seemed to recognize that torture is essential to the play because jealously is a very sado-masochistic emotion. In contrast to Macbeth, where the witches directly influence their prey only in two brief scenes, Iago is constantly at Othello's side, unsettling him with his hints and barbs. Even after the general has resolved to kill his wife, his tormentor can't resist the coy flippancy of describing Cassio lying “with her, on her; what you will,” as if Desdemona's infidelity has been so broad as to cover any specific. The overall language of the play is unusually coarse, both in its racial slurs and salacious euphemisms, which adds to the general discomfort. The audience partakes of this masochistic dynamic as if it is helplessly watching some protracted nature special that shows a lion killing a water buffalo for hours.

Othello is as unorthodox as it is elemental. Like a great general who defies strategic convention, Shakespeare populates his play with not one but two main characters, thus running the risk of confusing the allegiance of the audience. Richmond is as distinctly secondary in a play about a villain as Claudius is in a play about a tragic hero. When the character with the most lines in Othello isn't Othello but Iago, the latter can easily dominate the play. Conversely, an Othello who spends most of the play as Iago's dupe could end with the pity of Aristotle's famous recipe, but none of the terror. To switch the focus from Iago to Othello in the brief span of a few hours is dangerous unless the two are clearly linked, and Shakespeare does this by presenting them as cause and effect. The two lead actors in any production of Othello must achieve a mano a mano parity for this precarious dramatic balance to hold.

As an acting vehicle, Othello gives the strongest cards to Iago. Not only does Iago have more lines than almost any other character in Shakespeare's oeuvre, he is also the most intriguing. As A. C. Bradley succinctly put it in Othello: Critical Essays, “This question Why is the question about Iago, just as the question Why did Hamlet delay? is the question about Hamlet.” The motivation of any villain is usually the most obvious and mechanical part of a work of fiction because it is tied to the plot; it supplies the impetus for everything that follows. Shakespeare himself showed an appreciation for this in all his other plays: from Richard's hump to Edmund's heredity, he reveals what makes his villains tick as clearly as if they were bell jar clocks. For someone with such facility to produce “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, can only be a deliberate deviation. Even in the original source for Shakespeare's play, a novel by Giraldi Cinthio, Iago's motivation is clear and simple: he lusts after Desdemona, and when she spurns him he turns Othello against her for revenge. Only after the murder do Iago and Othello have a falling out.

The multitude of motives that Iago offers can only throw them all into question. Does he act out of hatred for the Moor, jealousy of Cassio's rank, the rumor that Othello cuckolded him, or to further the romantic ambitions of his patron Roderigo? Add to this Iago's assertion that he also suspects Cassio of sleeping with his wife and that he partially lusts for Desdemona himself, and you have enough possible scenarios to baffle the Warren Commission.

To complicate the veracity of any of these motives is Iago's view of his own actions: in this evil ensign Shakespeare created the first self-delusional villain in literature. As Robert Heilman has noted in his book on Othello, Magic in the Web, “The self-revelatory technique of the soliloquy is uniquely used: Iago reveals himself as he gradually slides away from the initial revelation.” Often Iago is as candid in assessing his contemptible behavior as Richard III. At other times, however, Iago seems to believe his own lies. In an interesting exchange in which Shakespeare adds yet another motive, class resentment, to the equation, the common Florentine's attempts at humor are met with disdain by the two Venetian nobles. Desdemona rails, “These are old fond paradoxes to make fools laugh in th' alehouse” and “O most lame and impotent conclusion!” while Cassio tells her, “You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar.” Within fifty lines of these put-downs, Iago is telling Roderigo, “Desdemona is directly in love with” Cassio. And while he goes on to manufacture the proof of this liaison, he seems to believe in its intent. For someone so adept at fabricating rumors, one would expect Iago to question the rumors of his own's wife's infidelity. “Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind, will do as if for surety” shows Iago as capable of inflating the significance of an absent handkerchief as is his general.

What Iago hopes to achieve is as muddled as why he hopes to achieve it. For almost every other villain in Shakespeare, treachery is a form of career advancement; Iago, however, attains Cassio's lieutenancy relatively early in the play. At first, his revenge requires nothing more than annoying Othello and possibly disrupting his marriage. Success, however, escalates this goal to murder. The stakes become so high that Iago cannot hope to extricate himself from the fate of the others, yet he persists in playing the game. Iago frequently characterizes his own machinations as “sport,” and indeed he has a genius for intrigue, which, like all genius, can produce virtuosity for its own sake. This, however, creates a challenge for actor and audience. As Alfred Harbage has observed in Shakespeare without Words and Other Essays, “The most obvious objection to intrigue in tragedy … is that it amuses us, makes us wish momentarily for its success, and creates in us a certain admiration for the intriguer and tolerance for his aims.” The performer must relish this trait even while he tempers it, because Iago appalls as much as he delights. The performance must have opacity as well as transparency; when Iago famously asserts, “I am not what I am,” the audience must perceive both factors in the equation.

The role of Othello presents its own unique challenges to any performer who tackles it. Murderer as victim is a difficult plea in any courtroom, and many critics have voted to convict. Scholars as diverse as Eliot, Hirsh, and Catterson have all expressed doubts about Othello's innocence in the proceedings. As F. R. Leavis has noted, “Othello yields with extraordinary promptness to suggestion, with such promptness as to make it plain that the mind that undoes him is not Iago's but his own. …” If “honest” Iago is anything but, is the “noble” Moor no better? Iago incites Othello to murder, but some of the cruelest confrontations in all of Shakespeare occur in Acts IV and V when Othello is flying solo. Othello's culpability need not destroy an audience's sympathy: bad things that happen to virtuous people produce only melodrama. Bad things that happen to flawed people because of their flaws produce tragedy. Tragedy doesn't excuse the failings it reveals; rather it punishes them, and the capital sentence Othello executes through his suicide is an admission of guilt. When he speaks “of one whose hand, like the base Indian, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe,” he is describing not Iago but himself. To produce genuine sympathy for a man who so cruelly murders his wife is one of the chief challenges for any actor.

There is also the dilemma of Othello's race. Almost from the first performance on, critical debate has raged over whether a Moor is Arab or African. Those who prefer their Othello as a knight in ebony armor tend to lighten his origins. As Emlyn Williams once observed about such a performance, “I suppose the day will come when they'll have a black Iago and a white Othello!” Race is too singular a feature in the play to ignore, and any attempt to diminish it is only another form of avoidance. All the characters seem to view Othello's color as a physical liability: Brabantio and Roderigo are horrified by it; Iago views it as unappealing; the Duke of Venice can offer Brabantio only, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, your son-in-law is far more fair than black,” which isn't exactly saying “Black is beautiful.” Even Desdemona defends her choice with “I saw Othello's visage in his mind,” which privileges who he is at the expense of what he is. Othello's racial separateness is essential to his marital insecurity. Othello's race is clearly a case where less is not Moor.

While Othello is the most famous black in Shakespeare's work, he is not the only one; other Moors appear in other plays, and the way he uses them may resolve the role he intended race to play in Othello. In The Merchant of Venice, the first line of the Prince of Morocco, one of Portia's suitors, is, “Mislike me not for my complexion,” and when his suit fails, Portia strains the quality of her mercy with “Let all of his complexion choose me so.” Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus is presented as someone whose physical darkness reflects an inner darkness. His illicit affair with the degenerate Tamora produces a bastard who is so physically threatened because of his color that Aaron rhetorically asks, “Is black so base a hue?” Earlier in the play, he echoes a line that Othello will use “Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” The echo is apt; close examination of this character reveals him to be a conflation of Iago and Othello. While scholars continue to argue over how much of Titus Andronicus Shakespeare wrote, there can be no doubt about the influence it had later on in the forming of Iago. A summary of Aaron's actions should make the relation to Iago clear: a villain in a secondary position of power who delights in the sport of his schemes; several of his victims don't perceive this and call him “gentle Aaron”; he councils the rape of Lavinia, engineers the mutilation of Andronicus, and stabs a nurse to keep her quiet; when he is captured he threatens to speak no more, and at the end of a play notorious for its carnage, Aaron is still alive but under sentence of torture. Aaron has only one redeeming feature: the love he develops for his illegitimate son. Shakespeare later resolved what appears an anomaly in Aaron by dividing his traits between two characters: the warlike black with a streak of noble love on the one hand and the conniving villain on the other. Only when Othello and Iago are plotting Desdemona's murder are the two halves reunited.

The racial stereotypes of Shakespeare's day are more problematic in our own. Even though the slurs in the text are uttered by angry characters, the actor portraying Othello must distance himself from anything that might corroborate the underlying prejudices.

The release of another filmed version of the play, starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, and the recent refurbishing of Orson Welles's 1952 production afford the opportunity to compare, with Laurence Olivier's 1964 filmed performance, several different interpretations. The only enduring reality most stage performances have is in the judgmental summaries found in reviews. Filmed versions, on the other hand, preserve the performance and offer anyone the objective opportunity to “see for themselves.”

As a detached preface to his film, Orson Welles once explained, “In Othello I felt I had to choose between filming the play or continuing my own line of experimentation in adapting Shakespeare quite freely to the cinema form. … Othello the movie, I hope, is first and foremost a motion picture.” Even though he trimmed the play to just over an hour and a half, enough of the text is here for our purposes. Welles's presence as director as well as actor expands his opportunities to reveal his interpretation through the production. Financial straits may have contributed to some of the interpretation as well: in discussing the four-year struggle to finish the film, Charles Higham wryly observes, “Welles is known to have engaged—and dismissed—three Desdemonas, four Iagos, two Lodovicos, three Cassios, and countless bit players” (The Films of Orson Welles). The finished product, however, is marked by an unusually consistent visual style, and it won the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival of 1952.

Welles compensated for the cuts in the text with the condensation of visual images, and this is nowhere more effective than at the beginning of the film. The camera tracks up from the back of Welles's head to reveal the rigid figure of the dead Othello on a bier, as austere as an ebony icon except for the fact that he is upside down. Visually, Welles immediately establishes the tragic inversion of jealousy. The funeral procession appears again briefly at the end of the film, a framing device also used in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. But the effect in the two films is entirely different: in the Olivier movie the procession is stately, dignified, and as British as the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace; in Welles's film the procession resembles a Spanish religious festival, with the bodies of Othello and Desdemona bobbing on a sea of cowled monks like so many sacred relics, accompanied by a dirge-like wailing of voices (which was much more effectively shrill in the original soundtrack). Iago, in chains, is pulled in the opposite direction of the procession and hoisted high above the proceedings in a cage, thus establishing two recurring motifs: confinement and an aerial perspective.

The confining patterns that are repeatedly stressed give the play the inexorable, claustrophobic feel of fate. Desdemona often views her husband through the interlocking pattern of an iron grille. Othello locks himself in his bedroom after killing Desdemona and converses with the other characters through barred windows. The redundancies of the architectural facades amplify the impression of implacable patterns by overwhelming the small human figures scurrying before them in long shots. Othello and Desdemona frequently view each other from opposite ends of a room cluttered with pillars, the supports transformed into visual obstacles. Even Iago is not exempt from this visual coercion: several times after furthering his scheme with Roderigo, he is seen walking down an alley with the iron cage he will ultimately be confined in hanging ominously over his head.

The aerial perspective creates an odd emotional distance that corresponds to the physical distance and makes the human struggle against fate seem puny and ineffectual. The skirmish that costs Cassio his rank in the third scene of act 2 takes place in an underground canal witnessed from above by impassive spectators. Similarly, when Othello has his seizure, the camera suddenly takes on Othello's perspective and veers up to the sky as the general collapses, taking in the edge of the ramparts where soldiers idly stare down at him. Othello's final moments as he falls on the bed with Desdemona are viewed by the remaining members of the cast from a hole in the ceiling.

Welles's peculiar preference for the melodrama of fate dilutes the tragedy of the play. Personal flaws or virtues can offer little resistance to such an overwhelming cosmic design; the devastation of personal responsibility is consequently belittled. At the same time, this ploy achieves one of the difficult goals we initially identified: with Othello the victim of impersonal fate rather than of personal failing, he comes across as far more sympathetic. Welles opts for a heroic Othello, and consequently he plays down the racial aspect of the character. The audience's first sustained look at him occurs when Brabantio refers to Othello as “such a thing as thou.” The camera shifts to a dashing and exotic Arab in a turban. The old man's racism seems the byproduct of his wounded vanity, and the audience gives it as little credence as does the Venetian Senate. For the rest of the movie, Welles uses Othello's blackness less as race than as an opportunity for visual contrast, a contrast only enhanced by the black and white film used in the shooting. As murderous doubt crowds his mind, Othello is no longer seen in the bright, Cyprian sunlight; more and more he becomes a creature of the castle's shadows, blending in with the darkness, with only his large, pleading eyes the last distinctly human feature discernible.

Welles tempers his Moor's rage with regret; he is more anguished than angry when eavesdropping on Iago and Cassio in act 4, scene 1 (Welles brilliantly obscures their words under the galling squall of the sea gulls overhead) or the frightened look of resolve when he says “Get me some poison, Iago—this night.” As Jack Jorgens wrote, “Though Welles' usual effect is of stoically contained passion, he has moments of great pathos, when, for instance, imagining his ‘fountain’ Desdemona as a cistern of foul toads, he runs his hand slowly down her body with a look of profound sorrow” (Shakespeare on Film). Here is an Othello that visibly continues to doubt even while he acts, and a divided Othello retains some vestige of his frequently mentioned nobility.

Welles's choice of a Iago supports his sympathetic view of the general. With his pudgy, sullen face and his spindly arms and legs, with his lank Florentine curls and his purring, mincing Irish brogue, Michael MacLiammoir creates a Iago as obscenely voluptuous as an angora cat in heat, the last man in the world on whom anyone would waste the adjective “honest” (indeed, Welles cuts most of the appearances of this mantra in the film). Here is a Iago who would do well to replace his famous self-distancing remark from act 1, scene 1 with a quote from Popeye: “I yam what I yam.” By excising Iago's soliloquies, Welles also excises his complexity; Iago in this production is a standard villain, a tempter as archly portrayed as any in a medieval morality play. While exaggeration diminishes the play's subtlety, it is the subtlety that creates equivocation in the audience. By making Iago a standard villain, Welles makes Othello a standard victim. Many of the play's potential problems are flattened out through broad characterization.

Although the text of the play clearly identifies Iago's age (“I have looked upon the world for four times seven years”), Welles chooses to make both the ensign and his wife, Emilia, much older than that, and the shift gives veracity to a number of disparate traits. An ancient Ancient is distanced from passion by more than cynicism. The jaundiced, belittling views of sex and women he utters aren't the sage posturings of a Mercutio who is only slightly older than his audience, they come steeped in the bitterness of one who has outlived his own desires; the passivity of spite is the only form of ardor he can muster. Emilia's own cynical remarks to her mistress about men proceed less from anger than weariness. When Iago and Emilia are seen together they show nothing more than a depthless familiarity; theirs is a union of habit rather than sentiment. With Welles's sensitivity to visual balances, he creates the perfect foil for the young newlyweds: the misunderstandings of excessive passion flanked by the entropy of spent desire.

With his extensive search for the perfect Desdemona, one would think Welles would have found one who was at least adequate, but Suzanne Cloutier does little more than read her lines. It is one of the peculiar things a performance adds to a theatrical text, but Cloutier's presence (performance might be too strong a word here) makes one realize a weak Desdemona is not only a negligible fault, it can even unintentionally add something to a production. Particularly with an uncertain Othello like Welles's, Desdemona's lack of affect increases her ambiguity and facilitates the Moor's confusion. The confrontation between the two in act 4, scene 2 is a case in point. Here is a clash so acrimonious it makes Hamlet's behavior with his mother seem like coddling in comparison. Welles is all bellowing brimstone, while Cloutier remains as passive as a plaster Madonna in a hail storm. Her unconvincing avowals of innocence are more than a specimen of bad acting; they deepen the doubts they are meant to banish.

At the expense of some of the means, Welles achieves Shakespeare's end and creates a genuinely sympathetic Othello. Iago and Desdemona may come up short, but there can be no question that Othello is clearly a play centered on Othello. F. R. Leavis might even have considered modifying his opposition to the character if he had seen this production.

The most famous and controversial traversal of Othello in this century would have to be Laurence Olivier's 1964 performance with the National Theatre of Great Britain. Luckily, a film record of the performance exists. Although at the time it was considered an overwhelming success, critical response ran from hailing to railing: John Osborne found it “dreadful” and “unspeakably vulgar,” while Franco Zeffirelli called it “an anthology of everything that has been discovered about acting in the last three centuries.”

What, exactly, is the bone that produced so much contention? Olivier took Othello's most distinctive aspect, his blackness, and made it the most distinctive aspect of his interpretation. No Arabic evasions here, no Victorian gentleman in cocoa butter declaiming pretty verse while holding a silken pillow inertly over his wife; Olivier's Othello is as African as Lake Tanganyika. Othello represents one of the notoriously external actor Olivier's most elaborately burnished surfaces. If God lies in the details, Olivier's singular worship of this deity qualifies him as pope. Extensive voice coaching enabled him to lower his voice a good six notes below his normal range. His makeup took two and a half hours to apply. The mannerisms Olivier employed were as elaborate as his appearance as he leered and swaggered, rolled his hips, and occasionally lapsed into the cadence of tribal ritual as when he shrieked “O Desdemona! Dead! Desdemona! Dead! O! O!” Such extensive attention to surface runs the risk of preventing an audience from going any deeper than the surface. By making race the salient feature of the interpretation, much that would be legitimately Othello is taken as a characterization of blacks in general. As an impersonation of a race, this Othello could easily seem a travesty; as an interpretation of a specific personality, however, the performance reveals great depth, variety, and pace. It is therefore important to identify what in the interpretation is aimed at Othello's character by justifying it with the text.

The outstanding characteristic of this Othello is the emotional scale: Olivier suffers spectacularly. As Christopher Fry remembered, “The rage was elemental, the pain so private that it seemed an intrusion to overhear it. … ‘But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it. Iago!’, was whispered, face to the wall; and yet it was as large as torment itself” (quoted in Logan Gourlay's Olivier). There is a pragmatic reason for presenting so high-strung an Othello, which has nothing to do with racial stereotyping or ham acting: it explains the murderous shift from loving to loathing within a single scene (act 3, scene 3). A volatile Othello would require only a few insinuating sparks to explode in the opposite direction. Othello's occupation is violent and his emotions correspond to that occupation. When he attacks Iago (“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore”), it is with as much violence as he later directs against his wife. Olivier's performance brings out all the emotional extravagance in the character; the act 4, scene 1 epileptic fit for once seems a natural consequence of the exhausting upheaval that precedes it. The sheer volume of this performance is frightening, yet it also makes the quiet moments that much more effective, as when Othello pitifully gasps, “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself! I'll not believe it,” or in the bleak stillness of his final speech.

These outbursts come from wounded pride as much as damaged love. Unlike Welles, who presented the Moor as a melodramatic hero, Olivier sees the character rife with all the flaws of tragedy. As he said of Othello in an interview, “… when he says ‘Not easily jealous’ it's the most appalling bit of self-deception. He's the most easily jealous man that anybody's ever written about. The minute he suspects, or thinks he has the smallest grounds for suspecting, Desdemona, he wishes to think her guilty, he wishes to” (quoted in Kenneth Tynan, Great Acting). There is something willful in Othello's emotional excess, and Olivier wanted the audience to see it. Even while the character is writhing in pain, a part of him is also luxuriating in it. There's a narcissistic sheen to the poetic platinum that seems suddenly appropriate; the soaring abandon and bitter exaltation with which Olivier delivers the “Farewell the tranquil mind!” speech presages his whole course of revenge. Olivier avoids the romantic victim to reveal a far more ambivalent, culpable Othello. Little glimpses of the complacency and vanity of his interpretation are there from the start: the easy, chuckling delivery of the “Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors” testimony before the Senate, the obsequious fussing over the Duke's train as the latter leaves at the end of the scene that shows the ostentatious deference only a vain man indulges in. The odd sequence where Othello produces his “sword of Spain” and elaborately threatens Gratiano with it, only to abandon it, suddenly makes sense with this Othello: even though Iago has escaped and Desdemona's innocence has been established, the general's pride is galled at the thought of being confined to his room, and he has to make a gesture of independence to his guard. This critical distance accounts for much of the interpretation's controversy: a flawed Othello who is so flagrantly projected as black makes the flaws appear racial. Like his Othello, Olivier could blame only himself for the resulting uproar.

But there is more than bile and bluster to this performance. Othello's infatuation with his young bride is palpable. The fair warrior was never more lovingly and lingeringly greeted by her general in act 2, scene 1. Olivier is significantly older than his Desdemona and this gap is borne out in the text. Othello says, “I am declin'd into the vale of years—yet that's not much”: the decline is enough to make the telling of his life story an extensive courtship. An older Othello gives an added inequality to the relationship; it also accounts for the smitten quality of this Othello, of someone who can't believe his amorous luck. Like most May/December romances, there is more than lust at work here. The old soldier seems to find something redemptive in the love of this young woman, and there is a mellow tenderness in his reading of the line, “She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd; and I lov'd her that she did pity them,” a fatherly doting as he clucks and chortles while Desdemona pushes Cassio's suit for the first time in act 3, scene 3. All this amplifies the devastation of the young woman's imagined infidelity when it comes. Olivier was accused of overpowering the rest of the cast, but his scenes with Iago reveal what a marvelous straight man he could be. In the great give-and-take of act 3, scene 3, Iago seems all the more masterful in setting down the pegs for the responsive music his Moorish instrument produces.

Frank Finlay's performance provides an interesting gambit for bridging the split in Iago's character: here is a rough, unadorned commoner, his “honesty” coming less from excessive sincerity than from an unvarnished frankness. Finlay narrows the extremes between Iago's two halves and reveals their connections. Iago's sarcastic remarks to the other characters on love and honor are but a half step from contempt; he sneers at these subjects with Cassio and Roderigo, only to sneer at Cassio and Roderigo later. By not seeming to ingratiate himself, he ingratiates himself without detection. The contrast in acting styles between the two leads also contributes to the effectiveness of their relationship: as Jack Jorgens has shrewdly noted about this performance, “The measure of Iago's inroads on Othello's integrity, faith, and sanity is the degree to which his dry, mundane, ‘modern’ style triumphs over Othello's archaic, grand, heroic one.”

This National Theatre production uniformly demonstrates what first rate performances can add to a theatrical text. Maggie Smith gives depth to a role that normally requires little beyond innocence. She is just flirtatious enough in her pleading for Cassio to substantiate aroused suspicion. Her handling of act 4, scene 3 reveals how much these one hundred lines add to the total effect of the play: the inert foreboding that shows from her large eyes as she sings her willow song and asks Emilia to shroud her in her wedding sheets if she should die creates a drop of pity that emulsifies all the surrounding terror. Joyce Redman's Emilia is an earthy, blunt woman, what would later be termed “a tough cookie,” every bit a match for her husband Iago, but someone whom inexperience rouses to sympathy. This makes the bond between maid and mistress feel surprisingly genuine. Many critics faulted Derek Jacobi's Cassio because his effete, slightly effeminate, white noble seemed no match for Olivier's virile Moor. But by playing the character as Othello's exact opposite, Jacobi created the perfect imaginary rival (how can one compete with someone who is everything he is not?). Even Michael Rothwell contributes a wonderfully comic Roderigo by playing the part not with the usual buffoonery, but rather as a figure of grave ineptitude. The tiara of this cast is no less precious for the ostentatious jewel it supports.

Which brings us to the most recent filmed version of Othello. While it might not equal the brilliance of its distinguished predecessors, the production displays much insight, novelty, and conviction. If the interpretive input of actors is as vital as I maintain, a good production can add to our understanding of a play as well as of a great production. The most striking feature of this rendition is that Othello is played by a black actor. When a nonblack actor attempts the role, race becomes a self conscious ingredient, something that falls short or exceeds the mark, but either way gives the subject an exaggerated and distracting prominence. As in the case of a female impersonator, success is achieved not in the suspension of disbelief but in an appreciation of the extent to which the original is transcended. In a peculiar way, a black Othello deemphasizes the subject by putting it in perspective. The Moor's race no longer needs to be established; it becomes an obvious factor an audience assumes. Marital relations can now take precedence over race relations; the who of Othello can be stressed over the what.

The film begins promisingly with a glimpse of Othello in a gondola gliding to his clandestine marriage while holding a porcelain Venetian mask before his face. The prominent black hand holding the white mask in place negates its capacity to disguise and implies that only Othello believes in his ability to evade detection. Laurence Fishburne's Moor is a commanding presence, a tall, good-looking man who exudes confidence and seems to take his difference as a distinction rather than a disability. He is completely uncowed in act 1, scene 2 when challenged by Brabantio and his men; indeed, he holds his sword within inches of his former host's throat as if perfectly willing to resolve their dispute in combat. This is an Othello who does not take a slight, either verbal or sexual, passively. In his defense before the Senate, he shows none of Welles's modesty or Olivier's humbug; he states his case without the slightest fear of misapprehension. This is confidence that goes beyond hubris; courting Desdemona was his right, and he acknowledges no impropriety. With Fishburne, what you see is what you get, which positions him as the exact opposite of Iago.

Othello's attraction to Desdemona is obviously physical: the act 2, scene 1 meeting of the couple in Cyprus contains much unabashed groping as everyone else waits patiently to be noticed; these are not only newlyweds but individuals who haven't spent much time together. This limitation gives the misunderstanding that will follow a certain credence: such a misreading would be impossible with a couple who have become familiar with each other over years. We see Othello and his wife naked together in bed, and this suddenly gives Desdemona a new dimension: a sexual Desdemona can create sexual worries. When Othello is deep in the throes of jealously, we once again see a naked Desdemona, but now frolicking with Cassio. Emphasizing the carnal connection between these two makes jealousy no longer dependent exclusively on plot twists; but there is a down side. Despite the obvious attraction, Fishburne shows little fondness for his bride. He wears a handful of rings, only one of which signifies marriage. Sour lust is not enough to produce the awful ache of tragedy.

Iago's innuendos produce nothing but anger in Fishburne; again this approach is both consistent with his interpretation and believable (how can an Othello who is only infatuated with his wife feel more than rage at her betrayal?), but it achieves consistency at the expense of simplifying the character. Fishburne's Moor is not the type to doubt any doubt he entertains, consequently he plays down the role's suffering—but suffering is what makes Othello a figure ambivalent enough to be tragic. A performance that only shifts between a haughty smile and a hateful glare may pass for the figure of a jealous man, but a tragedy, even a tragedy about jealousy, requires more. The audience must see the flaws in Othello that Iago manipulates, otherwise the Moor is reduced to a hulking beast who responds to a hankie as if it were a matador's cape. Occasionally Fishburne's aloof approach can capture moments of real poignancy, as when he strangles Desdemona: the audience hears the muffled struggle while it sees Othello's head held at a proud angle, the impassive features compromised only by the tear tracks that reflect the room's candle light. But moments like this are rare. Even a lapse in a performance can help an audience appreciate the elements that must be stressed in the text.

Fishburne's monolithic Moor is counterbalanced by a Iago of irreconciled pieces. Kenneth Branagh completely separates the public and private sides of Othello's ensign, which more fully enables the audience to appreciate the artifice of that public side. As Harley Granville-Barker once observed in his preface to Othello, “The medium in which Iago works is the actor's; and in 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 from the beginning.” Branagh projects a guileless, even sunny disposition: one can see why Cassio would waver in his abstinence under such friendly urging, or how the pleading concern in Iago's eyes as he says “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy” might sway a more dubious Othello. Branagh is ingratiating even in his chiding: in the “Put money in thy purse” speech to Roderigo, the racial slurs against Othello are delivered without heat, as if to comfort a friend by insulting his enemy. Even the sarcasm he uses seems no more than a medicinal attempt to rouse the young man's spirits. Thus, Branagh heightens the treachery by heightening the hypocrisy: the poison of this Iago is more deadly because of his protective coloring. A more seductive Iago also takes on more of the responsibility for what transpires, which is important when he is playing against an unresponsive Othello. A tragic hero who hides his tragic flaws can be led astray only against his will: if the prey has no weaknesses then the predator must be twice as strong.

Another aspect of Iago's character that Branagh catches nicely is the impromptu nature of much of his chicanery. Most of the time Iago is winging it, and this is borne out in the text: at the end of act 1 he is sorting through his options, in act 2 he says of his plan, “'Tis here, but yet confus'd,” and in the last act he is still undecided if either Cassio or Roderigo must be killed. Branagh conveys this with a fleeting look of suppressed panic when confronted by the unexpected, as when Bianca storms in with Othello's handkerchief; and when Iago swears his allegiance to Othello's revenge, Branagh embraces the general and we the audience see he has tears in his eyes—only an improvisor could be so moved by his own improvisation.

But the more one separates the elements of Iago's personality the more he must justify them individually. By such a convincing portrayal of the convivial exterior, Branagh only makes the misanthropic interior appear unrelated and unconvincing. He abruptly looks sullen before beginning the soliloquies, but this transformation is a poor substitute for characterization. Branagh's Iago is a mask without a face behind it, and the lack brings up all the old questions about motivation from Coleridge and company. While an actor can no more “explain” Iago than a critic, he must at least imply enough of a rationale to make the character plausible; Iago should be a paradox but never a mystery.

The film ends as strongly as it began. Instead of ending with the couple dead in bed, the locale switches back to Venice. A gondola makes its way to the middle of a canal. The two bodies in it are wrapped in white sheets that completely obscure the troublesome distinctions of race and sex that have plagued the course of the drama. The bodies are slipped over the side, and we see the two forms sinking together yet forever separated, in an ending that seems infinitely sad and oddly appropriate.

All three productions we have studied attempt to make sense out of one of the most daunting plays in world literature. Although the approaches were often radically different, all confronted the problematic aspects of the text and sought to validate their interpretations by consistently matching the details with an overall grasp of the part and the play. Literary critics have attempted to do much the same thing through the remote medium of print. While this is perfectly fine in dealing with other genres, theatrical texts present a unique challenge to the procedure. Performance is the true medium of a play, just as performance is the true medium of a musical score, an element so essential to the end result that eliminating it renders the experience incomplete. Actors are the living tissue of a theatrical text, making connections literary critics can only guess at, as they argue their cases before the arbitration of a live audience. Critics can do more than judge a performance, they can learn from it. It's enough to make those of us who are confined to print justifiably jealous.

Katherine Duncan-Jones (review date 14 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Duncan-Jones, Katherine. “Circling the Square.” Times Literary Supplement (14 May 1999): 13.

[In the following excerpted review of the 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Othello directed by Michael Attenborough, Duncan-Jones praises the liveliness and clarity of the production, particularly the “assured and charismatic” performance of Ray Fearon as Othello.]

The play [Othello] opens as a lively Jonsonian comedy, with the fascinatingly manipulative Iago running rings round the idiotic Roderigo (Aidan McArdle, something of a Roberto Benigni lookalike). As in a Jonson comedy, the audience are given no emotional option but to respond to the trickster's juicy cleverness. Then the play rapidly becomes a different kind of comedy: the kind in which, in the face of fierce parental opposition, a young couple in love are allowed to marry. This Othello is by no means “descended / into the vale of years”, and a few lines have had to be cut to accommodate his youthfulness. But the thirty-one-year-old Ray Fearon's performance is so assured and charismatic, and his verse-speaking so consistently excellent, that in practice little seems to be lost. A surprising consequence of his assurance is that race seems scarcely an issue. This Othello has poise, control, natural authority, and an instinctive ability to impress the middle-aged men in grey suits here known as the Venetian Signory. Not only does Iago detest Othello for his manifest “promotability”, he also resents his capacity to control others with a light touch (“Keep up your bright swords …”) and, furthermore, he is strongly attracted to him physically, though this doesn't fully appear until the horrible blood-bonding that seals their pact, “I am your own for ever”, with the joining of slashed and bleeding hands. Neither Iago's resentment nor his attraction seem much connected explicitly with Othello's racial difference. There may be good reasons for this. In 1999, aware of such men as Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, we are starting to take it for granted that “white” wars may require “black” moderators. The Venetian state's need for Othello seems now almost a truism, not a paradox.

Comic values are maintained after the arrival at Cyprus, not in the embarrassing backchat between Iago and Desdemona about the nature of a good wife, which is cut, but in the soldiers' drinking party. The “sport and revels” for the General's wedding are made enjoyably festive, with fireworks, trays of cocktails and military drinking rituals, and the happily kittenish enthusiasm of Desdemona (Zoe Waites) for her new husband. This visually crisp production uses the new depth of the stage effectively for scenes of half-heard and misunderstood exchanges. When Othello urgently asks, entering back stage, “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?” we want to yell out, as in a pantomime, “Yes, we've just seen him”. But, of course, this is no pantomime, in spite of some Demon King-like stunts from Richard McCabe. Ray Fearon enacts Othello's collapse into disordered thinking and manic violence with terrifying cogency. The production's unusual clarity both of action and speech ensures that nothing is lost, and that even when tragedy risks slipping into melodrama, in lines such as “O Desdemon! Dead Desdemon! Dead! O! O!”, it does not do so. This is the best interpretation of a Shakespeare tragedy that I have seen at Stratford this decade.

R. N. Hallstead (essay date spring 1968)

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SOURCE: Hallstead, R. N. “Idolatrous Love: A New Approach to Othello.” Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 2 (spring 1968): 107-24.

[In the following essay, Hallstead examines Othello's “idolatrous love” for Desdemona and contends that Othello's descent into uncontrollable rage results from the fact that he cannot reconcile his idealized image of Desdemona with her sexuality.]


A critical appreciation of Othello should above all make clear that Othello is himself the tragic hero of the play. Critics since late in the seventeenth century have, however, found it difficult to achieve any such end. Either Iago, as anti-hero, emerges as the main character in the play, or Othello, as hero, is considered to be a ranting, murderous barbarian of limited intelligence. Any such errors, or variants of them, destroy the artistic integrity of the play and reduce one of Shakespeare's greatest accomplishments to a failure. Yet such errors almost inevitably result when the critic fails to see, however dimly, what the play is about.

Othello is the story of an idolatrous love which comes to an inevitable tragic end; the hero is a man of tragic stature who loved “not wisely but too well”. After the consummation of his marriage, Othello, as Iago points out and as he himself confesses, makes Desdemona the source of purpose, meaning, and value in his life. This is to say that he worships her, that she becomes his “god”.1 But as Desdemona says, “We must think men are not gods”, for, as they are human, things of body, men and women fail those who worship them. But what is more important, as the play shows, is that if the idolatrous relationship is also sexual, the worshipper is betrayed by his own body, by his sensuousness. The reduction of the presentation of so large a theme as this to a tale of mere jealousy has led to endless error and an understanding of the play usually little better than that of Thomas Rymer.

Idolatrous love is a not uncommon phenomenon, and everyone has met it, both in life and in literature. It occurs especially among young males. It is the contention of this paper that in a sense Othello's idolatry bears some marks of the youthful naiveté that makes its occurrence frequent at that time of life. The phenomenon can be understood in a number of ways, but Shakespeare, not unnaturally, chose to understand it in terms of Christian psychology. That psychology provided him both an understanding of what happens to Othello and a method of organizing the tragedy. Moreover, the religious implications give the play a grandeur and universality which link it to Greek tragedy in terror and greatness.

Othello's worship comes to grief through sexuality, his own and Desdemona's. It is this which justifies the unpleasant, offensive treatment of sex in the first scene. In addition to its introduction of the plot, this scene serves as a reminder that sex is a part of every marriage, however elevated its nature. It is wrong, therefore, to attribute the view that man is an animal, as the words of Iago so clearly say he is, merely to the nasty-minded villain of the play. However dubious the authority of Iago is, the fact remains that man is an animal. His life may be said to be a struggle between his aspirations toward the divine, the transcendent, and the recurring awareness of his animality. Certainly this struggle is part of Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Measure for Measure, plays probably written at about the same time as Othello. Shakespeare's concern with this matter has been called “sexual nausea”, though the term fails to take into account the divine element that Shakespeare clearly shows to be part of the sexual impulse. Iago, of course, does not recognize this element either, and treats sex in terms so offensive and so visual that they have troubled audiences and readers for as long as we have record of reactions to the play. The unpleasantness of Iago's speeches is justified only by the fact that his point of view is necessary if we are to understand what follows.

What follows immediately is the introduction of the “lascivious Moor”. Much has been made of the grandeur of Othello in the first act. We have had adequate discussion of Othello the great military figure in the tradition of Shakespeare's warrior heroes. We have, likewise, been offered the questionable Othello, whose speeches in scenes two and three of the first act can indubitably be shown to suggest “bombast circumstance / Horribly stuffed with epithets of war.” (Iago always speaks something of truth.) This romantic or “romantic” figure has been adequately treated by numerous critics. What is missing is a consideration of the sexual man, the “lascivious Moor”, the “old black ram”. It is precisely this last concept, which the playwright has given in the first scene, which should be brought forward as a measure of the man we meet.

The Othello of this act, incredible as it seems, is a man of virginal mind, of unsullied mind, one to which the implications of physical sexuality are quite unknown. To say this is to rouse a thousand doubts. The reader thinks at once of all the common associations of the military with sex, of the background of Othello, which would have been markedly lacking in sensitive respect for the female, and of the man's age. It will be shown, nevertheless, that only such an interpretation can make sense of the Othello of the first act.

Othello's first statement about his marriage is to Iago:

                                                                                                    For know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea's worth.

(I. ii. 24-28)2

The word gentle in this speech is one of the miracles of Shakespeare's poetry in this play. Because it may seem a strange word from a man looking forward to the consummation of his marriage, it is absolutely right; it says precisely what the author wishes it to say; it eliminates effectively not only the charge of lasciviousness but the presence even of the sensuality, the passion, that might be expected of a normal healthy male in such a situation. For these it substitutes tenderness, one of the less frequently discussed attributes of mature love. Herbert Marcuse speaks of “The love to the wife which is sensual as well as tender, aim-inhibited as well as aim-attaining”.3 It is tenderness that characterizes Othello's attitude toward his love in this act. His statement, “I loved her that she did pity them”, contains nothing of sensuality. Granting that “sympathized with” expresses more exactly what Othello means, is this not an expression of an asexual anticipation of a shared life? Such an interpretation makes comprehensible Othello's willing response to his appointment to Cyprus.

It throws even more light on his lengthy defense of Desdemona's plea that she accompany him:

Vouch with me heaven, I therefore 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;
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
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed 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!

(I. iii. 261-274)

Our response to this remarkable speech is probably the sense of terror that Othello will be so little able to keep his word, that it is hardly given before it is broken. Next we are struck, surely, by amazement at the naiveté of the man. It is as if he were an inexperienced boy, as if he were virginal. In truth, Desdemona has been more than “half the wooer” as far as sexuality is concerned. This is made unmistakably clear by her plea to accompany Othello to Cyprus:

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

(I. iii. 248-250)


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

(I. iii. 255-259)

Yet in regard to Othello's sexuality, considering his background and experience, one may well ask whether it is not the writer who is naive rather than Othello. It would, indeed, be rash to suggest that Othello is quite without sexual experience. But that a man may have had sexual experience and still retain a kind of innocence is made clear by what we know of Count Tolstoy's sexual attitudes. Aylmer Maude offers evidence of Tolstoi's early sexual experiences, including one affair with a servant girl which led to her death. Yet Maude is able to quote from Tolstoy's diary at a later date to show his “attitude toward a girl he thoroughly respected …”:

Love and religion are two pure and lofty feelings. I do not know what people call love. If it is what I have read and heard about, then I have never experienced it. I had formerly seen Zinaida when she was a pupil at the Institute. I liked her, but knew her only slightly. … I have now stayed a week in Kazan, and how pleasant it was. If I were asked why I stayed there, and what I found so pleasant, and why I was so happy, I should not say it was because I was in love. I did not know that. It seems to me that just that unconsciousness is the chief feature of love and forms its whole charm. How morally at ease I was at that time! I did not then feel this burden of mean passions that spoil all the pleasures of life. I did not utter a word of love, but I am sure that she knows my feelings and that if she loves me it is due only to the fact that she understood me. All the first impulses of the soul are pure and lofty. Actual life destroys their innocence and charm.4

That much of what Tolstoy says applies to Othello should be rather obvious. What has been referred to as Othello's virginal attitude is precisely covered by the phrase “morally at ease”; indeed the phrase illuminates that attitude. That “mean passions … spoil all the pleasure of life” is a partial description of the theme of the play. Othello is at this moment in the play involved in “the first impulses of the soul”. Actual life will destroy “their innocence and charm”. And this will happen only in part because of the machinations of Iago.

Equally enlightening is Maude's comment that this is Tolstoy's attitude toward a woman “he thoroughly respected”. Respect has been one of the elements of Othello's attitude toward Desdemona, was partly the reason that she was “half the wooer”. Western civilization, especially insofar as it is influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, attaches a sense of shame to sexuality which is often inhibitive. This is most frequently true of a relationship with one held in high respect. There is nothing in Othello's account of his wooing to suggest that it involves the slightest sexuality. It is, perhaps, a normal omission, but it may very well be a significant one. The inhibitive factor in the relationship may be conceived of as such that this stranger, this converted heathen in a Christian land, would be completely prevented from entertaining sexual ideas before marriage.5 Unless we hold the same view of life as Iago does, it will be difficult to imagine another attitude for Othello. His very ignorance of Venetian customs and ways of seeing things, which Iago later plays upon so successfully, would provide another restraint. It is unlikely that a man of Othello's character would risk, even in his mind, an offense against the sublime creature that he has in some incredible way managed to capture.

It is for a man with these unusual, but far from unique, sexual attitudes that Shakespeare has invented the strange device of the delayed marriage consummation. This matter of the delay can hardly be overemphasized. It is Shakespeare's own invention, being quite incompatible with anything in his source. So startling is Othello's reaction to his hasty dispatch to Cyprus that the audience and reader are surprised at Desdemona's calm acceptance of it. Furthermore, there is no practical necessity for the haste. Time, when sailing ships were involved, was not the desperate matter of minutes or hours that it is today. We must, therefore, seek for Shakespeare's intention for introducing the separation, which he has an obligation to make clear in the ensuing scenes.

The dialogue between Iago and Roderigo which closes the first act brings back the Iago focus with a new emphasis. The dreadful animal imagery of the first scene is absent. Lust and sensuality are spoken of in solely human terms. Against them are suggested the control of reason. It is interesting that many critics attribute to Shakespeare the acceptance of the power of reason and its place in life which they find in much of the thinking of his age, though how any one who has read King Lear can do so is something of a mystery. Here reason is offered to Roderigo, a great fool. Against the satiety of sex, the impulses of sensuality and lust, the only protection suggested for Desdemona is “sanctimony and a frail vow”. It will prove in the working out that these are the only protection, and that the tragedy is the result of their failure.

The first scene at Cyprus is a masterpiece of careful writing. Shakespeare uses the dialogue here with a skill that is like that of the juggler who keeps many balls spinning in the air at once. The audience is interested, as the scene opens, in the consummation of the marriage. Or if it is not, the playwright arouses the interest. The arrival of Cassio provides an anticlimactic interruption to the suspense concerning the safety of the protagonists. The “divine Desdemona” that Cassio refers to in his first speech is the Desdemona that Othello created in the first act. She is unassailable, above the things of the body. But is this so? Only for Othello. Cassio reminds us that the truth of earth is gross and bodily. Othello is to come to “Make love's quick pants in Desdemona's arms”. The image is as graphic as if it were Iago's. Its juxtaposition with the word divine implies the theme of the play and the more interesting tension which will exist at a subdued level throughout the scene. The theme is further suggested by Cassio's reference to “Our great Captain's Captain”.

Desdemona's first words when she arrives are of inquiry for Othello's safety. Her role until his arrival is a compound of worry and eagerness. To Iago she says, “What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?” Does she not want, at least subconsciously, to hear, as she anxiously awaits her husband's arrival, that she is the most attractive of women? She is hardly woman if she does not. Iago's improvisations are outrageous. They should be offensive to Desdemona, but they do not seem to be. Their subject is sex. Even the praise of a good woman (surely meant to be applied to Desdemona) allows her to say “Now I may …”. The characterization is decorously if wittily handled, but virtue is brought to confront the fact of the body, to know its carnality. Desdemona is amused by the conclusion. She knows how far it is from the truth of her own life. The comment of Iago on the chat between Desdemona and Cassio which follows serves not only to advance his plotting but also to keep the sexual focus of the whole scene.

Othello's first words are “O my fair warrior!” Surely the word “warrior” here suggests not only Othello's account of his courtship but the minds of the hero and heroine in the first act. It reminds the audience that “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them.” It tells us that Desdemona is no “moth of peace”. At this level of interpretation it looks backward to the first act. But in its sexual implications, which can hardly be ignored in this context, it looks forward. The moment of encounter between these “warriors” is imminent. The same sexual implication must be attached to the word die in “If it were now to die, / 'Twere now to be most happy.” The Elizabethans were accustomed to this connotation of die, and would hardly have missed it in this context. But the structure of the scene is as significant as the language. Certainly on the arrival of their new Governor, Montano and other officials of the island have stepped forward to meet him. His disregard for protocol in speaking first to Desdemona amounts to a failure in his office. And a very serious one, in view of the situation in Cyprus. But only after a romantic interlude with his new bride does the great general turn to the officials of Cyprus to say, “News, friends! Our wars are done.” The officials of the besieged island do not, to Othello's knowledge, know anything of the present state of the war. Yet the General who has been so highly praised in both Venice and Cyprus sees no urgency in the news of the island's safety. The impropriety of Othello's conduct is so glaring that the general critical silence concerning it is amazing. To try to imagine a modern equivalent is impossible. Admittedly the scene can be staged so that nothing unnatural appears. But it should not be so. Shakespeare is carefully preparing for some of the most devastating scenes in English tragedy, and he is working toward them with care. The sexual emphasis in the whole scene is deliberately augmented by what amounts to gross neglect of duty on Othello's part. It is the first unimpeachable evidence that Othello will not, cannot, keep the vow made to the Senate when he furthered Desdemona's request that she be allowed to accompany him. It is meant to show that a great change has taken place in Othello, that his marriage will affect the General in ways he has not foreseen at all, that the marriage is, indeed, producing a new man. To emphasize this, Desdemona is again at once the center of Othello's attention, and he says himself, “O my sweet, / I prattle out of fashion, and I dote / In mine own comforts.” Could anything be clearer?6

The dialogue between Iago and Roderigo which follows does more than advance the plot. It is an enlightening discussion of the sex question. Iago condemns lechery and lust, but what he means is not lechery and lust at all but sanctified love. He can see it as coming to nothing but satiation and the need for variety. The intensity of Desdemona's devotion is condemned: “Mark me with what violence she first loved the Moor …”. It was, indeed, with violence, as her whole action before the Senate attests; but it was that kind of violence which Shakespeare has commended in his presentation of such women as Juliet and Helena; it is a most desirable quality in human love. The glory of Desdemona is that “The wine she drinks is made of grapes”. She is utterly human, of the body, eagerly a woman. And she finds the control of this violence to lie not in reason, as Iago thinks it does, but in a “frail vow”. On her death bed her only argument for her life is that she has kept her vow.

If the sexual focus of the scene just discussed has been clear, it should come as no surprise that in the brief herald's scene a public proclamation is made that Othello will celebrate his nuptials. The playwright is determined that we shall have the marriage's consummation in mind, for Othello and Desdemona enter immediately, ostensibly so that Cassio can be assigned the watch, but more significantly so that the audience can be informed again of what is about to happen. That this is true is borne out by the precision of Othello's words and Iago's reference to the fact immediately upon Othello's departure. What we have then is: first, Cassio's very specific reference to the consummation of the marriage when he arrives in Venice; second, Othello's concern for Desdemona to the temporary neglect of duty; third, the herald's proclamation of what is to happen; fourth, Othello's reference to it; and finally, Iago's unseemly words about it, with the information that the bridal couple have retired early enough to cause notice. Such iteration can hardly be without purpose, and I hope to show that this purpose is to make clear to the audience that when Othello appears on the scene again, a very different man from the Othello of the first act, the cause of the change is the consummation of his marriage.

The interchange between Iago and Cassio about Desdemona is intended in part to advance the Desdemona-Cassio love-affair plot. But it serves also to illustrate the control of a sensual man. Cassio is certainly that. It seems possible that Shakespeare may originally have intended him to be happily married. Later the concept of the mistress must have seemed more dramatically viable. This sensual man displays, in talking to Iago of Desdemona, the restraints that society imposes on sensuality, the inhibitions which religion, law, and custom establish as proper. It cannot be said that reason has any part in his control in this interchange.

After such careful emphasis on the wedding night, Othello's reaction to its interruption should be significant; and it is. Granted that the whole brawl has been most carefully planned, that it is a very malicious scheme, that all Othello says of its barbarousness is true, yet the immediate discharge of Cassio is rash and misguided. It is the action of a new man. Critics have commended Othello's action as decisive, but how arbitrariness and haste can be so judged is hard to see. Judgment on the man is not a matter of the moment; the brawl has been stopped and peace restored. A further hearing in the morning is the obvious course of action. But Othello is disturbed, angered, and annoyed. He confesses:

                                                            Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way.

(II. iii. 194-197)

Shakespeare carefully displayed the self-control of Othello in the encounter with Brabantio and before the Senate in order that we should at this moment recognize a new man. His lack of passion has been shown so that we might see how significant the appearance of passion in this scene is meant to be.

And the cause for it is made clear in one of the strangest figures of speech in any play of Shakespeare. Iago speaks of Cassio and Montano as:

Friends all but now, even now,
In quarter, and in terms like bride and groom
Devesting them for bed. …

(II. iii. 179-181)

Was there ever a more unlikely, a more outrageous figure of speech? Yet it serves its author very well in a triple purpose: it shows again the mind of Iago; it reminds the audience of the recent consummation of the marriage; and it acts as a goad to Othello's annoyance. The daring of it is justified by the way in which it fulfills its function. But to disregard it is to ignore a most careful and significant bit of writing. It is not an accident but a shrewdly conceived way of achieving a complex end.

When Desdemona enters, Shakespeare again writes with meticulous care:

Look if my gentle love be not raised up!
I'll make thee an example.

(II. iii. 240-241)

Surely we should add an exclamation point after the last sentence. The clear implication is that Cassio is therefore to be made an example.7 He has already been discharged forever. The speech is redundant unless it refers to the disturbance of Desdemona. If it does, and is read with proper force, it clarifies Shakespeare's intentions. And why should it ever be read differently?

Iago sees what has happened. To Cassio when they are alone, he says:

Our general's wife is now the general. I may say so in this respect, for that he hath devoted and given up himself to the contemplation, mark, and denotement of her parts and graces.

(II. iii. 300-304)

He is saying that Othello's sensuality has led him to a madly excessive love for Desdemona. This is a very serious charge, but it is a true one. It is the fact which will inevitably lead to the tragedy. But Iago makes it a broader, more serious, charge in his soliloquy:

                                                            And then for her
To win the Moor—were't to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin—
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function.

(II. iii. 324-331)

This charge is also true. Its meaning is that Othello's love has become idolatry, and the consequences will affect the depth of his being, the whole of his life; as they do. The audience of Shakespeare's time were probably more theological than that of today. If they read at all, they certainly were. But even failing that, their knowledge of the religious persecutions of the times would make them view the renunciation of baptism with such alarm as this age can hardly imagine. The effect of the statement must have been so ominous that Iago's exclamation, “Divinity of hell!”, a moment later would have sent cold chills up the spine. Anything can happen now. The threat that Iago will “turn [Desdemona's] virtue into pitch” will be taken as certain accomplishment. Indeed, the wiser will know that Othello has already accomplished it! Viewed in the fullness of these implications, the scene is one of Shakespeare's greatest. It not only makes clear and understandable all that follows; it makes it certain. What is more, it puts the blame for subsequent events where it belongs, on Othello's shoulders. But it does this without making him a strange and dangerous barbarian, an oversexed Oriental, or any other desperate creature such as puzzled critics have invented. It leaves him, instead, merely what each of us is: a human being whose body is in constant conflict with his higher aspirations. He is the unhappy, wonderful man of Hamlet's soliloquy on Man. He is every man in the audience.

One of the wonders of this play is its structure. With only enough action to keep interest, Shakespeare has created two characters at a leisurely pace, and so created them that they win our admiration and love. Against them he has seemed to pose the threat of Iago's malice. And it has seemed an adequate danger. Now it is clear that Othello is the danger. Iago was right; he is “an old black ram”. But he is so only in the sense that we all are. The implications are theological, existentialist, if you will, either within a Christian framework or in the broader (or different) framework of Greek tragedy. The working out must be in religious terms; no other method can be satisfactory.


All idolatry of a human being is doomed. It is doomed by carnality; not alone the carnality of the being who is worshipped, but equally, or even more, by the carnality of the worshipper. Desdemona is called divine, and assuredly she is very close to it; but Othello's carnality can easily “turn her virtue into pitch”. It must be granted that she is a very satisfactory wife; the evidence throughout the play is more than adequate. But this is to say, among other things, that she is a satisfactory sexual partner. This is underlined by Iago's remark, “Mark me with what violence she first loved the Moor. …” As with so many of Iago's remarks, this contains an important truth. It is a truth that can make the marriage successful but which can also wreck it.

The clear inference from Othello's action during the brawl is that Desdemona's sexuality came as a surprise to him and that it worked a profound change. His attitude of respect for this lovely creature has not prepared him at all for her carnality. It is at first a blessing unlooked for. But it also is the source of the greatest danger. It is to lead Othello to say:

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

(III. iii. 268-270)

Goddesses should not have appetites.8

If the preparation for the temptation scene has been more careful than is generally noticed, some aspects of the scene itself are treated with more skill and precision than have been acknowledged. Most of the problems that have been discovered in trying to understand Othello's action disappear once the dialogue is read intelligently and it is granted that Shakespeare knew exactly what he was doing. This will mean that Othello must be kept in the position of the central figure of the tragedy and too much must not be attributed to Iago's machinations. The least satisfactory of all Othellos created by critics is Othello the dupe. The Moor must be accepted as the master of his own tragic destiny.

When Desdemona and Othello encounter each other at the beginning of the scene, she is at her most feminine. With the best of causes, the welfare of Cassio, she will test the power of her love over Othello. This power she would have instinctively known as any woman would. Her teasing persistence in Cassio's cause has the delightful charm of a woman on her honeymoon; and, with the superior knowledge of the audience, it is frightening almost beyond endurance.

That Othello has enjoyed the sparring is evident from his remark on her departure: “Excellent wretch!” Could it be bettered? But what he says further contains the central truth of the tragedy, though Othello does not know it.

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

(III. iii. 90-92)

Nowhere in any play of Shakespeare is there a more perfect, more painful, piece of dramatic irony. I quote a dictionary definition of perdition: “Eternal damnation; the utter loss of a soul.”9 Even so! And Shakespeare's audience would have known and felt this meaning as we do not today. To reduce the phrase to a mere playful remark is to make the play a piece of hack work. The full implication is intended by the playwright. This is clear from the precision of the rest of the speech, from the use of the word “chaos”.

Mircea Eliade says:

Every existential crisis brings once again into question both the reality of the world and the presence of man in the world. The crisis is, indeed, “religious” because at the archaic levels of culture, “being” is fused together with “holy.” For all primitive mankind, it is religious experience which lays the foundation of the World. It is ritual orientation, with the structure of sacred space which it reveals, that transforms “chaos” into “cosmos” and, therefore, renders human existence possible—prevents it, that is, from regression to the level of zoological existence.”10

This observation by one of the foremost authorities on comparative religion might very well be taken as a comment on the play. It makes clear the timelessness of truth and underscores the profundity of Shakespeare's understanding of man. It makes clear why Othello had to be a Moor, an “erring barbarian”, why he descends to the animal imagery of Iago in the torment that follows. The crisis that approaches is “existential”, and it is “religious”. It must be dealt with in those terms.

Othello never ceases to love Desdemona. True, and insofar as he loves her, he retains possession of his soul. But when he worships her, when she is exalted as a goddess and fails inevitably in her godliness, “chaos” comes indeed. When he loves her, he can say:

                              'tis not to make me jealous
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are more virtuous. …

(III. iii. 183-186)

This is to accept Desdemona's humanity and to ask no more of her than that she be good in human terms.

But it is not enough. The body betrays by being body:

I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known.

(III. iii. 345-347)

The concept outrages both the real Desdemona and the idol Othello has created. But Othello's anguish comes not from this imagining, but from his own carnal knowledge. This is implied in his question, “Why did I marry?” Marriage imparts the full knowledge of the body which he is not ready to cope with. It brings forward the tension between man's spiritual aspiration and the animal fact. For the idealizing temperament, like Othello and Hardy's Angel Clare, it is easier to love at a distance. The consummation of his marriage has enabled Othello to entertain in his imagination the vilest of Iago's slanders. They can achieve a reality in his mind that is unbearable, that makes Iago's account of Cassio's dream become “ocular proof” of Desdemona's guilt. It is Iago's function in the last three acts of the play to serve as the catalytic agent to hasten the dramatic working out of the fall of the idol. It is the service of this function that has caused the reality of his character to be questioned, that has caused him to be likened to the Vice of the old Morality Play.11 The comparison is legitimate, for Othello is a Morality Play, contrived on so sophisticated and realistic a level that its essential nature is obscured. Beginning with the temptation scene and to the end, Iago serves the role of the Vice; and Othello's love, that of his Good Angel. The great irony of the play lies in the fact that by making an idol of Desdemona, Othello has made this love effective in opposite directions, alternately toward good and then toward evil.

The progress of the fall of his idol leads Othello through the successive renunciation of those forces which have given his life purpose and order. The end is the Chaos he foresaw.

The renunciation of the first source of order is so violent that it surprises Iago, who does not see the implications. After the “plumed troop” speech, he says, “Is't possible, my lord?” But the implications are made clear by the wording of the renunciation, “Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!” War and battle are hardly associated with tranquility or even very often with content. Yet here they are because for Othello his military career had long provided order and meaning to life:

For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith
Till now some nine months wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field.

(I. iii. 83-85)

Is it not clear from this, and from the many other references to his military career, that his soldiery has been Othello's religion, i.e., “that point of reference, external to himself, which serves the individual as both his criterion of truth and his standard of value”?12 This “religion”, which with his acceptance of Christianity and Desdemona's love, has become his “occupation”, is the first to be lost of those forces which ordered his life. But the harrowing effect of this speech, certainly one of the most moving in the play, arises from its being the first step toward chaos. The pathos of the renunciation lies not so much in the sorrow of the backward look as in the horror it shows to lie ahead. Its force is further intensified in the audience's immediate realization of the fact that men have so often fled to war to escape the ravages of disappointed love.

Othello's Christianity is assumed rather than explicitly discussed in the play, and this has led to some critical confusion as to its validity and extent. One fact about it has been seriously neglected: this is that to Shakespeare's audience the marriage of a Christian white woman, especially one of so highly placed a family, would have contained not only the clear implication of a conversion but some cause for wonder about it. There are many persons still alive in the Anglo-Saxon world who, having lived outside the metropolitan centers, can recall the wonder and speculation that the appearance of a Chinese, Japanese, or Indian aroused, and will recall clearly that in the early years of the century this included religious speculation. How much truer this certainly was in the seventeenth century. What is more, within the play itself there are frequent references, in the speeches both of Othello and of Iago to Othello, which assume Othello's Christianity. The restrictions on religious language and the discussion of religious matters on the stage confine the wording sometimes to an indefiniteness which makes it possible to miss the implication. However, the crucial statement of Iago, which points the direction of the play's development, suffers no such vagueness:

                                                            And then for her
To win the Moor—were't to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin—
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function.

(II. iii. 325-331)

This passage from Iago's soliloquy has been mentioned before because it is a key to the play's meaning. Iago has just previously told Cassio that “Our general's wife is now the General”, and this carefully extends the meaning of that statement. The redundancy of “all seals and symbols of redeemed sin” is conspicuous and significant. To it is added that “His soul is so enfetter'd to her love”, which could hardly be more specific in its meaning. Yet to make assurance sure, we are told that “her appetite shall play the god”. To Shakespeare we must grant at least the modicum of theology that is granted to every minor poet of the period. If we do grant it, this becomes a clear statement of idolatry, in terms of Christian theology. Othello's Christianity, whatever its specific character, is so closely linked to Venetian civilization that it is attacked by Iago's words about Venetian women:

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

(III. iii. 201-203)

As Iago has predicted, Othello renounces his baptism with his heathen vow, “by yond marble heaven”.13 It is the second renunciation in this scene, and it is emphasized by Iago's joining in the unholy rite. And Iago has been peculiarly perceptive in seeing the very course by which Othello would come to this destination. By reference to “her appetite” he has brought into focus Desdemona's sexuality as anything but a desirable quality in the marriage, but it must be clear that this very sexuality, especially insofar as it may be described as “appetite”, assures the failure of Othello's idolatry.

The third and final renunciation is prepared for with care. In the striking of Desdemona and the exclamation “Goats and monkeys!”, Othello's life is reduced to what Professor Eliade has called the “level of zoological existence”. What Othello has seen to be the public and unashamed exposure of Desdemona's carnality is the final turn of the knife; the renunciation follows inevitably.

The locus of the Brothel Scene must surely be the most private portion of Othello's quarters in the citadel, the temple of his idolatry. Thus the place of worship is transformed to a brothel, and the sanctity of the love is repudiated. Othello's long speech to Desdemona is the clear statement of what it is he renounces:

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

(IV. ii. 47-60)

Othello says first that this is no ordinary crisis, this loss of Desdemona, no matter such as physical suffering or the outrages of fortune, however great. Nor is it a matter of the public loss of honor, a thing of grave concern within the original ordering of Othello's life. The crisis is central, is religious. Are not the words “The fountain from which my current runs / Or else dries up …” meant to be a cautious but clear reference to Christ's words to the woman of Samaria: “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John iv:14)? Does it not even suggest the reference to God as Him in Whom “we live, move, and have our being” (Acts xvii:28), a phrase from St. Paul's Mars Hill sermon against the idolatry of the Greeks? In any case, whether it prove an allusive statement or not, its essential religious character remains indisputable. To suggest that it may be so only by accident is to suggest that Shakespeare was writing carelessly at a crucial moment of one of his most carefully written tragedies. What the passage says is that Desdemona has been the object of idolatrous worship. Now that she has fallen, chaos must come. To make certain that no other interpretation be made, Othello is made to turn to Emilia in a moment and address her as:

                                                                                You, mistress,
That have the office opposite to Saint Peter
And keep the gate of hell!

(IV. ii. 90-92)

This hell of which Othello speaks is, though he does not perceive it, not the chamber in which the action has taken place, but the hell within him, the chaos, which has “come”. With the fall of “god”, Othello is left without direction, purpose, or meaning. After the last renunciation, there is only chaos.

In the last act, Othello has become the servant of Satan as he moves with Iago toward the destruction of Cassio and Desdemona. Yet he recognizes this fact only at the last when he looks down at Iago's feet. Before that moment, all is clouded and confused. But he moves through confusion to a new ordering of his life. It is this confusion of mind that is expressed in the difficulty of the phrase “It is the cause. …” Othello cannot, at this moment, clearly define any purpose. “Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.” The word “betray” serves two meanings. It refers first to sexual betrayal. But more significantly it refers to the betrayal of Othello's idolatry.

The disclosure of meaning in this final scene proceeds in the most intricate pattern, through action, imagery, and direct statement. Often two opposing movements meet together in a paradoxical effect. Only the careful writing of the earlier part of the play makes it possible to move with any assurance through the maze of implication. It may, indeed, be the most carefully wrought of any scene in Shakespeare, and it is little wonder that critical discussion of it has often been sadly confused. The murder of Desdemona, for example, contains two opposed forces working together. It is, first of all, as Othello says a ritual murder:

                    … thou dost stone my heart,
And mak'st me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.

(V. ii. 63-65)

This “sacrifice” is, of course, a ritual propitiation, a move to placate the forces which have brought chaos to life and to restore order:

For all primitive mankind, it is religious experience which lays the foundation of the World. It is ritual orientation, with the structures of sacred space which it reveals, that transforms “chaos” into “cosmos” and, therefore, renders human existence possible. …14

Othello's crisis is religious, and he seeks necessarily to reestablish order, to make life possible again. But his effort is unconsciously taking place simultaneously on a higher religious level. Of Desdemona he had earlier said:

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

(III. iii. 386-388)

This is to say that she became joined to those forces of evil which have throughout been symbolized by the Moor's own blackness. But now she is “the light”; she is becoming again for him the force of good, which she has in actuality been throughout the play. As such a force, she comes near to averting the catastrophe of the play:

Have you pray'd tonight, Desdemona?

(V. ii. 24)

I would not kill thy unprepared spirit.
No, heaven forfend! I would not kill thy soul.

(V. ii. 31-32)

The mood of these speeches produces that tension, which in the best tragedy provides a memorable moment. It is one of the great ironies of the play that Desdemona's own innocent words when she hears of the supposed death of Cassio determine her fate.

Othello's immediate reaction to the murder establishes its broad significance:

O, insupportable! O heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.

(V. ii. 97-102)

This is true, not because she was Othello's beloved wife, but because she represented the forces of good in the world of the play. Her murder can be made even momentarily bearable to Othello only if “She's like a liar gone to burning hell!” Emilia will not allow him this comfort. She puts the matter in its true light, “O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!”

As the moral implications of the drama work out, Iago is brought in as the personification of the evil motives that have driven Othello, so that in the revelation of the truth Othello may come to a higher illumination. A total illumination comes when Iago is returned as prisoner: “I look down towards his feet—but that's a fable.” It is indeed a fable. The devil is no such real creature as the unsophisticated mind imagines; he is the “fable” which represents those forces both within and without which lead a man to evil. His death is unnecessary, would be superfluous, because at the level of real meaning he has no existence. By facing the truth, Othello accepts responsibility for his own actions.15 He can now redeem himself only by taking his own life.

Othello's death must somehow reveal the proper resolution of this morality play without violating the naturalistic framework in which it functions, and it does this by the most intricate organization that Shakespeare has ever achieved in a short space. Two related patterns are made to work together to disclose the meaning of the act. At the same time the language carefully provides dramatic retrospect; i.e., it suggests the significant actions in the earlier scenes that lead to the final revelation of meaning.

The first pattern is that of the triple renunciation. “I have done the state some service, and they know't.” This refers, of course, to his soldiery, the first organizing element in his life, and the first renounced. It carries the mind back to the first act of the play. The words echo his statement to Iago, “My services which I have done the signiory / Shall out-tongue his complaints”, but it also suggests most effectively the story of his courtship. Othello, however, recognizes that this is a matter of secondary importance: “No more of that”. The second renunciation is covered by the phrase “a pearl richer than all his tribe”. The word pearl obviously refers to Desdemona, and it is a term most apt. But it also just as certainly refers to the “pearl of great price” of Matthew xiii:46, which is the kingdom of heaven, i.e., his Christian faith, which he renounced when he took a pagan oath. His third renunciation is obliterated as he dies “upon a kiss”, not the kiss of idolatry but of sanctified love. It should be noted that this pattern works through the renunciations in the order in which they occurred in the play.

The second pattern is the more significant one, and it clears away the confusion about the suicide speech which has plagued critics such as T. S. Eliot.16 It is the pattern of the sacrament of Penance, which has started earlier. Indeed, it may be said to be adumbrated at the beginning of the scene when Othello says to Desdemona:

Have you pray'd tonight, Desdemona?

(V. ii. 24)


If you bethink yourself of any crime
Unreconciled as yet to heaven and grace,
Solicit for it straight.

(V. ii. 26-28)

The concern shown in these speeches marks the return of Othello's Christianity, though it may be, as G. R. Elliott says, “with formal belief but slight reality” (p. 241). One may well feel that this matter of the final accounting with God will not have disappeared from Othello's mind when he approaches his own death so short a time after.

As a matter of fact, with the approach of Othello's death, the whole form of the sacrament of Penance is implied. The first step, contrition, occurs before the suicide speech. The Council of Trent had said: “Contrition, which holds first place among the penitent's actions, is grief of soul and detestation of the sin committed, together with the resolve not to sin again in the future. This process of contrition has been necessary at all times for obtaining pardon from sin. …”17 Is not such “grief of soul and detestation of the sin committed” clear in the lines

                                        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.

(V. ii. 273-276)


                                                                                Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

(V. ii. 278-281)

It can hardly be denied that this is the statement of contrition, though it still lacks the element of grace, which prepares the contrite to accept the forgiveness of God.

With these words fresh in their ears, Shakespeare's audience might well have been quite prepared for his confession seventy lines later, especially as the precise word “compt” has been mentioned. The confession consists of three parts. First, when he says he is “one that loved not wisely but too well”, he confesses to the idolatry of his love. Granting that the terms are not ecclesiastically precise, one must also grant that they express Othello's sin in the very terms of his commission of it. The rest of the confession is also couched in terms which may be described as experiential. His description of himself as “perplex'd in the extreme” refers to the chaos that results from his error. When he speaks of

                                                                                … one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe …,

(V. ii. 347-349)

he confesses at once to the murder of Desdemona and the renunciation of his Christian faith. The confession is complete.

Othello then speaks of himself as one

                              … whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their med'cinable gum. …

(V. iii. 349-352)

The word “subdued” here is certainly meant to imply the true penitential state suggested by his weeping, but the most brilliant accomplishment of the whole speech is that the word “med'cinable” in the context suggests that the sinner now knows the grace of God's forgiveness.

The act of penance, or satisfaction, is the only possible one: Othello kills the “turban'd Turk”, the heathen that sin has made of him. No priestly absolution is possible either in the framework of the play or on the stage of Shakespeare's day. But the pattern is completed: Othello dies “upon a kiss”, a kiss that is not only once more within the sanctity of marriage but which is placed upon the lips of Desdemona, who has forgiven the murder—even as Christ has.

It should be clear even from this brief study that Othello is one of Shakespeare's most carefully constructed plays. Its texture is an inexhaustible source of wonder. Yet so rich a texture may be partially self-defeating, since, so far as I am able to discover, no critic has noticed the pattern of penance, which makes clear the meaning of the end of the tragedy. The playwright can hardly be held responsible for the failure: he twice introduces penance before it is presented; and, when it is presented, it follows an exact and familiar pattern. Perhaps we have yet to learn to submit ourselves to the author's words and works more completely than we customarily do.

For the present reading it may be claimed that it shows the play to be the wonder of writing and construction that audiences and readers have always, at least unconsciously, felt it to be. The dramatist is shown to hold his theme in firm grasp and to make his statement concerning it quite unequivocally. He is shown to have written the play which perhaps he has been striving to write since the creation of Richard III, a morality play in a completely realistic framework.


  1. “The definition of idolatry as ‘the worship of a false god’ presupposes an understanding of the word ‘god.’ The Bible uses it as a strictly functional term. It stands for that point of reference, external to himself, which serves the individual as both his criterion of truth and his standard of values.” E. La B. Cherbonnier, “Idolatry”, in A Handbook of Christian Theology, edited by Marvin Halverson and Arthur A. Cohen (New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1958), p. 177.

  2. William Shakespeare, Othello, edited by Gerald Eades Bentley (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1958). All quotations are from this text.

  3. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (New York: Random House, Inc., 1962), p. 69. For further discussion of this interpretation, see The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (New York: Modern Library, 1938), “Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex”, Chap. III, passim. If one is reluctant to accept the Freudian interpretation, it still remains impossible to deny that mature love combines the contradictory elements of sensuality and a tenderness that may well be described as desexualized.

  4. Quoted by Aylmer Maude, “Introduction” in The Kreutzer Sonata, The Devil, and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. viii.

  5. It is interesting that the Soviet film of Othello recognizes the religious implications of the marriage by opening with the wedding scene in a magnificent cathedral.

  6. It seems clear to me that the word “dote” is used here in its primary meaning: “to act or talk foolishly or stupidly” (O.E.D.). No object is provided or implied for this verb here.

  7. “The general will ‘Make … an example’ of his chief officer for causing, supposedly, a riot that has broken the post-nuptial slumbers of the general's wife!” G. R. Elliott, Flaming Minister (Duke U. P., 1953), p. 92. Although Elliott here recognizes the cause and quality of Othello's action and goes on to discuss his “confused emotional violence”, he does not recognize the broader implications of the incident.

  8. “There is of course no reason for any ‘defence’ of [sic] ‘mitigation’ of Desdemona's nature. There is nothing wrong in her being human, unless one insists in earnest that Othello's wife should have been a saint. Why should she suppress her ‘appetito donnesco’? Cinthio disavows it in his heroine. Not so Shakespeare. He plainly wished to show—and he shows it plainly enough—that his Desdemona is not without that appetite. Of that, Othello must by now be aware; and it is that silent admission that in his wife there is perhaps really such ‘a will most rank’ that opens the door to his suspicion.” Richard Flatter, The Moor of Venice (London: William Heinemann, 1950), pp. 101-102. I think only Flatter calls attention to this departure from Shakespeare's source. His interpretation of Othello's character, however, is a very sad misreading of the play.

  9. Funk and Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary (Canadian Edition. Toronto: Longmans Canada, 1963).

  10. Mircea Eliade, Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (London: Harvill, 1960), p. 17.

  11. For a detailed description of the development of the Vice into a real dramatic character, see Bernard Spivack, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (Columbia U. P., 1958).

  12. Cherbonnier, p. 177.

  13. Olivier's Othello appeared after this was written. Of this Othello Robert Speaight says: “No one could be more secure in his universe until it falls about him. Olivier marks the transition memorably at the end of the jealousy scene when he throws away the crucifix hanging round his neck and relapses into the pagan chaos from which baptism had delivered him.” “Shakespeare in Britain”, SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], XV (1964), 379.

  14. Eliade, p. 17.

  15. Shakespeare never makes the mistake of reducing the play to a mere allegory. In this scene, as throughout, even as the moral significance is revealed, the action proceeds on a naturalistic level. The tensions between symbolic and naturalistic levels in the play are often very intricate.

  16. T. S. Eliot, Elizabethan Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1934), pp. 39-40.

  17. Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, C4.

Martin Orkin (essay date summer 1987)

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SOURCE: Orkin, Martin. “Othello and the ‘Plain Face’ of Racism.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38, no. 2 (summer 1987): 166-88.

[In the following essay, Orkin considers attitudes toward race in England at the time Othello was written, focusing on the way that Shakespeare treated the subject and concluding that the playwright opposed racism. Orkin also offers a survey of other critics' opinions of the play's treatment of race and pays particular attention to the way Othello has been received in South Africa.]

Solomon T. Plaatje did not come to Shakespeare's plays with the same perspective as those held, no doubt, by most of his contemporary counterparts within the white ruling group of South Africa. But he responded to significant aspects of Shakespeare more reliably than they. Plaatje, who translated several of the works, including Othello, into Tswana, observed that “Shakespeare's dramas … show that nobility and valour, like depravity and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any colour.”1

Before Plaatje's time, Othello had been, during the nineteenth century, one of the most popular plays at the Cape. But a personal advertisement taken out before an 1836 performance suggests the gulf that lay between Plaatje's sentiment and what is likely to have been the opinion of inhabitants in 1836:

In frequenting the Theatre, do not professing Christians pointedly violate their baptismal vows? … In listening to Othello, do they not necessarily contract a horrible familiarity with passions and deeds of the most fiendish character … and give up their minds to be polluted by language so gross? Is not the guilt of such persons great, and their danger imminent?2

The absence or presence of racist attitudes inevitably determines one's response to Othello, as the difference between Plaatje's remark and the comment of the above writer demonstrates. In the following pages, after discussing attitudes to color in Shakespeare's England and in Othello (Sections I-V), I will examine instances in which racist mythology inscribes critical responses to the play (Section VI), focusing finally (Section VII) on how, in South Africa, silence about the prevailing racist tendencies in Othello criticism actually supports racist doctrine and practice.


The English encounter with Africans began from about the mid-sixteenth century. Native West Africans had probably first appeared in London in 1554; certainly, as Eldred Jones points out, by 1601 there were enough black men in London to prompt Elizabeth to express her discontent “at the great number of ‘Negars and blackamoors’ which are crept into the realm since the troubles between her Highness and the King of Spain.”3 In turn, Englishmen visited Africa in significant numbers in the second half of the sixteenth century, primarily for reasons of trade.

As such scholars as Eldred Jones and Winthrop Jordan have taught us, there is ample evidence of the existence of color prejudice in the England of Shakespeare's day. This prejudice may be accounted for in a number of ways, including xenophobia—as one proverb first recorded in the early seventeenth century has it, “Three Moors to a Portuguese; three Portuguese to an Englishman”—as well as what V. G. Kiernan sees as a general tendency in the European encounter with Africa, namely, to see Africa as the barbarism against which European civilization defined itself:

Revived memories of antiquity, the Turkish advance, the new horizons opening beyond, all encouraged Europe to see itself afresh as civilization confronting barbarism. … Colour, as well as culture, was coming to be a distinguishing feature of Europe.4

Furthermore, as Winthrop Jordan argues, the Protestant Reformation in England, with its emphasis upon personal piety and intense self-scrutiny and internalized control, facilitated the tendency evidenced in Englishmen to use people overseas as “social mirrors.”5 Referring to the “dark mood of strain and control in Elizabethan culture,” Jordan highlights too the Elizabethan concern with the need for “external self discipline” in a context of social ferment and change. “Literate Englishmen … concerned with the apparent disintegration of social and moral controls at home” were on occasion inclined to project their own weaknesses onto outsiders, to discover attributes in others “which they found first, but could not speak of, in themselves” (Jordan, pp. 23-24).

These tendencies were coupled with a tradition of color prejudice that scholars identify in the literature and iconography of Shakespeare's day and earlier.6 As the OED indicates, the meaning of the word “black” includes, before the sixteenth century, a whole range of negative associations.7

Such factors may help to account for the white impulse to regard black men in set ways. English ethnocentrism fastened upon differences in color, religion, and style of life. Eldred Jones has assembled material that shows that Elizabethan Englishmen saw the natives of Africa as barbarous, treacherous, libidinous, and jealous. An account of the inhabitants along “the coast of Guinea and the mydde partes of Africa,” for example, observes that they

were in oulde tyme called Ethiopes and Nigrite, which we nowe caule Moores, Moorens or Negros, a people of beastly lyvynge, without a god, lawe, religion or common welth, and so scorched and vexed with the heate of the soone, that in many places they curse it when it ryseth.8

The treachery of black men was popularized in George Peele's play, The Battle of Alcazar (1588); their libidinousness was exemplified in William Waterman's Fardle of Facions of 1555, which noted of the Ichthiophagi that, after their meals, “they falle uppon their women, even as they come to hande withoute any choyse …” (Jones, p. 8). And John Leo's History and Description of Africa (trans. 1600) presents the somewhat conflicting claim that black men are extremely jealous:

[W]homsoever they finde but talking with their wives they presently go about to murther them … by reason of jealousie you may see them daily one to be the death and destruction of another, … they will by no means match themselves unto an harlot.

(quoted by Jones, p. 22)


What evidence exists in Othello that Shakespeare shared the color prejudice apparent in his age? I would argue, first, that there is racist sentiment within the play, but that it is to an important degree confined to Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio.9 Both Iago and Roderigo use racist insinuation during their attempted putsch against Othello's position and reputation. Iago, as we know, calls up to Brabantio that “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.88-89)10 and that

… you'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you; you'll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.


Roderigo, too, is proficient at racist insult, referring to Othello as the “thicklips” (I.i.66) and falling upon the racist stereotype of the lust-ridden black man when he calls to Brabantio that his daughter has given herself to the “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (I.i.126). Furthermore, the language of these two men ignites a similar tendency to racism lurking within the Brabantio who has in the past invited Othello to his home as a guest. Provoked, Brabantio laments in anger that if Desdemona's bewitchment—as he construes it—is to be permitted, then “Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (I.ii.99). Othello is of course neither a slave (although, as he tells us, he had once been one) nor a pagan, but Brabantio projects both roles onto the general, referring also to the “sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou” (I.ii.70-71).

This racism makes no impact upon the Venetian court as a whole. Even where Brabantio is concerned, although Iago and Roderigo successfully manage to expose an element of hidden racism, the father's grief is mixed. His problem is as much to come to an understanding of the fact of his daughter's disobedience as it is to cope with his misgivings about his son-in-law's color. The immense authority that parents claimed during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries explains at least a part of the father's rage. When he is told of his daughter's elopement, Brabantio's first cry is, “Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds” (I.i.170), and his insistence that the marriage goes against nature at least includes the suggestion that the unnaturalness lies in part in the flouting of loyalty. Certainly, Desdemona, when called upon for an explanation, offers one that deals with the issue of parental authority (I.iii.180-89). Brabantio's final expression of grief communicates anger at her deception and betrayal rather than at the “inter-racial” nature of his daughter's marriage:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see;
She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee.


The Venetian court ignores the racism implicit or explicit in Brabantio's remarks; they have, after all, elected Othello general and he is, as we learn later in the play, esteemed by them as the “noble Moor” whom they consider “all in all sufficient” (IV.i.265). Certain critics argue that it is only the imminent crisis with the Turks that determines their restraint in the accusation brought against Othello. However, although the emergency clearly dominates their thinking, as would be the case for rulers of any state under threat, no evidence emerges in the detail of the language to suggest that they share a hidden racist disapprobation of Othello. Brabantio's initial accusation, with its racist asides, might well have been taken up by one with racist predilections; instead, the Duke asks only for concrete proof to replace the “thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming” which “do prefer against him” (I.iii.108-9). The first senator attempts, it is true, to ascertain whether Othello did “by indirect and forced courses / Subdue and poison this young maid's affections” (I.iii.111-12), but, even before the evidence has been fully heard, he also acknowledges, in a way that negates any suggestion of racism, that the relationship between Othello and Desdemona might well be based upon “request, and such fair question / As soul to soul affordeth” (I.iii.113-14). When, finally, the truth has been heard, the Duke responds, “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (I.iii.171), and his ensuing attempt to console Brabantio—although it obviously suggests, in its platitudinous ring, a desire to move on to the emergency facing Venice—argues for reconciliation and acceptance.11

Furthermore, the racism displayed by Iago, Roderigo, and, in his uglier moments, Brabantio, contrasts with others in Othello. Cassio, the Florentine, clearly loves and respects his general; deprived of office by Othello, he does not resort to the resentment that characterizes the response of the ensign who considers he has been passed over. Yearning only to win again his superior's favor, Cassio blames himself:

I will rather sue to be despis'd than to deceive so good a commander with so slight, so drunken, and so indiscreet an officer.


And Desdemona, also like Iago a Venetian, not only loves Othello but remains consistently in love with him throughout the play, never, despite that to which she is subjected, impugning either that love or her husband.12

Nevertheless, at times in the play speakers besides Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio appear to refer to or to draw upon racist discourse. These include the Duke, Desdemona, and even Othello himself. Before examining such remarks, however, it is necessary for us to consider the overall presentation of Iago and Othello in the text.


Winthrop Jordan argues that Othello loses most of its power and several of its central points “if it is read with the assumption that because the black man was the hero English audiences were indifferent to his blackness. Shakespeare was writing both about and to his countrymen's feelings concerning physical distinctions between peoples. …”13 The observation is an important one. Shakespeare is writing about color prejudice and, further, is working consciously against the color prejudice reflected in the language of Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio. He in fact reverses the associations attached to the colors white and black that are the consequence of racist stereotyping. It is Iago, the white man, who is portrayed as amoral and anti-Christian, essentially savage towards that which he envies or resents, and cynical in his attitude to love—for him “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will” (I.iii.334-35).

Iago's tendencies are exposed to the audience from the start. In reacting to his own failure to secure promotion he attacks both the system that he serves and the man who has won the position he coveted. He voices the time-serving bureaucrat's objection that promotion goes not by the “old gradation, where each second / Stood heir to th' first” (I.i.37-38) and denigrates the abilities of his successful rival as “Mere prattle, without practice” (I.i.26). Moreover the viciousness in Iago's seething resentment at having to remain in a condition of subordination, his restless barrack-room malice, flashes out in his cynicism towards Cassio and in his dislike of the alien implicit in his reference to his rival as “a Florentine” (I.i.20). Iago's scorn for social bonds or any concept of duty, his assertion, “Not I for love and duty, / But seeming so, for my peculiar end” (I.i.59-60), identifies his ruthless hypocrisy and self-interest. When he asserts his intention to deceive (I.i.61-65), he describes society as predatory—ready to “peck at” any exposure of feeling. This negative projection onto society produces an overtly stated intention to be himself a predator. His picture of society as ready at the appropriate moment to cashier the “kneecrooking knave” (I.iii.45) is not borne out by the play in either Cassio's or indeed Othello's experience. Iago's projections result patently from a sense of failure and rejection, which, as Jane Adamson observes, he fails to acknowledge:

Iago's significance … centres on his unremitting efforts to deny or suppress the feelings that consume him, and to transform them into other feelings that might at once allow and justify a course of retributive action, instead of his having impotently to suffer fear, loss and self-disgust and negation.14

Othello is about love and also about its absence. Iago, in rejecting a social conscience, eschews Christian values asserting the importance of a positive and loving commitment to one's fellows and one's society. Moreover, the consequences of Iago's rejection of communication and commitment extend beyond mere escape from the inevitable vulnerability and risk that the action of love to a degree always involves. Iago also loses the capacity to comprehend love. The irony in his racist brooding—especially in his soliloquies about Othello's alleged sexual license—is that his own mechanistic and cynical view of love (as he outlines it at the conclusion of Act I, and as he claims it for the Venetians), approximates closely the penchant for lust of which black men were accused in racist accounts. Perhaps nowhere else in drama is Jordan's point about the Elizabethan faculty for projection onto the other so well illustrated as in Iago's imaginings about Othello's alleged promiscuity.

On at least two occasions in the text, Iago's amoral and anti-Christian attitude appears to be directly indicated. William Elton has identified in I.iii.320-26 an instance of Pelagian heresy: in extolling man's complete freedom Iago propounds a philosophy that St. Augustine labored to eradicate.15 Then, when Othello takes his terrible vow (III.iii.453-62), Iago pledges:

Witness, you ever-burning lights above,
You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here Iago doth give up
The execution of his wit, hands, heart,
To wrong'd Othello's service! Let him command,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.


The text here echoes Desdemona's earlier language of love to Othello, but, in kneeling and twisting the sentiment into a promise to serve his general in “what bloody business ever,” Iago perverts the First Commandment, thus desecrating his own morality. In terms of the Christian context of the play, destructiveness emanates from Iago: it is his savagery that, as the play unfolds, tears at the fabric of his society.

In his presentation of Othello as the antithesis of the stereotypical “Blackamoor,” Shakespeare runs counter not merely to Cinthio's treatment of the Moor in Hecatommithi, but also to the currents of color prejudice prevalent in his age. Shakespeare's Othello is invested with the prerequisites of nobility—he is born of “royal siege” (I.ii.22), he is a great soldier, he possesses a lofty vision, and Shakespeare gives to him the richest language in the play. Moreover, as Christian general best suited to defend Cyprus against the Turks, Othello would have had special heroic resonance for his Jacobean audience. Repeated battles over Cyprus occurred during the sixteenth century, with the famous and symbolically important battle of Lepanto occurring in 1571.

Othello's capacity for love is intimately bound up with his sense of honor, a sense that includes the public as well as the private being. His understanding of marriage does not admit infidelity. Nor is he unique in this. Certain commentators in the sixteenth and seventeenth century viewed adultery with extreme seriousness. As Stephen Greenblatt observes, it was held to be

one of the most horrible of mortal sins, more detestable, in the words of the Eruditorium penitentiale, “than homicide or plunder,” and hence formally deemed punishable, as several authorities remind us, by death. Early Protestantism did not soften this position. Indeed, in the mid-sixteenth century, Tyndale's erstwhile collaborator, George Joye, called for a return to the Old Testament penalty for adulterers. “God's law” he writes, “is to punish adultery with death for the tranquillity and commonwealth of His church.” This is not an excessive or vindictive course; on the contrary, “to take away and to cut off putrified and corrupt members from the whole body, lest they poison and destroy the body, is the law of love.” When Christian magistrates leave adultery unpunished, they invite more betrayals and risk the ruin of the realm. …16

The moral laxity at the court of King James, too, perturbed commentators, one of whom wrote of

the holy state of matrimony perfidiously broken and amongst many made but a May-game … and even great personages prostituting their bodies to the intent to satisfy and consume their substance in lascivious appetites of all sorts.17

Othello's detestation of adultery sets him amongst the moralists, at the opposite pole from Iago's savage cynicism about sex and love.

Furthermore, Othello's sense of honor is intimately bound up with his belief in justice, evident in the first act not only in the context of his knowledge of the service he has done Venice, which will “out-tongue” Brabantio's complaints (I.ii.19), but also in his confidence that the evidence he offers will exonerate him. In Act II he dismisses his own appointee when the evidence convicts him, despite his personal love for Cassio, and in Acts III, IV, and V he applies judicial procedures in an attempt to handle the crisis into which he is plunged. His suicide is also for him an act of justice in which he provides for himself suitable punishment for what he now understands to have been the murder of his own wife.

In his presentation of Othello, then, Shakespeare appears concerned to separate his hero from the fiction that the racist associations attached to his color allege. We may recall here that Ernest Jones cites instances from Shakespeare's earlier work to maintain that, although Shakespeare may have begun with unthinking acceptance of the color prejudice of his age, he started to move beyond this before Othello. Whereas the portrayal of Aaron in Titus Andronicus largely conforms to the negative Elizabethan racial stereotype, by the time of The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare offers a more dignified Moor.18 More important than this perhaps is the evidence that G. K. Hunter provides in order to identify a current of writing in the literature of the seventeenth century and earlier which endeavors to abandon the use of the colors black and white as reliable signs of personality and moral fiber. To illustrate this tendency Hunter quotes from Jerome's commentary on Ephesians 5.8 (“For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as the children of light”) that “He that committeth sin is of the devil. … Born of such a parent first we are black by nature, and even after repentance, until we have climbed to Virtue's height. …” He then cites Bishop Hall, who, encountering a black man, opines:

This is our colour spiritually; yet the eye of our gracious God and Saviour, can see that beauty in us wherewith he is delighted. The true Moses marries a Blackamoor; Christ, his church. It is not for us to regard the skin, but the soul. If that be innocent, pure, holy, the blots of an outside cannot set us off from the love of him who hath said, Behold, thou art fair, my Sister, my Spouse: if that be foul and black, it is not the power of an angelical brightness of our hide, to make us other than a loathsome eye-sore to the Almighty.19

There is, admittedly, residual racism in such writing: the color black still attaches to the concept of evil. Nevertheless a separation of the sign black from the essential goodness or evil of human beings also takes place.


It is partly in such contexts that we need to consider certain remarks made by Desdemona, the Duke, and even Othello himself. In some lines, the characters speak in ways that appear to acknowledge the currents of racism in Shakespeare's day; further, they speak in ways that play off their actual responses towards each other against awareness—which it is impossible in terms of literary tradition easily to escape—of current or traditional attachment of (racist) values to these colors as signs. Thus Desdemona speaks of having seen Othello's visage “in his mind” (I.iii.252), the Duke tells Brabantio that

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


while Othello himself, in bitterness, is at least partly alluding to the patristic significance of his color when he cries out at what Desdemona's “adultery” has done to him:

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


In contrast to these instances, Emilia, torn by grief and anger at the death of her mistress, cries

                    O, the more angel she,
And you the blacker devil!


drawing directly upon the racist tendency in patristic and literary tradition. But earlier, when Emilia asks Desdemona whether she thinks her husband jealous, Desdemona's reply suggests an equally direct rejection of this tradition:

Who, he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humors from him.


Desdemona here takes the darkness of her husband's skin as a positive sign of virtue.

In addition, Othello, as his sense of betrayal intensifies, intermittently refers to the racism that, present in his world, must lurk at the edges of his consciousness or identity. Iago, aware of precisely this, attempts to penetrate the integrity of Othello's sense of self and encourage his acceptance of a version of himself and his interaction with others drawn from the discourse of racism. In Act I Shakespeare presents the love of Othello and Desdemona as extraordinary; the destructive wave that Iago, exploiting racist impulses, tries to bring against the two, fails. But in Act III, Iago tries again when he bears witness against the integrity of Desdemona.20 After his first warning about Desdemona (III.iii.197), and after his deliberate reference to Venetian “pranks” that postulates a shared ethical system from which Othello is excluded, he makes a fleeting reference to the possibility of color prejudice—“And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks, / She lov'd them most” (III.iii.207-8). Then, a few lines later, as Othello ponders Iago's remark—“And yet, how nature erring from itself” (III.iii.227)—Iago takes a direct step into the explosive subject of color:

Ay, there's the point; as (to be bold with you)
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 disproportions, thoughts unnatural.


Othello's line prompting Iago's interruption may suggest that he entertains, in a fallen world, the prospect of the decline of his and Desdemona's exalted love from its true nature into an adulterous and ordinary plane. However, the line echoes the phrasing of Brabantio's attack upon him at I.iii.60-64 and it encourages Iago to intervene with racist insinuations. But although Iago works for the substitution of Othello's view of himself by a narrative drawn from racist discourse, he treads on dangerous ground and must, when he goes in the present instance too far, withdraw:

But (pardon me) I do not in position
Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear
Her will, recoiling to her better judgement,
May fall to match you with her country forms,
And happily repent.


The word “form” in the OED has as its sense not only “A body considered in respect to its outward shape and appearance” but also “manner, method, way, fashion (of doing anything)” (first citation 1297). Elsewhere Iago remains careful to keep his allegations within the bounds of differing social conventions, as when he exploits Othello's position as outsider to Venetian custom at III.iii.201-3. Moreover Othello himself comments on the fact that he is to an extent a stranger to the intimacies of Venetian social life. Attempting to understand the possible reason for Desdemona's supposed infidelity, he refers again to his color, indicating at once what this signifies for him:

                                                                                          Haply, for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or. …

(III.iii.263-65, my italics)

As soldier as well as “stranger” Othello is well aware of the difference in behavior between himself and the “wealthy curled darlings” (I.ii.68) of whom Brabantio speaks.

Nevertheless the possibility or danger of racism, which Iago in this exchange attempts to convert into “fact,” occasionally surfaces elsewhere in the language of the Othello who was once a slave. Thus at III.iii.189 he reflects “For she had eyes, and chose me.” Endeavoring to dismiss Iago's hints that he might have cause for jealousy, Othello recalls that as suitor he was one of presumably a number of wooers Desdemona might have chosen and sets against an assumed deficiency of merit the fact that Desdemona preferred him. However his words give at least partial credence to the racist fictions Iago attempts to encourage, to the possibility that Desdemona herself incorporates in her “revolt” an element of racism. Such anxiety about the possibility of racism, when it surfaces, remains occasional, inevitably ambiguous, and only one element in the unfolding of Othello's crisis.


Despite Shakespeare's separation of the “real” Othello from the racist fictions associated with his color, the fact remains that in Act V Othello smothers or strangles his wife. How are we to take this image of violence? Or, to put the question differently, what is the reality that lies behind his action, the appearance of which—in its collocation of violence with a certain color—has been so inviting to racist interpreters of the play?

The act of desperation presented in the text does not confirm in Othello a special form of “barbarism” from which, say, certain European peoples are immune, nor, indeed, does the partial corruption of the Othello-language by the Iago-language in Acts IV and V ever include complete acceptance of Iago's racist (as opposed to his socio-cultural) thrust against the general. The murder of Desdemona presents to the audience the most terrible version in the play of the tragedy of human action in its aspect of error. Moreover, the play does not trivialize this recognition by proposing that it is the consequence of a particular—and therefore avoidable—susceptibility to weak judgment. Towards the end of the play, Emilia, ironically in the presence of the husband whom the audience knows to be the very “villainous knave” of whom she complains, yearns for extra-human powers of perception:

O heaven, that such companions thou'dst unfold,
And put in every honest hand a whip
To lash the rascals naked through the world
Even from the east to th' west!


Such powers, the play continually asseverates, are denied to human beings. The final image of a black man stifling or strangling a white woman, it might be argued, deliberately courts a racist impulse, which we know was likely to have been present in certain members of Shakespeare's first audiences. But it does so only to explode any such response. The play, before this moment, has presented multiple acknowledgments of the different factors that vitiate any hope of perfect perception or judgment in a postparadisal world. I have already noted that color, as surface indicator of identity, is shown to be totally inadequate. Again, from the start of the play, in the extended exposure he gives to Iago, together with his presentation of the ensign throughout, Shakespeare concentrates on the problem of the inevitable vulnerability of human judgment to hidden malice. Moreover, in the various “trial scenes” in the play, Shakespeare demonstrates the extent to which the judicial process itself is subject to abuse because of the unreliability of testimony. These issues underlie the portrayal of Othello's dilemma and they help to register a human problem that is most intensely and painfully presented in that final image of suffocation.

When Shakespeare makes the audience Iago's confidant at the play's beginning, he endows the audience with a position of omniscience that no member of that audience outside the theatre can possess—and that the members of the Othello world cannot possess either. The audience is invited to realize, accordingly, the danger of concealed antisocial behavior and, too, its power, for Shakespeare also bestows upon Iago the greatest reputation of anyone in the play for honesty. Paul A. Jorgensen has stressed the frequency with which the word “honest” is appended to Iago's name and he has also suggested that Iago's official function as ensign may have been to expose knaves.21 Again, the fact that Cassio and Desdemona, as well as Othello, trust Iago cannot be overemphasized. None has the god-like vision—the lack of which Emilia laments—that would enable him or her to penetrate the surface honesty of Iago to discover the reality. Thus Cassio, dismissed from office largely as a result of Iago's skillfully devious manipulation, turns nevertheless to the “honest” ensign for advice. And Desdemona, in her hour of greatest need, which also results from the work of Iago, kneels to the “honest” friend of her husband to beg for help. One of the most strident accusations against Othello has been that he is too gullible, but granted the care with which Shakespeare emphasizes, in his presentation of Iago, the potency as well as the effectiveness of concealed malice, Othello's only protection against his ensign would be extra-human powers of perception—an X-ray vision granted to no person.

Through his presentation of Iago, Shakespeare demonstrates that in an imperfect world human judgment can never penetrate beyond the opacity of deliberately deceptive discourse. Moreover, Shakespeare explores this problem in the specific context of the process of justice. The narrative fictions a man may weave about himself or others become in the legal context the testimony he offers. And it is most interesting that the vulnerability of testimony to distortion was a particular talking point in the legal discussions of Shakespeare's time and later. Amongst other commentators, Robert Boyle, for instance, stressed the crucial role of the witness:

You may consider … that whereas it is as justly generally granted, that the better qualified a witness is in the capacity of a witness, the stronger assent his testimony deserves … for the two grand requisites … of a witness [are] the knowledge he has of the things he delivers, and his faithfulness in truly delivering what he knows.22

Barbara Shapiro, who argues that reliance upon testimony was increasing during this period because of the growing mobility and complexity of society, emphasizes that the issue was particularly crucial in the matter of witchcraft:

The fact that witchcraft was a crime as well as a phenomenon and thus had to be proved to a learned judge and an unlearned jury, … provides an unusual opportunity to observe theories of evidence at work. For the courts, witchcraft was a matter of fact and, like all questions of fact, turned on the nature and sources of the testimony. … [Reginald] Scot's [Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584)] exposed one type of trickery and fraud after another and denounced Continental legal procedures which, in cases of witchcraft, permitted excommunicants, infants, and “infamous” and perjured persons to testify, and allowed “presumption and conjectures” to be taken as “sufficient proofes.”23

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries prosecution for witchcraft increased rapidly throughout Europe and laws against it were passed in 1542 and 1563 and again in 1604, the probable date of Othello.24 Side by side with the legal offensive against witchcraft, however, the debate about the credibility of witches intensified. In 1616 John Cotta wrote with extreme caution about the use of testimony:

[I]f the witnesses of the manifest magicall and supernaturall act, be substantiall, sufficient, able to judge, free from exception of malice, partialitie, distraction, folly, and if by conference and counsell with learned men, religiously and industriously exercised in judging those affairs, there bee justly deemed no deception of sense, mistaking of reason or imagination, I see no true cause, why it should deserve an Ignoramous, or not be reputed a True bill, worthy to be inquired, as a case fit and mature for the same due triall.25

The concern with justice in Othello clearly relates to these issues. It may be remarked that where doubt about any situation arises the only way in which society may attempt to ascertain the truth after the event is through the process of law. The series of “trial scenes” that, critics have noted, take place in Othello all depend in the main upon testimony. Moreover, the first of these “trial scenes” centers specifically upon the charge of witchcraft.

Brabantio maintains that Desdemona “Sans witchcraft” (I.iii.64) could not have chosen Othello—a fact of which Iago is not slow to remind his general (III.iii.211). Furthermore, Othello himself, during his account of the courtship, explicitly dismisses the charge of witchcraft (I.iii.169). Othello and Desdemona offer reliable testimony in this scene and the general is “acquitted.” In this scene and those that follow, the debate about the judicial process and the complexities associated with reliance upon testimony must certainly have been evoked for those members of Shakespeare's first audiences interested in the law. In the two subsequent “trial scenes,” Iago is chief witness against Cassio and then Desdemona; not only his false testimony but his opportunistic exploitation of various situations prove crucial. Shakespeare emphasizes too that the problem posed for the judicial system by the potential unreliability of testimony is not reducible to explanations of extra-human (satanic) propensities for evil. Thus Shakespeare lets Iago boast to his audience that his fabrication of evidence or his alert opportunism, which subverts the law, results from the application of intellect, partly from what Greenblatt has identified as his talent for “improvisation”:

Thou know'st we work by wit, and not witchcraft,
And wit depends on dilatory time.
Does't not go well?


The final “trial scene” in Act V results from the successful abuse of justice which occurs in Acts II and III. The guilty man in that scene is Othello, the one who has cared most about morality and justice during the play. This posits a skeptical and troubled view of the efficacy of the process of justice as an instrument to achieve the ordered identification and administration of the right and the good. The implications about the inadequacy of the judicial system—the susceptibility of legal processes to deception and manipulation—remain at the close of the play.

What is Othello to do when his trusted friend, the Iago who also has an impeccable reputation for honesty in his society, tells him that his wife is an adulteress? In the increasing conflict that Othello experiences after Iago has alleged the adultery of Desdemona, Shakespeare presents in its most acute form the problem of human perspicacity and its limitations—posed in both the personal and the public or legal contexts in the first two acts. For Othello, as Christian commander of Cyprus, the sanctity of his marriage, the defense of the island, and the maintenance of order are inextricably linked. Just as he will not earlier be seen to neglect his public role because of his private marriage to Desdemona, he cannot prevent the dishonor he imagines to exist in his private life from permeating his whole existence. Yet his most trusted source has identified Desdemona for him as an adulteress. Placed upon the wrack he continually struggles against what he cannot at the same time refute—without the power of omniscience Shakespeare has granted only to the audience.

For one thing, he demands evidence—

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore;
Be sure of it. Give me the ocular proof


—evidence that does not ease the struggle because of his love of Desdemona. Iago, we may recall, obliges. After offering him inflammatory images—“Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? / Behold her topp'd?” (III.iii.395-96)—he follows with his account of the dream, depending upon the traditional medieval and Renaissance authority of certain dreams as an index to reality. The handkerchief for Othello has similar importance not in itself but because of the vital “magic” Iago has wrought upon it as a piece of evidence. In the practice of justice such objects are vested with special significance precisely because man is unable to perceive perfectly either past events or present identities. Othello also seeks to communicate with Desdemona directly, but Shakespeare portrays not only how the manipulation of a hidden deceiver may further diminish the normally fallible powers of human perspicacity but also how accidental misunderstanding of the situation affects her powers of judgment so that in her advocacy of Cassio's cause she unwittingly exacerbates the situation and makes Othello's chances of reaching her even more difficult.

Winifred Nowottny, in what is still one of the most helpful essays on the play, describes the ways in which Act IV offers the “dreadful spectacle of Othello's attempts to escape” the tension within him between his own image of Desdemona and that which Iago has given him:

The pitch rises as his ways of seeking relief draw, horribly, ever nearer to Desdemona and to the deepest intimacies of love. The falling in a fit is a temporary way of not bearing the tension. That, shocking as it is, affects only himself. The next way is the striking of Desdemona. His striking her in public (for in their private interview there is nothing of this) is a symbolic act: a calling the world's attention to the intolerableness of what he suffers by the intolerableness of what he does. The treating of Emilia as a brothel-keeper is an expression of the division in him at its deepest level: to go to his wife as to a prostitute is to try to act out what the situation means to him.27

The evidence Othello receives continually fails to satisfy him for, as Nowottny also points out, what he wishes to discover is Desdemona's innocence. Moreover, the great truth underlying Othello's violence in all this is clear: it has been precipitated not by any innate barbarism of his own but by the barbarism of Iago. The one thing his violence confirms is that if nobility and valor, like depravity and cowardice, are not the monopoly of any color, then neither is the angry destructiveness that is born of hurt and betrayal.

Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio seek only love and honor in the play. The horror of Act V results partly from the fact that, even as Othello kills Desdemona, he still loves her, whilst Desdemona's love, too, remains constant—in dying she blames no one but herself. Othello's language in that final scene, often commented on, shows, side by side with his agonized awareness of the light he is to extinguish, his concern for release, for justice and punishment, his painful, enduring sense of love which ensures that Desdemona, as Christian, be permitted to confess—not merely to confirm her guilt but also to ensure her salvation.

It may be true that Othello does acknowledge at its end that antisocial and destructive members of society such as Iago have no more control over their imperfect visions of the world and their actions than anyone else. Iago, despite his attempts at secrecy, finds himself exposed. But the justice of his undoing means far less than the errors of those who in the play are good. Their fates result from the danger of language which, because of its opacity, may lend itself to distortion. The inevitable limitations of human judgment, furthermore, make error possible, rendering the good and the just inescapably prey to the actively evil and malign.28


South African critics generally avoid Othello; when they do write about it they hardly touch upon its concern with color, and seek refuge instead in a focus upon idealist abstractions or upon interiority. Thus one critic sees the play as a “tragedy of love overcome by cynicism”—Othello, only briefly referred to in this article, has a “magic” love whereas Desdemona's love is superior, suggesting something “more mature, a human grace humanly worn, not supernatural” and she manifests throughout the play “integrity” and “higher possession of self”29 And another critic, claiming that the play offers a “demonstration of one of the frightening possibilities of human love” observes that “for Shakespeare, as for any literary artist, the story is clearly partly an artifice—not a realistic account of the way human events would be likely to turn out in everyday life, but a convincing image of the way things might essentially be: an image created in the process of distilling an insight into, or a revelation of, human nature.”30 Such emphases—upon the essence of love itself (with Othello inevitably coming out second best)—or upon the “truths” of human nature, in the South African situation, encourages, by a process of omission and avoidance, continuing submission to the prevailing social order. That in the play which challenges existing relations of domination and subordination—the play's concern with the unreliability of racist stereotyping, the difficulties in human interaction, the limitations (rather than the essence) of justice and human judgment—remains ignored.31

It is important to recognize too that this practice in South African criticism of the play offers, inevitably, a narrow and attenuated version of certain European and American perspectives. Moreover, in these approaches as well dangerous ambiguities may be detected which perhaps ought not to be fleetingly noted in passing (with superior amusement) but more directly addressed.32 Such approaches tend to ignore the play's concern with the tragic problems attendant upon human judgment and perception. They choose instead to focus, often obsessively, upon Othello himself. Whilst Bradleyan notions encourage this tendency, it is difficult in most cases to avoid the conclusion that, finally, the attribution to Othello of certain characteristics on the basis of his color provides the springboard for the ensuing interpretations. And such criticism often includes not only a series of personal attacks upon Othello's nature, it also infers or implies reservations about his adequacy.

F. R. Leavis's somewhat notorious essay on Othello provides an example.33 In the course of presenting his case against Bradley's view of Othello as a “nearly faultless hero whose strength and virtue are turned against him” (p. 137), Leavis lets slip some singular observations. For instance, discussing Othello's marriage to Desdemona, he comments that “his colour, whether or not ‘colour-feeling’ existed among the Elizabethans, we are certainly to take as emphasizing the disparity of the match” (p. 142, my italics). This insistence on Othello's blackness as a sign of the “disparity” in the marriage is accompanied later by another, at best ambiguous, remark that, under Iago's pressure, “Othello's inner timbers begin to part at once, the stuff of which he is made begins at once to deteriorate and show itself unfit” (p. 144, my italics). Moreover, despite his apparently sarcastic reference to Othello's relatively mature age when he writes of the “trials facing him now that he has married this Venetian girl with whom he's ‘in love’ so imaginatively (we're told) as to outdo Romeo and who is so many years younger than himself” (p. 142), Leavis still manages, later in the argument, to find Othello guilty of “self-centered and self-regarding satisfactions—pride, sensual possessiveness, appetite,” and “strong sensuality with ugly vindictive jealousy.” These defects are compounded with a series of other telling weaknesses: “an obtuse and brutal egotism,” “ferocious stupidity,” and an “insane and self-deceiving passion” (pp. 145-47). Earlier in the century T. S. Eliot accused Othello of lack of insight when he asserted that he had “never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness … than the last great speech of Othello,” where the hero could be seen to be “cheering himself up” and “endeavouring to escape reality.”34 Leavis develops this accusation in a somewhat tortuous observation that links up, no doubt, with the “unfitness” of his Moor's “inner timbers” when he concludes that Othello's last speech “conveys something like the full complexity of Othello's simple nature” (p. 151, my italics).

Small wonder perhaps that Sir Laurence Olivier's tour de force in the National Theatre's production of Othello during the mid-1960s (subsequently filmed) disappointed some—despite its disturbing popular appeal. The program notes accompanying the performance of the play offered liberal extracts from Leavis's essay, perpetuating the notion, already prevalent in Shakespeare's day, of the black man as savage, as sensual, and vindictively jealous, and also of course, as simple.35

To notice such peccant ambiguities (at best) in Leavis's writing is not to offer a gratuitous slur. Apart from the fact that the subject matter of Othello demands that we recognize the matter of color and the possibility of prejudice, this mode of regarding Othello stretches far back in English criticism. Thomas Rymer, one of the most famous of the play's detractors, is best known for his censure:

So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was not this call'd the Tragedy of the Handkerchief?36

But the quality of his criticism is perhaps better represented by another of his adjurations deserving as widespread notoriety:

This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors.

(quoted in Vickers, p. 27)

No less a commentator than Coleridge had this to say:

[I]t would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.37

Thus, Coleridge shares a tendency noticeable in nineteenth-century criticism to make Othello an Arab rather than an African.38 And A. C. Bradley, writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, reflects as follows on Othello's color:

Perhaps if we saw Othello coal-black with the bodily eye, the aversion of our blood, an aversion which comes as near to being merely physical as anything human can, would overpower our imagination and sink us below not Shakespeare only but the audiences of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.39

Even more shocking than the presence of such notions in the minds of earlier critics writing about the play is the fact that they appear to be shared by one of the most influential of the relatively recent editors of Othello. Tellingly, the Arden edition is still repeatedly set for the use of South African students. Its Introduction contributes to the particular strain of racism that accompanies so much of English writing about the play. M. I. Ridley, the editor, appears at one point to dismiss a typical nineteenth-century racist response manifest in the ruminations of “a lady from Maryland” quoted also in the New Variorum edition of Othello. But a passage from Ridley's purported dismissal of her comments is enough to indicate the flavor of his own attitudes. He takes the lady to task in the following way:

Now a good deal of trouble arises, I think, from a confusion of colour and contour. To a great many people the word “negro” suggests at once the picture of what they would call a “nigger,” the woolly hair, thick lips, round skull, blunt features, and burnt-cork blackness of the traditional nigger minstrel. Their subconscious generalization is … silly. … There are more races than one in Africa, and that a man is black in colour is no reason why he should, even to European eyes, look sub-human. One of the finest heads I have ever seen on any human being was that of a negro conductor on an American Pullman car. He had lips slightly thicker than an ordinary European's, and he had somewhat curly hair; for the rest he had a long head, a magnificent forehead, a keenly chiselled nose, rather sunken cheeks, and his expression was grave, dignified and a trifle melancholy. He was coal-black, but he might have sat to a sculptor for a statue of Caesar, or, so far as appearance went, have played a superb Othello.40

The preference for the Ridley text in South African universities is unlikely to be purely coincidental. Interestingly, however, at secondary level, where South African students are exposed to little more than the text itself, Othello is rarely taught. The South African educative authorities clearly sense something in the play itself sufficiently inimical to racist ideology and practice to discourage its use in high schools.

More recently than Ridley, Laurence Lerner, in arguing that we should not “sentimentalise” Othello, participates in the tradition of criticism developed by Eliot and Leavis.41 We may be certain that, as an ex-South African, Professor Lerner eschews racism of any kind and his article presumably attempts to avoid not merely overt racism but the covert inverted racism that might be detected in an unsubstantiated overeager defense of Othello. But having respectfully quoted both Eliot and Leavis, he cannot—whatever we may wish to speculate about his motives and however generous we need to be towards them—for long remain on the sidelines. Lerner presents Othello as an amalgam of the noble and the jealous, the soldier and the fool, the Christian and the barbarian who is reduced to “stammering bestiality” in the course of the play (p. 352). There is, however, no need to linger over the ambiguous comments that punctuate his article, for its tenor becomes clear towards the end—

… Othello is a convert. Noble and upright as he is, he seems all the nobler when you consider what he was—a Negro, a barbarian. … Everyone remarks in the first act that Othello is black, that the environment he grew up in is one where passions rule. … When Othello falls there comes to the surface just this black savage that everyone in the first Act was so pleased that he wasn't. … I am afraid Shakespeare suffered from colour prejudice. Othello is seldom played in South Africa, where it is not thought proper for white women to marry black men. I am never sure that the South Africans are wise about this: for if one can put aside the hysterical reaction that any play depicting inter-marriage must be wicked, one should be able to see quite a lot of the South African attitude present

(pp. 357-60, my italics)

Othello as a public relations exercise for apartheid!

Equally distressing in much critical writing about the play is the fact that certain associations attached to the colors black and white in literary and iconographic tradition appear to have remained embedded in, and affected the attitudes of, twentieth-century critics towards the dramatic characters in Othello. Lerner's observation—

Blackness is the symbol, in the imagery, not only for evil but for going beyond the bounds of civilisation: in the end, the primitive breaks out again in Othello. The two Othellos are one: the play is the story of a barbarian who (the pity of it) relapses …

(p. 360)

—provides a clear instance of this. The dangerous insistence on blackness as the “heart” of “darkness,” so pressingly present too in Conrad's famous story—blackness as strongly linked with the primitive, the savage, the simple—lurks within many ostensibly non-racist articles as well.42 Thus, in a well-meaning article which is nevertheless of this kind, K. W. Evans is unable to shake off racist overtones in his use of the terms “blackness” and “whiteness.”43 He observes:

Othello's blackness, the primary datum of the play, is correlated with a character which spans the range from the primitive to the civilised, and in falling partially under Iago's spell Othello yields to those elements in man that oppose civilised order.

(p. 139)

Despite his recognition of “those elements in man that oppose civilised order,” Evans fails to stress the fact that the destructive impulses in the play emanate primarily from Iago whilst earlier in the article appearing to confuse traditional literary color denotations with overt racial categorization. He describes Desdemona and Othello in this way:

Desdemona dies … because of naivete that exceeds her own. … Considering the factors of age, race and above all, the lovers' simplicity, ordinary realism suggests that this marriage was doomed from the start. … For much of Othello's second phase, a picture of the violent, jealous, credulous, ‘uncivilised’ Moor reverting to type dominates the play. … The darkness in the bedroom is not complete but is broken by an enduring vision of Desdemona's whiteness.

(pp. 135-36; p. 138, my italics)

As I suggested earlier, such interpretations of Othello result partly from the tendency to treat Othello as a character in isolation from the context in which Shakespeare sets him in the play, and in isolation from the problems identified by the language of all those who speak besides, as well as including, the general. Whenever this is done, something has to be found to explain the character and actions of the hero. Whilst Shakespeare himself sees the tragedy as primarily lying elsewhere than in Othello (as a “black” man), such analyses, ignoring this in their attempt to arraign the hero, recently appear to have become more and more desperate. One fairly new article, which quotes with apparent approbation both Lerner and Leavis, not only finds Othello to be strongly sensual, vindictively jealous, and ferociously stupid, but contorts the character at the same time into someone both sexually frustrated and sexually unsuccessful!44


None of these critics, it may be claimed, was necessarily desirous of being racist when he wrote. But the danger is that we leave unidentified, except perhaps in passing, these undercurrents and their implications in such work—as if to register them would be an exercise in bad taste. Whatever the case may be elsewhere, in South Africa, silence about so tenacious a tendency in Othello criticism has the effect of a not-too-covert expression of support for prevailing racist doctrines.

For those in South Africa who abhor the dominant apartheid ideology and its practice, Othello has special importance. Indeed, Othello's reference to his being “sold to slavery” and to his “redemption thence” (I.iii.138), during his account of his early life, cannot be taken by a South African audience as a purely incidental remark. Like the extensive concern with color in the play the brief mention of slavery directs us to that faculty in man for destruction and exploitation. And, in South Africa, slavery was one of the crucial factors contributing to the growth of racist ideology. The South African historians du Toit and Giliomee describe the impact of slavery upon Cape society in this way:

As the number of slaves increased in the eighteenth century, the effects of slavery began to permeate the entire social order. The belief became entrenched that the proper role of the white inhabitants was to be a land- and slave-owning elite, and that manual or even skilled labour in the service of someone else did not befit anyone with the status of freeman. Slavery, then, came to inform the meaning of other status groups as well. Cardozo remarked that in a slave society freedom is defined by slavery; thus everyone aspired to have slaves. With respect to the Cape an observer remarked in 1743: “Having imported slaves, every common or ordinary European becomes a gentleman and prefers to be served than to serve. … The majority of farmers in the Cape are not farmers in the real sense of the word … and many of them consider it a shame to work with their hands.45

The quotation from a nineteenth-century South African response to Othello, with which I began this article, was actually published when the Great Trek, which was at least in part a response to the abolition of slavery, had just begun. Some of the Trekker leaders resisted the abolition precisely because it removed forms of social discrimination. Karel Trichardt, for instance, noting his people's reactions to the abolition, emphasizes that “the main objection to the new dispensation was the equalisation of coloured people with the whites,” and Anna Steenkamp, the niece of another Voortrekker leader, protested that the emancipation of slaves involved

their equalization with the Christians, in conflict with the laws of God and the natural divisions of descent and faith, so that it became unbearable for any decent Christian to submit to such a burden; we therefore preferred to move in order to be able the better to uphold our faith and the Gospel in an unadulterated form.46

Such distasteful attitudes are likely to have resulted from the loss of that position of exploitation which du Toit and Giliomee identify. Indeed the theorist Harold Wolpe has stressed the importance of the connection between racism and the context in which it occurs:

The failure to examine the changing, non-ideological conditions in which specific groups apply and therefore interpret and therefore modify their ideologies results in treating the latter as unchanging … entities. By simply ascribing all action to generalised racial beliefs, prejudices or ideologies, the specific content of changing social relations and the conditions of change become excluded from analysis.47

Many factors may have contributed to the growth of racism in South Africa, but the use of racist mythology to justify or mask exploitation seems to be one of the society's most consistent features. To take only one further instance: the exploitative classes who came to South Africa in the last years of the nineteenth and early twentieth century found racism convenient in a context from which they too were materially to benefit enormously. In an address to the South African Colonisation society, one Sir Matthew Nathan, for instance, had this to say on the subject of black nurses:

Just as the natives had a peculiar exterior so they had a peculiar character, and it was obvious that the British colonist did not want his child imbued with the ideas of a lower civilisation.48

Other recorded observations, then and since, from those who stood most to profit from the “implications” of racism, communicate attitudes often almost identical to those Shakespeare gives to Iago.49 To a degree, too, Iago's mode of operation anticipates what later social historians and theorists identify in racist behavior. Iago's and Roderigo's color prejudice is recognized as sordid, the resort of men who in one way or another feel mediocre and overlooked. Iago uses racism against an individual whose skills, ability, and success in crucial ways exceed his own. And he uses it as a tactic—when he believes it may afford him some material advantage over the man whom he wishes to control and if possible destroy.

Certain English and sometimes American responses that reflect color prejudice stand as a warning as to the ease with which many of the central concerns in Othello may be obscured. In South Africa, the so-called Immorality Act, which forbade relationships between people of different colors and which was only in 1985 apparently abandoned, was peripheral in its impact upon the majority of South Africans as compared with the many other more crucially destructive laws which have shaped the present socio-economic and political dispensation. Yet because of the attempt it made to interfere with, legislate upon, and exploit for purposes of control human desire and love, it retains a symbolic repugnance. For the South African audience, Othello must still be experienced within the shadow of this Act and the larger system of which it formed a part. Athol Fugard's Statements is one of the many attempts made in the literature of South Africa to portray the way in which racism utilizes the law in order to shatter the private relationship of two people in love. Othello, too, presents the destruction of a love relationship in which, in ways specific to its own context, racism and the abuse of the legal process play a terrible part. Nevertheless, in its fine scrutiny of the mechanisms underlying Iago's use of racism, and in its rejection of human pigmentation as a means of identifying worth, the play, as it always has done, continues to oppose racism.


  1. From Solomon T. Plaatje in A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, ed. I. Gollancz (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1916), pp. 336-39, cited in English in Africa, 3 (1976), 8. Stephen Gray, “Plaatje's Shakespeare,” English in Africa, 4 (1977), 4, gives an account of Plaatje's translations. Plaatje is also the author of Native Life in South Africa, 2nd ed. (London: P. S. King & Son, 1916).

  2. Cited by Eric Rosenthal, “Early Shakespearean Productions in South Africa,” English Studies in Africa, 7 (1964), 210.

  3. Othello's Countrymen (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 12-13.

  4. “European attitudes to the outside world” in ‘Race’ in Britain—Continuity and Change, ed. Charles Husband (London: Hutchinson, 1982), pp. 27, 29. The proverb is mentioned by G. K. Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” Proceedings of the British Academy, LIII (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967), 139-63.

  5. The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), p. 22.

  6. G. K. Hunter's “Othello and Colour Prejudice” is excellent, as is Eldred Jones's highly informative Othello's Countrymen. See also Jones, The Elizabethan Image of Africa (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1971).

  7. Doris Adler, “The Rhetoric of Black and White in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly, 25 (1974), 248-57, has offered a highly sensitive account of the multiple resonances in the use of the words “black,” “white,” and “fair.” Whilst I agree with almost everything in this valuable article, I intend to argue that although Othello does intermittently “describe himself in terms of (Iago's) racial stereotype” (p. 254), his primary dilemma in the play relates to Iago's refashioning of Desdemona's image. See also Harold Clarke Goddard, “Othello and the Race Problem,” Alphabet of the Imagination (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1974), pp. 74-84.

  8. Part of Richard Eden's own elaboration of the account of John Lok's voyages, first published by Eden in 1554-55 and reprinted in 1577 and 1589. Cited in Jones, Othello's Countrymen, p. 11.

  9. It might be argued that the term “color prejudice” is more appropriate for the sixteenth and seventeenth century than the term “racism.” However, equally, it may be argued that from the perspective of the twentieth century the term “color prejudice” is not profitably to be distinguished from the modern sense of racist practice. The one implies, if it does not always lead to, the other. As early as the sixteenth century, active exploitation/persecution on the basis of color was, in any event, under way. Oliver Cromwell Cox, “Race and Exploitation: A Marxist View,” Race and Social Difference, eds. Paul Baxter and Basil Sansom (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp. 205-20, describes Sepulveda, who in 1550 attempted to justify the right of the Spaniards to wage wars against the Indians as “among the first great racists; his argument was, in effect, that the Indians were inferior to the Spaniards, therefore they should be exploited” (p. 210). In the present article, the terms “color prejudice” and “racism” and their variants are used interchangeably.

  10. All references to Othello are from The Riverside Shakespeare, gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), with square brackets deleted.

  11. The Duke's comment at I.iii.289-90 is discussed below.

  12. This is not to claim an infallible Desdemona. Jane Adamson, “Othelloas tragedy: some problems of judgment and feeling (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 214-63, identifies the extent to which Desdemona's own misunderstanding of her husband and her misjudgment of the situation helps to compound the errors in which all become embroiled. One of the best articles on the quality of the relationship between Desdemona and Othello, and lucid and helpful in many other ways too, is G. M. Matthews's, “Othello and the Dignity of Man,” Shakespeare in a Changing World, ed. Arnold Kettle (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1964), pp. 123-45: “both lovers assert ‘humane’ values against the conventions that debase them” (p. 129).

  13. The White Man's Burden, p. 20.

  14. Othello as Tragedy, p. 96.

  15. King Lear and the Gods (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1966), p. 137.

  16. Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 246-47.

  17. Simonds D'Ewes, quoted in Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 665.

  18. Othello's Countrymen, pp. 49-60, 68-71. We may note here a possible irony registered during the presentation of Portia's color prejudice. The OED cites for the word “complexion”—“4. The natural color, texture, and appearance of the skin esp. of the face”—Morocco's “Mislike me not for my complexion, / The shadowed livery of the burnish'd sun” (The Merchant of Venice, II.i.1-2). In view of this citation it is possible that there is hypocrisy in Portia's polite flattery of the Moor's appearance (II.i.20-22) when set against her privately stated opinion at I.ii.129-31.

  19. Hunter, “Othello and Colour Prejudice,” p. 153.

  20. John Holloway, The Story of the Night (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), pp. 155-65, offers what is still one of the most convincing refutations of the Leavis claim that Othello's response to Iago's suggestions in this scene is prompt and totally gullible.

  21. Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1962), pp. 3-21.

  22. The Works of Robert Boyle (1690), V (London, 1772), 529, cited in Barbara J. Shapiro, Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth-Century England (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983), p. 179.

  23. Probability and Certainty in Seventeenth Century England, pp. 194, 198.

  24. Witch Hunting and Witch Trials. The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes held for the Home Circuit A.D. 1559-1736, ed. C. L'Estrange Ewen (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1929), pp. 13, 15, 19. In 1604 “[t]he Act of Elizabeth was repealed in 1 Jas. I by a statute of more severity but one which was not so harsh as that of 1541” (p. 13).

  25. The Triall of Witchcraft (London, 1616), pp. 80-81, cited in Shapiro, p. 201.

  26. According to Greenblatt, “improvisation” is “the ability both to capitalize on the unforeseen and to transform given materials into one's own scenario” (pp. 227 ff.). Ruth Cowhig, “The Importance of Othello's Race,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 2 (1977), 153-61, argues that the audience witnesses in part “the baiting of an alien who cannot fight back on equal terms” (p. 157).

  27. “Justice and Love in Othello,University of Toronto Quarterly, 21 (1952), 339. Ruth Cowhig observes: “Othello was very closely followed by King Lear, and in both plays Shakespeare seems to be exploring the basic nature of man, and especially the effect on that nature of the subservience of reason to the passions” (p. 159).

  28. The natural vulnerability of goodness to hidden malice is underlined as a central concern in the play in the account of Desdemona's escape from the storm, when Cassio speaks of “The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands, / Traitors ensteep'd to enclog the guiltless keel” (II.i.69-70).

  29. Geoffrey Hutchings, “Emilia: A Case History in Woman's Lib,” English Studies in Africa, 21 (1978), 71-77.

  30. C. O. Gardner, “Tragic Fission in Othello,English Studies in Africa, 20 (1977), 11-25.

  31. I have explored another, equally important dimension to the play in “Civility and the English Colonial Enterprise: Notes on Shakespeare's Othello,Literature in South Africa Today, Theoria Special Issue, 68 (December 1986), 1-14.

  32. We may recall here the observation of Charles Husband, the social psychologist, that “it is the deterministic association of category of person with type of behaviour that is at the core of race thinking”:

    [R]acism refers to a system of beliefs held by the members of one group which serve to identify and set apart the members of another group who are assigned to a “race” category on the basis of some biological or other invariable, “natural seeming” characteristic which they are believed to possess, membership of this category then being sufficient to attribute other fixed characteristics to all assigned to it.

    (‘Race’ in Britain—Continuity and Change, pp. 18-19, cited in note 4)

  33. “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero,” in The Common Pursuit (1952; rpt. Harmondsworth: Peregrine, 1962), pp. 136-59.

  34. “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” Selected Essays, 3rd ed. (London: Faber and Faber, 1958), p. 130.

  35. The program note to the National Theatre production of Othello (London: The National Theatre, 1964)—with Sir Laurence Olivier as Othello and Frank Finlay as Iago, production by John Dexter, performed at the Old Vic during the 1964-65 season—quotes extensively from Leavis's essay and includes most of the passages to which I refer in my discussion, together with many others, germane to the present point, which I do not quote.

  36. “A Short View of Tragedy” (1693), extracts reprinted in Shakespeare; the critical heritage, ed. Brian Vickers, II (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974), 51.

  37. Coleridge's Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), p. 169.

  38. The beginnings of the great debate about Othello's color go back to the late eighteenth century. In a letter to The Gentleman's Magazine, 61 (1791), Verbum Sat (pseud.) writes,

    He is a Moor, and yet is always figured as a Negro. I need not tell that the Moors, or people of the North of Africa, are dusky, but with very agreeable features, and manly persons, and vigorous and ingenious minds; while the Negros have features remarkably unpleasant, mean persons, and little power of mind. I suspect that this ludicrous mistake proceeded from Shakespeare's speaking of the blackness of Othello's complexion, and indeed face, compared with the European: and I am convinced that is not older than the revival of the theatres in 1660.

    (pp. 225-26)

    In “Some Notes on Othello,” Cornhill Magazine, 18 (1868), 419-40, J. J. Elmes is one of the nineteenth-century writers who disagrees with Coleridge. Even so, he quotes Schlegel at one point—

    We recognize in Othello the wild nature of that glowing zone which generates the most ravenous beasts of prey and the most deadly poisons, tamed only in appearance by the desire of fame, by foreign laws of honour, and by nobler and milder manners.

    (p. 438)

    —and he underlines later the “repugnance, more generally felt than expressed, to a Negro being the hero of a love story” (p. 438). See also Francis Jacox's opening remarks in Shakespeare Diversions, Second Series: From Dogberry to Hamlet (1877), pp. 73-75, and Cumberland Clark, Shakespeare and national character. A study of Shakespeare's knowledge and dramatic and literary use of the distinctive racial characteristics of the different peoples of the world (London: Hamlin, 1928):

    In spite, however, of his intercourse with the polite world which had produced that westernised veneer so easily assumed by the coloured races, Othello is still barbarian bred with instincts that suddenly break forth in ungovernable impulse.

    (p. 134)

    The debate about a tawny or black Othello lingers on as recently as Philip Butcher, “Othello's Racial Identity,” SQ, 3 (1952), 243-47, who argues: “Brabantio is not merely annoyed because his consent was not asked. Only a black Othello can serve as adequate motivation for his attitude towards his daughter's marriage to a man of exalted rank and reputation” (p. 244). Arthur Herman Wilson's letter to SQ, 4 (1953), 209 contests this. Ruth Cowhig, “Actors, Black and Tawny, in the Role of Othello—and their Critics,” Theatre Research International (Glasgow), 4 (1979), 133-46, provides an historical survey of changing attitudes to the color of Othello from the late eighteenth century on. I am most grateful to the late Professor John Hazel Smith for alerting me to the writers mentioned in this footnote.

  39. Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1961), p. 165. Sanford E. Marovitz, “Othello Unmasked: A Black Man's Conscience and a White Man's Fool,” Southern Review (Adelaide), 6 (1973), 108-37, identifies a similar tendency towards racist innuendo in the writing of Harley Granville Barker. However, the article itself goes on to display ambiguity: the author identifies a conflict within Othello between a civilized self and a “savage consciousness” (p. 124): “The emotionalism and barbarity characteristic of the black stereotype at last wholly prevail over the cool, rational behaviour of the white Christian world which the alien Moor had adopted” (p. 125), “Othello's rational soldier's mind, the mind of a white Christian, is overwhelmed” (p. 130), etc.

  40. The Arden Shakespeare, Othello (London: Methuen, 1958), p. li. See also pp. liii-liv.

  41. “The Machiavel and the Moor,” Essays in Criticism, 9 (1959), 339-60.

  42. See Tim Couzens, “The Return of the Heart of Darkness,” The English Academy Review (Johannesburg: The English Academy of Southern Africa, 1982), pp. 36-52.

  43. “The Racial Factor in Othello,Shakespeare Studies, 5 (1970), 124-40.

  44. T. G. A. Nelson and Charles Haines, “Othello's Unconsummated Marriage,” Essays in Criticism, 33 (1983), 1-18. This is another attempt to pin on Othello a personal accusation to account for the tragedy. The authors base their claim that Othello is sexually frustrated and sexually unsuccessful on his having never consummated his marriage with Desdemona. Disregarding the double time issue, given the fact that Shakespeare deliberately allows already established intimacy between Othello and Desdemona within the time span of the play itself to be interrupted, and given most significantly of all Iago's acknowledgement in pointedly inflammatory language at the beginning of the play that their marriage and its consummation have already taken place, their argument becomes at best highly disputable.

  45. André du Toit and Hermann Giliomee, Afrikaner Political Thought: Analysis and Documents, 1750-1850, I (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979), 7.

  46. Cited in Herribert Adam and Hermann Giliomee, The Rise and Crisis of Afrikaner Power (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979), p. 95.

  47. Cited in Dan O'Meara, Volkskapitalisme (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1983), p. 9. A. Montague, Man's Most Dangerous Myth (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), notes a related process during the abolition of slavery. Those members of society most opposed to emancipation began to exploit racism as a tactic against reform: “The idea of ‘race’ was in fact the deliberate creation of an exploiting class which was seeking to maintain and defend its privileges against what was profitably regarded as an inferior social caste” (p. 39). Montague illustrates “as an investment, the ‘inferior caste’ yielded a profit which on the average amounted to thirty percent” (p. 39).

  48. Cited in Charles van Onselen, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886-1914, II (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1982), 29.

  49. See “Housewife” in van Onselen, p. 29. See also Charles O'Hara, cited in van Onselen, p. 40.

R. V. Young (essay date March 2004)

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SOURCE: Young, R. V. “The Bard, the Black, the Jew.” First Things, no. 141 (March 2004): 22-8.

[In the following essay, Young argues that Othello “highlights the danger of racial categorization” by presenting a nonwhite protagonist who embodies both noble qualities and human vulnerability.]

More than any other writer, Shakespeare embodies the distinctive principles of Western Civilization. Men and women of the West are drawn to Shakespeare because his plays and poems continue to express their aspirations, to articulate their concerns, and to confront the tensions and contradictions in the Western vision itself. He is admired not as an uncritical encomiast of his own culture and society, but rather as an exemplum of the spirit—both critical and conservative—that is among the West's most enduring legacies to the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that academic literary critics, who owe their very existence to Shakespeare and other great writers, have cast doubt upon Shakespeare's exalted position at exactly the moment in history when the societies of the West have become most anxious about their own integrity and probity.

No issue has proven more vexatious than race in the assessment of the moral stature of Western Civilization. The drive toward multiculturalism, which is especially vigorous in the academic world, rests on the proposition that the culture of the West, in virtually all its manifestations, is an elite hegemony of white European males, which routinely marginalizes, represses, and generally victimizes women, the poor, adherents to non-Christian religions, and—above all—the dark-skinned races indigenous to other continents. While the chief playwright of the Western world is, according to this view, fully implicated in the crimes of his culture, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, plays that offer characters and incidents with a plausible relation to contemporary concerns, undermine any such judgment. Both plays unsettle assumptions and disturb the conscience—these are among the effects of great works of art, which are strengthened by the inquiring spirit of Western Civilization. Nevertheless, the disturbance arises from an essentially Christian vision of human nature and the human condition that, while affirming their reconciliation in God, acknowledges the tension between justice and mercy in this world.

The Merchant of Venice can be an extremely troubling play for contemporary audiences. While commentators of an earlier generation sought to save Shakespeare and the Christian characters from the charge of intolerance and anti-Semitism by turning the play into an allegory, more recent readings often maintain, to the contrary, that Shakespeare in fact lays the groundwork for the racialist anti-Semitism of a later era in the character of Shylock. Now The Merchant of Venice, although it involves significant symbolic elements, is not an allegory; and although it has certainly had an impact on European culture, the play has not—among reasonable persons—contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism. Such provocation for anti-Semitism as it provides has been there in the culture all along, and the principal effect of The Merchant of Venice is to disrupt any ideological complacency deriving from the apparent Jewish stereotype presented by Shylock. This disruption does not entail Shylock's romantic transmogrification into a tragic hero; in fact, it is his stubborn villainy that generates the uneasy tension that runs through the drama. Shylock is certainly a more malicious individual than Antonio, Bassanio, or Portia, yet there can be no question that the Jew suffers ill use at the hands of the Christians. Shakespeare's critical spirit is nowhere more manifest: in literature as in life, the individual whom we find pleasant or engaging is not always good, not always fair; and justice is not always served by just any action taken against a malefactor. It is precisely because Shylock is so cruel and repellent that his appeal to our common humanity is so poignant.

Regarded as a depiction of a Jew, The Merchant of Venice stands out because there is nothing else like it. Villainous Jews are not unusual in medieval literature. Indeed, Jews who compel our attention as suffering human beings are virtually unheard of before Shakespeare. It is generally agreed that Shakespeare takes most of the plot from the tale of Giannetto, which appears in a fourteenth-century Italian collection, Il Pecorone (the “blockhead” or “dolt”). Shakespeare adds depth of meaning and richness of texture to every element of plot and character that he has imitated, but especially in his creation of Shylock, who is a nameless, dimensionless figure in Il Pecorone. Shakespeare not only provides the Jewish usurer with a name, but also with a daughter who elopes with a Christian, as well as with a history of hostility and abuse from the Christian merchant Antonio. Above all, Shakespeare gives Shylock an intense bitterness and sense of humiliation that certainly explain—although they do not excuse—his murderous intentions toward Antonio.

To be sure, Shakespeare had in Christopher Marlowe a more formidable competitor in the dramatization of a villainous Jew than the anonymous compiler of Il Pecorone. Still, in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, Barabas is a caricature out of medieval mystery and miracle plays. He gives an account of himself in close accord with the superstitious folk image of the Jew as ritual murderer, poisoner, and ruthless enemy of humanity—but especially of Christians. “Be mov'd at nothing,” he urges his servant, “see thou pity none, / But to thyself smile when the Christians moan.” To this image of mythical terror out of the Middle Ages Marlowe adds a very “modern” Elizabethan fear of the amoral Machiavellian schemer—“Machavill” speaks the prologue to the play and claims Barabas as his follower. The title character of The Jew of Malta is thus an Elizabethan archetype of villainy.

When The Merchant of Venice was first performed, probably in 1596 or 1597, The Jew of Malta had enjoyed an extraordinarily successful revival, having been staged at least thirty-six times between February 1592 and June 1596. What may have kept interest in the subject alive and even provided an occasion for the composition of Shakespeare's play was the notorious affair of Roderigo Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who had served as physician to Queen Elizabeth. Jews had been officially banished from England in 1290 by King Edward I, and Lopez, like the rest of the handful of Jews living in London in the sixteenth century, was at least nominally a Christian convert. Such conversions were, however, always suspect among Christians throughout Europe, and when Lopez became implicated in an alleged Spanish plot to poison the Queen in 1594, old fears of Jewish duplicity and cruelty were seemingly confirmed.

The trial and execution for treason of Roderigo Lopez thus furnished a sensational backdrop for The Merchant of Venice. But in sharp contrast to the model he had in The Jew of Malta, Shakespeare mutes the sensational possibilities in the material. Both Barabas and Shylock have only daughters who, their fathers feel, betray them by becoming Christians. Abigail, the daughter of Barabas, having counterfeited a religious vocation in order to help her father recover his money, eventually becomes a nun. Barabas responds by poisoning her, along with all the nuns in the convent. Shylock's daughter Jessica, unhappy at home, elopes with a prodigal Christian, Lorenzo, and steals money and jewels from her father. Shylock is enraged at the loss of his ducats, but he is also heartbroken over his daughter's heartless betrayal of him. He cries out in his rage and frustration, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! Would she were hears'd at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” The discrepancy between Barabas' atrocity and Shylock's malevolent but perfectly understandable human exclamation could hardly be more pronounced. The one is a monster, the other a man.

From the outset Shakespeare sets about providing Shylock with powerful motivation for his hatred of Antonio. When Antonio offers Shylock surety for a loan of 3,000 ducats to the improvident Bassanio, the aggrieved moneylender reminds the merchant that he has called the Jew “misbeliever, cut-throat dog” along with a host of other insults. “Hath a dog money?” Shylock asks, “Is it possible / A cur can lend three thousand ducats?” Antonio is unmoved by Shylock's indignant response to such humiliations and tells him to lend the money “to thine enemy, / Who if he break, thou mayst with better face / Exact the penalty.” Antonio is, in modern parlance, asking for it, and we may suspect that a modern playwright with this plot on his hands would make the long-suffering Jew first conceive his hatred here, when his genuine longing for reconciliation is rebuffed one time too many. Shakespeare, however, has already let us know, in an aside earlier in the scene, that Shylock hates Antonio because “he is a Christian” and because “He lends out money gratis, and brings down / The rate of usance here with us in Venice.”

But Shylock's studied malice no more justifies Antonio's self-righteous complacency than Antonio's insults justify Shylock's premeditation of murder. In fact, the Christian merchant is more of a Pharisee in his self-assured moral and spiritual superiority than is the Jewish usurer, and this ironic tension adds bite to the gaiety of this romantic comedy. Antonio's acceptance of the “merry bond” of a pound of his flesh to be granted Shylock in the unlikely event of forfeiture allows Antonio to avoid entering an agreement involving interest, to which he was willing to agree “only to supply the ripe wants of my friend.” It is important to note that Antonio's complete condemnation of any taking of interest is an extreme view for Elizabethan England during Shakespeare's time. Although usury was theoretically forbidden, in practice it was allowed at rates of no more than ten percent per annum. Francis Bacon probably expresses the common attitude in his 1625 essay “Of Usury,” where he maintains that lending at a profit is so necessary that “to speake of the Abolishing of Usury is Idle. All States have ever had it, in one Kinde or Rate, or other. So as that Opinion must be sent to Utopia.”

What turns Shylock from a petty, circumspect miser into a ruthless avenger is his daughter's elopement. It is this betrayal by his own flesh and blood, and the jeering of the minor Christian characters Solanio and Salerio, that render Shylock implacable, not the mythical Jewish bloodlust of medieval fantasy. Salerio and Solanio do not, at first, take Shylock seriously; they cannot believe that he will go through with his threat. Shylock, for his part, has indeed become remorseless in his murderous intention toward Antonio, but it is strictly a matter of personal hatred growing out of a sense of wounded pride. If the Christian Venetians would only look at him with unbiased eyes, they would see that he acts with a human, perfectly understandable motive.

In a masterstroke of irony, Shakespeare has Shylock claim his common humanity most poignantly in the course of justifying his most inhuman act. In one of the play's two most famous speeches, Shylock berates the Christians for failing to acknowledge his equally human status even as he is bent upon shedding it: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he cries. “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions … ?” He is like them in his faculties, he maintains, and the moral corollary follows inevitably: “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” It is significant that Shylock makes his plea on a very basic level, and that he is not a very good man himself. A man ought not to be required to appeal to others on an exalted spiritual plane in order to have his fundamental humanity acknowledged. Essential human dignity should not be contingent upon a winsome personality.

Hence the trial scene in Act IV, which so unsettles modern audiences, manifests not the failure of Shakespeare's art, but rather its triumph. In fact, the success is a direct result of the tremendous tension it generates in readers and theatergoers. While it is a mistake to attempt to save the play's gaiety and romance by turning its turbid religious conflict into an abstract allegory in which the feelings and experiences of the individual characters do not count for much, an equal error is made by critics who diminish or dismiss the importance of religion for the Christian characters. The trial scene is constructed from a Christian perspective, which highlights the Pauline dichotomy of Old Testament legalism opposed to the New Testament gospel of grace. Before Portia, disguised as Balthasar, enters the scene the issue is framed in an exchange between the Duke and Shylock. “How shalt thou hope for mercy,” asks the former, “rend'ring none?” To which the Jew replies, “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” Shylock is persistent in his demand that the legal contract be carried out exactly as it is written, confident in the justice of his cause: “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond.”

Having uttered one of the most moving speeches in all of Shakespeare's plays, he is deaf to another, Portia's “quality of mercy” speech, which closes with a reminder of universal human fallibility: “Therefore, Jew, / Though justice be thy plea, consider this, / That in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy, / And that same prayer doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy.” Some critics are skeptical about the sincerity (or at least the depth) of Portia's Christianity, because they see little that is specifically Christian in her plea to Shylock—clemency was, of course, an important Stoic theme. But in fact the prayer that “doth teach us all to render / The deeds of mercy” is the “Our Father,” and the notion that we cannot be saved by our own justice is the heart of the gospel, especially as preached by St. Paul. The opposition between the covenants of law and grace, which comes to the fore in the trial scene, is central to the play as whole, and there is no reason to presume that this understanding of moral and spiritual reality is not integral to the minds of Shakespeare's Venetian Christians.

Even so, these are not fervent or exemplary Christians. Fervent, exemplary Christians are called saints, and their number is regrettably small. As is so often the case in Shakespeare, the irony is doubled: Shylock gives utterance to an impassioned plea for the common humanity in all men even as he is hardening his heart to exact a terrible vengeance; Portia eloquently extols the virtue of mercy in the hearts of kings and seems promptly to forget her own speech when she comes to exercise power herself. The Duke, Bassanio, and Antonio—once the threat is past—are all willing to allow a chagrined Shylock to walk away with his money; it is the iron-willed Portia who demands that he be held to the strict letter of the law, just as he himself has insisted. The end of the play would be much more comfortable for us if we could treat the Portia of the trial scene as an allegory of the Divine Judge who forces Shylock (the allegorical sinner) to relinquish all his wealth with the conditional restoration of a part of it upon his baptism—that is, he must throw down everything he has and follow Christ. But this will not work because we already know Portia as the high-spirited, self-possessed mistress of Belmont and also as a tender, longing young bride. She has no business playing God.

Here again is Shakespeare's critical spirit at work: Portia provides a fine account of mankind's universal need for the grace of forgiveness but then fails to be gracious and forgiving herself. Even she, “a Daniel come to judgment,” is fallible and in need of forgiveness. If we miss the point, Shakespeare underscores it with a further irony. The character who immediately begins jeering at Shylock when Portia turns the tables on him, the character who offers Shylock only “A halter gratis—nothing else for God's sake” (emphasis added), is named Gratiano, which of course suggests grazia, the Italian word for “grace.” The character contradicts the name, and this is the man who most avidly seconds Portia in her complete humiliation of Shylock, though the others join in readily enough. The Christian principle of gracious forgiveness is, then, a good one, but it is extremely difficult for Christians themselves to observe it. Shylock is prevented from cutting away a pound of Antonio's flesh from very near his heart, but in a sense the Christians cut Shylock's heart out of his body without shedding a drop of his blood. And they do so with clear—if blinded—consciences. In thus dramatizing the doctrine of grace by showing how those who profess it often fail to fulfill it, Shakespeare highlights a distinctive and specifically Christian element of Western Civilization: its inability to live up to its own finest insights, which are always too exalted to be grasped by mortal men and women.

The devastated Shylock slinking off the stage casts a shadow over the comedy and romance of The Merchant of Venice, but we cannot suppose this effect to be inadvertent on Shakespeare's part, because he does the same thing in other plays. Falstaff certainly ought to be banished from the royal court at the end of II Henry IV, but his dismissal still disrupts the solemnity of the coronation. Even more striking is the storming off the stage of the “much abus'd” Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night. As his name indicates, Malvolio is a man of ill will. His genuine grievance against Olivia's other servants, however, dampens the gaiety of the play's conclusion. Moreover, the parallel with Malvolio assimilates Shylock to another category: in Twelfth Night Maria calls Malvolio “a kind of Puritan.” Shakespeare's audience, which would have had little chance to associate with Jews, would have found Shylock's disapproval of plays and revelry familiar enough: “What, are there masques? Hear you me, Jessica: / Lock up my doors, … / Let not the sound of shallow fopp'ry enter / My sober house.” Everything in Shakespeare's plays—not to mention his profession as playwright—suggests that he was not fond of Puritans. Yet as a man who was surely reared a Catholic and who may have died a Catholic in the ferociously anti-Catholic England of Elizabeth and James, he may well have sympathized with anyone under the pressure of religious conformity. This fact may well explain the poignancy of Shylock's forced conversion, troubling the penultimate act of this comedy. Shylock is thwarted, but we cannot forget him and his demand to be recognized as a man, not a monster.

In Othello Shakespeare develops the ambiguous status of the dark-skinned African in Renaissance European society. As in The Merchant of Venice, religious issues complicate considerations of race and ethnicity, but Shakespeare's drama again leaves an attentive audience or reader with a powerful realization of the essential humanity of the racial “other.” Othello is not, then, an expression of an established racism; rather, it highlights the danger of racial categorization at a point in European history when it was soon to become a problem. The danger is apparent in several disdainful references to Othello's black skin, African features, and general foreignness; these are mingled with brutish sexual images after Othello, the hired commander of Venice's military forces, has secretly won the hand of a prominent senator's beautiful daughter. “What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,” exclaims Roderigo, a rejected suitor, “If he can carry't thus!” Iago rouses the father, Brabantio, by shouting under his window, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe,” and soon adds, “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” When Brabantio first confronts Othello, he denies that his daughter without magical compulsion “Would ever have, t'incur a general mock, / Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou.”

In the face of such scurrility, the dignity and calm of Othello emerge with great force when he takes the stage in the second scene. More than any other Shakespearean tragic hero, he commands respect and radiates authority as the drama begins, and also embodies the values of aristocratic chivalry. Iago attempts to ruffle the Moor's magnificent self-possession to no avail. “You were best go in,” Iago warns, when he thinks that Brabantio and his retainers approach. “Not I; I must be found,” Othello tranquilly replies. “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly.” He is supremely confident in his virtues, his standing in the city, and his clear conscience. When the outraged father's party does finally confront Othello and the officers who have come to summon him to the Duke's council chamber “upon some present business of the state,” and the blades of drawn weapons are gleaming in the torchlight, the Moorish general quells the threatened tumult with a relaxed yet magisterial authority: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” Only a man accustomed to being obeyed could utter these words with such self-assurance. After the vile slanders of Iago and Roderigo, who would paint Othello as a lecherous savage in the play's first scene, Shakespeare is at pains to present the Moor as a gentleman of fully heroic stature.

Othello's stature is confirmed when the Duke and his council consider Brabantio's accusation that his daughter “is abus'd, stol'n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” Othello gives an account of wooing Desdemona by means of the stories he told of perilous adventure and suffering in exotic lands: “She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd, / And I lov'd her that she did pity them. / This only is the witchcraft I have us'd.” The Duke himself affirms Othello's conclusion: “I think this tale would win my daughter too.” For her part, Desdemona dispels the aspersions cast upon her bridegroom's appearance and supposed barbarism with an exemplary assertion of the spiritual transcendence of human dignity: “I saw Othello's visage in his mind, / And to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.”

When we consider the racial or ethnic dynamics of the play, two points stand out: First, racial difference is a source of animosity, suspicion, and disdain; second, despite the animosity, suspicion, and disdain, not even Shakespeare's fictionalized Venice can be described as a racist society in the modern sense of the term. Brabantio's denigrations are the response of a man who has lost a daughter on whom he doted to a foreigner who was welcome as a guest but not as a son-in-law. Roderigo, who refers to Othello as “the thick-lips,” is apparently a wastrel whom both Desdemona and Brabantio have scorned as a suitor. And then there is Iago, who is an officer on Othello's staff. Surely he is the most wicked of Shakespeare's villains, a man who seems to delight in evil for its own sake to such an extent that he inspired Coleridge to his famous phrase, “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” Over against the malicious slanders of these men is the nearly universal admiration for Othello. Plainly, the Duke and Venetian senators regard him as their best general and only hope against a Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Even Iago is constrained to admit to Roderigo, “that, for their souls, / Another of his fadom they have none / To lead their business.” Finally, and most important, there is the generic evidence: Othello is a tragic hero, and although a tragic hero necessarily has a flaw, he cannot be despicable or inferior. Tragedy, Aristotle observes in the Poetics, is “a representation of men better than ourselves.”

The significance of Othello's status as a tragic hero may be easily gauged from a criticism of the play made by Thomas Rymer at the end of the seventeenth century. Othello was one of the more popular tragedies on the English stage throughout the century, and in 1693 Rymer complains that it “is said to bear the Bell away.” He is quite evidently incensed at the changes Shakespeare has made in the source, a novella by Giraldo Cinthio, all of which serve to ennoble the characters and elevate the action: “He bestows a name on his Moor, and styles him the Moor of Venice—a Note of preeminence which neither History nor Heraldry can allow him. Cinthio, who knew him best, and whose creature he was, calls him simply a Moor.”

Rymer will grant to a black African not even the “dignity” of a name, much less the nobility of a soldier or the grandeur of a heroic figure. He scornfully quotes a few lines of Othello's account of the “magical” wooing and remarks, “This was sufficient to make the Black-amoor White, and reconcile all, tho' there had been a Cloven-foot into the bargain”; and he is outraged that a white Venetian like Iago should be depicted as a conniving liar: “He is no Blackamoor Souldier, so we may be sure he should be like other Souldiers of our acquaintance.”

Clearly something has happened that enables or impels white Englishmen (and other Europeans) in Rymer's time to regard black Africans as naturally inferior. When Othello was first performed in 1603 or 1604, it was rare for slavery to be seen as an institution exclusively imposed by Europeans and Arabs upon black Africans, but this would soon change. Less than ninety years later, Thomas Rymer finds it intolerable for a noble black man to win the love of a noble white woman and marry her. The power of this viewpoint is displayed in the less-than-edifying spectacle of various critics in the course of the next two-and-a-half centuries attempting to make Othello merely swarthy or “tawny,” and not a sub-Saharan African. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who ought to have known better, will serve as an example: “it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro.” Coleridge is apparently unaware of how much he sounds like Brabantio.

Postmodern efforts to “save” the play—to make it “relevant” to contemporary audiences—are often equally unsatisfactory and substitute patronizing pity of Othello for Rymer's unvarnished contempt. Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), the foundational work of the New Historicism, reads Othello as a virtual allegory of the European conquest of the New World. Greenblatt maintains that the dominance of the “mobile society” of the modern West is characterized by a sinister “empathy” that enables a man to enter into the situation of another and beguile him. Iago, according to this view, is the embodiment of Western Civilization in its aggressive essence.

Now there are two major problems here, even if we only consider the play and not the implications of the schema as a definition of Western Civilization. First, there is the problem that Iago is the villain of the play and not its hero: far from looking like the complete Renaissance man, he resembles nothing so much as the unstable, decentered postmodern subject. “I am not what I am,” he confides to Roderigo. Like so many of Shakespeare's tragic antagonists—think of Edmund in King Lear—Iago is best regarded as a threat to traditional Western Civilization, not as its exemplar. Second, the “empathetic” relationship that Greenblatt proposes between Iago and Othello reduces the latter to little more than a “noble savage”—precisely Iago's “erring barbarian” out of his depth in a marriage to a “super-subtle Venetian.” Yet everything in the text of the play tells us that while Othello is certainly noble, he is not in the least savage. Greenblatt would make Othello's vulnerability to deception by Iago no different from Roderigo's, but Iago plays on the passions of the latter. It is just his nobility that makes Othello vulnerable, and in this he is very much like Hamlet. When Claudius is planning to have Laertes murder Hamlet with a poisoned foil in what is ostensibly a friendly fencing match, he tells Laertes that Hamlet, “Most generous, and free from all contriving, / Will not peruse the foils.” In a soliloquy at the end of Act I of Othello, Iago informs the audience that Othello has a similarly ingenous character: “The Moor is of a free and open nature, / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.”

But Greenblatt sees Othello as the victim of another aspect of Western Civilization, the tension between “erotic intensity” and “Christian orthodoxy.” Othello's blackness becomes a symbol of the sexual guilt that torments a man who must be forever proving his claim to a place in society: “This tension is less a manifestation of some atavistic ‘blackness’ specific to Othello than a manifestation of the colonial power of Christian doctrine over sexuality, a power visible at this point precisely in its inherent limitation.” Greenblatt's alarm about the “colonial power of Christian doctrine over sexuality” is based on Othello's response to Desdemona when she asks to accompany her new husband on the campaign in Cyprus; if she cannot, then “the rites for why I love him are bereft me.” Othello certainly wants her company, but he is anxious lest the senators take the wrong impression from her impassioned plea: “Vouch with me, heaven, I therefore beg it not / To please the palate of my appetite, / But to be free and bounteous to her mind.” Now the obvious interpretation of this passage would stress both Othello's interest in reassuring his employers that he will in no way “scant” their “great business” and his modesty in wishing to deflect any general speculation about the sexual ardor of the newlyweds.

For Greenblatt and other postmodern critics, however, this passage suggests that Othello is a sexual cripple captured by “a still darker aspect of Christian orthodoxy,” which Greenblatt illustrates by quoting St. Jerome (out of context): “An adulterer is he who is too ardent a lover of his wife.” Certainly the sexual standards of both Shakespeare's era and Jerome's were generally sterner than what we encounter at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but it is another question whether husbands ought to treat their wives as they would an adulteress. In any event, the postmodernist interpretation of Othello as a psychologically crippled victim of Christian sexual morality depends, again, upon making Iago the exemplar of Western Civilization. In this view, the man who is identified simply as a “Villaine” in the list of characters in the first folio edition defines the norms that govern the play. After Roderigo has witnessed the expressions of love that pass between Othello and Desdemona in the presence of the Duke and the senators, he is ready to give up his hopes of ever possessing her; but Iago rekindles his ardor by assuring him that “love” is a mere illusion of carnal passion: “It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” Postmodernist interpreters join Iago in scorning the protestations of Othello and Desdemona that their love is actually something more than mere sensual attraction, and only by this great negation can they deny that Othello, like all Shakespeare's tragic heroes, is the embodiment of a Western ideal who fails and suffers catastrophe.

Othello, like The Merchant of Venice, is both an affirmation of the principles of the Western world and a daring challenge to that civilization to embody its principles with more constancy. The Merchant of Venice sets a concept of justice tempered with mercy over against unbending legalism and self-righteousness, but it reminds us—in the troubling figure of Shylock as well as in the failure of the Christian characters to integrate him into the comic conclusion—that even expressions of mercy can be tainted with self-righteousness. The challenge is all the greater—and Shylock's eloquent denunciation of the way he has been dehumanized is all the more poignant—because he is in many ways such an unattractive individual. It is, after all, sinners who require grace. In still more daring fashion, Othello exemplifies the highest virtues of Western Christendom—fortitude, courtesy, devotion to duty, and sexual delicacy—in a character who seems, to some observers, their antithesis: a black African who could routinely be associated with Islam or with barbarism. Shakespeare thus reminds us that the essence of Western Civilization is a matter of the mind and the heart, not of outward appearance or blood inheritance. In Othello's tragic fall—a tragedy deepened by the loftiness of his nobility at the play's outset—we see the fragility of virtue and honor, especially their vulnerability to betrayal by those, like Iago, who seem to be their champions. Anti-Semitism and racial prejudice against black Africans are two of the uglier maladies in the history of the West, but in the work of its greatest dramatist we see that these evils are not integral to its civilization, and that in the West's critical spirit lie the means of its continual reform.

Alastair Macaulay (review date 10 January 2000)

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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Much to Love about Othello as It Comes to London.” Financial Times (10 January 2000): 16.

[In the following review of the 2000 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Othello directed by Michael Attenborough, Macaulay praises the production, noting that although Ray Fearon's performance as Othello was good, there was “no greatness about this Moor.”]

I love the way that Shakespeare's plays are never just “about” one thing. Even when there is not a double plot, each single plot contains its own several strands. Othello is about race; about jealousy; about malice; about motive … so that, while we watch all these things coming together in the great scenes between Othello and Iago, we see a single situation from multiple angles.

And Shakespeare keeps turning his focus on every other character: on Desdemona sighing “O, these men, these men!”, on Cassio's affair with the temperamental Bianca, on the duped and fretful Roderigo, on the mettlesome Emilia, gossiping to her mistress about the handsome Lodovico (“I know a lady in Venice would have walk'd bare-foot to Palestine for a touch of his nether lip.”)

In the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Othello—which has just arrived in London—it is easy to love all this about the play and more. The production (set about 100 years ago in Robert Jones's designs) has matured handsomely since it was new last April in Stratford-upon-Avon, and it shows the RSC as a true company. Othello and Iago are both sensitively and strongly played by Ray Fearon and Richard McCabe, but it is fascinating how keenly one also pays attention to the supporting players.

As Cassio, Henry Ian Cusick cuts a marvellously dashing figure. The brimming eyes of Richard Cordery's Brabantio, as he bitterly resigns himself to losing his daughter, make a burning impression. Zoe Waites makes Desdemona both a great lady and an artless girl in the first flush of marriage; she brings off the Willow Song affectingly. The simple chatter and the heroic indignation of Emilia hit home in the hands of Rachel Joyce.

Best of all is Aidan McArdle as the foolish Roderigo—and his performance is even more enjoyable if you have recently seen him as Puck and Philostrate in the RSC's Dream. Wearing a little Charlie Chaplin moustache, he can stand motionless, chest puffed and eyes fixed, and listen to a scene—and, as he does, he not only shows you Roderigo's stupid obsessiveness, he also, by his attention, make the whole scene doubly real. He listens better than most actors speak, and he speaks with absolutely characterful naturalness.

The director is Michael Attenborough. His whole production abounds in keenly human details: if you happen, for example, to notice how beautifully Waites's Desdemona listens to Emilia, it tugs at the heart. The only problems occur—and these only occasionally—in making the play work in a big theatre. There are 12 musicians involved in playing George Fenton's music offstage, but I would rather hear two of them playing visibly, and I would rather the music did not sound like film music (the way it underlines Othello's jealous fit is especially irritating).

As Othello, Fearon never once rants or roars, but his locution is often a little too deliberate, hugging certain consonants, and the husky throatiness of his voice makes for a limited range in a big theatre. It is a good performance, but there is no greatness about this Moor.

Richard McCabe's Iago, with his huge angry eyes and his tense, unyielding face, is sometimes too emphatic. But his is a witty, original conception. When he plants the words “Divinity of hell!” upon the air, it is softly and slowly—innocently even, like a schoolmaster gently explaining to us the way of things.

Estelle W. Taylor (essay date December 1977)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Estelle W. “The Ironic Equation in Shakespeare's Othello: Appearances Equal Reality.” CLA Journal 21, no. 2 (December 1977): 202-11.

[In the following essay, Taylor examines Iago as the initiator of the play's central irony: that illusion is mistaken for reality. The critic notes that Iago himself becomes victimized by this misconception, as do most of the other characters in Othello.]

Shakespeare rivals the Greek playwrights in the extent to which he is able to show man grappling with, trying to understand or capitalize on, conquer or evade the ironies of life. He was endowed with the genius to use with the greatest effectiveness, especially in the tragedies of Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth, combinations of ironic devices: dramatic irony, irony of expression, irony of situation. What is so striking, however, what makes each of these tragedies “work” century after century, for a variety of actors and audiences, is the forceful manner in which he succeeds in revealing the very souls of his characters pitted against the greatest irony of all: man's tendency, almost child-like helplessness, willingness and need to accept shadow for substance, illusion for reality. Through his genius Shakespeare convinces us that often man destroys himself and others by accepting for a fact or a reality that which is only an imitation, that which insinuates itself for the passing moment upon the mind. In this respect, then, Shakespeare succeeds in elevating irony to more than just a literary device. It becomes a force, a substantive element of life to be dealt with in much the same manner as any other elemental drive, with the rational mind rather than the emotions. Thus, both viewing and reading audiences that themselves are no less susceptible to this force, nevertheless marvel that men, Shakespeare's “heroes,” innately good and in almost all things else preeminently or reasonably wise, can succumb to that which to even the ordinary man is so obviously unreal. While the heroes or anti-heroes fall from glory, respectability, or power because for the moment they confuse shadow for substance, appearance for reality, or because they become trapped while luring others into this confusion, the Shakespeare audience is expected to be ever-mindful of the world of reality and substance. Perhaps, the very essence of Shakespeare's genius is that he pays his audiences this singular compliment of expecting them to be wiser or at least to believe themselves wiser than the characters presented. This interaction—this rational link—that the author establishes between the audience and the dramatic action is the Shakespearean twist, his special use of dramatic irony. Depending, therefore, upon the degree of wisdom and experience that particular audiences bring to the drama, an Othello or a Macbeth, a Hamlet or a Lear will emerge as either a stupid, bungling, unbelievable fool or a pitiable, understandable tragic figure trapped and overcome by some powerful irony.

One of the mature tragedies in which Shakespeare makes effective use of the ironic equation, that is, the fusion and confusion of shadow and substance, appearance and reality to the outer and inner eye of each of the major characters, is Othello, the Moor of Venice. The agent or tool through whom he achieves this literary feat is Iago, from whom the meaningful actions in the drama emanate and around whom they revolve. Iago from the very start of the dramatic action becomes not only the representative, the symbol and embodiment of the dualism or the ironic equation, but also the real active controlling force that will motivate the other major characters or character types—including Othello, the hero—and determine the extent to which, and even the manner in which, each of them in turn will be so manipulated or, in modern terminology, so brainwashed or programmed as to be literally “fascinated” into accepting shadow for substance, appearance for reality. Thus, every other character in Othello becomes a foil to Iago.

In Act I Shakespeare carefully establishes the multi-dimensional patterns or levels through which will emerge the ironic equation on which all dramatic elements in Othello will be fashioned. First of all, he involves his audience on both an emotional and intellectual level to reveal the various facets in the personality of the controlling element in the play—Iago. After all, the success of this drama and the successful working out of the ironic equation will depend on the extent to which the audience fulfill the literary contract or partnership with the author of remaining in the world of reality and keeping their heads while one by one the characters in the play are losing theirs. Thus, from the start Shakespeare makes use of special words, special character types, and special situations to reveal Iago to the audience for what he really is and to dispel any tendencies toward misplaced sympathy for, empathy with, or misunderstanding of his true intentions and nature. Therefore, in Act I, the clarifying and expository act, Iago emerges on one level as a real flesh and blood character who has been forced by circumstances to grapple with a human problem, a reality. He is twenty-eight years old, “four times seven years,” he tells Roderigo (I.ii. 312).1 It is a fact that he, the professional soldier, the successful practitioner in matters pertaining to battle and the battlefield has, at this ripe age, been overlooked for promotion in favor of Cassio, one whom he considers not only his professional inferior, a mere military theoretician and technician, but also an “outsider,” a Florentine. In his revelatory conversation with Roderigo, Iago compares his own worth as a soldier with that of Cassio (I. i. 26-33):

—mere prattle without practice
Is all his soldiership. But, he, sir, had the election.
And I, of whom his eyes [Othello's] had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be beleed and calmed
By debitor and creditor. This countercaster,
He, in good time, must his Lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship's Ancient.

On this level, Iago's hurt pride, his resentment, jealousy, and even considerable anger are human reactions that a rational audience can understand, even relate to. It is obvious that the kind of anger that consumes Iago is that which Aristotle understood so well and defined so analytically more than 2,000 years ago in these lines from the Rhetoric:

… an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends. … It must always be attended by a certain pleasure—that which arises from the expectancy of revenge.2

In the very first scenes of the play, the audience learns from Iago's words and deeds that he considers Othello's preferment of Cassio a “conspicuous slight.” He himself cannot justify it, especially when he compares his experiences with that of Cassio. “I know my price, I am worth no worse a place,” he tells Roderigo in the initial dialogue (I. i. 11). In addition, he recalls that even suits, special pleas, in his behalf from three outstanding Venetian citizens had been ignored out of hand by Othello. Yet, Othello demonstrates in other ways early in the play that he does value the worth of the man: He seeks his counsel (I. ii.); he entrusts his bride, Desdemona, to his care during the voyage to Cyprus; he praises him for his “honesty” and “Trust” (I. iii. 285); and later in the play, after Cassio's drunken brawl in Cyprus, he elevates him to that very position of lieutenant which he had formerly denied him in favor of Cassio. There is no doubt that what consumes and sustains Iago from the start of the play is the desire for, as well as the expectation of, revenge. Equally clear to the audience is that no real, organized plan has yet been formulated by Iago. Shakespeare allows only the audience to witness and understand the progressive phases through which Iago moves toward the fulfillment of his revenge and the circumstances that propel him inevitably toward his own self-destruction. For example, at the end of Act I he invites the aid of the powers of evil in much the same manner of a Dr. Faustus:

I have't! It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.

Again at the end of scene ii, Act II, Iago confesses to the audience that he has not yet worked out the plan for revenge, that it is still a torment of his mind:

'Tis here, but yet confused.
Knavery's plain face is never seen till used.

It is not until the last scene in Act II that a definite scheme and plan of action take firm shape in Iago's mind. The audience is privy in scene 3 (ll. 342-367) to the plan by which Iago will capitalize on the innocence and goodness of Desdemona to avenge himself. Calling his scheme the “Divinity of hell” (l. 356), he revels in the thought that the more earnestly Desdemona petitions Othello in behalf of Cassio, the more suspicious of her motives her husband will become:

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

(ll. 365-367)

Thus, by the time we meet Iago he is no longer operating on the “human” level. He has lost the human capacity for understanding, compassion, concern for others, forgiveness. Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of all in Othello is the extent to which Iago is unaware of the extent to which he himself has accepted as equals that which seems—appearances and shadows—and that which is—substance and reality. For all his talk to Roderigo about the compensatory “scale of reason to poise another of sensuality” (I. iii. 331) and the power of “reason to cool our raging motions” (I. iii. 333-334), he has adapted his mind to accept as realities and added incentives for revenge the suspicions that both Cassio and Othello have cuckolded him. In the soliloquy at the end of Act I, for example, he reveals his suspicions of Othello:

I know not if't be true,
But I for mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as if for surety.

By Act II his suspicion has become not only a greater reality lodged in his mind but also a more obsessive motive for revenge:

For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof
Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards.
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.
Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure.

(ll. 304-311)

Then, almost as an afterthought (l. 316) the diseased mind of Iago rationalizes a motive for including Cassio in the grand scheme of revenge: “For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too. …”

In Iago the normal emotion of anger has already turned to rancor, to an all-consuming, unbridled, indiscriminate passion. His choice of words in dialogues with Roderigo and Brabantio, the father of Desdemona, certainly further substantiates this assessment of his emotional state. In urging Roderigo to rouse the ire of Brabantio against Othello, Iago links together this series of explosive imperatives (I. i. 67-69; 71):

          Call up her father.
Rouse him. Make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets. Incense her kinsman …
Plague him with flies. …

(Italics are mine.)

Then, he himself appeals to the racial and class prejudice of Brabantio:

… For shame, put on your gown,
.....Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe, Arise, arise …

Later in the soliloquy following the stirring up of Brabantio in which he reviews his status (I. ii. 155), Iago reveals the venom he feels toward Othello: “… I do hate him as I do Hell pains. …” In conversation with Roderigo (I. iii. 371) and again in the soliloquy that closes Act I, he repeats the words “I hate the Moor” (iii. 39). In fact, the rage and the desire for revenge in Iago have become so excessive, obsessive, and erratic a driving force within his brain and his being that from the beginning of the action he is too repulsive for the audience outside the drama to accept as a sympathetic figure. Thus, from the start of the drama Shakespeare carefully exposes the inner rage of Iago, his wide-ranging capacity for evil and destruction of others, to his audience through a number of techniques and patterns so that the ironic equation—appearances equal reality, shadow equals substance—becomes not only the powerful literary device but also the substantive force on which the drama will be built and around which all action will revolve. To this end, then, Shakespeare introduces to us in Iago a character who represents a “real” personality who through circumstances has been transformed into an illusion—the embodiment and symbol of the dissembler, one who is in reality the shadow of evil, in appearance the representative of honor.

The most significant self-revelatory lines spoken by Iago occur in the first scene of Act I, as he performs the all-important task of allaying the doubts and fears of his dupe Roderigo and of programming his mind to accept fully the idea that it is to their mutual advantage to be “conjunctive in our revenge against him” [Othello] (I. iii. 372-373):

Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself.
… I am not what I am.

(I.i. 57-58; 65)

If the drama is to “work” through the ironic equation and through combinations of irony, the sinister implications of this confession, as well as the possibility of the multiple levels of meaning and interpretation inherent in it, must be obvious from the start of the play to a sophisticated audience.

These words of Iago provide the initial clue to our understanding the nature of the relationships that will exist between him and every other active character in the drama. Reminiscent of those enigmatic words of the witches, which lull Macbeth into complacency, they are the key to our understanding in particular the basis of Iago's success in completely duping and brainwashing not only the foolish Roderigo but also every other character of consequence in the drama into accepting him on his terms for what he appears to be. The words “I am not what I am” are also the key to our understanding the basis of Iago's power to work his will on the major characters in such a way as to entice them into unwittingly accepting the “illusion” of others, that is, seeing in other characters whatever he wishes them to see. Indeed, these significant words provide an insight into, a foreshadowing of, Iago's singular ability and power to determine what psychological approach or appeal to make—words or twist of words to use—to woo each of his victims to self-destruction or the destruction of others. Thus, Shakespeare more than adequately prepares us to watch with fascination and fear the manner in which Iago makes use of the pious pronouncement that “Men should be what they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (III. iii. 126-127) to begin the brainwashing process and the path to destruction of Othello and to fulfill the commitment he makes to himself and the audience at the close of Act II, scene ii:

I'll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,
Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb—
For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too—
Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me
For making him egregiously an ass
And practicing upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness.

Even at the end, after the destruction has been wrought, after Iago has made the ironic equation work for himself, a stunned Othello still seeks an explanation of what has happened to him in this final request of Cassio:

Will you, I pray, demand that demidevil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?

(V. ii. 301-302)

We understand and sympathize with the Othello who utters these words which represent, all-too-late, a partial return to reality in a way that we cannot sympathize with the Roderigo, who upon realizing the treachery of Iago, condemns him with the words “Oh, damned Iago! Oh, inhuman dog!” (V. i. 6).

Iago's pronouncement that “I am not what I am” serves, then, a number of valuable dramatic functions. First among them is that it prepares us for the important multi-level dramatic roles of Roderigo. He is within the drama an audience-confidant for Iago, as well as an active confederate, the equivalent of the present-day “hit” man or “enforcer.” Roderigo is privy to words and confessions that a major character—especially the villain—usually shares only with the audience outside the play by means of soliloquies or asides. Thus, Roderigo is the “sample” through whom Shakespeare lets us experience the cunning, the evil, and the manipulative power over others that Iago possesses. Dull of wit, no match for Iago, as is no other character in the play, Roderigo hears the same words that the audience outside the play hears, but ironically he only partially understands the significance of Iago's telling confession that he is not what he is. The implication that Iago is not what he is and that he is not what he seems to be even to Roderigo leaves its full sinister impact on the audience well before Iago confides in the soliloquy that closes Act I (ll. 389-392) his utter scorn for Roderigo, his dupe and his tool, through whom he plans to implement his acts of revenge:

Thus I do ever make my fool my purse,
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane
If I would time expend with such a snipe
But for my sport and profit.

How closely these words resemble later lines (IV. i. 45) of self-satisfaction after he has deluded the virtuous Othello into believing he has been cuckolded by Cassio!:

          Work on
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught,
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach.

Thus, Iago's confession that he is not what he seems to be brings sharply into focus throughout the drama the impression he has already made, as well as the impression he will be capable of making, on the other characters whose lives he will destroy, attempt to destroy, or change in some substantial way. Shakespeare wastes little time, then, in letting his audience see that just as Iago has beguiled the unprincipled Roderigo into trusting him to be a loyal partner in evil, he has also beguiled or will beguile each of the other virtuous or fundamentally decent characters into believing him to be a loyal and honest partner in working the good. Immediately following the scenes in which Iago plots against and vilifies Othello, the Moor commends his ancient to the Duke of Venice with these words: “A man he is of honesty and trust” (I. iii. 285). From this point on Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona in turn establish a pattern of making the name of the villainous Iago a synonym for—a personification and symbol of—the virtue of honor or honesty. In the first act Othello, for example, commends his bride into the ancient's care with the words “Honest Iago, / My Desdemona must I leave to thee” (iii. 295-296). In the final act (ii. 148-150; 154), he tells a distraught, disbelieving Emilia that through her husband Iago he has learned of Desdemona's ‘‘infidelity”:

          Ay, 'twas he that told me first.
An honest man he is, and hates the slime
That sticks on filthy deeds.
.....My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago.

To add to the irony and to strengthen the focus on the force of illusion that pervades Othello, Shakespeare has Iago cynically refer to himself repeatedly as “honest.” Just a few outstanding examples follow. In an aside (II. i. 202-204), he says of the happy couple Othello and Desdemona, “Oh, you are well tuned now, / But I'll set down the pegs that make this music, / As honest as I am.” He pacifies Cassio, whose reputation and favor with Othello he has just succeeded in destroying through a drunken brawl he has initiated, with a brazen statement: “As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound” (III. iii. 266-267). Using skillfully the power of suggestion and the “tricks of custom” (III. iii. 122) of the “false disloyal knave” (III. iii. 121) to condition and poison the mind of Othello against both Cassio and Desdemona, he resorts to the use of histrionics and feigns the injured pride of an honorable man:

          O wretched fool,
That livest to make thine honesty a vice!
O monstrous world! Take note, take note, O world,
To be direct and honest is not safe.

(III.iii. 375-378)

Then, in a later act (IV. i. 288-291), he condemns Othello to Lodovico, a kinsman of Desdemona, without seeming to condemn—or to wish to condemn—him:

                    Alas, alas!
It is not honesty in me to speak
What I have seen and known. You shall observe him,
And his own courses will denote him so
That I may save my speech.

(IV.i. 288-291)

Indeed, the unifying element in Shakespeare's Othello is that of the power of illusion, of what seems rather than what is, to determine the thoughts and actions of each of the major characters. Through Iago, the major central figure, a representation and symbol of illusion, the audience learns that one of the great ironies of life is that often man destroys himself and others by accepting for a fact or a reality that which is only an imitation, that which insinuates itself for the passing moment upon the mind.


  1. Citations from Shakespeare in my text are to Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. by G. B. Harrison (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. [Cop. 1952]).

  2. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle, trans. W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater (New York: The Modern Library [Cop. 1954]), 1378b, p. 92.

Anthony Gerard Barthelemy (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Barthelemy, Anthony Gerard, ed. “Ethiops Washed White: Moors of the Nonvillainous Type.” In Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Othello, pp. 91-103. New York: G.K. Hall, 1994.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1987, Barthelemy traces the transformation of Othello within the course of the play. The critic notes that although Othello begins as the antithesis of the stereotypical black characters presented on stage in the late 1500s and early 1600s, by the play's end Othello has tragically relapsed into “the stereotypical Moor.”]

I kiss the instrument of their pleasures.

—William Shakespeare, Othello

During the seventeenth century, a few black characters appeared on the stage who, against their nature and kind, demonstrated that virtue stood not completely out of their reach. However, like their female counterparts, these virtuous few are clearly derived from the more commonly represented stereotype of the villainous Moor and are, more accurately, versions of that type rather than absolute departures from it. By demonstrating virtue, these few honest Moors offer further validation of the more common, harmful, and denigrating representations of black Moors because they prove that it is possible to resist the call of evil, though most unusual.

The earliest nonvillainous Moors to appear on the stage were Morocco in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1596) and Porus in Chapman's The Blind Beggar of Alexandria (1596).1 Morocco, by far the more interesting of the two, comes to Belmont to participate in the lottery for Portia's hand. In the two brief scenes in which he appears, he evokes from the play's heroine only ironic contempt. Her relief at the departure of the vanquished suitor reveals her disdain for him: “A gentle riddance / Let all of his complexion choose me so” (II, vii, 78-79).2 Perhaps Portia means more than skin color by “complexion” here, yet because Morocco is identified as a “Tawny Moor,” her choice of words intends to call some attention to his color. But more than Morocco's complexion casts an unfavorable light on him. His long speech before the caskets undermines any dignity he may have possessed, and his choice of the wrong casket proves him foolish. Morocco also presents an obvious and unwelcome sexual threat to Portia, and he makes known his desire for her before he chooses:

“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
Why that's the lady! All the world desires her;
From the four corners of the earth they came
To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint.

(II, vii, 37-40)

Only by leaving immediately and quietly does Morocco maintain any honor or dignity, as his earlier professions of valor are forgotten by the relieved mistress of Belmont.

Porus, the King of Ethiopia, fares better in love than does Morocco, but the circumstances surrounding his triumph with the Lady Elimine deny him a totally honorable victory. Present only in the last scene of The Blind Beggar, Porus comes to offer obeisance and tribute to his conqueror, Cleanthes. While there, the humbled Porus sees Elimine, who has come to plead for assistance from Cleanthes. She and her child have been deserted by Count Hermes, who, unknown to Elimine, is really Cleanthes disguised. Porus proclaims his love for Elimine as does the defeated King of Bebritia, Bebritius. Allowed by Cleanthes to choose a spouse from among the several defeated kings, Elimine chooses Porus. She chooses him, however, not out of love but to highlight her perverse fortunes: “In my eye, now, the blackest is the fairest, / For every woman chooseth the white and red. / Come, martial Porus, thou shalt have my love.”3

Elimine invokes here the paradoxical “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” and by choosing with this in mind, she expresses both her expectations and her hopes. She expects Porus to be foul; she only hopes that he proves to be fair. Bebritius, angered by his rejection, reminds Elimine of the traditional and, of course, seemingly more reasonable expectation: “Out on thee, foolish woman, thou hast chose a devil” (x, 164). By focusing on the risks involved in marrying a black man, both Elimine and Bebritius do much to disparage further the already humbled Porus, who cannot escape the traditional prejudice toward blackness and black men. However, because the play ends just fifteen lines after Elimine chooses, we have no way of knowing if she chooses wisely when she ignores the widely known risks.

Bebritius' comment, though, points out how every representation of a black person necessarily remains colored by his blackness. The conqueror Cleanthes may freely allow the vanquished Porus to marry a cast-off, former mistress; however, the conquered and again defeated Bebritius sees the danger. Portia too sees the danger, but she luckily escapes. It is important to note that in both these plays the danger is sexual and consequently social. Neither Morocco nor Porus commits any crime other than seeking to marry a white woman, but it is this ambition that brings down upon them racial abuse. No matter how innocent or noble, black men, once they attempt to involve themselves sexually with white women, become personae non gratae in the community. And we see in the similarity between these two minor characters how closely related vilification and villainy are to the fear raised by incursions into the community.

It is such an incursion by the valiant Moor Othello that first alarms Venice and later provides Iago with an exploitable situation on which to build his diabolic plot. It is this same sexual relationship that ultimately leads to Othello's and Desdemona's undoing. However, in Othello (1604), Shakespeare manipulates the stereotype of the Moor and, consequently, the expectations of the audience. In so doing, he animated for the stage possibly the most popular and important representation of a black man until the twentieth century. On the most obvious level, Shakespeare reassigns roles in what could be a rather conventional secular psychomachia. Rather than playing the villain, a role that should be Othello's by dramatic convention and popular tradition alike, the valiant Moor becomes the center of the psychomachiac struggle between good and evil. Shakespeare alters things further by redistributing in a somewhat startling manner various aspects of the stereotypical Moor among the principal characters, each in some way becoming what Othello alone ought to be. The audience, as it becomes more and more uncomfortable with the reassignment of roles and characteristics, finds itself finally forced to reevaluate the validity of interpreting real life through allegory.

No feature has proven more important in characterizing blacks than the traditional belief in their venery, and as we have seen, in all but the two Alcazar plays, villainy finds expression in sexual desires or intrigues. In Othello, frank and unencumbered sexual desire is not confined to the villains; rather, it is distributed among most of the major characters including Othello, Desdemona, Emilia, Cassio, and, of course, Iago and Rodrigo. But the sexual interplay between the three principals, Othello, Desdemona, and Iago, defuses the sexual center of the play away from its expected and traditional location, the Moor, and focuses instead on two rather distinct and antithetical views of sex.

That Iago rather than Othello is obsessed with sex is startling because sex is conventionally the black man's preoccupation. In some ways, Iago's obsession helps to explain why it is blacks who are represented as lascivious and sex-obsessed, for Iago never ceases to project onto others his own overriding sexual interests as he reveals his own sexual anxieties. But we know it is Iago who is so obsessed, not Othello. Iago seizes every opportunity to incite others to accept the traditional view of the Moor as lecherous, and as licentious any woman who could love such a man. But the obscenities Iago shouts under Brabantio's window reveal more about himself than anyone else. In his soliloquy at the end of Act I, Iago again lingers on sexual themes, exposing the prurience of his mind as well as his sexual anxiety. A similar soliloquy in Act II reveals Iago to be almost monomaniacal:

That Cassio loves her [Desdemona], I do well believe it;
That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit.
… now I do love her too,
Not out of absolute lust, (though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin)
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lustful Moor
Hath leaped into my seat.(4)

Iago returns again and again to his own prurient musings, obsessions, and anxieties to feed his plot, and finally he succeeds in engendering in Othello's mind a similar obsessiveness and anxiety.

On the opposing side in the battle for Othello's mind and soul stands Desdemona, the loving wife who offers her beleaguered husband redemption. But Desdemona is no innocent virtue; though chaste, she frankly acknowledges to the duke, her father, and the assembled lords of Venice her total devotion to her husband. “My heart's subdued / Even to the utmost pleasure of my lord” (I, iii, 250-51), she tells them.5 When she later asks permission to accompany Othello to Cyprus, she again openly expresses her sexual desire for her husband:

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

(I, iii, 255-59)

In so unlikely a place as Desdemona's embrace Shakespeare places for Othello safety from sin, temptation, and, ultimately, damnation.

Uncomfortably set between these odd permutations of lust and chastity stands Othello. Perversely for him, lust demands abstinence while chastity and salvation require entering Desdemona's embrace. When Othello refuses Desdemona's final invitation to her bed, he rejects virtue and chooses evil. By opposing honest sexual desire to obsessive prurience and sexual manipulation, Shakespeare disperses and relocates these sexual and dramatic tensions away from one of their traditional sources, the Moor. In Othello, the Moor comes to be uniquely motivated, not by the usual desire for sexual gratification and power but by all-consuming sexual anxiety.

Othello most powerfully and explicitly articulates his anxiety when he assures the signory of Venice that he wishes Desdemona to join him for reasons other than sexual gratification. In his request for permission to take his wife to Cyprus, Othello employs a rhetoric of negation:

Your voices, Lords: beseech you, let her will
Have a free way; I therefore beg it not
To please the palate of my appetite,
Not to comply with heat, the young affects
In me defunct, and proper satisfaction,
But to be free and bounteous to her mind;
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-wing'd toys
Of feather'd Cupid, foils with wanton dullness
My speculative and active instruments,
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm,
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my reputation!

(I, iii, 260-74)

Speaking here, just after Desdemona's rather frank avowal of her sexual desire, Othello attempts to diminish the impact of his wife's argument. However, Othello goes so far as to deny himself even the desire of “proper satisfaction,” a phrase that jars against Desdemona's request for the “rites for why I love him.”6 Whereas Othello will later incorrectly choose abstinence and, paradoxically, damnation to defend his honor, here he chooses abstinence to prove his manhood.

Of course, Othello's sexual anxiety is an intrinsic component of his larger fear of being a stereotypical stage Moor, and his attempt to deny his interest in “proper satisfaction” is an attempt to deny his kinship to his immediate predecessors Aaron and Eleazar. Characterized by their lechery and villainy, Aaron and Eleazar achieve power and overmaster their masters through a display of real sexual power. Aaron cuckolds the emperor; Eleazar whores the king's mother and “boys” the king. Othello seeks no such power over his masters, and though he retains real military power, he does not translate that power into a metaphor for sexual prowess. In fact, Othello humbly denies himself parity with the signory in terms that imply sexual and social submission. When he is accused of having “corrupted” Desdemona by “spells and medicines,” Othello begins his defense by saying, “Most potent, grave and reverend signiors, / My very noble and approv'd good masters.” He continues with his self-deprecation, saying, “Rude am I in my speech, / And little blest with the set phrase of peace” (I, iii, 76-77 and 81-82). Even in the most immediate circumstances of the play, Othello's humility seems excessive, but in contrast to his precursors, his behavior is remarkable. To imagine a typical stage Moor saying these words is but to witness him dissemble. However, Othello, unlike his predecessors, sincerely means what he says, as he demonstrates by his attempts to diminish whatever threat he may pose to the state. But his marriage itself compromises the state's security; he was called before the signory to begin defending Venice, not himself. And although Othello intensely wishes not to be a typical stage Moor, he finds himself in exactly that position. He is the black man who provokes a crisis by his sexual relationship with a white woman. He must, therefore, immediately and uncompromisingly identify his state of subservience and remain there; by so doing, he at least can assuage one fear and dismiss one threat. With that done, he is then free to move against the Turk, who is after all not a totally different sort of threat.

Yet in spite of his best efforts to the contrary, Othello cannot escape the role fated to Moors on the stage, and as he moves to free himself of the confines of the role, he moves inexorably closer to it. The irony of his fate finds no clearer emblem than Othello as dupe to the play's villain, the most atypical role in which Othello finds himself. And Iago's intentions as villain directly counter Othello's, for Iago wishes to ensnare Othello in the confines of the stereotype that Othello struggles so desperately to escape. As the playwright of Othello's demise, Iago directs Othello toward the traditional role of villainous Moor, toward making Othello fit the maxim that Iago himself will not fit: “Men should be that they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (III, iii, 130-31). By provoking Othello to jealousy, an attribute believed not uncommon to Moors and earlier witnessed in Eleazar, Iago achieves his goal.7

Othello, as Iago points out and as the audience would immediately recognize, has ample reason to be jealous of Cassio, for unlike himself, “Cassio's a proper man” (I, iii, 390). “A fourth eminent cause of jealousy may be this,” Burton determines in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “when he that is deformed … will marry some fair nice piece … [he] begins to misdoubt (as well he may) she doth not affect him. … He that marries a wife that is snoutfair alone, let him look, saith Barbarus, for no better success than Vulcan had with Venus, or Claudius with Messalina.”8 Othello's blackness is deformity enough for Brabantio and Iago, and they both press this fact on Othello's mind as they remind him to be wary of his wife.

Once planted in Othello's mind, the seeds of jealousy take root quickly and swiftly bear fruit. Preoccupied with the alleged wantonness of his wife, the gullible and jealous man sees signs of guilty love everywhere:

What sense had I of her stol'n hours of lust?
I saw't not, thought it not, it harm'd not me,
I slept the next night well, was free and merry;
I found not Cassio's kisses on her lips.

(III, iii, 344-47)

Othello's jealousy and the fear that it promotes, as well as his response to Iago's lies, precisely match Burton's description of the impotent man: “More particular causes [of jealousy] be these which follow. Impotency first, when a man is not able of himself to perform those dues which he ought unto his wife: for though he be an honest liver, hurt no man … and therefore when he takes notice of his wants, and perceives her to be more craving, clamorous, insatiable and prone to lust than is fit, he begins presently to suspect, that wherein he is defective, she will satisfy herself, she will be pleased by some other means.”9

The relationship between impotency and jealousy seems clear to Iago, who seizes upon the irony of Othello's steadfast denials of sexual interest and perverts them. Fixated and full of his own prurient musings, Othello now moves closer toward being the stereotypical Moor. But he is not consumed by lust and desire for gratification; instead, he fears that someone else performs his office. Nor does Iago let slip an opportunity to press this point home, until finally Othello is convinced that Cassio plays the role of lecher, the role Othello so steadfastly rejects. Once Othello, under Iago's direction, has cast Cassio in the role which by tradition should be his own, the tragic irony for Othello follows because he loses his sense of who he really is and begins to reclaim the role that he has rejected. Now maddened by jealousy, Othello, like his predecessors, becomes obsessed with sexual desire, but this time with Cassio's and Desdemona's rather than his own. From here Iago can easily persuade Othello to dissemble, yet another mark of all Moorish villains.

Othello himself records his fall to that previously rejected role in his comments on his own blackness. Although the allegory of blackness and its characteristic language surround him throughout the play (Iago uses it, as do Brabantio and the duke), when Othello succumbs, saying, “Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have,” he identifies himself with the outsider his enemies have cast him as (III, iii, 267-68). He quickly completes his metamorphosis when he calls forth “black vengeance, from thy hollow cell” (III, iii, 454). (Here the folio reads “the hollow hell.”) Calling down on himself the spiritual blackness of his theatrical forebears, Othello identifies himself finally with the devil.

The success of Othello's transformation finds quick confirmation when those who knew and loved the former Othello fail to recognize him as the jealous, raging Moor. Emilia, Lodovico, and Desdemona all comment on the change in Othello and use a similar trope to express their confusion. Desdemona says of Othello: “My lord is not my lord, nor should I know him, / Were he in favour as in humour alter'd” (III, iv, 121-22). Lodovico, equally puzzled by Othello's behavior, asks: “Is this the noble Moor, whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient?” (IV, i, 260-61). Othello no longer seems to be Othello.

But the discrepancy between what Othello thinks he has become and what he has become tragically becomes clear to him only when it is too late. The role he attempts when he comes in to murder Desdemona is Justice, but Iago is much too good a stage director, for we recognize the Moor, finally, for what he is. Othello becomes the villain, reclaiming at that crucial moment over Desdemona's bed the role he has so long sought to avoid. And although there is a discrepancy between his perception of himself and the audience's perception of him, that distance collapses as Othello, welling with sexual desire, comments on Desdemona's beauty:

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars:
It is the cause, yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth, as monumental alabaster.

(V, ii, 1-5)

Othello tries our sympathies for him even further when he bends over Desdemona's bed to kiss his doomed wife before he exacts his price:

… when I have plucked the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It must needs wither. I'll smell it on the tree,
A balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice herself to break her sword: once more:
Be thus, when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after: once more, and this the last,
So sweet was ne'er so fatal: I must weep,
But they are cruel tears; this sorrow's heavenly,
It strikes when it does love.

(V, ii, 13-22)

Surely these are chilling moments for any audience as it watches the determined murderer linger over kisses stolen from the sleeping Desdemona. Each additional kiss calls to mind those other black Moors who sought to abuse other innocent women, for who can forget Othello's purpose for approaching Desdemona's bed? His final hint at necrophilia, and in this context Othello surely means physical love, captures the prurience of this scene. Othello's protestations of sorrow and love may be real, but his kisses are not kisses of tenderness of forgiveness. Were they, he would not, could not, reject Desdemona's offer of connubial love and, ironically, redemption.

When Othello finally discovers the disjunction between what he supposes he has done and what he actually has done, he learns his tragedy. And what exactly he learns is something that the audience has witnessed; he learns that the noble Moor, the adversary of a stereotype, has collapsed into that now victorious stereotype. When he sees this, the noble Moor calls down justice on the villainous:

Whip me, you devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight,
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulfur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

(V, ii, 278-81)

The Moor now condemns himself with the language commonly used to damn black fiends, as though he has assumed not only the role of the tormented but also of the tormentor, the damned and the damning.

In his final assault upon himself, Othello continues to apply to Othello the murderer the language and character of the typical Moor:

… I pray you in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of them as they are; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice; then must you speak
Of one that lov'd 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,(10) threw a pearl away,
Richer than all his tribe.
.....And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus.

(V, ii, 341-49, 353-57)

Now fully cognizant of the discrepancy between what he thought himself to be and what he is, Othello speaks calmly of the man duped by the villain, of his honor and sense of being wronged. However, none of this extenuates his guilt. The “base Indian,” the “circumcised dog,” committed a crime, and Othello, who once served Venice well, executes justice for the state and finally merges his two roles. He is both villainous Moor and, at last, Justice. His ability to destroy one role by using the other helps win for him our sympathy.

Several other important factors contribute to eliciting a sympathetic response from us. Cast as the villain, and even having effected his and Iago's policy, Othello, however, is never fully and resolutely a villain; he lacks the love of evil that underlies the villain's every act. Othello is the misguided victim, as much sinned against as sinning, and this fact alone moves us to pity. This fact also points to the irony of Othello's tragedy; he falls victim to his own struggle. He struggles to destroy evil as he struggles to escape the identity of a Moor. But he escapes neither and becomes both. Othello, in fact, fulfills the worst suspicions that his worst enemies hold of him. Gratiano reminds us of this when he comments sadly:

Poor Desdemona, I am glad thy father's dead;
Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief
Shore his old thread atwain: did he live now,
This sight would make him do a desperate turn,
Yea, curse his better angel from his side,
And fall to reprobation.

(V, ii, 205-210)

Brabantio's nightmare has come true, and were he alive, this would provoke him to disclaim all faith. But the real horror here is that Brabantio's nightmare is also Othello's, and Othello becomes what he was most loath to be. We sympathize because he fell not for pride's sake but for honor's and because he remains vulnerable to that which he is and is made to be, no matter how that differs from what he wishes to be. In the end we, like Othello, wish he had not fallen victim to himself, victim to his fate.

Our sympathy for Othello, however, is sympathy for his struggle to escape his fate, not sympathy for what he is fated to be. For that there is no sympathy. Thus Brabantio can sympathize with Othello until he sees only the typical stage Moor, the man who bewitched his daughter. Those who sympathize see Othello as a brave warrior in control of his own destiny. Is not this the moral of his tale to Desdemona, who he says “lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd” (I, iii, 167)? Brabantio himself was once beguiled by Othello's ability to overpower fate:

Her father lov'd me, oft invited me,
Still question'd me the story of my life,
From year to year; the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have pass'd.

(I, iii, 128-31)

Othello's repetition of “pass'd” is deliberate and gives explicit expression to both the trials he conquered and the dangers he escaped. Brabantio loses respect immediately and irrevocably when he no longer sees Othello as the Moor who defies fate but instead as the Moor who threatens family and state. Brabantio, after all, is incredulous that Othello could at this time be called by “special mandate for the state affairs,” and Brabantio's vulgar and bitter suggestion about Desdemona exemplifies again his changed perception: “Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: / She has deceiv'd her father, may do thee” (I, iii, 72, 292-93). Angered by Desdemona's change in loyalty from father to husband, Brabantio holds her to be entirely faithless.

Those who, like Brabantio, in the end see only the Moor, surrender judgment to prejudice. Surely the most articulate spokesman for this point of view is Thomas Rymer, who finds much of Othello, including the status of the hero, ludicrous: “With us a Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter; but Shakespear would not have him less than a Lieutenant—General. With us a Moor might marry some little drab, or Small-coal Wench; Shake-spear would provide him the Daughter and Heir of some great Lord, or Privy-Councellor; and all the town should reckon it a very suitable match.”11

Rymer's comments point to a problem that is not unique to Othello but is still of great significance. In the end, we can only be sympathetic to Othello's plight if we are first open to Othello himself. If we are immovable in our contempt or incredulity, the play is then all that Rymer says it is. The problem of sympathy for Othello is doubly important when we recall that of all the plays in English dramatic history, no other play until the twentieth century offered a black hero of Othello's stature. And always there to undermine the most positive aspects of Shakespeare's representation of a noble black is Othello's lapse into the stereotype. Justice smites a Moor. Fate seems to control not only Othello but his representation. However successful Shakespeare's manipulation of the stereotype may be, Othello remains identifiable as a version of that type. We may see Shakespeare's hand more subtly, if we see Othello's and Desdemona's tragedy as a personal tragedy. After all, chaos does not come again; order always exists in Venice and even its outposts. Shakespeare's black Moor never possesses the power or desire to subvert civic and natural order.

Shakespeare comments with similar subtlety on Othello through the internal playwright Iago. In the hands of this malicious playwright, characters must be what they seem; black men must be villains. The irony here, of course, is that villains must seem to be what they are not and vice versa. How differently from Iago Shakespeare represents Othello is witnessed in part by the sympathy Shakespeare evokes from us for Iago's victim. But this points to the basic duality of Othello's character, a duality that is constantly at work in the play. In the end, however, the separate parts become one in Othello, and the good becomes inseparable from the evil, Justice from the Moor, the playwright from the dissembler.

The importance of Othello as the dominant representation of an African on the stage cannot be overestimated. Unlike any of the other plays discussed in this or the previous chapter, Othello seems to have been always in revival. Not until Oroonoko was staged in 1695 was there a close rival to Othello for putting a dramatic representation of a black character before English audiences. Between 1604 and 1687, Othello was in production not less than fourteen times. No generation of seventeenth-century playgoers could not have seen the play in several revivals. The publication history of Othello also indicates significant popularity. Although the first publication did not occur until 1622, almost twenty years after its first performance, Othello was published in quarto seven times in the seventeenth century and was included in the four seventeenth-century folios. In spite of the remarkable endurance of Othello, its ability to influence positively the portrayal of Africans on the stage is, not surprisingly, almost negligible; the stereotype remains vigorous even into the Restoration, as the adaptations of Titus Andronicus and Lust's Dominion suggest. While a single play could not be expected to reverse centuries of tradition, one senses that Othello had virtually no effect on the representation of Moors in the seventeenth century. How much of this is due to Othello's own tragic relapse to the stereotypical Moor cannot be determined, but surely that must be a factor. Indeed, audiences may have learned other lessons from this play as they remembered the sight of the black Moor murdering the innocent and white Desdemona. Perhaps too, Emilia's stinging charge, “O gull! O dolt! / As ignorant as dirt!” (V, ii, 164-65), lingered in their ears. Or perhaps when Emilia cries, “O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!” (V, ii, 131-32), the age-old conflict between black and white, between good and evil, received an all-too-believable and terrifying reconfirmation. For some, like Rymer, the belief that Othello was even high enough to fall was merely fabulous anyway. Perhaps Othello, like its hero, simply could not replace everywhere the long-held perceptions of black men.


  1. Another character, Alcade, the King of Africa, in The Thracian Wonder (1599), may be relevant here; however, I am uncertain that he is black. Tokson holds the opposite opinion; he writes that it “is quite clear that King Alcade is dark skinned” (93). He bases his judgment on Alcade's comment that in Europe “Men have livers there / Pale as their faces” (The Thracian Wonder, in The Works of John Webster, ed. Alexander Dyce [London, 1830], Vol. IV, III, iii, 209). This, however, could be a reference not to blackness but to sun exposure, much like Cleopatra's: “Think on me, / That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black” (Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, I, v, 27-28). Tokson also sees a reference to Alcade's daughter as a “white Moore” (V, ii, 249 and 250), as further corroborative evidence for his opinion. While we do know for certain that the daughter is white, I believe her whiteness raises questions about Alcade's supposed blackness rather than solutions. In a few medieval romances some black parents do miraculously have white offspring. (See Heliodorus, An Aethiopian History, Book IV.) Could Alcade be from this tradition? Although it is possible, I have been unable to locate an example in drama. A dramatization of An Aethiopian History entitled The White Aethiopian (1650?) exists in manuscript, but there is no record of performance. Alcade and his daughter seem to be more closely related to the King of Africa and his daughter, Angelica, in Greene's dramatization of Orlando Furioso, first published in 1594 and then again in 1599. Alcade also makes a rather curious statement that adds to my uncertainty. When he first appears in the play, he says to Sophos and Eusanius, the real heroes of the play:

    In Africa, the Moors are only known,
    And never yet search'd part of Christendom;
    Nor do we levy arms against their religion,
    But like a prince, a royal justicer,
    To patron right and supplant tyranny.

    (III, iii, p. 204)

    Is Alcade claiming to be other than a Moor? If so, does he mean he is not a Muslim, or not black or neither? We have no way of knowing. Finally, many other white Africans exist in dramatic literature, most notably in plays about Rome and Carthage. It seems to me more likely that Alcade belongs to this tradition. My uncertainty about him, however, requires that he remain outside of this discussion.

  2. It is difficult to say how dark Morocco really is. The stage direction at the start of Act III, scene i, reads: “Enter Morocco, a tawny Moor all in white.” Tawny offers its own difficulties because Shakespeare uses it synonymously with black in Titus Andronicus. (In Act V, Aaron calls his son, who several times earlier is called black, a “tawny slave” [V, i, 27].) Morocco himself speaks of his complexion in figurative language that fails to provide accurate information. I am inclined to believe that Morocco is fully black, primarily because of the visual contrast his black skin would make with the white and presumably exotic clothes.

  3. George Chapman, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria in The Plays of George Chapman: The Comedies, ed. Thomas Marc Parrott (New York, 1961), Vol. I, scene x, ll. 161-63.

  4. William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. M. R. Ridley (New York, 1958), II, i, 281-82, 286-91. Throughout my discussion of Othello, I quote from this Arden Shakespeare edition of the play because it, unlike many other editions, is based on the text of the first quarto of 1622.

  5. A variant reading found in the 1623 folio has Desdemona saying here: “My heart's subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord” (I, iii, 245-46).

  6. Although this line is frequently construed to refer to the “rites of war,” I read it as meaning the “rites of love.” (See Romeo and Juliet, III, ii, 8, and Ridley's note to this line.) In the line immediately following this, Desdemona says that during Othello's absence “I a heavy interim shall support.” Shakespeare, as well as other Renaissance playwrights, frequently uses the figure of women bearing weight as a metaphor for coitus. It seems reasonable to assume that Desdemona speaks frankly and as a sexually mature adult.

  7. Lois Whitney suggests in her article “Did Shakespeare Know ‘Leo Africanus’?” that Shakespeare while writing Othello relied heavily on Pory's 1600 translation of Leo Africanus. On the subject of Othello's jealousy she writes: “In the matter of love, jealousy, and wrath Leo's characterization has a bearing also.” (PMLA, XXXVII, 1922, p. 482.) See also Tokson, Popular Image of the Black Man, 17.

  8. Burton also cites Leo as his source for “Incredible things almost of the lust and jealousy of his countrymen of Africa, and especially such as live about Carthage.” Burton then points out that “every geographer of them [Moors] in Asia, Turkey, Spaniards, Italians,” reports of the lust and jealousy of Moors. It should be noted that The Anatomy of Melancholy was not published until 1621, and hence could not have been known by Shakespeare. However, as a copious amalgamation of fact and lore, the book codifies opinions that were in currency long before its publication. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (London, 1977), Part 3, pp. 264, 270-71.

  9. Ibid., 266-67.

  10. The folio reads “Judean” here.

  11. Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy, in The Critical Works of Thomas Rymer, ed. C. R. Zimansky (New Haven, Conn., 1956), 134.

Owen Gleiberman (review date 7 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Gleiberman, Owen. “O.Entertainment Weekly, nos. 612-13 (7 September 2001): 132-33.

[In the following review of the 2001 film adaptation O, set in a contemporary prep school, Gleiberman contends that the movie captures the mood and emotions of Shakespeare's play but that it fails to reach the level of true tragedy.]

Doing a Shakespeare play without the pesky inconvenience of Shakespeare's language sounds a bit like trying to drive a car without gasoline. Add to that the prospect of Othello set within the confines of an elite Southern prep school, complete with up-and-coming Hollywood stars making the Bard “relevant” for a new multiculti millennium, and the whole thing, at a glance, may look as if it reeks of opportunism, of the ultimate in cynically chic teen-niche pandering. The first thing to say about O, therefore, is that the movie doesn't just appropriate characters and situations from Othello, updating them to the gossipy hothouse atmosphere of a contemporary high school. To an astonishing degree, O gets the tragic Shakespeare mood, that somber stentorian passion born of hidden slivers of ambition and betrayal.

Some of the movie, admittedly, is labored. Minus the treacherous eloquence of Shakespeare's words, the business of the stolen handkerchief now plays like the hoariest of hoary devices. Yet the central triangle retains its fevered racial-sexual ambiguity. Mekhi Phifer as the charismatic and forthright yet secretly vulnerable basketball star Odin, Julia Stiles as his ardent girlfriend Desi, Josh Hartnett as the weak and bitter Hugo, who out of a tangle of envy and self-hatred tries to bust their relationship apart—all three actors perform with a liquid contempo naturalism that's as intimate as it is unforced. As the drama comes to its gradual boil, they reveal their emotions with utter nakedness as well.

Directed by Tim Blake Nelson, from a script by Brad Kaaya, O, which has finally arrived in theaters after over a year of controversial buzz and delay, turns out to be something far more rare than another novelty spin on Shakespeare (as exciting as some recent reinterpretations, notably the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, have been). It's a teen movie that jettisons all irony, inviting us to sink, with an earnestness that feels nearly lush, into the drive and clash of its characters. Odin, the only black student at Palmetto Grove Academy in Charleston, S.C., is a budding superjock, popular for his slam-dunk bravura and also for the casual charm of his off-the-court camaraderie. He's devoted to Desi, and though it's hardly a color-blind romance—he shares erotic jokes with her about being a “buck” who sneaks into the “big house”—the deep-feeling bond that they share, at parties and in her dorm-room bed, makes their relationship look like the essence of a youthfully sophisticated, post-jungle-fever love affair. Phifer and Stiles ground the movie in their playful sensual rapport; they make adoration look sexy. Odin and Desi see each other's race, but mostly they see right past it.

Hugo, too, is on the basketball squad, and the fact that he's not talented enough to be a star is just one of his problems. He's the son of the head coach (Martin Sheen, bellowing like an all-too-believable prep-school Bobby Knight), and he feels passed over by his father, who was responsible for getting Odin a scholarship and who treats him like a saintly, favored second son. As a director, Nelson, who made the disturbingly authentic murder-in-the-Bible Belt drama Eye of God, lets his camera swoop and dive on the basketball court, but he stages the rest of the movie with a no-fuss quietude and force, letting the drama emerge from the actors' intensity. Previous Iagos, from Christopher Plummer to Kenneth Branagh, have seethed with private malice, but Hartnett, in a daring performance, plays Hugo as shy, moody, and all too easily wounded—a maliciously overdelicate James Dean who schemes out of impotence, coveting Odin's success with a poison brew of admiration and envy. Hugo is one of Odin's inner circle of chums, and when he decides to plot against him, you wonder, for all of his cunning, how his convoluted plan could possibly succeed. He seems outclassed at every level.

That's where the racial politics of O grow at once powerful and, to me at least, a little dicey for comfort. When Hugo tells Odin that white girls like Desi are “horny snakes,” he's playing on the paranoia about otherness that everyone in America knows. Phifer shoots bolts of accusation out of his wary dark eyes. He reveals the spectacle of intelligence working against itself: As Odin begins to suspect his lover of infidelity, the reality of his past—the fact that he didn't grow up with these privileged white kids—starts to overheat and bend his judgment.

The motivation is laid out with meticulous care, and Nelson stages one extraordinary moment of primal anger: Odin, his roiling soul stoked by cocaine (he's a recovering user), smashing the basketball so hard at a dunking contest that it shatters the backboard, much to the ignorant delight of the crowd. Yet the movie, from this point on, has little choice but to escalate Odin's rage even further, and the effect, in its very overstatement, carries uncomfortable—if unintentional—racist overtones. The violent climax of O that resulted in all the distribution ruckus turns out to be the worst part of the movie, not because it echoes Columbine but because in the context of a modern American high school, it turns Odin into a junior O. J. Simpson, a young black man whose civilized facade is merely cover for an intrinsic and bottomless rage. Unlike Othello, he withdraws, in his very vengeance, from the audience, and the movie, for all of its feeling, recedes from tragedy.

Piotr Sadowski (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Sadowski, Piotr. “Othello.” In Dynamism of Character in Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, pp. 164-82. Newark, N.J.: University of Delaware Press, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Sadowski applies psychological theory to the actions of Othello and finds him to be a “static personality” who requires accepted rules to guide his life. Sadowski notes that Othello, like most static figures, demands that his sense of justice be satisfied, and realizes this through Desdemona's murder.]

The main tragic protagonists in Othello and King Lear are static characters of heroic proportions who experience a profound mental crisis caused by a disintegration of values and norms, which before the crisis ensure the stability and balance of their characters and behavior. As I noted earlier in relation to other static if less heroic characters such as Laertes, Horatio, or Ophelia, static people are generally well adapted to particular circumstances of life, as long as they can follow the rules that they have accepted as guidelines for their behavior. These rules are of course subject to cultural and historical change, but what is unchangeable in the behavior of static people is their usually uncritical, unquestioning, and often rigid adherence to whatever rules and norms are laid down for them in a particular sociocultural context. Thus for old Hamlet the moral guidelines are provided by the concepts of marshal honor, fair play, respect for treaties, marital fidelity, and kin loyalty as defined by the medieval heroic society. The life of Laertes too remains unproblematic as long as external circumstances allow him to follow his conventional rules: obedience to his father and to the king, brotherly love, and family honor. As I also discussed in the previous chapter, Ophelia can live a quiet if unexciting life adapted to the conventional role of a daughter in a noble household, as long as she has a brother and a father to lean on, and as long as the stability of her life is not upset by volatile and unpredictable people such as Hamlet. Horatio too can maintain his mental equipoise and his uninvolved and distanced intellectual vantage point of a scholar, chronicler, and the prince's confidant, as long as the world of Elsinore, for all its corruption and political crises, continues to exist.

Largely unproblematic and even dull in the normal, routine run of life, static characters nonetheless become psychologically interesting in times of crisis, that is, when the external situation changes to such a degree as to unable a static person to follow the rules and norms that normally ensure mental balance and stability. Once the external pillar supporting the inner balance is removed, the personality structure based on this balance collapses, leaving the mind in a state of profound shock. Old Hamlet even after death remains so upset by the sacrilege of marital infidelity and fratricide that he returns from beyond the grave to settle his scores with this world, using his son for the purpose. Laertes is so outraged by the apparently undeserved killing of his father that he obliterates in his mind all other norms and moral values, as long as he can settle his account with his father's killer and fulfill the conventional role of the avenger. Even the usually unmoved and stoic Horatio has his moment of existential crisis prompted by the destruction of the world of Elsinore, when he contemplates committing suicide. After a sudden and tragic disappearance of the father figure and in the absence of the supportive brother, the mind of Ophelia goes even beyond the point of temporary crisis and disintegrates completely, never to regain balance of any kind. Only the static Gertrude does not appear to experience any major crisis (beyond the momentary breakdown in the closet scene), but only because she is too weak to confront and handle the terrible truth that Hamlet is trying to convey to her: the repression of the fatal knowledge keeps Gertrude's mind in a state of self-deluding balance to the very end.

There is also to be observed another regularity in the behavior of static characters in a situation of crisis. After the violent and stormy mental shake-up following a drastic change in external circumstances, the mind finally regains its equilibrium by adapting to a new set of norms and values. Static character requires above all inner balance, that is, agreement between the believed rules and the situation in which these rules are respected. Once a static person perceives (as in King Lear) or becomes persuaded (as in Othello) that the sacred rules he or she abides by are belied by external evidence, the situation becomes unacceptable and intolerable, so that the only way to regain mental balance is either to accept with honesty and humility the new situation or to embrace a new set of values. The former possibility is realized by Lear, who after a tempestuous mental crisis finally accepts the reality of his daughters' ingratitude and his own mistake about them, becoming also reconciled with the initially rejected Cordelia. Shortly before he dies Lear regains mental balance based on a new set of principles: he no longer sees himself as a proud and all-powerful king but as a humble and weak old man. The second possibility in turn is realized by Othello, who after a period of profound crisis caused by Iago's skilful manipulation finally calms down and regains mental equipoise, having accepted as truth the image of his wife as a whore. In act 5 the formerly “mad” Othello is chillingly calm, self-possessed, and—typical for statics—obsessed with justice. In times of crisis static characters can only experience a complete psychological U-turn, a full reversal of attitude and behavior, rather than a partial adjustment. This is why static people are good material for religious and political conversions: after a temporary crisis of faith they embrace the new conviction with the same uncritical zeal as that which characterized their former faith, now violently rejected.


Critics have often stressed the essentially static and heroic quality of Othello's character in the sense defined above. For Bradley the Moor from the early part of the play is “grave, self-controlled … at once simple and stately in bearing and in speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth, proud of his services to the State, unawed by dignitaries and unelated by honors, secure … against all dangers from without and all rebellion from within.”1 There is an aura of conventionality about Othello, also a static trait, and for example G. Wilson Knight finds the character a “very much the typical middle-aged bachelor entering matrimony late in life.”2 Jan Kott too considers the figure in the context of typical feudal heroics found in knightly epic and romance, seen especially in Othello's royal blood and the heroic stereotypes inherited from Roman rhetoric, fairy tales, and legends.3 Nicholas Grene also emphasizes the static quality of the values represented by Othello: for the critic the play “expects us to share belief in a heroic order of harmony, integrity, stability,” where even Othello's vision of war is “a ceremonialized stasis,” consonant both with the character's “serene and heroic strength” and with his role of “the order-figure re-imposing peace.”4

Othello is introduced in the play by Iago (1.1), whose description of the general is slanted by hatred, primarily motivated by being passed over for promotion by Othello (1.1.6-8). But for all their resentfulness and bitterness Iago's remarks reflect, however distortedly, Othello's real heroic and charismatic qualities: for example, Iago speaks scornfully of the general's “own pride and purposes,” of his “bombast circumstance [circumlocution]” and “epithets of war” (1.1.11-13). When Othello appears in person for the first time he is accompanied by Iago, whose hatred of his master has already been impressed on us in the preceding scene, both in Iago's diatribes before Roderigo and even more forcefully in the grossly offensive racial slurs shouted at night before Brabantio's house (1.1.110-12, 115). In this context Iago's sudden change of tone before Othello and his hypocritical talk of conscience and absence of iniquity in himself (1.2.2-3) establish Iago firmly as a scheming and resentful endodynamic figure. Othello for his part appears totally unsuspecting of his ensign's insincerity, takes Iago's words at face value, and treats him practically as a confidant, his trust betraying a straightforward, even gullible static disposition from the start.

But here we encounter an interesting and important dramatic incongruity, in that Othello's and Iago's dynamisms of character appear to disagree with the roles assigned to them in the play. Normally, that is, in real life, positions of command (as in the army) require at least an endostatic disposition, involving as it does a pragmatic attitude toward life and the ability to act efficiently in new, unexpected situations. Endostatism also entails a certain degree of opportunism, a readiness to cut corners and bend the rules, which clearly do not square with Othello's admirable integrity, principled stance, and chivalry. As a static person, especially of heroic proportions, a person like Othello could be realistically expected to perform spectacular individual deeds of martial valor (as is indeed attested in Othello's own story of his romantic adventures, 1.3.129-70), but a person of static character is psychologically unsuited for positions of command and government. Still, military authority is clearly the main role of Shakespeare's black general and the main reason why the Moor is reckoned with at all by the Venetian oligarchy: they cannot afford to do without his services as an able and tried military commander. There is no doubt that Othello's military reputation is well deserved (2.1.35-36), as is confirmed even by the resentful Iago (1.1.145-51), and the general himself rests confident in the fact that his services to Venice will “out-tongue” (1.2.18-19) before the duke the complaints of Brabantio, whose daughter Othello secretly married.

Interestingly, however, the only time in the play when Othello has a chance to display his military skills, during the sea battle with the Turks, the victory is won not by Othello's generalship but spectacularly by the elements. The sea storm (2.1.1-6) may have its importance as a poetic anticipation of the “storm” wrought in Othello's mind by Iago in Cyprus, but it also helps to emphasize how dependent the general is on chance and circumstance rather than on his own military skill and command. The text makes it clear that the Turkish fleet is defeated by “the wind-shaken surge” (2.1.13) and by “the desperate tempest” (2.1.21), and not by the “warlike” and “valiant” Moor, who is himself lost at sea (2.1.28) and is the last to arrive in Cyprus, having first raised serious fears for his safety in Cassio and other Venetians (2.1.32-34, 44-46, 89-93). Othello's high rank and respect in the eyes of the Venetian oligarchy may also have been aided by the Moor's royal lineage (1.2.21-22), so that notwithstanding the apparent discrepancy between his position as general and his static character, for dramatic reasons it was necessary to create a picture of an honorable, principled, dignified but gullible man as the victim of Iago's intrigue. An endostatic Othello would simply have been too cautious and too guarded to be so easily led. Psychological realism is thus artistically bent by Shakespeare to achieve a dramatic effect of the tragic fall of a heroic, charismatic man whose honesty, nobility, and trusting nature are unscrupulously exploited. In Iago in turn Shakespeare created an incongruous alignment of an endodynamic character with a socially inferior and subordinate role: given his innate disposition a person such as Iago can only feel satisfied in positions of command and leadership (traits he is surreptitiously displaying throughout the play), but he is deeply frustrated, resentful, and embittered in auxiliary and dependent positions, where his organizational talents cannot be fully realized.

The two incongruities are thus responsible for a peculiar and paradoxical relationship between Othello and Iago: the socially superior general is inferior to his subordinate in respect of dynamism of character, and despite his stateliness, dignity, and commanding position Othello is psychologically dependent on his ensign. From the first time the two characters appear together it is obvious that the trusting Othello is totally unaware and unsuspecting of Iago's insincerity, and of being manipulated by him into a potentially compromising and damaging confrontation with Brabantio and the duke on account of Desdemona.5 Iago's “friendly” advice to Othello about how to deal with the Venetian Council (1.2.11-17) also betrays a patronizing and contemptuous attitude toward the Moor and exploits the latter's sense of insecurity as a foreigner of inferior race, less familiar with Venetian power relations than the insider Iago. However, Iago's malicious plan to compromise the general before the Council miscarries on this occasion, both because the honorable Moor is prepared to face the music, confident in his military reputation, noble lineage, and the honest love he bears Desdemona (1.2.30-32), and because the new and urgent matter of the state (the Turkish threat) that requires Othello's services will overshadow Brabantio's more private suit against the Moor. Iago may fail to harm Othello this time round, but his attitude and intention with regard to the Moor are clear to the audience: the endodynamic ensign, deeply frustrated with his subordinate role, will not rest until he brings the static, and in Iago's view, naive, and foolish general to ruin in order to advance his own career.

Othello's static honesty and truthfulness are admirably displayed in his readiness to answer openly any charges related to his secret marriage, and he even welcomes the inevitable public confrontation as a way of restoring balance between his private and public lives, disturbed by the elopement with Desdemona: “I must be found. / My parts, my title and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly” (1.2.30-32). A responsible man, he knows that he will not allow his married life to get in the way of his public duties, an argument that no doubt will carry some weight before the Senate requiring Othello as a soldier: “But that I love the gentle Desdemona / I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea's worth” (1.2.25-28). After he patiently and tactfully withstands the racial insults of the outraged Brabantio, now his father-in-law, Othello offers a calm, composed, and dignified self-defense before the Senate, confident both in his innocence of any dishonorable action and in Venetian justice (1.3.118-21). Given Othello's static and honest character, we must also accept that his confession before the Senate is frank and truthful (1.3.124-26), “a round unvarnished tale” (1.3.91), and that his narrative is not “unreliable as evidence” because of the Moor's alleged “ulterior purpose” in editing his past, as the critic E. A. J. Honigmann and others have suggested.6 Still less is Othello's story full of “bragging and fantastical lies” (2.1.221), according to Iago's envious and hateful account. Even Othello's impression that Desdemona's father “loved” him must be accepted as genuine, and although Brabantio certainly did not envisage the Moor as his prospective son-in-law, the straightforward Othello may be forgiven for overinterpreting the civility and friendliness shown by a Venetian senator to an exotic visitor. Nor is Othello's life story an example of “narrative self-fashioning,” and even the Moor's selective insistence on moments of danger and survival rather than on victories betokens true modesty and self-effacement of someone given neither to boastful and vainglorious (exostatic) exaggerations, nor to purposeful and opportunistic (endostatic) distortions of facts.7 If Othello's story does sound romantic and exotic, it is by the very nature of his experience than by the alleged “self-fashioning” habit of the teller: the cannibals and the “men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (1.3.145-46) mentioned by Othello sound fantastic only to today's audience, but were believed as actually existing in Elizabethan times.8

Despite its initial secrecy Othello's marriage with Desdemona, however shocking to Brabantio and in all likelihood also to the other senators (diplomatically silent as they are about it), appears to be a matter of propriety, emotional maturity, and mutual respect—exactly what can be expected between two static partners. Neither the Moor nor his white wife appear to be drawn to each other by sensuality and passion alone, the point often overstated by critics, as that would indicate a more dynamic disposition.9 Rather, their relationship appears to be mature, sober, balanced, and responsible, more psychological than physical. Desdemona's feelings for the Moor did not spring from a sudden, youthful infatuation but matured by degrees, motivated by pity for Othello's dangers and suffering rather than by any physical attraction (1.3.157, 160-62, 168). Othello for his part was moved by Desdemona's kindness rather than excited by her physical attractiveness (1.3.169), and he reciprocated her feelings only when invited by her (1.3.164-67). Once married, the responsible Othello will not allow his private life to interfere with his official duties, and he is even prepared to leave his wife in Venice for the duration of the Turkish expedition (1.3.237-40), the fateful idea to accompany him on the campaign being Desdemona's alone (1.3.260). Othello then allays the Senate's understandable concerns by openly disclaiming any desire to “please the palate of [his] appetite, / Nor to comply with heat,” the young affects in him being defunct at his mature age (1.3.263-65). With his private and public duties strictly separated, the “serious and great business” of the war will not be neglected with Desdemona by Othello's side (1.3.267-69).

But Othello's static honesty, frankness, and trusting disposition, coupled both with his responsible position as a military commander and with his sense of insecurity as an outsider in Venice, leave him potentially vulnerable. In fact, the weakness coming from the incongruity between his character and his social role is only waiting to be exploited by the envy of some clever opportunist—exactly what happens in the play. Othello's blindness to Iago's unabashed and contemptuous, patronizing attitude is obvious from the start, as is the general's dependence on his ensign in a practical sense. As observed by critics, the aging Moor appears to suffer from failing eyesight and on a number of occasions has to rely on Iago's eyes.10 It is Iago who helps Othello recognize the approaching Cassio and other officers (1.2.28-30), and when Brabantio arrives to arrest Othello, Iago is the first to notice the danger (1.2.55). Othello's impaired vision in an obvious way increases his psychological dependence on Iago, later adding extra sting into taunts such as “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see” (1.3.293), and “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio” (3.3.200). Eye symbolism culminates in Othello's ironic insistence on the ocular proof of his wife's infidelity (“Make me to see't,” 3.3.366), as if to emphasize that Othello can only see—that is, understand—what Iago wants him to see.

As all people tend to judge others according to the criteria defined by their particular dynamism of character, so the static Othello applies his standards of honesty and plain dealing to everyone else, with ultimately disastrous consequences. More precisely, static people give others an advance credit of trust until someone visibly betrays that trust through dishonest actions. In other words, static people treat other people as if they too had static characters. Iago is perfectly right when he says that “the Moor is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so” (1.3.398-99), although in the mouth of the endodynamic villain the remark is not a compliment but a contemptuous acknowledgment of Othello's naïveté and foolishness. It is clear that Othello trusts his ensign completely (“A man he is of honesty and trust,” 1.3.285), which only shows how cleverly and for how long Iago was able to hide his true character before the general.11 Othello extends the same unconditional trust toward his wife, and it is clear that the stability and integrity of his mind depend entirely on this trust (“My life upon her faith,” 1.3.295, and “when I love thee not / Chaos is come again,” 3.3.91-92).

As a static man of principles Othello reacts with outrage and righteous anger whenever a principle he personally abides by is broken or violated, and he demands justice, that is, appropriate reparation from those responsible for breaking the rule. When Othello finds his officers guilty of causing an unseemly drunken brawl, his reaction is first of all emotional, “My blood begins my safer guides to rule / And passion, having my best judgement collied, / Assays to lead the way” (2.3.201-3), before he reacts in a more formal way by demoting Cassio in an apparent act of justice. However, the main principle whose alleged violation causes not just righteous anger but a profound mental crisis and a “radical and irreversible metamorphosis” of Othello's personality is the wife's fidelity to her husband.12 It is the particular nature of this principle coupled with Othello's static character that accounts for the murderous intensity of his crisis. Feminist critics have tried to explain Othello's reaction to Desdemona's supposed infidelity in terms of his “repressed sexual feelings” and a “rejection of sexuality,” which in him take the displaced form of murder, and also in terms of the Moor's “neurotic misogyny,” springing from his “contempt for maternal femininity”—all sentiments allegedly characteristic of men in a traditional patriarchal society.13 There is no doubt that Venice in Shakespeare's play is a decisively patriarchal place (vide the Senate scene) that legitimizes woman's subordinate position to man (cf. 1.3.180-89), including the “sacred” duty of sexual fidelity to the husband and the husband's equally “sacred” right to jealousy and severe punishment for the wife's infidelity. Feminist critics usually ascribe this unfair relationship between the sexes to widespread male conspiracy against women, organized through unjust and oppressive patriarchal institutions such as marriage. However, the fact that male sexual jealousy is so widespread and historically persistent suggests also a strong genetic motivation underlying this anti-feminine prejudice. As argued by the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, male sexual jealousy is found in all cultures because the emotions of jealousy, in concert with other emotions and pressures on the woman, increases the probability that man would be the biological father of his wife's child. As a man can never be certain of paternity, because fertilization happens out of sight inside the woman's body, a cuckold risks both having his wife's reproductive efforts tied up by a rival and investing with his energy and resources in another man's genes. Genetic interests explain therefore why in considering long-term partners men tend to subscribe to the infamous madonna-whore dichotomy, which divides the female sex into loose women, who may be dismissed as easy conquests, and coy women, who are valued as potential wives.14 This mentality is often called a symptom of misogyny, but it is not a patriarchal myth; rather, from an evolutionary point of view the sentiment is “real” in the sense that it has always been adaptive for men to be jealous of their wives.15

Women too feel jealousy, but for different reasons: as the woman is always certain of maternity, and as her partner's adultery does not diminish his capacity to inseminate her, she may risk little by way of biological investment if her husband engages in extramarital sex. As the anthropologist Donald Symons observes, women are adapted to learn to discriminate between threatening and nonthreatening adultery in men, and especially in polygamous marriages it has not been adaptive for women to be sexually jealous of their husbands.16 For the wife, her husband's love child is first of all another woman's problem, unless the adultery is followed by the man's social investment in the love child, in which case the wife's and the legitimate child's security and well-being may be threatened. The wide difference in genetic interests and parental investments between the sexes thus explains the evolutionary trend whereby the woman is, on average, disinclined toward marital infidelity and more tolerant toward her husband's infidelity, while a man is generally more inclined toward extramarital relations and more jealous about his wife. This evolutionary mechanism lies at the root of the infamous “double standard,” in which female adultery is condemned while male adultery is tolerated, but not because of the alleged patriarchal conspiracy against women, but because sexual intercourse exposes men and women to very different risks and different reproductive costs and opportunities.

At the same time it must be emphasized that while evolution can explain the origin of the double standard and the reasons for the universality and persistence of sexual jealousy in men, genes and biology do not provide an excuse for the injustices arising from legitimizing these innate trends in social institutions, customs, and law. In fact, men's attitude toward women is as much a function of the genetic motivations described above as of cultural norms, which may either endorse or mitigate a particular innate behavioral tendency. It is therefore ultimately up to culture to decide whether male adultery is to be praised as an expression of healthy machismo or condemned as a breach of marital loyalty, and whether sexual jealousy is man's “sacred” right and a justification for harassing women or an urge to be controlled as unworthy of man's respect for himself and his partner. In the latter case it is a man's duty to exercise his volition to suppress his natural tendency toward adultery and jealousy in the name of decency, marital equality, and partnership, but it is clear that a cultural norm condemning male infidelity and antifeminine prejudice will not eliminate many a man's innate tendency toward promiscuity and sexual jealousy. In a traditional patriarchal society such as Renaissance Venice, and even more so in Othello's original Muslim background, the existing cultural norms strongly condemn the wife's infidelity and excuse the husband from any drastic measures he might undertake to punish the unfaithful wife. The effect of a strong cultural norm is thus compounded with a strong genetic disposition in men, creating as a result a behavioral pattern, dramatized in Othello and in The Winter's Tale, involving a husband's powerful negative emotions toward the alleged adulteress and his murderous aggression sanctioned by severe law and custom. In other words, because of the intensity of the underlying innate motivation, the murderous passion that often accompanies sexual jealousy is easily provoked in a traditional society in otherwise decent and noble men such as Othello or Leontes, whose negative emotions are not mitigated but actually enhanced by social sanction.

Othello's jealousy appears to be even easier to provoke than usual because of the presence of additional factors: his race, advanced age, lack of urban sophistication, status as an outsider, and apparent inexperience in the private, intimate sphere (it is his first marriage), which all contribute to Othello's sense of insecurity and undermine his confidence as a man. What the white and urbane Venetians thought of the dark Oriental races is more than sufficiently illustrated by Iago's uninhibited slurs and insults directed at the Moor behind his back: his talk of “an old black ram” (1.1.87), “a Barbary horse” (1.1.110), and of Othello as the devil (1.1.90), all in the context of the supposed lasciviousness and animalism of non-European races. The shocked and outraged father of Desdemona does not even try to hide his racial prejudice, shouting to Othello's face what other Venetian senators and noblemen most certainly shared but diplomatically kept to themselves: accusation of sorcery and treachery, physical repulsion, and disdain (1.2.62-81, 1.3.61-65). Othello swallows these racial insults without responding to them (1.2.81-85), as he no doubt did on similar previous occasions, but the confrontation with Brabantio only shows that despite his aristocratic lineage the Moor is keenly aware of his inferior status in Venice (“Haply for I am black,” 3.3.267). Iago later plays on the general's inner insecurity by reminding him that Desdemona had rejected many suitors “Of her own clime, complexion and degree” (3.3.234), implying that Othello, “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere,” 1.1.134-35), does not satisfy these important racial and social criteria. If Othello's advanced age is not necessarily a handicap for a husband in a patriarchal society, it does nonetheless become a cause of concern (“for I am declined / Into the vale of years,” 3.3.269-70) once Othello realizes that his “defunct” affects and lower sexual appetite (1.3.263-65) may not satisfy his young wife, allegedly insatiable in her lust (3.3.272-74).17 Othello's lack of refinement and sophistication (“Rude am I in my speech,” 1.3.82, also 3.3.267-69) and his inexperience with Venetian women, reputed for their sexual licentiousness (4.2.91), in due course deepen Othello's inferiority complex (“mine own weak merits,” 3.3.190) and are exploited to deadly effect by the “knowing” Iago.18 The sole principle supporting the stability and integrity of Othello's personality, his trust in Desdemona's fidelity, is thus dangerously threatened by the highly emotive and explosive nature of male sexual jealousy in general, as well as by a number of circumstances in Othello's life, character, and status that weaken his self-confidence and make him vulnerable to Iago's manipulation. The seeds of Othello's crisis and of the subsequent tragedy are therefore present in potentia in Othello's life and mind following his marriage with Desdemona, so that all a determined person such as Iago has to do is to set fire to the powder keg. As observed by J. I. M. Stewart, “the mind that undoes [Othello] is not Iago's but his own; the main datum is not Iago's diabolic intellect but Othello's readiness to respond.”19 Bernard McElroy also notes perceptively that Iago does not even have to convince Othello of Desdemona's infidelity, because the Moor already has a predisposition to believe it. Iago only gives the Moor a few suggestive nudges in that direction and lets Othello convince himself.20

The change of location from civilized and safe Venice to the less secure frontier of the civilized world that is Cyprus provides a fitting context for the transformation of Othello from a dignified man of admirable self-control and civility to a pitiful ruin of his former self, at the mercy of murderous passions: in the words of the critic John Holloway the Renaissance Complete Man becomes a complete monster.21 As an immediate consequence the arrival in Cyprus contributes another factor to Othello's sense of insecurity: he is now completely in charge, under the pressure of duty and responsibility to maintain order and safety in the Venetian garrison, the only man to control violence and defend civilization—the Moor Othello, himself of savage origins and a converted Christian.22 The arrival in Cyprus has also a private dimension of a delicate nature: Othello's marriage appears not to have been consummated until now, which explains why the general gives up the pleasure of celebrating the victory over the Turks with his officers, repairing to his private quarters with Desdemona instead (2.3.8-11). Both his present public duties and his intimate life put therefore extra pressure on the already insecure and vulnerable Othello, eager to please his Venetian superiors and satisfy his young wife.

But the irony of Othello's government in Cyprus is that he is, in fact, no longer in control of the situation. The peace and intimacy of his bedchamber are disrupted by the brawl provoked by Iago, and without realizing it Othello restores order on Iago's terms: he demotes the innocent Cassio and promotes the actual perpetrator, Iago, to be his right hand and trusted adjutant (2.3.251-52). Nominally in charge, Othello has become a puppet in Iago's hands, as has everyone else for that matter. As a frustrated endodynamic, Iago will not rest until he exploits all available opportunities of self-advancement, which in his present situation means continuing to compromise Cassio to eventually take his place, as he wanted from the beginning (1.1.7-10). Luck holds for Iago, because the disgraced Cassio, now without access to his general, has asked Emilia, Iago's wife and Desdemona's chamberwoman, to speak with her lady so that she can plead with Othello to restore his lieutenant. Dramatically Cassio's move brings both Emilia and Desdemona directly into the plot, but psychologically it provides Iago with a perfect opportunity to compromise Cassio even more, by suggesting to Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona. By another stroke of Iago's good luck Othello notices his wife speaking with Cassio, who, embarrassed to see the approaching general (“I am very ill at ease,” 3.3.32), quickly departs, laying an ideal ground for Iago's promptly following insinuations. Despite Othello's defective vision (“Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?” 3.3.37), the first “ocular proof” of something improper going on has been supplied and immediately exploited by Iago's innuendo about Cassio stealing away “so guilty-like” (3.3.39). The next perfectly timed chance event playing straight into Iago's hands is Desdemona's rather too insistent and importunate suit on behalf of Cassio (3.3.41-89), visibly irritating to Othello, who—interestingly—begins to feel ambivalent and doubtful about his wife even before Iago's unfolds fully his insinuations: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not / Chaos is come again” (3.3.90-92).

Iago strikes while the iron is hot by continuing his suggestions about Cassio and Desdemona, and within about 170 lines of a single scene (3.3.93-261) he practically convinces Othello that his wife is indeed unfaithful to him. Iago also succeeds in winning even more trust from the general, who now becomes psychologically totally dependent on his ensign (“I am bound to thee for ever,” 3.3.217). The speed and ease with which Othello is won over by Iago only confirm the Moor's lack of confidence, insecurity, and vulnerability discussed earlier. Iago's understatements do not in fact tell Othello anything definite but succeed in bringing to the surface of his consciousness already existing but hitherto repressed doubts and anxieties. Othello is the first to suspect Cassio's dishonesty (3.3.103-5), before this possibility is half-confirmed after teasing delay by Iago in his warning against the green-eyed monster of jealousy (3.3.167-68). Far from planting any ideas in Othello's mind Iago only releases them from his unconscious: “By heaven, thou echo'st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown” (3.3.109-11). However hideous the monster in his and Iago's minds, Othello cannot wait to hear the “horrible conceit” shut up in Iago's, or rather, in his own mind (3.3.117-18), insisting to be told what he both fears and masochistically desires to know: “I prithee speak to me, as to thy thinkings, / As thou dost ruminate, and give thy worst of thoughts / The worst of words” (3.3.134-36).

Othello's insistence on hearing the “truth” is a function of his static character here: his unbending honesty will not permit any doubt or uncertainty about the important principles he believes in, and his moral inflexibility, similarly to Laertes's, will not tolerate any compromise. If he loves Desdemona, his happiness is infinite, and his “soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate” (2.1.189-91), but if he does not love his wife, then literally “Chaos is come again” (3.3.92). For static people there is no middle ground between two opposite and in their view mutually exclusive possibilities, and so Desdemona can only be either a chaste wife or a whore. Nor will Othello tolerate in himself any doubt or uncertainty in the matter, the static inflexibility of his character allowing only for a clear and unequivocal interpretation one way or the other. That is why in a brief moment of sanity he demands a definite proof of Desdemona's infidelity to support Iago's “exsufflicate and blown surmises” (3.3.185): “I'll see before I doubt, when I doubt, prove, / And on the proof there is no more but this: / Away at once with love or jealousy!” (3.3.193-95). The motivation toward sexual jealousy may be strong in Othello for reasons discussed earlier, but as an honest man he will only believe and act in a fair and just way, upon objective evidence, not upon his whims or fantasies. And the same applies to Othello's attitude toward Iago: until proven otherwise by objective evidence, Iago will remain to him a “fellow of exceeding honesty” (3.3.262) to the end.

For some time, from the moment of noticing Cassio parting from Desdemona with a look of shame on his face (3.3.34) to the moment of seeing Desdemona's handkerchief handled between Cassio and Bianca in a compromising context (4.1.156), Othello experiences a profound and painful mental crisis, in which his personality is being literally flipped over and turned inside out (“the seamy side without,” 4.2.148), eventually to regain a psychological balance of sorts in act 5 based on a new set of convictions about his wife and his whole life. The change of attitude in Othello is so complete that critics often speak of “two Othellos,” one a man of essential nobility and the servant of Venice, and the other a monster debased by “a barbaric crazed fury of physical jealousy.”23 J. I. M. Stewart speaks of Othello as a noble, free, and open character on the one hand, and of “an obtuse and brutal egotist” on the other, and for E. A. J. Honigmann Othello changes more completely than other tragic heroes, so that “we must not confuse his earlier and later self.”24 Terence Hawkes states simply that “metaphorically, the play chronicles the transformation of one man into another,” while Bernard McElroy offers the following description of the dramatic collapse of Othello's world:

When the tension between value systems is so taut in the mind of the hero the precipitating factor may be quite unequal to the cataclysmic effects produced. Doubt of one thing implies doubt of another, and then another and another, until the entire structure of the hero's subjective world comes down in ruins like a building from which one small but crucial stone has been removed.25

However drastic the change of Othello's outlook upon his wife, upon women in general, and upon himself and his life, if his metamorphosis is to be psychologically credible it must be accounted for in terms of a mental crisis within the same personality, and not as a transformation of one personality into another. Despite the radical change of attitude and the temporary disturbance of his mental equilibrium, Othello remains essentially a static person to the last, except that after the crisis his mental equilibrium is founded on the opposite principle: what was only an unconscious possibility, the view that Desdemona is fickle and unchaste, has now established itself as a “fact” in Othello's consciousness, while his earlier unshaken belief in Desdemona's honesty has become repressed in his unconscious as falsehood. Tragically wrong as he is after this psychological U-turn, in act 5 Othello nonetheless regains his earlier static calm, self-possession, and self-control, able to act again in the name of justice, however false and perverted.

Othello's static integrity, an otherwise admirable quality and a source of his great satisfaction and happiness in ordinary circumstances, that is, when the perceived reality agrees with the held convictions, becomes for the Moor a source of acute suffering once doubt creeps in. His uncompromising character will not allow doubt to be ignored or dismissed without challenge, nor will it allow Othello to continue living pretending that nothing has happened: “to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved” (3.3.182-83), that is, determined on a course of action that will free him from doubt. Uncertainty means intense mental pain for someone who will not tolerate self-delusion, which is why the devilishly intelligent Iago not only causes Othello's suffering but aggravates it further by making the Moor fully aware of his present misery:

O beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes yet doubts, suspects yet strongly loves!


But Iago also knows that he cannot keep Othello in doubt indefinitely: he can only deepen the Moor's anxiety up to a point. As a realist Othello demands a proof, “a living reason” (3.3.412), of his wife's infidelity, vacillation and uncertainty being intolerable for his static temperament: “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not, / I think that thou [Iago] art just, and think thou art not. / I'll have some proof” (3.3.386-88). For a time Iago continues twisting the knife in the wound by reminding Othello of the ill repute of Venetian women, who “do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands,” and whose “best conscience / Is not to leav't undone, but keep't unknown” (3.3.205-7). Iago also quotes Desdemona's “deception” of her father in marrying Othello (3.3.203) as a precedent of her present alleged deception of her husband: “She that so young could give out such a seeming / To seel her father's eyes up” (3.212-13). Iago even goes so far as to tactlessly remind Othello of his inferior race (3.3.234) and to grossly insult Desdemona before her husband for her supposed “will most rank, / Foul disproportion,” and “thoughts unnatural” (3.3.236-37), as evidenced by her inexplicable choice of the Moor before other, more acceptable suitors. Othello's lack of response to this slander sadly shows the extent to which he is now won over by Iago's version of events: “This honest creature doubtless / Sees and knows more—much more—than he unfolds” (3.3.246-247).

Before the demanded “proof” of Desdemona's disloyalty is finally supplied and Othello recovers his balance, the painful disturbance of his mental equilibrium leads to a complete reversal of the psychological perspective, where appearance takes the place of reality and truth becomes substituted by falsehood. Thus the honest and innocent Desdemona is branded as a virtue-pretending whore (3.4.38-44), while the insincere and ill-willed Iago is praised for his alleged honesty and good intention. In Othello's topsy-turvy but nonetheless static view, true honesty is penalized while hypocrisy and deceit are rewarded. This psychological U-turn is so complete that by the time the “ocular proof” of the handkerchief is provided, it is practically no longer needed: “trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (3.3.325-27). Without even waiting for any material evidence Othello accepts as proof of his wife's infidelity Iago's preposterous ad hoc fabrication of Cassio's dream about Desdemona (3.3.416-28), and he is too upset to notice blatant inconsistencies and logical leaps in Iago's arguments (vide the latter's unsubstantiated reference to “other proofs,” 3.3.443). Nor are any material proofs needed at this stage: Cassio and Desdemona are subsequently condemned to death solely on the strength of Othello's unshaken belief in their alleged guilt (3.3.475-81).

Together with the altered moral perspective, other consequences of this psychological turnover gradually rise before Othello. With his marriage and private happiness apparently over, affection gives way to hate: “Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne / To tyrannous hate” (3.3.451-52), a reversal emphasized metaphorically by the replacement of heavenly imagery by references to hell: “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven: / 'Tis gone! / Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell” (3.3.448-50). Gone too are the pride and joy of Othello's military life, as evidenced in his powerful “farewell” speech (3.3.351-60) ending with a crushing realization of the end of his public life: “Othello's occupation's gone” (3.3.360). The Moor's earlier admirable self-possession and dignity also yield before undignified loss of temper and of self-control, his “waked wrath” (3.3.366) indicating the mental chaos he inwardly feared all along (3.3.91-92). The structure of Othello's static personality is shaken to its foundations and is irreversibly collapsing, and nothing short of unrelenting and bloody “justice” will allay the storm and restore order in Othello's upset mind: “my bloody thoughts with violent pace / Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love / Till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up” (3.3.460-63).

The disintegration of Othello's former psychic constitution culminates in an epileptic fit (4.1.43), after which Othello's temper begins to settle down and his static personality is beginning to reconstitute itself on a new set of convictions: that Desdemona is a whore, that his lieutenant Cassio is disloyal, and that his ancient Iago is brave, honest, and just (5.1.31). The reversal of attitudes is complete, but Othello's new perception of reality still has to be aligned with his static sense of justice: the evildoers must be punished and the honest must be rewarded. Accordingly, Iago is promoted to be Othello's lieutenant (3.3.481) and is ordered to kill Cassio (3.3.475-76), while Desdemona is sentenced to death, because “the justice of it pleases” (4.1.206). In Othello's eyes therefore the killing of Desdemona is not murder but execution, carried out “to save the moral order, to restore love and faith.”26 Jan Kott and other critics have aptly captured the static character of Othello, who “kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her, so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium.”27 Terence Hawkes too stresses that while Iago murders Roderigo and Emilia, Othello executes Desdemona: “he does so on the basis of rational ‘proof’ by whose profane calculation the act seems both necessary and just.”28 Similarly, for Irving Ribner Othello's vengeance on Desdemona is converted into “a lawful justice, his hatred into duty,” in which Othello sees himself as “the instrument of justice executing his duty in a solemn ritual.”29 As Nicholas Grene also observes, Othello the general administers justice in the summary fashion of the court martial acting as the agent of divine retribution, associating himself with the icon of justice holding her sword.30 In a word, critics appear to be unanimous in viewing Othello's actions in terms of general justice and moral laws, however perverted in his mind, a view consistent with Othello's statism of character and the resulting insistence on balance in social relations, on the observance of accepted norms and conventions, and on righteousness and retribution.

With justice still to be served, Othello's regained mental equilibrium acquires a sinister quality. He may appear “gentler than he did” (4.3.9), but his calm betokens a grim determination to “strangle [Desdemona] in her bed—/ even the bed she hath contaminated” (4.1.204-5), as is no doubt implied in his command to his wife to go to her bed and dismiss her attendant (4.3.5-7). In the final scene Othello is no longer a husband mad with jealousy but, in his perverse imagination, the judge, the executor of God's will, solemn and dignified, about to perform a ceremonial act of sacrificial justice. The “cause” that provides the reason for Othello's punitive action has a judicial ring about it and emphasizes a public, no longer private, nature of the case: Desdemona must die for the general good, “else she'll betray more men” (5.2.6).31 With the last remnants of his intimate feelings suppressed after smelling Desdemona's breath for the last time (5.2.15-19), Othello proceeds in a formal and official manner as the judge appointed to establish the defendant's guilt (5.2.46-51), as the priest administering the last rites and absolution (5.2.25-28, 53-57), and as the executioner-sacrificer carrying out the court's verdict.

The convention of dramatic tragedy requires that this grotesque travesty of justice and religion be exposed too late, after Desdemona's innocent death. And when the truth is finally revealed by Emilia's spirited testimony (5.2.223-24), Othello experiences another psychological turnover, this time instantaneous, as he instinctively runs at Iago, now the “precious villain” (5.2.233), to execute true justice on the spot and correct his own tragic mistake. What is also immediately clear to the law-abiding Othello is that the gross injustice that he has unwittingly committed must be amended by nothing short of an equal retribution in the form of his own execution: “why should honour outlive honesty” (5.2.243), with “honour” referring to his own static adherence to law and justice, and “honesty” to Desdemona's uncompromising loyalty. Othello now stoically resigns himself to the inevitable (“Who can control his fate?” 5.2.263) and completes his role as the judge-priest-executioner by admitting his guilt, sentencing himself, doing his last soul reckoning, and taking his own life. There is also an element of public penance to satisfy Othello's static need of expiation, when he openly admits his responsibility before the Venetian noblemen Lodovico and Montano, but not without balancing his guilt with honorable motives: “An honourable murderer, if you will, / For nought I did hate, but all in honour” (5.2.291-92). To settle all scores with this world Othello admits consenting to Cassio's death and now asks the lieutenant's pardon (5.2.294-97). He is also formally stripped of his office and responsibility (5.2.329), but again not before his demotion is balanced with a reminder of the service done by Othello to the state (5.2.337). Preoccupied with justice to the end, the departing Othello insists on a fair report of himself after his death, one that will balance his merits with his faults:

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,
Perplexed in the extreme.


His last words return to his dead wife whom he owes most in this life, and with whom he must now settle his accounts by paying with his own life for hers. The tragic themes of love and death that unite Othello and Desdemona resonate in the Moor's final rhyming couplet, whose chiastic construction balances “kiss” and “kill,” love and death, in an epitaph that aptly captures the particular nature of Othello's static character:

I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.



  1. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 179.

  2. Knight, Wheel of Fire, 109.

  3. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary (1964; reprint, London: Routledge, 1991), 88-89.

  4. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 92-93.

  5. Of course the honorable Othello himself would soon have openly disclosed the fact of having secretly married Desdemona, but Iago had precipitated the disclosure by using Roderigo to prejudice and inflame Brabantio against the Moor (1.1.118-35).

  6. E. A. J. Honigmann, Introduction to Othello, by William Shakespeare, 23-24.

  7. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press [1984]), chapter 6.

  8. Cf. Sebastian Munster, Cosmographia (1572), in Honigmann, Introduction to Othello, 6.

  9. Cf. Jan Kott calls Desdemona “the most sensuous” of all Shakespeare's female characters, and while she does remain faithful to Othello for the critic she “must have something of the slut in her. Not in actu but in potentia” (Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 94).

  10. Cf. Honigmann, Introduction to Othello, 17-19.

  11. Othello calls Iago “honest” about fifteen times in the play.

  12. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 108.

  13. Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare, 136, 139; Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 102. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Male Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1981), 121.

  14. Pinker, How the Mind Works, 480-82.

  15. Donald Symons, The Evolution of Human Sexuality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 307.

  16. Ibid., 312.

  17. In the absence of any definite textual indication Honigmann tentatively places Othello between forty and fifty, that is, nearer to Brabantio than to Desdemona in age (Introduction to Othello, 17).

  18. In Shakespeare's time Venice was regarded as the pleasure capital of Europe, especially in its sexual tolerance. Its courtesans were widely celebrated, and—according to Sir Henry Wotton, English ambassador to Venice in the last years of the sixteenth century—they were indistinguishable from gentlewomen in clothes and manners (Honigmann, Introduction to Othello, 9-10).

  19. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare, 105.

  20. McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, 115.

  21. John Holloway, The Story of the Night: Studies in Shakespeare's Major Tragedies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), 47.

  22. Kernan, “Othello: An Introduction,” 76-78.

  23. M. R. Ridley, Introduction to Othello, by William Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare (1958; reprint, London, New York: Routledge, 1993), llx.

  24. Stewart, Character and Motive, 105; Honigmann, Introduction to Othello, 19.

  25. Hawkes, Shakespeare and the Reason, 116; McElroy, Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies, 79.

  26. Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 98.

  27. Ibid.

  28. Hawkes, Shakespeare and the Reason, 119.

  29. Ribner, Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy, 108; Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy, 127, 132.

  30. Grene, Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination, 120.

  31. According to Brents Stirling the word cause derives from common law, where it connoted a legal process or a matter put before the court for decision (Stirling, Unity, 133).


Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth.” 1904. Reprint, London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Fineman, Joel. “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles.” In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, 70-109. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Garber, Marjorie. Coming of Age in Shakespeare. London, New York: Methuen, 1981.

Grene, Nicholas. Shakespeare's Tragic Imagination. 1992. Reprint, London: Macmillan Press, 1996.

Hawkes, Terence. Shakespeare and the Reason: A Study of the Tragedies and the Problem Plays. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

Honigmann, E. A. J., ed. Othello, by William Shakespeare. Arden Shakespeare. 1951. Reprint, Walton-on-Thames, England: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1997.

Kernan, Alvin. “Othello: An Introduction.” In Shakespeare the Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Alfred Harbage, 75-84. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964.

Knight, G. Wilson. The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy. 1930. Reprint, London, New York: Routledge, 1993.

McElroy, Bernard. Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. London: Allen Lane, 1998.

Ribner, Irving. Patterns in Shakespearean Tragedy. 1960. Reprint, London: Methuen, 1979.

Stewart, J. I. M. Character and Motive in Shakespeare: Some Recent Appraisals Examined. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1949.

Stirling, Brents. Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy: The Interplay of Theme and Character. New York: Columbia University Press, 1956.

Symons, Donald. The Evolution of Human Sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Further Reading

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Boose, Lynda E. “‘Let it be Hid’: The Pornographic Aesthetic of Shakespeare's Othello.” In New Casebooks: Othello, edited by Lena Cowen Orlin, pp. 22-48. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Argues that Othello shares elements with pornographic literature, noting the play's emphasis on voyeuristic watching and the way in which Desdemona is silenced by erotic violence.

Hays, Michael L. “Othello: Courtly Love and Chivalric Justice.” In Shakespearean Tragedy as Chivalric Romance: Rethinking Macbeth, Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, pp. 155-90. Cambridge, U.K.: D.S. Brewer, 2003.

Maintains that Othello belongs to the genre of romance and that its protagonist's actions can best be understood by viewing him as a chivalric knight—“a fighter for state and church, for justice and faith, and a lover.”

Nordlund, Marcus. “Theorising Early Modern Jealousy: A Biocultural Perspective on Shakespeare's Othello.Studia Neophilologica 74, no. 2 (2002): 146-60.

Discusses the representation of jealousy in Othello.

Richmond, Hugh Macrae. “The Audience's Role in Othello.” In Othello: New Critical Essays, edited by Philip C. Kolin, pp. 89-101. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Emphasizes the manner in which Othello is shaped by the playwright's expectations of audience reaction and focuses in particular on Desdemona's actions, which do not conform to audience's expectations of conventional female behavior.

Rudanko, Juhani. “Dominance, Topics and Iago.” In Pragmatic Approaches to Shakespeare, pp. 35-62. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993.

Investigates Iago's ability to dominate the other characters in Othello by linguistic means.

Sinfield, Alan. “Cultural Materialism, Othello and the Politics of Plausibility.” In New Casebooks: Othello, edited by Lena Cowen Orlin, pp. 49-77. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Probes the ideology of Venetian culture, which set the parameters for the racism and sexism expressed by the characters in Othello.

Taylor, Paul. “First Night: Youth Blunts the Sharp Pain of Betrayal.” Independent (22 April 1999): 13.

Comments on a 1999 Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Othello directed by Richard Attenborough. The critic finds that actor Ray Fearon was too young to make a convincing Othello but praises the production's energy.

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

Views Othello as an expression of British concerns about the power of the Islamic Ottoman Empire and discusses the fear of religious and military conquest that was common in post-Reformation England.


Othello (Vol. 79)


That's She That Was Myself: Not-So-Famous Last Words and Some Ends of Othello