illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

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Kenneth Muir (essay date 1972)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8747

SOURCE: Muir, Kenneth. “Othello.” In Shakespeare's Tragic Sequence, pp. 93-116. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1972, Muir concentrates on the figures of Othello and Iago, considering their differing connections to the theme of jealousy in Othello.]

Shakespeare found the plot of Othello in the collection of stories by Cinthio which also contained a variant of the Measure for Measure plot. The story which ends with the murder of Desdemona by a stocking filled with sand in the hands of the Ensign is not at first sight particularly promising as dramatic material. But there were three points about it that seem to have kindled Shakespeare's imagination. After the murder, we are told, the Moor mourned for the loss of his wife, because he had loved her more than his very eyes. Equally significant was Cinthio's description of the villain as

a man of very fine appearance but of the most depraved nature that ever a man had in the world … Although he was a most detestable character, nevertheless with imposing words and his presence, he concealed the malice he bore in his heart, in such a way that he showed himself outwardly like another Hector or Achilles.

Then, thirdly, the virtuous white woman falls in love with a Moor. The consummate hypocrite, the mixed marriage, and the murderer who loves his victim are the triple foundation of the tragedy. They provided Shakespeare with opportunities of contrast, irony and paradox, which he exploited to the full. Did the audience at the Globe expect the Moor to be a lecherous villain, like Aaron in Titus Andronicus or Ithamore in The Jew of Malta? They were presented with a picture of a baptised Moor, much esteemed by the senators of Venice. Did the Globe audience suppose that a white woman who takes the initiative in wooing a coloured man was certainly perverse and probably sensual? Shakespeare was careful to establish in the account of the wooing that Desdemona loved Othello's visage in his mind; and that Othello is more anxious to be free and bounteous to Desdemona's mind than to please the palate of his appetite. Did the Globe patrons, since the Devil himself was depicted as black, expect Othello to be devilish? But the demi-devil of the play is white. Did they suppose, as Rymer supposed later in the century, that soldiers in plays should be depicted as honest? Shakespeare depicted an Iago exploiting this superstition for his own ends.1 Did they expect Moors to be violently jealous? In this Shakespeare appears to have satisfied their expectations, though some of the best critics have denied that Othello was jealous.

In The Brothers Karamazov (VIII.3) there is a discussion of Mitya's jealousy. Dostoevsky distinguishes between this and Othello's feelings:

‘Othello was not jealous, he was trustful,’ observed Pushkin. And that remark alone is enough to show the deep insight of our great poet. Othello's soul was shattered and his whole outlook clouded simply because his ideal was destroyed. But Othello did not begin hiding, spying, peeping. He was trustful, on the contrary. He had to be led up, pushed on, excited with great difficulty before he could entertain the idea of deceit. The truly jealous man is not like that. It is impossible to picture to oneself the shame and moral degradation to which the jealous man can descend without a qualm of conscience … Othello was incapable of making up his mind to faithlessness—not incapable of forgiving it, but of making up his mind to it—though his soul was...

(This entire section contains 8747 words.)

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as innocent and free from malice as a babe's. It is not so with the really jealous man.

Unknown to Pushkin, and probably unknown to Dostoevsky, Coleridge had expressed similar views about Othello. Jealousy, he declared, was not the point of his passion:2

I take it to be rather an agony that the creature, whom he had believed angelic, with whom he had garnered up his heart, and whom he could not help still loving, should be proved impure and worthless. It was the struggle not to love her. It was a moral indignation and regret that virtue should so fall.

Bradley similarly declared that Othello's3

tragedy lies in this—that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable.

The Coleridge-Pushkin interpretation is often followed by actors. Stanislavsky argued that Othello was childlike, gentle and pure in heart;4 Alexander Ostuzhev, who played the part in 1936, assumed that jealousy was not the theme of the play; and in all but one of the seventy-eight productions of the play in the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1957, the same interpretation was followed.

The weight of this tradition should not prevent us from questioning it. The first known critic of the play, Leonard Digges, Shakespeare's neighbour, spoke of ‘the jealous Moor’;5 and Othello speaks of himself as ‘not easily jealous’—not denying that he was jealous. We may allow that the shattering of an ideal by Desdemona's supposed adultery, so that (in Troilus's phrase) ‘the bonds of heaven are slipped, dissolv'd and loos'd’, is an essential part of the tragedy, but that Othello is desperately jealous it would be idle to deny.

There are, of course, several different kinds of jealousy, from irrational suspicion to unwilling conviction, from spiritual horror to animal possessiveness. One can appreciate that Coleridge would wish to distinguish Othello's jealousy from some of these. But the very characteristics of jealousy listed by him to show that Othello is free of it seem rather to prove the opposite. An ‘eagerness to snatch at proofs’ is displayed by him several times in the crucial temptation scene—the story of Cassio's dream is told by Iago when Othello demands ‘a living reason’ that Desdemona is disloyal, and he snatches at the ‘proof’ provided by the handkerchief. ‘A disposition to degrade the object of his passion by sensual fancies and images’ could be illustrated from almost any scene from the central acts of the play:

I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body …


It is not words that shakes me thus—
pish!—noses, ears, and lips.


The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up—to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!


Goats and monkeys!


‘Catching occasions to ease the mind by ambiguities’ is apparent in the brothel scene; ‘a dread of vulgar ridicule’ can be seen, for example in Othello's reference to the ‘forked plague’; and ‘a spirit of selfish vindictiveness’ is reflected in his invocation of ‘black vengeance’, in ‘O, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw't to’ and in ‘I'll chop her into messes!’

It is strange that Coleridge failed to notice such passages, or failed to see that they conflicted with his conception of Othello. It was easy for Edgar Elmer Stoll6 to demonstrate that Coleridge was mistaken and that Othello was clearly jealous; but he went further and argued that it was impossible to reconcile the jealous maniac of Act IV with the noble self-controlled character depicted in Act I. Shakespeare's character portrayal in Stoll's view was based on a specious and unreal psychology and he sacrificed consistency of characterisation to theatrical effect. To make Othello accept Iago's slanders rather than trust Desdemona is to Stoll absurd, especially as Iago's temptation is unconvincing:7

An honest man who undertakes to tell you that your wife and your dearest friend have played you false makes a clean breast of it, without flourish or ado. He does not twist and turn, tease and tantalize, furtively cast forth the slime of slander and ostentatiously lick it up again … Shakespeare, in his neglect of plausibility, would have us labour under the delusion that the manners of honesty and dishonesty are almost one and the same.

But the temptation scene can be defended in various ways—by the fact that an irresolute friend might behave not very differently from Iago; that Elizabethan views of human behaviour differ in some respects from ours; that Othello did not have the advantage of Shakespeare's readers or audience of knowing that Iago was a villain; that every character in the play is deceived by Iago; and that a dramatic poet does not attempt to give a naturalistic, ‘photographic’ picture of human behaviour, provided that he can convince an audience of his truth to life. Audiences do in fact accept Iago's temptation of Othello as a true representation of how a villain pretending to be an honest man would behave and they accept Othello's behaviour as the natural reaction of a noble, but credulous, Moor.

Of course the temptation scene is telescoped: and those critics who think they can estimate Othello's proneness to jealousy by demonstrating that between the beginning of the temptation and the fall represented by the words ‘Set on thy wife to observe’ is less than a hundred and fifty lines are absurdly prosaic.8 When Othello at the end of the play declares that he was not easily jealous, Shakespeare means us to believe him, at least in the sense that he was not of a jealous temperament. He would not have suspected Desdemona if he had not been deceived by the villain.

This is not the view of two of the best critics of our day, T. S. Eliot and Dr F. R. Leavis, and of their numerous disciples. Eliot in a famous essay9 stigmatised Othello for his boyaryism, declaring that in his final long speech he was cheering himself up and escaping from reality into illusion, by blaming fate and the Ancient. As I have tried to show elsewhere, such an interpretation is incompatible with the text of the final scene. Othello regrets the murder before Desdemona's name is cleared:

                              I have no wife.
O, insupportable! O heavy hour!

He implies to Emilia that he has been driven mad, by the fact that the moon

                              comes more nearer earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.

He admits that if he had not proceeded upon just grounds he would be ‘damned beneath all depth in hell’. When he learns the truth, he naturally tries to kill Iago, though he knows that he himself has reached his journey's end. Although he asks ‘Who can control his fate?’ he does not disclaim his own responsibility. He knows that he is damned, that his soul will be snatched by fiends, and that he will be tortured for ever. At last he executes justice on himself, believing that his suicide would seal his damnation.

Is he really ‘cheering himself up’ in the speech which ends with his suicide?

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

That Othello in such circumstances refers to his services to Venice has been regarded as a sign of egotism. An Elizabethan audience would have seen it rather as the natural expression of proper pride. Othello, like Hamlet, does not wish to leave a wounded name behind him. He does not wish anyone to extenuate his guilt despite the phrase ‘unlucky deeds’. The key phrase in his apologia is that he had loved ‘not wisely, but too well’. To some critics this reflects his self-deceit. If he had loved Desdemona better, he would have forgiven her supposed adultery. How much better, we are told, the hero of A Woman Killed by Kindness behaves! But tragic heroes are seldom or never patterns of right conduct. What Othello means by saying he loved too well is that his whole life had been transformed by his love. His total commitment meant that if he believed he had lost Desdemona's love, life would become a desert. His tears express his grief and his repentance and the medcinable gum may hint at atonement. The final anecdote is not merely to distract attention so that his auditors cannot prevent his suicide: he also reminds us of a time when he was a champion of Christian civilisation and implies by his fatal blow that he is killing the pagan in himself.

But, we are told by Dr Leavis, ‘A habit of self-approving self-dramatization is an essential element in Othello's make-up’,10 even in this final apologia. At best it is ‘the impressive manifestation of a noble egotism’. The Othello music of which Wilson Knight has written11 so eloquently conveys ‘romantic glamour’. Othello's attitude to emotion is essentially sentimental. His love for Desdemona ‘is composed very largely of ignorance of self as well as ignorance of her’ and ‘an essential condition of the tragedy’ is that his ‘romantic idealising love’ is ‘dubiously grounded on reality’.12 Leo Kirschbaum is another critic who complains that Othello refuses to look squarely at his crime,13 that he indulges in self-idealisation, that he ‘loves not Desdemona but his image of her’. Such an Othello hardly needs a demi-devil to bring about his ruin. As Dr Leavis says, ‘the tragedy may fairly be said to be Othello's character in action’.14

It must be admitted that these critics have some grains of truth in their remarks. It is true that Othello's previous experience as a soldier has left him singularly ignorant of women, especially of women of a different race, and his own awareness of this makes it difficult for him to argue rationally with Iago. There is irony, too, in the fact that his initial, unsophisticated idea of Desdemona was true, while his sophisticated idea of her, after he has been Iago's pupil, is totally false. It is therefore not true to suggest that his love is based on ignorance. It is based on intuitive, but quite genuine, knowledge—a knowledge which Iago undermines. In the same way, Desdemona's love is based on intuitive knowledge. She sees Othello's visage in his mind; she loves him not merely for the dangers he has undergone, but for the noble simplicity of character which shines through his autobiography and makes his colour basically irrelevant. Irrelevant to her, but not to the scheme of the play; for Iago plays on Othello's ignorance of Venetian women and undermines his instinctive trust. The difference of race makes him particularly vulnerable. As Professor Eldred Jones says, Othello ‘is a complex story of how a noble and upright but isolated man is subjected to temptation in the area of his being where he is most vulnerable—his difference in race’.15 It could be argued that Othello is deluded when he plays down the erotic aspect of the marriage—‘the young effects in [him] defunct’; but he is a general anxious to persuade the Senate to agree to Desdemona's plea to be allowed to accompany her husband on active service, and he naturally argues that her presence will not interfere with his efficiency.

Those who see Othello as a braggart soldier are surely mistaken. He has a proper pride in his vocation; he is aware of his military achievements, his service to the state, his personal bravery. If anything he is guilty of understatement, and no Jacobean spectator would have found anything blameworthy in his awareness of his own merits. Nor can it be said that the ‘Othello music’ is somehow a symptom of egotism or of self-dramatisation. Shakespeare had to find an idiom and vocabulary which distinguished him from the Europeans; which was supremely eloquent at the same time as it enabled Othello to regard his speech as rude and unsophisticated. If we think that his account of his wooing shows that he had bragged and told fantastical lies, we are of the demi-devil's party without knowing it. The Duke directs our responses:

I think this tale would win my daughter too.

We need not go beyond the first scene in which Othello appears (I.ii) to see the distinction between his true nobility and the hollow egotistical ‘nobility’ with which he is credited. Iago warns him that Brabantio will prevent his marriage from being consummated. Othello replies—quite truly, as it turns out—that his services to the state will out-tongue Brabantio's complaints, that he comes of royal ancestors, and that his merits make him worthy of Desdemona. Iago urges him to go in, but Othello refuses:

My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.

And when Brabantio arrives to arrest him, Othello averts a fight with a line which shows him to be a man of natural authority:

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

This scene shows that Othello is not without pride; but it also displays a man of nobility and self-control rather than an egotist.

Another example of self-dramatisation adduced by Dr Leavis is afforded by the lines in the final scene of the play:

                                        Behold, I have a weapon:
A better never did itself sustain
Upon a soldier's thigh.

The lines are a surprise to Gratiano, who believes Othello's statement that he is unarmed is true; but it is not at all a surprise to the audience who have seen Othello looking for the sword, tempered in the icebrook, in his chamber, and have heard him describe it. His other sword, with which he had wounded Iago, has been taken from him, so that it is assumed that the aged Gratiano is an adequate guard. The audience will imagine for a moment that Othello is going to try to escape; and perhaps the Moor, who would not put himself in circumscription and confine for the sea's worth, intends at first to do this. But, if so, he soon realises that he has come to the end of the road. This is an example of dramatisation by Shakespeare, not of self-dramatisation by Othello; for the audience, having seen him discard a second sword, is more likely to be surprised by his suicide. Indeed, Cassio, who is best acquainted with Othello's character, half expected him to commit suicide, ‘but thought he had no weapon’. From the dramatic point of view it is necessary to show that Othello deliberately throws away his chance of escaping and equally to make his suicide seem both inevitable and surprising.

It looks as though a prejudice against the theatre and a failure to realise the necessities of the stage have led Dr Leavis into confusing dramatisation with its necessary projection of character and the self-dramatisation of characters in real life. In his essay on the sentimentalist's Othello he was not merely disagreeing with Bradley but with three hundred years of stage tradition.

If one examines what the other characters in the play say about Othello, the impression we derive from his own speeches is strengthened. We expect the Senate to pay tribute to his military prowess and for Montano to speak of him as a worthy governor. But Cassio's admiration and affection is apparent all through the play. Even after the death of Desdemona Cassio speaks of him as ‘Dear General’ and as great of heart. Othello claims that Brabantio loved him, even though he did not want him as a son-in-law. Lodovico, after seeing Othello strike his wife, asks:

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


In the last scene he addresses him as

O, thou Othello, that wast once so good.

But the strongest testimony to the Moor's virtues comes from his bitterest enemy. Although in talking to others Iago makes derogatory remarks about him, complaining of his bombast, his bragging, his lies and his lasciviousness, in soliloquy and even in dialogue he reveals that the Moor is a great and valiant soldier and that, although he hates him, he has a ‘constant, loving, noble nature’,

                                        a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.

It is surely difficult to argue that everyone in the play is mistaken about the Moor and that in defiance of their estimate of his character we must accept the diagnosis of two or three modern critics that he is a self-deceiving egotist, bombastic and naturally jealous. Even Iago knew better than that. He knew that Othello's fatal flaw was his credulity, which enabled him to be led by the nose. Like Chapman's hero,16

He would believe, since he would be believed:
Your noblest natures are most credulous.

We are liable at times to agree with Iago that Othello is ‘egregiously an ass’ for believing his wife has played him false on the slender evidence provided—the story of Cassio's dream and the handkerchief in the hands of a harlot. Even in the theatre we may be tempted to sympathise with the spectator who is said to have shouted out during the temptation scene ‘You black fool, can't you see?’ Certainly when Emilia after the murder of Desdemona exclaims

                              O gull! O dolt!
As ignorant as dirt!

she expresses the feelings of the audience at this moment of the play. But credulous as Othello is, we do not ultimately regard him as stupid. We are prevented from doing so by the fact that Iago imposes on everyone, and particularly by the convincing nature of the temptation scene in the theatre. The epithet applied to Iago until just before the end is ‘honest’. Roderigo is convinced that the Ancient is devoted to his interests; Cassio believes him to be his friend; even Emilia, who knows him best, does not suspect that he hates Othello and Cassio. We are told by Milton, after Satan has slipped into paradise unrecognised by the angelic sentry, that Hypocrisy is

                                        the onely evil that walks
Invisible, except to God alone.(17)

Shakespeare seems to have shared Milton's opinion on this matter, as we can see from his obsessional treatment of the theme of seeming.

The Leavis view that Iago ‘is not much more than a necessary piece of dramatic mechanism’18 may be a necessary retort to those who exaggerate his intellectual superiority; and it may be true, in a certain sense, ‘that he represents something that is in Othello’.19 But this kind of emphasis immeasurably impoverishes the metaphysical content of the play. It is difficult not to accept S. L. Bethell's view that Shakespeare introduced sixty-four ‘diabolic’ images into the play to show ‘Othello and Iago as exemplifying and participating, in the age-long warfare of Good and Evil’.20 Iago, who refers to hell and damnation eight times in the course of the first act, brings it to an end with the hatching of his plot:

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

The second act ends with Iago considering his satanic theology—the divinity of hell—and identifying himself as a devil.

When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows
As I do now.

He boasts that he is going to make out of Desdemona's goodness a net to enmesh her, Othello and Cassio. In the last act Othello attacks Iago with the words

If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

A little later he calls him a demi-devil. These references—they are not, properly speaking, images—cannot be brushed aside as peripheral. Those critics who see Iago as a descendant of the Vice of the Moralities can point to a number of characteristics they have in common; but he resembles more closely the traditional stage devil. On one level, therefore, the play can be seen as the temptation of a good man by a devil to commit mortal sin.

This fits in with Coleridge's belief that Iago's soliloquies show ‘the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity’ if not with Hazlitt's brilliant analysis of the character:21

Some persons, more nice than wise, have thought this whole character unnatural, because his villainy is without a sufficient motive. Shakespeare, who was as good a philosopher as he was a poet, thought otherwise. He knew that the love of power, which is another name for the love of mischief, is natural to man … Iago in fact belongs to a class of character, common to Shakespeare and at the same time peculiar to him; whose heads are as acute and active as their hearts are hard and callous. Iago is to be sure an extreme instance of the kind; that is to say, of diseased intellectual activity, with the most perfect indifference to moral good or evil, or rather with a decided preference for the latter, because it falls more readily in with his favourite propensity, gives greater zest to his thoughts and scope to his actions. He is quite or nearly as indifferent to his own fate as to that of others; he runs all risks for a trifling and doubtful advantage; and is himself the dupe and victim of his ruling passion—an insatiable craving after action of the most difficult and dangerous kind. … [He] plots the ruin of his friends as an exercise for his ingenuity, and stabs men in the dark to prevent ennui. His gaiety, such as it is, arises from the success of his treachery; his ease from the torture he has inflicted on others. He is an amateur of tragedy in real life; and instead of employing his invention on imaginary characters, or long-forgotten incidents, he takes the bolder and more desperate course of getting up his plot at home, casts the principal parts among his nearest friends and connections, and rehearses it in downright earnest, with steady nerves and unabated resolution.

There are some details about this analysis which are questionable. It can hardly be maintained that Othello and Cassio are Iago's ‘friends’; there is no mention of his hatred of the Moor; and Hazlitt substitutes the love of power for the divinity of hell. The passage is perhaps intended as an answer to Coleridge for Hazlitt regards the love of power as a sufficient motive for Iago's actions. But it may be observed that he ignores all Iago's avowed motives.

Hazlitt's description of Iago as an amateur of tragedy in real life was taken up by Swinburne who called him ‘a contriving artist in real life’;22 by Bradley, who pointed out a ‘curious analogy between the early stages of dramatic composition’ and the soliloquies in which Iago conceives his plot;23 and by Granville-Barker who argued that the Ancient was endowed with the intuition of the artist and that he loved evil for its own sake, ‘pursued with the artist's unscrupulous passion’,24 but that he was an actor rather than a dramatist. It is certainly true that in creating the character Shakespeare was able to make use of his personal knowledge of the psychology of an actor-dramatist, though it looks as though Granville-Barker were influenced by Shaw's eloquent statement on the unscrupulousness of the artist, expressed through the mouth of Jack Tanner.

Coleridge's view of Iago's motivelessness was also taken up by Charles Lamb in his account of Bensley in the part, in which he also stresses the impenetrability of hypocrisy:25

No spectator, from his action, could divine more of his artifice than Othello was supposed to do. His confessions in soliloquy alone put you in possession of the mystery. There were no by-intimations to make the audience fancy their own discernment so much greater than that of the Moor. The Iago of Bensley did not go to work so grossly. There was a triumphant tone about the character, natural to a general consciousness of power; but none of that petty vanity which chuckles and cannot contain itself upon any little successful stroke of its knavery—as is common with your small villains, and green probationers in mischief. It did not clap or crow before its time. It was not a man setting his wits at a child, and winking all the while at other children, who are mightily pleased at being let into the secret; but a consummate villain entrapping a noble nature into toils against which no discernment was available, where the manner was as fathomless as the purpose seemed dark, and without motive.

Booth similarly advised any actor playing Iago to try to impress even the audience with his sincerity. ‘Iago should appear to be what all but the audience believe he is.’26 Bensley and Booth were surely right because an obvious villain would lower one's opinion of Othello's intelligence and the play is much more serious than it would be if played as a melodramatic villain entrapping a credulous fool.

The last two words of Lamb's remarks have been accepted by most critics as true and the view was powerfully restated by Lytton Strachey.27 Shakespeare, he declared,

determined that Iago should have no motive at all. He conceived of a monster, whose wickedness should lie far deeper than anything that could be explained by a motive—the very essence of whose being should express itself in the machinations of malignity … and, when the moment of revelation came, the horror that burst upon the hero would be as inexplicably awful as evil itself.

From what was said above, it will be apparent that the Satanic Iago who hates good simply because it is good is one level on which the character must be interpreted; and, on a lower level, he can be regarded, as Stoll continually argued, as a stage villain. But an exclusive emphasis on these two sides of Iago's role ignores or distorts the significance of the motives the villain himself puts forward for his plot against the Moor, and to these we must now devote some attention.

Cinthio's villain has a single, uncomplicated motive. His love for Desdemona is turned into the bitterest hatred by his lack of success and he blames the Captain for it. His plot is directed mainly against Desdemona and his hatred of the Captain is caused by sexual jealousy, not by professional envy. Shakespeare apparently discards this motive, except for the very curious confession in one of Iago's soliloquies:

                              Now, I do love her too;
Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin—
But partly led to diet my revenge.


He wishes to feed his revenge, seducing Desdemona partly to spite Othello, and partly (one supposes) for a more direct sensual pleasure. This is the first we have heard of Iago's ‘love’, but it is possible that these lines throw a retrospective light on earlier scenes. In the first scene of the play, it might be argued, Iago is surprised and upset by Othello's marriage, not merely because he is in danger of losing Roderigo's subsidies, but because he is envious of Othello's good fortune. The vivid language he uses to inflame Brabantio's anger—the black ram, the barbary horse, the beast with two backs—may also reflect sexual envy and racial prejudice. In Act II, when Cassio is talking with Desdemona, Iago's envy is even more apparent:

Ay, smile upon her, do. I will gyve thee in thine own courtship … Very good: well kissed … Yet again your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster-pipes for your sake!


In the scene on the same evening after Othello and Desdemona have retired to bed, there is an obvious contrast between Cassio's respect for Desdemona and Iago's insinuations:

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


But although the motive of the source may exist as a residue in Shakespeare's tragedy, colouring Iago's thoughts, it is plainly not the main motive for his actions. In the opening scene of the play Iago tells Roderigo that he hates Othello for promoting Cassio over his head, despite his long service and the intervention of ‘three great ones of the city’. He complains of the way promotion is obtained by influence, although he had been pulling strings himself. We need not suppose that Iago is necessarily telling the truth to Roderigo, and there is no reason to believe that he is telling the whole truth. He has merely to convince Roderigo that he hates Othello by giving a plausible reason. It may be argued that in the opening scene of a play it is important not to mislead the audience and that therefore we should accept what Iago says as true. But we can deduce that he is a malcontent and that he hates Othello, without necessarily supposing that we know precisely why; and when in the second scene we find that Othello is quite different from the picture we have been given and observe Iago carrying out his policy of deceit, we are bound to revise our opinions. An arch-hypocrite who, on his own confession, is animated entirely by self-interest, cannot long deceive the audience. The Moor's commendation of him in the third scene as a man of honesty and trust already appears as a stroke of irony. But it is not until the end of the act that Iago, after promising Roderigo that he shall enjoy Desdemona, is allowed to soliloquise. We must doubt everything Iago says to every other person in the play since we know that he is manipulating them all; but we ought to accept everything he says in soliloquy, since he has no reason to lie to himself. This first soliloquy, therefore, tells the audience what has been passing through his mind during the first act of the play: that he is using Roderigo as his purse; that he hates Othello; and that he covets Cassio's job. The precise words he uses are significant:

                                        I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
He's done my office. I know not if't be true
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well:
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio's a proper man: let me see now;
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery. How? How? Let's see.
After some time, to abuse Othello's ear
That he is too familiar with his wife;
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.


Several things emerge from this speech. As critics have noted, Iago does not say he hates the Moor, because it is thought he has been cuckolded by him. The conjunction And, as Bernard Spivack has said, represents28 ‘the seam between the drama of allegory and the drama of nature’. In other words the evil Iago hates Othello precisely because he is good; but since Shakespeare was writing for a secular audience and dramatising an almost contemporary story he provides Iago with a plausible psychological motive, not so much the fear that Emilia has been unfaithful as the fear that other people think she has. Since Coleridge's day this has generally been dismissed as motive-hunting: Iago, evil as he is, has to look for an excuse for his conduct. There have been a few critics, however, who have gone to the other extreme, and assumed that Iago was justified in his suspicions. D. J. Snider declared that ‘the family of Iago has been ruined by Othello; now Iago, in his turn, will ruin the family of the destroyer of his domestic life’;29 and Tannenbaum in an article entitled ‘The wronged Iago’ made30 the same point, arguing that there is nothing improbable in the supposition that Othello had seduced Emilia who is ‘depicted as a lewd and filthy-speaking harlot’. His proof of Emilia's adultery is based on total misunderstanding of a crucial passage in the ‘brothel’ scene. He thinks that ‘This is a subtle whore’ refers to Emilia and that the fact that he had ‘seen her kneel and pray’ was proof of his intimacy. In fact Othello had referred to Emilia as a bawd in the previous line, but it is Desdemona he calls whore. Why Mr Tannenbaum imagines that seeing a woman at her prayers is a proof that he has been to bed with her is not easy to understand.

It is not, then, suggested that Iago had any grounds for his suspicions; but Shakespeare makes it clear to us that these suspicions were not fabricated on the spur of the moment to excuse his villainy by making Emilia refer to them in a later scene:

                              Some such squire he was
That turned your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.


The argument that, if Iago really suspected his wife, he would have mentioned it before, is flimsy. Since he is afraid of being an object of ridicule it was not a matter on which he could speak to anyone, much less to Roderigo. Injured merit, according to the way of the world, is a more respectable, and less ludicrous, grievance. As Snider rightly says, ‘the true motive for Iago's hate is given … nowhere in his conversation with others, since he would not be likely to announce his own shame, or herald his self-degrading suspicions’.31

Iago's desire to get Cassio's place, to which he also refers in this soliloquy, links up with the resentment he mentions to Roderigo. But it is not unreasonable to suggest that Cassio's promotion rankled so much because of his sexual fears of Othello and (as we hear later) of Cassio. The ‘double knavery’ of which he speaks is to revenge himself on both his enemies at once by making one jealous of the other.

In the first scene in Cyprus, Booth when he played the part of Iago winced when Cassio kisses Emilia;32 and this prepares the way for the soliloquy at the end of the scene in which Iago confesses that he fears Cassio with his nightcap too. But the same soliloquy reveals his perverted love for Desdemona and underlines his suspicion of Othello, that

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


The image of the poisonous mineral is difficult to brush aside as motive-hunting. As Kittredge said,33 Iago's jealousy is ‘a raging torment’; and if he cannot revenge himself by seducing Desdemona, which he must realise is impossible, he is determined to make Othello suffer from the torments of jealousy, the green-eyed monster he knows from personal experience. He does not at this stage foresee the consequences of his plot, that he will himself be exposed unless Desdemona, Cassio and Roderigo are all killed.

In the last scene of the play Othello, who cannot bring himself to address Iago directly, asks Cassio or Lodovico:

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

Iago replies:

Demand me nothing; what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.

He has already confessed his deeds, but he refuses to say anything about his motives. Some critics believe that the motives he has produced during the course of the play are mere rationalisations in which he doesn't himself believe and that he can hardly say that he has acted from an irrational hatred of Othello, or that, being evil, he hates good and wishes to do evil. But if, as we have suggested, the motives are real, then it is easy to see why even after his fall Iago should not wish to confess himself an object of ridicule, a cuckold.

This argument—that Iago was the jealous man of the play—depends on the assumption that his soliloquies reveal his thoughts, but that we ought not to accept as true anything he tells other people. His soliloquies are, in fact, displaced asides. Just as Hamlet's soliloquies in the first two acts tell us what has been passing through his mind during the immediately preceding scenes, so Iago's soliloquies, though longer delayed, remove the mask for a moment or two. Novelists sometimes employ a similar device. In The Portrait of a Lady we are kept in the dark about the failure of Isabel's marriage until the chapter, of which James was justifiably proud, in which we are let into the secret of what Isabel has been thinking.34

Iago's refusal to speak leaves the audience feeling that there is something left unexplained and mysterious—that he represents the mystery of iniquity. So many motives have been mentioned that we don't know which is the dominant one: his hatred of Othello which precedes any real cause, the promotion of Cassio and the desire to get his place, thwarted love of Desdemona, racial prejudice, sexual jealousy of Othello and Cassio, his fear that Roderigo will stop supplying him with money. There is one other motive which has not yet been mentioned. When Iago is discussing the advantages of getting Roderigo to attack Cassio, he shows that if Roderigo survives he will demand the restitution of his gold and jewels; and

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


This may refer to Cassio's relative handsomeness, for Iago, unlike Cinthio's villain, is not spoken of as handsome; or it may rather refer to the fact that Cassio, in spite of getting drunk and having a mistress, is morally superior to Iago. Iago wishes to plume up his will in double knavery because he is as much aware of his moral inferiority as of his cleverness.

Lily B. Campbell has rightly said35 that with Iago ‘jealousy is but one phase of envy’ and the multifarious motives for his actions are all branches of the same attitude. It is natural for him to envy Othello's success with Desdemona, to resent Cassio's promotion, and to suspect all men of sleeping with his wife. Bacon's description of envy might almost be an analysis of Iago's character:36

There be none of the Affections, which have been noted to fascinate, or bewitch, but Love, and Envy. They both have vehement wishes; They frame themselves readily into Imaginations, and Suggestions; … A man, that hath no vertue in himselfe, ever envieth Vertue in others. For Mens Mindes will either feed upon their owne Good, or upon others Evill; And who wanteth the one, will prey upon the other; And who so is out of Hope to attaine to anothers Vertue, will seeke to come at even hand, by Depressing anothers Fortune. … It is also the vilest Affection, and the most depraved; For which cause, it is the proper Attribute of the Devill, who is called; The Envious Man, that soweth tares amongst the wheat by night. As it always commeth to passe, that Envy worketh subtilly, and in the darke; And to the prejudice of good things, such as is the Wheat.

It may have been the association of envy with the Devil that led Shakespeare to stress Iago's diabolic nature.

The interpretation of the play which has been outlined above is supported by two other considerations. Just as in Hamlet there are, as we have seen, a number of contrasted avengers, so in Othello there are a number of different kinds of jealousy. Bianca is jealous of her supposed rival in Cassio's affections; Roderigo, the ‘gulled gentleman’, begins as an absurd but honourable lover, and under the influence of jealousy ends as a potential murderer; and, as we have seen, both the villain and the hero are jealous.

The other consideration concerns the imagery. Every critic who has analysed the imagery of the play has been struck by the way it is used to differentiate character.37 Iago's trade of war is a vocation to Othello; his prosaic images of seamanship are contrasted with Othello's romantic ones; his images from money are contrasted with Othello's pearl and crysolite. But what is more significant is the way Iago's hold over Othello's mind is shown by the transfer from villain to hero both of the diabolic images and also of the repellant animal images. There could not be a more effective way of showing that Iago infects Othello with his own jealousy.

Another group of images is concerned with magic and witchcraft, many of them relating to Brabantio's charge that Desdemona had been bewitched. But the most impressive use of the theme of magic is contained in the scene in which Othello demands to see the lost handkerchief:

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


The handkerchief, of course, symbolises love; but the magic in the web of it, in which Othello believes wholly and Desdemona partially, suggests that Othello's christianity has not entirely eradicated a residue of superstition and that it symbolises too the fate that makes and destroys his marriage. The magic in the web leads Desdemona into her fearful and foolish lie which Othello takes as a proof of her guilt.

Some critics have also found her guilty, not of adultery but of misbehaviour. Professor Bonnard argued38 that the original audience would have regarded her elopement as a crime and that all their sympathies would have been with her father. John Adams thought she was ‘coarse and unnatural in her tastes, bold and undutiful in her elopement, and obviously destined to come to grief through her marriage’. Professor Allardyce Nicoll argued39 that ‘she is introduced to us as practising deceit’; she lies about the handkerchief; and she ends her life on a lie, when she tells Emilia that she has killed herself:

It is a pitiful lie; but all our pity for her should not blind us to the fact that this is entirely characteristic of her—her lack of self-respect, her tendency towards concealing of truth by prevarication.

But, of course, the lie demonstrates her love and loyalty more effectively than the truth could have done. Shakespeare cannot have meant us to agree with Othello that ‘like a liar’ she had ‘gone to burning hell’ for it is a lie that shakes his belief in her guilt.

Not that she is entirely faultless. She intervenes unwisely on Cassio's behalf and her threat to importune Othello, though a natural result of her innocence and generosity, as Iago calculates, is nevertheless a tactless intrusion into affairs which do not properly concern her. Although Iago hints to Roderigo and even to Othello that her sexual tastes are perverted, he admits in soliloquy that the success of his plot depends on her innocence and goodness.

Rymer complained40 that the play violated our sense of poetic justice, with the innocent Desdemona murdered, Brabantio dying of a broken heart, Cassio maimed, and Othello slaying himself after he has been degraded to Iago's level. Better critics than Rymer have expressed a vague disquiet. Bradley thought the play produced feelings of oppression, and Granville-Barker was equally distressed by it.41 To Rymer's indignant question, ‘If this be our end, what boots it to be virtuous?’ we can retort that no philosophy or religion is able to protect us from disaster. To those critics who imagine that Othello is brought down to Iago's level, we can point to his recovery just before the end, and (as has been said) ‘the ultimate defeat of Iago’. Those who regard a claustrophobic domestic tragedy as necessarily on a lower level than King Lear or Macbeth may be reminded that to Tolstoy ‘the tragedy of the bedroom’ is the most dreadful tragedy that can befall man; that the Turkish danger, reminding a Jacobean audience of Lepanto,42 would make them think of Othello as the champion of Christendom; that as Landor said,43 ‘Othello was loftier than the citadel of Troy; and what a Paradise fell before him!’; and that the age-long struggle between good and evil cannot be said to lack a metaphysical dimension.

It has been argued that the play is flawed for us—as many tragedies of the Golden Age of Spanish drama are flawed—by conceptions of honour which we have outgrown. But it is possible that when Shakespeare makes Othello call himself, with bitter irony, ‘an honourable murderer’, he was criticising ‘the aberrations of an accepted code’.44

In one respect Dr Leavis is right. Othello is betrayed by what is false within, projected into the figure of the villain. For Iago is the intellect divorced from the imagination, the acid which eats away love and trust. So we do not merely watch a perfect marriage destroyed by a demi-devil; we watch our ‘own divided heart’.


  1. cf. M. C. Bradbrook's article in A New Companion to Shakespeare Studies (1971).

  2. Table Talk, 29 December 1822.

  3. op. cit., p. 186.

  4. C. Stanislavsky, Stanislavsky Produces ‘Othello’ (1948).

  5. Cited E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare, II.233.

  6. E. E. Stoll, Othello (1915).

  7. ibid., pp. 21-3.

  8. cf. John Holloway, The Story of the Night (1962), pp. 155ff.

  9. Selected Essays (1932), p. 126.

  10. The Common Pursuit (1962), p. 142.

  11. The Wheel of Fire (1949).

  12. The Common Pursuit, p. 145.

  13. Character and Characterisation in Shakespeare (1962), p. 150.

  14. Leavis, op. cit., p. 138.

  15. Othello's Countrymen (1965).

  16. The Revenge of Bussy D'Ambois, IV.iii.80-1. Cited by Wyndham Lewis, The Lion and the Fox (1927).

  17. Paradise Lost, III.682-3.

  18. F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, p. 138.

  19. ibid., p. 141.

  20. Shakespeare Survey 5 (1952), pp. 62-80.

  21. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (1906), p. 41.

  22. A Study of Shakespeare (1918), p. 178.

  23. op. cit., p. 231.

  24. Prefaces, II.104.

  25. Essays of Elia (1901), p. 185.

  26. Quoted in New Variorum edition.

  27. Characters and Commentaries (1935), pp. 295-6.

  28. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (1958), p. 448. cf. J. Lawlor, The Tragic Sense in Shakespeare (1960), p. 98.

  29. D. J. Snider, System of Shakespeare's Dramas (1877).

  30. ‘The Wronged Iago’, Shakespeare Association Bulletin (January 1937).

  31. Snider, op. cit.

  32. Cited in New Variorum edition.

  33. Sixteen Plays of Shakespeare (1946), p. 217.

  34. Chapter XLII.

  35. Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes (1961), pp. 148ff.

  36. Essays (1897), p. 25.

  37. See W. H. Clemen, The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (1951), ch. 13.

  38. G. Bonnard, English Studies (1949), pp. 175-86.

  39. Studies in Shakespeare (1927).

  40. Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1693).

  41. Bradley, op. cit., p. 180; Granville-Barker, Prefaces, II.

  42. See Shakespeare Survey 21, p. 47.

  43. Imaginary Conversations (1891), IV.52.

  44. E. M. Wilson in The Listener (1952), p. 926.


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Jealousy, famously described as “the green-eyed monster” in the tragedy Othello, has proven to be a theme of perennial interest among Shakespearean scholars. Although commentators acknowledge that jealousy is a contributing element in Shakespeare's characterization of such figures as Richard III and Macbeth, criticism on this theme focuses primarily on two plays: Othello and The Winter's Tale. Uncontrolled sexual jealousy and its tragic consequences are generally viewed as the central thematic concern of the former play, in which both the drama's protagonist, the Moorish general Othello, and his manipulative subordinate Iago are thought to embody jealousy in its most obsessive and superlative dimensions. Sexual jealousy also plays an integral role in the plot of The Winter's Tale. In the romance, jealousy afflicts King Leontes of Sicily, whose unfounded assumption of his wife's infidelity with his childhood friend and fellow monarch Polixenes leads to near disaster and the loss of Leontes's wife and daughter for sixteen years. Outlining some of the major concerns of contemporary critics on the subject of jealousy in Shakespeare's dramas, Katharine Eisaman Maus (1987) surveys the close connection between male sexual jealousy, as it is depicted in Renaissance literature, and issues of gender, marginality, exclusion, and spectatorship. Derek Cohen (1987) explores similar themes in both Othello and The Winter's Tale, specifically regarding the destructive link between patriarchy and male sexual anxiety exhibited by Othello and Leontes, who both abuse their virtuous and honorable wives.

Perhaps no other Shakespearean drama is so dominated by the theme of jealousy as the tragedy of Othello. While a number of other issues are explored in the drama, few commentators deny its detailed, subtle, and varied preoccupation with this motif. Kenneth Muir (1972) concentrates on the figures of Othello and Iago, considering their differing connections to the theme of jealousy. The relationship between Othello and Iago is the topic of Ruth M. Levitsky's essay (1974), in which she contrasts Iago's suspicious, Machiavellian, and ultimately jealous personality with Othello's credulity and Desdemona's virtue. Actor David Suchet, who played the role of Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985, suggests in his 1988 essay that this character's somewhat obscure motivation to do evil originates in his envious reactions to the other principal figures of the play. Feminist theory and psychoanalysis inform Edward A. Snow's (1980) study of Othello's sexual anxiety and jealousy. Snow contends that a male-dominated social order conditions Othello's uncontrolled emotions of guilt and desire, feelings that become manifest in his violent and jealous rage toward his wife. Michael W. Shurgot (1992) articulates a similar view by focusing on the striking imagery of Othello's possessive, objectifying, and grotesque verbal references to Desdemona. Millicent Bell (see Further Reading) offers an alternative interpretation of jealousy in Othello. Acknowledging that sexual jealousy is the principal subject of the drama, Bell nevertheless contends that it is actually a device Shakespeare employed to emphasize an epistemological theme associated with Othello's paradoxical reliance on and distrust of appearances.

Critical interest in the figure of King Leontes of The Winter's Tale has principally focused on his sudden, seemingly unjustified fit of sexual jealousy. Suspecting his wife Hermione of marital infidelity with his friend Polixenes, Leontes assumes he has been cuckolded and subsequently denies the legitimacy of his daughter based on little or no readily observable evidence. Twentieth-century debate over whether or not Leontes's jealousy is properly motivated remains one of play’s central areas of controversy, and a number of contemporary scholars offer explanations for the king's strange, somewhat implausible behavior. Representing a minority opinion, Norman Nathan (1968) maintains that Leontes's swift attack of jealousy may have been provoked by his perception of sexual innuendo in the banter between Hermione and Polixenes. Most contemporary commentators, however, have generally categorized Leontes's jealousy as a kind of temporary madness. Murray M. Schwartz (1973) contends that Shakespeare's text offers no significant external cause for jealousy, but that a psychoanalytic understanding of Leontes's paranoid and delusional behavior over the course of The Winter's Tale suggests an overall dramatic consistency. J. P. Thorne (see Further Reading) finds additional support for this point of view in the peculiar, ungrammatical stylistic syntax of the Sicilian king's speeches in the first act of the drama. Richard H. Abrams (1986) also favors an explanation that ties Leontes's jealousy to his abandonment of reason, which is later recovered in his reconciliation with Hermione and his daughter Perdita at the end of the play.

Derek Cohen (essay date September 1987)

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SOURCE: Cohen, Derek. “Patriarchy and Jealousy in Othello and The Winter's Tale.Modern Language Quarterly 48, no. 3 (September 1987): 207-23.

[In the following essay, Cohen compares the jealousy of Othello with that of King Leontes of The Winter's Tale, examining their fantasies of wifely infidelity and their need to regain social control and status through murderous sacrifice.]

By accusing their wives of sexual infidelity, Othello and Leontes give themselves a desperately needed motive for expressing in words what they both love and fear—the image of their wives making love to other men. They transform sexual agony into an instrument of passionate blame in a kind of narcissistic adventure that enforces a transcendence of their known selves by actualizing a secret fear. They then transform the imagined sexual infidelity of their wives into a fear of chaos. Because patriarchal social formations invest female sexual fidelity with the responsibility for familial stability, Othello and Leontes comprehend chaos in gendered terms that fortify the ties between misogyny and patriarchy. Kathleen McLuskie has argued that patriarchy, the institution of male power in the family and the state, sees itself “as the only form of social organization strong enough to hold chaos at bay.”1 The patriarchal power structure, however, supports only the illusion that men possess its security: the examples of Othello and Leontes demonstrate that in a patriarchy the fidelity of wives is the major prop and condition of social order.

The other man in each case is a potential threat to the sexual security and social status of the hero, a threat that is made more real by his being endowed with virtues well known to the hero's wife. Both Cassio and Polixenes possess known and demonstrable sex appeal that makes them appropriate figures in the fantasies of the jealous husbands. Those fantasies are made more vivid by the fact that Othello and Leontes identify with and have admired their counterparts. This identification is not accidental. Edward A. Snow has strongly made the point that “Iago's plan is to get Othello to imagine Cassio in his (Othello's) place.” And he notes that the plan “is abetted by the language of a hierarchical, status-conscious society that thinks more in terms of positions than of the persons who temporarily occupy them: ‘Although 'tis fit that Cassio have his place—/ For sure he fills it up with great ability’ (III.iii.246-47).”2 Leontes imagines his wife's infidelity all by himself, without the help of an Iago. His fantasy, nevertheless, is rooted in an impulse to passionate romanticizing of love relationships through the intersecting agency of memory/language and desire. René Girard reminds us that jealousy occurs

when a second desire focuses on the object the jealous individual feels should be desired by no one but himself, because he was first on the stage, he was the first to desire that object. Any desire interfering with his desire, he regards as illegitimate.3

Leontes is a case in point. He encourages Hermione to persuade Polixenes to stay through the use of—what else?—her womanly arts. Her success, paradoxically, is her undoing. The proof of her ability confirms his misogyny, which is exacerbated by a homoerotic memory that is shared by the two men and given voice by Polixenes: “We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun” (I.i.67).4 This innocent youthful male friendship, juxtaposed with Leontes' memory of Hermione's three “crabbed months” (I.i.102) of resistance to his wooing, indicates her relative impurity.

The heroes' suspicions regarding the impurity of their wives are confirmed by the terrified recognition of the women's sexual desirability—real or imagined—to others. In his discussion of the discovery of the subjective, Stanley Cavell says that fright

remains the basis of the knowledge of the existence of others; only now we no longer interpret the threat as a function of the other's bulk or body. We seem left with the other's sheer otherness, the fact that he, too, is an I, hence can name and know us.5

The other in these two dramatic situations is a well-known and trusted friend, the image of whose body is substituted by the hero for his image of himself.6 The relationship between these imagined selves takes the form of a transference of known feeling—emotional and physical—to an unexperienced or unknown idea of another. That is, Leontes and Othello are impelled to imagine Polixenes and Cassio in postures in which they have not known them, but in which they can imagine them because of their own sexual experience with their wives. The transference becomes an erotic fusion of the images of self and other. Thus the limited idea of self is extended not so much by self-debasement—a moralistic notion that suggests a narrowing of those limits—but rather by a prizing open of the mind through articulated erotic detail. Erotic detail is used in these narratives as a way out of confusion. Inchoate sexual passion is delineated by a plethora of precisely imagined details.

In describing their feelings, Othello and Leontes tend toward the diminutive. We generally associate precision with the minuscule, and Othello's toad in “the vapor of a dungeon” (III.iii.271) and Leontes' spider in a cup (II.i.39-40), for example, may be seen as details meant to define feelings precisely rather than as symbols of debasement. The relation of the human self to that which is small implies an ability to control and contain the object of the relation. Othello's and Leontes' images may provoke disgust or fear, but their relative smallness allows the heroes to contemplate them without any fundamental sense of danger. Furthermore, the relation of the observer to the smaller object seems to conform to notions of a hierarchical and patriarchal political structure from which the conceptions issue. The impulse toward control implied by the images encapsulates in a deliberately disgusting or disgusted manner the power relationship that prevails between the men and women of the plays.

As sexual jealousy grows, it changes form as it changes the mind of the man suffering from it. In each play there is a clear process by which, over time, the characters reveal the development of this feeling. In each play there comes a dynamic moment at which the protagonist suddenly thinks he knows with dreadful certainty that his wife has betrayed him sexually. From this moment, until the equally dynamic discovery of his wife's innocence, the certainty of betrayal charges his life. The first discovery in Othello is slow in coming, and the audience must watch the hero's gradual entrapment by Iago. Leontes, on the other hand, takes the audience entirely by surprise. In a sudden outburst to himself, he reveals that he is sure of his wife's infidelity and that all is wrecked in his life.

In Othello, certainty is signaled by the lines, “She's gone. I am abus'd, and my relief / Must be to loathe her” (III.iii.267-68). The sentence comes in the middle of a speech that begins in doubt and ends in the assertion of Desdemona's infidelity. The nature of Othello's doubt explains his susceptibility which, once articulated, becomes a means toward his confirmation of the essential reasonableness of Desdemona's betrayal. In his explanation to himself of her unfaithfulness, Othello acknowledges his wife's superior judgment. He declares himself to be, at least on a social and sexual level, an unfit husband: “Haply, for I am black, / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have, or for I am declin'd / Into the vale of years” (III.iii.263-66). The argument implicit in these lines is that she has found him out, that her clearer judgment has triumphed. Thus the struggle in his mind is between his knowledge of his unworthiness and his passion for Desdemona. In discussing the contradictory bases of Othello's jealousy, Cavell describes the “structure of his emotion as he is hauled back and forth across the keel of his love” (p. 484). We might note in the speech above the opposing characterizations of his wife and himself. Desdemona is a wild hawk, a haggard, free and flying above; Othello is lower than a toad: “I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapor of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love …” (III.iii.270-72). Although the self-image Othello expresses in these lines is at terrific odds with the self-perceptions he offers in public, as when he proclaims his own greatness, the image's spontaneity argues that it is closer to his true view of himself. His public claims, sometimes described as Othello's “real self,”7 reflect, however, the unreal and uncertain fictional public self. The senate speech is a tour de force of heroic narrative, but it has little to do with the self Othello seems really to believe in. His “loss of himself” arises, as Stephen Greenblatt has put it, from “his submission to narrative self-fashioning.”8 The spontaneous and private expressions that reflect that loss and that are “depicted discursively in his incoherent ravings” (p. 244) possess greater conviction: the man who sees and knows himself as old, black, and a stranger, not really capable of winning the love of the beautiful Venetian virgin, is the man Othello formulates from his conflicting, intrasubversive selves.

For Leontes, the certainty of his wife's infidelity comes with a dynamic suddenness, catching the audience and, more decidedly, the reader, unawares. In an explosive aside he shows his rage and exposes his motive:

                                                                                                    Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me; my heart dances,
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; 't may—I grant.
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practic'd smiles,
As in a looking-glass; and then to sigh, as 'twere
The mort o' th' deer—O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows!


The “tremor cordis” is a brilliant dramatic stroke: it identifies with wonderful specificity Leontes' feelings by lending a clinical name to sensation. The feeling is conveyed by the broken, hard-breathed syntax that follows: “my heart dances, / But not for joy; not joy.” Whereas Othello develops his feelings through a rational process, a careful working out of the reasons for what he senses to be true, for Leontes, feeling is paramount, reason pursuant. Othello takes his cue from his otherness, his social marginality; Leontes is inspired by purely erotic sensation brought on by a kind of visionary voyeurism. Having instructed his wife to play her role as wife and woman (i.e., obedient to his wish and seductive of his friend), he becomes stricken by her success. Carol Thomas Neely has observed that as Leontes speaks, malice erupts “from beneath the surface of the style; passion does not merely overthrow reason but corrupts it and is incited by it. Leontes' jealousy springs from a pre-rational, pre-linguistic state of consciousness, characterized by its ‘indeterminacy.’”9 He sends Hermione from him to win his friend by the use of her female art and steps away from them to watch her prowess. But he steps away too far and in doing so places between himself and his wife a chasm of jealousy. The speech is intensely self-centered, its content the self-torturing details of pseudoforensic evidence. Its tension comes from the heavy weight of details that stifle the abstractions of friendship and “not joy.” The details that drive Leontes further into himself are human, personal, precise, and, in a sense, inarguable; they are the tangible facts: heart, face, palms, fingers, smiles, bosom, brows.

Like Othello, Leontes here is seen wrestling with an idea. He is caught by a compulsive need to interpret what he sees, to decode the evidence of his eyes into terrible visions the details make real. Leontes actually sees physical contact between Hermione and and Polixenes, a sight that makes the image of sexual contact a near leap. Howard Felperin has proposed the radical and deliberately unretractable notion that “Leontes' jealous and destructive passion is not quite so flimsy and fanciful, so unfounded and ‘out of the blue’ as is often casually assumed.” He adds that “it is impossible to ascertain just what basis there is for Leontes' jealousy. … We see enough to know it has some basis, but not enough to say how much.”10 Othello, on the other hand, relies only on Iago for evidence. Iago's most brilliantly successful stroke is to postulate Desdemona's infidelity with vivid precision:

                    With her?
                                                  With her? On her; what you will.


That slight but devastating substitution of prepositions gives immediate form to the euphemism. The idea becomes a fact. Othello probably has lain on top of Desdemona;11 he knows what it is like. And his mind is made to see Cassio in the same position. Arthur Kirsch argues: “What has clearly become insupportable for Othello in this scene is the fulsomeness of his own sexual instincts and, as his verbal and physical decomposition suggests, his jealous rage against Cassio is ultimately a rage against himself which reaches back to the elemental and destructive triadic fantasies which at one stage in childhood govern the mind of every human being.”12

The shock that follows the discovery of female infidelity stems from a cultural form that contrasts with those cultures in which the height of masculine hospitality is sharing one's wife with a male friend. The response, in each instance, however much a “learned” one, lies deep in the traditions of each culture and provokes what seem to be powerful “natural” instincts. However, as Snow has said, “The underlying male fear is thralldom to the demands of an unsatisfiable sexual appetite in woman. It is crucial to realize, however, that the threat appears not when something intrinsically evil emerges in Desdemona's will, but when the conventional boundaries of marriage close in upon it” (p. 407). In both cultures the male response is prompted by possessiveness. The jealous language of Othello and Leontes reverberates with the phrase “my wife”—significant in its juxtaposition of personal pronoun with generalized noun. The perceptions of Desdemona and Hermione in their typical roles, and the selves of Othello and Leontes in their individual, strike at the core of the dilemma of jealousy. The treacherous woman has betrayed her function in betraying me. Othello, far less than Leontes, is guilty of overwhelming his wife through the ideological agency of stereotyping. His greatest distress derives from the compulsive equation of Desdemona's function as wife with her individuality as Desdemona. Leontes, somewhat more solipsistically than Othello, concentrates his jealous rages upon the damage done to himself by Hermione's female, wifely act of sexual treachery: “I have drunk, and seen the spider” (II.i.45; my italics).

King-Kok Cheung has written about the Kierkegaardian notion of dread as an act of recognition of the terrifying imagination of the unimaginable.13 The act both seduces and frightens the actor, speaking as it does to a desire that society and ethics have declared to be appalling while at the same time, by implication, urging its possibility. Othello and Leontes are driven to the extremes of passion only by virtue of the discovery of their wives' infidelity, and each almost basks in the illuminations the extremity of emotion affords. Not capable of merely acknowledging their jealousy, they seek relief and solace in their imagination of the horror the discovery provides. Othello claims that his relief must be to loathe Desdemona, and yet his relief derives from self-loathing. Why, we may inquire, must Othello's relief be to loathe her? His words admit of no possible alternative; they present instead an instinctually understood ideology. Othello's tendency to overstatement and social conformity dictates his response and tellingly indicates his passion for imagination.

Not content with an abstract notion of infidelity, Othello is subject to powerful mental pictures of the terrifying act that increasingly discompose him. His language indicates a compulsive urge to describe the thing he simultaneously proclaims himself trying to avoid. His attempt to avoid it is the very thing that gives his mind the ineluctable energy to think the unthinkable. He is trapped by his feeling for Desdemona, and as he desires to separate himself from her crime, so his imagination brings him more powerfully close to it:

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


Repeatedly recalling Othello's own locus in the triangle, the first-person pronouns proliferate as the language moves toward the climactic moment of damning details: “Cassio's kisses on her lips.” Even in his farewell speech, Othello moves away from the general and abstract to immediate sexual detail. “Othello's occupation's gone” (III.iii.357), a pun that critics have recognized as both a vocational and a sexual allusion, brings the vivid pageant of the great soldier's life back to the sensual details of penis and vagina.

Iago's brilliance lies in his perception of the uncontrollability of Othello's sexual imagination—his inability to keep his mind from being flooded with pictures both horrible and tempting. Iago's descriptions go as far as they dare but successfully initiate the torrents of ecstatic pain. “Would you, the [supervisor], grossly gape on? / Behold her topp'd?” (III.iii.395-96) he inquires, with a phrase that contains the image of Cassio lying on top of Desdemona and rings with the sound of the demotic “tupping” so forcefully employed to disgust Brabantio in I.i. Skillfully narrating the events of the night of Cassio's dream, Iago provides some of the details of Cassio's lustful groaning whereby Othello compulsively implicates his wife.

And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand;
Cry, “O sweet creature!” then kiss me hard,
As if he pluck'd up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; [then] laid his leg
[Over] my thigh, and [sigh'd], and [kiss'd], and then
[Cried], “Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!”


Hands, legs, lips, and thighs are difficult enough ideas for Othello to bear; to this Iago adds the cruelest detail of all. He reports Cassio referring to Othello as “the Moor” in order, no doubt, to force Othello to recur to his otherness, to exclude him from the small circle of lust to which he has now become a voyeur—though, we must note, a willing voyeur. It is he, not Iago, who insists that the dream accurately reflects life. Indeed, Iago speciously but surely reminds him that “this was but his dream” (III.iii.427).

Othello's responses to Iago during these moments deserve close attention. It is inadequate to represent Othello as being under Iago's spell. His listening is too eager, his explosive and inarticulate outbursts are too passionate for him to be seen as a puppet in the villain's hands. His mind is working hard, though words seem sometimes to fail him. In response to Iago's “topp'd” he cries, “Death and damnation! O!” (III.iii.396). To Iago's “Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!” he exclaims, “O monstrous! monstrous!” (III.iii.426-27). And this last exclamation follows a speech made at his own request: “Give me a living reason she's disloyal” (III.iii.409). Thereupon Iago recounts in detail Cassio's dream, which, amazingly, provides Othello with a “living reason.”

Othello's apostrophe to vengeance (“Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!” [III.iii.447]), followed by his expressed lust for blood and violence (“O blood, blood, blood!” [451] and “my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, / Shall nev'r look back …” [457-58]), is a conscious reorganization of the more spontaneously expressed lust for violence. These expressions aggrandize the powerfully felt decision to “tear her all to pieces” (431) in which the sensual, immediate, and concrete mental image derives force from the urge to plunge his hands into her blood. His unprovided mind (cf. IV.i.206) urges him to acts of vengeance that exemplify a thirst for sexual violence. Othello's need to anatomize his wife, repeated in his threat to “chop her into messes” (IV.i.200), is informed with sexual connotations in his expressed fear of the power of her “body and beauty” (IV.i.205) and given added sexual strength by his pleasure in the very realism of Iago's plan—to “strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated” (IV.i.207-8). The sinister delight Othello takes in the poetic beauty and rightness of this exaction savors of sexual excitement. The thoughts the image arouses center on Desdemona's sexuality, the contaminated bed and the lying throat being encircled by his strong hands, the surrender of that body to the greater power of his own. Othello's mind is filled with the ultimate inseparability of Desdemona's sexual role from any other she may try to play; her most innocent remark is seen by him to be related to her sexual identity. Thus his response to Iago is an example of distorted delight because it expresses a reattainment of control of her sexuality: “Good, good; the justice of it pleases; very good” (IV.i.209-10). The line lingers with its repetitions and argues by its pace an inverted but sure perception by Othello of the possibility of a new kind of happiness born not of “justice” but of the renewed control of the sexuality of the woman he has lost.

Even more obsessively than Othello, Leontes metonymizes his wife. In a violent tirade he reduces Hermione to a vagina. Indeed, his uncharacteristic sexual vocabulary insistently draws attention to himself and, as events prove, has nothing at all to do with Hermione except as she has been transformed by his uncontrollable imagination:

                                                                                          There have been
(Or I am much deceiv'd) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th' arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic'd in 's absence,
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbor—by
Sir Smile, his neighbor. Nay, there's comfort in't,
Whiles other men have gates, and those gates open'd,
As mine, against their will. Should all despair
That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind
Would hang themselves. Physic for't there's none.
It is a bawdy planet, that will strike
Where 'tis predominant; and 'tis pow'rful—think it—
From east, west, north, and south. Be it concluded,
No barricado for a belly.


The harsh demotic euphemisms in this speech are a means to relief. Leontes' concentrated use of obscenity consists of obsessive variations on the idea and image of sexual organs. The speech takes its energy from the implications of “sluic'd,” “pond fish'd,” “gates,” “belly.” Just as Othello sought relief through loathing, so Leontes describes himself as deriving comfort from the commonness of his lot. This is a palpable self-deception: his comfort comes not from the fact that other men have unfaithful wives but, instead, that femaleness is a moral concept, that women betray men. Leontes' images signal his attempt to simplify the sexual relationship of men and women and to reduce it to a controllable proportion. Do not the words “sluic'd” and “fish'd” in the present context connote pornographic images specifically intended to reduce the woman to her sexual function? Is there not in this reduction also a kind of pleasure denoted in the speaker's discovery of the simple “truth”?

Like Othello, Leontes reveals simply that he possesses a pornographic imagination. His language, which some critics refer to as tainted, shows him almost incapable of seeing Hermione as more or less than a vagina. The vocabulary that keeps driving to the surface of his speech is that of sexual abuse, the language he uses that of passionate obsession. Felperin proposes, on the contrary, that “Leontes' suspicion of the word” is one that “thrives upon the verbal mannerism, sophistication, even preciosity that dominates the language of Sicilia from the play's initial dialogue, and that works to obscure as much as it reveals” (p. 10).

Until he reveals his jealousy, Leontes is a relatively silent character who displays little of himself except a rather laconic, stolid side. The vocal and unreserved characters in I.ii are Polixenes and Hermione. Their speeches denote their senses of freedom, ease, and pleasure, and both find expression simple and relaxed. The longest speech Leontes utters in this early part of the scene is the brief description of his courtship of Hermione and his winning of her “white hand” (I.ii.101-5). In addition, as Neely points out, “Leontes depersonalizes Hermione and Polixenes from the moment jealousy emerges. … He scarcely calls them by name again [after I.ii.109] in the first act” (p. 327). In contrast, Polixenes and Hermione make speeches more than twice this length, frequently in response to the slightly mordant challenges and questions of Leontes, whose very silence in the context of their garrulousness exhibits a considerable control of the direction of the action. When Leontes finally does reveal himself, it is through his language of sexual jealousy. To talk, then, as so many critics have, of his debasement is to invert the chronology of the play. He is debased by sexual jealousy only in comparison to the self he reveals after he discovers that Hermione and Polixenes are innocent—after he has undergone the transforming suffering of guilt. Until this discovery, we know nothing of this spirit within him except through palpably flattering references to it by his wife and friend.

Both Othello and Leontes express jealousy in part through abuse and name-calling, often, as has been noted above, explicitly reducing their wives to sex objects. When Leontes asks, “Ha' not you seen, Camillo, … my wife is slippery?” (I.ii.267-73), he is, I think, obliquely referring to her vagina—to sexual secretions—deriving a kind of masochistic pleasure from the charged, textured word slippery. I wonder if this reading is not widely shared, though it is not much written about. Eric Partridge enters this use of slippery as an example of bawdy, with the following euphemistic explanation: “The semantics may perhaps be explained by greasy or by the fact that Leontes thinks that she is preparing to slip from virtue to infidelity” (p. 184). But Leontes already is certain that she has slipped from virtue to infidelity, and he uses the adjective as a means of reducing Hermione to something less than a wife, in perfect accord with the harsh, sexually anatomizing language that has been his mode up to now. The gross remark is consistent with the abusive characterization of Hermione as a “bed-swerver” (II.i.93) and the agonized reference to the bed sheets, “which being spotted / Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps” (I.ii.328-29).

But no words Leontes speaks are as violent and deliberately intended to debase Hermione as the speech in which he appears almost to efface his wife's very existence:

                                                                                                                        Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that's in't is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.


The evil of the world is distilled into the single idea of female sexual infidelity, a concentration that provides Leontes with a mad impetus. The force of his passion almost overwhelms his power of speech as he seems to be on the verge of losing the ability to articulate in the driving and explosively repeated word nothing. He seems unable to avoid the word, try as he might with his desperate plunging in other directions.

Terry Eagleton reminds us that “nothing” is an Elizabethan euphemism for the vagina. With some overstatement, he perceptively notes that the “woman's nothing is of a peculiarly convoluted kind, a yawning abyss within which man can lose his virile identity.”14 Harriett Hawkins recalls a joke that applies here: “Try to count to ten without thinking of a rabbit.”15 Leontes, obsessively thinking of Hermione as a sexual entity, is himself as caught by the euphemism as those who hear him. Nothing is not merely an absence of matter; it is the material evidence of femaleness, and it is this aspect of femaleness that has come to dominate his vision of the world. The intimations of nihilism in this speech, the passionately destructive energy it unleashes, are given weight and conviction by the presence of the ironic countermeaning of the repeated word.

As Leontes turns his attack on Camillo, a few lines later, he again repeats a word that not only defines the “other” but also demonstrates his method of deriving consolation and perverse pleasure: “It is: you lie, you lie! / I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee …” (I.ii.299-300). One of the functions of abuse, in evidence here and in Othello, is to increase the distance between the abuser and the abused. By degrading another through name-calling, the self is exalted. At the same time, a direct relationship is established—at least in the mind of the abuser—through a symbiosis established by language. By describing Hermione as nothing, Leontes is effectively describing himself, and her innocence makes the self-definition the more palpable to the audience. Shakespeare offers here, more even than in Othello, an entire drama staged within the mind of a character, a drama that, while unreal and insubstantial, utterly transforms the world he inhabits. The transformation is accomplished through an implicit narrative of his own creating. This is a story of which he is the hero, a wronged innocent, gulled and betrayed by others. How Leontes views his relation to the imagined infidelity is nowhere more tellingly revealed than in his reaction to Polixenes' hasty departure. With a voice of deep relief, he recognizes the vindication of his suspicions with the strange exclamation, “How blest am I / In my just censure!” (II.i.36-37). In the word blest is concentrated a perverse fulfillment of his wishes. The word, though exactly the wrong one in the context, signifies a sense almost of spiritual achievement. His abuse of those around him is a way of asserting the absoluteness of his innocence and the criminality and evil of the world in which he himself is an offending part. The reduction of others to one-dimensional elements of that world is a form of passionate asservation of his moral distance from it. Leontes is acting from a need for which his imagination provides the pretext and circumstances provide the context. That need seems to be the transcendent pleasure of relief. Othello, in contrast, falls into the hands of a narrator other than himself, one who takes captive his imagination.

Leontes and Othello are drawn by self-torturing voyeurism to the details of their wives' infidelity. Each hero is fascinated by his own reaction to the abhorrent idea, and each finds the idea more fascinating as he fleshes it out with terrible precision. As readers of sex literature know, pornography depends largely upon the inclusion of detail in the narrative. Without detail, the sexual fantasy is romance, feeding the imagination with mere outlines.

The so-called “brothel scene” in Othello is a similar attempt by the hero to regain his status through abuse. It has often been noted that in this scene Othello treats Desdemona as though she were a prostitute (the implication being that it is acceptable to treat a prostitute in this appalling way). As this reading further implies, Othello's treatment of his wife is justified by the fact that he is an innocent victim of the play's villain—Iago has led him to it. If we set aside the ideological concomitants of this reading, we may more easily see what Othello is doing to himself in the scene. He identifies what he believes is the worst thing a woman can be and in doing so discovers the word by which to brand his wife. He has discovered that the means to relief is to excise those parts of her that he has not hated and to concentrate his whole knowledge of her on the part he fears. The sexual obsession of Othello, ripened into direct language—“a cestern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!” (IV.ii.61-62)—is most powerful in his abuse of Desdemona as a whore and gains force by virtue of his repetition of the crude but wholly defining words. He has found her out; she is the “cunning whore of Venice” (IV.ii.89), and he is again Othello the warrior hero—not Othello the husband. Othello's abuse of Desdemona is a means of separating himself from her, of reconstituting the innocent Othello, gulled, like so many other men, by a wily woman, Othello the hero who knows a whore when he sees one.

Unwittingly, Desdemona plays into Othello's hands by using the language her husband deems appropriate to a treacherous whore, invoking heaven and her faith to bear witness to her truth. These expostulations are meat and drink to the warrior, who displays a genuine relish in uncovering his wife's deception. His speech, expressing in its sarcasm a new distance between them, demonstrates a histrionic, if tortured, delight:

                                                                                          I cry you mercy then.
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello.—[Raising his voice.] You, mistress,
                                                                      Enter Emilia.
That have the office opposite to Saint Peter,
And keeps the gate of hell! You, you! ay, you!
We have done our course; there's money for your pains.
I pray you turn the key and keep our counsel.


Othello's sarcasm implies a control that stands in sharp contrast to the ravaging self-pity of his earlier Job-echoing speech. Now that he has discovered a subject other than himself—Desdemona, his opposite, his betrayer—he rises to a different kind of eloquence. Othello, in this passage, suddenly is not “I” or “me,” but “Othello,” that ironically observed character who plays a part in the narrative he relates. The offer of money is a sudden conflation of “Othello” and himself, of narrative and life; as a self-dramatizing and artful act it seems to possess not a little self-congratulation.

In each play, the hero's perception of his wife's infidelity begins a process of adaptation to the “fact.” Initially, the discovery creates moral and emotional confusion in Leontes and Othello. Each character thinks he has discovered an evil act, yet each reacts to the discovery with a certain amount of ambivalence that partially meliorates the evil. Othello's desire to kill his wife takes the form of a spontaneous and bloodthirsty sexual desire. Notwithstanding the absurd pieties of his “It is the cause” speech (V.ii.1-22), Othello finally strangles his wife. As Cavell has noted, “Othello's mind continuously outstrips reality, dissolves it in trance or dream” (p. 484), an idea that explains how the motions of this speech transform it into an astonishingly self-deluding homage to rationality and bourgeois morality. The whole, so lush with the famous “Othello music,” is an extended rationalization of murder that derives its central argument from a huge self-aggrandizing lie. The logic of “Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men” (V.ii.6) is that Othello is about to murder his wife lest she do to Cassio's successors in her bed what she has done to Othello himself. The words and idea are Othello's, and to try to make something beautiful out of them (though undoubtedly they are constructed out of words and images that cultural convention declares to be “beautiful”) is to deny the ugly logic of their construction. Shakespeare himself seems to have recognized the fraudulence of Othello's “sacrifice” by having Desdemona awaken and by making, finally, not a murder out of a sacrifice but a murder out of a murder, refusing—dramatically, logically, or linguistically—to allow the distinction. The speech, deservedly famous, is a fascinating example of verbal self-pleasuring. Othello's decision to kill his wife beautifully has brought back to him the absolute control over her body that he had felt to be lost. He sees, smells, and feels Desdemona; he satiates himself upon her living presence. Marianne Novy remarks, “The more he imagines her guilt, the more he feels his own attraction to her. … He plans to kill her as a way to control his own unruly passion for her body as he punishes her passion.”16

Leontes also seems driven by an impulse to regain control through sacrifice. Several times he speaks of destroying Hermione by fire as if to efface her through a rite of purification:

                    … say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moi'ty of my rest
Might come to me again.


The desire for relief through destruction is here, as in Othello, a logical consequence of the sexual fury that manifested itself in imagined details. Here, too, the murderous impulse is more controlled, aggrandized by reference to self-justification: rest, relief, and social order will be achieved by sacrifice. Each hero, then, seems to have reconstituted his sexual pleasure in the idea of his wife's infidelity, to have restored his sanity by a resolution of his fragmented imagination. The process of anatomization has found an acceptable expression, the details of her infidelity have been resolved into a larger scheme that accords with the ethos of the world each inhabits.


  1. “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), p. 99.

  2. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello,ELR [English Literary Renaissance], 10 (1980): 394, n. 15.

  3. “The Politics of Desire in Troilus and Cressida,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 196.

  4. Coppélia Kahn notes that this passage indicates that Leontes sees Polixenes as his double, that it implies a homosexual fantasy, and that it indicates Leontes' desire to escape his mature sexuality (Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981], p. 215). All quotations of Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  5. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 466.

  6. Cavell, pp. 478-82. In addition, Cavell notes that the human body of the other is evidence both of the separate existence of the other and of the self. “Nothing could be more certain to Othello than that Desdemona exists; is flesh and blood; is separate from him; other. This is precisely the possibility that tortures him. The content of his torture is the premonition of the existence of another, hence of his own, his own as dependent, as partial” (p. 493).

  7. Giorgio Melchiori, “The Rhetoric of Character Construction: Othello,ShS [Shakespeare Survey], 34 (1981): 66.

  8. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 244.

  9. The Winter's Tale: The Triumph of Speech,” SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900], 15 (1975): 324.

  10. “‘Tongue-tied our queen?’: The Deconstruction of Presence in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, p. 7, 8.

  11. Eric Partridge notes that in Shakespeare “the man is always on top” (Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary [1948; rev. ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969], p. 41).

  12. “The Polarization of Erotic Love in Othello,MLR [Modern Language Review], 73 (1978): 737.

  13. “Shakespeare and Kierkegaard: ‘Dread’ in Macbeth,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], 35 (1984): 430-39.

  14. William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), p. 64.

  15. Likenesses of Truth in Elizabethan and Restoration Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 60.

  16. Love's Argument: Gender Relations in Shakespeare (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), pp. 138-39.

Norman Nathan (essay date winter 1968)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3226

SOURCE: Nathan, Norman. “Leontes' Provocation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 1 (winter 1968): 19-24.

[In the following essay, Nathan finds that Leontes's jealousy of Polixenes in The Winter's Tale appears quite suddenly, but is nevertheless properly motivated by Shakespeare.]

Perhaps the major scholarly dispute surrounding The Winter's Tale concerns the motivation of Leontes' jealousy. One view holds that his jealousy is sudden and motivated only slightly or not at all.1 Another view maintains that the jealousy existed when the play began. The best way to refute the assertion of a lack of motivation is to present evidence of its existence. The concept that Leontes was jealous when the play began, however, requires some consideration.

Roger J. Trienens says of the crucial second scene, “… Shakespeare … has written this scene on the premise that Leontes is jealous at its very beginning and even for some time antecedent to it.”2 Nevill Coghill admits that the opening scene prepares us “to witness a kingly amity between Sicilia and Bohemia. …”3 Yet Coghill considers this scene as preparation for the shock when the audience discovers in the second scene that amity departed before the play began.

It is clear that Leontes, as in the source-story which Shakespeare was following, has long since been jealous and is angling now (as he admits later) with his sardonic amphibologies, to catch Polixenes in the trap of invitation to prolong his stay, before he can escape to Bohemia and be safe.

(P. 33)

The obvious objection to both Trienens and Coghill is that their theories involve an assumption as to what took place before Act One. If Shakespeare were really following his source in connection with the jealousy, why did he not tell us that Leontes had suspicions anterior to the beginning of the play? Can we assume anything before the beginning of a play when the author has not chosen to tell us about it? Is it not the better scholarship to assume that when an author omits an explicit detail from his source he is either consciously or unconsciously departing from that source?

Further objections to Coghill include the fact that no extra trap is provided by having Polixenes prolong his stay. Polixenes wanted to leave the next day; Leontes orders Camillo to murder Polixenes even at the next meal. Also, if Leontes were jealous before, why does tremor cordis strike him suddenly, and apparently for the first time, late in this scene?4

The best Coghill can do is to infer certain stage directions not explicit in the text. Then he shows that actors, by sufficient facial grimaces and by reading their lines with innuendoes that support his thesis, can indicate to the audience that the jealousy exists when the play begins. But there is no denotational evidence that the lines are to be spoken in Coghill's way. If Polixenes is more flowery and Leontes more direct in dialogue, surely this displays a difference in their characterization rather than a thinly veiled animosity. Other characters in the play sense no hostility, for all are amazed by the onset of Leontes' jealousy. No one apparently perceived it earlier because it did not exist.

The view of this paper is that the jealousy is sudden and well-motivated. That sudden jealousy is possible is so obvious that one wonders why scholars have ever questioned the validity of Leontes' outburst on this ground alone. Compare this play with Othello. While Othello becomes jealous much later during the course of the play, the onset is practically as sudden as Leontes'. Through line 92 of Act III, Scene iii, there is still no indication that Othello has a jealous nature or that he is in the least concerned about his wife's conduct. And little more than a hundred lines later, there can be no question as to the intensity of Othello's newborn emotion. He says that he must have proof, but who doubts that the “proof” will be easy for Othello to obtain, now that he is no longer the well-balanced man?

Apparently the lack of complaint against Othello's sudden jealousy is based not on the relative credibility of his emotion but on the fact that in Othello the audience has been carefully prepared to expect so sudden a demonstration—and that might be one of the significant differences generally present between tragedy and tragicomedy. The true tragedy ordinarily invests us with an aura of inevitability. Suspense is maintained, even if the conclusion seems indisputable, partly because of sympathy with the hero that makes us fight against the inevitable every step of the way. Tragi-comedy demands surprise, particularly in a play like the Winter's Tale which tries to give us a complete tragedy and a complete comedy within the normal five acts. If the tragedy here is to end happily, the onset of jealousy had better come early in the play. Since it is part of a tragicomedy, it can well come suddenly, and since it is jealousy, one might expect it to come suddenly anyway. The significant question here is whether or not this jealousy is motivated. The tragicomedy framework makes it desirable that little time be taken to prepare the audience for the turn of events. But the form cannot be an excuse for a total lack of motivation, even though the motivation may have to be more closely compacted and probably less convincing than in the usual tragedy. While it may be agreed that motivation in an initial scene is not so important as getting into the story, and it may also be agreed that there are actions in Shakespeare that seem to have little or no motivation, nevertheless in The Winter's Tale the bases for Leontes' jealousy do appear early in the play.

The situation is simple. When a guest is about to leave, we must urge him to stay, particularly if he is our best friend and lives far away. At the opening of the scene, therefore, Leontes and Polixenes are playing the parts demanded by ideal friendship. There is an initial difference in their dialogue indicative of character. Leontes is likely to be abrupt, to say what he means; he is not inclined to banter. Polixenes is relatively flowery, less precise, less literal, and given to exaggeration. He says to Leontes,

There is no tongue that moves, none, none i' th' world,
So soon as yours could win me. So it should now,
Were there necessity in your request, although
'Twere needful I deni'd it.(5)

The obligation of friendship is exceeded only by that to God or to one's sovereign. If Leontes can't convince Polixenes, no one can.

Leontes turns to Hermione, “Tongue-tied our Queen? Speak you.” Since Hermione has not yet spoken in the scene, this admonition does not indicate that Leontes expects her to be successful. Perhaps he is indicating a fear that she will seem ungracious. But there are two dramatic necessities that account for Hermione's silence. First, Polixenes had to be allowed to register an absolute “no” to Leontes' request. Second, Leontes' chiding sets the stage for Hermione to show from her very first speech that she possesses excellent wit, for she at once makes a virtue out of her failure to echo her husband's invitation.

I had thought, sir, to have held my peace until
You had drawn oaths from him not to stay.

Hermione's character has been generally glorified because, after all, she is a virtuous and much wronged woman. The nobility of her speech and action, during her adversity, is admirable. And yet, does Shakespeare ever create a totally perfect individual? Is it possible that she, innocent as she is, unconsciously helps Leontes to plunge into his sudden jealousy because of some slight unbalance in her nature?

The first speech of Hermione establishes her wit. And there is hardly a speech that she will make during this scene that will fail to show her skill at repartee as well as the ability to phrase ambiguities bordering on a type of forwardness more akin to Beatrice than to Shakespeare's other heroines.

Polixenes protests again that he cannot prolong his visit, saying, “I may not, verily.” Hermione replies with,

You put me off with limber vows; but I,
Though you would seek to unsphere the stars with oaths,
Should yet say, “Sir, no going.” Verily,
You shall not go; a lady's “Verily” 's
As potent as a lord's.

It may be a limber vow, but a vow is not to be taken lightly, particularly when it is made by a sovereign. Hermione, by vowing herself, has made it impossible for Polixenes either to go or to stay without someone's being forsworn, unless, of course, Polixenes' original verily was a kind of game between them.

Then she jokingly offers Polixenes the choice of being her prisoner or her guest. When he gracefully chooses the latter alternative, she says, “Not your gaoler, then, / But your kind hostess.” The word “hostess” has two vastly different meanings in Shakespeare's plays, and the ambiguity of kind hostess would probably not be lost on the auditors of this bantering conversation. It almost seems as if the phrase suggests the topic to follow,

… Come, I'll question you
Of my lord's tricks and yours when you were boys.

Leontes takes no part in this banter, for it is certainly not in his vein. Besides, other things are troubling him. Hermione apparently is succeeding in persuading Polixenes to stay even though Polixenes had said no one but his friend could make him do so. And Polixenes had just indicated how lightly a vow may be taken. As if to cap Leontes' distress, Hermione utters another ambiguity when she says to Polixenes,

Th' offences we have made you do we'll answer,
If you first sinn'd with us, and that with us
You did continue fault, and that you slipp'd not
With any but with us.

The usual interpretation is that Hermione, pretending that Polixenes had adjudged all pleasures of the flesh as sinful, says that they will be forgiven as long as they are sanctified by wedlock. But there is another possible meaning, surely not hidden from an audience delighting in double entendres. The phrasing could mean that she and Polixenes are lovers and that she is demanding that he be faithful to that illicit relationship.6 The fact that Hermione uses the pronoun “us” need not disturb the interpretation since, as a queen, the ambiguity of the word would further display her wit.

Leontes breaks in with, “Is he won yet?” Many editors make the assumption that Leontes has not overheard the previous conversation, otherwise he would know that Polixenes has agreed to stay. Consequently, although Shakespeare put in no stage directions to indicate this, it is frequently assumed that Leontes had gone to another part of the stage and just returned. This view not only has the dubious distinction of adding what is not in the text, but raises the problem as to where in the conversation Leontes could have courteously left the others. Even to assume that Leontes turned aside to talk to other characters involves an improbability. Would a playwright deliberately prevent a soon-to-be-jealous husband from hearing his wife use ambiguities with a sexual implication?

There are, however, several interpretations of the phrase that make it possible to believe that Leontes has been present all the while. The phrase may well indicate Leontes' subconscious annoyance at the ambiguities expressed and his desire to change the drift of the conversation back to the original, more pleasing point. Or the phrase could mean, What else do you have to say before you'll get him to agree to remain? Or it could simply be Leontes' literal mind demanding to know whether or not Polixenes will stay, for his friend hasn't committed himself by a direct yes-or-no.

When Hermione says, “He'll stay, my lord”, Leontes succinctly shows what is disturbing him. “At my request he would not.” This seems to be the point at which Leontes' jealousy is ignited. For a moment he controls himself and, like a jealous husband in the presence of his wife's lover, stresses that he is the husband and master, for he continues,

Hermione, my dearest, thou never spok'st
To better purpose.

He says this so that he can bring out the nature of the marriage vows, for a few lines later he will quote Hermione as having said “I am yours for ever.” But Hermione turns his mock-lightheartedness into a battle of witticisms, in the course of which she uses an image of dubious propriety. She says a woman should be praised,

… you may ride's
With one soft kiss a thousand furlongs ere
With spur we heat an acre.

And a few lines later Leontes hears her speak another ambiguity,

                                                                                                                                  'Tis grace indeed.
Why, lo you now, I have spoke to th' purpose twice:
The one for ever earn'd a royal husband;
Th' other for some while a friend.

It is now that Leontes senses the flood of his intense jealousy. Friend could, of course, mean “lover”. He notices the paddling palms and pinching fingers. He recalls other trifling actions of the past several months and suddenly sees them in a new light—through the eyes of his aroused jealousy. Leontes may be exaggerating, but he is not totally inventing the nature of these actions. Later he lists specific accusations to Camillo, who says, “… be cur'd / Of this diseas'd opinion …”. Although Camillo is told that he has been a witness of Hermione's conduct, he does not deny that any of the events mentioned have occurred—the disease is of opinion. Perhaps paddling palms was really just holding hands, kissing with inside lip merely a normal kiss, etc. Nevertheless, the evidence is there for Leontes to distort. He cannot control his expression, and Hermione and Polixenes note that there is something wrong with him.

Leontes then tries to show he knows what is going on, and he apes Hermione's trick of ambiguity.

How thou lov'st us, show in our brother's welcome;
Let what is dear in Sicily be cheap.

Surely this is no mere admonition to “spare no expense”. Not after the months of costly festivities hinted at in the first scene. Hermione is dear to Sicily (Leontes), and she is cheapening herself with Polixenes.

The action is now well under way. Shakespeare has utilized the tragicomedy technique of fast movement and surprise without sacrificing motivation. He has shown us a Hermione not quite so dignified as some have contended and a Leontes not quite so irrational as frequently supposed. This of course does not justify Leontes' conduct. But jealousy is not supposed to be justified, though artistry suggests that the process be delineated.

One other facet of the play may help to explain Leontes' jealousy. How does the actor who portrays Hermione conduct himself? Without stage directions, this question cannot positively be answered as to specific details. But the actor, unlike the normal audience, knows the entire play, and a later speech can indicate to the scholar in a general way how a previous scene was enacted.

Hermione, unaccused by Leontes, cannot be precisely the same person that she is later in the play. It is natural that she should display more wit, more gaiety. Combined with this, however, is an attitude that Hermione has never shown towards anyone. At her trial she says,

                                                                      … For Polixenes,
With whom I am accus'd, I do confess
I lov'd him as in honour he requir'd,
With such a kind of love as might become
A lady like me, with a love even such,
So and no other, as yourself commanded;
Which not t'have done I think had been in me
Both disobedience and ingratitude
To you and toward your friend, whose love had spoke,
Even since it could speak, from an infant, freely
That it was yours.

(III. ii. 62-72)

Two things distinguished her attitude; Polixenes was a king and her husband's dearest friend. She could, and did, jest with Polixenes as with an equal in a way not previously possible with any other member of the court. Too, she treated Polixenes as her own friend, as she felt bound to do. This idealistic relationship, set against the background of situation and dialogue in the second scene of the play, proved too much for Leontes. Bassanio could approve of Portia's immediate attachment to Antonio even as a name. But Antonio was apparently a bachelor by choice and Bassanio was not a king.

To sum up, Hermione apparently treated Polixenes with less reserve and with greater personal regard than she had displayed before other men. This was at least subconsciously observed, and it left latent in the mind the possibility of infidelity. We need not conjecture as to what happened before the play began in order to perceive this much when the three major characters enact their parts in the second scene. The situation might never have developed into jealousy. Polixenes, however, thoughtlessly treats his friendship with Leontes and his vow, matters of prime importance to the Elizabethan-Jacobean mind, as having less weight than Hermione's urging him to prolong his visit. When this occurs at the same time that Hermione utters many bantering ambiguities, the combination is too much for the over-serious Leontes (who, apparently, can be ironic in his wit but never light-heartedly amusing). He then sees all past pleasantries, real or newly imagined, between Hermione and Polixenes as proof of an illicit relationship. Thus, the actual precipitation of the jealousy, while sudden, is nevertheless realistic and motivated by a variety of details. Its early inception in the play is appropriate to a tragicomedy. That Shakespeare was able to meet the requirement of the art form, to indicate how quickly jealousy may arise, to heavily motivate its inception, and yet to cast no shadow of doubt in the mind of the audience as to Hermione's character is another proof of his craftsmanship.


  1. T. M. Parrot speaks of the “sudden unmotivated passion of Leontes”, Shakespearean Comedy (New York, 1949), p. 384. O. J. Campbell calls the jealousy “full grown in the king's mind”, The Living Shakespeare (New York, 1949), p. 1102. S. L. Bethell writes, “Then suddenly with no more hint of preparation—and no hint at all on the psychological plane—Leontes' jealousy comes full upon him.” The Winter's Tale (London, 1946), p. 78. Neilson and Hill consider the jealousy “in the nature of a postulate”, The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass.: 1942), p. 501.

  2. “The Inception of Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale”, Shakespeare Quarterly [SQ], IV (1953), 321.

  3. “Six Points of Stage-Craft in The Winter's Tale”, Shakespeare Survey 2 (1958), p. 32.

  4. See Hallett Smith, “Leontes' Affectio”, SQ, XIV (1963), 163-166, for a consideration of the word Affection in I. ii. 138. Smith defines the word as “a sudden, violent perturbation of mind or body” (p. 164), and links the word with a sudden arousal of Leontes' jealousy.

  5. All quotations from Shakespeare are from the Neilson and Hill edition cited above.

  6. This ambiguity has been noted by A. Quiller-Couch and J. D. Wilson. “Is it not more than probable that Leontes is intended by Shakespeare to overhear these equivocal words as he comes forward from behind, unseen by the speakers but in such a way that the audience can watch the play of his features?” (The Winter's Tale, Cambridge, England, 1931, p. 133.) Apparently these editors, having managed to make Leontes walk away, want to get him back as dramatically as possible.

Ruth M. Levitsky (essay date summer 1974)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3356

SOURCE: Levitsky, Ruth M. “Prudence versus Wisdom in Othello.Dalhousie Review 54, no. 2 (summer 1974): 281-88.

[In the following essay, Levitsky contrasts Iago's suspicious, Machiavellian, and ultimately jealous personality with Othello's credulity and Desdemona's virtue.]

In his Redeeming Shakespeare's Words,1 Paul Jorgensen has pointed out how an understanding of contemporary connotations of key words can contribute to a fuller appreciation of certain Shakespearean plays. Recognizing Jorgensen's contribution in tracing the significance of the word “honesty” in Othello, I submit that an investigation of the connotations of another key word—namely, “jealousy”—may further elucidate the characters of Iago, Othello, and Desdemona. If the basic definition of jealousy is seen to be a tendency toward suspicion, then the relation between that word and the term “Machiavellian prudence” becomes clear and consequently the contrast between Iago's kind of wisdom and that of Desdemona.

Othello's fundamental error is in allowing the germ of suspicion to enter into his thoughts, for his love of Desdemona depends upon an absolute faith in her goodness. That the word “jealousy” could connote distrust or suspicion generally—that is, without regard to love, envy or any other emotion—is fully attested to in this play and other works of Shakespeare as well as in those of his contemporaries.

Chapman so uses the word in Bussy D'Ambois: “Oh, miraculous jealousy!2 Do you think yourself such a singular subject for laughter that none can fall into the matter of our merriment but you?” asks Barrisor; and L'Anou chaffs: “This jealousy of yours, sir, confesses some close defect in your self” (I.ii.236 ff.).3 In The Duchess of Malfi, Antonio lists some of the Cardinal's devices for ensnaring those whom he suspects as enemies: “… Where he is jealous of any man, he lays worse plots for them than ever was imposed on Hercules” (I.iii.83 ff.). Ben Jonson speaks of “whisp'ring fame” that gives proof to the jealous (Sejanus II. 195-96).4 Shakespeare's Rumor in the Induction of Henry IV, Part II describes himself as a pipe “Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures”; and Cassius, hoping to enlist Brutus in the conspiracy, prefaces his flattery with “be not jealous on me, gentle Brutus,” to which Brutus replies: “That you do love me, I am nothing jealous” (I.ii.71 … 161). In none of these instances (and they could be multiplied to the point of tedium) is there any connotation of love-melancholy. It is readily perceived then that, while love is not necessarily an ingredient of jealousy, distrust is so.

What we have to do with in the case of Othello, however, is undeniably that type of jealousy which Robert Burton5 calls a “bastard branch” of love melancholy. Burton derives his definition from Varchi, with some slight additions from Scaliger, Cardan, and Vives. In any case, his sources are in general agreement concerning the nature of that jealousy “which belongs to married men in respect to their wives”:

Jealousy is described and defined to be a certain suspicion which the Lover hath of the party he chiefly loveth, lest he or she be enamoured of another: or any eager desire to enjoy some beauty alone, to have it proper to himself only: a fear or doubt, lest any foreigner should … share with him in his love. Or (as Scaliger adds) a fear of losing her favour whom he so earnestly affects. Cardan calls it, a zeal for love, and a kind of envy lest any man should beguile us. Ludovicus Vives defines it in the very same words, or little differing in sense.

While Shakespeare did not, of course, read Burton, the two men may very well have been familiar with the same sources. In any event it appears to have been common knowledge that, while the human being shares some of the symptoms of jealousy with brute beasts, only the superior intellect of Man was capable of that jealousy characterized by, or having its roots in, suspicion—a suspicion which might be entirely unfounded. Examples of the terrible fury of beasts which could “brook no corrival” Burton takes from Vives, Oppian, Varchi, and others: bulls, horses, goats, swans, crocodiles, and dogs will fight to the death rather than share their mates. While Man may arrive at this stage of brutish irrationality, his initial torment is usually caused by suspicion. Chrysostom observes that the jealous man is “more than ordinarily suspicious”; Vives describes him as amplifying every whisper, misinterpreting everything said or done, prying into every corner. The jealous man, says Burton, conceives “things almost incredible and impossible to be effected even suspecting his wife with his nearest and dearest friends.” Ariosto is quoted by Burton as terming jealousy “a fury, a continual fever, full of suspicion, fear and sorrow, a martyrdom, a mirth-marring monster.” Benedetto Varchi in his Blazon of Jealousie quotes the same source, using similar terminology: Ariosto, he says, brands jealousy with “five villanous words, every one of them being worse than other … Suspicion, Feare, Martyring, Frenzie, and Madnesse.”6 Burton himself follows this sequence closely in his section on “Prognoticks”: “Those which are jealous … if they be not otherwise relieved, proceed from suspicion to hatred, from hatred to frenzy, madness, injury, murder, and despair.”

The progression of Othello's symptoms from suspicion through murder to despair will be seen to follow this traditional pattern: Shakespeare has managed (in Othello's Job-like suffering) to indicate “martyring” and (in the hero's suicide) to suggest the ultimate in despair. Between the scene where the poet shows us Iago planting the germ of suspicion in Othello's mind and that where he depicts the cool justicer proceeding toward the task of execution, we are allowed to witness Man in a state of frenzy. When he would tear Desdemona all to pieces, Othello has reached the stage of the enraged bull; after he has fallen into a fit, he is aptly reminded by Iago that he has failed to play the part of a Man. The animal imagery used by Othello when he envisages his wife's infidelity further emphasizes the bestial state into which he has fallen; and the affront to human dignity which he displays in striking his wife in public illustrates the degree to which passion has overcome his rational faculties.

Yet this descent had its origins in suspicion—that basic element of human jealousy of which the animal presumably is incapable. Furthermore, even in his rage, Othello reveals a quality in Man which is uglier than that of the impassioned beast. When he plans to kill Desdemona in the very bed she has contaminated, when he declares he “will be found most cunning in [his] patience” (IV.i.91), he is imitating neither bull nor crocodile nor elephant nor any other beast save Man. It is as if Shakespeare were saying with Swift's Houyhnhnm Master: Behold how much more terrible than the beast is this creature who has a spark of Reason.

Though Othello may be bestial in his frenzy, his initial suspicion he learned from a creature more dangerous than an infuriated bull—namely, Iago. In following the prudent Machiavellian, he is embracing the attitude of one who trusts nobody, believes in nothing, and assumes that mankind generally is evil. The dominant characteristic of Iago is this tendency toward suspicion, a tendency which as we have seen could be and often was (by Elizabethans) termed jealousy. Jealousy is, indeed, Iago's rule of life: suspect, be wary, assume the worst. It is his “nature's plague / To spy into abuses, and oft [his] jealousy / Shapes faults that are not” (III.iii.146-48).7 He suspects people in general: all men who behave ceremoniously toward their superiors are but “knee-crooking knave[s]” (I.i.42 … 44); all women can be bought for gold; no young woman could possibly be faithful to an older man (see I.iii.342 ff. and II.i.230); fair or dark, wise or foolish, all women do “foul pranks” (II.i.142). Such is the burden of his speech whether he be in solitary meditation, actively attempting to corrupt Othello or Roderigo, or merely engaging in raillery with the ladies.

Iago also suspects particular people—admittedly without evidence: his own wife, the “lusty (?) Moore,”8 Cassio, Desdemona. “For mere suspicion,” he will proceed as if he had evidence (I.iii.395). Given his “most pregnant and unforced position” (II.i. 239)—namely, that everybody is predisposed to evil—it is “apt and of great credit” that nobody is faithful either in love or in friendship (II.i.294 ff.).

As Jorgensen points out, to say that a thing is “apt and of great credit” is merely to say “I suspect”; but to Iago—believe, think, and suspect are “of one piece.”9 It is a kind of thinking which can safely be indulged in only by the complete cynic—only by one who is prepared to abandon all faith in human nature.

This bent of mind will I believe readily be recognized as “Machiavellian.” What may not be so obvious, however, is that this particular Machiavellian trait is a perversion of the ancient virtue of Prudence. Elizabethan—Jacobean England was not entirely persuaded of the wholesomeness of the ancient virtues in any case;10 and Machiavelli's distortion of Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude was exceeded, if possible, by his distortion of the virtue of Prudence.

Richard Barckley in his Discourse of the Felicitie of Man (1598) deplores the fact that

so small account [is] made of morall vertues … now adayes, that the vices next to them are taken for the vertues themselves … to dissemble and deceeve, is now taken for wisedome or prudence, a singular vertue that cannot [properly] be dissevered from honestie and plaine meaning. One saith be warie and circumspect how thou believe any thing: these be the sinewes of wisedome, so as now we may say with the poet:—nam fronte politi

Astutam vapido servant sub pectore vulpem.11 In The … Humane Condition (1600) J. Perrot warns his readers that too much circumspection often turns to “jealousies, or suspition without cause.” His ensuing description of the overly-prudent man is virtually a thumbnail sketch of the demi-devil who misled Othello:

… if a prudent man exceede his bounds, he sheweth himselfe to be a subtile searcher of things hidden; a finder and a follower of al faultes, evil, full of pride, crafty, an enemy to innocency, a commender of crimes, and in conclusion, accompted of al men as of a lewd person, ungodly, and very wicked.

Perrot warns against associating with men who are “by nature politique and well practised or of great experience in worldly matters: … they are of all people most pernicious and most dangerous to converse, or to be dealt withal” (pp. 52-53).

Granting a certain naivete in Othello which makes him an easy prey to Iago, I cannot share the sentiments of those who see in his initial tendency toward trustfulness a tragic flaw. In this play and elsewhere in Shakespeare, faith in one's fellow men is commonly considered a virtue, while a lack of that faith—that is, a tendency toward mistrust—is called “base”. It is the trusting Desdemona whom we love and the cynical Iago whom we hate; it is the earlier Othello of “free and open nature” whom we admire and the Othello of “cunning patience” for whose sake we as fellow rational animals blush.

Beaumont and Fletcher's Philaster, in trying to ward off his suspicions of Arethusa, declares: “To suspect / Were base, where I deserve no ill” (I.ii.93-94).12 In like manner, both Desdemona and Othello associate jealousy with baseness of mind. Emilia's suggestion that Othello could be jealous seems to Desdemona no less than ridiculous:

… my noble Moor
Is true of mind and made of no such baseness
As jealous creatures are. …


Othello is indignant at Iago's implication that he might suspect one whom he loves; and in giving expression to this indignation he uses the terms “jealousy” and “suspicion” interchangeably:

Think'st thou I'ld make a life of jealousy,
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions?


An early sixteenth-century treatise by one Bp. St. Martyn enitled The Rule of an Honest Lyfe13 associates craftiness with a tendency toward suspicion. Being a true Aristotelian, however, the author recommends the via media with regard to prudence as well as to the other three ancient virtues. The overly-prudent man, he finds, “occupyeth suttle suspicyons to the reproach of yecryme & faute of some other … [and is] … an enemye to symplycte & playnnes, an inventor of fautes … But who so ever ledeth his lyfe in yeeven & equale balaunce thereof hath nothyng i hym suspicious nor crafty.” Perrot and Barckley, writing at the end of the century, saw how men had failed to achieve this Aristotelian “equal balance”—how, indeed, they tended toward the Machiavellian extreme of being overly-prudent, overly-wary, overly-suspicious.

But is St. Martyn's “equale balaunce” possible in the love relationship? Leaving aside his assurance that such a balance precludes suspicion and craftiness, do we not have here something like Polonius' advice to his son? Or, what is more to the point, do we not have something similar to Iago's advice to Othello: “Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure” (III.iii.198)? The question we must ask ourselves at this point is whether true love can thrive in this half-way house. Or, better still, is this well-balanced prudence the kind of wisdom which led Desdemona to forsake all others and follow her Moor?

Iago's advice arises out of wordly wisdom—a wisdom which by the end of the play is shown to be the worst kind of folly. And Othello's initial error is seen to be his mistaking this prudence for true wisdom. Acknowledging his own ignorance of the ways of all but the military world, the Moor readily accepts Iago's superior knowledge of human nature generally and of the relationship of the sexes in particular:

This fellow …
… knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,
Of human dealings.


And later, in response to Iago's description of the general prevalence of marital infidelity, Othello can only answer: “O, thou art wise; ’tis certain” (IV.i. 75).

Adopting this prudence as wisdom, Othello cuts himself off from the higher wisdom of love and trust which is Desdemona's guide in human relationships. In her innocency she refuses to believe that Emilia would commit adultery “for the whole world.” Emilia's argument is one worthy the wife of Iago:

In troth, I think I should; and undo ‘t when I had done. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty exhibition; but, for the whole world,—why, who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for ‘t.

Why, the wrong is but a wrong i' the world: and having the world for your labour, ’tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right.

(IV.iii.71 … 82)

The existence of Iago's millions of cuckolds is also confirmed by Emilia. To Desdemona's protestations that she does not think there is any such woman, Emilia replies: “Yes, a dozen; and as many to the vantage as would store the world they played for” (IV.iii.84-85).

Like Juliet, however, Desdemona remains uncontaminated by her cynical tutors. No demi-devil14 could ever convert her love to hate, her faith to jealousy. For she is possessed of a higher wisdom than that Prudence which encourages suspicion of one's fellow men. Desdemona knows about the weakness of human nature, but this knowledge merely strengthens her love: pondering the baffling behavior of her husband, she concedes that we must remember that “men are not Gods” (III.iv.148). As a Christian she doubtless knows also that there is “[no] breast so pure / But some uncleanly apprehensions / Keep leets and law-days [there]” (III.iii.138-140). Yet, such a reminder of Man's fallen nature she would never have considered as evidence against her lord.

It may be argued that Desdemona never really knew either Othello or the world: there was more weakness in the one than she guessed and more evil in the other than she could comprehend. But her kind of wisdom is presented by the playwright as a higher kind15 than that possessed by any other character in the play—a wisdom which could have led to far greater happiness than the prudence which her husband was persuaded to embrace.

Othello is accurate in declaring that he was “not easily jealous” (V.ii.345): everything in the early part of the play points to the fact that he was not a man given to suspecting others.16 Is he also accurate in describing himself as “one that loved not wisely but too well” (V.ii.344)? I think he is. To love wisely was, for the Elizabethan Christian, to love with complete Faith, Hope, and Charity—not with the reservations dictated by “prudence.” Lacking complete faith, Othello was doomed to “dote, yet doubt, to suspect, yet strongly love” (III.iii.170). He loved too well to follow the Iago-way completely, but with insufficient wisdom to follow the Desdemona-way. Near the end of the play, Iago is called many vile names. Perhaps the most appropriate is “Spartan dog,” an epithet which I take to connote “Stoical” hardness and “cynical” mistrust, traits which could not coexist with love as Desdemona understood it.


  1. Berkeley, 1962.

  2. Within the quotations the italicizing of the words jealousy and jealous, prudence and prudent, suspicion and suspicious is mine throughout.

  3. In Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama, ed. Robert Ornstein and Hazelton Spencer (Boston, 1964), the word “jealousy” is here glossed as “suspicion”.

  4. For Philaster and The Duchess, I have used Drama of the English Renaissance, ed. M. L. Wine (New York, 1969), where “jealous” is glossed as “suspicious”. Sejanus is edited by Jonas Barish for The Yale Ben Jonson (New Haven, 1965).

  5. The Anatomy of Melancholy. I have used Part 3, Sec. 3 from the edition by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan Smith (New York, 1927), pp. 821-847.

  6. Trans. R. T. (1615), pp. 10-11.

  7. All quotations from Shakespeare are from The Complete Works. …, ed. Hardin Craig (Glenview, Illinois, 1961).

  8. In II.i.304 Iago claims to suspect “the lusty Moor” with his wife. That Iago does not himself believe Othello to be “lusty,” however, is evident when in the next scene but one he declares that “her [Desdemona's] appetite shall play the god / With his [Othello's] weak function” (II.iii.354).

  9. “Perplex'd in the Extreme,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 15, No.2 (1964), 270.

  10. My recent study of Othello's propensity for justice and fortitude points out the dangers thought by Elizabethans to be inherent in too great reliance on pagan virtues. See “All-in-All Sufficiency in Othello,ShakS [Shakespeare Studies] (1970), 209-21.

  11. Like Barckley, William Vaughn (Golden Grove, 1600) explicitly associates pagan prudence with Machiavelli:

    Wisedome among the auncient heathen was no other thing but a certaine kind of prudence to manage and handle great causes & matters of policy … But wisedome among Christians hath obtained a higher title, to wit, a knowledge [of] … our salvation … through … Jesus Christ. As for worldly wisedome, I wish [men] not so pretiously to esteeme it, as the doe: for what else are the wise men of this world, save gay politicians, Machiavellians, and niggards …

    (Sig. M5).

  12. See Note 4.

  13. Sig. B7r. Two translations of this work (which was falsely attributed to Seneca) are listed in STC, one dated 1538, the other 1546.

  14. I am not suggesting that Emilia is the demi-devil that Iago is—merely that she shares his concept of wisdom.

  15. Terence Hawkes (“Iago's Use of Reason,” SP [Studies in Philology] 18 [1961], 160 … 164) shows that Desdemona possesses the “higher Reason” which Man shares with the angels. Robert Heilman (Magic in the Web [Lexington, Kentucky: 1956], p. 210) argues that Desdemona “may act truly while believing falsely about the world is not entirely false; she herself is a part of the world and, as such, is a proof that it is not so altogether evil as Iago pictures it.

  16. E. E. Stoll (Shakespeare Studies [New York, 1960]), p. 94 speaks of jealousy as “an inborn inclination to suspect or hearken to suspicion.” Kenneth Muir (“The Jealousy of Iago,” English Miscellany 2 [1951], p. 65) cites Dostoevsky to the effect that “Othello was not jealous, he was trustful.”

Katharine Eisaman Maus (essay date autumn 1987)

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SOURCE: Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama.” ELH 54, no. 3 (autumn 1987): 561-83.

[In the following essay, Maus explores the relationship between sexual jealousy and the performance of theatrical spectacle in the English Renaissance, with particular emphasis on Shakespearean drama, notably Othello.]

The cuckoo then, on every tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he,
Cuckoo, cuckoo: O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear!

(Love's Labor's Lost, 5.2.888-92)

Anxiety about sexual betrayal pervades the drama of the English Renaissance. Traditionally the material of comedy, cuckoldry or the fear of cuckoldry becomes a tragic theme as well in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: in Heywood's Woman Killed With Kindness, Chapman's Bussy d'Ambois, Ford's Broken Heart, Shakespeare's Othello. Not only does jealousy dominate the plots of many plays, but songs about the cuckolded and the abandoned, jokes and saws about the unreliability of wives and lovers, turn up in other plays on the slightest of pretexts—in Rafe's death scene in Beaumont's Knight of the Burning Pestle, in the song at the beginning of Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday, and so on. In The Tempest, when Miranda learns of her noble origins for the first time, she wonders who Prospero really is: “Sir, are you not my father?” “Thy mother was a piece of virtue, and / She said thou wast my daughter,” Prospero answers, remembering at this unlikely juncture, years after his wife's death, that no man can be absolutely certain of paternity (1.2.55-57).

Prospero's odd response seems to reveal something about his character, and critics have adduced it as evidence of his suspicion of female sexuality.1 But even ingenious and satisfying psychological accounts of individual characters—Othello, Leontes, Claudio, Hamlet, Prospero—cannot explain why this particular pathology should turn up in so many different sorts of plays, nor why it should interest dramatists of such varied talents. As a result some critics are inclined to look for cultural explanations; for them the phenomenon reflects in a particularly telling way the instabilities and tensions of a patriarchal social order.2 Extraliterary evidence certainly reinforces the view that anxiety about female sexual fidelity ran high in English Renaissance culture; historians report, for instance, that the opprobrious terms cuckold, whore, and whoremaster account for most of the defamation suits brought in sixteenth century church courts.3

Nonetheless, illuminating as both the characterological and the cultural approaches often are, they leave an important generic question unaddressed. Complexities of psychology and social organization presumably interest writers of all kinds. But English Renaissance dramatists seem much more likely than nondramatic writers to use situations of sexual betrayal as a means of exploring these perennial artistic concerns; and when they do so they are apt to delineate the feelings of the jealous individual with special care. A comparison of Shakespeare's great plays about jealousy with their nondramatic sources demonstrates that these emphases are hardly inevitable.4 Geraldi Cinthio's Gli Hecatomithi 3.7, the source for Othello, elaborately details the Moor's agonies of repentance after the murder, but describes the motive for the crime in brief and general terms. Robert Greene's Pandosto, the source for The Winter's Tale, attends closely to the reactions of the wronged queen as she is deprived of liberty, reputation, and newborn child. It provides only a very summary description of her husband's unjust suspicions. Shakespeare, by contrast, banishes Hermione to offstage gardens and prisons in order to concentrate on Leontes. In La Prima Parte de le Novelle del Bandello, one of Shakespeare's sources for Much Ado About Nothing, the traduced maiden describes her emotions in two lengthy speeches, while her duped, jealous lover remains inarticulate and on the sidelines. In Shakespeare's version the maiden swoons, leaving her justification to others; the outraged lover and baffled, angry father are made the center of attention. In another source for the Claudio-Hero story, canto 5 of Orlando Furioso, the deluded lover is again a marginal, shadowy figure; for Ariosto the most important characters are the servant who has unwittingly betrayed her mistress, and a knight who volunteers to defend the lady without knowing whether she is innocent or guilty. In the dramatic adaptations, the jealous husband or lover consistently receives far more attention than he does in the nondramatic sources, and alternative foci of narrative interest—the woman, the rival—become correspondingly less important.

What does jealousy have to do with the drama? Why should this particular sexual anxiety be represented so often and so vividly in this particular artistic form? Why does the subject intrude so frequently in apparently irrelevant contexts, and provide a constant topic for nervous jokes? I shall argue that sexual jealousy fascinates English Renaissance playwrights not only because it is a psychologically and socially interesting phenomenon, but because the dynamic of sexual jealousy provides a complex analogy to theatrical performance and response in a culture that tends to conceive of theatrical experience in erotic terms, and of certain sexual impulses as highly theatrical in character. Theatrical enactment, I shall argue, is a particularly appropriate way of depicting this particular emotional material, and conversely, the experience of the jealous husband attracts dramatists because it provides a way of clarifying and reflecting upon some of the more troubling aspects of the relationship between spectacle and spectators.


Renaissance treatises on the passions describe jealousy as a combination of the two primary “appetites,” concupiscence and irascibility. Confused in its origins, it is perverse and unstable in its effects: “the Gaule that corrupteth all the Hony of our life: it is commonly mingled with the sweetest and pleasantest actions, which maketh so sharpe and sower as nothing more … it ingendreth a pernitious curiosity and desire in a man to cleere himselfe of that evil, which being past remedie, by too much stirring stinketh the more.”5 Both this affective complexity and this epistemological disquiet, as we shall see, appeal strongly to English Renaissance dramatists.

In several respects, however, the playwrights' treatment of sexual jealousy is idiosyncratic; or rather, without necessarily departing from the common conception, they tend to focus intensely upon some elements and to ignore others. Their contemporaries represent jealousy as a passion incident to both sexes. Montaigne argues that women are naturally so prone to jealousy that it is not even worth counselling them against it (785); Burton that “men and women are both bad, and too much subject to this pernicious infirmity” (3.266).6 In Sidney's Arcadia the queen, Gynecia, is as formidable in her jealousy as she is in her adulterous passion for her daughter's lover. Both Corneille and Racine are deeply interested in the dramatic possibilities of female sexual jealousy. But heroines on the order of Medea are notably absent from the English Renaissance drama. In this tradition sexual jealousy is typically the weakness and prerogative of the male. Helena and Mariana mourn the loss of a desired object; Othello and Leontes are jealous. Even Goneril and Regan, whose competition over a man reaches a murderous pitch, seem driven more by sibling rivalry—noticeable even in the first scene, as they strive to outdo one another in the praise of their father—than by specifically sexual jealousy as the heroes experience it.

The English dramatists differ from their contemporaries, too, in the extraordinary emphasis they place on the jealous husband's desire for a specifically visual corroboration of his suspicions. Shakespeare and his contemporaries almost invariably depict male jealousy in terms of a particular scenario: a man looks on while his beloved betrays him sexually with another man.7 “Give me the ocular proof!” Othello insists, “Make me to see't!”—and Iago can intensify his suspicions merely by clarifying the implications of that demand: “Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on, / Behold her topped?” (3.3.357, 361, 401-2).

The scenario remains the same whether the betrayal is imaginary or real, whether it occurs onstage or off, and regardless of which characters have gained the sympathy of the audience. In The Winter's Tale, Leontes's jealousy surges up unexpectedly as he stands by watching his wife and best friend “paddling palms, and pinching fingers … and making practis'd smiles” (1.2.115-16). In Thomas Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, Balthazar enters “above” to witness Bel-Imperia taking the erotic initiative with Horatio; in John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Giovanni peers anxiously over the balcony to see how Annabella responds to Soranzo's courtship; in Philip Massinger's Roman Actor, Caesar likewise hovers unseen above his wife and her lover; in The Taming of the Shrew, Hortensio spies upon Bianca and Lucentio; in Much Ado About Nothing, Claudio hides below Hero's window to see if she will play him false. Chaucer's Troilus learns of Cressida's infidelity in a dream, but Shakespeare's Troilus ventures behind Greek lines to witness the betrayal in person. In Robert Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Prince Edward, in Oxford, peers through a magic glass that allows him to look on while his proxy Lacy, in Suffolk, abandons his duty to his master and begins to court the beautiful Margaret of Fressingham for himself. In The Duchess of Malfi, the incestuously possessive Ferdinand rages when he learns that his sister, whom he has supposed celibate, has borne a child:

                    Talk to me somewhat, quickly,
Or my imagination will carry me
To see her in the shameful act of sin.
With whom?
                                        Haply with some strong-thighed bargeman;
Or one o'th' woodyard, that can quoit the sledge
Or toss the bar, or else some lovely squire
That carries coals up to her privy lodgings.


The exemplary husband in A Woman Killed With Kindness refuses to trust his servant's reports, and feels he must make certain of his wife's guilt by catching her in flagrante delicto. As he steals toward the bedroom he quails at what he knows he is about to encounter:

O keep my eyes, you heavens, before I enter
From any sight that may transfix my soul,
Or if there be so black a spectacle,
O strike mine eyes stark blind.


But he forges ahead regardless.

If the woman's transgression is so painful why participate in it, even if only as a witness? Partly, no doubt, because “ocular proof” of the beloved's infidelity constitutes satisfaction in more ways than one. In Volpone, Corvino's eagerness to prostitute his wife is a natural (or unnatural) corollary of the pathological jealousy that leads him to confine and abuse her. When Celia refuses to cooperate with his plan he tries to reason with her, but his imagination defeats his attempt at argument:

                                                                      if I thought it were a sin
I would not urge you. Should I offer this
To some young Frenchman, or hot Tuscan blood
That had read Aretine, conned all his prints,
Knew every quirk within lust's labyrinth,
And were professed critic in lechery,
And I would look upon him, and applaud him
This were a sin.


Disturbed and thrilled by his voyeuristic fantasies, Corvino forgets Celia's moral dilemma in order to luxuriate in his own. For his purposes the young Frenchman, or the sexually expert Tuscan, would be more gratifying rivals than the supposedly impotent Volpone. Later in the play Corvino fabricates testimony about Celia's supposed union with the vigorous, manly Bonario, expatiating in such vivid detail about what “these eyes” have seen that he must be hustled from the courtroom. The cuckold is entranced by the scene of his own betrayal.8

The jealous male watches or imagines himself watching from a hidden place, his gaze unreturned by the individuals he views. Not surprisingly, he tends to play an important role in plays self-conscious about such theatrical analogues as eavesdropping, deception, and spying: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Volpone, Bussy d'Ambois, The Widow's Tears, Cymbeline. Sometimes the meta-theatrical point is explicit; in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, when Prince Edward attempts to interrupt the wooing taking place before his outraged eyes, Bacon must require him to “sit still, my lord, and mark the comedy” (6.48). But the correspondence between the cuckold's voyeurism and theatrical spectatorship is not merely formal. More interesting and complex connections suggest themselves in the light of the English Renaissance conception of theatrical experience, as that conception emerges from the many attacks upon and defenses of the stage published during the period.

Writers on both sides of this argument describe the experience of audiences in remarkably vivid terms. Audiences are “impressed,” “wrought upon,” “inflamed,” “ravished” by the performance. “So bewitching a thing is lively and well spirited action,” writes Heywood in An Apologie for Actors, “that it hath power to new mold the hearts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt.”9 For proponents of the theater, the intensity of the audience's involvement makes theatrical spectacle a potent force for moral improvement. Defenses of the theater abound with anecdotes of those inspired to great deeds by the heroism enacted before them. Heywood, for instance, describes how the spectators' identification with the protagonists of a history play stimulates their patriotism:

what English blood seeing the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his fame, and hunnye at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best wishes, and as beeing wrapt in contemplation, offers to him in his hart all prosperous performance. … What English Prince should hee behold the true portraiture of that famous King Edward the third, foraging France, … and would not bee suddenly Inflam'd with so royall a spectacle, being made apt and fit for the like atchievement.


The spectator becomes like what he views.

Writers who disapprove of the theater do not question this rhetoric of excitation and malleability, but they put a more sinister construction upon what Sidney calls the “sweet violence” of stage representation. “Poetes that write playes, and they that present them upon the stage, make our affections overflow,” writes the antitheatricalist Stephen Gosson, “whereby they draw the bridle from that parte of the minde, that should ever be curbed.”10 In his monumental antitheatrical treatise Histrio-Mastix, or the Scourge of Players, the Puritan polemicist William Prynne explains why it is even worse to see plays staged than to peruse scripts:

Stageplayes may be read without using or beholding any effeminate amorous, lustful gestures, complements, kisses, dalliances, or embracements; any whorish, immodest, fantastic, womanish apparell, vizards, disguises, any lively representations of Venery, whoredom, adultery, and the like, which are apt to enrage mens lusts … but they can neither be seene nor acted, without all, or most of these.11

For the antitheatricalists all theater is pornographic, and the response of the spectator is a sexual capitulation. The peculiarly overheated quality of their denunciations follows from their conviction that the audience's susceptibility is a form of lasciviousness, a wallowing in venery.

In their conflation of aesthetic and erotic excitement the antitheatricalists rely upon a time-honored association between female promiscuity and theatrical display.12 It is this association that Corvino invokes in Volpone, when he berates Celia for appearing momentarily at a window. Though she is actually a spectator herself of Volpone's mountebank act, Corvino imagines her as spectacle, simultaneously a prostitute and a player on a public stage:

                                                                                                    You smile,
Most graciously, and fan your favors forth,
To give your hot spectators satisfaction!
.....You were an actor with your handkerchief.

(2.3.7-9, 40)

For the jealous husband, a whore is an actor. For the antitheatricalist, an actor is a whore. Renaissance English idiom facilitates the equation: the word “action” can mean both “sexual intercourse” and “theatrical performance.” Thus Prynne describes the dramatic spectacle, whatever its apparent content, as essentially a sexual act performed before an audience:

Those common whores whose misfortune hath prostituted them. … Those adulterers also who have sold their chastity, are ashamed to be seene in publicke: But this our publicke lewdnesse is acted in the open viewe of all men: the obscaenity of common whores is surpassed, and men have found out how they may commit adultery before the eyes of others.


In the antitheatrical account, the performers enact precisely the scene the jealous husband sees, or thinks he sees.

The theater audience's vicarious participation in the represented action—the sympathy that seems, for the defenders of the theater, the key to its morally salutary effect—is thus to Prynne's mind a perverse collaboration between exhibitionist and voyeur. He deplores

that viva vox, that flexanimous rhetoricall Stage-elocution, that lively action and representation of the Players themselves which put life and vigor into their Enterludes, and make them pierce more deepely into the Spectators eares and lewde affections, precipitating them on to lust.


Histrionic spectacle penetrates the “lewd affections” of the audience; as Prynne formulates it more explictly elsewhere, the “lascivious whorish Actions” of the performers “are as so many fiery darts of Satan to wound our soul with lust; as so many conduit-pipes … to usher concupiscence into our hearts, thorow the doores, the portals of our eyes and ears” (375).

If the relationship of spectator to spectacle seems analogous to the erotic relationship of man to woman, Prynne's language suggests a number of paradoxes. The spectacle is conceived as “whorish” female, but it manifests its power by ravishing the spectators with phallic “darts of Satan.” Though the audience is imagined as male, its role in the sexualized transaction is a passive one: it takes the spectacle in through the sensory orifices, “the doores, the portals of our eyes and ears.” Further complicating this account of the sexualized theatrical transaction is the fact that the “female” role is really enacted entirely by males—sometimes transvestite males—and the “male” role is taken by an audience that includes both men and women. In the epilogue to As You Like It, Rosalind playfully invokes and subverts the conventional associations at the same time: “If I were a woman, I would kiss as many of you as had beards that pleased me, complexions that liked me, and breaths that I defied not” (214-17). Rosalind is and is not the assertive and promiscuous female spectacle; the members of the audience are and are not ravished males—some of them are female, and all of them are erotically stimulated at least as much by one another as they are by the play: “I charge you, O women, for the love you bear to men, to like as much of this play as please you. And I charge you, O men, for the love you bear to women—as I perceive by your simpering, none of you hates them—that between you and the women the play may please” (209-14). For the antitheatricalists, this wholesale confusion of gender roles does not amuse. They imagine the audience becoming indistinguishable from that which they view: “neither men nor women, but Monsters” (172). Theatrical performances, Prynne writes, “effeminate their Actors and Spectators … enervating and resolving the virility and vigor of their minds,” making them “womannish both in their mindes, their bodies, speeches, habites, and their whole deportment” (546, 547). At the foundation of the antitheatrical fear of histrionic display is a fear of losing male identity.

In short, the antitheatricalists argue that the exciting theatrical identification of (male) spectator and (female) spectacle represents a profoundly dangerous form of sexual compromise. For the jealous husband, identification with what he sees is similarly unavoidable, and perilous for some of the same reasons. In a discussion that has proven important for psychoanalytic critics of Othello, The Winter's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, and Cymbeline, Freud notes that what he calls “normal” jealousy is often “experienced bisexually”; that is, the sufferer imagines himself not only in the place of the rival but in the place of the beloved.13 “Delusional” jealousy, more extreme in its manifestations, involves a slightly different form of identification: the jealous male projects his homosexual wish for the rival upon the beloved (“I do not love him; she loves him”). The Shakespeareans have drawn upon Freud's model to explain the persistent tendency of his jealous characters to identify with both members of the supposedly adulterous couple, and to confuse heterosexual with homoerotic or homosocial bonds.14 The jealous onlooker participates vicariously in his own betrayal, indulging heterosexual and homosexual fantasies at the same moment, without ordinarily recognizing his motives or acknowledging the implications of those fantasies to himself. Thus Renaissance dramatists, Shakespeare and Jonson perhaps most insistently, connect sexual jealousy with a flaw in masculine self-knowledge or with its loss.

But the cuckold's situation is still more complicated than this account would suggest. If he really identified wholeheartedly with his betrayers he would not experience jealousy, which is predicated upon a consciousness of distance as well as a consciousness of intimacy. The scene of betrayal is typically staged in a way that insists upon this separation; the jealous male conceals himself “above” while the lovers embrace “below,” or vice versa. Unlike an ordinary voyeur, moreover, he has a proprietary claim upon the sexual scene acted out before him; he ought to be able to interfere, and has every reason to do so. But he is pointedly excluded, unable at least for the moment to affect the outcome of events or to announce his presence.

The jealous witness, seeing but himself unseen, is inclined in his frustration to imagine the woman's fault as a form of blindness.15 He conceives of her infidelity as a kind of careless obliviousness to the distinction between man and man. Cressida overlooks Diomed's inferiority to Troilus, Gertrude the difference between Hyperion and a satyr. In The Winter's Tale the very likelihood of error seems to convince Leontes of Hermione's adultery. Leontes and Polixenes are two of a kind—both kings, each with a wife and a son—and moreover, they revel in their similarity. As adults they consider themselves “brothers” and in childhood they were, according to Polixenes, “twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun, / And bleat the one at th' other” (1.2.67-68). But the notion of friend-as-duplicate-self, taken literally, endangers Leontes's exclusive claim to his wife and to his throne, and lends a kind of spurious plausibility to his accusation of Hermione: “You have mistook, my lady, / Polixenes for Leontes” (2.1.82-83). Hamlet accuses his mother of making a similar “mistake”: “Have you eyes?” he asks his mother in the closet scene. “Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed / And batten on this moor? Ha! Have you eyes?” (3.3.66-68). He tries to train his mother to see as he sees. “Look here upon this picture, and on this, / The counterfeit presentment of two brothers” (3.4.55-56). But Gertrude's failure to see the Ghost suggests her inability to assume his point of view. And Hamlet's attempt to reeducate the impercipient female is practically unique; the woman who has once “made a spectacle of herself” is ordinarily not considered salvageable.

The unacknowledged presence of the cuckold clarifies for him his impotence and helplessness; that is why it is so galling. At the same time, however, his marginality confers a compensatory form of potency: the power of superior discernment. He comprehends more than his oblivious beloved and rival. “Would you, the supervisor, behold her topped?” Iago asks Othello. Psychoanalytic critics have tended to interpret his question in one of two ways. Some maintain that it evokes for Othello the complicated trauma of the primal scene. Others read the “supervisor” as a version of the censoring superego.16 But in fact both readings are true at once. The jealous male's distance from what he sees casts him as both traumatized, impotent child and as omniscient father-judge. The Ghost charges Hamlet with the task of being the latter without being the former: of being an agent who uses his privileged knowledge to reestablish order without tainting his mind. The command is difficult, perhaps impossible, to obey, not only because Hamlet's detachment is always threatening to disappear into hysterical identification, but because his jealous marginality is itself inevitably ambivalent.

Dramatists often acknowledge the complex ambivalences of the jealous protagonist, the “forked one,” by distributing his various attributes among more than one character. For the jealous male commonly has an antithetical associate who nonetheless seems to participate in the same pathology, as Othello has Iago: in Bussy d'Ambois Montsurry has the Monsieur; in A Woman Killed With Kindness Frankford has Nicholas; in Troilus and Cressida Troilus has Ulysses; in Much Ado Claudio has both Don Pedro and Don John; in The Widow's Tears Lysander has Tharsalio; in Cymbeline Posthumus has Iachimo; in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore Soranzo has Vasques. The man who finds himself jealous alone tends to search for confederates: Ford tries to enlist Page in The Merry Wives, and Leontes Camillo in The Winter's Tale. Antigonus, in fact, has difficulty imagining that vengeful and loving impulses can originate in the same breast, and assumes that Leontes must have been “abus'd, and by some putter-on” (2.1.141).

Of course Antigonus is wrong, and in fact emotional division of labor in this matter is never really successful. Furthermore, while the jealous male yearns to have his suspicions endorsed by others, his impulse is dangerously self-destructive. Just as his involvement with the scene he witnesses is sexually arousing, but carries with it the threat of unsexing, so his position as male spectator is paradoxically susceptible of reversal. Once the cuckold's plight becomes public he loses his peculiar privileges as unseen witness and becomes himself a feminized spectacle at which others point mocking, phallic fingers.17Any act of sexual assertion or self-justification thus threatens to emasculate him.

Typically the jealous male consoles himself in his perplexity by imagining a revenge which, like the scene he witnesses, is always the same. “I'll tear her all to pieces!” Othello exclaims, “I will chop her into messes!” (3.3.438; 4.1.196). Posthumus echoes him in Cymbeline: “O, that I had her here, to tear her limb-meal!” (2.4.147). “I'll hew thy flesh to shreds!” exclaims Soranzo to Annabella in 'Tis Pity She's A Whore (4.3.58). In The Merry Wives of Windsor Ford looks forward to torturing his wife; in Bussy d'Ambois Montsurry actually puts his wife to the rack onstage, and stabs her repeatedly. Corvino manages to combine his impulse to mutilate with his voyeuristic penchant when he promises Celia that “I will make thee an anatomy, / Dissect thee mine own self, and read a lecture / Upon thee to the city, and in public” (2.3.70-72). In every case the jealous male punishes, or imagines himself punishing, the beloved by visiting upon her his own painful self-fragmentation. If he as witness must despite himself identify with her, then she must be forced to reciprocate. The justice of it pleases.

The analogue to the cuckold's marginality is the exclusion of the spectator from the action of the play, an exclusion ambiguous in precisely similar ways. Like the cuckold, the spectators in the theater see but are themselves unseen. On the one hand they obtain a uniquely comprehensive perspective upon the action, a perspective denied any characters. Thus in Timber, or Discoveries Ben Jonson connects the detachment of the theater audience with the superior awareness of good men, who “plac'd high on the top of all vertue, look'd down on the Stage of the world, and contemned the Play of Fortune. For though the most be Players, some must be Spectators” (1106-9).18 Hamlet, struggling for detached equilibrium, inflicts a version of his own dilemma upon his enemy when he causes Claudius to suffer a disastrous loss of aesthetic distance at the performance of The Murder of Gonzago.

At the same time, the spectators' distance from the action prevents their special awareness from having any apparent consequences. They have a proprietary claim upon what happens onstage—they have paid for the performance and it seems to exist solely for their gratification. Nonetheless, they are unacknowledged by the characters onstage: “we are not in, and cannot put ourselves in, the presence of the characters,” as Stanley Cavell writes.19 The force of this generalization becomes clear when one considers what seem to be counterexamples, plays in which the separation between the spectator and the theatrical enactment is mediated or blurred. In Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle, for instance, two members of the audience insist that if they are going to subsidize the dramatic performance, then they must be allowed to control what happens during the course of the play. They seem to be granted the privilege of interfering with the action, but they obtain this privilege because they are actually, of course, characters themselves, and subject as such to the scrutiny and judgment of the “real” spectators. A gain of power in one direction inevitably entails a loss of power in another.


For the jealous male and the theater audience, then, both distance and intimacy have a double aspect. But the analogy between the spectator and the cuckold seems imperfect, for the jealous male does not simply duplicate the audience's point of view on stage. Ordinarily there is an important gap between our experience and his. Most of the time the audience knows things he does not know: sometimes who his rival is, sometimes what his real motives are, sometimes that his jealous fantasies are imaginary. Othello, Leontes, and Claudio err drastically, and their mistakes are the more serious because they pretend to certainty. Presented with a quasi-theatrical “scene,” they do not push the theatrical metaphor far enough, to consider that what they are being shown might itself be a figment, a charade. Some of Shakespeare's contemporaries make the discrepancy between the audience's awareness and the character's even greater: in Chapman's The Widow's Tears the hero, who has attempted to cuckold himself posthumously, is not allowed in the “recognition scene” to learn that he has succeeded! In an old joke retold by both Edward Bullough and Stanley Cavell in their discussions of aesthetic distance, a yokel stands up during a performance of Othello to inform the hero of Desdemona's innocence. It is a breach of theatrical decorum far more intelligible in the case of Othello than for King Lear or Titus Andronicus or Macbeth. For Othello's mistake is the mistake of a bad audience; the correspondences between his perspective and ours makes the gallery seem a peculiarly appropriate place from which to offer advice.

Given the structural analogies in the experience of the jealous husband and the experience of the theater audience, what is the effect of the discrepancy in their perspectives? I shall argue what may at first glance seem an unintuitive point: that the differences between the audience and the jealous male point up even more strongly the essential similarity of their respective situations. Since I shall be dealing with aspects of theatricality which are not explicitly discussed in Renaissance accounts, I shall rely more heavily than I have done heretofore upon suggestions merely implicit in the plays, and upon my own assumptions about experiences modern audiences share with the original ones.

The yokel believes he can enlighten Othello on the matter of his wife's fidelity. But the difference between the spectator and the jealous male is not merely a disagreement about a matter of fact. For even when his jealousy turns out to be fully justified, the cuckold is to some extent a dupe. At the very least, his unconsciousness of his relationship to the audience seems to puncture his pretensions. Priding himself on his spectatorial prowess, he is as blind to us as his beloved and her rival are to him. He does not know that he is a character in a play. Shakespeare emphasizes the inevitable difference between the perspectives of character and audience even when Ulysses shows Troilus true “ocular proof” of Cressida's infidelity.

Was Cressid here?
                                                                      I cannot conjure, Trojan.
She was not, sure.
                                                                      Most sure she was.


Ulysses may not be able to conjure, but an audience knows that Shakespeare can.

The perceptual advantage does not, however, rest entirely with the audience. One of the many ironies of “ocular proof” is that it does not exist and could never exist in a theater in which the representation of sexual intercourse is taboo.20 As Iago tells Othello, “It is impossible you should see this” (3.3.408). Just as the cuckold's horns are real but invisible, so the domain of the characters' sexual activity is taken for granted but inevitably eliminated from view. There are things the characters know that we do not.

Shakespeare sometimes arranges for his audience's surmises about the offstage world of the characters to overlap or correspond analogically with the surmises of the jealous male who plays the spectator onstage. Watching the closet scene in Hamlet, we wonder what Gertrude's relationship with Claudius has involved and will involve. How long have Claudius and Gertrude been living in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed? Do they continue to do so after Hamlet's conversation with his mother? As Othello speculates about Desdemona and Cassio, so the audience speculates about Othello and Desdemona. Is Iago right when he shouts to Brabantio that “even now, now, very now” the old black ram is tupping the white ewe? Or do the nocturnal broils in Venice and Cyprus prevent the couple from consummating their marriage?21

It is hard to know what would constitute a definitive answer to such questions, given the texts as they now stand. But it is also hard to know how to make moral, psychological, or even narrative sense of Renaissance plays without using what is presented to infer a fictional world elsewhere, offstage, within: a world that “passeth outward show.” The organizing fact of the first half of The Winter's Tale is Hermione's innocence, but this is not a fact amenable to staging. What the audience actually sees is Hermione in a flirtatious conversation with her husband's friend. If she were guilty we would not be shown much more.

Unlike the writer of romance or epic or lyric poem, any writer for the theater must take into account the limits upon what can be presented in performance. Some dramatic traditions address this problem by narrowing the range of appropriate plots and subjects: neoclassical writers endorse the unities of time and place, for instance, on the grounds that following these rules increases plausibility. But most English Renaissance playwrights refuse to accept such restrictions. Ambitious and wide-ranging, they inevitably encounter a gap between their relatively limited theatrical resources and the extravagant requirements of the situations they dramatize. “Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France?” asks the Prologue in Henry V: “Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” (11-14). Many Renaissance dramatists, Shakespeare perhaps most insistently, advertise the incompleteness of their accounts, endlessly referring the spectators to events, objects, situations, landscapes that cannot be shown them. We are provided less with a story than with the synecdoche of a story: not with pitched battles between rival armies but with “alarums within” and short representative skirmishes; not with people on horseback but with descriptions of people on horseback; not with an actual sexual act but with the preliminaries or consequences of a sexual relationship.22

In a theater that insists so self-consciously upon its own representational limitations, the spectator is obliged to evaluate symptoms, behavior the cause of which may be hidden or withheld. The art of spectatorship is an art of diagnosis.23 Does Hamlet behave erratically because he is mad or because he is pretending to be mad? What motivates Antonio's generosity to Bassanio? Why does Rosalind remain in male disguise after she has reached the safety of the Forest of Arden? Why do the courtiers in The Tempest argue about Tunis and Carthage? In each case the audience must draw its conclusions from appearances, and appearances, as virtually every Renaissance play reminds us, are radically untrustworthy.

The theater audience's necessary, but perilous and frustrating, reliance upon inferential reasoning is perhaps its strongest connection to the cuckolds and jealous husbands who populate Renaissance drama so thickly. Freud describes a man jealous of an “impeccably faithful wife”:

[he] drew its material from his observation of the smallest possible indications, in which the utterly unconscious coquetry of the wife, unnoticeable to any other person, had betrayed itself to him. She had unintentionally touched the man sitting next to her with her hand; she had turned too much towards him, or she had smiled more pleasantly than when alone with her husband. To all these manifestations of her unconscious feelings he paid extraordinary attention, and always knew how to interpret them correctly, so that he really was always in the right about it, and could justify his jealousy still more by analytic interpretation.24

Freud himself notes the similarity between the patient and a psychoanalyst. Both kinds of interpreter employ an inductive method that refuses to acknowledge the conventions that dismiss certain phenomena as meaningless or unmentionable. But Freud's formulations here and elsewhere in the discussion refuse to specify the source and the validity of such interpretations:

[Jealous husbands] do not project … into the sky, so to speak, where there is nothing of the sort already. They let themselves be guided by their knowledge of the unconscious, and displace to the unconscious minds of others the attention they have withdrawn from their own.25

On one hand the husbands console themselves, like the jealous males in Renaissance plays, with a fantasy of spectatorship that allows them to remain unscrutinized even by themselves. Their jealousy serves their own requirements, and truth seems not to be at issue. On the other hand they do not project into an empty sky. Freud insists that the behavior of his patient's wife encourages suspicion: “he really was always in the right about it.” When Stephen Orgel describes Shakespearean plays as “collaborative fantasies” he stresses the element of projection in any audience response, and remarks upon the way such projection will alter the conventions of interpretation for different spectators and in different ages.26 But how exactly does this collaboration take place? Who or what determines its shape?

In an essay on the female nude, John Berger describes the social practices that inform the artistic tradition:

Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at … the surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.27

As in the Renaissance theater, the generic spectator is male, the spectacle female, and in some sense sexually available. In the paintings Berger describes, however, the “painted woman” knows that she is watched, and her consciousness of this fact is profoundly flattering to the observer.

Everything is addressed to him. Everything must be the result of his being there … Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture … [Her expression] is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to a man whom she imagines looking at her—although she doesn't know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed.


Such paintings, reflecting back to the spectator confirmation of his own significance, are comparable in this respect to those Renaissance court masques that celebrate the indispensable centrality of the monarch and his court. In the theater the relationship between spectator and spectacle seems to be conceived quite differently. Intensely self-conscious about their theatricality, these plays represent the conditions of dramatic performance in a wide variety of forms. But even when the presence of the spectator is directly acknowledged, as it is in the play-within-the-play, the acknowledgment is rarely flattering. “Pyramus and Thisbe,” in A Midsummer Night's Dream, hardly provides Theseus and his followers with an idealized view of their own sexuality. In The Spanish Tragedy, in Hamlet, and in The Revenger's Tragedy, a ruler requests a performance, but the spectacle produced under his auspices veers out of his control, manipulated in secret by forces that desire not to gratify, but to murder him. Eavesdropping scenes exclude the spectator in a different way: in Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice, Benedick, and Claudio experience themselves as the unseen spectators of episodes that unbeknownst to them are designed to be overseen, to alter their feelings and behavior. Here again the spectacle seems to possess an agenda of its own, of which the spectator is not entirely aware. As a figure for the audience, the jealous male represents the spectator at his most agonizingly involved and his most scandalously marginalized. He is not the only model for the Renaissance dramatic spectator, but he is in some respects the most disturbing.

For even when his perspective seems radically at odds with the audience's, the cuckold's combination of awareness and ignorance, marginality and power, distanced superiority and voyeuristic submission to the blandishments of spectacle, recapitulates the paradoxical relationship of audience to theatrical performance. “O curse of marriage,” exclaims Othello, “That we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites!” (3.3.272-74). He laments an arrangement that grants men ownership of women but which cannot grant them the usual correlatives of possession, knowledge and control. In the Renaissance theater the spectators at a play find themselves in a similar dilemma. Though they have paid for the performance—though the play is ostensibly performed for their benefit—they seem to be denied control over and knowledge of that which they seem to own. Interpretation is the attempt to escape the horns of this dilemma.


  1. See, for example, David Sundelson, “So Rare A Wondered Father: Prospero's Tempest,Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppelia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980) 35-36; and Stephen Orgel, “Prospero's Wife,” Representations 8 (Fall 1984): 1-2, 4-5.

  2. Literary critics' attempts to explain sexual jealousy in terms of psychology (the character's or the author's) include Abraham Feldman, “Othello's Obsessions,” American Imago 9 (1952): 147-64; John Ellis, “Rooted Affection: The Genesis of Jealousy in The Winter's Tale,College English 25 (1964): 545-47; Stephen Reid, “Othello's Jealousy,” American Imago 25 (1968): 274-93; Robert Rogers, “Endopsychic Drama in Othello,Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 205-15; Murray M. Schwartz, “Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale,American Imago 30 (1973): 250-73; Arthur Kirsch, “The Polarization of Erotic Love in Othello,Modern Language Review 73 (1978): 721-40; Andre Green, The Tragic Effect: The Oedipus Complex in Tragedy, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979) 88-136; Janice Hays, “Those ‘soft and delicate desires’: Much Ado and the Distrust of Women,” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1980), 79-99; Edward Snow, “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello,English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412; Joel Fineman, “Fratricide and Cuckoldry: Shakespeare's Doubles,” Representing Shakespeare, 70-109; Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982); and Carol Cook, “‘The Semblance of Her Honor’: Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing,PMLA 101 (1986): 186-202. Critics who relate Shakespeare's treatment of sexual jealousy to the problems of heterosexuality in a patriarchal culture include Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), 222-54; and Coppelia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), 119-50. In The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 481-96, Stanley Cavell provides a cultural explanation of a different order, linking Othello's distrust of Desdemona with problems of philosophical skepticism. Of course the cultural and the psychological approaches need not exclude each other, and many recent critics tend to combine both.

  3. For concurrent accounts of different regions, Essex and York, see F. G. Emmison, Elizabethan Life: Morals and the Church Courts (Chelmsford: Essex County Council, 1973), 48-68; and J. A. Sharpe, Defamation and Sexual Slander in Early Modern England: The Church Courts at York (York: Borthwick Papers 58, 1980).

  4. These narratives are conveniently available in Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1957-1975). Compare also the treatment of adulterous liaisons in Boccaccio's Decameron: jealous husbands provide obstacles to the lovers' unions, but the tales typically focus on the ingenuity of the transgressive couple in surmounting those obstacles.

  5. Pierre Charron, Of Wisdom [De La Sagesse], trans. Samson Lennard (London, n.d.: dedicated to Prince Henry), 92. An Englishman in the first half of the seventeenth century would have had access to a respectable literature on the passions even if he did not read Latin or French, the languages in which many of the treatises were originally composed. During this period, the most important account of jealousy in English is Richard Burton's in The Anatomy of Melancholy, 3.3. Also available to the English speaker were such Continental writers as Charron; Michel de Montaigne's Essayes in John Florio's translation; Nicholas Coeffeteau, A Table of Humane Passions [Le Table des Affections Humaines], trans. Edward Grimeston (London, 1621); and Juan Luis Vives, The Office and Duetie of an Husband, trans. Thomas Parnell (London, 1553)—all of whom provide short discussions of sexual jealousy.

  6. Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: Vintage, 1977); Michel de Montaigne, Essayes, trans. John Florio (New York: Modern Library, 1933).

  7. A Freudian might construe this as a version of the “primal scene,” in which the child sees or imagines he sees his parents engaged in sexual intercourse. The classic discussion of the primal scene is Freud's famous case-history of “the wolfman,” From the History of an Infantile Neurosis (1918), Collected Papers (New York: Basic Books, 1959), 5:473-607. Some Shakespeare critics analyze his presentation of jealousy in terms of oedipal or pre-oedipal trauma: of those cited in note 2, for example, Murray Schwartz on The Winter's Tale, Janice Hays on Much Ado, and Stephen Reid and Andre Green on Othello; and also Randolph Splitter, “Language, Sexual Conflict, and Symbiosis Anxiety in Othello,Mosaic 15/3 (1982): 17-26. Indeed Shakespeare consistently connects sexual jealousy with a relation to the parents and especially to the mother. In some plays about jealousy, for example, Hamlet, fantasies about parental sexuality are obviously at issue (although here the curiosity is reciprocal, the parents attempting to spy on their children's courtship). In Othello, the handkerchief links the sexuality of mother and wife; in Cymbeline, when Posthumus becomes convinced of his wife's infidelity he immediately calls his mother's chastity into question. But in non-Shakespearean drama—Bussy d'Ambois, The Duchess of Malfi, Volpone, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore—sexual jealousy, though sometimes incestuous, is rarely if ever connected to a relation with the parents. Since I am interested in those features Shakespeare shares with many other writers, rather than in those features which are distinctively Shakespearean, I am purposely avoiding any gratuitous interpretive move from relations between the sexes to the relations between the generations.

  8. The jealous male's ambiguous collusion in his fate is suggested in the myth of Actaeon, the “horned man” whose name becomes synonymous with cuckoldry in the Renaissance. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Actaeon is merely unfortunate; he accidentally comes upon Diana bathing, and when she realizes that he has seen her naked she turns him into a stag. But many accounts rationalize his punishment by making him a willful voyeur daring or stupid enough to play peeping Tom to a goddess. (This is the version of the myth Jonson uses in Cynthia's Revels.) In “Diana and Actaeon: The Myth as Synthesis,” English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 317-59, Leonard Barkan has shown how the myth of Actaeon becomes a vehicle for the exploration of problems of identity and identification similar to the ones I discuss later in this essay.

  9. Thomas Heywood, An Apologie for Actors (London, 1608?), B4r. English Renaissance writers draw their conception of audience response from rhetorical treatises: thus the emphasis on moving and persuading the onlookers. Both pro- and anti-theatricalists argue, however, that dramatic performance elicits for better or worse a more wholesale response than other forms of oratory, because it joins the persuasive power of language to the persuasive power of spectacle. English writers on the theater do not share their Continental contemporaries' interest in Aristotle's theory of catharsis; they never assert that the theater siphons off or exhausts the emotional energies of the audience.

  10. Philip Sidney, A Defense of Poesy, ed. Albert Feuillerat (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1963), 24; Stephen Gosson, Plaies Confuted in Five Actions (London, 1582), Flv.

  11. William Prynne, Histrio-mastix, or, the Scourge of Players (London, 1633), 930. I quote from Prynne because his treatise is by far the most comprehensive, but I am also interested in him as the representative of a position that enjoys considerable prestige in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. The tropes I discuss are shared by Prynne's forbears and contemporaries: for example, John Northbrooke, A Treatise Wherein Dicing, Dauncing, Vaine Plaies … with other idle pastimes … are reproved (London, 1579); Stephen Gosson, Plaies Confuted in Five Actions and The Schoole of Abuse (London, 1579); Anthony Munday, A Second and Third Blast of Retrait from Plaies and Theaters, (London, 1580); Phillip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583); and John Rainolds, Th'Overthrow of Stage-Playes (London, 1599). Antitheatrical attitudes influence the closing of the theaters in 1642, and even in the heyday of the English Renaissance antitheatrical sentiments are expressed by those who would seem least likely to sympathize. As Jonas Barish writes in The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981): “The defenses of the stage that survive from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries tend to be fuller than the attacks on it. The defenders usually share the assumptions of their opponents” (117). He notes that some antitheatricalist pamphleteers were “reformed” playwrights, and deals at length with Jonson's antitheatricalism (132-54). In Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962), 165-207, Anne Righter discusses what she sees as Shakespeare's ambivalence about theatricality in the latter part of his career.

  12. For discussion of the logic of this connection see Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Playhouse Flesh and Blood: Sexual Ideology and the Restoration Actress,” ELH 46 (1979): 595-617, esp. 603-9, and Laura Levine, “Men in Women's Clothing: Anti-Theatricality and Effeminization from 1579-1642,” Criticism 28 (1986): 121-43. In my article I mention that Renaissance antitheatricalists and antifeminists blame the seductiveness of both actors and whores for personal and social disruptions they supposedly produce in their admirers. But the unfaithful woman threatens more than susceptible men. Her refusal to acknowledge the supposedly self-evident distinctions between man and man endangers a social order that depends precisely upon those distinctions, and furthermore upon their “naturalness,” “obviousness,” and “justice.” So it should not be surprising that the woman's confusion seems most dangerous when it is most comprehensible: that is, when the structure of social distinctions is already for some reason precarious. Hamlet does not know, and never bothers to learn, whether his mother was an accessory to his father's murder, because for him her inability to distinguish Hyperion from a satyr is sign enough of her participation in the social disruption Claudius initiates. In Troilus and Cressida, which depicts a pervasive loss of confidence in the competitive means by which distinctions are obtained, the male characters scapegoat Helen and Cressida, pretending that the women's refusal to differentiate one man from another is responsible for the disintegration of an entire social order. It is no accident that Ulysses, so eloquent upon the indispensability of “degree,” should also be so quick to accuse Cressida of whoredom, nor that he should be the character who disillusions Troilus on the subject of his mistress.

  13. Sigmund Freud, “Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality,” in Collected Papers, 2:232-40.

  14. Many critics have suggested a homosexual element in sexual jealousy as Shakespeare depicts it. For general accounts, see Kahn, Man's Estate, 119-50; and Madeline Gohlke, “‘I wooed thee with my sword:’ Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigm,” Representing Shakespeare, 174-75. On Leontes's jealousy see John Ellis and Murray Schwartz; on Othello's Abraham Feldman and Andre Green; on Claudio's Janice Hays (note 2). I am not aware of anyone having made this point about Corvino in Volpone, but it would not be difficult to do so.

  15. In Othello, Emilia provides a female corrective to this male fantasy when she argues that women's adulteries are a response to the infidelities of men, and a sign moreover not of the obtuseness but of the acuity of the female senses.

                                                                                                        Let husbands know
    Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,
    And have their palates both for sweet, and sour,
    As husbands have. What is it that they do,
    When they change us for others? Is it sport?
    I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
    I think it doth. Is't frailty that thus errs?
    It is so too. And have we not affections?
    Desires for sport? And frailty, as men have?
    Then let them use us well; else let them know,
    The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.


    Emilia understands that the double standard which allows women less sexual freedom than men is linked with another kind of double standard that casts the male as perceiving subject and the female as perceived object.

  16. For example, Randolph Splitter maintains that “Othello is in the position of a child wishing to observe the disturbing, confusing and sexually exciting ‘primal scene’ of his parents making love … In effect, Iago ‘impregnates’ Othello … with the poisonous image of a primal scene” (24). But Edward Snow claims that “In Freudian terms, Iago is alienating Othello from the sexual act by making him participate in it from the place of the superego. Shakespeare's ‘supervisor,’ in fact, neatly condenses the watching, controlling, and judging function that Freud defines as the superego's three attributes” (396).

  17. Thus in the final scene of Volpone, Corvino is deprived of his wife and sentenced to public humiliation:

                                                                                    Thou, Corvino, shalt
    Be straight embarked from thine own house, and rowed
    Round about Venice, through the Grand Canale,
    Wearing a cap with fair, long ass's ears
    Instead of horns; and so to mount, a paper
    Pinned on thy breast, to the berlino—
    And have mine eyes beat out with stinking fish,
    Bruised fruit, and rotten eggs.


    This punishment defines Corvino's crime not as perjury or pimping but as incompetence in the role of masculine spectator; it constitutes a “fitting” demotion to the status of spectacle. Significantly, given the issues I discuss above, Corvino anticipates that this demotion will involve a blinding. The Freudian connection between blinding and castration is relevant here.

  18. Ben Jonson, Timber, or Discoveries, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford, Percy and Evelyn Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1947), 8:562-649.

  19. Stanley Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” in Must We Mean What We Say?: A Book of Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1969), 337. Cavell writes at length of the frustrations of audience exclusion from tragic drama (317-44). Edward Bullough provides a more general and more sanguine account of the audience's unique perspective in “‘Psychical Distance’ as a Factor in Art and Aesthetic Principle” (first published 1912), Aesthetics: Lectures and Essays (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), 93-130.

  20. Even the antitheatricalist Stephen Gosson, who calls the theater “a generall market of Bawdrie,” admits that no “filthynesse in deede, is committed within the compasse of that grounde, as was done in ancient Rome” (The Schoole of Abuse, 34).

  21. Coppelia Kahn, with many other critics, assumes that Gertrude's sexual relationship with Claudius begins during old Hamlet's lifetime (Man's Estate, 132-35). But Rebecca Smith, in “A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare's Gertrude,” The Woman's Part, 194-210, argues that Gertude is only guilty of hasty remarriage. Edward Snow maintains that “Desdemona is in high spirits the day after the wedding night … Her mood is what chiefly suggests that the marriage has been happily consummated, and that in the process Desdemona has become ‘half the wooer’” (406). But in “Othello's Unconsummated Marriage,” Essays in Criticism 33 (1983), T. G. A. Nelson and Charles Haines insist that “Othello fails to consummate his marriage with Desdemona because of pressures placed on him during the couple's first night in Cyprus” (1). Andre Green suggests that Othello may have been impotent on his wedding night (110). In The Claim of Reason Stanley Cavell, correctly I think, sees Shakespeare's lack of clarity as strategic; he relates it to the skeptical philosophical problems he sees the play as exploring.

  22. In “Falstaff Uncolted,” Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times: Perspectives and Commentaries (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), 121-30, Harry Levin shows how self-consciously Marlowe and Shakespeare play with the convention that horses never appear on stage. Tamburlaine harnesses men to his chariot. In Richard III, it is a foregone conclusion that no horse will materialize even when the hero is willing to offer his kingdom for one.

  23. This description of interpretation may seem to apply to the experience of nondramatic texts as well—or indeed to any confrontation with objects in the external world. I am arguing not that the relation between play and audience raises unique problems, but rather that the circumstances of theatrical performance tend to exacerbate particular interpretive dilemmas. The famous dispute between the formalists and the old-style Bradleyan critics of Shakespeare, who speculated freely upon the offstage lives of the characters (“How many children had Lady Macbeth?”), was essentially a dispute about the nature and proper range of the audience's inductive inquiry.

  24. “Certain Neurotic Mechanisms in Jealousy, Paranoia, and Homosexuality,” 235. Compare Richard Burton's description of a jealous husband in The Anatomy of Melancholy, 3.3.2: “As a Heron when she fishes, still prying on all sides, or as a Cat doth a Mouse, his eye is never off hers; he gloats on him, on her, accurately observing on whom she looks, who looks at her, what she saith, doth, at dinner, at supper, sitting, walking, at home, abroad, he is the same, still inquiring, mandering, gazing, listening, affrighted with every small object; why did she smile, why did she pity him, commend him? Why did she drink twice to such a man? Why did she offer to kiss, to dance? &c., a whore, a whore, an arrant whore!”

  25. “Certain Neurotic Mechanisms,” 236.

  26. Orgel (note 1), 2-4.

  27. John Berger et al., Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin, 1972), 47. Berger's account, of course, deals with the relationship of spectator to spectacle in a very narrow range of visual art; it is not meant to be exhaustive. For more wide-ranging discussions of the variety of ways visual art can imply a relation to an observer, see Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), and “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum 5, No. 10 (1967): 12-23.

I would like to thank the following people for bibliographical advice: Michael Cadden, Carol Neely, Fred Maus, Andrew Ross, and P. Adams Sitney; and to thank Fred Maus, Stephen Greenblatt, and Jonathan Goldberg for helpful comments on a draft of this article. A note on editions: I have cited modern, easily obtainable texts where possible. Shakespeare references are to The Arden Shakespeare, eds. Una Ellis-Fermor, Harold Brooks, Harold Jenkins, and Brian Morris (London: Methuen, 1954-81). Many of the other plays I mention are available in Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin's two volume anthology, Drama of the English Renaissance (New York: MacMillan, 1976). The pro- and anti-theatricalist tracts are published in facsimile from Garland Press.

Murray M. Schwartz (essay date fall 1973)

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SOURCE: Schwartz, Murray M. “Leontes' Jealousy in The Winter's Tale.American Imago 30, no. 3 (fall 1973): 250-73.

[In the following essay, Schwartz offers a psychological explanation of the sources and motivations for Leontes's jealousy in The Winter's Tale.]

Fatum est in partibus illis quas sinus abscondit.


Criticism of The Winter's Tale discloses an almost uniform denial of significant motivation in the representation of Leontes' jealousy. Norman Holland (in his pre-psychoanalytic criticism) writes: “In fact, [Shakespeare] is really quite perfunctory about the source of trouble; he doesn't even bother to motivate Leontes' jealousy.”1 Frank Kermode thinks that “Shakespeare removes Leontes' motives for jealousy.”2 G. W. Knight, committed to theological notions of Shakespeare's divine inspiration, says “His evil is self-born and unmotivated.”3 A. D. Nutall, to my mind the play's most responsive critic, courts “Freudian” suggestions in the text but tactfully avoids a psychoanalytic reading of Leontes' delusions.4 J. H. P. Pafford, the editor of the Arden edition, states flatly: “Causes of the jealousy are no concern of ours.”5 D. A. Traversi speaks only of “The evil impulse which comes to the surface. …”6 Implicit in this dominant attitude toward Leontes' jealousy is the proposition that its specific expressions lack coherent psychological significance. Leontes simply goes mad without cause. In the language of the French psychoanalyst J. Lacan, we can say that these critics refuse to take Shakespeare's metaphors seriously as “significant.”7

Of course, these critics are responding to one aspect of the play's dramatic reality. There is no external explanation of Leontes' behavior provided for us. What the critics call lack of motivation is lack of rationalization. Yet, even if there were external motivation, a critical response that denies unconscious motives would impoverish the power of Shakespeare's overdetermined language.8 In psychoanalytic terms, we can say that the literary creation is always an attempt to synthesize private and unconscious motives with public forms of comprehending the meanings of experience. Such a synthesis is what we mean by symbolic discourse.9The Winter's Tale, then, can be understood to dramatize not “motiveless” jealousy, but jealousy whose motivation is embodied in the structure of linguistic and personal relationships acted out on the stage (and in our minds). The function of criticism is to locate the stylistic terms of its expression and the unconscious significance of those terms.

Three psychoanalytically informed critics have preceded me in the analysis of Leontes' jealousy.

J. I. M. Stewart was the first to recognize that Leontes' jealousy can be partially explained by applying Freud's formula to the play: “I do not love him; she does.”10 In this explanation, Leontes converts the sexual motive of his tie to Polixenes into a perverse relationship between his wife and his friend. Hermione replaces Leontes and, in his fantasy, acts out the prohibited homosexual role Leontes repudiates in himself. This seems plausible, although Stewart reaches far for justification when he accepts Dover Wilson's suggestion that Leontes confesses actual “immoralities” to Camillo, his “priest-like” vehicle of purification. No actual homosexual event need precede the onset of such jealousy as Leontes', and the play gives us at best only unspecified suggestions of boyhood events, as when Leontes, facing Florizel in Act V, says:

                    Were I but twenty-one,
Your father's image is so hit in you,
His very air, that I should call you brother,
As I did him, and speak of something wildly
By us performed before.


Besides, even if we hypothesize some actual homosexual violation, a procedure which seems to me itself to violate the boundary between the play as a work of art and the play as a transcript of life, we gain little, for the focus of Leontes' rage cannot be accounted for if we assume that Hermione is merely a surrogate for himself in relation to Polixenes. Freud's formula, taken in itself and without consideration of the whole dynamics of Leontes' “disease,” has little heuristic value. It closes off rather than opens up a consideration of jealousy in the play as a whole.12

C. L. Barber, in his sensitive essay on the play, accepts Stewart's application of Freud but goes on to suggest a deeper fabric of motives:

I have found Stewart's application of Freud convincing, and I think one can make the case even stronger by close analysis of the opening scene. Beneath this level of psychological extrapolation there is another, still less directly demonstrable, that relates Leontes' jealousy to very early levels of infancy, when the child, though he communicates richly with the maternal side of the mother, fears and hates the father's power to possess her sexually. The projective jealousy can put the rival in the position of the archaic father. An accepted and accepting relation to the father is a condition of positive relationships to other men, so the onset of jealousy means as important a loss of relation to the crucial man as to the crucial woman, crucial in the sense that they are those in whom is invested the core of love which has its root in childhood and is the ground of piety toward the larger powers of life which we encounter first through the parents.13

Leontes in his jealousy, then, loses contact with the benevolent aspects of both parents and, in the concluding scenes, regains access to the maternal Hermione after first reconciling himself to Polixenes through his intercession on behalf of the magical pair of children, Florizel and Perdita. The psychology of this loss and recovery is immensely complex in the play, as Professor Barber realizes, and I believe that his suggestion, that we need a closer analysis of the first scenes to see how this complex projective process develops, can be followed fruitfully. Let me suggest here that the maternity of the mother is not wholly benevolent; we may find that deeper determining motives than those involved in the split between mother and father inform the unconscious logic of the play.

The most extensive discussion of Leontes' jealousy is Stephen Reid's hypothetical reconstruction of the oedipal dynamics which must underlie so extensive a breakdown of the capacity for reciprocal relations with others. Shakespeare, Reid argues, presents us with a pathological condition involving the following determinants: (1) an original incestuous wish toward the mother; (2) a subsequent placating attitude toward the father which activates the very fear of castration it was intended to ward off; (3) a final turning toward the protective strength of the mother as a defense against the original wish and subsequent fear. In the departure scene (I.ii), Leontes turns toward the protective strength of Hermione only to fantasize that she has betrayed him by reviving the homosexual attraction he has been covertly striving to control. Reid believes that Leontes' delusional jealousy centers ultimately in his inability to accept his “feminine self,” and that the rest of the play is designed to recover, by a mixture of mimetic drama and allegory, the original bond between the men by embodying the fulfillment of homosexual attraction in the love of Florizel and Perdita. “Perdita is Leontes' feminine self; Florizel is Polixenes' masculine self. Their union is the fulfillment of Leontes' homosexual wish.”14

Professors Barber and Reid seem to agree that the crucial relationship restored symbolically and actually is the friendship between Leontes and Polixenes, whatever name we choose to give it. Yet, neither dwells on the actual nature of their bond as it is expressed in the text of the play. I believe, however, that the manifest and unconscious features of that bond reveal a special kind of relationship which Leontes, even in his jealousy, and the play as a whole, strive to reconstitute.

In the opening scenes of The Winter's Tale, before the shock of Leontes' jealousy ruptures the intricate web of aggressive playfulness and formality that characterizes courtly dialogue, Shakespeare offers us two descriptions of the childhood affection between Leontes and Polixenes. The first is spoken by Camillo, and it recalls the image of the tree made whole at the end of Cymbeline:15

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia. They were trained together in their childhoods, and there rooted betwixt them then such an affection which cannot choose but branch now. Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities made separation of their society, their encounters, though not personal, have been royally attorneyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, that they have seemed to be together, though absent; shook hands, as over a vast; and embraced, as it were, from the ends of opposed winds. The heavens continue their loves!


The more we read The Winter's Tale, the more this speech becomes a metaphor of the whole. Variations of many words (and the evocation of ideal relationships in words) recur, gathering significance as their meaning and suggestiveness metamorphoses in new contexts. The hands, for example, here metonymic images of union, will shortly become the sign of the bond between Leontes and Hermione (“And clap thyself my love”). Then, as Leontes becomes immersed in a fantasy of betrayal, the hands become a symbol of boundary violation, “paddling palms, and pinching fingers,” “virginalling / Upon his palm.” The image of “a vast,” an immense space (usually ominous in Shakespeare) suggests, in its temporal dimension, the “wide gap of time” to which Leontes refers in the play's last lines. Just as here the “vast” is bridged by symbolic gestures which would undo the “necessities” of separation in space and absence in time, at the end, language, social discourse, fills the gap of time “since first / We were dissever'd.” The story is filled in, and time, like a container, filled up. In the world of romance and in dreams, space and time are interchangeable categories.

Interchangeable categories also function to provide the illusion of presence in The Winter's Tale. The artifice of culture, “gifts, letters, loving embassies,” substitutes for personal encounters. Interchange of symbols represents interchange of physical actions, a shaking of hands, an embrace. In the face of separation and distance, it is the work of art to mediate between “then” and “now,” to express symbolic continuity. Symbolic action, then, counters the real divisions of “mature dignities and royal necessities.” In the extent of their exchanges, we see the depth of their bond and the need for union that manifestly informs it.

Yet, for all of Camillo's emphasis on the efficacy of symbolic exchange, he is aware that his metaphors are not identical with reality. The embrace, after all, is only “as it were,” and they only “seemed to be together, though absent.” Separation is real, and they have been absent. As he praises the art of their exchanges, he also makes us aware of the realities which generate the need for and the limits of that very art. In art, they show themselves the way they want to seem and to be seen; they take and give symbols and metaphors.

Why? Camillo has an answer for us, if we take the art of his metaphor seriously. The answer is that they want to preserve by symbolic means a childhood bond, an affective union at the root of the whole artifice of their culture. It is the symbiotic nature of this bond that his metaphor expresses, and even the subtle ambiguity of “branch” (it suggests both separation and growth) retains the idea of a common root. The process of growth and separation is here imagined in terms of dual unity.16 Leontes and Polixenes shared a communion, rooted deeper than their conscious wills; it “cannot choose but branch now.”

Dual unity is a psychoanalytic paradox in which two equals one, as in “The Phoenix and the Turtle”:

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance and no space was seen
'Twixt this Turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.


But the turtle here is at one with his queen, not his boyhood friend. The rooted affection of Leontes and Polixenes is itself rooted ontogenetically in the mother-child relationship, as we shall see. The myth of childhood affection, I am suggesting, preserves in masculine form a narcissistic and idealized version of the mother's dual unity with the son. Notice how in Camillo's speech there is no differentiation of one king from the other, either in image or in action. The speech implicitly denies any difference between the two. Indeed, the deepest function of their exchanges is to deny or undo change itself. The denial of difference (spatial) and the denial of change (temporal) leaves us with the fantasy of perfect mutuality. The Winter's Tale is a play about how this fantasy of perfect mutuality can be made to survive the impact of “great difference” (I.i.3) and yet remain itself; or, in psychoanalytic terms, how Shakespeare seeks to realize the wish for oral perfection without the denial of social and sexual differences either through violence or through individual infantile regression.

The second description of childhood affection bears out the implications of Camillo's metaphor, but its dramatic context extends the consequences of the wish for dual unity. After being convinced (should we say “seduced”?) by the power of Hermione's words (“a lady's Verily's / As potent as a lord's” [I.ii.50-51]) to remain in Sicily longer, Polixenes responds to Hermione's probing of his and Leontes' boyhoods with a denial of difference and an assertion of innocence:

                                        Was not my lord
The verier wag o' th' two?
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun,
And bleat the one at th' other: what we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, not dream'd
That any did.


He insists on identity, mutuality, a time prior to the frustrations of time and the vicissitudes of socially categorized guilt. A few lines later he explicitly dissociates that time from the “hereditary” guilt of original sin:

                                        Had we pursu'd that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty,’ the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours.


Polixenes' language suggests that the fall into post-edenic guilt involves the “imposition” of phallic desire (“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame”), with a consequent splitting of their masculine egos:

                                                                                          O my most sacred lady,
Temptations have since then been born to's; for
In those unfledg'd days was my wife a girl,
Your precious self had then not cross'd the eyes
Of my young playfellow.


His repeated “then” expresses the tension adhering to this developmental fantasy. Now, in the immediate relationship with Hermione, he would preserve her as an idol (“sacred,” “precious”) even as he imagines her to be the source of sexual temptations. In her sacredness Hermione embodies for men the antidote to separation inherent in all religious structures, and this attribute of herself remains in precarious contact with its opposite, as she points out when she says, “Of this make no conclusion, lest you say / Your queen and I are devils” (81-82). The sacred is the realm of infantile desire raised to the level of collective ideal identities beyond change, but the devil is a shape-shifter in the minds of men; hence the play's obsession with forms of constancy, fixity, with oaths and vows. Polixenes' metaphor of birth (“born to's”) suggests both that the men themselves are the source of “temptations” and that they identify with the woman as a mother. (There is even a hint, in “cross'd the eyes,” of the visual intoxication that will be brought to full expression in the final scene and reiterated throughout when sacred boundaries are confirmed or jeopardized.)17

Hermione probes Polixenes' idealization, puts the myth in perspective, so that we recognize the wish simultaneously with the actuality of the present. They are not innocent, and the heritage of the myth is the ambivalence it denies. The realm of the sacred is inseparable from the realm of guilt; the obverse of the wish for communion with a narcissistic version of oneself is a defensive splitting of the ego. The myth of “twinn'd lambs” is a retrospective idealization of boyhood in the interest of clinging to a paradisal version of pre-Oedipal existence when confronted by the temptation toward sexual contact. Michael Balint points out that “a truly narcissistic man or woman is in fact a pretense only. They are desperately dependent on their environment, and their narcissism can be preserved only on the condition that their environment is willing, or can be forced, to look after them.”18 In their attempt to arrest time, the men of the play are forced to seek the image of the past in every present gesture. This explains why Polixenes so readily acquiesces to Hermione's verbal manipulations. He will not risk the loss of her as a “kind hostess” (I.i.60). His constancy consists in the capacity to change in ways that preserve her sacred status, or, to put it negatively, to change in ways that express his ambivalence while preserving him from its consequences.

Leontes and Polixenes may be manifest opposites in Act I, but latently they remain as identical as twins, each a mirror image of the other. Great difference, on one level, is no difference at all. Each is absolutely dependent on external sources of narcissistic supplies, each projects a split image of woman (the maternal nourisher becoming a malevolent seductress when they feel deprived of signs of love), each succumbs to change in the interest of validating the identifications and values he believes he shares with the other. Polixenes avoids contact with Leontes' jealousy in a way which affirms the system of internalized controls that Leontes sexualizes:19

                                                                                                              This jealousy
Is for a precious creature: as she's rare,
Must it be great; and, as his person's mighty,
Must it be violent; and as he does conceive
He is dishonour'd by a man which ever
Profess'd to him; why, his revenges must
In that be made more bitter.


From the perspective of the internalized taboo, Leontes must become violent and seek the restoration of purity through vengeance. Within the structure of the sacred myth he acts out a psychologically appropriate pathology. He contains the disease which corresponds to the religious therapy the play as a whole acts out.

In respect to narcissistic self-definition and the split conception of woman, Polixenes, Leontes, Antigonus and Camillo are doubles of one another. Each reflects a specific orientation toward the taboo on sexualized touch which is an integral part of the Platonized conception of woman. Camillo “cannot / Believe this crack to be in my dread mistress / (So sovereignly being honourable)” (I.ii.321-23). And Antigonus offers us a version of masculine pathology second in its primary process logic only to Leontes' confusions:

                                                            Be she honour-flaw'd,
I have three daughters: the eldest is eleven;
The second and the third, nine and some five:
If this prove true, they'll pay for 't. By mine honour
I'll geld 'em all; fourteen they shall not see
To bring false generations: they are co-heirs,
And I had rather glib myself, than they
Should not produce fair issue.(20)


In this confusion of his own potency with feminine loyalty, in the view of women as the guarantors of masculine honor, and in his insistence on the economics of moral debt, Antigonus duplicates the dynamics of the disease he manifestly repudiates. He becomes, therefore, the surrogate for his master and the carrier of Paulina's curse (II.ii.76-79), the vehicle for Shakespeare's displaced exorcism of Leontes' jealousy.

In his paranoid delusions of betrayal, Leontes acts out the whole range of pathological boundary violations that define the lower half of the circle of grace. Unlike his double, who avoids conflict until Act IV and who, significantly, never actually has the wife he mentions (even at the end when three other pairs are created), Leontes becomes the play's vehicle for the release of the repressed. Shakespeare condenses in him the fragmented components of the de-differentiated psyche symbolically represented in Cymbeline by a whole range of characters—Cloten, Iachimo, Posthumus, and Cymbeline. In his jealousy, we see the great difference between accommodation of oneself to the myths of ideal mutuality and feminine sacredness and the precariously contained psychic realities that give rise to those myths. In The Winter's Tale, jealousy and the sacred are dialectical terms; each implies the other, as separation implies union or winter spring.

In the departure scene (I.ii), Leontes is reticent until he erupts (at line 108), and he seems less than determined to reciprocate Polixenes' rich compliments. After Hermione succeeds in retaining Polixenes, he seems defeated in comparison to her. In lines that seem manifestly designed to compliment her, he evokes the sense of his deprivation:

                                                                                                    Why, that was when
Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death,
Ere I could make thee open thy white hand,
And clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter
‘I am yours forever.’


He seems to be analogizing past and present: now, by the power of her words, she has kept Polixenes' presence, just as then she vowed her own presence. But the lines are obliquely accusative, as if to say, “Then you vowed to be mine forever, but now you have violated that vow in giving yourself to my rival. Then I felt as deprived of love as a child abandoned by a mother (soured to death) and now I feel just as excluded.”21 Almost immediately after he speaks Hermione gives her hand to Polixenes, and Leontes is instantly jealous.22

                                                                                [Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances,
But not for joy—not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent: 't may, I grant:
But to be paddling palms, and pinching fingers …


As professor Barber points out,23 “mingling friendship far” is as appropriate to his relationship to Polixenes as it is a distortion of present reality. Beneath the myth of ideal masculine correspondence there lies a deeper set of fantasies in which the brothers are rivals for maternal love, the “fertile bosom” Leontes imagines violated by sexualized contact. Leontes fantasizes the loss of the boundary between sublimated forms of erotic involvement and usurped gratification in defiance of the superego. As his disease develops, we see a massive projection of the contents of a psyche, an attempt simultaneously to relieve himself of an inner burden of guilt and to seek punishment for his forbidden wishes.

Paranoia is a form of psychic imprisonment in which the loss of ego boundaries makes the external world nothing but a confluence of symbols, selected according to subjective and ambivalent wishes and fears. For the paranoid, others become what D. W. Winnicott has called “subjective objects,” embodiments of psychic realities that exist only in relation to the subject.24 Others lose their otherness. In this sense, paranoia can be seen as a radical denial of separation, a perversion of the mutuality of the boyhood myth which shares with it a crucial element. In his delusions Leontes identifies with both Hermione and Polixenes and tries desperately to exclude himself from the fantasies he projects on to them.

Leontes surrenders to Polixenes and Hermione the impulses and identifications he harbors in himself. We can find all of the components previous critics have identified, but this does not seem to get at the unconscious strategies of his disease. Polixenes does become the archaic image of the father Leontes fears, the “harlot king” (II.iii.4) of childhood fantasy.

                                                                      Fie, fie! no thought of him:
The very thought of my revenges that way
Recoil upon me: in himself too mighty,
And in his parties, his alliance; let him be
Until a time may serve.


And Hermione is transformed in his perception into a container of disease, at once infected by genital penetration and possessed as a narcissistic ornament by the intrusive other, Polixenes, “he that wears her like her medal, hanging about his neck …” (I.ii.307-308). In his psychic decomposition Leontes descends, “o'er head and ears a fork'd one” (I.ii.186), into a nightmare world where the fluid boundary “twixt his and mine” (I.ii.134) threatens him with the psychotic loss of the distinction between perception and hallucination, even to the point of somatic enactment of the punishments he dreads:

You smell this business with a sense as cold
As is a dead man's nose: but I do see't and feel't,
As you feel doing thus; and see withal
The instruments that feel.(25)


His ego devolves to the condition of bodily responsiveness; he cannot choose but branch the horns of the cuckold, nor deny by projection the identifications within him. Like Posthumus in Cymbeline, Leontes can only expand the circle of contamination in his effort to rid the borders of his consciousness of the internalized parents he imagines his wife and friend to be. Paranoia is a defense which fails at the moment of its enactment, for to externalize what is internally intolerable is to find it everywhere, and to risk the emptying of the self in the effort to restore inner and outer purity. It corresponds to the effort of the infant who projects aggressive wishes on to the source of nourishment only to “discover” outside the transformation repudiated by the ego.26 Once projected, the inner wishes and objects seem utterly alien to the ego, and yet Leontes clings to his fantasy as if his life depended on it:

                                                                                                              is this nothing?
Why then the world, and all that's in't, is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, and nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.


Love recoils to its opposite when confronted with what seems to be a challenge to its totality. The fantasy is globalized; on its truth depends the ontological status of the whole world, as if to lose the bond, however painful, with the externalized embodiments of himself were to lose himself entirely. Paranoia is better than nothing, even if it hinges the universe on the contingency of a hypothesis. If his delusion is not real, then the world is empty of identities. And if it is real, then he is excluded from the world of others, like a child who suddenly perceives that parental intimacy is not just for him, but has an autonomy of its own.

In his progression from the sudden flooding of his ego in scene ii to the apparently catastrophic loss of his wife and children in the clamor of Act III, Leontes grasps simultaneously for external validation of his condition and for means of annihilating the monstrous conception at its source. It is as if his disease acts out a grotesque parody of creation itself, a mockery of the larger fertility Hermione's generativity symbolizes. “Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I / Play too; but so disgrac'd a part, whose issue / Will hiss me to my grave” (I.ii.187-89). Imagining himself deprived of nurturant relatedness, hating the violations he fantasizes, yet terrified of losing contact with symbolic others, Leontes “gives birth” in an abstract version of the primal scene, the intercourse of something and nothing:

Affection! thy intention stabs the center:
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat'st with dreams;—how can this be?—
With what's unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow'st nothing: then 'tis very credent
Thou may'st co-join with something; and thou dost,
(And that beyond commission) and I find it,
(And that to the infection of my brains
And hard'ning of my brows).


The disease happens to him; in effect, Leontes watches himself get lost and then finds himself in the fantasy to which he himself has metaphorically given birth. We witness his regression in process.27 Camillo and Polixenes confirm the nature of this process even as they avoid its issue:

                                                                      How should this grow?
I know not: but I am sure 'tis safer to
          Avoid what's grown than question how 'tis born.


Fantasizing the loss of “some province, and a region / Lov'd as he loves himself” (I.ii.369-370), Leontes fills the vacuum with pathologically conceived violations of the sacred space Hermione occupies in the minds of the others at the court. The opposite of symbiotic relatedness is the narcissistic confusion of self and other by the generation of a pseudo-universe, an autarchic assumption of omnipotence. Even if he plays a dis-graced part, he writes the play himself.28

But only to a degree, for Shakespeare does not risk degree in this play, but keeps Leontes bounded by others' refusal of collusion in his delusions, and by structural and linguistic ironies that reveal in instance after instance that his projections are self-descriptions and that his assumption of autonomy is based on a sequence of dependency relationships. As he moves closer toward the attempt to annihilate his fears he also moves toward cloture with the parental authorities who will subdue his violence by the counter-violence of the sacred the play is designed to validate. Paulina, and above her, Apollo, reassert the ontological status of the identities Leontes contaminates.

His jealousy saturates Leontes' language with overdetermined meanings and condensed fantasies. Metaphors of violent punishment intrude upon his effort at self-vindication, making his articulation of imaginary betrayal into a confession of anxiety related to all psychosexual levels. For example, he says to Camillo:

Dost think I am so muddy, so unsettled,
To appoint myself in this vexation; sully
The purity and whiteness of my sheets,
(Which to preserve is sleep, which being spotted
Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps)
Give scandal to the blood o' th' prince, my son,
(Who I do think is mine and love as mine)
Without ripe moving to 't? Would I do this?
Could man so blench?


His effort at rhetorical negation of the fantasy succeeds only in elaborating the ambivalence he would deny. Anal contamination is denied and expressed, castration anxiety accompanies the thought of contaminated purity, superego anxiety leads him to externalize mockery, and doubt of his paternal role is triggered by the fear of losing possession of the pure woman. On one level, Leontes fantasizes himself replaced by Polixenes:

Go to, go to!
How she holds up the neb, the bill to him!
And arms her with the boldness of a wife
To her allowing husband!


Here Polixenes is virtually invited to usurp oral gratification. A few lines later Hermione becomes his property, the imagery becomes genital, and there is a clear implication that Leontes identifies with the woman:

And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th' arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic'd in's absence
And his pond fish'd by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbor: nay, there's comfort in't,
Whiles other men have gates, and those gates open'd
As mine, against their will.


The genital violation of the woman-as-property is equivalent to homosexual assault. He is not differentiated from her, nor is his own psychic activity (for he is “angling now” [I.ii.180]) differentiated from the fantasized activity of others. Neither are Hermione and Polixenes differentiated from one another:

                                                                                          Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning check to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty)? horsing foot on foot?


Yes, Freud's formula applies, “I do not love him, she does.” But it is only one of the operative variables. Leontes' imagery also signifies, “I do not love her in this perverse and taboo way, he does.” And, “I do not identify with her and her with myself, he does.” He substitutes identifications for identities, assimilating social differentiation of roles to a private system of unstable, vivid impositions. Finally what Leontes cannot abide is the fact that the sacred institution of marriage actually requires sexual contact between different sexes to propogate the human race. At the deepest level of his psyche (which is the potentially psychotic level of Shakespeare's psyche), bodily contact itself is dreaded whenever it is imagined outside the boundaries of institutionalized legitimacy. Outside those boundaries, mutuality becomes the loss distinction itself in both its moral and psychological senses.

The extent of Leontes' psychic decomposition forces us to seek an explanation of his pathology not so much in a variation of the Oedipus complex, although there are Oedipal anxieties involved, nor even in an earlier dread of retaliation for forbidden wishes, but at the deepest level of oral anxieties. At that level the infant craves love as nourishment and dreads the possibility of maternal malevolence. Identifying well-being with mother, he finds himself in the reflections of his surroundings. It is no accident that Leontes shifts craving confirmation of his manhood from his son to an attempt to elicit Camillo's service in the poisoning of his double, Polixenes, to the violence of infanticide and to aggression directed at Hermione herself. He plays out, symbolically, a regression that leads to the source of nurturance, and he would destroy that source in the delusion that the woman and not himself contains the contamination he dreads.

First he turns to his son. Identifying with Mamillius as a symbol of phallic integrity, Leontes seeks to find himself externalized in the image of his offspring: “Why that's my bawcock. What! hast smutch'd thy nose? / They say it is a copy out of mine” (I.ii.121-122). But as Mamillius' name implies, Leontes' masculine image of himself is maternally fixated. Seeking “comfort” (I.ii.209) in the identity of father and son is a false therapy for him, since the identity fails to ward off a deeper ambivalence he harbors. Shortly, Leontes turns to Camillo in his desperation to restore the correspondence of inner desires and outer actualities. His wish for “servants true about me, that bare eyes / To see alike mine honour as their profits” (I.ii.309-310), bespeaks his growing obsession with converting the outside world into the form of his fantasy.

To find a dependency he can trust involves for Leontes the murder of the external embodiment of himself by oral means. He turns to poison. Camillo, to prove his oneness with Leontes, must become the instrument of oral violation, “bespice a cup, / To give mine enemy a lasting wink; / Which draught to me were cordial” (I.ii.316-318). Polixenes' death is Leontes' oral gratification. Through Camillo, Leontes would act out an identification with an orally catastrophic mother; he would become actively the figure at whose hands he dreads to suffer passively. This strategy fails also, as Polixenes, “one condemned by the king's own mouth” (I.ii.445), flees the court under the paternal guidance of Camillo, leaving Leontes to confront mother and child.

In Act II, scene i, Hermione becomes the object of Leontes' obstinate substitution of projection for perception. The scene is richly symbolic even before he enters, for Shakespeare enacts in miniature a version of the mother-child relationship Leontes has unconsciously failed to integrate. Hermione first rejects Mamillius:

Take the boy to you: he so troubles me,
'Tis past enduring.


Soon after, rejection is followed by intimate, seductive acceptance:

A sad tale's best for winter: I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
                                                            Let's have that, good sir.
Come on, sit down, come on, and do your best
To fright me with your sprites: you're powerful at it.
There was a man—
Nay, come sit down: then on.
Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly,
Yond crickets shall not hear it.
                                                                                                              Come on then,
And giv't me in mine ear.


The pattern of rejection and return duplicates in the play's reality precisely that rhythm which Leontes cannot tolerate in his jealousy.29 When he storms in, the son is whispering in his mother's ear (“Is whispering nothing?” he had asked Camillo [I.ii.284]). Mamillius exists in a symbiotic relationship with his mother, as his later incorporation of her “shame” shows. Like the Queen-Cloten dyad in Cymbeline, mother and son exhibit reciprocal dependencies (but here the import of the relationship is positive rather than destructive). Leontes comes to rupture this mother-child intimacy. Symbolically, he wishes to destroy the symbiosis at the center of his own identity. In a crucial passage he articulates the deepest ambivalence in the play:30

                                                                                There may be in the cup
A spider steep'd, and one may drink, depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected); but if one present
Th' abhorr'd ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.


The great difference between trust and oral violence is here condensed. Equating knowledge and visual awareness, Leontes is saying that the consciousness of the spider (what it symbolizes) breaks the boundaries of the body itself, and utterly inverts the expectation of nourishment, like the spider in Donne's “Twikenham Garden”:

          But oh, self-traitor, I do bring
The spider love, which transubstantiates all,
          And can convert manna to gall;
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
          True Paradise, I have the serpent brought.

Lacking Donne's irony, Leontes would violently eject the incorporated object. The spider symbolizes a fundamental threat to his existence, and its visual-oral context locates this threat unconsciously in the infantile nursing situation. Mistrust, helplessness, and the certainty of conspiracy accompany this image. What vision, then, leads Leontes to divorce the son from the mother with the line, “I am glad you did not nurse him” (II.i.56)? What does the spider signify?

Psychoanalysis has shown that the spider, like the serpent, is an over-determined symbol. On one level, it represents the sexually threatening mother, contact with whom signifies incest. On a deeper level, it signifies the horror of maternal engulfment, frequently confused with the child's own oral-aggressive impulses. The spider often emerges as a symbol when an intensely ambivalent person needs to ward off a complete break with reality. Melitta Sperling writes of patients suffering from spider phobias:

When the phobic mechanisms as well as the somatic defenses were invalidated by analysis, the split-off pregenital and potentially psychotic core symbolized by the spider appeared. The spider was a highly condensed symbol containing the core fantasies and conflicts from various developmental levels. … The spider also represented both the patient and the mother in these feared and deeply repressed aspects.31

In seventeenth century Apulia, a spider scare led those suffering from the bite of the tarantula to invent songs and rituals designed to cure poisoning. One song goes like this:

It was neither a big nor a small tarantula;
It was the wine from the flask.
Where did it bite you, tell me, beloved, where it was.
Oh, if it was your leg, oh mamma!

“The tarantists' egos,” writes Howard F. Gloyne, “tried methods other than phobia to defend against anxiety: sexualization of anxiety, intimidation of others, identification with the frightening objects, collection of external reassurances.”32 The list of attempted therapies reads like a description of Leontes' paranoid strategies.

Shakespeare knew nothing of this outbreak of tarantism, but the conflicts embodied in Leontes parallel the tarantists' disease. We need not go to Apulia, however, to confirm the maternal significance of the spider in Shakespeare. Richard II, returning to his motherland after his journey to Ireland kneels to the earth and says:

Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand,
Though rebels wound thee with their horses' hoofs.
As a long-parted mother with her child
Plays fondly with her tears and smiles in meeting,
So weeping, smiling, greet I thee, my earth,
And do thee favours with my royal hands;
Feed not thy sovereign's foe, my gentle earth,
Nor with thy sweets comfort his ravenous sense,
But let thy spiders that suck up thy venom
And heavy-gaited toads lie in their way,
Doing annoyance to the treacherous feet,
Which with usurping steps do trample thee …


Like Leontes, Richard confuses mother and child in himself, and he would split the catastrophic mother from her nourishing counterpart. Leontes' final strategy, one which leads to Mamillius' death and his own separation from Hermione, consists in his attempt to sacrifice the catastrophic mother he tragically confuses with his child-bearing wife. In vengeance he would fuse destruction and the re-creation of his bond with her.

                                                                                          … she
I can hook to me: say that she were gone,
Given to the fire, a moiety of my rest
Might come to me again.

(II.iii.6-9; italics added)

Finally, the aim of Leontes paranoia is to reclaim his bond with the mother by means of the private magic which is his disease. He would sacrifice Hermione, paradoxically, to recreate the image of his sacred ideal, and to reclaim his own repose.33

In the terrible irony of the court scene (III.ii) this strategy, too, breaks down, as Leontes moves from the wish for vengeance to his vow of ritualized reparation. His confusion of self and other is absolute: “Your actions are my dreams” (III.ii.82). Attempting public vindication, he stages his own trial, articulates his own guilt and, finally, accepts his sentence, to live without lineage (his “immortality” and his potency) in utter separation from the “sweet'st, dear'st creature” (III.ii.201) he could not separate from his infantile fears of her power. Like a child made submissive and ashamed of his aggression, Leontes exits from the world of the play under the guidance of Paulina, the representative of Hermione who embodies both her feared and ethically essential aspects. Mother and son are to be reunited in death, and Leontes' rebirth, his “recreation” (III.ii.240), consists in his mourning for that lost bond.

Leontes' jealousy is far from motiveless. Shakespeare has articulated through his character precisely those aspects of his psyche—and, in a larger sense, of the collective idealizing imagination of Renaissance dramatists—that threaten the structure of sacred identities. In a sense, we can say that Leontes does possess a crucial knowledge, the knowledge of maternal malevolence. But his is a knowledge, like much knowledge we call paranoid, directed at the wrong people, in the wrong language, at the wrong time. What Freud said of Schreber applies to Leontes: “The delusional formation, which we take to be the pathological product, is in reality an attempt at recovery, a process of reconstruction.”34 That process of recovery is the focus of Shakespeare's theatrical magic in the sacred personalities of the second part of The Winter's Tale.


  1. The Shakespearean Imagination (Bloomington, 1964), p. 284.

  2. Shakespeare: The Final Plays (London, 1963), p. 30.

  3. The Crown of Life (London, 1947), p. 84.

  4. Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale (London, 1966), p. 22.

  5. “Introduction,” The Winter's Tale (London, 1965). Arden edition, p. lxxii.

  6. Shakespeare: The Last Phase (London, 1955), p. 112.

  7. “The Insistence of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Structuralism, Ehrmann, J. (Ed.) (New York, 1970). In Lacan's terminology, Leontes' metaphors “signify” or represent unconscious traumas.

  8. See Robert Waelder's paper, “The Principle of Multiple Function,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly, V (1936), pp. 45-62.

  9. See Marion Milner, “Psycho-Analysis and Art,” in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought, Sutherland, John D. (Ed.) (New York, 1959), pp. 77-101.

  10. Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London, 1949), pp. 30-39.

  11. Quotations from The Winter's Tale follow the Arden edition (London, 1965).

  12. Contemporary analysts do not regard paranoia simply as a defense against homosexuality. See David Shapiro, Neurotic Styles (New York, 1965), Chapter 3 on “Paranoid Style.” Charles Rycroft writes, “Contemporary analysts tend to reverse the relationship and regard homosexuality as a defensive technique for dealing with paranoid fears by submission.” Quoted by Vincent Brome, Freud and His Early Circle (New York, 1969), p. 129. This defensive technique is precisely how Posthumus resolves his paranoia in Cymbeline.

  13. “‘Thou that begett'st him that did thee beget’: Transformation in Pericles and The Winter's Tale,” Shakespeare Survey, 22, pp. 70-80, p. 75.

  14. “‘The Winter's Tale’,” American Imago, xxvii (1970), pp. 263-277. Reid builds his analysis in agreement with W. H. Auden's conviction that “Leontes is a classic case of paranoid sexual jealousy due to repressed homosexual feelings.” “The Alienated City: Reflections on ‘Othello,’” Encounter, 1961, pp. 3-14. p. 11.

  15. See Cymbeline, Act V, scene v, 11. 436-443.

  16. See Géza Roheim, Magic and Schizophrenia (New York, 1955). The fullest expression of dual unity in Shakespearean language occurs in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act III, scene ii, 11. 201-211.

  17. See Weston La Barre, The Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion (New York, 1970), Chapter III, “The First World.”

  18. The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression (London, 1968), p. 55.

  19. Later Polixenes makes Camillo, in effect, into a maternal support from whom separation is equivalent to death. “I pray thee, good Camillo, be no more importunate: 'tis a sickness denying thee anything; a death to grant this” (IV.ii.1-3). And a few lines later, “… the need I have of thee, thine own goodness hath made; better not to have had thee than thus to want thee” (IV.ii.11-13). This is the language of symbiotic relations.

  20. Gelding daughters means destroying their genitals. Oxford English Dictionary under “geld” 1.b. says, “To extirpate the ovaries of (a female), to spay.” In 1557 Tusser first used the word in this sense, referring, of course, to animals. Antigonus' fondness for viewing women as horse-like carries on a strand of imagery first articulated by Hermione (I.ii.94-96).

  21. Reid recognizes the importance of these lines in the course of his own analysis of this scene. In “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud lends support to my argument: “The loss of a love-object constitutes an excellent opportunity for the ambivalence in love-relationships to make itself affective and come to the open.” Standard Edition, XIV, pp. 250-251.

  22. The Stage Direction at 1.108, “Giving her hand to Polixenes,” is not in the Folio, but it seems perfectly appropriate at that point, since it concretizes the growing suggestiveness of the play's language.

  23. op. cit., p. 76.

  24. “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites” (1963), in The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment (New York, 1965), pp. 179-192.

  25. “The instruments that feel” are, according to the Arden note, “presumably Leontes' fingers,” but the line also carries genital significance, as the hands frequently do in Shakespeare. Compare Cymbeline, I.vii. 99-112. See Eric Partridge, Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York, 1960), entries under “instrument” and “finger.”

  26. See Marion Milner, On Not Being Able to Paint (New York, 1957), p. 40. In one of her “free” drawings, she made the shape of a baby's bottle which, instead of a nipple, has a mouth held up in a pleading posture. “And here I suddenly became aware of a reversal,” she says, “for the bottle was demanding from the baby, not the baby from the bottle.” This, in a kind of “original” crystalization, is a central strategy of Leontes' paranoia. See also Harold Searles, “The Sources of the Anxiety in Paranoid Schizophrenia” (1961), in Collected Papers on Schizophrenia and Related Subjects (New York, 1965), pp. 465-486. On p. 466 Searles writes against the view that paranoia simply defends against repressed homosexual desires. “It seems to me a more adequate explanation to think of the persecutory figure as emerging into the forefront of the patient's concern, not primarily because of repressed homosexual interest on the latter's part, but rather because the persecutory figure is that one … who most readily lends himself to reflecting or personifying those qualities which the patient is having most vigorously to repudiate in himself and project on to the outer world.”

  27. In the initial stages of his paranoia, Leontes retains the capacity for what Roy Schafer calls “reflexive self representation.” Only later, and especially in the court scene (III.ii), does he merge completely with his fantasy. See Schafer's Aspects of Internalization (New York, 1968), pp. 85-97.

  28. Northrop Frye has recognized this pattern. See his “Recognition in The Winter's Tale,” in Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale: A Casebook, Kenneth Muir (Ed.) (London, 1968), p. 194.

  29. Philip E. Slater, in The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family (Boston, 1968), finds this same configuration reflected in Greek drama. “The rejection of and dependence upon women mirror the mother's own ambivalence.” p. 44.

  30. The spider passage has no counterpart in Greene's Pandosto, and it can be removed from its context in Leontes' speech without losing any information. Shakespeare has converted a conventional superstition into a means of symbolizing the deepest motives he is dramatizing. The fact that this passage reads almost like a summary parable emphasizes its significance.

  31. “Spider phobias and Spider Fantasies,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, XIX (1971), pp. 472-498. p. 491. See also Richard Sterba, “On Spiders, Hanging and Oral Sadism,” American Imago, VII (1950), pp. 21-28 and Ralph B. Little, “Oral Aggression in Spider Legends,” American Imago XXIII (1966), pp. 170-176. Sterba writes: “Both of these [the spider and the vampire] are symbols to us of the oral destructive danger of being loved and represent the endangered object as a victim of oral aggression.” In Renaissance emblems, the spider is associated with the sense of touch. Some emblems bear the legend, “Sed aranea (nos superat) tactu.” See Guy de Tervarent, Attributs et Symboles Dans L'Art 1450-1600 (Geneve, 1958). The fear of sexual contact is thus associated with the deepest infantile fears of the mother.

  32. “Tarantism,” American Imago, vii (1950), pp. 29-42.

  33. Of jealousy, Fenichel writes: “It is a striving to avoid the very situation which is longed for unconsciously. Where this attempt at avoidance originates from is clear. Like all infantile instinctual defenses, it comes from the anxiety which opposes the idea of instinctual action—in our case, from a fear of retribution for the patient's oral sadism.” “A Contribution to the Psychology of Jealousy,” in The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel, First Series (New York, 1954), p. 359. Jealousy, vengeance and deification share a common root. They are all extreme responses to deprivation, real or fantasized. See also Charles W. Socarides, “On Vengeance: the Desire to ‘Get Even’,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, XIV (1966), pp. 356-375. On p. 357 Socarides writes: “The originally deprived patient can no longer tolerate further deprivation; the originally satisfied (satiated) one is intolerant of any severe deprivation in adulthood.” The re-creative function of sacrifice is supported by Levi-Strauss: “Sacrifice seeks to establish a desired connection between two initially separate domains [the Human and the Divine].” The Savage Mind (Chicago, 1962), p. 255. Leontes' fishing imagery, in addition to its phallic symbolism, is a magical attempt to deny separation from Hermione. See D. W. Winnicott, “String: A Technique of Communication,” op. cit., pp. 153-157.

  34. Standard Edition, XII, p. 71.

Richard H. Abrams (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3612

SOURCE: Abrams, Richard H. “Leontes's Enemy: Madness in The Winter's Tale.” In Aspects of Fantasy, edited by William Coyle, pp. 155-62. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Abrams probes Leontes's seemingly “causeless, self-begetting jealousy” in The Winter's Tale.]

Just before their duel, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for his wild behavior at Ophelia's grave by placing the blame on an “enemy” that took over when Hamlet “from himself [was] ta'en away” (V.ii.234).1 This “enemy” in Hamlet's expansion of the figure becomes virtually a possessing demon, like the “unclean spirits” (cacodaemones) said to afflict the mentally ill in a tradition holding from Biblical times to the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance, this view of mental illness was in retreat as evidenced by Shakespeare's broadly satiric portrait of the quack exorcist in Comedy of Errors, and we need not suppose that Hamlet seriously tries to escape responsibility for his actions by disowning the thing of darkness in himself. For though he speaks of reason and its adversary, madness, vying for control of his being, the very facetiousness with which he pursues this figure suggests the presence of a tertium quid—his assumed “antic disposition”—mediating these extremes. His apology to Laertes, which Harry Levin terms “disingenuous,” may have some corrective function in a play whose chief spokesman for absolute identity (“to thine own self be true” I.iii.78) and a “psychodynamic” approach to madness (“this effect defective comes by cause” II.ii.103) is Polonius, but it is scarcely the key, though proferred by Hamlet himself, which can unlock his heart of mystery.2

Hamlet is not the only Shakespearean tragedy in which a superstitious definition of madness is embedded with a generally realistic character portrayal, providing false perspective on Shakespeare's method. In Othello Emilia's evocation of jealousy as “a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (III.iv.161-62) may have ultimate bearing on the fact that Othello is essentially self-persuaded, as critics have argued, but in the immediate sense it is naive; Shakespeare provides at least the illusion of cause in the tempter Iago, who whispers Othello's jealousy to life. In The Winter's Tale, however, the pretense of telling “an old tale still” frees Shakespeare to explore a primitive mode of psychological explanation which, in the tragedies, he is obliged to maintain at the level of poetic figure. With his causeless, self-begetting jealousy, Leontes often has been described as his own Iago, and he exhibits a splitting of reason from madness as radical as that proposed by Hamlet in his apology to Laertes. Where Hamlet's playful invocation of his madness as “enemy” leaves off, Leontes's paranoia begins. With terrible literalness, Leontes persecutes his faithful wife, Hermione, as though she were the otherness in himself, his concretized “enemy.”

Twenty-five years ago M. M. Mahood speculated, “The Elizabethans might have put Leontes' outburst down to demonic possession,” but this formula resists serious elaboration. In its favor is the incredible rapidity of Leontes's change. In the space of a single line, “Too hot, too hot!” (I, ii, 108), five minutes into his opening scene, he is visited by a full-blown revelation of his wife's seeming infidelity, and this seizure radically alters his manner of speaking. With their lightning free-associations, Leontes's mad speeches suggest glossolalia, “language that I understand not” (III.ii.80), as Hermione confesses, speaking for most of the audience. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, his madness vanishes with his son's death, leaving Leontes to answer for deeds performed by his “enemy” when, in Hamlet's phrase he was “from himself … ta'en away”: when, in his own phrase, he was “transported by my jealousies” (III.ii.158).

Strictly speaking, the possession motif gives out at this point. Shakespeare “psychologizes” evil influence, barring literal “sprites and goblins” from his winter's tale at least until Antigonus's haunting in Act III. But though we cannot speak of Leontes's possession by a particular demon (an Asmodeus, a Belial, or whatever), there survives in the Renaissance, and indeed well into the eighteenth century, an alternate tradition of “possession” by an indwelling enemy or ruling passion, for which the motif of demonic possession becomes a familiar allegory. When in a late morality play Christ casts forth from Mary Magdalene the Vice “Infidelitie” together with the “.vii. diuels which have hir possessed,” the devils, identified with the seven deadly sins, are not quite invading demons but the soul's own leanings to vice, its hypostatized temptations exorcised each by its contrary virtue. When in Book III of the Faerie Queene jealousy causes Spenser's Malbecco to gape in lewd fascination as his wife disports with a troop of satyrs till “he has quight / Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight” (III.x.60), the event, loosely speaking, is one of possession (hence the rebaptism), though not by an anthropomorphic agent; rather by Malbecco's invidia—a sick predisposition to voyeuristic pleasures, to dwell in the shadow of a virile competitor—which, seizing on the mere occasion of his wife's nymphomania, tyrannizes from within.3 Shakespeare himself deals in this allegory of demonic possession as early as Love's Labor's Lost when Berowne complains that he is possessed by a “love … as mad as Ajax” (IV.ii.6) and Don Armado rages, “Love is a familiar; Love is a devil. There is no evil angel but Love” (I.ii.172-74). Here, as in Hamlet's apology, the metaphor of possession belongs to a rhetoric of shame that would disown its own emotions by representing them as besieging the soul rather than arising internally. Like the four humors (and “the humor of affection” is what Armado elsewhere calls his desire) linking man's emotional makeup to the material universe, desire can be conceived as having extension both within and beyond the subject, so that as the latter notion is stressed it becomes common to speak of the soul beset, hounded, possessed, by what it feels.4

Now, desires healthy and otherwise are normally viewed as attendant on or generated by particular love-objects; a man sees a beautiful woman and falls in love; his wife commits adultery and he becomes jealous or angry. Sometimes, however, as in the case of Malbecco with his prior disposition to voyeurism, desire exists relatively independent of particular objects; it lives a life of its own within the subject, is “self-begot.”5 In The Winter's Tale jealousy's “life of its own” within Leontes is attested by his notorious apostrophe to Affection as a hypostatized enemy besieging his soul. He has just been interrogating his son, Mamillius, about Hermione's supposed infidelity (“Can thy dam?—may't be?”) and, meeting with incomprehension, he turns inward to interrogate his emotions directly:

Affection, thy intention stabs the center!
Thou dost make possible things not so held,
Communicat'st with dreams—how can this be?
With what's unreal thou coactive art,
And fellow'st nothing. Then 'tis very credent
Thou may'st co-join with something; and thou dost,
And that beyond commission, and I find it,
And that to the infection of my brains
And hard'ning of my brows.


A jealous imagination, Leontes recognizes, may deal in mere conjecture. Thus, damping down his suspicions, he tells himself that his imagination “fellow[s] nothing.”6 But then, a moment later, a fresh suspicion is engendered. In what J. H. P. Pafford considers an argument a fortiori, Leontes notes that if imagination can work on “nothing,” it can likewise join with “something,” and that with regard to Hermione's supposed infidelity, it does. Whereas moments before he had rejected his suspicions, now he settles into the conviction that he has indeed been made a cuckold.

How, we ask ourselves, does Leontes get from “nothing” to “something” in a single step? How is his new suspicion engendered ex nihilo? The question is not merely of philological interest, for it restates in little the problem of where Leontes's unfounded jealousy came from in the first place. Instead of trying to answer it, however, we may reflect that the question arises only if, denying Affection's status as a thinking subject, we hold Leontes himself (i.e., Leontes's reason) wholly responsible for the flow of ideas in the soliloquy. If, on the other hand, we accept Leontes's attribution of a “Thou,” an originative intelligence, to this faculty, then the entire second half of his speech has the status of an interpolation. First, in other words, Leontes's reason tries to distance itself from imagination by defining it as a mind-clouding enemy (“Affection, thy intention stabs the center!”). However, in the midst of this activity, reason loses initiative. Affection takes over and, as though it “really had the power of thought,” imposes an idea of its own.7 At exactly the midpoint of the soliloquy (the caesura in the fifth of nine lines), Leontes's suspicion is reborn, which is to say that Affection almost literally “stabs the center.” Conjoining with the word “nothing,” or the actual nothing of the caesura, the demon Affection begets a fresh suspicion of adultery in Leontes's mind.

Under the spell of jealousy, Leontes is changed. His good angel, reason, abandons him, and the tempter, imagination, does his thinking for him. Eliminate the pneumatological machinery hinted by Leontes's “serious personification” and this much is truism. What is remarkable, though, as underscored by the mathematic symmetry of the Affection soliloquy,8 is the degree to which Affection possesses originative power, figuring as a malin genie with which (or whom) Leontes shares his being. Because this other-in-himself possesses such solidity, Leontes tries to project it, lending it substance by associating it with Hermione, the most intimate “other” in his external environment. As “internal dramatist,” he translates the war in his own psyche into confrontation with a pseudo-objective enemy.9

The Freudian model of projection is, of course, anachronistic in this regard, though the Renaissance had ready substitutes, one of which is highly pertinent to Leontes's madness. No convention of love poetry (or modern love-chat, for that matter) is more familiar than the metonymy in which the lover refers to his inamorata, his loved one, as “my love,” calling by the name of his own passion the woman who excites it in him and without whom the passion would not exist. By similar logic of elision Leontes identifies his jealous agony with Hermione, whom he projects as its “cause” (II.iii.3). Women and their lusts are pronounced “a bawdy planet, that will strike / Where 'tis predominant” (I.ii.201-02). Leontes's metaphor of celestial influence touches incidentally on the etymology of the word “affection,” which comes from affectare, to yield or lean toward, in turn deriving from afficere, to strike or influence. Instead of Affection piercing Leontes's center, this office of intimate penetration is assigned to his wife—“one / Of us too much beloved” (III.ii.4)—whose being Leontes imagines impinging on his own. “Your actions are my dreams” (III.ii.82), he accuses Hermione; she is somehow inside him, her sexual dance providing orchestration for his nightmare, so that only when she is “gone, / Given to the fire” (II.iii.7-8), only when her evil influence is exorcised, can Leontes imagine himself whole again, restored to “The purity and whiteness of my sheets—/ Which to preserve is sleep” (I.ii.327-28).

Leontes's projection of enmity onto Hermione is merely paradigmatic. The mad king is well described by Camillo as one “Who in rebellion with himself will have / All that are his so too” (I.ii.355-56). Thus, not only his wife and best friend but his faithful retainers and newborn daughter, whom Leontes imagines joining the mockers when she comes of age and innocently calls him “father” (II.iii.155-56), “All that are his” are thrust into adversary roles, as though in dramatization of Leontes's quarrel with the other in himself. Of these instances, the last mentioned, that of the scapegoat Perdita, is the most important, for it leads to the fantasy-sequel of the tragedy in which we trace the afterlife of Leontes's “other” in certain ambiguous out-of-body activities of Hermione's ghost. Though Leontes's charges against his wife are groundless in the form in which he makes them, Shakespeare in a sense justifies his paranoia retrospectively by developing a darker side of Hermione's nature after Leontes himself is content to believe he “but dreamed it” (III.ii.84).

This movement toward the actualization of fantasy begins with Perdita, produced to testify as silent witness to Hermione's innocence. Leontes's refusal in Act II to “own” his own child, his insistence, three times reiterated, that Antigonus carry it off as a bastard, brings Hermione's ghost into the drama as her infant daughter's protectress. “Jove send [the child] / A better guiding spirit” (II.iii.126-27), says Perdita's godmother, Paulina; and Antigonus, carrying it into exile, echoes her: “Come on, poor babe / Some powerful spirit instruct the kites and ravens / To be thy nurses” (II.iii.185-87). The angelic advocate or tutelary genius whom these words conjure is Hermione, who, appearing to Antigonus in a dream, names her daughter in Leontes's default and safely guides it to Bohemian shores, whereupon, amid the shepherds' talk of fairies hovering, she vanishes, never to be heard from again, as the audience supposes.

Throughout the pastoral scene of Act IV, we see the wind in the reeds. Though Hermione is never mentioned, she seems to oversee Perdita's growth and fortune, teaching the lost one to find herself, to “queen it” in her mother's fashion and to find her way back to Sicilia. The theme of dii minores, of tutelary gods hidden in things, is maintained from the first words of the sheepshearing scene in anticipation of Hermione's revival; and in Act V, Hermione's spirit slouches toward the scene of her resurrection, sensed only by Leontes, who, in apprehension of “the ghost that walk[s]” (V.i.63), seems once more to teeter on the brink of madness. Earlier it was Affection—imagination infected by morbid eroticism—that conjured, in its own image, the figure of Hermione the temptress. Now imagination subserving a guilty conscience conjures an antithetical image, yet one which curiously produces an analogous effect. Haunted by memories of his dead wife, Leontes is drained of desire for other women, as though Hermione, “sainted spirit” that she may have been when alive, now works upon her husband succubus-fashion. If ever he were to remarry, Leontes fantasizes, Hermione's spirit would newly “possess her corpse” (V.i.58) and return to the world shrieking for explanations; the ghost, possessing him, would “incense” him “To murder her I married” (V.i.61-62). This new phase of madness then—Leontes's jealousy on the dead Hermione's behalf—inverts his earlier jealousy of Hermione. However, there is the important difference that, whereas the adultress-Hermione was merely a projection, in the present case Leontes's imagination joins with “something” after all. He is haunted by a possibility that corresponds to “what's real”; and as the statue comes to life, the audience asks itself what Leontes's imagination mates with: “How can this be?”

“[I]t appears she lives” (V.iii.117), says Paulina, and if some critics stress the verisimilitude of that appearance—the wrinkles, which contradict Leontes's idealized expectations—others stress the precariousness.10 This is and is not Hermione, as Troilus said of Cressida. Or as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream, restraining Puck from mischief, reminds him, “we are spirits of another sort” (III.ii.388), so Hermione's resurrection is wholesome, but just barely.11 Can we tolerate or even believe in this piece of virtue's having collaborated with Paulina in a cruel deception? And if not, how to escape the morbid conclusion that Hermione has “stol'n from the dead” (V.iii.115), that as she embraces Leontes, hanging about his neck like a succubus, he is in mortal danger? “It is required / You do awake your faith” (V.iii.94-95), says Paulina, mentioning “wicked powers”; and it is a kind of faith, surely, which not only revives the statue but also insulates generations of listeners and readers from noting the dark other meaning of Paulina's later admonition: “Do not shun her [Hermione] / Until you see her die again, for then / You kill her double” (V.iii.105-06), which results from taking the word “double” as a noun meaning dopplegänger rather than as an adverb meaning “twice.”12 Is it possible? Is this Hermione's double, not Hermione herself, whom Leontes will now install in his heart of hearts, sharing with her his being? We refuse to entertain the notion and cleave in the end to an explanation that explains nothing, in proportion to our need to believe in the saving power of love, whose two-in-one reverses the mystery of the divided self. But Leontes has entertained it—“If this be magic, let it be an art / Lawful as eating” (V.iii.110-11)—and, having recognized himself as his own worst enemy, would rather risk the terror of demonic possession than the drawn-out torment of solitary life. “I cannot be / Mine own, nor anything to any, if / I be not thine” (IV.iv.43-45), said Florizel to Perdita. So, too, Leontes must give himself away in the most radical sense—must obliterate the boundary between self and other—in order to become truly his own.


  1. All Shakespearean quotations are from the Pelican edition of The Complete Works, gen. ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1956) and are cited in the text.

  2. Harry Levin, The Question of Hamlet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 113. An extraordinary document in the blindness of psychoanalytic insight is Theodore Lidz, Hamlet's Enemy: Madness and Myth in Hamlet (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 45. Lidz commends a “psychodynamic” orientation to Hamlet's problem, undeterred by the fact that, in citing the passage in parentheses, he is following in the footsteps of Polonius.

  3. The idea of lust intensifying as it passes through a filter of envy to become jealousy is a Renaissance commonplace. Thus, in the formal pageant of vices in Spenser's Faerie Queene, we find “lustfull Lechery” riding a goat whose green eyes are “the signe of gelosy” (I.iv.24-26), a detail that recurs in Othello (III.iii.180). Similarly, as in the case of Malbecco, jealousy's fulfillment lies in gazing, whence the connection with invidia, intense looking. Spenser stresses that Malbecco, with his one good eye, can never see enough; and Shakespeare has Othello seek satisfaction in ocular proof. For an interesting modern treatment of the relation of jealousy to envy, see René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 12 ff.

  4. The editor of the Arden edition of The Winter's Tale (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), J. H. P. Pafford, cites Montaigne's essay “Our affections are transported beyond our selves,” in which Montaigne writes “We are never in our selves, but beyond” (Appendix II, p. 166). Compare J. Leeds Barroll's discussion of affections as “implanted yearnings” in Artificial Persons: The Formation of Character in the Tragedies of Shakespeare (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974), p. 37.

  5. C. L. Barber argues the “priority of desire to attraction” in connection with Touchstone's “as pigeons bill, so wedlock would be nibbling” (As You Like It, III.iii.66-67) in Shakespeare's Festive Comedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 231-32. The chicken-or-egg question of whether desire came first or was generated in the adolescent Leontes and Polixenes by the sight of their attractive wives as temptation is under debate by Hermione and Polixenes when Leontes interrupts, moments before his jealous seizure (The Winter's Tale, I.ii).

  6. In reading “Affection” as Leontes's own imagination rather than Hermione's supposed lust, I do not mean to limit the word's ambiguities. Complexities arise throughout the speech since metaphors used to define the act of imagination are reflected from Leontes's obscene vision of Hermione's sexual penetration (hence Leontes's later “projection” of violations onto Hermione as external enemy). Carol Thomas Neely convincingly argues a shift in the meaning of “Affection” (which moves from Leontes's imagination to Hermione's lust) in “The Winter's Tale: The Triumph of Speech,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 15 (1975), 321-38, especially 324-27.

  7. Thus Joseph Priestly discusses the trope of “serious personification” as a figure which “obtrudes itself upon [the speaker]” so strongly affecting his passions that “while the illusion continues … [it is] as if the object of them really had the power of thought” (A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism, 1777).

  8. The poetic strategy of the Affection soliloquy, with Affection supervening midway in the speech to change the course of Leontes's meditation, is repeated at the midpoint of the action when Time, the Chorus, pressing into the “wide gap” separating Acts III and IV, changes the dramatic mode from tragedy to comedy. For imagery establishing the Chorus's speech as geometric center of the play, see William Blissett, “‘This Wide Gap of Time’: The Winter's Tale,English Literary Renaissance 1 (1971), 52-70. In addition, it may be noted that the Chorus, like the Affection soliloquy, is shaped around a geometric center. The speech is thirty-two lines long—the first part dominated by the word “I” and dealing in violent, tragic emotions, the third part dominated by Time's third-person references to himself and dealing in gentler, comic experience. The second part is transitional and introduces the second-person pronoun. It occupies lines 15-17, or precisely the central portion of the speech, with the pivotal phrase, “I turn my glass,” occurring in the first half of line 16.

  9. See Thomas F. VanLaan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), especially ch. 9, “The Internal Dramatist.”

  10. For a discussion of the two Hermiones created by the play's improbable ending, see James Edward Siemon, “‘But It Appears She Lives’: Iteration in The Winter's Tale,PMLA 89 (1974), 10-16.

  11. See David Bevington, “‘But We Are Spirits of Another Sort’: The Dark Side of Love and Magic in A Midsummer Night's Dream,Medieval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1975), 80-92.

  12. The word “again” in Paulina's speech is similarly unsettling.

Edward A. Snow (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11699

SOURCE: Snow, Edward A. “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello.English Literary Renaissance 10 (1980): 384-412.

[In the following essay, Snow links Othello's jealousy to his psychologically and culturally conditioned feelings of sexual guilt and anxiety.]

We see the ground whereon these woes do lie,
But the true ground of all these piteous woes
We cannot without circumstance descry.

(Romeo and Juliet, V. iii. 179-81)1

What puzzles the watchman of Romeo and Juliet might doubly confound the audience of Othello. In perhaps no other of Shakespeare play is there such a sense of discrepancy between the visible and the true ground of things. By the end of the play even the language of cause, motive, and reason has become suspect. “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul; / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars, / It is the cause” (V. ii. 1-3): the mind speaks like this not to make its motives transparent but to keep them obscure. The insistence on “cause” is here an incantation, not an act of inquiry or discovery but an intense, distracting assertion.

More than Othello's particular madness is implicated in this abuse of reason. Repression pervades the entire world of Othello. The first note of the play, sounded three times in quick succession, is a refusal of knowledge: “Never tell me”; “‘Sblood, but you'll not hear me”; “If ever I did dream of such a matter, / Abhor me” (I. i. 1-6). Denial recurs in Othello's opening line—“'Tis better as it is” (I. ii. 6)—and remains present throughout the action as a kind of epigrammatic refrain.2 Though Othello would see the truth, this texture of disavowal determines the limits of what can become visible for him.

Even at the end of the play, in a context of apparent revelation, the final gesture is on the side of repression. “The object poisons sight; / Let it be hid” (V. ii. 364-65). And it is not just any object that is to be hidden but the “tragic lodging” of the wedding bed—the place of sexuality itself, seen even in its legitimized form as inimical to nature and generation. The restoration of order at the end of the play thus institutionalizes the voice that speaks in the dream Iago invents for Cassio—“Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves” (III. iii. 419-20). In the same way, the anticipation of future clarification from Iago—“Torments will ope your lips” (V. ii. 305)—reveals the complicity of the forms of justice (and the “satisfaction” society seeks through them) in the dark and vicious place from which Iago's own villainy issues—“Yet again, your fingers to your lips? Would they were clyster pipes [enema tubes]3 for your sake!” (II. i. 176-77). The directions for Iago's torture reconstitute society in terms of the same impotent dialectic of violence and repression that caused its rupture: Iago, bleeding but not killed, is reassimilated as a tormented refusal to speak; Cassio, wounded in the thigh and “maim'd for ever,” is installed as authority and charged with enforcing the “censure” of the “hellish villain” imprisoned within. We are left with the prospect of the state now fruitlessly serving its turn on Iago (its “cunning cruelty” is to “hold him long,” just as Iago had claimed to “hold” Othello in his hate), blindly revealing in itself the evil it seeks to discover, isolate, and punish in its victim.

There is neither transcendence nor catharsis in Othello, although false appearances of both abound. The source of evil cannot even be named from within the play, much less exorcised from it. The melodramatic focus on Iago's “villainy” at the end of the play (the word and its cognates appear eighteen times in the last two hundred lines) conveys frustration and bafflement, not moral understanding. Terms of judgment such as “villain” and “damned slave” (V. ii. 242-43) have no explanatory force at all, except insofar as they unwittingly betray their origin in the same hierarchically engendered malice that produced Iago's villainy.

Cassio's exclamation, “O thou invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!” (II. iii. 281-83), provides a clue to how the language of diabolic agency works everywhere in the play. Iago is really only the name and local habitation of an invisible spirit within Othello and the texture of his world as well. Othello's frustrated command, “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnar'd my soul and body” (V. ii. 301-02), elicits only the laconic assertion “What you know, you know” (addressed to everyone present, not just Othello), followed by withdrawal into the silence where this inaccessible knowledge persists. The play itself answers our own demand for a scapegoat by tacitly posing a more difficult vision of agency, in which the answer to the question “who hath done this deed?” is always both “Nobody” and “I myself” (V. ii. 123-24).

The problem of Iago's motivation is symptomatic of a more general crisis of accountability in an atmosphere where “All that is spoken is marr'd” (V. ii. 357). That Iago can articulate his motives with such facility is enough to inspire profound distrust in us. We may not be able to see through these “causes” (or even be sure that there is anything at all behind them), but we sense that we cannot accept them at face value without being manipulated like Roderigo (“I have no great devotion to the deed, / And yet he hath given me satisfying reasons” [V. i. 8-9]). This distrust ultimately extends beyond Iago to every truth based on claims of self-transparency (because of him, the very word “honest” is discredited), and to the entire realm of what is “probal to thinking.” By the end of the play we have been subliminally taught to believe, like Gratiano, only in the truth that is tortured out of its victim.

Even the play's most dramatically satisfying moments of clarification and release work to dissemble the true grounds of its woe. It doesn't really matter, for instance, whether we accept or attempt to argue with Othello's final estimate of himself as one who “lov'd not wisely but too well” (V. ii. 344): the terms themselves are free-floating euphemisms designed to prevent us from even making contact with what is specific and disruptive in his story, much less understanding what is at stake in it. Likewise Othello's comparison of himself to the “base Indian” who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (V. ii. 347-48): the apparent moment of insight and repentance perpetuates (and invites us to become complicit in) the definition of Desdemona as a valuable object, a private possession that was his either to keep or dispose of.4 Even Emilia's moving, ethically resonant assertion of Desdemona's chastity after the murder only makes it more difficult to bring into focus the pernicious effects of chastity itself, as a doctrine men impose upon women. That Othello turns out to have been mistaken merely lets the law itself off the hook: we are diverted from a critique of the pathological male obsessions beneath the “just grounds” (V. ii. 138) upon which he would have been proceeding (at least according to the spirit of the law) had Desdemona actually been unfaithful to him. Instead of being forced to confront the predicament of every woman caught within a patriarchal society, we can indulge in “the pity of it,” and regard Desdemona as the unfortunate victim of Othello's “tragic” misconception and Iago's “motiveless malignity.”


Othello, then, dramatizes a false consciousness that shapes both its protagonist and the world of the play. And the play's attitude toward this meconnaissance is peculiarly Janus-faced. On the one hand it is knowingly complicit in it, all too willing to satisfy its audience's lust for theater—to give us, for instance, an Iago to provide us with “villainous entertainment” and then serve as a scapegoat for our “filthy purgation.”5 In this respect it is one of Shakespeare's most cynical plays, taking as it does a certain self-consciously impotent pleasure in demonstrating the moral corruption of its audience and its own form, and confirming in the process the resistance to demystification of the material that is its thematic and psychological core. At the same time, the play is uncompromisingly lucid. It treats jealousy not as a given but an object of inquiry, and pursues it beyond superficial explanations to the grounds of human tragedy. If it is more introverted and less expansive than the other tragedies, it is also more unrelenting in its focus, more insistent on bringing to consciousness things known in the flesh but “too hideous to be shown.”

Since the truth Othello poses is so radically at odds with the theatrical spectacle that invites our complicity, it is especially important to approach the play “with circumstance.” When we look for what resists dramatic foregrounding and listen for what language betrays about its speaker, then much of what is so emphatically declared and ostentatiously displayed in the world of the play—Desdemona's handkerchief is paradigmatic—begins to take on the appearance of a neurotic defense symptomatic of the “cause” it exists to conceal. In the following moment of pseudo-revelation, for example, the violence beneath the surface of the action almost breaks through into direct expression: “Ay, 'twas he that told me on her first. / An honest man he is, and hates the slime / That sticks on filthy deeds” (V. ii. 147-49). What Othello says is that Iago is a moral man (the emphasis is on “man” as well as “honest”), and hence a man to be trusted. What his words express, however, is a post-coital male disgust with the “filthy deed” of sexuality itself. And clearly the sexual image rather than the moral sentiment possesses him. Iago does indeed hold him in this hate. That such an image underlies Othello's self-righteous indignation suggests that the sexual morality he thinks (not altogether wrongly) he has preserved as an “honorable murderer” (V. ii. 294) is itself the sublimation of an irrational hatred of its object.

This pathological male animus toward sexuality is a “cause” Shakespeare pursues relentlessly through the play, into the roots not only of Othello's jealously but the social institutions with which men keep women and the threat they pose at arm's length. Time and again in Othello language condemning adultery both masks and draws authority from an underlying guilt and disgust about sexuality itself. After Desdemona's murder, for instance, Othello discloses her crime to the witnesses who have gathered: “Tis pitiful; but yet Iago knows / That she with Cassio hath the act of shame / A thousand times committed” (V. ii. 210-12). At the subconscious level (a subconscious Othello shares with his audience, reinforced as it is by Christian myth and social propriety) the “act of shame” refers not just to the act of adultery but to the sexual act itself.6 Cassio, who often “went between” Othello and Desdemona during their courtship, functions similarly in their marriage, mediating as an object of jealousy between Othello and his own sexual guilt. The Clown's response to Desdemona's inquiry about Cassio's whereabouts might serve as an epigraph for Othello's fantasies about being sexually displaced by him: “To tell you where he lodges, is to tell you where I lie” (III. iv. 8-9). Shakespeare is careful to indicate the latent presence of this guilt from the beginning (before the “fall” into shame), along with the tendency of the public occasion to elicit it and the public institution to lend it expression: “as truly as to heaven / I do confess the vices of my blood, / So justly to your grave ears I'll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady's love, / And she in mine” (I. iii. 122-26). Othello means the analogy to emphasize how “truly” he speaks, but Shakespeare can scarcely have meant for so unhappy an association of ideas to be taken as innocent or accidental. Here it is specifically within the context of Christianity that the impulses of the blood become “vices,” and relating a mutually thriving love becomes analogous to “confessing” them.7

The play consistently insinuates that Othello is apt to believe in Desdemona's unfaithfulness with Cassio because a part of him is convinced of the sinfulness of her sexual appetite and his own relationship to it:

Think on thy sins.
                                        They are loves I bear to you.
Ay, and for that thou die'st.

(V. ii. 40-41)

“Loves I bear to you” suggests at the same time “the love I offer you [unrelentingly],” “passions in me [sexually engendered by you] that I disclose to you,” and “feelings I give birth to in you.” For all these “sins” Desdemona must die. Her profession of innocence only confirms the masculine anxieties Othello is trying to put to rest by murdering her. Othello seems to imply that Desdemona's innocence is her guilt, a shamelessness that marks her as a hopeless reprobate. Other passages suggest that his distrust of her gives covert expression to his disapproval of her newly manifested sexual nature, as well as her failure to conceal or repress it, or to feel anything like guilt or shame about it:

Give me your hand. This hand is moist, my lady.
It yet hath felt no age nor known no sorrow.
This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart;
Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty: fasting and prayer,
Much castigation, exercise devout,
For here's a young and sweating devil here
That commonly rebels. 'Tis a good hand,
A frank one.
You may, indeed, say so;
For 'twas that hand that gave away my heart.
A liberal hand. The hearts of old gave hands;
But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts.

(III. iv. 36-47)

Othello sees that Desdemona's uninhibited sexuality argues not only innocence but “fruitfulness and liberal heart”: that it opens her to life as a woman, and is the origin of her emotional commitment to him. Yet his anxieties force him to take this virtue as her vice, and to recommend religious instruction to cure her of it. Othello understands well the form of Christianity that functions not to absolve guilt but to instill it where there is an obstinate innocence.


It follows that Desdemona's assurances of loyalty are of little avail because to Othello she has “sinned” as a wife rather than an adulteress:

Why? what art thou?
                                                  Your wife, my lord, your true
And loyal wife.
Come, swear it, damn thyself

(IV. ii. 34-35)

Similarly, it is more as a husband than a cuckold that Othello becomes obsessed with Desdemona's ritual execution and the “aptness” of it:

Do it with poison; strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.
Good, good; the justice of it pleases; very good.

(IV. i. 207-10)

Consciously, her bed (Othello will prove especially susceptible to the notion that it is “hers” rather than theirs) has been contaminated by her adulterous liaison with Cassio; but at the unconscious level where Iago is working his magic, it is contaminated because of the stolen hours of lust she and Othello enjoyed there on the much-delayed wedding-night. The handkerchief “spotted” (III. iii. 435; cf. the passage below) with strawberries and dyed with mummy “conserv'd of maidens' hearts” (III. iv. 74) is potent as visible proof of Desdemona's adultery largely because it subconsciously evokes for Othello the blood-stained sheets of the wedding-bed and his wife's loss of virginity there.8 The proof of innocence secretly confirms the crime. Desdemona's denial of the handkerchief's loss sounds like a barely disguised disavowal of lost maidenhead/maidenhood itself:

Is't lost? is't gone? Speak, is't out o' th' way?


It is not lost; but what and if it were?
I say, it is not lost.


The doctrine of married chastity that the handkerchief symbolizes involves a similar disavowal, and proves vulnerable for precisely that reason.

The idea of strangling Desdemona yields to bloodier fantasies as the perverse judicial satisfaction of reenacting the crime in the punishment takes over Othello's imagination: “Strumpet, I come. / Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted; / Thy bed, lust-stain'd, shall with lust's blood be spotted” (V. i. 34-36)9 Just as Desdemona's wedding bed was stained with the blood that gave evidence of her guilt (and his), that same bed must be stained with the same blood as her punishment.10

The interlocking symmetry of the phrases “lust-stain'd” and “lust's blood” reinforces the sense of a confusion in Othello's mind between blood stains and lust stains. This confusion implies a tendency to equate the act of deflowering with the moment of sexual climax, which suggests in turn how phallic Othello's idea of sex is, and how subsequently unreal and threatening Desdemona's own sexual experience is to him (“What sense had I of her stol'n hours of lust?”). One also suspects the presence of a repressed tendency to fantasize both sides of the sexual exchange at once, and interpret each in terms appropriate to the other. Thus Desdemona's virginal blood can become in Othello's fantasies a lustful orgasmic discharge, the female equivalent of his semen—as if by deflowering her he released the sexual flow in her, and transformed her from a chaste object of desire into a sexually demanding woman.11 In like manner, he can perceive the blood as his own, so that it becomes a focal point for fantasies related to both the threat that entering Desdemona poses for him and the phallic violence the act arouses in him. The language of Othello consistently links submerged references to sexual initiation and phallic virility with imagery of castration and unmanning.12 The contradictions are only one aspect of the male obsession with “lust's blood” (“O blood, blood, blood!”) that the play seeks to understand.

Othello's overdetermined stake in both Desdemona's crime and its punishment is underscored by the ambiguities that allow “lust-stain'd” to mean not only “stained with her lust” but “stained by [the agency of] mine,” and “lust's blood” to refer not only to what must be extracted from Desdemona but what will do the extracting. Othello himself is possessed by what he seeks to put to death in Desdemona (“Some bloody passion shakes your very frame”); the judicial satisfaction he imagines is a bloody ejaculation, a punishment for her sexual crime that manifests his own (“Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace, / Shall nev'r look back, nev'r ebb to humble love, / Till that a capable and wide revenge / Swallow them up”).

The fantasy of the wedding night is still submerged in the actual murder, but it has been refined to become a ritual of disavowal and undoing: “Yet I'll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster. / Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men” (V. ii. 3-6). “Yet I'll not shed her blood” is a resolve not to repeat his earlier mistake. Othello is attempting to recover what he lost when he deflowered Desdemona, and to deny what he thereby discovered and released in her—and in himself as well. “Therefore,” he commands, “confess thee freely of thy sin; / For to deny each article with oath / Cannot remove nor choke the strong conception / That I do groan withal” (V. ii. 53-56). His language suggests that smothering Desdemona is a displaced attempt (like taking by the throat and smiting the malignant Turk) to put to death something in himself, something that has been sexually engendered in him. He understands that a principle is involved (“else she'll betray more men”), and that in killing her he is acting not just for himself but for men in general. Not only did she betray Brabantio for Othello and Othello for Cassio, but she caused all these men to betray themselves and each other.13 The stability of the male world—its certainties, its prerogatives, and its precious sense of honor—depends on the suppression of what has emerged in and through Desdemona.

From this point of view, the act of deflowering Desdemona, and a baffled attempt to undo it, are beneath Othello's meditation on the irreversibility of “killing” her:

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd thy rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither. I'll smell thee on the tree.
O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword. One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee
And love thee after.

(V. ii. 8-19)

Othello manages to have it both ways in this necrophilic fantasy. This “death” will quiet rather than arouse her, purify rather than pollute her. “Kill thee / And love thee after” suggests both “kill thee and still love thee” and “kill thee and then love thee”—as if through killing her again, in this way, he could reverse the effects of the first deflowering, where he loved her only to “kill” her, and after “killing” her found her and his feelings toward her changed. The phrase also locates the split in the male psyche that is responsible for these fatal paradoxes: sexual desire is characterized as a hostile impulse that must be voided before “love” can return. The difficult grammar of Desdemona's protest, “That death's unnatural that kills for loving” (V. ii. 42), further reveals the twisted meaning of sexual climax that Othello is trying to disavow even while he reenacts it on a murderously literal plane: “death” punishes the beloved for her aroused sexuality and for “bearing” it to the self. “Killing” Desdemona (either again and again or once and for all) is a way of extinguishing what threatens to turn her from a passive object of desire into an actively dangerous lover; at the same time it is a displaced means of killing the feelings that threaten to engulf his own inner being.14


Othello's jealousy, then, is immune to reason largely because of unconscious pressures that underlie it and unconscious scenarios that have been superimposed on it. Iago's plan is to get Othello to imagine Cassio in his (Othello's) place.15 What makes the strategy so effective is the way it brings Othello to see himself in this fantasized Cassio. The identification is already intimated in Iago's first rough improvisations, where an ambiguous pronoun displaces onto Othello the guilt Iago intends to make him suspect in Cassio: “How? how?—Let's see—/ After some time,16 to abuse Othello's ear / That he is too familiar with his wife” (I. iii. 394-96).

When Othello subsequently demands of Iago, “make me to see't!” (III. iii. 364), Iago complies by engendering in his mind the image of copulation with Desdemona (regardless of who “covers” her), evoking a violent, scarcely expressible rage (“Death and damnation! O!”; “O monstrous! monstrous!”). Othello becomes absorbed in a fantasy that makes him the guilty and at the same time punitive onlooker in the primal scene of his own marriage. This internalized image of the sexual act is the object that “poisons sight,” the “monster” in the brain “too hideous to be shown” (III. iii. 107-08). Iago similarly enrages Brabantio by making copulation with his daughter happen in his imagination, and in such a way that he becomes more than just an onlooker: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (I. i. 88-89). We shall see in a moment how the prohibitive father who has been cuckolded and displaced takes over Othello's viewing self. Iago's subsequent meditation on the impossibility of “satisfying” the desire to catch Desdemona in the act manages to insinuate that the real barrier is Othello's participation in what he wants to see:

Would I were satisfied!
I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion;
I do repent me that I put it to you.
You would be satisfied?
                                                            Would? nay, and I will!
And may; but how? How satisfied, my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?
Behold her topp'd?
Death and damnation! O!
It were a tedious difficulty, I think,
To bring them to that prospect; damn them, then,
If ever mortal eyes do see them bolster
More than their own. What then? How then?
What shall I say? Where's satisfaction?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk.

(III. iii. 390-405)

“Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? / Behold her topp'd?” The question evokes the desire to observe one's own participation in the sexual act.17 It is as if this desire were inherent in the “dominant” position: the magic of the line hinges on the interaction between the obscurely latinate “supervisor,” and the vulgar but precise “topp'd.” “Damn them, then, / If ever mortal eyes do see them bolster / More than their own” similarly intimates that Othello is being made to see the forbidden image of his own sexual experience (“It is impossible you should see this”), and made to respond to it with the feelings of the cuckold surreptitiously gazing on the adulterous scene. In Freudian terms, Iago is alienating Othello from the sexual act by making him participate in it from the place of the superego. (Shakespeare's “supervisor,” in fact, neatly condenses the watching, controlling, and judging functions that Freud defines as the superego's three attributes.) Iago's repetition of “satisfied” and “satisfaction” implies a displacement of sexual desire onto the act of looking, knowing—where it becomes intrinsically unsatisfiable, a kind of perverse anti-sexuality or death-drive. By the end of the play, the language of erotic satisfaction will have been almost entirely appropriated by the judicial mechanisms that seek to punish sexuality—“Good, good; the justice of it pleases; very good.”

By the time Othello confronts Desdemona in Act IV, he is compulsively acting out under the pretext of irony a latent sense of his own marriage as an adulterous affair, a matter between a whore and her customer:

OTHELLO [to Emilia]:
Some of your function, mistress;
Leave procreants alone, and shut the door;
Cough or cry “hem,” if anybody come.
Your mystery, your mystery; nay, dispatch.


What, not a whore?
                                                                                No, as I shall be sav'd.
Is't possible?
O, heaven forgive us!
                                                                                I cry you mercy then.
I took you for that cunning whore of Venice
That married with Othello.—You, mistress,
                                                                                                                        [Enter Emilia]
That have the office opposite to Saint Peter,
And keeps the gate of hell! You, you! ay, you!
We have done our course; there's money for your pains.
I pray you turn the key and keep our counsel.

(IV. ii. 27-94)

Othello's cynicism overreaches itself here to betray a more deeply-rooted misogyny. “Procreants” becomes synonymous with “adulterers,” a term of bitter, self-contemptuous abuse. It is as if “marrying with” Othello, now a euphemism for copulation in his foul thoughts, were what Desdemona's prostitution consisted in. When Othello sardonically takes on the role of Desdemona's bawd before Lodovico, one can similarly detect beneath his contempt the pressure of his own sexual knowledge of her:

                                                                      I will not stay to offend you.
Truly, an obedient lady:
I do beseech your lordship call her back.
                                                                      My lord?
                                                                      What would you with her, sir?
Who, I, my lord?
Ay, you did wish that I would make her turn.
Sir, she can turn, and turn; and yet go on
And turn again; and she can weep, sir, weep;
And she's obedient, as you say, obedient;
Very obedient.

(IV. i. 247-56)

Desdemona's almost eager subjection to her husband's will becomes for Othello a demonstration of her promiscuity. “Obedient,” as Othello insists, is the key word. It recalls the public declaration of the “duty” due her lord and husband with which Desdemona betrayed her father, “Do you perceive in all this noble company / Where most you owe obedience?” (I. iii. 179-80), as well as her parting words to Othello as Iago begins to pour his pestilence in his ear, “Be as your fancies teach you; / What e'er you be, I am obedient” (III. iii. 88-89). The word is thus a touchstone for her wifely compliance to Othello, not for her adulterous impulses.18 And Othello's innuendo that “she can turn, and turn; and yet go on / And turn again” makes clear that Desdemona's sexual obedience is what he is primarily obsessed with. The logic of the male response to woman's sexuality is contradictory: Othello's obsession with his ability to arouse and manipulate Desdemona's sexual appetite (“Ay, you did wish that I would make her turn”) leads him to dwell on it as something not under his control but beyond his capacity to satisfy (“and yet go on / And turn again”). Once planted in his mind, the adulterous relationship quickly grows into something Cassio and Desdemona have committed “a thousand times.”


“I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello”: as so often before, Othello lives his life as a story, seeing himself as he appears in the eyes of an audience. Yet he really alludes to two stories at once, and the doubleness corresponds to the duplicity of his jealously. On the surface he speaks of the story of a well-known whore of Venice who made a fool and laughing-stock out of him by pretending to be “a maiden never bold of spirit” and deceiving him into marriage. At this level his rage is an indication of his essentially narcissistic investment in Desdemona. But this story that so wounds his ego is in a sense only a screen for (and a defense against) his private acceptance of the more deeply estranging story that is told to Brabantio at the beginning of the play, in which Othello himself is the villian who corrupts Desdemona and charms her into acting the part of a common whore (as if “That married with Othello” were an explanation of what Desdemona did to become known as “that cunning whore of Venice”): “your fair daughter, / And this odd-even and dull watch o' th' night, / Transported with no worse or better guard / But with a knave of common hire, a gundolier, / To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (I. i. 122-26). Ambiguous pronouns like the one that links Othello and Cassio in Iago's improvisations suggest this story will connect Brabantio and Othello—that it will poison Othello's delight (or is it Brabantio's?) because it will be told to him as well as about him:

          Call up her father,
Rouse him, make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies. Though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on't,
As it may lose some color.

(I. i. 67-73)

Iago similarly “calls up” the father within Othello. The process by which Othello comes to see Cassio in his place is largely a matter of coming to see that place from Brabantio's. His subsequent identification with the Cassio who displaces him is similarly reinforced by his sense of himself as Brabantio's Cassio. The first truly ominous note in the play is struck when the cuckolded father maliciously urges his “precedent” on the newly-married husband, warning: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee” (I. iii. 292-93). The decisive moment in Iago's seduction of Othello comes when he is able to make Othello look at himself and Desdemona in terms of Brabantio's warning:

She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks,
She lov'd them most.
And so she did.
                                                                      Why, go to then.
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father's eyes up, close as oak,
He thought 'twas witchcraft—but I am much to blame;
I humbly beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.
                                                                      I am bound to you for ever.

(III. iii. 206-13)

The details of Iago's language reinforce the self-displacing, anxiety-producing identification with the father, “And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks, / She lov'd them most” echoes Brabantio's “to fall in love with what she fear'd to look on,” while Iago's image for Desdemona's deception of her father—“To seel her father's eyes up, close as oak”—echoes Othello's earlier, strenuously disavowed image of the emascualting effects of married love: “When light-wing'd toys / Of feather'd Cupid seel with wanton dullness / My speculative and offic'd instruments” (I. iii. 268-70).

Immediately after Iago succeeds in making Othello see Desdemona's love for him through her father's eyes, Othello first actively entertains the possibility of her marital infidelity:

I do not think but Desdemona's honest.
Long live she so! and long live you to think so!
And yet how nature erring from itself—

(III. iii. 225-27)

The crucial thought, “For nature so prepost'rously to err” (I. iii. 62), echoes Brabantio: “That … perfection so could err / Against all rules of nature” (I. iii. 100-101). With his sure sense of how men's minds work, Iago can deftly transform this train of thought about woman's proverbial frailty into an expression of the masculine insecurity that underlies it:

Ay, there's the point; as (to be bold with you)
Not to effect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh, one may smell in such, a will most rank,
Foul disproportions, thoughts unnatural.

(III. iii. 228-33)

Again, Brabantio has already provided the language for this doubt:

For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound,
Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunn'd
The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,
Would ever have, t'incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou.

(I. ii. 64-71)

What speaks here is a contempt latent in Othello himself, although it comes to consciousness through the voices of Iago and Brabantio: “How can you continue to idealize her, how can you deny she's a whore? She loves you, doesn't she? She was attracted to what she should have feared, and took pleasure in what should have disgusted her, didn't she?”

From this point of view Othello's Moorishness merely forces him to live out with psychotic intensity the metaphors of self-contempt that every civilized white man can be brought to experience in his sexual relations with a woman. Augustine remarks that we are all Ethiopians, black in our natural sinfulness but allowed to become white in the knowledge of the lord.19 But Shakespeare's play questions how we come to regard the natural as sinful, and as a consequence invent for ourselves such unhappy doctrines of redemption. (“O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! that we should with joy, pleasance, revel, and applause transform ourselves into beasts!”) Othello's worship of Desdemona's “whiteness” sets him at odds with his physical being, a conflict which reflects a society whose attitudes toward woman have been shaped by the doctrine of chastity. Because Othello is black, the perversity of the value system tends to come into focus. When Tarquin refers to the “blackness” of his deed, we take it as a “natural” expression of sin; but when Othello refers to a reputation that has become “black as mine own face,” we feel that he is being manipulated by a language calculated to make him despise himself.

The image of blackness with which Othello describes the change his suspicion of Desdemona has wrought in him is fraught with complex, unacknowledged feelings about his own sexual nature: “My [Q2: Her] name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black / As mine own face” (III. iii. 386-88). On the surface this is an expression of male vanity: Desdemona's chastity is the logical focus of the passage, yet it is significant to Othello only as a mirror for his own idealized self-image. But what seeks expression through his wounded pride, like repressed material through a defense erected against it, is sexual confusion and self-contempt. The possibility of Desdemona's infidelity causes him to see himself (as if for the first time) as black, and to regard that blackness as a measure of sexual corruption as well as social disgrace. One associates Diana more readily with virginity than married chastity, and “freshness” more with things unplucked than preserved.20 Othello appears subconsciously concerned with the sexual exchange that has passed between Desdemona and himself, not Cassio—an exchange that has caused him to view himself as well as her as no longer chaste.21 “Begrim'd” suggests contamination by external contact; “black” is an intrinsic quality, hence contaminating to the touch: Q2's “Her” has no authority, and is almost certainly an editorial attempt to make sense of F's “My” (the lines are missing from Q1); but the conflict between the two readings (Q2 providing what the context so obviously calls for, and what is thus in a sense intrinsic to the F reading) catches perfectly the confusion that besets this disputed place of ownership and identity: my name, before I lodged it in her; her name, before it received and became mine.22 His investment of himself in her purity has resulted in a mutual contamination instead of a marriage of true minds. The abstract, idealized visage in his mind has become the revolting face of his physical self.


One component of Othello's jealousy, then, is a patriarchal conscience telling him that Desdemona's illicit behavior with Cassio is only a repetition of what she first did with Othello, and that he himself has released in her the boundless appetite she now satisfies with Cassio. If introjecting the father's voice allows the individual entrance into the symbolic order, it would also seem to ensure his unrest within it. Certainly jealousy rather than romantic love engrosses Othello in marriage, and turns him from “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere” (I. i. 136-37) into a “horn-mad” husband, a domestic type.

Brabantio's final words before disappearing from the play are an open expression of the Oedipal curse every sexual relationship undergoes in the process of being assimilated by the patriarchal order of things: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee” (I. iii. 292-93). Speaking as the cuckolded father, Brabantio construes Desdemona's choice in terms of an Oedipal anxiety that reduces woman's capacity for active commitment to a reminder of past betrayals and a premonition of future ones.

Desdemona, for her part, cannot avoid reinforcing the male anxieties her power to choose activates. When she attempts to mediate between father and husband and negotiate her own passage from daughter to wife, her tact only manages to exacerbate the sense of Oedipal betrayal she wishes to forestall:

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

(I. iii. 180-89)

The increasingly complex hypotaxis of this speech gradually transforms the orderly passage from generation to generation into an ever-present, eternally recurrent Oedipal triangle, in which Brabantio can serve as an analogue for both the husband of his daughter and the father of his wife. Desdemona seems to equate her filial duty to Brabantio with her mother's marital duty to him, and then promptly uses the equation to leave him for Othello. The movement from “you are the lord of my duty” to “so much duty … I may profess / Due to the Moor, my lord” makes it sound like Desdemona owes the same “duty” to father and husband, and that she does not so much divide it between them (like Cordelia) as take it away from one and give it to the other. As she takes her mother's place in the syntactical flow, Othello displaces Brabantio in the position of lordship over her. The speech never envisions a bond outside the filial structure, where the erotic impulse might be free to take its own course.

This failure tells us more about Desdemona's situation than her personality. The conflicts between father and husband and the duty owed to each reside not in unconscious motives but in the language men insist she speak when their anxieties are at stake. In a more impulsive mood, Desdemona speaks of her love for “the Moor,” not the duty she owes her “lord.” When Othello subjects their love to Oedipal complications, however, he does so willfully, and it is not merely language that moves him to do so. The story he tells Desdemona about the handkerchief also entangles the erotic impulse in filial relationships, and brings to the fore just those anxieties which such a “recognizance and pledge of love” is intended to dispel:

          That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give;
She was a chamber, and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it,
'Twould make her amiable, and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it,
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me wiv'd,
To give it her.

(III. iv. 55-65)

The succession of generations here is a curiously matrilinear affair, the male participating only as the mother's son, and then only to facilitate the passage of the magical object of power over men from woman to woman.23 The succession of personal pronouns makes the Egyptian charmer merge into the mother, and the mother into the wife, who never really appears in her own person within the sequence. Othello essentially remains the son in the gesture of giving the handkerchief, and the mother receives it again through Desdemona: “She, dying, gave it me, / And bid me, when my fate would have me wiv'd, / To give it her.”

Othello's later account of the handkerchief as “an antique token / My father gave my mother” (V. ii. 216-17) implies a more orderly patrilinear descent through the generations, as befits his concern there with maintaining his self-respect in the eyes of his audience. But a lineage in which each son establishes his authority over his wife by entrusting to her the object his father entrusted to his mother leaves out of account how it passes back from the mother to the son. The fantasy of direct patriarchal descent must elide the Oedipal betrayal that necessarily mediates the son's accession to the father's place. The son must receive the emblem of the father's sexual power from the mother. This gap in the second story is what the first narrates. Although it would be missing the point to try to distinguish the true version of the story from the false, the first version clearly engages Othello's imagination more deeply, and his psychic investment in it appears much greater.

It should therefore come as no surprise to discover in Othello's most virulent outbursts against Desdemona primitive fantasies of a more ancient maternal betrayal: “But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live or bear no life; / The fountain from the which my current runs / Or else dries up: to be discarded thence!” (IV. ii. 57-60).24 Conversely, when Desdemona's behavior toward Othello evokes the maternal role, she is most in danger of activating in him the anxieties Iago manipulates. On behalf of Cassio, for example, she pleads:

          Why, this is not a boon;
'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm,
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person. Nay, when I have a suit
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise and difficult weight,
And fearful to be granted.

(III. iii. 76-83)

Her suit excites Othello's jealousy not only because of the concern it shows for Cassio but also because of its evocation of the overprotective mother and the son's anxious fantasy of threatening sexual demands. Othello's reply sounds like the adolescent's attempt to appease this figure, and suggests how precarious and pathetic the sense of manhood wrested from it is: “I will deny thee nothing; / Whereon, I do beseech thee, grant me this, / To leave me but a little to myself” (III. iii. 83-85).


Yet the play also stresses how little these male fantasies have to do with Desdemona's mundane reality as a specific woman. Even when her suit on Cassio's behalf starts to wear on our nerves as well as Othello's, the focus is not so much on a fault in her character as on the pathological reverberations that even a woman's trivial indiscretions have in the minds of men. Something of Desdemona's predicament can be gathered from the treatment she often receives from her literary critics. A recent psychoanalytic interpretation of the play, for instance, reports that Desdemona reassures Cassio by saying “quite plainly” that she “intends breaking her husband to her will or dying in the attempt.”25 This leads to a portrait of Desdemona as a “masculine” woman with a “castrative” need to “dominate Othello in terms of phallic rivalry.”26

What is the reality of the behavior this critic finds so pathologically unfeminine? Desdemona is in high spirits the day after the wedding night, confidently assuring Cassio of Othello's esteem. Her mood is what chiefly suggests that the marriage has been happily consummated, and that in the process Desdemona became “half the wooer”:

Be thou assur'd, good Cassio, I will do
All my abilities in thy behalf.
.....I know't; I thank you. You do love my lord;
You have known him long, and be you well assur'd
He shall in strangeness stand no farther off
Than in a politic distance.
.....Do not doubt that; before Emilia here,
I give thee warrant of thy place. Assure thee,
If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it
To the last article.

(III. iii. 1-2, 10-13, 19-22)

This is the voice not of a shrewish wife but of a free, ethically empowered subject. Desdemona has obviously acquired a sense of her “abilities” to assure men, to warrant them of their place. This power depends upon her own self-confidence, which in turn depends upon her trust in Othello and her place in his confidence. One could scarcely imagine a more optimistic “morning-after” effect: her elopement with a Moor, her public declaration of love in the face of her father's displeasure, and the consummation of her marriage have left her with no detectable Oedipal guilt, no latent sense of social disgrace, no virginal resentment, and nothing like wifely subservience or docility. Instead she is self-assured, spirited, free to speak in her own voice and confident in her ability to speak for Othello. If ever things bode well in the play for love, it is here, in the guilt-free atmosphere that Desdemona generates—a mood almost immediately destroyed as Othello and Iago return from the world of men, where they have been inspecting fortifications:

Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing your coming.
I do believe 'twas he.

(III. iii. 37-40)

Eventually, however, Desdemona's reassurances to Cassio do overreach themselves, and the ominous note of maternal domination is sounded:

                    Assure thee,
If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it
To the last article. My lord shall never rest,
I'll watch him tame, and talk him out of patience;
His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift,
I'll intermingle everything he does
With Cassio's suit.

(III. iii. 20-26)

Innocent as these words are, their image of the conjugal bed as a place of forced instruction suggests the Witches of Macbeth:

I'll drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his penthouse lid;
He shall live a man forbid;
Weary sev'n nights, nine times nine,
Shall he dwindle, peak, and pine.

(Mac., I. iii. 18-23)

The underlying male fear is thralldom to the demands of an unsatisfiable sexual appetite in woman. It is crucial to realize, however, that the threat appears not when something intrinsically evil emerges in Desdemona's will, but when the conventional boundaries of marriage close in upon it. Speaking for herself, Desdemona begins with a strong judicious vow: “If I do vow a friendship, I'll perform it to the last article.” But as she begins to speak as Othello's wife, her resolve loses its ethical resonance, and becomes instead a kind of petty, nagging persistence: “His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift, / I'll mingle everything he does / With Cassio's suit.” Only when she is absorbed by the role men create to limit her freedom and power does she become the thing they fear and despise (“Players in your huswifery, and huswifes in your beds”).

The tragedy of the play, then, is the inability of Desdemona to escape or triumph over restraints and Oedipal prohibitions that domesticate woman to the conventional male order of things. At first her erotic vitality enables her to transcend society's barriers and fearlessly merge with a self radically other than her own:

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.(27)
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. 248-54)

But the erotic principle in her is gradually transformed by “the curse of marriage” to a preoccupation with a fetish that confines her to a sphere of childlike, narcissistic isolation: “but she so loves the token / (For he conjur'd her she should ever keep it) / That she reserves it evermore about her / To kiss and talk to” (III. iii. 293-96). From proclaiming her love as a free individual she is reduced by the domain of married chastity to defending her virtue as an object passively dedicated to her husband:

Are not you a strumpet?
                                                                                                    No, as I am a Christian.
If to preserve this vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none.

(IV. ii. 82-85)

This tangle of denials and contingencies is the language of self demanded by Desdemona's marital role. Her loss of self-confidence and forthrightness under the pressure of Othello's accusations only emphasizes a process intrinsic to the institution of marriage in a patriarchal society. Under such conditions an assertion of innocence logically comes out sounding like a negation of identity (“I am none”). Desdemona can only defend herself against male anxieties that fear and despise her as a “thing of nothing” by nullifying herself.

By the time of the Willow Scene Desdemona's confidence in her love's future has been reduced to superstitious foreboding, a morbid preoccupation with unrequited love, and a fatalistic desire to recapture the experience of the wedding night:

I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed.
All's one: Good faith, how foolish are our minds!
If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me
In one of those same sheets.

(IV. iii. 22-25)

Despite obvious sympathy for Desdemona, Shakespeare treats this sentimental investment in the wedding sheets as being clairvoyantly in touch with Othello's murderous fancies. Indeed, it virtually summons up the figure of the husband-executioner:

          Prithee to-night
Lay on my bed my wedding-sheets—remember;
And call thy husband hither.(28)

(IV. ii. 104-06)

                                                  Strumpet, I come.
Forth of my heart, those charms, thine eyes, are blotted;
Thy bed, lust-stain'd, shall with lust's blood be spotted.

(V. i. 34-36)

Desdemona speaks more truly than she realizes when she tells Othello, “Be as your fancies teach you; / What e'er you be, I am obedient” (III. iii. 88-89).29 One of the things that makes the vision of Othello so terrible is the sense of complicity of everything we expect to assert a reality-principle—the voice of reason, the laws of state, Christian values, and finally even Desdemona's love—in Othello's destructive fantasies. At the end of the play only Emilia manages to speak from a place outside the general confusion, and as she declares her truth she intuitively grasps the scope of the forces that seek to keep her silent: “Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all, cry shame against me, yet I'll speak” (V. ii. 221-22).


It has become a commonplace of Othello criticism that Iago is the “shadow-side” of Othello, “that side of man which is hidden from the light of day, but which cannot be denied.”30 But he fulfills this function within Othello's psyche not as the dark, impulsive id but the punitive, sex-hating superego. It is Iago who “knows” that Desdemona and Cassio have committed “the act of shame” a thousand times, Iago who “hates the slime / That sticks on filthy deeds,” Iago who gets Othello to see himself as “black” and counsels him to murder Desdemona in the bed she has “contaminated.” The id's representative in Othello's psyche is poor civilized Cassio (it is he who does what Iago knows), or at least the Cassio generated in Othello's mind by Iago's lie. All we know of the so-called “id” is what comes to us through the mediation of a prurient, paranoid superego, just as the disavowals and repressions of the civilized world of Venice make it impossible to imagine what a genuine “Moorish” impulse might be.

So to attribute the destructive impulses unleashed in Othello to man's “bestial nature,” to the sexual impulse breaking through the civilized barriers that usually contain it, is to turn the vision of the play on its head. Shakespeare locates the principle of evil and malice at the level of the superego, the agency that enforces civilization on the ego. What erupts in Othello's jealousy is not primitive, barbaric man but the voice of the father, not “those elements in man that oppose civilized order”31 but the outraged voice of that order. Brabantio is scandalized by a betrayal that is sexuality itself, a female sexuality he discovers in his daughter as a will independent of his own and a revolt against his authority as both a father and a ruling member of Venetian society. He experiences his daughter's behavior not only as a personal grief but as a scandal that threatens the basis of the patriarchal social order:

Mine's not an idle cause. The Duke himself,
Or any of my brothers of the state,
Cannot but feel this wrong as 'twere their own;
For if such actions may have passage free,
Bond-slaves and pagans shall our statemen be.

(I. ii. 95-99)

Othello initially appears to take Desdemona's part, pleading with the lords of Venice either to “Let her have your voice” or to “let her will / Have a free way,” depending on which version of the text we follow.32 But by the time he enters in the last scene, preparing himself for her execution, he, like Hamlet, has become possessed by the displaced father's perspective and the prophetic truth of his warning. Brabantio's “cause” has become his own: he is determined to stifle Desdemona's newly-liberated voice, to stop up the “free passage” that he himself has opened in her, and thus undo the breach her sexuality has created in the stable male order of things. It is a terrible irony that with this introjection of the father's prohibitive cause, the note of alienation (the outsider's insecurity, the theatrical display of belonging) virtually disappears from Othello's voice. As he proceeds to execute first his wife and then himself, that bond-slave and pagan who would be stateman, he finally seems to feel at home in the Venetian world. However “mad” he may be as he approaches Desdemona's bed to murder her, he knows that he is acting in the name of men, as minister of their justice and their faith. At the end of the play, as he finally addresses his audience with the intimacy of an equal (“Soft you; a word or two before you go”); he is confident that damned though he may be, he has done the state some service, and they know it.


  1. All references are to The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974); all italics are added.

  2. “It cannot be” (I. iii. 333), “why, 'tis not possible” (II. i. 220), “I cannot believe that in her” (II. i. 249), “You must not think then that I am drunk” (II. iii. 118-19), “No, sure, I cannot think it” (III. iii. 38), I'll not believe it” (III. iii. 279), “Is't possible?” (III. iii. 358), “Is't possible?” (III. iv. 68), “I'faith, is't true?” (III. iv. 75), “Is't possible?” (IV. i. 42), “Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible” (IV. ii. 134), “I do not think there is any such woman” (IV. iii. 83). I am indebted to Regenia Gagnier for pointing this motif out to me.

  3. Some editors also gloss clyster-pipes as syringes for vaginal douches. The OED records no such use of the word, but the doubling of function is certainly there in Iago's fantasy, and suggests the place of evil where his motives originate: note the anal-sadistic, excremental interpretation of genital sexuality, and the corresponding fusion of homosexual and misogynistic impulses.

  4. Othello's sense of Desdemona as a pearl he threw away contrasts with Brabantio's sense of his daughter as a jewel that was stolen from him and with Cassio's sense of Bianca as a bauble that hangs annoyingly around his neck. But the differences, as so often in the play, mask a fundamental sameness: in this case a common male attitude about women as objects either of value or adornment.

  5. The phrases in quotation marks are Kenneth Burke's: see his “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” Hudson Review 4 (1951), p. 165-203. I am much indebted to Burke's critique of scapegoat rituals and the dramatist's use of them.

  6. An insightful account of the officially sanctioned view of sexuality as shameful and adulterous, even—or especially—when it occurs within marriage, is provided by Stephen Greenblatt in “Improvisation and Power,” forthcoming in his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning.

  7. Greenblatt has an especially acute discussion in “Improvisation and Power” of the theme of confession in Othello and its bearing on the play's insights into the malign influence of Christian doctrine on human life. But it is important not to scapegoat Christianity in turn, making it (as Greenblatt seems to do) the “cause” of sexual disgust. The dialectic in Shakespeare between the psyche and the institutions it creates and is shaped by cannot be so easily resolved.

  8. For a discussion of Desdemona's handkerchief in the context of the ritual display of wedding-night sheets as “ocular proof” of the consummated marriage and the bride's virginity, see Lynda E. Boose, “Othello's Handkerchief: ‘The Recognizance and Pledge of Love,’” English Literary Renaissance 5 (1975), pp. 360-74.

  9. The language suggests that Desdemona is a “strumpet” not so much because of her imagined infidelity as because of her sexual allure and the power it has to make him “come.” The “again” in “Get me some poison, Iago, this night. I'll not expostulate with her, lest her body and her beauty unprovide my mind again. This night, Iago” (IV. i. 204-06) suggests that Othello is thinking even here of what happened to him on his wedding night. His reiteration of “this night” picks up the phrase that has come to signify the (sexual) demand women make upon men: cf. Desdemona's “To-night, my lord?” (I. iii. 278) and “Shall it be to-night at supper?” (III. iii. 57), and Bianca's “say if I shall see you soon at night” (III. iv. 198) and “An' you'll come to supper to-night, you may” (IV. i. 159-60). I shall argue that the murder to be consummated “this night” involves a repetition and undoing of the sexual experience that took place “that night.”

  10. For the connection between deflowering and capital punishment in Shakespeare, cf. the opening of Romeo and Juliet:

    'Tis all one; I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be civil with the maids; I will cut off their heads.
    The heads of the maids?
    Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt.
  11. The “napkin” spotted with strawberries evokes the menstrual cloth as well as the wedding sheets, thereby facilitating an identification between virginal and menstrual blood in the male subconscious. The handkerchief is thus a nexus for the three aspects of woman—chaste bride, sexual object, and maternal threat—which the institution it represents seeks to separate.

  12. This association of ideas runs throughout Shakespeare. In Romeo and Juliet the sexual match is to be played for a “pair of stainless maidenheads,” while Pompey in Measure for Measure claims to be able to cut off a man's head only “if the man be a bachelor.” And in 1 Henry IV, immediately after Falstaff stabs Hotspur in the thigh and carries him off the stage, Hal and Prince John enter with bloody swords, the former approving of the latter's initiation into the world of martial valor: “Full bravely hast thou flesh'd / Thy maiden sword.”

  13. Originally it was Brabantio who “lov'd” Othello, and “oft invited” him (I. iii. 128). Desdemona surreptitiously displaces her father in this originally male relationship; this makes both Brabantio's feelings of betrayal and Othello's corresponding guilt profoundly double-edged. There is similar irony in Desdemona's attempt to mediate between Othello and Cassio, since it was she who came between them in the first place—not as a rival object of love but as the intrusion of sexuality into the stable, “innocent” world of male bonds. Many of Shakespeare's heroines face this danger. Portia takes Bassanio away from Antonio, and Juliet comes between Romeo and Mercutio; in both cases the potential of male guilt and resentment threatens the heterosexual bond. In The Winter's Tale Polixenes speaks matter-of-factly to Hermoine of his childhood friendship with Leontes as a time of innocence that would have continued indefinitely had not women intervened in their world and separated them from each other. It is during this conversation that jealousy begins to take hold of Leontes.

  14. Cf. Mercutio: “If love be rough with you, be rough with love; / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down” (Rom., I iv. 27-28).

  15. This plan is abetted by the language of a hierarchical, status-conscious society that thinks more in terms of positions than of the persons who temporarily occupy them: “Although 'tis fit that Cassio have his place—/ For sure he fills it up with great ability” (III. iii. 246-47); “Sir, there is especial commission come from Venice to depute Cassio in Othello's place” (IV. ii. 200-21).

  16. The question is, after how much time? Iago seems to regard good timing here as a feel for the right amount of time; but in fact he begins his abuse of Othello in the scene that follows the consummation of the latter's twice-interrupted wedding rites. Is it the passage of time within the relationship, the wearing away of the original romantic impulse by the realities of married life, or the trauma of the sexual event, that makes Othello vulnerable to Iago's suggestions? Shakespeare's handling of the “dilatory” time that separates the implied consummation of the sexual relationship from what follows it in the play deliberately exacerbates this question.

  17. “Supervisor” is the Q reading; F has “Would you the super-vision grossy gape on, / Behold her topp'd?” If F is a sophistication, as the majority of editors suppose, the implication is that Q's “supervisor” evoked for a contemporary reader trying to make sense of Shakespeare's text not the onlooker but the spectacle of Desdemona being topped; this in itself suggests how the word overdetermines Othello's imaginative involvement in what it makes him see. The line also seems to express a desire to prostitute Desdemona—a fantasy befitting someone conscious of having gained, in the words of the motto which the Moorish prince chooses in Merchant of Venice, “what many men desire.” The same fantasy may also emerge in censored form in Othello's “I had been happy, if the general camp, / Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body, / So I had nothing known” (III. iii. 345-47).

  18. Summoned by a husband who has become convinced that she is a “subtle whore,” Desdemona responds with a marital submissiveness that ironically confirms the image of the courtesan Othello has become obsessed with:

    My lord, what is your will?
                                            Pray chuck, come hither.
    What is your pleasure?

    (IV. ii. 24-25)

  19. For the passage from Augustine, see G. K. Hunter, “Othello and Color Prejudice,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 53 (1967), 153, and Arthur Kirsch, “The Polarization of Erotic Love in Othello,Modern Language Review 73 (1978), 728.

  20. Cf. The deathbed soliloquy: “When I have pluck'd thy rose / I cannot give it vital growth again, / It needs must wither.”

  21. Comparison with The Rape of Lucrece, the precursor of Othello in its dark treatment of the ideology and the psychology of chastity, may suggest how overdetermined Othello's emotion is in these lines. His words fuse the experiences of Lucrece, the violated wife (“My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black …”), and Tarquin, her guilty violator (“As mine own face”), with the point of view of Collatine, the wronged husband. The return of material from The Rape of Lucrece consistently suggests the psychic unity of the husband-wife-adulterer configuration in Othello. As Othello approaches Desdemona in the final scene as the outraged husband, the posture he strikes recalls the rapist Tarquin approaching Lucrece to satisfy his lust (“Fair torch burn out thy light, and lend it not / To darken her whose light excelleth thine”); while his suicide, although motivated by a combination of remorse and lost honor that fuses Tarquin and Collatine, resembles in its methods, its theatrics, and its reflexive structure that of Lucrece herself (“He, he, fair lords, 'tis he, / That guides this hand to give this wound to me”).

  22. Phallic connotations often attach to the idea of “good name” in Othello: preoccupation with reputation is treated as a social fetish to which the language of sexuality is drawn as if by a mysterious law of nature. Cf. Othello's response to the brawl that erupts on Cyprus: “What's the matter / That you unlace your reputation thus, / And spend your rich opinion for the name of a night-brawler?” (II. iii. 194-97). Coming from a man who has just been roused from his wedding bed, these lines suggest a response on the part of the public voice to what the private self has been engaging in.

  23. The handkerchief nevertheless remains a thoroughly partriarchal fantasy-object. Through it woman seeks power over man only as the object of his desire, not (like Lady Macbeth) to exercise her will through his but merely to make herself “amiable” to him and remain the single object of his unconstant “fancies.” In spite of the feminine lineage with which Othello's story invests the handkerchief, in reality it is he who gives it to Desdemona to inhibit and obligate her.

  24. Contrast the almost parthenogenic fantasy of male descent at the beginning of the play: “I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (I. ii. 21-22).

  25. Robert Dickes, “Desdemona: An Innocent Victim?” American Imago 25 (1968), 285.

  26. Dickes, 287, 293.

  27. “Very quality” is the F reading; Q reads “utmost pleasure.” It is sometimes claimed that Q is the Shakespearean version, and F an attempt to transform Q's frank, sexually assertive young woman into a more “proper” bride. But F is a more radical expression of the ontology of sexual exchange; it stresses the active investment in Othello's masculinity that Desdemona's acquiescence to it entails. (When Juliet similarly anticipates the “manning” of her blood by Romeo, she is thinking not only of being dominated by him but of feeling her own phallic stirrings achieve mastery.) It also extends the ambiguities of identification and object-relation in her earlier wish that “heaven had made her such a man,” and looks forward to Othello's “O my fair warrior” as he greets her at their reunion on Cyprus. Q's “utmost pleasure” loses F's rich fusion of submission and self-assertion by fixing Desdemona (however outspokenly) in the conventional feminine role. The sentiment it gives her is more appropriate to the docile figure to which she has been reduced in the final scenes than to the resonant figure she projects in the earlier ones.

  28. Desdemona says “thy husband” rather than “my husband,” but the elision of the one into the other has been conspicuously prepared for in the immediately preceding exchange:

    Good madam, what's the matter with my lord?
    With who?
    Why, with my lord, madam.
    Who is thy lord?
                                  He that is yours, sweet lady.
  29. Cf. the philosophy Othello enthusiastically accepts from Iago: “knowing what I am, I know what she will be” (IV. i. 73). The irony is that what he refuses to know about himself generates the groundless fantasies that eventually become all he knows of Desdemona.

  30. Maude Bodkin, Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (Oxford, 1934), p. 245; Thomas F. Connolly, “Shakespeare and the Double Man,” Shakespeare Quarterly 1 (1950), 31.

  31. K. W. Evans, “The Racial Factor in Othello,” Shakespeare Survey 5 (1965), 139.

  32. The first version is F's, the second Q's. Most editors who comment on the variant regard it as the result of authorial revision.

David Suchet (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8145

SOURCE: Suchet, David. “Iago in Othello.” In Players of Shakespeare 2, edited by Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood, pp. 179-99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[In the following essay, Suchet, who played the part of Iago with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1995, offers a detailed analysis of the character's motivation, suggesting that it is based on unfounded jealousy.]

David Suchet played Iago in Terry Hands's production of Othello at Stratford in 1985 and in the following season at the Barbican. He first worked for the RSC, of which he is an Associate Artist, in 1973, when his parts included Tybalt, Orlando, and the King of Navarre. Among his numerous roles for the Company since then have been Caliban (on which he wrote for the first Players of Shakespeare collection), Grumio, Bolingbroke in Richard II, Edward IV in Richard III, and Shylock, as well as Herman Glogauer in Once in a Lifetime, first at the Aldwych and later in the West End. Other stage work includes his one-man show The Kreutzer Sonata and most recently Separation, and among numerous film and television appearances are the title roles in Freud and Blott on the Landscape.

The telephone rings. ‘Hello, Terry here.’ Pause. ‘Terry Hands.’ ‘Oh, my God, Terry—hello, how are you?’ ‘Fine—look—I would like to do a production of Othello with Ben Kingsley in the title role and we (Ben and I) have talked and, well—would you consider playing Iago?’

It is unnecessary to relate the rest of the conversation (apart from not accurately remembering it) but necessary to note that it took place in December 1984 and that I finally said yes in April 1985. Five months to reach a decision to play one of the finest and most famously complex characters in Shakespeare? Why? Well, precisely because of one word—fear!

I had read the play, of course, seen it, knew it well, and decided to go to the Shakespeare Centre to read the reviews of the play since the RSC had first performed it. What surprised me (even apart from the relative unpopularity of the play in this century) was the scarcity of successful Iagos. How odd, I thought, especially since this character is so famous. It was at the Shakespeare Centre I learned that Iago had been played mainly as a smiling villain. Emrys James (RSC, 1971) had been very different—a psychotic maniac of an NCO in the army—laughing almost maniacally as he looked on the result of his machinations, the bodies of Desdemona and Othello.

Reading about the play I learned of its performance history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here the play was more successful, indeed perhaps the most popular of Shakespeare's plays. Here also were great performances of Iago and Othello. Edwin Booth as Iago and Kean as Othello stand out at different times. But what is important is that the play itself was accepted and popular. Why, I puzzled, did it not have the same effect on our twentieth-century audiences and critics?

I then read (seemingly mountainous!) essays of literary criticism about the play and centred my readings on Iago himself. This research covered just about everything from Coleridge's ‘motiveless malignity’ to essays about him being an emissary from the devil. All my reading made me aware that almost everyone that has either written about Iago or played Iago, is always in search of one thing: motivation. The search for motivation in any character is a necessary step to understanding the behaviour of that character. But no one has ever come up with a completely satisfying explanation for Iago's behaviour. Instead we get a series of labels:

  1. A smiling villain.
  2. The latent homosexual.
  3. The devil's emissary.
  4. The playwright (i.e. creator of events and observer, who conducts the outcome).
  5. The melodramatic machiavel.

Putting these ‘labels’ on a characterisation is a convenient though simplistic way around the problem, allowing the actor to play the role effectively irrespective almost of his Othello. Hence the play becomes a battle about who is going to win the applause of the critics and of the audience. And hence the play does not work because the play itself can never really come to the surface—only two (or possibly one) bravura performances.

Our rehearsal period was approximately six weeks and we started with a detailed analysis of the play. My personal plan for rehearsal was to try out all the various labels which I have mentioned above. It was a most interesting experience because each way/label came unstuck at certain places in the play and I had to bend the text to make the ‘label’ work. Having concluded that I would not play just one of the labels I decided to find out not how to play Iago but why Shakespeare wrote him. What does he provide, why did Shakespeare need him?

To do this I read the play without Iago in it. Basically Othello marries Desdemona, her father is upset, but the Duke appeases him. Othello goes off to Cyprus with Desdemona. When they arrive the wars have ended and (without Iago's machinations) there is no reason why everyone couldn't have had a very nice holiday!

What is missing is what causes all the destruction in the play—Jealousy. Iago represents Jealousy, is Jealousy. What is Iago jealous about?

  1. Not becoming a lieutenant (jealous over Cassio).
  2. Jealous that Emilia and Othello have had an affair.
  3. Jealous of Emilia and Cassio.
  4. Jealous over Desdemona and Cassio.
  5. Jealous of Desdemona's power over Othello.

But what struck me was that all these reasons that he states as justifications for his actions are totally unfounded.

  1. When Othello makes Iago lieutenant (‘Now art thou my lieutenant’) Iago does not stop his destructive actions.
  2. There is no evidence anywhere in the text, let alone in the scenes where Emilia and Othello are alone, that there has been any form of sexual liaison or indeed of any other kind between them.
  3. Because of one line at the sea shore?
  4. Because Desdemona is ‘fram'd as fruitful / as the free elements’ and Cassio has a ‘daily beauty in his life which makes me ugly’?

There is no doubt that Iago is genuinely jealous of these things; therefore (I wondered) could Iago destroy and kill through jealousy even though the reasons for his jealousy are unfounded? Human beings are given to finding justifications for deeds or actions to make those deeds ‘allowable’ in their own minds even though they are not always valid justifications. And so it is with Iago.

Then comes another ‘Why?’, this time in reference to his jealousy. Why is he jealous? When Desdemona is wondering why Othello may be jealous (3.4.158), Emilia/Shakespeare gives us one answer to the problem:

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


In other words, don't look for reasons for the behaviour of jealous people. Critics, actors, and audiences will constantly ask ‘why does Iago do this or that? why is he jealous?’ Emilia, his wife, who knows him better than anyone, gives us the answer—Don't ask!

I also considered Iago's behaviour pattern through the play and his relationships with other characters. Perhaps the most important relationship up to Act 2, Scene 3, is with Roderigo. I noted that in the conversations that they have, Roderigo hardly ever says a word. In the first eighty-two lines of the play, Roderigo and Iago are alone on stage. Iago has seventy-two and a half lines, Roderigo nine and a half. In Act 1, Scene 3, beginning with Roderigo's ‘Iago’ down to Roderigo's exit, ‘I'll sell all my land’, Iago has seventy-eight lines, Roderigo fifteen lines. And in Act 2, Scene 1, Iago has sixty-eight lines and Roderigo six lines.

But during these scenes we see Iago at his most pained and most voluble. Shakespeare is using Roderigo as a foil to Iago in the form of aided soliloquy. Iago never charms Roderigo; in fact quite the opposite—he tells Roderigo some hateful things about life and indeed about the woman with whom Roderigo is infatuated.

It is now necessary to look at each scene as I did in the rehearsal room. What I tried to do was to approach every moment of the role without preconception or labels. In Act 1, Scene 1, we see Iago justifying his hatred of Othello to Roderigo because Othello has made Cassio his lieutenant and not Iago. But there seemed to me something else going on behind all this volubility over Cassio. The audience doesn't know, but Iago and Roderigo do know, that Othello has got married. For Iago Othello's marrying means that their friendship (Othello's and his) will never be the same again. It's only because of the wedding that Othello needs the unpractised ‘bookish theoric’—the Sandhurst type—to be his lieutenant as a status symbol.

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


Also, I noted that it is quite possible from the text that Iago has been promoted to the officer class of Ancient (albeit the lowest officer rating), from the ranks:

He (in good time!) must his lieutenant be,
And I (God bless the mark!) his Moorship's ancient.


If this is so, Iago's promotion is an even bigger snub if we accept that Othello knew of his desire to become lieutenant:

                                        Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp'd to him.


There is every reason, in fact, to believe Othello does know because of his extraordinary ‘Now art thou my lieutenant’ (3.3.479) later on.

Iago therefore sees his whole life beginning to change and his close relationship to Othello is already fading. At the same time, the scene emphasises Iago's ambition. He wants to stop the wedding and in doing so tries to cause chaos. I found the imagery of Iago's speech,

Do, with like timorous accent and dire yell
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is sped in populous cities


rather extreme and grotesque. It is a war image coming from the mouth of a soldier, an image of death, but an image which obviously excites Iago.

Chaos achieved with the waking of Brabantio, he leaves to find Othello and when we next see Iago, he is speaking to Othello quite differently from the way he spoke with Roderigo. We also see a different character from the embittered, angry, hurt, resentful figure in the first scene; now we see a dog yapping around the heels of his master. The immaturity of Iago's dialogue is brilliantly counterpointed in Othello's haughty calmness.

It is true, in this scene, for the first time, we do see Iago being two-faced (he swears, aptly, ‘by Janus’, the two-faced god). And interestingly, after the entrance of Brabantio in Act 1, Scene 2, up to Othello's and Desdemona's exit in Act 1, Scene 3, Iago does not say a word. With a character as voluble as Iago, his silences are as important as his dialogue. It is Iago who goes off to get Desdemona and therefore is not allowed to hear Othello's florid, and beautiful, tale of his wooing Desdemona. How ironic that when he finishes it is Iago who brings her in and delivers her silently to Othello and the Duke. This section is filled (for Iago) with the hope that the Duke will intercede and divorce them (i.e. chaos again) and very intensive listening. But the Duke is satisfied that Desdemona and Othello have married out of love and he consents that she go to the wars in Cyprus with Othello. For Iago, his relationship with Othello will not be the same again—a woman, Othello's wife, will be the Moor's companion and confidante. What is more, Othello asks Iago to bring his wife, Emilia, to look after Desdemona.

Iago's world is now changing very fast indeed. He is surrounded by happy people: soldiers pleased to go to war; Othello happy in marriage and the prospect of his taking his young bride to the wars; Cassio happy that in so short a time he will be taking part in an active campaign. Three people, however, are not so happy. Brabantio has lost his daughter and warns Othello, ‘She has deceived her father, and may thee’ and Roderigo, besotted with Desdemona, is now in utter despair. And of course, Iago's plans have failed. Confronted by Roderigo who announces he is going to ‘incontinently drown myself’ it is as if a trigger has been pulled in Iago's head and he sprays the stage, Roderigo, and the audience with some very downright and earthy attitudes to life and living. He starts as a confident moraliser, ‘'Tis in ourselves that we are thus’, etc. But then Shakespeare indicates his vulnerability:

If the beam of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost'rous conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts.


Here we have self-knowledge. Here, also, we have a man who while seemingly helping and advising a friend betrays his own weaknesses.

We shall see how this pattern repeats itself so often with Roderigo. It is as though Iago has to get things out of his own system before coming down to offering practical advice. In this case he wants to get Roderigo to Cyprus. Why?—it is not clear. But here obviously is a young man so much in love who might be useful to Iago later on. Shakespeare does not allow a clear explanation, only ‘Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.’ It seems he wants Roderigo to get as much money as possible for his own means, but the rest of his first soliloquy doesn't illuminate this issue any further.

This soliloquy is easy to understand and seemingly at first glance easy to play. Here we have a laid-back villain setting out his plan of destruction—yes?—No! I noted the ‘lunges’ of thought and turns on a sixpence. The words ‘I hate the Moor’ start in the middle of a line! Not much time for a considered pause, then, after ‘sport and profit’. He admits that he doesn't really know if the rumour of Emilia's affair with Othello has any truth to it. He says he will now act though as if it were true. And suddenly ‘Cassio's a proper man’ leaps out of his mouth. Then comes the thought of usurping Cassio's lieutenantship. But he has to ask ‘How? How?’ Then, and only then, comes the germination of a plan, ‘to abuse Othello's ear / That he is too familiar with his wife’ (lines 395-6). In describing Othello's gullibility there is a strange softness in Iago's words and I always thought that the words ‘And will as tenderly be led by th' nose / As asses are’ (lines 401-2) are mixed with a certain warmth as well as distaste.

But finally Iago has to admit that the plan is only ‘engendered’ and that ‘Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light’ (lines 403-4). Hardly the laid-back smiling villain laying down a very sure and clear plan of action. I did note that the seed for the plan was put into Iago's head with Brabantio's parting words. Somehow his statement went into Iago's subconscious and was used. Iago's ability to take from moments or words spoken on stage and use them for his own ends recurs throughout the play.

Then comes the arrival in Cyprus, along with Emilia. Cassio, noticing Iago's reaction to his rather bold welcome to Emilia, apologises. Iago turns that immediately to a joke against his wife for the benefit of the other soldiers. Suddenly Shakespeare plunges the scene into jokes against wives and women. And it's interesting that Shakespeare allows Desdemona not only to get caught up in the game herself but to deflect the jokes aimed at Emilia on to herself. There's a wonderful piece of irony here when she admits: ‘I am not merry; but I do beguile / The thing I am by seeming otherwise’ (2.1.122-3). This to the greatest seemer of them all! Iago gives Desdemona a run for her money but from line 148, ‘She that was ever fair’ to the end of the speech, almost involuntarily he gets into lewd, dark areas of description, going even further into sexuality; he has to end with literally a (limp) impotent conclusion: ‘To suckle fools and chronicle small beer.’ I played that moment as if ‘reason’ had to be called upon here to stop him really stepping over the bounds of acceptable language to Othello's young wife. It is in this frame of mind that he notes Cassio's taking her ‘by the palm’ and privately (with the audience) the language does become really vulgar.

I noted also that the word ‘trumpet’ in ‘The Moor! I know his trumpet’ nearly always sounded like ‘strumpet’ unless I put a deliberate gap after ‘his’. I pondered on Shakespeare's intentions but allowed the line its ambiguity which some audiences did pick up.

‘O, you are well tuned now!’ (line 199) completes Othello's half line, ‘That e'er our hearts shall make’ which told me that Shakespeare wanted Iago to come straight in with his line, the reason being that Iago is witnessing something beautiful, something he cannot bear to watch. This aside has always in all productions I have ever seen been played just for a laugh, but I believe that underneath the obvious surface comedy of the line lies pain and cynicism. My belief is supported by the end of Act 2, Scene 1, the second big Iago/Roderigo scene.

Instead of immediately planning the riot, Iago (pushed by Shakespeare) goes into perhaps the darkest areas of twisted, bitter, and sexual language that the play contains. I noted the following points. For Roderigo's benefit, he paints a picture of Desdemona as a lustful nyphomaniac. Don't forget that Roderigo is desperately in love with her. He dismisses Othello's power for lovemaking completely. And then comes the most surprising language about Cassio:

A knave very voluble; no further conscionable than in putting on the mere form of civil and humane seeming, for the better compassing of his salt and most hidden loose affection … a slipper and subtle knave; a finder-out of occasion; that has an eye can stamp and counterfeit advantages, though true advantage never present itself; a devilish knave!


All this about Cassio? I couldn't help but read the most perfect description of himself! And how very human that is!

Then Iago describes Cassio and Desdemona together. Here Iago goes deeper and deeper into his own sexual, almost masturbatory imagery ending up with ‘th'incorporate conclusion’. Then very suddenly, as if Iago himself realises he has gone almost too far, he gets on with the plotting of the riot.

So far then, let me sum up the type of man I was beginning to see: a man who is jealous about everything—and finding particulars to justify his feelings (these particulars we know are not valid); a man whose life has changed through his general's marriage; a man who swears revenge; a soldier who makes jokes about his wife; a man who is sexually obsessed and sees life and goodness through splintered, green glasses—love is lust, courtesy is lechery, kissing hands leads not to making love but to pure fucking; a man who has caused one act of chaos (waking up of Brabantio) and is about to cause another; a man who really is confused, mixed up over one person in particular. He has openly slandered Desdemona and Cassio, but what of Othello—very little? Perhaps, and only perhaps, did it enter my mind that his jealousy could be centred around the one area he has hardly mentioned, Othello, and in particular his mind, the mind Desdemona said she fell in love with. But this is conjecture—more later. So, a pretty mixed-up, pained human being.

And now, at this point, when this very confusing picture is being drawn, Shakespeare gives Iago the most difficult and complex soliloquy that I have ever encountered. The soliloquy is full of confusion as Iago himself admits: ‘'Tis here; but yet confus'd’ (2.1.311).

The first two lines (‘That Cassio loves her, I do well believe't; / That she loves him, 'tis apt and of great credit’, lines 286-7), are obviously sarcastic and cynical; the next three and a half lines present the first complexity:

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

There is no doubt (unlike the first two lines which are obviously lies) that he is uttering the truth. And I noticed how, in spite of enduring him not, he praises Othello's character, and hardly dares to think of the happy couple together.

Then comes the very enigmatic ‘Now I do love her too.’ Does he? No, of course not! Why not? Well, maybe he does? Does he? We have come full circle. But if he does, this time it is ‘not out of absolute lust’. What pain there is here if the lines are played just for their value and not for any easy cheap laugh. Once again Shakespeare lets the audience into Iago's mind, to become voyeurs to his private anguish. Next, he actually describes the pain of his jealousy (about Othello and Emilia), in pure physical terms:

                                        the thought whereof
Doth (like a poisonous mineral) gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul …

(lines 296-8)

Hence his revenge must be satisfied in getting even, ‘wife for wife’, but he admits the impossibility immediately: ‘Or failing so’. And then comes the big clue to the whole role:

Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure.

(lines 300-2)

Iago then tries to plot (bring ‘reason’ back): ‘Which thing to do’, etc. Then, suddenly, a non sequitur leap of jealousy: ‘For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too.’ And then the extraordinary antithesis of

Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me,
For making him egregiously an ass,
And practising upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness. 'Tis here, but yet confus'd,
Knavery's plain face is never seen till us'd.


So a most confused soliloquy—almost an admission of all the problems of love and jealousy and confusion that have driven him to a madness that won't let go. Iago has to do something now. The pain is too great to cope with.

At this point in the play, Shakespeare lets the audience see Iago at work—the honest Iago, the man everybody loves, the man who cannot bring the reality of private feelings into his relationships with people. Having shown what are the black depths of Iago's thought, attitude, and words, Shakespeare now paints on top the most seductive veneer of honest charm.

Note how genuine he is with Cassio (in the beginning of Act 2, Scene 3); also note how his next, short, soliloquy suddenly sounds more like direct speech to the audience, and note as well the obvious humour and warmth of ‘Now, my sick fool Roderigo, / Whom love hath turn'd almost the wrong side out’, etc. Now Iago is positive and suddenly everything he wants works. Terrific. Cassio gets drunk and in spite of Iago giving the most wonderful defence of Cassio to Othello (while at the same time obviously pointing the finger of blame right at him), Cassio has his lieutenantship taken away from him for causing a riot. Again I noticed how Iago suddenly takes the cue from what is said on stage to prompt his actions.

And he that is approv'd in this offence,
Though he had twinn'd with me, both at a birth,
Shall lose me.


So, if Iago can subtly lay the blame on Cassio, Othello will literally ‘lose’ Cassio. This shows Iago's deep knowledge of Othello's character. His word is his word. How unlike Iago.

Another thing I noticed is that Iago has timed the riot at the moment when Othello and Desdemona are preparing for or in the act of lovemaking. Then Othello's offer to nurse Montano's wounds himself obviously destroys the first night together on this warm Mediterranean island. Could this have been planned? Knowing Iago's mind, anything is possible.

Iago now makes sure Cassio suspects nothing and brilliantly supports his getting his pardon by using Desdemona as the go-between. This thought could have been triggered off by Desdemona's appearance on stage, but that may be just conjecture. Cassio leaves thinking Iago is his best friend and then Shakespeare, with a stroke of genius, gives Iago a chance to play the audience as he plays with other characters. Here is a soliloquy unlike any of the others. The audience is charmed and won over by his direct address. What wonderful effrontery to be able to turn to his audience and ask ‘And what's he then that says I play the villain?’ The speech becomes Machiavellian towards the end, but in this soliloquy there are no doubts, no anguish. Iago is happy, almost for the first time in the play, and totally confident. He easily gets rid of Roderigo whose function dramatically, at least for now, is over. Iago has no more need of him. Who then does Iago need? He has got rid of Cassio being close to Othello and now he's going to make Othello suspect Desdemona. Is he getting rid of everyone close to Othello? A question that has to remain unanswered. It is clear, though, what he means to do:

My wife must move for Cassio to her mistress—
I'll set her on—
Myself a while to draw the Moor apart,
And bring him jump when he may Cassio find
Soliciting his wife.


It was at this point in our production that we took the interval.

From here on until he slips up, fate plays into Iago's hand. In the very next scene (3.1), Cassio is saying:

                                                  I have made bold, Iago,
To send in to your wife. My suit to her
Is that she will to virtuous Desdemona
Procure me some access.


With a wry smile Iago replies ‘I'll send her to you presently.’ The first part of the plan is under way and some 43 lines or so later he sets the second part in motion with ‘Hah? I like not that’ (3.3.35). This is a very long scene with many important sections which must be discussed. The first main section runs from the beginning of the scene to line 257 and is often referred to as the first temptation scene. In a sense this is correct but slightly misleading. It is a scene which must be played dangerously, i.e. moment by moment, thought by thought, as much improvised as possible (which is how it is written). If it is played in any way calculatingly, by Iago gleefully observing Othello's grabbing the bait, it becomes comic and makes Othello look really foolish.

As in the scenes with Roderigo and Cassio, Iago must find his way into this scene with great care. He has got to be prepared to pull out of the scene if it becomes too dangerous for him to continue. Othello has to be drawn and persuaded and honestly gulled by every one of Iago's words. And every now and then Shakespeare throws us Iago's painful knowledge about himself:

                              Men should be what they seem,
Or those that be not, would they might seem none!

(lines 126-7)

Although this is said for effect, the lines cannot be passed over, for Iago is not who he seems to be. Two lines later I played the moment (after the line, ‘Why then I think Cassio's an honest man’) as the final line and went to leave Othello because of this realisation of who he (Iago) is or rather who he can never be, ‘true to himself’.

From here on there was a genuine resistance to Othello's pleading which I never ‘arched’ or made wry. And when Iago throws ‘O, beware, my lord, of jealousy’ at Othello and describes the pain of such a disease, who knows better than Iago these effects? So there is much more going on in this scene than pure temptation. Only when forced by Othello to ‘utter [his] thoughts’ and when it is relatively safe to do so, does Iago start pushing the scene into its area of cruel insinuation (from line 192); if up to this point the scene is played in a very genuine way then the rest of this section is fairly straightforward.

The next main section for Iago occurs with his wife. It is an important scene, the only one they ever have on their own and thus it must convey a full relationship, whatever that might be. Shakespeare does not make it easy, for it is not a long scene (Shylock and Jessica have a similar problem in The Merchant of Venice, only twenty-two lines).

Janet Dale was our Emilia and I cannot imagine a better portrayal. She played Emilia as a woman desperately needing and wanting Iago's love, and therefore one who would do anything to please him or his fantasy (sexual or otherwise); she is thus a woman who knows Iago's weaknesses and is prepared to put up with them, believing that basically he is a good man. Her confusion then when she learns about his (eventual) truly malignant doings (the constant repetition of ‘My husband’) is very genuine.

Janet and I played the scene together in three sections. In lines 300-4 we set up a ‘used to being married’ relationship. From lines 304 to 315 we played a sexual flirtation. Instead of making Iago snatch the handkerchief (which most editors like although the stage direction is not in Folio or Quarto), Emilia was almost saying ‘be nice to me, kiss me, etc. and I'll give it to you’. As she brushed it past my lips I took it away from her hands by grasping it between my teeth. From lines 315 to 320, I played harsh and cruel—very cruel—and barked ‘leave me’ at her—leaving her to exit bewildered and sad.

I then faced another soliloquy which once more opened up Iago's sexual torment. Why, I kept wondering, doesn't Shakespeare end the speech after Iago announces his intention, ‘I will in Cassio's lodging lose this napkin, / And let him find it’ (lines 321-2)? The rest of the soliloquy doesn't tell us any more about what will happen next—only ‘This may do something’.

I realised that something was happening to Iago now that he has this handkerchief. He once more describes the physical pain of jealousy:

Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons,
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood
Burn like the mines of sulphur.

(lines 326-9)

This reminded me of the sixteenth-century description: ‘The envious body is constrained to bite on his bridle, to chew and devour his envy within himself and to lock up his own misery in his heart; this causeth great stomach pain.’ (I found this quotation in The Masks of Othello by Marvin Rosenberg—a book which helped me a great deal.) Just before ‘trifles light as air’ I laid the handkerchief gently over my face and then blew it up into the air. Gradually this ‘trifle’ turned into the ‘dangerous conceit’ and ended up screwed tight in my hand—no longer a trifle but the cause of great pain. ‘I did say so’ was therefore said as an acknowledgement of this fact.

The final section in this ‘marathon’ scene, from lines 330 to 480, is the most dangerous scene for Iago and I noticed that he only has six lines, compared to forty for Othello. Ben grabbed my throat on ‘Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore’ (line 359) and only let go after ‘For nothing canst thou to damnation add / Greater than that’ (lines 372-3).

Grabbing this opportunity, I played the next section very aggressively and very hurt. How could he, Othello, even think of treating me like that! From then on I played Iago on the attack right up until line 431. Nestled snugly among those lines is the ‘I lay with Cassio lately’ speech. Did he? Didn't he? More questions and more ambiguities. First, if he didn't, why bring it up? There was no reason to lie with Cassio as he has lodgings with Emilia and in any case there was no time for him to do so—we know he hasn't slept since arriving in Cyprus. In fact there is no evidence that Iago is telling the truth.

But whether Iago did or didn't (and I don't believe he did), Othello never questions the possibility. One can argue that he's incensed with jealous thoughts by now but I believe there's more to it than that. I noticed that before launching into the story, Iago says ‘Prick'd to't by foolish honesty and love, / I will go on’ (lines 412-13). Here questions about Iago's sexuality arise. He is about to embark on a homosexual image about himself and Cassio, at the same time making Othello more jealous about Cassio and Desdemona, and prefacing the whole thing with ‘I am only going to do this because I love you.’

After this speech, Shakespeare brings Othello and Iago together in a symbolic ‘marriage’, with both men calling upon supernatural powers to help ‘their’ revenge. Othello completely dismisses his love for Desdemona: ‘All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven. / 'Tis gone’ (lines 445-6). Iago swears to help Othello in ‘What bloody work so ever’ (Quarto reading). Othello replies with ‘I greet thy love’ and then suggests putting Cassio to death. Fairly straightforward, I thought, until Iago's reply caught me unawares by its homosexual suggestion, ‘My friend is dead’—homosexual in the context of ‘I lay with Cassio lately.’ I also find it interesting that to put Cassio to death is Othello's first job for Iago. Yes, obviously, because of jealousy—but could it be double jealousy—the fact that Cassio went to bed with Iago as well as what he said to Desdemona/Iago? Certainly, as I previously mentioned, Othello never questions the possibility of an Iago/Cassio liaison. How much then does Othello know of Iago's bisexuality or homosexuality? What is their past? These are bombshell questions, never directly answered, open to suppositions. It's interesting though that after Othello suggests killing Desdemona also, he comes out with ‘Now art thou my lieutenant’ (line 479). How long has Othello been aware of Iago's pain at not being lieutenant in the first place? It suddenly throws light on the truth of the opening scene of the play. Obviously with Desdemona as a new bride Iago was just not classy enough, but now that she is as good as dead, Iago is promoted.

I also noted the ambiguity of the response, ‘I am your own for ever.’ On a simplistic level it means what is most obvious—I will be your lieutenant for ever, but in light of the already discussed complexities, it also takes on the sense of a far deeper bonding of two men for life. Is Iago then a homosexual, bisexual, or what? Shakespeare never tells us but only suggests. I did feel though that to play the ambiguity was true to the scene.

When we see Iago again (in Act 3, Scene 4, after a five minute ‘rest’) he is truly evil and hateful: no subtlety in this scene, just plain double-dealing. What gall! I thought that this scene has to alienate the audience as it is so blatant. We may not see the subtle Iago, but there is one lovely dig at Cassio when he mentions how well he knows Othello as a soldier (fighting man)—of course it reminds us of ‘Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation.’ The scene is basically one of Iago pretending that he is surprised that Othello is angry. But on another, deeper, level, it gives Iago the information that Othello is showing his anger publicly, i.e. he's taken the bait.

And the next time we see Iago at work (Act 4, Scene 1) we realise the bait has been swallowed whole. Iago is fanning the fire of jealousy now burning in Othello's body and mind. Othello seemingly now wants to be told the worst and never even questions the ‘facts’ given by Iago. Once he's heard Iago assert that Cassio did ‘lie—with her. On her; what you will’ Othello has his ‘fit’. Epileptic? I don't think so. I think it's another one of Iago's great ‘cover-ups’. The true clinical symptoms of epilepsy are clearly not being shown by Othello because Iago tells Cassio that if he (Cassio) touches Othello they will start. Also we have seen no indication of his fit ‘yesterday’. No, for whatever reason Othello has fainted (hyperventilation caused by extreme jealousy?); it is not something that is a common occurrence.

The time on stage between the beginning of Othello's unconscious state and Cassio's entrance, lines 44-8, is, for me, perhaps one of the most important moments of the whole play, because it is the only time Iago is on stage with Othello when the latter is unable to react. Hence it is a private moment for Iago in the presence of Othello:

Work on,
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught,
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus
(All guiltless) meet reproach.—What ho! my lord!
My lord, I say! Othello!


I was obviously aware of the gloating over his own achievement, but I noticed also that he uses a female image. Then there are the three addresses to Othello. Why bother to separate these phrases? Because of all the complexities of their relationship that I had discovered previous to this moment, it was impossible to ignore the movement from gloating over a supine defenceless body to the use of the name ‘Othello’. It suggested love and hate very close together. ‘What ho! my lord!’ was to bring him round, ‘My lord, I say!’ was showing concern about his physical state, and ‘Othello!’ was said cradling him in my arms, feeling sorry for the man I was destroying. This led very comfortably into ‘No, forbear’ to Cassio, in other words, ‘don't you dare touch him!’ And that led into a show of relief with ‘Look, he stirs.’ Having got Cassio to leave the stage, Iago then endeavours to get Othello to rally round by, once again, Shakespeare's use of aided soliloquy (Othello has seven lines to Iago's thirty-two). Iago gives his bitterly sexual and misogynistic view of relationships. I stressed the bitter irony of ‘And knowing what I am, I know what she [Quarto] shall be’ (line 73). Another thing I noticed was the repetition of ‘man’:

Would you would bear your fortune like a man!

(line 61)

Good sir, be a man.

(line 65)

A passion most unsuiting such a man.

(line 77)

And nothing of a man.

(line 89)

Iago cannot bear ‘weak’ men, obviously!

I noted also the sarcasm in ‘I shifted him [Cassio] away / And laid good 'scuse upon your ecstasy’ (lines 78-9). Here also is a hint that Othello's fit was not epileptic—if it was then why not tell Othello what he told to Cassio?

The next section, where Othello overhears what Iago and Cassio are saying, relies upon the audience's willingness to believe the situation more than anything else. True theatre licence! What is worth noting in Cassio's character, however, is the fact that he never even asks Iago how Othello is—extraordinarily selfish, I thought! This scene ultimately convinces Othello, and Shakespeare tops it all by having Bianca come on and produce the handkerchief. In a sense, Iago needn't do anything else to persuade Othello. It has been done for him.

Apart from the oscillations of Othello's love and hate and a few more nudges from Iago such as ‘If you are so fond over her iniquity, give her patent to offend, for if it touch not you, it comes near nobody’ (lines 197-9), the next part of the plot is hatched. It is Othello who now suggests, ‘Get me some poison, Iago, this night’ (line 204). Iago, though, is quick to react (cautious that poison in itself may fail) and suggests ‘Do it not with poison; strangle her in her bed, even the bed she has contaminated.’ Then Iago even gets permission to kill Cassio, ‘And for Cassio, let me be his undertaker.’ It's vital to Iago that Cassio dies. It is vital that Desdemona dies also—both dead.

Fate plays into Iago's hand again. Lodovico comes from Venice and allows Iago to say ‘'Tis Lodovico—This comes from the Duke. See, your wife's with him!’ (lines 214-15). Lodovico tells that Othello has been called back to Venice and Cassio is ‘to take his place’ (Iago uses this information with Roderigo later). And witness the crazed behaviour of Othello with Desdemona. Othello strikes her, rants and raves, etc., causing Lodovico to exclaim (after Othello and Desdemona have left): ‘Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate / Call all in all sufficient?’ (lines 264-5). Again, this section from here to the end of the scene could easily be played for laughs but that would make nonsense of Lodovico and the seriousness of the action. I played it absolutely straight, showing that I was as distressed as Lodovico was. Lodovico and Iago exit, and Iago has another earned rest! This long scene, though, presented many challenges to me. It required very quick thinking on my feet—the complexity of my private moment with Othello (unconscious), the plot setting with Cassio, the sealing of the proof for Othello, and finally, the setting up of two deaths (Cassio's and Desdemona's) and getting Lodovico to see Othello in a very different light.

Iago returns in Act 4, Scene 2, this time at Desdemona's bidding. She wants to know ‘What shall I do to win my lord again?’ (line 149). This scene could also be played for cheap laughs but that would make a mockery of Desdemona's character. I played genuine concern all the way through the scene. There is, however, ironic humour in lines like ‘Fie, there is no such man; it is impossible’ coming straight after Emilia's ‘I will be hang'd if … / Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, / Have not devis'd this slander. I will be hang'd else’ (lines 130-3). But within this short scene Shakespeare gets rid of all doubt as to whether there is any truth in the rumour that she had had an affair with Othello. No woman would ever say, in the presence of the Moor's wife:

                                                  Some such squire he was
That turn'd your wit the seamy side without,
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.

(lines 145-7)

Iago quite rightly replies, ‘You are a fool, go to’. In other words, ‘How can you bring that subject up at a time like this?’

He tells Desdemona not to worry at all—‘'tis but his humour. / The business of the state does him offence, / And he does chide with you’ (lines 165-7)—and ushers her and Emilia off the stage—on to which walks someone we have not seen for ages, and I put that same feeling into ‘How now, Roderigo’ (line 172). But now the first real threat to Iago occurs. Roderigo has changed from a romantic lover into a disillusioned man, very angry at and suspicious about Iago, a man who challenges him: ‘I will seek satisfaction of you’ (line 199). I played genuine surprise and fear at Roderigo's behavior, but realised there was a way I could use him. My Roderigo, Gerard Logan, showed that in spite of all, he still loved Desdemona and allowed himself to be convinced that he should kill Cassio. Roderigo has mostly been played as just an upper-class fool, but Gerard's interpretation of the true ‘romantic lover’ opened up many new areas of the part.

Another rest for Iago before returning in Act 5, Scene 1, when things start to go wrong for him. The plot to kill Cassio fails—Roderigo misses! Iago wounds Cassio and comes back to finish the deed only to find Lodovico and Gratiano there. Cassio should and must die but Iago can't, because of the situation, do this. In order to save his own skin he kills Roderigo and uses the arrival of Bianca to get out of a very nasty situation indeed. I played off Bianca in a very cruel fashion and by doing so convinced Lodovico she was guilty of starting the fray.

Almost immediately Iago makes a major mistake. Without thinking, he says to Emilia: ‘Run you to the citadel / And tell my lord and lady what hath happ'd’ (lines 126-7). He completely forgets that Othello should be killing or have killed Desdemona. I played the realisation of what I had done immediately which led into the aside, ‘This is the night / That either makes me or fordoes me quite.’ It could be argued that Iago deliberately sends Emilia to Othello in order to stop the murder. But Iago wouldn't gain anything by that. He would have to start all over again and if that was the case, why didn't he go himself? Once again Iago's complexities emerge. It could even be argued that there's a self-destruct button that Iago plays with all the time and gets excited at the prospect of pressing it—both excited and afraid.

The audience sees Othello then kill Desdemona, witnesses Emilia's realisation that Othello has murdered Desdemona and that her husband was involved in the rumour of Desdemona's adultery with Cassio, and then sees Iago himself come on to the stage to be challenged by his wife to ‘Disprove this villain, if thou be'st a man’ (5.2.172). Iago, amazingly, says what he has done, dismisses his wife's ravings as mad, and tries to get her to go home. But when Emilia admits to stealing the handkerchief Iago knows that his game is up. From being the most voluble person in the play he goes to weak expletives, ‘Villainous whore’, ‘Filth, thou liest.’ The time for talk is over; in the last scene of the play Iago has only two and half lines. He kills his wife and runs out. This action seals his guilt and fate. The self-destruct button is now pushed fully home.

When Iago is brought back in, Othello tries to kill him but fails—why? It is a most important point. Physically Othello could kill him easily but somehow he can't do it. I believe that Othello literally can't kill the man who loves him and this is how Ben Kingsley and I played the moment. This allowed me to utter my last lines quite differently from the conventional defiant shout. I implied that he mustn't ask why I did what I did—because in truth he really knows and that I will not tell anyone the truth, not even under all the tortures in the world. Ben Kingsley then directed ‘Well, thou dost best’ (line 306) at me, so that we both understood.

Othello's only exit now is suicide but it's the one Iago least suspects will happen. And when it did, I threw myself on his dying body only to be pulled off by guards. I did this for two reasons: first, shock and surprise at Othello's suicide and second, to follow the hate/love theme right through to the end.

What did Iago achieve by these killings? Before Othello's suicide the answer would have been Othello himself, freed from marriage—as he was before the play started. I realised that Iago has got rid of everyone close to him and Othello—Emilia, Roderigo, Desdemona and an attempted murder of Cassio. Iago's failure to kill Cassio undid him. Othello killing himself destroys him. There's nothing left.

The most deadly, confused, jealous psychopath leaves to be tortured. Will he speak up? I don't think so. He will stay true to the man he hated and loved at one and the same time.

So, who is Iago, what is he? Is he a simple ‘label’? In this ‘supermarket’ world of ours it's hardly surprising that he has been labelled. But I chose not to label. My ‘jar’ is just called Iago with one main ingredient—Jealousy. He is illogical (true to human nature) and dangerous. As we despise Iago, we like him; as we think we know him, somehow we feel sorry for this murderer. Why? Because Iago—Jack, plain Jack—is in all of us, could be any one of us, could even be you.

Michael W. Shurgot (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Shurgot, Michael W. “Othello's Jealousy and the ‘Gate of Hell.’” Upstart Crow 12 (1992): 96-104.

[In the following essay, Shurgot examines Othello's sexual possessiveness, as indicated by the objectifying imagery of his speech concerning Desdemona.]

For several years I have been alternatively intrigued and horrified by some of Othello's language in Acts III and IV. At III. iii. 270ff, and IV. ii. 57ff, Othello's language not only echoes Iago's bestial attitude towards human sexuality but also suggests something I find horrid in Othello's perception of Desdemona that may be more true of married men than they wish to admit. While I recognize the critical danger of making Othello into a case study, and realize that Othello is an individual character in a particular dramatic setting,1 I would nonetheless like to explore some of the implications of Othello's sexual images and relate these implications to Renaissance and contemporary views of sexual jealousy. I will then try to mold this information and some amateur sociological surveys among my students into a coherent hypothesis about a frightening motif that surfaces in Othello's language once he is convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him.

Most married men, myself included, believe and would assert that they love their wife as a person, and that their love is multi-dimensional: i.e., emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Male love is also, of course, sexual, grounded in a physical attraction that, if genuine, will last a lifetime and will remain the most dramatic expression of this very complex and demanding human emotion. Most married couples would admit that a healthy, mutually satisfying sexual life is absolutely essential to a marriage (cf. Juliet's erotic soliloquy in R&J, III. ii. 1-31, to choose just one Shakespearean example of this realization); and most would admit that any disruption or frustration of this sexual relationship can be fatal to a marriage. For a marriage to be mutually fulfilling and satisfying, one must feel, whether male or female, that one is loved for oneself, for the person one is, and not as a “possession.” Women especially, and rightly, resent the notion that they are “owned” by their husbands and prefer a relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

During many discussions with my students about the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, and the role of Othello's jealousy in that relationship, I have generated diverse and often heated discussions about the degree of sexual possessiveness in Othello. The most frank comments have occurred when I have suggested that some of Othello's images are specifically genital and portray Desdemona as a sexual object. At III. iii. 270-73, Othello says: “I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapor of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / for others' uses.”2 At IV. ii. 57-62, in the “brothel scene,” he cries: “But there, where I have garner'd up my heart, / Where either I must live or bear no life; / The fountain from the which my current runs / Or else dries up; to be discarded thence! / Or keep it as a cestern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!” One cannot be certain that the adverb “there” in the second excerpt is a genital reference, although the context, and Othello's earlier remark about keeping a “corner” in the “thing” he says he loves, strongly support this suggestion.3 I will return to these and related images later, but for now I want to focus on my students' responses to these lines. Many female students have argued stridently that they believe Othello's references here are definitely genital, and furthermore, that Shakespeare has captured in Othello's language a pervasive, if unspoken, element in men's sexual attitudes towards their wives; i.e., that despite their claims to the contrary, and their insistence on the multi-dimensional nature of married love, men still view their wives at some subliminal level as sexual possessions, and that this possessiveness is implicitly genital.4 Male students in these discussions invariably protest this opinion just as stridently as females advocate it; indeed, male students sometimes protest too much, suggesting perhaps an unwillingness to admit what they suspect may be true.

Before returning to these and other remarks of Othello, let us consider some Renaissance and contemporary material about jealousy as a context for Othello's actions and attitudes in the play. Andreas Capellanus' second rule of love states: “He who is not jealous cannot love.”5 Elsewhere, Capellanus writes that jealousy is “the very substance of love, without which true love cannot exist …” (17). For courtly lovers of the Middle Ages, jealousy indicated a true “passionate” love of the kind not possible between married couples; hence, husband and wife should avoid jealousy “like the pestilence,” for it is very much “frowned upon” (17). Thus for Capellanus, romantic love should not be the basis for marriage, because it leads to jealousy.

Some contemporary psychologists and researchers on marriage and jealousy agree. N. and G. O'Neill write that romantic love alone is not a sufficient basis for marriage:

Romantic love is blind and often irrational; liking, however, is rational and based upon respect rather than passion. This is not to say that passion is not important, but only to demonstrate that a love that encompasses both liking and passion is far stronger than love based solely on passion. Without liking and the respect that it implies we believe that true open love cannot be achieved, for mutual respect is essential to the establishment of identity, equality and open communication between mates.6

The O'Neills characterize jealousy as a “destructive cancer” which is “never … a function of love but of our insecurities and dependencies. It is the fear of a loss of love and it destroys that very love. It is detrimental to and a denial of a loved one's personal identity” (237). Abraham Maslow also identifies jealousy as inherently destructive; he places jealousy within what he calls “D-Love,” which is “dependency love, deficiency love” and always involves jealous behavior, as opposed to “B-Love,” or “being love,” which seeks the good of the partner and is devoid of jealousy.7

Other researchers have characterized specific male and female differences in jealous behavior. Gordon Clanton and Lynn G. Smith, editors of Jealousy, summarize pertinent conclusions reached by several researchers:

Men are more apt to deny jealous feelings; women are more apt to acknowledge them. Men are more likely than women to express jealous feelings through rage and even violence, but such outbursts are often followed by despondency. Jealous men are more apt to focus on the outside sexual activity of the partner and they often demand a recital of the intimate details; jealous women are more likely to focus on the emotional involvement between her partner and the third party. Men are more likely to externalize the cause of the jealousy, more likely to blame the partner, or the third party, or ‘circumstances.’ Women often internalize the cause of jealousy; they blame themselves. Similarly, a jealous man is more likely to display competitive behavior toward the third party while a jealous woman is more likely to display possessive overcrowded behavior.8

Gregory L. White finds that while “Perception of a sexual motive was the only predictor of perceived relationship threat for both males and females,” perception of a sexual motive “predicted male but not female anger.”9 He adds that “concern about the couple's unsatisfactory sex life may reasonably but inaccurately lead to an inference of a sexual motive in partner” (28). Such perceptions of a motive among married couples also “would seem to indicate that vaguely formed suspicions or expectations about the likelihood of partner involvement with another reflect an underlying fear of sexual inadequacy” (29).

Let us return to Othello. That his jealousy implies insecurity and dependence seems clear; he is a stranger to Venetian society, and thus vulnerable to Iago's innuendoes. Othello also fears, at least temporarily, that he is sexually inadequate. He is quite prone to anger and violence once convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him, even asking for intimate details which Iago luridly provides in his “dream.”10 Othello also seems initially quite possessive of Desdemona; immediately after reflecting on his blackness, his lacking “soft parts of conversation,” and his “vale of years,” Othello cries: “O curse of marriage! / That we can call these delicate creatures ours, / And not their appetites!” (III. iii. 268-70). Desdemona may be “delicate,” but she is also (and nonetheless) a possession. Hence, to Othello, marriage is a curse.

Consider again 270ff:

                                        … I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapor of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses.

Othello says he loves a “thing” (III. iii. 270-73). Two points are crucial here. First, as Partridge explains, “thing” is often in Shakespeare a genital reference. Consider, for example, Iago and Emilia a moment later in III. iii: “Do not you chide; I have a thing for you. / You have a thing for me? It is a common thing …” (xi. 301-02). Secondly, Othello values “things” as possessions. He rhapsodizes about the magical origins and qualities of the handkerchief, and although Iago has earlier told Othello that he saw Michael Cassio wipe his beard with it, when Othello confronts Desdemona about the handkerchief in III. iv, he seems as upset about its actual loss as about its apparent desecration by Cassio: “… and take heed on't, / Make it a darling like your precious eye. / To lose't or give't away were such perdition / As nothing else [my italics] could match” (III. iv. 65-68). A few lines later, Othello will ask “Is't lost? Is't gone?” And moments earlier in this scene, Othello spoke of the supposed purity of Desdemona's kisses as if that purity itself were a possession a thief might have stolen: “I found not Cassio's kisses on her lips. / He that is robb'd, not wanting what is stol'n, / Let him not know't, and he's not robb'd at all” (III. iii. 342-43). Thus Othello's saying he loves a “thing” suggests his characteristic possessiveness and also specifically implies that Desdemona is a genital possession.

Othello then subdivides this “thing” into “corners” one of which he now seems to imagine himself sharing for others' “uses.” (Note that this is a plural possessive, suggesting the “general camp?”) The word “uses” is most revealing and, I believe, most horrifying. Desdemona in this sentence is a “thing” to be, not loved, but “used.” Does Othello in this crisis forged by Iago reveal how he actually “loves” Desdemona? Is this the kind of truth about his married love which this crisis reveals? Does he really, or mainly love Desdemona only sexually, and can one locate in his sudden rage of Acts III and IV a passionate anger at being rejected sexually from that “thing” which he saw as existing for only his “use?”

In IV. ii. 57-62, Othello cries:

But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up: to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cestern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!

Othello's fury propels him into three consecutive “either … or” assertions which exemplify—at least here—the brutal simplicity of his mind, suggest why he resolves to murder Desdemona, and herald his painful, frightening dichotomy as he stands over Desdemona in V. ii: “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee / And love thee after” (18-19). I have suggested above that the “there” of l. 57 is genital; if I am right, then Othello has “garner'd up” his heart, not in Desdemona the whole person, but specifically in her vagina. The following lines, especially the image of the fountain—“from the which my current runs / Or else dries up”—suggest, with the admitted difficulty of the preposition “from,” Othello's seminal fluid, which will be forever “dried up,” if Desdemona is a whore. The Riverside gloss of “fountain” as “source, spring” i.e., source or spring of his semen, further supports this reading, as does the circular shape of “cestern,” where Othello grotesquely imagines foul toads knotting, a brutal, animalistic reduction of Desdemona's genitals to a thing which he imagines himself “keeping” for “others' use” and from which he has been discarded.11

I would like to conclude with two other references to Othello's speech. At IV. i. 41ff, near the end of his nearly incoherent ravings and just before his trance and fall, Othello says: “It is not words that shakes / me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is't possible?” Noses, ears, and lips are orifices, and may be seen here (like Othello's reference to Desdemona's “precious eye” [III. iv. 66]), as vaginal displacements. In his ravings, Othello's conscious mind imperfectly masks his unconscious genital fixation.

My final example is again from the “brothel scene” in IV. ii. At l. 90, just 33 lines after the first of Othello's “there” in his assault upon Desdemona's chastity, he turns to Emilia: “You, mistress, / That have the office opposite to Saint Peter, / And keeps the gate of hell!” (90-92). “Gate of hell” is, in context, an obvious genital reference which echoes the verbal pun in “cunning whore” at l. 89, and hideously reduces Desdemona to a satanic, sexual object, her vagina an entrance into hell, which will surely corrupt other men.12 Thus she must die.13

The sheer horror of Othello's so grotesquely objectifying Desdemona is compounded when one realizes that their marriage has probably not been consummated. Several factors support this probability. Iago interrupts their two nights together, first in Venice, and then on Cyprus. Othello says in II. iii: “The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / The profit's yet to come 'tween me and you” (9-10). After Othello re-enters to quell the fighting, Iago says: “Friends all, but now, even now; / In quarter, and in terms like bride and groom / Devesting them for bed” (II. iii. 179-81). Iago's simile presumably describes what Othello and Desdemona have just been doing: preparing to consummate their marriage. Iago insidiously concocts a perverse “bed trick” which, unlike those in Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well, frustrates rather than facilitates a marital union. Thus Othello decries as a sexual “thing” a woman he has not yet sexually loved, yet imagines having shared “stol'n hours of lust” with Michael Cassio. Othello's fantasy of Desdemona's supposedly active sexual life greatly increases his insecurity and vulnerability and thus heightens both his already intense jealousy and his thwarted possessiveness. Othello's readiness to so completely denigrate his still virginal wife intensifies the terrifying, corrosive power of the jealousy that destroys them both. Tragically, Desdemona's request to Emilia to place her wedding sheets on her and Othello's bed emphatically signals her virginity and purity. Certainly, were those sheets stained (i.e., like the handkerchief, “spotted”) with her virginal blood, Desdemona would not request them for this night.

In wine, says the proverb, there is truth; so may there be in anger.14 Othello is certainly not “all men”; but his images may reveal a sexual possessiveness common enough, at some unconscious and repulsive level, among married men towards their wives that warrants the kinds of diverse reactions among my students that I outlined above. Perhaps Othello's images capture and expose latent male sexual attitudes which wives only dimly perceive and husbands, despite or because of their protestations, only dimly acknowledge.


  1. As Kenneth Burke remarks, “Shakespeare is making a play, not people.” “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” in Othello: Critical Essays, ed. Susan Snyder (New York: Garland, 1988), p. 149.

  2. All textual references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. I do mention Eric Partridge's glosses of “thing” in Shakespeare's Bawdy (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1960), p. 149, because students must understand this word as an example of the naughty and not-so-naughty richness of Shakespeare's language. But I also say that the overtly sexual reading of these lines is not the only option.

  4. I should mention that my Shakespeare classes usually include both single and married men and women ranging in age from their early to mid 20's to their mid 30's and 40's. Some of the strongest reaction to Othello's language has come from women in their 30's who are in their second marriage.

  5. Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans. John Jay Parry, ed. Frederick W. Locke (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1957), p. 42. Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (London: J. M. Dent, rpt. 1972), writes in Third Partition, Section 3, Subsection 2, “Causes of Jealousy”: “'Tis a great fault (for some men are uxorii …) to be too fond of their wives, to dote on them …” (p. 268).

  6. Nena and George O'Neill, Open Marriage (New York: M. Evans, 1972), pp. 244-45.

  7. Abraham Maslow, Toward A Psychology of Being, (New York: Van Nostrand, 1968), p. 42.

  8. Gordon Clanton and Lynn G. Smith, eds. Jealousy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977), p. 11.

  9. Gregory L. White, “Jealousy and Partners' Perceived Motives for Attraction to a Rival,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 44 (1981), p. 27.

  10. Matthew N. Proser, in The Heroic Image in Five Shakespearean Tragedies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1965), writes of Iago's dream and Othello's “participation” in it:

    Objective reality, what Othello concretely knows from personal experience outside the dream world, simply will not bear out the conclusion to which he arrives. He does precisely what Iago suggested he could not do: he “grossly gapes” upon a “scene” of lust to make his “proof,” but the real grossness lies within himself. His prurience is a shadow of Iago's lust, but it is a shadow which has been present all along, cast in his own complexion


  11. Note Othello's repetition of “keep” in these two excerpts; Desdemona's sexuality is explicitly “owned” by Othello, the sharing of which with others is apparently Othello's to determine, not Desdemona's.

  12. This image is found also in King Lear, IV. vi. 124-29:

    Down from the waist they are Centaurs,
    Though women all above;
    But to the girdle do the gods inherit,
    Beneath is all the fiends': there's hell, there's darkness,
    There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding,
    Stench, consumption.

    Consider also the couplet of sonnet # 129:

    All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
    To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

    In Boccaccio's Decameron, Third Day, Tenth Story, the monk Rustico convinces the reclusive and dim-witted Alibech that sexual intercourse is “putting the Devil back into hell.” Mark Musa and Peter E. Bondanella, eds. Giovanni Boccaccio: The Decameron (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), p. 71.

  13. Regarding Othello's motivation for killing Desdemona, see Edward A. Snow, “Sexual Anxiety and the Male Order of Things in Othello,” in Othello: Critical Essays, ed. Susan Snyder (New York: Garland, 1988). He writes: “Othello is attempting to recover what he lost when he deflowered Desdemona, and to deny what he thereby discovered and released in her—and in himself as well. … His language suggests that smothering Desdemona is a displaced attempt … to put to death something in himself, something that has been sexually engendered in him. He understands that a principle is involved (‘else she'll betray more men’), and that in killing her he is acting not just for himself but for men in general” (p. 222). Snow's claim that Othello's sexual morality “is itself the sublimation of an irrational hatred of its object” (p. 217) may be supported by seeing Othello's intensely focused imagery of sexual disgust as indicating the depth of his hatred of Desdemona's sexuality and her sexual organs.

  14. Note Othello's words in I. iii. 260-65:

                                                                          Let her have your voice.
    Vouch with me, heaven, I therefore beg it not
    To please the palate of my appetite,
    Nor to comply with heat (the young affects
    In [me] defunct) and proper satisfaction;
    But to be free and bounteous to her mind.

    I am inclined to take Othello here at his word, although one must note that he is, as Proser emphasizes, quite adept at self-characterization when the occasion arises, especially when he has a captive audience. That Othello can say these words, and apparently mean them, or think that he means them, should accentuate the sheer horror of his reducing his wife to a “thing” in a corner of which toads “knot and gender.”

Further Reading

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Bell, Millicent. “Othello's Jealousy.” Yale Review 85, no. 2 (April 1997): 120-36.

Contends that Othello's sexual jealousy is a device Shakespeare employed to emphasize an epistemological theme associated with Othello's paradoxical reliance on and distrust of appearances.

Breitenberg, Mark. “Anxious Masculinity: Sexual Jealousy in Early Modern England.” Feminist Studies 19, no. 2 (summer 1993): 377-98.

Provides a critique of Renaissance patriarchy that includes an examination of Othello's violent allegorization of jealousy.

Byles, Joan M. “The Winter's Tale, Othello and Troilus and Cressida: Narcissism and Sexual Betrayal.” American Imago 36, no. 1 (spring 1979): 80-93.

Offers a psychoanalytic and comparative study of themes of sexual jealousy and betrayal in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and The Winter's Tale.

Campbell, Lily B. “Othello: A Tragedy of Jealousy.” In Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion. 1930. Reprint, pp. 148-74. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.

Highlights the racial and cultural components of Othello's jealousy in Othello.

Danson, Lawrence. “‘The Catastrophe Is a Nuptial’: The Space of Masculine Desire in Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale.Shakespeare Survey 46 (1994): 69-79.

Centers on Shakespeare's treatment of jealous husbands in the legal context of a male's possession of his wife and her property in marriage.

Fernie, Ewan. “Shame in Othello.Cambridge Quarterly 28, no. 1 (1999): 19-45.

Contends that shame, rather than jealousy, is the central and unifying passion dramatized in Othello.

Godfrey, D. R. “Shakespeare and the Green-Eyed Monster.” Neophilologus 56 (1972): 207-20.

Observes the close association between evil, irrationality, and jealousy in Othello.

Gundersheimer, Werner. “‘The Green-Eyed Monster’: Renaissance Conceptions of Jealousy.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 137, no. 3 (September 1993): 321-31.

Surveys sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European literary representations of jealousy.

Hyman, Earle. “Othello: Or Ego in Love, Sex, and War.” In “Othello”: New Essays by Black Writers, edited by Mythili Kaul, pp. 23-28. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1997.

Maintains that Othello, while concerned with jealousy and racism, is specifically about ego and its aberrations.

Pearlman, E. “The Invention of Richard of Gloucester.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 4 (winter 1992): 410-29.

Examines themes of sexual jealousy and murderous rivalry between brothers in Richard III.

Reid, Stephen. “Othello's Jealousy.” American Imago 25, no. 3 (fall 1968): 274-93.

Psychoanalytic study of Othello suggesting that the drama's protagonist suffers from Freudian “delusional jealousy.”

Siegel, Paul N. “Leontes a Jealous Tyrant.” Review of English Studies 1, no. 4 (October 1950): 302-07.

Compares Leontes of The Winter's Tale with Shakespeare's Richard III and Macbeth, contending that they all are depictions of the “jealous tyrant” figure.

Thorne, J. P. “The Grammar of Jealousy: A Note on the Character of Leontes.” Edinburgh Studies in English and Scots, edited by A. J. Aitken, Angus McIntosh, and Hermann Pálsson, pp. 55-65. London: Longman, 1971.

Contends that Shakespeare depicted Leontes as delusional and jealous through the use of peculiar syntax in his speeches of Act I, scene ii of The Winter's Tale.

Wilson, Rob. “Othello: Jealousy as Mimetic Contagion.” American Imago 44, no. 3 (fall 1987): 213-33.

Concentrates on Iago's contribution to Othello as a drama of male jealousy and unrestrained desire.