The Role of Race in Othello
Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 942
The historical development of racial relations between Shakespeare's time and our own has virtually compelled twentieth-century critics of Othello to consider the title character's status as a Black man in a predominantly White society. Some modern interpreters of the play have focused on Othello's race as a causal or, at the very least, aggravating factor in the tragedy that befalls him. Others have gone so far as to assert that Shakespeare's Moor is the victim of racial discrimination, if not directly at the hands of Iago's, then indirectly at the hand of the play's author. This, in turn, has generated substantial historical research into the racial attitudes of Shakespeare and of Elizabethan England at large. The results of this effort have been ambivalent: in all probability, White Englishmen of the early seventeenth century (including the Bard) saw themselves as inherently superior to non-Europeans, but they were not racial bigots in our contemporary sense of that word. What can be said for certain is that instances of actual contact between Elizabethan Englishmen and non-Whites were exceedingly rare, that the New World slave trade had not yet emerged, and that Shakespeare (and his audiences) looked upon Africans (and other racial "minorities") in a decidedly different light than we do.
Othello is not the only or even the first Black character in Shakespeare's stage works. Prior to his composition of Othello, Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, an early Roman tragedy in which the character of Aaron, described like Othello as a Moor, acts as a secondary villain to Titus himself in a work so bloody that its attribution to Shakespeare has occasionally been questioned. But Titus Andronicus was undoubtedly written by Shakespeare and the Moor Aaron is unquestionable evil. Indeed, on the cusp of his execution, Aaron repents of any good deed that he might have inadvertently done! There is a strong implication here that Aaron's evil has a genetic basis. The child whom he sires through Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is described by the Nurse who acts as midwife as being "as loathesome as a toad" among the fair-faced race of ancient Rome. The strength of the blood connection between Aaron and his offspring is underscored by his exceptional fondness toward his infant son and the scheme to substitute a White baby for the Moor's progeny.
Despite having a Black forerunner in Aaron, Othello's presence on the stage as the main character of a Shakespearean tragedy represented something new to Elizabethan audiences. Unlike Aaron, Othello is the chief protagonist of the play in which he appears, and we are forced by its narrative structure to see things through his eyes while knowing that he is being deceived by Iago. The first mention of Othello's race occurs before his initial entrance on stage with Roderigo pejoratively calling him "thick-lips" (I.i.66), a slur that is also applied to Aaron's baby by the Nurse who conveys the infant to him. Iago is even more offensive in his inflammatory remarks to Desdemona's father, telling Brabantio, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (I.i.89-90). Iago's polarity establishes skin color and its mixture through miscegenation as an immutable standard for discriminating natural from unnatural acts.
Shakespeare's primary source for Othello was a mid-sixteenth century novella by the Italian author Cinthio, and while Othello is depicted sympathetically in this work, Cinthio's Moor differs from Shakespeare's in that the Bard emphasizes Othello's Christianity while his prototype is a Muslim. Othello is at least functionally integrated into Venetian society. His importance to the state as its military champion and bulwark against the Turks confers status on Othello that is equivalent to that of Brabantio, a senator with a double voice, and, as the Duke's decision makes clear, greater than that of Desdemona's distinguished father. Prior to Othello's affair with his daughter, Brabantio invited the Moor to his home, treating this Black man as his peer.
But while Othello is an indispensable arm of the Venetian body politic, he is nonetheless an outsider, and Othello is very much aware of his position as such. Thus, in Act I, scene iii, Othello notes that he is a mercenary on a "tented field" (I.iii.85), having served Venice for seven years and having gone nine months without seeing action, military exploits being essential to his identity within Venetian society. On the surface, Othello's Black skin color is less of a racial than a cultural discriminator, it marks Othello as an alien who does not fully understand the mores (and corruptions) of his adopted homeland.
Nevertheless, strands of racial stereotyping, rather than simply a division between Venetians and non-Venetians, do surface in Othello. Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft, contending that the Moor must have used "drugs and minerals" to overcome Desdemona's natural aversion to his "sooty bosom." In Act III, scene iv, Othello's explanation of the missing handkerchief's provenance implies that his mother engaged in charms that she acquired through traffic with other non-Whites, in this case, an Egyptian. In the minds of Shakespeare's audiences, Blacks were identified with witchcraft and other non-Christian superstitions.
Race plays less of an overt, direct role in Othello than many twentieth-century critics of the play assign to it. Othello's complexion is emblematic of his status as an outsider in a society that has carved out an exception for him that is nonetheless conditional on his usefulness to Venice. Underneath this, Othello's association with witchcraft and his eventual devolution into a bestial frenzy reflect highly-biased stereotypes of Backs that were commonly-held in Shakespeare's England but by no means identical to those imposed upon Blacks in subsequent historical periods, including our own.
The Villainy of Iago
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1324
Shakespeare assigns the final say in Othello to the relative minor character of Lodovico, a representative Venetian nobleman, a blood relative to Desdemona, and the moral arbiter of the play. He turns directly to Iago, places full responsibility for the carnage at hand (including Othello's suicide) upon the "Spartan dog" before him whom he then characterizes as a "hellish villain" (V.ii.368). Throughout the tragedy, Iago himself uses figurative language that connects him to Hell, the demonic and the archfiend Satan. He promises that Roderigo will enjoy Desdemona "for my wits and all the tribe of hell" (I.iii.357), expounds upon the "Divinity of hell!" in Act II, scene iii (ll.350ff), and remarks that the poison of his dangerous conceits "burn like the mines of sulphur" (III.iii.329). And, right before he wounds Iago, Othello cries out, "If thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee" (V.ii.288). This strand of Satanic imagery magnifies Iago and the enormity of his crimes to mythic proportions, furnishing him with a stature akin to Shakespeare's Richard III, for example.
Nevertheless, upon close scrutiny, we find that Shakespeare deliberately undercuts Iago's implicit claim to being a great villain. There are, to begin, other characters and even inanimate substances that evoke the language of the demonic. In Act IV, scene i, the raging Othello curses out "Fire and brimstone" at his wife and calls Desdemona "Devil" as he strikes her (l.240). Earlier Cassio rues his bout with the "invisible spirit of wine" (II.iii.273), saying of it "[I] call thee devil" (II.iii.274). Iago, then, is not the only "devil" in the play, and is, in fact, more a villain of words than of substance.
In the play's first scene, Iago spells out his grounds for hating Othello to Roderigo (and the audience) and they seem comparatively petty. Iago explains that his ill will toward the Moor stems from Othello's decision to pass over Iago and name Michael Cassio as his second in command. Iago gives some point to his grudge by contrasting the "bookish theoretic" nature of his rival's qualifications with his own credentials as a proven military officer. He tells Roderigo that three "great ones" of the city pressed his suit to Othello, but that their petition was of no avail, Iago stooping to mimicry of the Moor's replay, "'I have already chose my officer.'" He then denounces the "modern" (and presumably corrupt) Venetian system of career advancement, "Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation, where each second / Stood heir to the first." (I.i.36-38 ). As a motive for his hatred of Othello, Iago's complaint is weak, amounting to a labor dispute. Moreover, while he focuses upon the Moor's rejection of his suit for advancement, Iago also tells us that Othello's choice is consistent with the whole civil culture of Venice, with the system so to speak. In fact, while railing against favoritism, Iago himself has used the agency of special pleading through great ones. On the surface, the source of Iago's animus toward Othello is a mere career problem, and this is not the stuff that moves great villains.
Customarily, Shakespeare's great villains, Richard III or Edmund the bastard of King Lear are given the opportunity to identify themselves as the evil force at work. Iago makes it plain that he has a reason to resent Othello, but the first reference to him as a villain comes in the form of a mundane curse by Brabantio responding to the lewd remarks of a "profane wretch" (I.i.117-118). Iago is given a second bite at the "I am the villain" soliloquy toward the first scene's conclusion, saying of Othello and his behavior toward him, "Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains, / Yet, for necessity of present life / I must show out a flag and a sign of love / Which indeed is but sign" (I.i.154-157). What is striking about this speech is its redundancy: it simply reiterates what Iago has already said to Roderigo. It lacks both the stature and the dramatic punch of an opening "villain" soliloquy in Shakespeare's other tragedies.
Then there is the quality of the opposition that Iago faces. It too is weak, consisting of an insecure, boy-like Othello, a susceptible Cassio, and Desdemona, a mere girl at the time of her marriage to the Moor. The reason that Othello is no match for Iago's evil wits is that the Moor is a "credulous fool" (IV.i.46) as Iago notes, who is, in Emilia's words, "as ignorant as dirt" (V.ii.165). We are reminded of just how gullible Othello is each of the several times in which he refers to Iago as a "most honest" man. As for Cassio, Iago is able to induce the Lieutenant to drink (despite Cassio's acknowledgment that he cannot hold his wine), simply by singing a couple of soldier's drinking ditties to him. And, as for Desdemona, Iago sidesteps her altogether, confining this misdirection to the Moor and his second in command. The poor quality of Iago's unsuspecting adversaries reduces our sense of his greatness as a villain.
But it is the makeshift opportunism of Iago's modus operandi that distinguishes him as a decidedly lower-case villain. At the very outset of the play we learn that Iago is dependent upon Roderigo's purse, and in Act I, scene iii, Iago "sells" the youth a bill of goods in his "put money in thy purse" speech (ll.336-363). The question becomes: if Iago is so bad, why isn't he rich? The truth is, Iago has no master plan for Othello's undoing, but is constrained to use whatever circumstances provide as the material for his schemes. In Act II, scene i, Iago watches as Cassio takes Desdemona by the hand and asserts, "With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio" (ll.168-169). In fact, this incident has no part in Iago's deception of Othello. Looking back, Iago's successes are conditional upon mere circumstance, the ocular proof of the handkerchief coming into Iago's possession by a combination of its accidentally dropping to the floor and then being discovered by an Emilia who is essentially indifferent toward her husband Iago's plans for it.
Rather than the grand design of a great villain, Iago's actions are spur of the moment affairs, as when he stabs Cassio in the leg and then pins the deed upon Roderigo. In that incident (Act V, scene i), Iago considers the possibilities at hand, saying that he cannot lose because either Roderigo will slay Cassio or the two will kill each other. He completely fails to foresee the third (and logical) alternative that Cassio prevails, the outcome that compels him to act. It is, moreover, in a fit of rage that Iago stabs Emilia, thereby affirming his culpability for past crimes and committing a new transgression before official witnesses.
All of this suggests that Iago is more of a dog than a devil. As Emilia guesses at the cause of Othello's rage toward her mistress Desdemona, she, Emilia, says that "some eternal villain / Some busy and insinuating rogue, / Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office/Have not devis'd this slander" (IV.ii.130-133). Iago replies that that there is no such man, and, in doing so, undercuts his own claims to being an "eternal villain." In his wife's eyes, Iago is more slave than devil, and here we observe that the text contains intimations that Iago is the very thing that he uses to provoke Othello's rage, a cuckold. Iago alludes to his suspicions about his wife's infidelity with Othello (I.iii.385-386), that subject is broached again in Act IV by Emilia (IV.ii.149), and she later says to Desdemona that she is willing to commit adultery (IV.iii.70). In the end, the horns that Iago sports are more like those of a cuckold than those of Satan.
Why does Desdemona Marry Othello?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1131
In the last scene of Othello, Desdemona recovers long enough from the smothering that her jealous husband has inflicted upon her to pronounce her complete innocence, and with her last breath tells Emilia, "A guiltless death I die" (V.ii.120). Plainly, Iago has deceived Othello into believing that his beautiful young wife has committed adultery with his once-trusted second in command, Cassio. That being so, Desdemona is clearly innocent of the charges embodied in Iago's cunning innuendoes, and is a victim who does not deserve the tragic end that she suffers. Nevertheless, Desdemona has put herself in a position to be a victim by virtue of her decision to marry the Moor and to go with him to the isolated, embattled post of Cyprus, where Othello possesses not only the moral authority of a spouse but also the legal powers of a governor. The question naturally arises: Why does Desdemona make these tandem choices?
By the time that we first see Desdemona in the middle of Act I, scene iii, we have been told that she is a young Venetian noblewoman, the beloved daughter of Senator Brabantio, who has married the military hero of the city-state without her father's consent or foreknowledge. Desdemona certainly realizes that her elopement with Othello and her sharing of honeymoon quarters with this "Barbary horse" at the unsavory sounding Sagittary Inn is bound to evoke her father's wrath. Indeed, when we first hear Desdemona speak her "divided duty" defense (I.iii.180-189), she appears to have anticipated the need to make her case to both Brabantio and the ruler(s) of Venice. Her plea is tightly reasoned and pivots upon a straightforward analogy between her own situation and that of her mother. Desdemona's speech is largely devoid of emotional appeal and rests upon the natural precedent of married women transferring their first loyalties from fathers to husbands. What she conveniently omits is that she has chosen to wed outside her station, to a man who is much older than she, of an entirely different race and, despite the accolades he has received, very much an outsider in Venice. Moreover, she has done all this under the pretense of being a mere listener to the stories of her father's invited guest. Realizing that the Duke will follow the expedient course and rule in favor of the newlyweds, Brabantio utters his warning to Othello: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee" (I.iii.292-293). This admonition surfaces again in the "deception" scene as Iago uses it to spur Othello's suspicions, Brabantio's prominent reference to "eyes" resonating with the Moor's demand for "ocular proof" of his wife's infidelity. We are told in Act V that Brabantio has died of grief over his daughter's betrayal. Desdemona does not deserve to be murdered by Othello, but her father's curse has a firm basis, for she has in fact deceived her father.
What does Desdemona see in Othello that would cause her to take the rash step of choosing him as her husband? Following his recitation of the exotic adventure tales that he has related to Desdemona before their marriage, the Moor recalls Desdemona's response to these stories, "yet she wish'd / That heaven had made her such a man.… / And bade me, if I had a friend that lov'd her, / I should but teach him how to tell my story / And that would woo her" (I.iii.162-166). What Othello fails to realize here is that Desdemona's reaction not only furnishes him with an opening to woo the girl, it implies that she is more in love with his renown than with his person. Having already decided by dint of circumstance that he will not oppose the marriage, the Duke then considers the issue of whether Othello's bride should travel with him to the front. The Venetian ruler abdicates his decision-making authority and leaves the matter in Desdemona's hands, asking her what she wishes to do. To this, Desdemona says, "That I (did) love the Moor to live with him / My downright violence, and storm of fortunes, / May trumpet to the world. My heart's subdu'd / Even to the very quality of my lord. / I saw Othello's visage in his mind / And to his honors and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate" (I.iii.248-254). Desdemona claims to have gotten inside Othello's psyche and to have fused her soul with his in a spiritual ceremony over which she has officiated in deliberate opposition to the world at large. The Duke accepts all this without inquiry and allows Desdemona to follow Othello to Cyprus, even though the Turkish fleet continues to threaten the island.
Desdemona and Othello spend their honeymoon in the war zone of Cyprus, and the intimacy between the martial and the marital is underscored by the Moor's first order as the outpost's governor, Othello calling for a celebration of both victory over the Turks and his marriage. Upon their reunion, Othello instinctively taps into the bond that ties Desdemona to him, addressing his wife as "my fair warrior!" (II.i.182). This, in turn, highlights the girl's motivation in marrying Othello as one of sharing in his self-made glory and the power that this has conferred upon him.
"Our general's wife is now the general" (II.iii.315), Iago says to Cassio as he steers him toward petitioning Othello for leniency through Desdemona's good offices. In the midst of the corruption scene, Desdemona is confident of her ability to restore Cassio to his position, assuring the crest-fallen Lieutenant, "Do not doubt Cassio, / But I will have my lord and you again / As friendly as you were" (III.iii.5-7). She claims, then, to know how to work her husband to her will and even sets forth a strategy of attrition, telling Cassio that she will not let her husband rest until he grants her petition on his behalf: "I'll intermingle everything he does / With Cassio's suit" (III.iii.25-26). Desdemona takes it upon herself to overlook Cassio's dereliction, and her confidence in pursuing his suit with her husband is confirmed when Othello says that "I will deny thee nothing" (III.iii.76).
In the end, Desdemona is innocent of the proximate charges against her, but while she has not been unfaithful to her husband, she has gone well beyond the role of a wife into that of a partner in a single identity based upon heroic fame and political power. Her desire to be associated with Othello in this deep and unnatural manner has moved Desdemona into a position in which she is vulnerable to the victimization that she eventually receives. Thus, her protestations of being guiltless at the hour of her death are technically true but spiritually suspect.
Why Does Othello Change His Mind About Desdemona's Fidelity?
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 825
Until the midpoint of Othello, the title character comports himself in a dignified manner and expresses unbounded faith in the transcendent love that he shares with Desdemona, a bond that reaches over differences in race, age, and social status. Nevertheless, Othello begins to change his mind about his young wife in the corruption scene of Act III, scene iii, and by the start of Act IV he literally collapses at Iago's feet in a babbling trance. From this point forward, Othello is completely preoccupied with the mission of avenging himself on Desdemona and Cassio for an adulterous affair of which they are entirely innocent. The proximate cause of Othello's change of heart is the poisonous deceits that Iago pours into his ear. But Othello's insecurity about his marriage is rooted deeper than Iago's machinations. Upon realizing that he has been deceived by the honest Iago, Othello loses his sense of self, his identity, and refers to himself as "he that was Othello" (V.ii.285). It is not the power of Iago's magic that transforms Othello into a jealous, raging beast, but the Moor's own shortcomings masked by his role as the military hero of Venetian society, a status that is subject to sudden reversal.
Long before he so quickly succumbs to Iago's treachery in the corruption scene, Othello displays fatal chinks in the armor of his social identity. Othello exhibits an unlimited self-confidence in his civic role, asserting that his name can "out-tongue" Brabantio's complaint to the Duke. But when we compare the two characters, we realize that the Moor is actually insecure about his identity in Venetian society and uncertain about its ways. As a representative of the Venetian aristocracy's old guard, Brabantio naturally looks askance on the credibility and the motives of those beneath him. Hence, he actively challenges and insults the reports of his daughter's elopement with Othello as they are relayed to him from the street by Iago and Roderigo in Act I, scene i. This stands in sharp contrast to Othello, who is all too willing to believe the word of his subordinates and whose status in Venice is not a matter of hereditary class but of military prowess. Othello takes his cues about the marital customs of Venice from others, being an outsider who must rely upon feedback from native Venetians to operate within that culture.
This feedback, however, is cut off when Othello moves to Cyprus, an island that is beyond the scope of Venice's (corrupted) values and placed under the full control of the Moor, a man who has no experience in governance. The two orders that he gives in his capacity as governor, to jointly celebrate his victory over the Turks and his recent marriage to Desdemona (Act II, scene ii) and his inspection of the island's fortifications (Act III, scene ii) are those of a military commander rather than a civil authority. On Cyprus, Othello is all-powerful, but he is deprived of signals about the meaning of events in Venetian culture.
In the corruption scene (Act III, scene iii), after first advising Othello to look to Desdemona and Cassio, Iago reminds him of Brabantio's lot and words: "She did deceive her father, marrying you; / And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks / She loved them most" (III.iii.207-209). In his highly uncritical manner, Othello readily assents to this, saying, "And so she did" (III.iii.210). Iago then expresses a disingenuous empathy toward Brabantio: "She that so young could give out such seeming / To seal her father's eyes up close as oak / He thought 'twas witchcraft" (III.iii.211-213). As a middle-aged husband who has a quasi-paternal relation to his wife, the memory of Desdemona's betrayal of Brabantio plainly taps into the suspicions and insecurities of Othello. Not only is Iago his primary source of (false) reports about Cassio and Desdemona, Iago is his sole guide as to what these events mean within the cultural framework of Venetian society.
Looking back we find that as a general, Othello is accustomed to assessing the meaning of a situation and making a decision based solely on his own judgment. Once that decision is made, Othello pursues its logical consequences. Outside of the military sphere, however, Othello is not able to appraise the meaning of situations and must rely upon others to lead him to it, most notably Iago. Once they have done so, however, Othello is committed to a course of action from which he cannot veer. Although, Desdemona provides him with a highly plausible explanation for the loss of the handkerchief, Othello, a man of action who lacks critical faculties, does not pause to consider this alternative account of how the handkerchief came into Cassio's possession and what his possession of the item actually means. Iago works his designs upon Othello and is the active agent behind the Moor's jealousy, but the long-standing defects of Othello's social identity are essential to the villain's machinations.
The Women of Othello
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1315
Shakespeare's Othello presents us with a male world in which women have an especially rough time. Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are all rejected by their respective partners, and all three love their men unselfishly and unreservedly, even when confronted by behavior that we would deem grounds for divorce at the very least. All the women are engaged in unbalanced partnerships: they feel more for their self-centered men than the men are capable of reciprocating. However, the women also display genuine emotions toward each other that is not reflected in any of the male-male relationships.
Emilia and Desdemona are both wives to men that have made the military their lives. Desdemona is the new wife, innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world despite being raised in one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan of the Italian city-states, Venice. By contrast, Emilia has been married for some time. She is wise to the habits of soldiers, yet she will believe only so much of what her husband tells her. Although Emilia has been with Desdemona since the first Act, we do not get an intimate view of her psychology or her relationship with Desdemona until the Willow Scene in Act Four.
During this scene, Emilia shows genuine concern for Desdemona and the problem she is having with Othello. Desdemona tells her that even when Othello is angry with her, she still finds "grace and favour" (IV.iii.21) in his looks. She adds that if she should die before Emilia, Emilia should wrap her body in the wedding sheets now on the bed. Of course, Emilia thinks this is only a bit of girl-talk, but Desdemona continues to tell her about a song she has learned from her mother's maid, the Willow Song. This is a moment of intense personal inter-reaction between the two women. Emilia is unpinning Desdemona's hair and her dressing gown, preparing the girl for bed as if she were a surrogate mother. Such tenderness and tactile expressions of affection are a strictly female domain in this play. It is the men, not the women, who perpetrate the violence.
The conversation maintains this tender, maternal tone through to the end of the scene, but it is most noticeable when Desdemona exclaims, "O these men, these men!" (IV.iii.59). Desdemona cannot believe that women cheat on their husbands and asks Emilia, "Wouldst thou do such a thing for all the world?" (IV.iii.67). Although she tries to offer a light-hearted answer, Emilia knows full well that Desdemona's view of love is a romantic view, and hence, it is not a laughing matter. What follows in blank verse is not unusual for Shakespeare. Emilia speaks for female equality, as Shakespeare's heroines often do. Knowing that both her fate and that of Desdemona are tied up in that of their husbands in social and financial terms, Emilia appeals to the intangible qualities that lie just beyond her grasp: fidelity in love and sensitivity to women's feelings. According to Emilia, if women do not get these things from their partners, then their partners cannot be surprised when women behave as they do.
In effect, Emilia is asking for relief from the double standard, echoing Ophelia's advice to her brother Laertes when he leaves for France in Hamlet. However, Emilia does so completely aware of the implications for her and her mistress. Both women are away from home without support systems and without status or financial security. There is little likelihood that they can survive without their husbands, despite being ill-treated. Their only consolation is confiding in each other, a luxury that does not exist for Bianca, the third woman.
Bianca is a courtesan who has travelled, like Desdemona, from Venice to Cyprus to be with Cassio. Venetian courtesans were famous throughout Europe for the richness and style with which they conducted themselves. So refined were they that occasionally they would be mistaken for noble wives. Therefore, in a sense, there would be no discernable visual difference between Desdemona and Bianca, whose very name implies purity. Although Hollywood is often credited with the creation of the "good-hearted bad girl," Shakespeare created Bianca centuries before.
Like Emilia, Bianca is worldly and will love Cassio without reservation. Yet she has a clear definition of who she is and what place she holds in this male-oriented society. After Iago kills Roderigo, Iago attempts to implicate Bianca to the attack, probably brought about by a fit of jealousy when he went to have dinner with her. Because Cassio is wounded, Bianca is understandably upset, but she replies angrily to Emilia's calling her a "strumpet":
I am no strumpet, but of life as honest
As you that thus abuse me.
In a sense, Bianca is in fact more honest than Emilia whose lie to Desdemona about the handkerchief provides the catalyst for her murder. In any event, Bianca is definitely more truthful than the "honest Iago" who accuses her.
Bianca is also more sexually honest. Her relationship with Cassio is based on their mutual knowledge that they are uncommitted to each other and nothing more will come of their liaison. Cassio does not confide to Bianca that he has been dismissed as Othello's lieutenant, nor does he tell her the owner of the handkerchief when he knows very well that Desdemona kept it "evermore about her / To kiss and talk to" (III.iii.295-296). When he asks her to copy the handkerchief's strawberry design, he quickly tries to get her to leave so that Othello will not see him with her. This request may be Cassio's attempt to protect what is left of his shattered reputation, since, according to Iago, Cassio is married, "almost damned in a fair wife" (I.i.21). Whatever Cassio's motives may be, Bianca does not object very strongly, since she knows what the rules are for the game she and Cassio are playing. She is willing to compromise for a bit of his time. Or so it seems.
Iago says that Bianca is
A housewife that by selling her desires
Buys herself bread and clothes; it is a creature
That dotes on Cassio.
We already know Iago to be unreliable, but yet we must question if Bianca has been driven to prostitution to survive. Would this be the fate of Desdemona and Emilia should they decide to leave their abusive husbands? In addition, the conversation between Iago and Cassio that follows not only leads Othello to think that Desdemona is unfaithful with Cassio, but also shows that Cassio has no respect for Bianca. In front of his friends, Cassio is not married, but does not want to be associated with Bianca, and he treats her so. When she comes to return the handkerchief, Bianca tells Cassio in no uncertain terms that she will have nothing to do with it (IV.i.149-157).
It is here that as Othello becomes convinced of Desdemona's guilt, Bianca is linked to her. Bianca and Desdemona could quite possibly be taken as Venetian noble women, but their men treat them like subhumans. These men will not allow escape from the label "prostitute." In a way, Desdemona has prostituted herself in her relationship with Othello. Like a prostitute, Desdemona has provided Othello with a pleasant diversion from his activities as a soldier. Like Bianca, she has followed him from Venice to Cyprus, refusing to stay home like other wives. Unlike a prostitute, however, Desdemona has refused to face the sexual problems she and Othello have had since their marriage began, and, unlike Bianca, Desdemona has not been "honest" with Othello, has not confronted him about real issues.
It is no wonder, then, that these three women face a bleak future: two die, one simply fades. However, before that happens, Shakespeare presents us with images of strong, non-stereotypical individuals who exhibit extraordinary goodness without compromising their moral strength—real women.
Geography's Role in Othello
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1423
While the focus of Shakespeare's Othello is often on the domestic conflict of Othello and Desdemona, these events are purposefully fixed in specific geographic locations: Venice and Cyprus. Shakespeare creates a comparison of Venice with Cyprus that permeates the play, and the influence that geography has on the play can be vital to understanding why the plot progresses the way it does.
The comparison begins, oddly enough, with the title of the play, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. "Othello" as a name is neither Italian (which would be "Otello") or Moorish. In addition, while Othello could possibly be "the Moor of Venice," the title does not identify him as the only Moor from Venice. It fixes him through geographical identification as a definite part of Venice, not as a native Venetian, but as a stranger in and of the city. Othello has adopted Venice as his city, their Christian code of behavior as his code, his marriage to a White woman as his bond to this place. Nonetheless, Othello does not "belong" to this culture, nor can he ever be considered a Venetian. Interestingly, the nationalism of the Venetians surfaces during Iago's opening comments about Cassio. Cassio is a Florentine, a fact that Iago takes as extremely distasteful. The comments cause us to wonder that if Iago can so hate a fellow Italian, then his antipathy towards a Moor is indeed frightening.
The play opens in Venice, one of the most powerful city-states of 16th century Italy. Located in the northwest corner of the country on the Adriatic Sea, Venice was a thriving port and a very important exchange point for goods between Europe, north Africa, and the Near and Far East. It is without a doubt a formidable naval power to be called in to protect an island some distance away. In addition to trade, Venice was noted for the pleasures it offered travellers in the way of arts, music, and freely available sex. From Shakespeare's point of view, Venice was part of his own familiar world (the West), a world that did not include Cyprus (the East).
Venice's government is headed by a Duke and a council (or senate) comprised of nobles and wealthy merchants who brought their complaints and their squabbles to the Duke for resolution. The Duke's double function as leader and judge is succinctly presented in I.iii, where Brabantio, Desdemona's father, presents his charges against Othello while the Duke is commissioning Othello to fight the Turks.
Furthermore, Venice is a city within certain, clearly defined boundaries (city walls). As long as Othello and Desdemona remain within these walls, their marriage will be influenced by the culture within. As the action of the play breaks these boundaries and moves to Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean, the relationship of this couple will reflect the upheaval such a move brings, only so intensely that neither can survive. The dislocation of Venetian culture from West to East will ultimately prove to have tragic consequences for all the participants in the move. Geographically, they are moving away from the closed structure of Venice to a more open structure of society, and where the rules will change.
Although the play emphasizes Cyprus's role by mentioning it more than twenty-four times, it does not give many details about the place. According to widely known legend, Venus (Aphrodite) rose from the sea near Cyprus's west coast, earning it the designation as the island of Venus. Shakespeare mentions the birthplace of Venus in Venus and Adonis (line 1193) and in The Tempest (IV.i.93), but there is no mention of the goddess in Othello. This omission, therefore, focuses our attention not on love as personified in the Goddess of Love, but on love as a human frailty having more to do with human deception than divine intervention. Such a view is reflective of the humanist concerns of the late Renaissance.
Shakespeare could not have known that eventually in 1669 the Turks would invade Cyprus, forcing the Venetians to withdraw and effectively ending their role as a major naval force. What Shakespeare does do, however, is clearly establish Cyprus as an alternative to Venice. For Shakespeare's audience, Cyprus, as well as Barbary, Egypt, Rhodes, and Aleppo among others, would have defined a foreign, strange, exotic place about which they could only dream. With no frame of reference in their everyday lives for these places, just the names would make the events of the play very plausible. The persistent mention of other foreign places contextualises Cyprus as the midway point between civilization and barbarism, a point made flesh in the character of Othello. Furthermore, unlike Venice, militarism is the stable mechanism of the behavioral code. Cassio is dealt with according to this code, as is Iago, and it is the Venetian nobles who see to its implementation. Most notable is the lack of any Cypriots in the play while everyone is in Cyprus. It is as if they have all travelled to a different planet.
This Cyprus, however, is different in that it is under the protection of Venice. It is almost an Italian colony, but it is not essentially an appendage to Venetian culture. Although it does hold to a Christian code for the behavior of its residents, it remains a place of extreme violence and the almost constant breaking of that code by the Venetians who have become the outsiders.
The government is by a governor appointed by the Duke, and the Turks (also foreigners) threaten Cyprus with invasion. This incursion of non-Christian into Christian space will not be tolerated, regardless of Venice's hypocritical stance. In Venice we see how business and other matters are conducted within city walls. In the relatively open spaces of Cyprus, things change. Othello is not so foreign in this environment nor is he totally secure. It can be argued persuasively that being in the open spaces of Cyprus allows Othello's insecurities to surface, insecurities about himself and Desdemona that he had successfully suppressed in Venice.
This viewpoint may be justified when we consider the effect of geographical change on Othello and Desdemona's marriage. In Venice, they secretly eloped, and the council, despite Brabantio's passionate pleading, retains its focus on political events. Once in Cyprus with the war finished before it began, the focus reverts to Othello and Desdemona, and political events are reduced to a series of inspections and state banquets.
Shakespeare's audience could have readily believed Othello capable of such intense passion because they held that the Four Humours (those bodily fluids that sustained the body) were influenced by the weather. The warm climate of Italy was supposed to render the blood warm with desire (much like the effect of Italian wine), and Italians were notorious for being "hot-blooded." How much more would the warmth of Cyprus affect Othello!
Also to be considered is Venice's reputation as a sexual paradise where courtesans were the normal marital addition. When Iago hints to Othello about Desdemona's infidelity, it would not be thought unusual for Othello to arrive at a perfectly reasonable (though erroneous) conclusion:
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello
The entire geography of the play and its blatant breaks in locale serve not only to gloss the dissolution of Othello and Desdemona's marital problems, but also the "otherness" of the two lovers. Othello has no place in Desdemona's world, no matter how many victories he wins, no matter how much he is trusted by the Duke, no matter how assimilated he thinks he may be. Alternatively, Desdemona can never be part of Othello's world: she does not understand the demands of a soldier's life; she only has Othello's version of his military exploits; she has been raised in the shelter of Venice. Desdemona has been insulated from the man's world that is Venice, and is now isolated by Cyprus. Although she has the dreams and hopes normal for a young newlywed, she is, in the eyes of the men, a property for barter. Failing to recognize this about herself leads Desdemona to other serious misjudgements about men, their motives, and their tenacity. The play begins in Venice, moves to Cyprus, and ends with a return to Venice by Montano. Yet it would be unfair to assume that this geography imposes itself on the play to the exclusion of the other motifs. The geography is the canvas on which Shakespeare will fashion an absorbing tale, and it stays there, in the background, supporting, coloring, and subtly influencing our interpretations.
Opposites Attract: Othello and Desdemona
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546
Frequently drama teachers will explain to their students that the essence of drama is conflict. In Shakespeare's Othello, conflict on the social and political levels are an essential part of the story. Yet within the relationship of Othello and Desdemona, one that should be conflict-free, we find the most important and the deepest rifts. The difference that has received the most attention in recent years is their interracial marriage. During the trial of O. J. Simpson, media used the play as a comparison. But there are other factors at work in their relationship that go beyond racial difference, for example, age, experience of life, and a lack of knowledge about sex, love, and each other. The convention of an older man in love with a much younger love interest had been a staple of comedy since the days of Aristophanes, and had survived through much English literature, as in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for instance. Shakespeare, however, takes the theme and twists it, affixing it as tragic motif to this mismatched couple.
In the play's opening act, Othello relates how he and Desdemona began their relationship. Brabantio had invited Othello to his house and during those visits, Othello told stories
of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth 'scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery; of my redemption thence
And portance in my travailous history
and other marvellous adventures. A young, motherless girl in charge of her father's household must have been impressed by this man who had lived such a risky, exciting life outside Venice. In addition to be physically different from "the wealthy, curled darlings" (I.ii.68) that made up her social circle, Othello is older than Desdemona and undoubtedly a father figure for her. It would not be unreasonable for her to feel the security she had with her father with this man. It is perhaps this comfort that allows Desdemona to declare her love for Othello because of "the dangers I had passed" (I.iii.167). Logically, an experienced general like Othello should have known better than to mistake hero worship for true love, but possibly because he had denied himself a meaningful and committed relationship to pursue his military career, he was more than susceptible to Desdemona's pure and sincere emotion.
The difference in their ages means that there are significant differences in their backgrounds. Desdemona's mother has died and is now a vague memory. As the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Desdemona would have had a very protected upbringing, and she would have been taught how to be a good and dutiful wife to a man of her father's choosing. Her father would have negotiated this marriage for her, and she would have been escorted to many feasts and banquets. In this sense, Desdemona has been prepared to handle the social occasions that Othello's position in Cyprus requires. It is an indication of Brabantio's lack of consideration of Othello as a marriage prospect that he allows Othello to spend so much time with Desdemona.
Her elopement, however, without her father's consent or consultation, underscores Desdemona's impetuosity and propensity to act without regard for the consequences wither to herself or those around her. This behavior does not correct itself after her marriage. In Cassio's suit she is relentless to the point of annoyance. On the other hand, Othello is a career soldier. He has worked hard and suffered much discomfort to reach the rank and status of general. In this leadership position, he is unaccustomed to challenges to his authority. Such a practice in the army would lead to chaos. As long as Desdemona sits adoringly at his feet and hangs on every word of his stories, offering tears as a compassionate reaction, Othello is not threatened. Her insistence to the Duke that she accompany Othello to Cyprus contradicts Othello's request that she be cared for and given companionship fit for her social position. This will be the first of many such challenges that Othello is unequipped to deal with. Othello knows first-hand the horror and physical difficulty of war; Desdemona negates this opinion by inserting herself, again without thought, into Othello's mission.
Desdemona arrives in Cyprus before Othello and engages in a childish and dangerous game of double entendre with Iago, behavior entirely inappropriate for the wife of an arriving general, but especially in public. Here Desdemona further corrects Othello's "unknown fate" to "the heavens" (II.i.193-194). This is a small, irksome thing, but in this play, it is the little things that have greatest consequence.
When she first confronts Othello about Cassio's dismissal, she says she is just being an interested wife. Othello cannot hide his aggravation at her seeking his reversal of an irrevocable public order: "never more be officer of mine" (II.iii.240). Yet Othello will not come out directly and tell Desdemona that she is out of line. He pretends to have a headache. She begins to give him unsolicited aid with her handkerchief. The loss of the handkerchief at Othello's rejection of her help is much less important to either of them than the challenge that Desdemona keeps throwing at Othello's authority.
When Desdemona persists in Cassio's cause, a frustrated Othello reverts to non-verbal violence, since he cannot summon the language he feels he needs to stop her youthful exuberance. Finally realizing that Othello is upset, but failing to understand or recognize her part in it, she becomes the docile and submissive girl she had been at the beginning of the relationship. But it is too late. Othello's reason has been poisoned by the one person who, he thinks, knows and understands him—Iago. When in the final scene Desdemona protests her innocence, there is no reason why Othello should believe her because she has pursued all her other challenges with the same fervor. This is one head-to-head challenge that Othello intends to win.
Both Othello and Desdemona suffer from a common trait which paradoxically leads them to confrontation: a lack of knowledge of sex, love, and each other. Both are surrounded by sex in the play. Iago speaks of it in several contexts; Cassio frequents Bianca's house of prostitution. Yet Othello and Desdemona speak of love, not sex. Desdemona is in love with love, and Othello defines love as that amity and fraternity among soldiers. This view would explain his violent reaction to Iago's story about sleeping with Cassio, and Cassio's dream. Both Othello and Desdemona are hoping for a mating of their souls that will fulfill the great fantasy of romantic love: lasting through eternity. Othello's "love" has as its extreme antidote violent hate, which clearly is the result of his loving Desdemona because she pitied his past trials. Othello feels he is justified in his violent actions as a soldier would, but Desdemona is willing to die for love and take the full blame for the breakdown of the marriage, a romantic notion.
The communication, if it ever existed, has irretrievably broken down because neither knows the other as well as they should. They only know, and seem to only want to know, the idealized person they have created, and they hold on to that vision to the exclusion of the reality. Desdemona does not remain the dutiful, obedient daughter once she marries, nor is she Othello's "biggest fan." She seeks to become a partner, an equal sharer in Othello's career. Furthermore, his stories do not come true for her. There are no cannibals, or warriors, or narrow escapes on Cyprus. The Turks are defeated by the weather, not her husband. There is no globetrotting, only an assignment to a Venetian outpost, an island. The world she had seen through his eyes does not materialize. While Desdemona tries to make the transition to role of wife, she is without a role model and can only guess if she is getting it right. She is quietly disillusioned and unable to speak about it to anyone but Emilia.
On Othello's part, Desdemona has shown herself to be the direct opposite of the girl he thought he married. Desdemona apparently does not want to hear any more of his tales of adventure. He is busy with the affairs of state and cannot make an accurate assessment of how she spends her time. When they were in Venice, he was probably well acquainted with her routine. In Cyprus, he is not. Although Desdemona does demonstrate an interest in his work, she does so because she is apparently intent on getting him to reverse himself on an administrative decision that has nothing to do with her.
In a modern climate, Othello and Desdemona would probably be referred to a marriage counselor. But they seek advice from a married couple who appear to have an understanding. Iago and Emilia's marriage is actually no better because of its longevity. Iago's sudden and deliberate murder of Emilia is by far more violent, more shocking, and more decisive than Othello's smothering of Desdemona. Iago is only protecting himself; Othello is protecting mankind.
Overall it can be said that race was probably the least of the problems facing Othello and Desdemona. Their expectations of marriage coupled with their age and inexperience could only end disastrously.
The Use of Humor in Othello
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1513
By the time Othello was produced, Elizabethan theater-goers were accustomed to the conventional elements of comedy and knew what to expect from a comic play: a story of love and courtship with some deceptive twist of plot, all worked out to a happy ending through good fortune and human ingenuity. But in Othello, comedy appears as a precursor to tragedy. It presented the audience with the expected comic conventions gone awry.
Although Othello is a tragedy, a miniature comedy is played out until Act II, scene i, where the reunion of Desdemona and Othello takes place. First we are given the frustrations of Roderigo, who is paying Iago to convince Desdemona that she should love Roderigo. Apparently Roderigo has already failed to do this for himself, so he comes across as a fool. This impression is compounded by the fact that Iago is taking Roderigo's money but doing nothing in return. Next we are given the villain Iago and his own set of frustrations. At this point in the play, the extent of Iago's evil is not known; he appears to be an example of another comedic element familiar to Elizabethan audiences: the Vice, one who caused mischief but was essentially a fool.1 Roderigo and Iago carry their grumblings to Desdemona's house, hoping to cause trouble by telling her father, Brabantio, of her elopement with Othello.
This elopement introduces another set of comic elements. The marriage is considered a mismatch, since there is a vast difference in age, race, and cultural backgrounds between the lovers. Such mismatches were common targets of Elizabethan comedy, with special emphasis put on the image of the cuckolded husband, betrayed because he is too old to satisfy his wife's needs. An additional comic touch is the response of the irate father of the bride, in this case, Brabantio, who flaps hysterically about the street in his nightshirt when he learns of the elopement. He continues his ravings at the emergency meeting of the Senate, where he asks for punishment for Othello. Good fortune comes through, however, in the form of the suspected Turk attack on Cyprus. The Senate finds it more expedient to stand behind Othello in hopes that he will defeat the Turks.
Good fortune comes through again when a storm averts the necessity for battle, destroying the Turks’ ships, but leaving Othello's and Desdemona's ships safe so they can reunite in Cyprus. A happy ending—another comedic requisite—but of course the play does not end here. At this point the mischief begun by Iago starts to flourish, and the play transforms into tragedy.
Shakespeare, who had a series of successful comedies before he mastered tragedy, used the basic romantic comedy structure as a departure point for tragedy in Othello. According to critic Susan Snyder:
… traditional comic structures and assumptions operate in several ways to shape tragedy … comedy can become the ground from which, or against which, tragedy develops. By evoking the world where lovers always win, death always loses, and nothing is irrevocable, a dramatist can set up false expectations of a comic resolution so as to reinforce by sharp contrast the movement into tragic inevitability.2
The general situations set up for comedy turn into tragedy when affected by the unique characteristics of the individuals involved. Thus, for example, while the image of the hysterical father bemoaning his daughter's elopement is humorous, it ceases to be funny when the scene is played out according to Brabantio's personality: he gives up his daughter and soon dies of a broken heart.
This transformation into tragedy is especially true with the character of Othello. While he is set up in a traditionally comedic situation, he brings about tragedy by refusing to fit himself into that mold. He recognizes that the cuckolded husband is an object of ridicule:
but, alas, to make me
the fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!
but he chooses to reject such a role. As a result, what could have been played out as humor is transformed into tragedy when he murders Desdemona.
Iago, who through his diabolical manipulations of the characters is at the heart of the transformation of the comic structure into tragedy, ironically is the source of most of the humor in the play. In this way, he fits the part of the traditional Vice, a bawdy mischief-maker who used foul language but generally did no real damage and was always shown to be the fool in the end.
Much of Iago's humor works on two levels: to provide comic entertainment in itself and to give ironic commentaries on the plot. We first see Iago in this role in Act I, scene i, where he uses racial slurs to taunt Brabantio about Desdemona's elopement:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
is tupping your white ewe.
You'll have your daughter covered with
a Barbary horse; you'll have your nephews
neigh to you; You'll have coursers for
cousins and gennets for germans.
Racism is not the least of Iago's comedic repertoire; he also has a collection of sexist barbs, as witnessed in Act II, scene i, when Cassio kissing Emilia's hand starts Iago on a general defamation of the female sex. His jests, probably shared by the audience, work to entertain the crowd while giving insight into his feelings toward women. His scheme for revenge against Othello is based on the sexist attitude that women are fickle.
Iago plays the clown in other parts of the drama, singing comic songs at the party where he gets Cassio drunk, making fun of Othello chastising the soldiers in the same scene. In fact, Iago seems to be the only character who enjoys himself in the play. But unlike the traditional clown in comedy, Iago is not just a low-life entertainer; he is an adept manipulator who succeeds in directing the course of the tragedy toward his own ends.
Iago's comedic talents include the use of deadpan humor, as he shows on at least two occasions. In Act II, scene iii, when Cassio cannot remember what happened while he was drunk, Iago exclaims with a straight face, "Is't possible?" (278). He uses the same line later in Act III, scene iii, after Othello's speech about giving up his profession. This sarcastic humor in the face of other people's misery highlights Iago's cruelty.
To have the main source of humor be the main source of evil in the play sets up an interesting conflict within the audience. On one hand, as Iago's cruelty sends the story irrevocably toward tragedy, the audience must be developing hatred for him. However, as they laugh at his humor, especially that which is directed toward the people he is helping to destroy, they are in danger of becoming complicit in his evil.
The final comedic element discussed here is the use of the Clown, another tradition in Elizabethan theater. The Clown seems to perform two functions generally in theater. His puns and burlesque antics were designed to appeal to the "lower classes" in the audience who would not pick up on the more subtle forms of comedy directed to the literate audience. Also the Clown passes through the play immediately after times of emotional torment, providing "comic relief," a chance for the audience to rest and gear up emotionally for the next scene. The Clown appears twice in Othello but has very little to offer. His first appearance is in Act III, scene i, when he taunts the musicians Cassio has hired to play for Othello. After a few word plays, he tells them that Othello only likes music that cannot be heard, and sends them on their way. (One source has said that this scene is in fact so lacking in humor that modern productions often leave it out entirely.) The Clown's second part is even briefer, when he plays on words with Desdemona. The Clown seems out of place in this play, as though he has walked onto the wrong set and can't find a part for himself.
It seems that the only humor that works in the play is intimately tied up with the tragedy, from the misdirecting of the traditional elements of romantic comedy into tragedy, to the major source of humor being the major source of evil. As critic Edward Dowden has written, the humor in Othello "is the grin of a death's head, the mirth of a ghoul."3
1The concept of Iago as Vice is developed later in this essay.
2Susan Snyder, The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979) p. 5.
3Edward Dowden, Shakespeare, His Mind and Art (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967) p. 240.
Charlton, H. B. Shakespearean Comedy. London: Methuen & Co., 1938.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare's Four Giants. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard Smith Publisher, 1957.
Dowden, Edward. Shakespeare, His Mind and Art. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
Gordon, George. Shakespearean Comedy. London: Oxford University Press, 1944.
McFarland, Thomas. Tragic Meanings in Shakespeare. New York: Random House, 1966.
Snyder, Susan. The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979.
Motivations for Characters' Actions in Othello
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1204
In a discussion of the causes or motivations of the play, it is helpful to understand the primary motifs of the great tragedies. Shakespeare emphasized the problems of good and evil, sin and redemption. He was not particularly interested in the public sides of people, but whether they were good people inside. This can be easily seen in Othello, for all the action revolves around successful deception. Even Othello, a basically noble and honest public figure, shows an irrational and violent side to his nature at the end.
Shakespeare seemed interested in how the characters responded to certain situations. He believed that the action of tragedy occurred in the soul. The characters in this play are sensitive: morally, philosophically, and aesthetically. They all have imaginative consciences, and are able to step out of their situation and reflect on their behaviors. They realize they are involved in a moral structure and must evaluate. They are engaging in this evaluative process when they speak about their causes, reasons, explanations, rationalizations, or motivations in the play.
In Othello there is metaphysical poisoning going on. Minds and characters are being destroyed and corrupted with the poison of jealousy—what Shakespeare refers to as "the green-eyed monster." Iago is jealous of Cassio's new promotion, and vows to seek revenge on Othello for granting it to him. Iago uses the natural jealousy between men and women, and gives Othello a very bitter pill—one that threatens his pride and his manhood. When a person's pride is severely threatened, they can be driven into desperation and will do irrational and harmful actions. The use of the theme of jealousy places characters in situations where they must respond to it. Each character shows a different response, and each response determines what happens to each character.
Othello is completely naive about his relationships with women. As for love, he is stupid and good-hearted, and falls head over heels in it, unthinkingly. Unfortunately, he falls "out of love" just as quickly and thinks with his heart instead of his head. When he runs into trouble, he never meets it head-on, but allows it to ferment and rot his character.
It is his hurt pride that eventually causes his downfall, but he doesn't see it as such. Othello believes himself to be a rational person who judges situations based on facts. He does not see himself as one who could be deceived, and falls right into Iago's trap. Even when jealousy infects him beyond all reason he believes he is acting reasonably—when he kills Desdemona. He rationalizes that his killing her is a duty. The "cause" is Desdemona's alleged infidelity, but he is not possessed by a jealous rage when he does his deed. He convinces himself that he must do his duty and kill her so that she won't betray other men.
Othello's major error which leads to his downfall was believing himself to be a logical, rational, duty-driven man, above the jealous passions of ordinary men. He means to act righteously, but abandons his reasoning abilities. His interpretation of his "cause" is wrong. The cause is his damaged pride.
Iago is a cynic, and believes that people are evil like himself. He is realistic, and able to detect what motivates each person. He is evil and malicious, and will stop at nothing to avenge himself. Yet, he does not deceive himself as to his primary motivations and causes. His injured pride and his jealousy is the prime motivation for ensuing actions. He expected to get the title of "lieutenant," and probably deserved it. Othello's passing him up was the motivation for Iago's hatred of Othello and his jealousy toward Cassio.
Iago also has the insight to state that "Thus do I ever make my fool my purse" (I.iii.385). Besides the pleasure of revenge, he has the passion for financial gain and is under the control of money. He isn't deceiving himself on this point. His "cause" (I.iii.368) or causes are his hatred of Othello, his envy of Othello's power, and his desire for Roderigo's wealth.
Yet Iago is not completely incapable of deceiving himself. He is able to convince himself that Othello has also seduced his wife. Although there is no justification for this, he accuses Othello of this offense to further fuel his hatred of him and justify destroying him. Also, Iago asks how anyone could call him a villain (II.iii.343) to counsel Cassio and Desdemona in his particular way. He really can't be seriously questioning this charge.
Cassio is a good and honest man, and is not deceiving himself when he tells Othello, "Dear General, I never gave you cause" (V.ii.300). Cassio is a gentleman and is knowledgeable in the matters of the world. When it comes to sex he knows how to handle himself. He went to Bianca when he wanted sex, and always treated Desdemona with great respect. His particular weakness was not with women but with liquor. Except when drunk, he is in control of his thoughts and actions. He is rewarded by Shakespeare for his clear thinking and rationality, for he is still alive at the end of the play while others with extreme views die.
However, Cassio does lose Othello's favor and is stripped of his rank because he doesn't see his inability to control his drinking as a weakness.
Desdemona surely gave Othello no reason to suspect her loyalty and devotion to him. Her loyalty was proven over and over again, when she chose Othello over her father, when she spoke up for Othello, in her conduct with Cassio, and her placing the blame for her death on herself at the end. She, though, is irrationally, insanely in love with Othello. When something goes wrong, she doesn't know what to do but has the tendency to over look the symptoms. Her main problem is blind love. She is also blind to Iago's faults and continually sees him as an honest man.
Desdemona is also the victim of bad timing and poor planning. She allows Cassio to persuade her to speak on his behalf, and she is pressured by him several times to speak to Othello immediately to plead his case. In Act III, scene iii, she mentions Cassio’s name to her husband at the worst possible moment, and also refers to Cassio as a suitor. This clearly works against her.
Both Desdemona and Othello used poor judgment and allow themselves to be brainwashed by Iago. Both failed to think for themselves or to use reason in assessing each other's actions. Both acted in extremes and failed to take a more moderate course. Both loved with all their hearts, and Othello sought vengeance with all his heart.
Probably the most serious of Othello's faults was his extreme sexual jealousy and inability to recognize it as such. As he even stated himself, he was naive in the ways of the world. Othello could not handle love and sex, and this drove him mad and to suicide. He overestimated his powers of self-control, however, and saw his "cause" as a just and righteous one. He was mistaken. Shakespeare pointed out that sexual jealousy destroys people and illustrates this very well in Othello.
An Analysis of Four Shakespearean Villains
Last Updated on June 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1530
Shakespeare's plays have been the focus of critical analysis for centuries. Part of the reason that his works are so widely read is that his characterization of both protagonists and antagonists is well developed. In the course of this essay, four of Shakespeare's villains will be compared: Macbeth, King Claudius, Iago and Edmund. Finally, some general conclusions will be drawn.
Some Shakespearean critics attempt to justify Macbeth's evil behavior by contending that his actions were forced on him by an external power. However, A. C. Bradley argues that Macbeth was not controlled by the Witches, their "masters," or Hecate. He continues to explain that the prophecies of the Witches are presented simply as dangerous circumstances with which Macbeth has to deal.1
Bradley states that when Macbeth heard the first prophecies he was not an innocent man. He contends:
Precisely how far his mind was guilty may be a question; but no innocent man would have started, as he did, with a start of fear at the mere prophecy of a crown, or have conceived thereupon immediately the thought of murder.2
Upon analyzing Macbeth, it becomes evident that the natural death of an old man could have fulfilled the prophecy any day. The idea of fulfilling it by murder was Macbeth's idea entirely.3
When Macbeth sees the Witches again, after the murders of Duncan and Banquo, a significant change can be detected in his character. They no longer need to seek him out, rather, he seeks them out. "He has committed himself to his course of evil."4
Unlike many villains, Macbeth experiences a profound sense of guilt after committing his evil deeds. Bradley states that the "consciousness of guilt is stronger in him than the consciousness of failure." As a result, Macbeth is in a perpetual state of agony and restlessness. "All that is within him does condemn itself for being there."5
Macbeth suffers from a distorted sense of logic when he begins his plot against Banquo. He develops a strange idea in his mind that Banquo's murder will not haunt him if the deed is done by other hands. Unfortunately, for Macbeth, this deed haunts him as much as his other, evil actions.
Unlike Macbeth, who feels guilt after committing his crimes, Claudius (a character in Shakespeare's Hamlet) enjoys his sinful life. He commits crime after crime for lust and power. The satisfaction that Claudius receives from his actions is aptly described in one of his lines: "That one can smile … and be a villain."6
Weilgart notes that Claudius is able to remain benevolent and reasonable "after murdering his brother for crown and wife." He is proudly able to stand up against his avenger, Laertes, by saying: "There's such divinity doth hedge a king, that treason can peep to what it would…."7 While Macbeth tries to justify some of his evil deeds, he is not able to maintain the same level of pride and contentment that Claudius does in Hamlet.
Bradley asserts that Claudius was not a villain of force, rather, he was a "cut-purse who stole the diadem from a shelf and put it in his pocket." He possessed the inclination of "natures physically weak and morally small towards intrigue and crooked dealing." Although Bradley argues that Claudius showed no cowardice in times of danger, his first thought was always for himself.8
Claudius refused to change his thinking even as he is about to die. Bradley concludes:
Nay, his very last words show that he goes to death unchanged: "Oh yet defend me, friends, I am but hurt (=wounded)," he cries, although in half a minute he is dead. That his crime has failed, and that it could do nothing else, never once comes home to him. He thinks he can over-reach Heaven. When he is praying for pardon, he is all the while perfectly determined to keep his crown; and he knows it.9
In Othello, Shakespeare presents his audience with perhaps his most diabolical of villains: Iago. J. H. E. Brock explains that Iago's evil nature is depicted from the very beginning of the play as he is shown "dipping his fingers into Roderigo's purse, with as great freedom as if it were his own."10
Bernard Spivak observes that Iago is completely insensitive to the feelings of other people. Throughout the play he is cruel and indifferent to the sufferings he causes others. A careful analysis of Othello reveals that Iago does not effect one generous or thoughtful action.11
Iago confesses that his outward behavior is no guide to his real thoughts. This facet of his personality is certainly borne out in his subsequent behavior. Brock contends that Iago must have been "a profound hypocrite to have imposed on his associates and superiors for so long; and he must have been a man of extreme self-control, who never betrayed himself by fear, nervousness, emotion or an unguarded action."12
Iago's unscrupulous behavior also becomes apparent as he passes disagreeable and dangerous jobs on to others (i.e. asking Roderigo to provoke Cassio when drunk). Although he is brave on occasion, Iago does not like to take any unnecessary chances when committing evil deeds.13
Shakespeare presents Iago as a habitual liar. Brock states that while he plundered Roderigo, he kept him quiet with a series of lies. In addition, his entire plot against Cassio was without foundation. Finally, Iago "invented for Othello's consumption a series of episodes between Desdemona and Cassio which were blatant falsehoods." Without feeling any shame or guilt, Iago creates facts to suit the occasion.14
Weilgart believes that interesting distinctions exist among Macbeth, Claudius, and Iago in their reactions to gaining power. Macbeth seems less satisfied after his success than he was before. He committed the deed in order to be king; however, once he assumes this position, he seems to have no other goal but "to sleep in spite of thunder." Claudius, on the other hand, enjoys in royal dignity his happiness after killing Hamlet. Finally, Iago seems unchanged after he achieves his goal: Cassio’s position. "He goes on and on plotting. There is no satisfaction corresponding to his desire."15
Edmund's villainy is a result of his rebellion against the disqualifications of bastardy. Brock explains that Edmund poisoned his father's mind against Edgar "by informing him that he had tried to win him over to a plot to murder him." Edmund claimed that when he refused to participate in the plot, Edgar wounded him with a sword. However, while Edmund did have a wound to show his father, he inflicted it on himself. Unfortunately, Gloucester believed his bastard son and outlawed Edgar.16 Thus, like Iago, Edmund uses lies to achieve his goals.
The evil nature of Edmund's character once again becomes evident as he is taken into the Duke of Cornwall's service. After receiving his new appointment, he immediately betrays his father. Gloucester's eyes are put out by Cornwall and Regan, and Edmund is made the Earl of Gloucester.17
Brock observes that Edmund manipulates the feelings of others to achieve his ends. When both Regan and Goneril fall in love with him, "he played one sister off against the other and pretended to be devotedly in love with both."18 Edmund will stop at nothing to gain the power that he thinks is rightfully his.
Toward the end of Lear, Edgar challenges Edmund to single combat to answer for his many crimes. When Edmund is mortally wounded, he acknowledges "his enormities, and expresses remorse for his brutal action towards Cordelia."19 In a sense, Edmund can be compared to Macbeth, since both characters experience guilt after committing their vicious actions.
Bradley explains that Edmund possessed a lighter and more superficial nature than Iago. “There is nothing in Edmund of Iago's motive-hunting, and very little of any of the secret forces which impelled Iago." However, both characters are adventurers who actively pursued their goals regardless of who is harmed along the way.20
While certain similarities undoubtedly exist among the characters discussed above, each pursued their villainous goals in different manners. Perhaps one of the reasons that Shakespeare has remained so popular over the centuries is that audiences are never quite sure how his villains are going to pursue their goals. Shakespeare should certainly be praised for the variety of characters he developed in his plays as well as for the intensity of his plots.
1A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan and Company Ltd., 1904), p. 343.
2Bradley, p. 344.
3Bradley, p. 344.
4Bradley, p. 345.
5Bradley, pp. 359-360.
6Wolfgang J. Weilgart, Shakespeare’s Psychognostic Character Evolution and Transformation (New York: AMS Press, 1952), p. 51.
7Weilgart, p. 122.
8Bradley, p. 169.
9Bradley, p. 171.
10J. H. E. Brock, Iago and Some Shakespearean Villains (New York: AMS Press, 1937), p. 3.
11Bernard Spivak, Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 53-54.
12Brock, pp. 3-4.
13Brock, p. 7.
14Brock, pp. 7-8.
15Weilgart, p. 117.
16Brock, p. 46.
17Brock, pp. 46-47.
18Brock, p. 47.
19Brock, p. 47.
20Bradley, pp. 300-301.
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan and Company Ltd., 1904.
Brock, J. H. E. Iago and Some Shakespearean Villains. New York: AMS Press, 1937.
Spivak, Bernard. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.
Weilgart, Wolfgang J. Shakespeare’s Psychognostic Character Evolution and Transformation. New York: AMS Press, 1952.
Deception in Othello
Last Updated on July 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
Othello is, at heart, a play about deception, and the emotional turmoil and mental anguish it can cause. Although Iago aptly demonstrates all that is evil through his malevolent manipulation of others, he is not the only practitioner of deception in the play. Othello himself can also be regarded as a study in deception, albeit of a much more subtle variety than that of the gleefully fiendish Iago; for Othello engages in self-deception – less obvious, but eventually just as destructive. Indeed, the only character above reproach is the guileless Desdemona; enmeshed in a web of steel through the deception of others, she nevertheless continues in her sweetly innocent way, ultimately attaining a heroic stature through her refusal, in sharp juxtaposition to Othello and Iago, to blame others for her suffering.
Othello is an outsider in Venetian society. He is a Black man among White men, and a soldier among civilians. To the Venetians, he is simply ' the Moor' (I,iii,47), a description that neatly encapsulates his state as a foreigner. The term is indelibly associated with negative racial connotations – Iago describes Othello as ' an old black ram' (I,i,88) and ' the devil' (I,i,91), while Rodrigo calls him ' gross' and 'lascivious' (I,i,126). Othello, while unaware of the slanders of Iago, is only too aware of his precious position in the Venetian power structure. Hence, he creates for himself a new identity, a new sense of self that transcends the one-dimensionality of 'the Moor'. He cannot change his origins – although as he lets Iago know (I,ii,19-24) he is descended from 'men of royal siege' - but he can fill his persona with something uniquely Othello, to lose the negative connotations of 'the Moor' and create for himself a unique identity. He attempts this in his wooing of Desdemona – his new identity is the ' story of (his) life' (I,iii,129) , and it is so intensely moving and personal that Desdemona is entranced. Ironically, there is a sense that Othello feels threatened by Desdemona's enthusiasm: she would 'listen with a greedy ear' to devour (his)discourse'(I,iii,150) , and Othello feels compelled to concoct even more fantastical tales: 'of the cannibals that each other eat, /the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads/ do grow beneath their shoulders' (I,iii,143-145). Othello's attempt to break the shackles of being 'the Moor' has resulted in the construction of an elaborate façade of self-deception; he has constructed a new identity, but one somewhat removed from the flesh-and-bone Othello. This dissonance is evident if we compare his proposed 'round unvarnish'd tale' (I,iii,90) with the elaborate travelogue he finally delivers in lines 128-170. He is insistently self-dramatising, but curiously uncertain of his true worth; and it is this uncertainty that allows Iago to breed the 'green-eyed monster' of jealousy in his mind.
Iago is a master of deception. He appears frank and honest to all the other characters and it is only to the audience that he reveals his innermost thoughts. Roderigo knows some of what Iago plans, and supposedly why he plans it; but his knowledge is kept limited by Iago. Iago works through subtle hints and allusions, and exploits his 'honest' reputation ruthlessly. However, even the seemingly cocksure Iago is not immune to the 'monster' of jealousy; indeed, he too is infected by it 'like a poisonous mineral' (II,i,292) . Unlike Othello, however, Iago recognises his infection and the effect it has on himself. He does not delude himself about what he is, or what he plans to achieve. Ultimately, his peculiar brand of evil comes to nothing, his plans destroyed by the unforseen courage of his wife Emilia. His deception turns back on him and he is exposed as the petty man he is. The malevolence is still there, but the grand scale of evil is reduced to the flailing of an embittered human being.
On another level, the play deals with the deception of the senses – both of sight and sound. Othello demands from Iago 'ocular proof' (III,iii,366) of his wife's infidelity, but his vision, corrupted by the 'green-ey'd monster' (III,iii,170), is satisfied by mere 'imputation and strong circumstance'(III,iii,412). Iago's trickery in convincing Othello that his conversation with Cassio (followed by the fortuitous arrival of Bianca) in IV, i, 97-157 concerns the seduction of Desdemona, illustrates the extent to which Othello's senses have been deluded and corrupted. Othello eavesdrops over the conversation between Iago and Cassio, but interprets the words to suit the state of his diseased mind: 'Do you triumph, Roman? Do you triumph?' (IV,i,118). He cannot see or hear for himself, and must rely on the false information 'fed' to him. And this occurs shortly after his body has been reduced to the fit (IV,i,43) in which all his senses are confused and jangled. Indeed, his greatest fear has been physically realised: 'perdition catch my soul/But I do love thee, and when I love thee not/Chaos is come again.' (III,iii,91-93) When Emilia vouches steadfastly for her mistress' chastity, the poison in Othello's ears dismisses her evidence as the ignorance of a ' simple bawd' (IV,ii,20). The ultimate deception takes place in the soft, slow death scene of Desdemona. Othello is instinctively drawn towards Desdemona's beauty, but in a perverse self-delusion, comes to see himself as a personification of 'justice' , killing Desdemona 'else she'll betray more men' (V,ii,6). Iago's slanders have poisoned Othello's senses, and the evil of the deception results in the tragedy of Desdemona's death.
If Iago is a portrait of evil, then Desdemona must be the definitive embodiment of chaste beauty. She forsakes friends, family and wealth in Venice to spend her life with the man to whom she 'consecrated' her 'soul and fortunes'(I,iii,254) . She loves Othello with all her mind, body and soul. Despite Othello's fears, she loves him, not an exotic image of the 'extravagant and wheeling stranger of here and everywhere' because she claims that she 'saw Othello's visage in his mind' (I,iii,252) . She is innocent, and completely without sophistication, and ultimately, a pawn to be exploited in Iago's obsessive plans. She bears all her tribulations with meekness, patience and without complaint, and remains committed to her husband even as she dies: 'Commend me to my kind Lord, O farewell!' (V,ii,126). She, alone, of all the characters, eschews intrigue and deception; her life is as pure and honest as her love for Othello. Some though, will take the side of Brabantio and see her treachery to him and his family. She does after all, deceive her father (I,iii,293), and elopes, escorted only by 'a knave of common hire' (I,i,125) to the arms of her beloved Othello; and there has been no inkling of the love suit Othello has pursued within Brabantio's own house. It is, perhaps, the weak point in Desdemona's character, but it may be excused by the overwhelming power of her love for Othello.
The Relationship Between Othello and Iago
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1436
At the start of Othello, Iago makes very clear to Roderigo the apparent cause for his hatred of the general. His lack of promotion to lieutenant leads him to declare:
… be judge yourself,
Whether I in any just term am affin'd
To love the Moor.
Such a motive is not a grand-scale one, nor one which might cast Iago as the Universal Villain. His secondary motive, however, provides a different insight into his character, and provides the first instance of the theme which will dominate this play—sexual jealousy:
I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad, that 'twixt my sheets
He's done my office;
More than this, however, it is the very fact that he acknowledges the nature of the suspicion (rumor) and then dismisses it from his mind that shows the inherently insecure nature of this villain. He has fallen into the same trap over Cassio ("For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too" [II.i.302]), and his jealousy is attested to even by his wife:
Some such squire he was,
That turn'd your wit, the seamy side without,
And made you suspect me with the Moor.
The deep—rooted cause for this combination of insecurity and jealousy lies deep within his psyche. We must remember the shared history of Othello and Iago, which in fact far transcends that shared by Othello and Desdemona. Othello makes much of the fact that,
… since these arms of mine had seven years' pith
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field.
He also states that he does "agnize / A natural and prompt alacrity / I find in hardness" (I.iii.231-233). The Duke and his court all acknowledge Othello's military experience and command, and Lodovico recognizes
[which] The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce.
This consistent military service of over thirty years (given Othello's own description of himself as "declined /Into the vale of years" [III.iii.265-266]) has left Othello without those " soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have" (III.iii.264-265). We are also told, and have no reason to dispute it, that Iago has served with Othello at "Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds / Christian and heathen" (I.i.29-30). Iago is twenty-eight years old (I.iii.312) and is clearly a career soldier, since he is chaffing over his lack of promotion. As Harold Bloom points out2, the inevitable comradeship between soldiers of this nature is both intense and binding. Although many of the characters throughout the play call Iago "honest" and refer to his "honesty," it is Othello who uses the epithet more frequently than anyone else. And against the background of protestation from Emilia, Desdemona herself and, eventually, Cassio, Othello is prepared to take the word of his "Ancient" above all others. We might well ask why, apart from dramatic necessity, this should be the case.
The answer lies in the extraordinary comradeship which military service in the face of death can bring. No specific mention is made, but we might assume that Othello and Iago have fought side-by-side. It is, after all, where the General and the Ancient would be found. Iago reports the detail of how Othello has remained unmoved while those around him have been killed, with a veracity which indicates first-hand knowledge:
I have seen the cannon,
When it hath blown his ranks into the air;
And (like the devil) from his very arm
Puff'd his own brother….
The friendship and obligation brought about by this kind of service cannot be overlooked, and it provides a powerful shared history.
Rejection, therefore, by the General whom Iago has followed and served, is a blow which a man, insecure in other ways (his sexual jealousy of his wife) would find hard to shoulder. The fact that he had apparently been supported by three great ones of the city" (I.i.7) in his quest for promotion is another indication, possibly, of not only his reputation within Venice, but of his disbelief in his fate. The disappointment is compounded by the selection of a Florentine (when the rivalry between the city states of Venice and Florence was intense) who is unhardened by military experience and "That never set a squadron in the field" (I.i.22). It is consequently not such a great step from loyal and honest companion to "villainous knave" and "scurvy fellow" (IV.ii.140-141) as Emilia ironically calls the unknown defamer of Desdemona's virtue. Scorned and overlooked by the great leader, Iago is left with nothing but his anger and his sense of abandonment. Despite his initial claims, he is not that interested in reclimbing the ladder of military promotion. It has, after all, rejected him, and the days of "old gradation" (I.i.37) based upon "honest" service are gone. And, he is promoted to the position of Lieutenant at the end of III.iii. What is left to Iago is the sheer pleasure of destroying all that he had believed in, and which is reflected in Othello's eulogy over himself:
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the pluméd troops, and the big wars
That make ambition virtue—O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th'ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance, of glorious war!
As Iago gloats at the loss of Othello's "sweet sleep" displayed in the speech above, he fails to recognize the ironic reflection on himself. Iago is losing exactly what Othello is, for, as a career soldier, his links with Othello's experiences are inextricable.
Against this friendship and comradeship, forged in the hardships of war, the relationship between Othello and Desdemona does indeed show as something insubstantial. It is based clearly upon a misconception:
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them. (I.iii.167-168)
Each has fallen in love with the romantic image of the other, not the physical reality. Again, as Bloom has pointed out, their courtship, marriage, and their short time together after that event, leaves them very little opportunity either to get to know each other properly or, perhaps, even to consummate their marriage. Iago carefully marginalizes Othello from his new wife by emphasizing the differences in their background and cultural experience:
I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands….
He also reinforces the unnaturalness of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona who rejected "many proposed matches / Of her own clime, complexion, and degree" (III.iii.233-234). The more Iago drives the wedge between Othello and his love, the more dependent Othello becomes on Iago, for, indeed, there is no-one else to whom he can turn. His lieutenant Cassio is suspected with Othello's wife, and on Cyprus, Othello is not in a position to explore his fears with relative strangers. Their past joins Iago and Othello, and their present enmeshes them even more firmly. For Othello, there is only Iago in whom he can trust and upon whom he can rely. "Honest" Iago takes order for the death of Cassio; and "honest, honest Iago" (V.ii.155), Othello's "friend" provides the circumstantial and "occular" proof of Desdemona's treachery. As Iago has planned, he has made Othello
… thank me, love me, and reward me,
For making him egregiously as ass.
and Othello declares "I am bound to thee forever" (III.iii.218). In the blackest of ironies, Iago returns the compliment after the sacrilegious oath-taking at the end of III.iii: "I am your own for ever" (line 486). Like an incubus, Iago now cannot exist without Othello, as it is Othello's destruction which gives purpose and direction to Iago's life. As Othello recognizes that the mere appearance of the dead Desdemona will "hurl my soul from heaven" (V.ii.275), so he is even at the end of the play linked to the demi-devil" (302) and "hellish villain" (369) who has "ensnar'd [his] soul and body" (line 303). In planting the seeds of doubt and destruction in Othello, Iago planted the very seeds of his own fall:
"for what soever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." 3
1This, and all other textual references to Othello are from "The Arden Shakespeare" edition, ed. M. R. Ridley (New York: Methuen, 1985).
2Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (London: Fourth Estate, 1999).
3Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, vi, 7.