II, ii, 291-305. Iago can very well appreciate the ambiguous character of reputation for he enjoys a good one himself. But when Iago speaks to Othello, he does so as though there were nothing questionable in reputation (III, ii, 181-188). He knows his man. A noble man never does anything that is considered shameful and the opinion of his fellows is the guarantee of his own goodness. A man who cares about his reputation is likely to perform acts of a nature to gain it; while the man who consults only his private inclinations is likely to be base. But, if reputation is a fickle thing, then the whole orientation of the gentleman or the proud man is placed in doubt. The perfect disciple of Othello is Cassio; he believes completely in Othello; this is the source of his unquestioning devotion and makes him a perfect lieutenant. But, from what he suffers and the undeserving way he loses his reputation, the lesson would seem to be that it is folly to live for the sake of others who do not understand and are acting from their own passions. Cassio expresses what his faith in Othello means when he says that reputation is the immortal part of himself (II, ii, 291-292; cf. 117-135; Romans IX, 18; VIII, 24).
II, ii, 376-379. Shakespeare vividly depicts Othello's first consciousness of the depth
and intensity of his need when, after Iago's first tentative barbs, Desdemona arrives to
plead for Cassio. He for the first time is a little vexed; all is not perfect as formerly but as
she goes away he cannot help admiring her and says, "Excellent wretch!" (III, iii, 104-
106). He sees, with a certain pleasure, that he needs her very much and that it is somewhat
in spite of himself, that it has nothing to do with right or justice. A few moments later,
when his suspicions become explicit, he denies this and says he would let her go if she were
false; he soon realizes that whatever she be, he must possess her or kill her, that he cannot
do without her.
Othello does indeed begin by demanding deeds, ocular proof, as was his custom. He
does not want to be led by simple sentiments; he wants to do justice. But Iago skillfully
shows him that in such matters direct proof is impossible and Othello is satisfied with
ritual proofs turned into "confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ" (III, iii, 375-377)
by the mad assurance that all men are base and inclined to acts of treachery; jealousy
presupposes guilt and seeks for substantiation (III, iii, 219-221, 415-514).
36 III, iii, 312-314; III, iv. 46-52; IV, i, 9-12; ii, 24-27. At the end, even the stars are
the signs of a cosmic chastity,
V, ii, 4.
37 III, iv, 43-56.
38 Iago's use of morality is fully conscious and based on his observation of Othello.
Actually, the attitude he takes is much nearer that of those who are attached to Othello than his own natural one. Cassio, when dismissed by Othello, speaks in terms worthy of
the most severe moralist, "the devil wine, the devil anger," etc. In talking to him, Iago
takes a reasonable and tolerant line (II, ii, 292-343). Cassio orients himself according to
the pleasure and displeasure of Othello and in his fall from grace blames himself with
extraordinary severity; rather than trying to reestablish himself, he falls into a state of
repentance and self-castigation. Desdemona is much the same way. Both torment only
themselves and Iago sees where this attitude can lead if made cynical use of. If those who
love Othello are dependent on his opinion and he is jealous and frightened of losing their
love, Iago, by playing on Othello's fear can cause him to make more and more demands on
others and so further his own ends (e.g., his suggestion that fear is the best way to control
Desdemona, III, iii, 236-238). All he need do is present Othello with new dangers and his
standards become ever higher and sterner. Othello's sick fears convert innocent human
acts into crimes. The height of the morality comes only from Iago's low view of men.
Cassio's harmless weakness at drink and his love for women can in this context be converted
into mortal sins.
III, iii 455-456, 471-486, 499-501. By the beginning of Act IV the discussion of the
meaning of physical acts has turned into a gruesome and tantalizing game (IV, i, 1-26).
The obscenity of Iago is founded on that which is revered by others. For Othello, the purity of Desdemona is all in all. The shocking aspect of Iago's speech is not
that he speaks freely about sensual matters, but that for others these things are sacred
and Iago profanes what is holy for them. It is only in the context of reverence that Iago's
speech is terrible; it is a sort of blasphemy. The relation between Othello and Desdemona,
if there is any physical element to it at all, is largely a spiritual one. When he realizes that
perhaps physical satisfactions are important for her and he sees his own insufficiency in
this regard, her possible infidelity becomes all the more horrible for him. It is not only
that she cares for another but that her being is so constituted that he could never satisfy
her. He must insist not only on fidelity but chastity; he must change her nature and all
men's natures, and all this not for the sake of morality but to preserve for himself that
which he wants.
V, ii, 147-156. Othello has smothered Desdemona at line 105 and is persuaded she
is dead by line 116. Whether Shakespeare meant that she return to life, or Othello was
mistaken and she was not yet quite dead, Desdemona's words, coherent sentences uttered
after strangulation, constitute a remarkable occurrence, outside the natural order of
things. This difficulty has often been noted. I suggest that this last supreme effort of the
poor creature was intended to give a supernatural impression to the audience, and that
attempts to rationalize it, by changing the manner of her death or otherwise, miss the
meaning. Precisely because of the improbability of what she does, do we know of the
intensity of Desdemona's devotion and faith; she gives it a significance beyond the human
in a play distinguished by its merely human context, one in which the cosmic reverberations
characterizing Shakespeare's other great tragedies are absent. In the theatre,
especially that of Shakespeare, improbabilities are the devices for the expression of greater
but unutterable probabilities.
II, i, 119-191. In this scene all of Iago's little rhymes reflect Desdemona's situation
in one way or another, especially the central one.
The Earl of Shaftesbury, in the most penetrating criticism of Othello that
I have read, asserts that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona is a mismatch,
a monstrous union founded on the lying pretentious of a charlatan and
the unhealthy imagination of a misguided young girl. For him the tragedy is
not the consequence of Iago's vile machinations but the natural fruit of seeds
that are sown in the characters of the heroes and in their relationship. The
simple moral of the story is, according to Shaftesbury, that such
marriages between foreigners who have nothing in common other than their
desire for novelty are to be avoided and condemned. Only the sick taste of one
not satisfied at home could have led Desdemona to her choice; only a moral
education that did not move the phantasy and the sympathy of the girl could
account for her blind search for the incredible and the exotic. And Shaftesbury,
echoing the moral taste of the pre-romantic critics, sees the denouement as the
just punishment of faulty beings. However narrow this understanding of the
play may be, it raises in a clear and honest fashion the fundamental question:
what is the character of the relationship between Desdemona and Othello?
The interpretation of Othello has tended to neglect the question and has concentrated
on the psychological development of the jealousy. But this jealousy
has no meaning except in relation to the kind of man who suffers it and the
reasons why he is particularly susceptible to it. We are presented with the
picture of a couple who have married in an unusual way but who are nonetheless
very much in love and who are led to disaster through the external actions
of a hostile world. We are asked to believe that a paragon of strength and confidence
is transformed into a furious beast driven by suspicion only because he
has been tempted by a devil. It is not enough to say that such is the nature of
jealousy: we can easily imagine many men, exposed to the same temptations,
who would never have succumbed to them. Even the most superficial reader is
struck by the slightness of the proofs which convince Othello of Desdemona's
infidelity. Is not Othello ripe for the doubt which comes to afflict him? Are we
to believe that the jealousy which erupts so unexpectedly is not the fruit of a
soil long prepared and cultivated, albeit unconsciously? Does not Shakespeare
always incorporate in the life of each of his tragic heroes precisely those elements
which make him the aptest vehicle for the emergence of that phenomenon
which he, above all others, exhibits?
The latter alternative is clearly the correct one; for it alone is in conformity
with what we known of Shakespeare's genius and of the nature of tragedy in
general. In other Shakespearean tragedies, disaster develops directly from the
character of the tragic hero and, even more, out of precisely those features of it
that constitute his greatness. Macbeth's pride and ambition, which raise him
above other men in daring and vision, are the direct cause of his murder of
Duncan and his entry upon a tyrant's career. Macbeth's crimes are consequences
of Macbeth's greatness of soul, and the enormous impact of the play comes from the impression of overpowering force conveyed by the hero, joined
to our sense of the inevitability of his destiny.
Consider Hamlet's responsibility
for the deaths of all those he loved and the failure of his attempt to do
justice. Is it not bound up with those traits that cause us to admire him-his
conscience and his admirable sensitivity to his fellows? If this were not the case
we should either regard these men simply as criminals, or as beings who may
deserve our pity; but they would certainly not move our deepest emotions, nor
call forth our respect. As it is, we see them as examples of human greatness; they
move in areas of experience from which ordinary mortals are cut off. But this
very superiority in human quality seems to lead to crime and disaster. It is this
combination that constitutes the unique quality of tragedy. What virtues,
then, make Othello's jealousy necessary and in some measure excuse it? Why
must the great general with the sovereign self-control murder his innocent wife?
Because Iago told him she was unfaithful? This is to degrade the work to the
level of psychological "realism," a realism which contents itself with the analysis
of passions, no matter by whom they are felt nor to what end. It is to deny
that Shakespeare regarded his heroes' emotions as truly interesting only insofar
as the one who experiences them is worthy of attention and his objects serious.
In this perspective Othello appears a weak fool and Desdemona's death a senseless
slaughter that can evoke only horror and disgust. Tragedy is founded on
the notion that in the decisive respect human beings are free and responsible,
that their fates are the consequences of their choices. All that is a result of external
force or chance is dehumanizing in the tragic view. But Othello so interpreted
is only the story of an easily inflamed man who has the unfortunate
accident of meeting an Iago. This does not do justice to the sentiment we have
in seeing the play and it is the task of interpretation to render articulate what
is only felt, and to elaborate the larger significance of the characters and the
To this end we must go back behind the jealousy to the strange love that
united Othello and Desdemona. It is in their love that the seeds of the ultimate
disaster are sown; and it is not an easy union to analyze, this marriage between
an old, black, foreign warrior and a young, beautiful, innocent noblewoman. In fact, the first act is devoted almost exclusively to a development
of the character of the marriage and its ambiguity. The suggestions as to
the source of the union include lust, profit and the purest admiration for virtue.
In a sense the entire play is motivated by the beliefs of the actors about the nature
of the love and it is these beliefs much more than any acts that are the moving
causes of the tragedy. Indeed, one of the unique characterististics of Othello
is that the final action of the play is so little the result of previous actions, and
so much the consequence of changes in opinion wrought in the characters during
the play. And perhaps the best way to see what these opinions are is through the activities of Iago. Iago is a villain, no doubt; but his villainy is not shallow;
he has a clear grasp of what is most important to everyone (with the possible
exception of Emilia), and he acts on all the persons only through their own
opinions. In each case, the individual can be justly regarded as responsible for
his own troubles; Iago only precipitates something that was already there. He
works like a confidence man; only the quality intrinsic to the one he tempts
enables him to succeed. He is a faithful mirror of all around him; he adapts
himself to those with whom he speaks. In a sense, we would not know the
other characters in the play without Iago. We would see them only as they appear
in ordinary life, without penetrating the masks that conceal their real
natures. Iago alone lets us know from the outset those weaknesses in others that
would otherwise stand unrevealed until the crises of their lives. Iago shows the
hidden necessity in men, the things they care about most; he has a diabolic
insight. He offers men what they hope for or are afraid of and, in so doing, he
causes their characters to undergo the extreme test. For example, it is possible
that Roderigo might have forgotten Desdemona and married someone else.
But in appealing to Roderigo's defeated suit, in offering him hope, Iago makes
him display his petty and absurd nature, full of spite and envy, capable of extreme
folly and crime in a spirit of innocent stupidity. Roderigo is such a fool as
thinks he can buy the favors of a queen. Iago is only the catalyst of Roderigo's
folly. If Roderigo had not come to ruin, his salvation would have been sheer
accident. Now, Iago proposes as his supreme task to encompass the downfall of
Othello; and it is through Iago's actions and speech that we can see his catalytic
agency upon Othello, and thereby see the necessity which shapes the tragic end.
The play begins in an atmosphere of conspiracy, and our first acquaintance
with Othello is through the eyes of an enemy. The beginning is a sort of foretaste
of Iago's skill, showing him expertly manipulating Roderigo.
What predisposes us immediately in favor of Othello -that
he is beloved of Desdemona despite his alien birth and color- must have
given pause to Shakespeare's audience. If this is not taken into consideration,
Othello seems the victim of merciless persecution and his greatness and weakness
are lost to our eyes. It is against this background that Shakespeare tells his
Indeed the absence of the ordinary external accompaniments of marriage
suggests that this is a marriage of true love. It differs from conventional marriages,
supported by money, beauty, similarity of position and education. A
love purified of all accidental and physical elements would certainly be a great
human achievement, a transcendence of mundane attachments. It would be
a love of the true rather than of the familiar. But can marriage exist in such a
rarefied atmosphere? Once marriage is purged of conventional dross, what
really remains? What is the cause of the love of Othello and Desdemona? It is certain that Iago's lascivious description of their
romance is false, designed to shock refined sentiment. Othello may well be entirely
past the stage of caring for physical pleasures ("the young affects in me
defunct"-"to be free and bounteous to her mind")" and if the marriage ever
reached consummation, it was not before Cyprus. Not even Desdemona regards
Othello as physically desirable. Putting aside for a moment the notion
that she was just a silly inexperienced child and Othello a fortune hunter, their relation would appear to be an example of what has come to be known as
a platonic love, a love not lacking in passion, rather one of the most intense
passion, but completely beyond physical need, based on mutual admiration.
This raises the question of what precisely was admired by each.
And how then did the love affair come to pass? Surprisingly enough, not
through the deeds of Othello but through his speeches. Although he protests
himself to be only a man of action and lacking in eloquence, his influence over
Desdemona has its source in the terrible tales of his past. Othello represents
himself as a poor speaker and one who depreciates mere words. But he seems to
influence others almost entirely through his speeches. He is impressive for what
he is supposed to have done, but his own testimony is the only real source for
our belief in those great actions. He gives witness to his own might and is believed. In his great speech recounting the course of his wooing, he makes it
seem that it was the gentle Desdemona who made the advances and that he
was the wooed. Desdemona admired him for his incredible deeds and his great
sufferings. He loved her because she pitied him; he loved her for her love of
him, which is a sort of confirmation of his own worth. He is lovable for his sufferings,
and pity is the source of her love. This presentation of the love affair is
in harmony with Othello's self-sufficiency. He is admirable and needs little
beyond himself. Desdemona is the crowning acquisition of a virtuous life. The
relationship is a sound one because Othello is a man in possession of himself,
of notable quality, and Desdemona cares for someone both solid and noble.
Othello believes that he is universally
valued and valuable, that he can go any place and be accepted; without any boundaries to virtue. At the same time, he can only see
himself in the opinions of the men about him; this is the contradiction in his
situation-he is independent of particular national ways of life but he draws
his being from the honors accorded by the State. Is it
really possible to become universal? Can a man who has no "natural" home be a statesman?
Othello's problem is best illustrated by the fact that he is a mercenary. Now
mercenaries are traditionally regarded as a low form of humanity. They sell
their courage to the highest bidder. A mercenary is indifferent to the laws of every state; he does not truly care for what he is defending. The
glory that attaches to heroism is not given to those who are better able to kill
men than others; to be above the animal or the perverse, the death of men must
be understood as the sacrifice of life in the name of some cause greater than life.
Even if a mercenary desired to fight nobly, he could not; for he cannot care for what is his own. Nor is it in the nature of men to serve freely
those who will not honor them. Hence it is that mercenaries are degraded men.
Othello is a man of great reputation and, as Iago makes
clear, there is a decisive difference between reputation and true deserving. Othello is trusted; but in the play we are given no examples of his prowess,
unlike the men of action portrayed in other plays. His only military success
is the result of chance, of a tempest. For it, he proclaims a victory and his reputation
is thereby enhanced. But he is not actually responsible for the victory
proclaimed. Desdemona loves him for his stories. He is, as Iago says, a great
talker of war.
I do not suggest that Othello had never done anything to deserve his reputation;
I only point out that we are never given any direct testimony or evidence
of what he did, while we are given to see that he imposes himself on others by
his reputation. He seems to be a case of men's need for a hero. Every army needs leaders, and those leaders, in order to command, must be
respected and even idolized. No matter what their merit, in order to feel the
confidence that is necessary to the dangerous enterprise of war, they must be
invested with authority. Around them spring up myths, not created by them
but arising from the popular need. So that they can subordinate themselves to
their leaders, the people endow them with superhuman merits. Othello is a man
on whom "opinion throws a more safer voice"; and opinion is a "sovereign
mistress of effects." He is known to be valuable because he is
generally well thought of. Othello is sure of himself because he is respected; he is respected so that others can be confident in danger. It is a circle which is not
grounded in a reality free from opinion.
For Othello this means that, if the opinions change, he is lost; for he has no
source of confidence outside of a system that is not his own. His Christianity
proves to be not enough to overcome the primeval and necessary prejudices
of civil society. In some measure his very character depended on his ignorance
of the source of his strength. He assumed his reputation was deserved and was
secure. To the extent that he felt this, he could be at home. There was
no tension between his foreignness, his universality, and his need for local opinion in which to see himself as in a glass. To use his practical
abilities as a warrior Othello needed a home, a place for which he could
fight meaningfully, and this required a reputation. The argument of the play is
that such reputations are only given grudgingly and conditionally to foreigners.
Yet Othello could never accept this and still be able to fight in the proud man's spirit. The massiveness of his self-assurance in the face of the
tenuousness of his real position shows that his life is based upon a critical lack
of self-knowledge. Othello, although radically dependent, represents himself as completely independent;
and the myth of his independence seems to be less for his own benefit
than for the sake of those who made him. They could not trust him if they knew
him to be their own creation. The very end of the creation requires that the
knowledge that it was creation and not discovery be forgotten. This is a necessary
self-deception without which the purposes of myth-making would be frustrated.
All might have succeeded, there might have been no revelation of
Othello's true situation, if he had not gone one step too far. That step was his falling in love with Desdemona and
marrying her. In Desdemona he had chosen the fairest flower of the best family. In marrying her he seemed to prove that h had fully naturalized himself. In the manner of his
wooing he continues the masquerade that not he but Desdemona is the one who
needs; she is the lover and he the beloved. He is still the independent being to
whom others come because of his qualities. But Iago knows this is not true. It is
his awareness of Othello's absolute dependence on Desdemona, of which Othello
is himself totally unaware, that allows Iago to bring about the destruction
which he plots.
Love, according to the classical analysis, means imperfection, need. The
motion of one being toward another, the recognition of something admirable
in another, implies the lack of something in the one admiring. What a man desires to possess, he does not already possess. The desire to possess another
human being implies that qualities belonging to the beloved object are lacking
to the lover. Hence a perfect being would not love, because he would possess all
that is admirable within himself; there would be no sufficient reason for him to
go outside himself. He who pretends to love without needing is an impostor.
The lover admits by his very love a dependence and in this sense an inferiority
to his beloved. The beloved, as beloved, does not return love; the man who is
loved for his learning does not love the lover for his ignorance. If he returns
love at all, he does so for some other reason, because the lover has some other
virtue which in his turn makes him an object of love. One who loves does not,
for that reason, have any claim on the affections of the one he loves; on the
contrary, he has, in loving, made an admission of imperfection which the beloved
is under no obligation to reciprocate. The beloved has the privileged
position and the lover, if his affection is not returned, must become conscious
of unworthiness, and begin to lack confidence in himself. His value as a human
being is called into question; but he has no right to complain, for love is not a
question of duty.
Nonetheless, every lover desires to be loved in return. For only by the return
of love can he possess the beloved; and, moreover, his self-esteem is at stake.
He has, at the moment he committed himself, become dependent upon another
for his self-esteem. At the same time he has made his situation doubly difficult
by having to some extent admitted himself to be undeserving, by the fact of
loving. Othello is unaware of his need for Desdemona; he believes that she loves
him and he is secure in his estimate of himself. But he truly loves her love and
requires it for his very existence. He says he is no more when he is unloved.
Iago discerns this; Othello, says Iago, would renounce his baptism for her;
"her appetite shall play the god with his weak function." At Othello's first
glimmerings of recognition of his situation he says, "when I love thee not,
chaos is come again." The world in which he lives was created by his love and
is dependent on the continuation of that love. Iago's success is based upon his
making Othello realize both his attachment to Desdemona, and also that this
attachment does not necessarily deserve a recompense. Othello now needs a
proof of love to justify his own existence. The whole house of cards in which he
has lived starts to tumble.
When Othello begins to need the proof of love, he also begins to realize that
proofs of love may be impossible to come by, especially for "great ones" towards
whom those in inferior positions are likely to use all the wiles of persuasion
and deception. Except by the omniscient, the motions of the human soul
cannot be observed. Acts are never sure proof because they are ambiguous,
especially in matters of love. One can never know for certain what another
thinks of him, and when that knowledge is required the quest for certainty can
be the cruellest of torments to which a human being can be subjected. Iago
makes this clear to Othello in masterful fashion, first by refusing to tell him
what he knows about Cassio and Desdemona, while claiming that even a slave
is free as to his innermost thoughts. As love can only be free, nature has so
constructed man that his loves and hates can be hidden from observation, a
concealment which is the precondition of freedom. Then Iago with prodigious
obscenity, shocking the most revered beliefs and presenting him with pictures
of the realization of his most dreaded fears, shows him that one can never tell
what an act means. It is at this point that jealousy becomes dominant and triumphs. Othello is
admittedly the story of a jealous man and it is in the analysis of the origin and
the consequences of this terrible passion that the play fulfills itself. Jealousy is
in itself a passion of the weak and the contemptible, or so it is generally felt to
be. The other characters who suffer it in the play -Roderigo, Iago, and Bianca
-are base figures. So it is that when the confident Othello becomes a victim of
jealousy his tragedy is already complete; he has lost all that which he was or
pretended to be. Nonetheless, in spite of its intrinsic pettiness, jealousy takes on
a certain grandeur when it occurs in a man of Othello's proportions; the size and
depth of his hopes lend themselves to his sense of loss and his furies are in
proportion to the nobility of his deceived ambitions. And, moreover, jealousy
as understood traditionally, was not always a contemptible and ridiculous
passion. There was one great example of it which, if it could not stand as a
model for others' imitation, gave a certain cosmic significance to the passion: the God of the Old Testament who commands love and promises revenge unto
the third and fourth generation for those who are not obedient." Although
God's jealousy cannot be an object of human imitation, and far transcends the
disappointment of deceived husbands, it could not help but add significance to
the jealousy of ordinary mortals. God's anger at those who transgress the commandment
has a similarity to the anger of men who are deceived; to understand
what God's jealousy is, men must begin from the only experience of jealousy
they have, i.e., human jealousy. And with the sanctity brought to marriage
by Judaism and Christianity, even the motives take on a certain similarity;
the jealous husband takes a just vengeance for the violation of a sacred commandment.
The husband is made in the image of the Lord.
This is not to say that the Old Testament God justifies human jealousy; it is
only that His jealousy gives jealousy in general a significance it would not
have in a non-Biblical context. It would be difficulto imagine a Greek play
whose hero is primarily characterized by the false suspicion of his wife's infidelity;
this would be a subject of comedy. Shakespeare has succeeded in this
tour de force because the enlarged sense of the word jealousy unconsciously affects
our perception of those who suffer it. Shakespeare's Othello does act out on
the human scene a god's role; he is a universal stranger, a leader who can command
and punish wherever he goes. He insists on honor and wreaks bloody
vengeance on those who disobey. Shakespeare analyzes the sophistry of the
heart of a man who tries thus to be divine.
This stranger comes in a gentle guise, insisting on
nothing from anyone. He takes the respect and affection given him as free
gift and is himself a lover. But from his love emerges jealousy and an insistence more intense than could have previously been imagined. Jealousy, as Iago says,
is doubt. It is the accompaniment of love that is unrequited or suspected of
being so. Jealousy implies a lack of self-assurance; the man who knows he is
worthy of love will not be jealous-if his wife is unfaithful, he will no longer
deem her worthy of his love. He is himself the touchstone; this is precisely the
attitude that Othello thinks he must take and says he will take.3 He will forget
Desdemona. Jealousy is contemptible because it bespeaks imperfection; he
who suffers it must either think himself unlovable or the one he loves corrupt;
but nevertheless he continues to love and think it right to love and be loved.
Jealousy rarely, if ever, sees itself as jealousy. Rather is it reflected in the
soul it possesses as justice. The revenge worked by jealousy is said to be the
desert of the victim. She was unfaithful. But is being unfaithful necessarily a
crime, if the one who insists on love does not deserve it? A man who passes
sentence in his own interest, for the sake of preserving what is his own or punishing
what refuses to be his, is not a judge but a tyrant. He insists that love be
given; but only conformity, not love, can be gained by force; love is a free gift.
A love which insists on return is violence. However that may be, the jealous
man cannot admit that it is jealousy that motivates him, for he would then confess
himself to be acting for himself and contrary to the interests of those he
judges. He must pretend that he has been wronged, that he truly deserved love.
And the proof of deserving love is being loved.
Othello appears as a judge. Indeed, his only actions in the play are judgments.
We have two such examples, the comparison of which is instructive for our
understanding of Othello's real claims. Those judgments are of Cassio and
Desdemona. His judgment of Cassio is in a way a preparation for that of
Desdemona. It gives us a hint of Othello's merits and limitations as judge.
Cassio, inveigled by Iago into drinking, causes a disturbance. Othello arrives
on the scene. He is completely in command and assumes that all will bend to his
least word or gesture; his jealousy has not yet risen. He summarily dismisses
Cassio. To do so is perfectly correct from the point of view of human justice.
Cassio is a soldier and has been drinking before going on duty. The unfortunate
circumstances that led him into trouble do not excuse him from the responsibilities
of an officer. But Shakespeare has presented the scene in such a way
that we know that from the point of view of complete justice this is a miscarriage.
Cassio has been duped and has been made to appear fully responsible.
The real culprit is Iago. Othello is a decent general doing justice on the basis of
acts done. He does not try to pry into hidden motives. He judges by the surface.
Every judge must believe that he knows the principles of justice, and that
he is personally disinterested in those judged. He must have some source of
knowledge which he believes to be certain, or he could not in conscience judge
other men. Judges receive this knowledge from the law. Othello proceeds with
Cassio according to the rules of military discipline. These rules are limited in
scope. Yet they express what all would admit is a true form of justice, whose limits are due to the limited nature of their purpose-military disciplineand
not to partiality or hypocrisy.
The judgment of Desdemona is in sharp contrast with this. Here Othello
judges not external actions, but intentions, the innermost movements of a
soul. He does not need proof of acts. He is led by his uncertainty to assume
the guilty act. Rendered mad by this assumption, he wants only to prove
that Desdemona is unfaithful. He still regards himself as the dispenser of
justice. But now it is no longer the health of the military order that supports
his authority, but his right to be loved. His need for her love has been converted
into a duty for her to love, a duty which he takes it upon himself to judge. But
a judge should have no interest in the one he judges. As his doubt has grown,
his whole way of life and manner of understanding has changed. He is no longer
free and open of manner nor trusting of disposition. He is suspicious. Acts no
longer mean to Othello what they seem to mean. Decent appearances now conceal
an underlying viciousness. And this viciousness can be said to be physical
passion. Chastity has become a cult with him. Desdemona's free offer of a
chaste love, which was so unexpected and which he accepted as his due, he now
insists upon. Now, however, he believes this offer to be unnatural; men are
naturally lustful beasts; chastity without compulsion becomes unintelligible
to him. Desdemona must be sequestered from society and compelled to spend
her life in prayer if she is to be purged of the appetites that make her unworthy
of Othello. On the basis of his need he wishes to force men counter to their
natures; what was supposed to be love now turns into a tyranny. With it comes
a peculiarly low view of mankind. Iago becomes the high priest of this cult,
leading Othello "by the nose." Iago converts all men into obscene beasts in
Othello's eyes. Tie shows Othello that the love and honor due him is destroyed
by physical passion; human beings are naturally led to care for things of the
flesh. In order to be believed in, Othello must change this; his jealousy, under
Iago's guidance, becomes a demand for inhuman purity, for a renunciation of
the worship of the body. Iago has only to suggest obscene motivations and
Othello is ready to wreak vengenance on any who are suspected. Iago makes
use of an intense hate and fear of lust on Othello's part to further his own ends.
Iago becomes a moralizer on the very bases of his lewd preoccupations. His
moralizing reaches its almost comic peak when he comments on Cassio's fate,
"This is the fruit of whoring." He is a priest who makes use of Othello's new morality to conceal his private ends. I know of no play within which physical
passion is believed to be so much the source of the action and, in reality, is
so little the source of any important thing. More subtle vices of the soul are the
roots of the action.
The new attempt to control souls leads of necessity to a new method of understanding
men. Souls cannot be seen. Of course a justice which saw men's souls
naked would be vastly superior to the old justice, in which judgment was
rendered only on the basis of acts committed. But perhaps the old way was
founded on a prudent reserve, or modesty, which recognized the limitations of
human vision. The result of the new way is not truly to see the soul but rather
to reject all the evidence of action and to turn to signs which in themselves have
no meaning. Desdemona is judged by the handkerchief, that handkerchief on
which the whole judgment turns. It is a magic charm, of superhuman quality,
and only through it can she control Othello. When she does not appear to
show sufficient respect for this object, this mere thing, she is guilty and her
soul is laid bare. Mere routine or ritual is the basis of the judgment of Desdemona.
The attempt to do away with the superficiality of the old law leads to
a mysticism which is even more distant from truth.
Othello commits his terrible crime for the sake of justice. The horror of the
murder only reflects the fact that justice must be stern. If Othello is right about
Desdemona's deed and is further correct in assuming that her only salvation
would be in loving him, then his cruelty would be but terrible responsibility.
He may justly say that "I who am cruel, am yet merciful." Mercy can appear
in this gruesome context because Othello's bloodiness is an integral part of the
human scene in the new context created by him, and any attempt to soften
the lot of those under his sovereignty can be regarded as mercy. On the basis of
the new justice of love, a cruelty and passion that never before existed comes
Othello sought to accomplish an extreme human feat; he attempted to be a
hero without a home to sing his praises and write his epitaph.
He did this under the guise of universality; only if a man is liberated from the
influence of and need for the laws and ways of a particular nation can he go
anywhere and be a hero. But this universality, Shakespeare seems to tell us, is
a lie. If a man can liberate himself from a particular time and place it cannot be
as a hero, statesman, or soldier. Such careers are by their nature bound to the
fortunes of nations, all of which have special needs and traditions. Those
who follow these pathways seek glory as their reward, and glory is dependent
upon a public. The hero is perforce attached to the place whence his glory comes
and he must believe somehow in the special importance and excellence of that
place. This represents a denial of the universal standpoint; it is part of the
necessary narrowing of the statesman's horizon. Othello's universality only
conceals a desire to be limited and local; it is itself an inflated shadow of the
ordinary human's limitations; the eternal
aspiration to be oneself and oneself alone is burlesqued and travestied; what should
be truly an end in itself, and masquerades as such, is but a means in Othello's
usage. He pretends to be lovable because he is good, but actually his goodness
is only an appearance to enable him to be loved. As long as he believes his own
myth he can be gentle, for he thinks that what he demands from men is natural.
But when he comes to doubt, he believes that what he demands is against
nature. His jealousy then becomes his weapon to bend men to his will. His
barbaric nature now reveals itself; but it is barbarism transformed and intensified.
His final tragedy consists not so much in killing Desdemona, but in the discovery
of his own injustice-that his justice is not justice at all. He discovers
that what he thought was justice was but a way of gratifying his own appetite,
an appetite whose existence it was of the essence of his being not to recognize.
His jealousy arises when he realizes that he is a dependent being, that
he needs. His tragedy is complete when it becomes clear that he does not deserve
fulfillment but only desires it. He has done terrible deeds under the conviction
of his own wisdom; but he is nothing. Othello is a figure of enormous proportions;
no reader can fail to sense this. Yet he is curiously insubstantial. And this
is Shakespeare's meaning; he is a name without a substance. He lives in men's
minds and needs more than'in any reality. Both for his own sake and for that
of the state, he had to be thought a perfect being, but he was only a being
afflicted with human passion. The intensity of the ending comes from the loud
bursting of an enormous bubble which vanishes into nothingness.
Shakespeare appears to tell us that it is not good to introduce influences
that are too foreign, regardless of the guise under which they may come. The
benevolence of foreign influences is always ambiguous. What is not native will at some point go against the grain of what is native; it must then tyrannize or
succumb. Universality on the purely political level does not conduce to the common good.
Let us turn now to Desdemona. Her selfless devotion to Othello and her
sweetness make her a peculiarly undeserving subject for tragic suffering. Her
death seems deeply offensive. It must be asked if there is anything in her nature
that makes her fate in any way appropriate. Is she senselessly destroyed,
a harmless bystander caught in the backlash of the unreeling of Othello's life?
The answer to this question is dependent on an understanding of her love.
What was the source of her involvement in this strange romance? The absolute
source was Othello's speeches. But this is not enough in itself; we must discover
to what these speeches appealed. We learn that she was ordinarily
a very quiet and shy girl, a soft and gentle character. But at the same
time we know that she was independent, that she knew her own wishes. She wanted to love something beyond. And this Othello provided. His stories of strange lands and great adventures
seemed to give evidence of an experience and knowledge beyond the conventional.
She felt that her limited life was not sufficient; we see in her an embryonic
passion for the universal, a desire not to be duped by life. But she is
undirected. What is merely different and strange impresses her as more significant
and real. Whether Othello believes them or not, his stories contain much
that could not possibly be true; they are, as Iago says, fantastic.They appeal
to Desdemona's imagination which was watered with loneliness and shyness.
She is exactly as her name describes her: superstitious.Her devotion to Othello exalts her, and her choice to seek for meaning beyond accepted belief
lends her a dignity which the ordinary cannot have. But it was a choice
conceived in error; Othello was a creation of her mind. She believed his speeches
about his deeds. And, paradoxically, her love sought in Othello something independent
and free, while that very love made him dependent, and bound his
seeming universality to something particular. They passed each other by, as
it were, on the path of love. Most paradoxical of all, instead of winning her freedom she
became all the more enfettered to the thing she was trying to escape. Desdemona gave herself completely and
with passion to something beyond the physical, but to a something conceived
in error. In giving up all for the sake of cosmopolitanism she was a follower of
the most characteristic expression of the political community: its myths about
its leaders. Desdemona, the only figure in the play who is indifferent to popular
opinion, becomes a prisoner of the opinion about Othello.
Desdemona's superstition is not the only cause of her death. Her fidelity is
also a necessary condition. She was not only attracted by Othello's stories, but
she believed and insisted on keeping faith with him no matter what he did.
The appearance of his actions is unimportant; he must be followed and loved
regardless of his deeds, for his ends are inscrutable. She believes in him so
completely that she must deny the validity of common sense in order to justify
him. What appears like injustice from an ordinary point of view must appear
to Desdemona as justice punishing some supposed vice or sin in herself or
others. If he is to be believed in, although he acts contrary to ordinary human
standards, then she must say that those standards are meaningless or are misconceived in this higher context. She accepts that new way of judging souls
that resulted from Othello's jealousy; the clear appearance of things is rejected
and some mysterious standard dependent on Othello's whim becomes the rule.
Of course the real source of this standard is Othello's need to make himself
loved absolutely and uncontingently. But that true source is transformed and
represented as a hidden meaning to life, one that can be revealed only through
Othello. And in Desdemona there begins a sort of self-examination; no longer
does she look to the surface meaning of words and deeds, but her conscience
bids her to search out faults which her reason does not see. Cassio did much the
same thing when dismissed by Othello; all moral value comes from Othello
and what he does not approve is bad. Othello does not depend on nature but
nature on Othello. This leads to new habits of mind, new virtues.
Desdemona, in her conversation with Emilia, states her principle clearly:
fidelity and only fidelity-everything subordinated to it. It is noble, without
doubt, but it certainly is not so reasonable as the statement of Emilia, who
makes fidelity dependent on the deeds of the husband. Her morality is an easygoing
one that does not attach so much significance to chastity. In herself she
is not so fine a person as Desdemona, but perhaps true and untragic nobility
cannot be reached by the sanctification of marital fidelity. And Emilia, for all
her inferiority, may yet serve to point this out. For Emilia, the simple world
of common-sense meanings and the evident justice of acts must dictate to
fidelity: fidelity cannot be unconditional. For Desdemona, everything must be
interpreted in such a way as to preserve her faith.
Desdemona's faith in Othello leads her to a certain disregard for the truth
which has not often enough been observed. We see her practicing deception
three times in the play, and each time with great significance for her fate. In
the first place she hides her relationship with Othello from her father, and presents
him with the fait accompli. However indulgently we may look upon her
love for Othello, there is no question but that she is guilty of disobedience;
and her love comes into conflict with most sacred duties. The love of Othello
leads the best of children to a contempt for her niche and a willingness to
break the law for his sake. In any case of conflict of loyalties, Desdemona
chooses without hesitation in favor of Othello; it seems that this shy girl
gained so much strength and confidence, or such fanaticism, from her love that
she is capable of doing things in a cool spirit that others would be unable to
do. In the second case, she lied to Othello about the
handkerchief. Here is perhaps the clearest indication of her superstitious nature:
she was so frightened by the significance Othello attached to the handkerchief
and the tale he told her about it that she did not dare to let him know
that she had lost it. This untruth led directly to her own death. And finally,
she seems to tell a lie even after death. She says that Othello did not kill her.
She still tries to preserve his reputation; for she would die in vain if he were evil.
His reputation lives in her and not in him. To the end, she must see things as
she wants them to be rather than as they are. Believing is seeing.
Desdemona's death is in large measure due to her own errors. They were
noble errors, errors which elevated her above the level of ordinary humanity,
but they deserved punishment. We take her side because she does so in
the name of something higher. But perhaps from a third and highest standpoint
we must come to the defense of society and see her defection as a
result of a monstrous misconception. Perhaps the true cosmopolitanism can be
attained only by renouncing the dearest hopes of practical life. Marriage is a
part of political life, of society. One cannot purify it of its political element
without depriving it of its substance.
ment without depriving it of its substance.
Desdemona has been compared to Cordelia and Miranda, and with much
justice. She is independent, courageous, and gentle, as is the former, and she
has a sweet ingenuousness like the latter (in the spirit of "oh, brave new world").
But Desdemona lacks Cordelia's love of the truth which causes her to understand
her situation so well. Desdemona never recognizes her error and, using
the other possible meaning of her name, she says "It is my wretched fortune." Shakespeare, in the fullness of his meaning, says that her "wretched fortune" is
a result of her "superstition." And, unlike Miranda, she has no Prospero to
guide her imagination and set her in the right course. Her untutored understanding
spawns monsters. Shakespeare in this bleak play shows us no way
around Desdemona's problem. She leads a noble life but one that is against
law and also against reason.
Finally, let us consider the last member of the play's trinity, Iago. Iago is
clearly the devil. He says so himself and is often so called. But in the case
where god is not perfect the devil's negativity may be a source of liberation,
an aid to the discovery of the truth. Iago has always been condemned and
hated, and certainly what he does is most terrible; but a defense can and must be made for him.
Shakespeare plays upon a human softness and sentimentality
in this work. We so like to flatter our own goodness and warmheartedness that
we are unwilling to recognize hard truths. Our natural partisanship with love
and lovers causes us to see only Iago's wickedness in destroying the love of
Othello and Desdemona; we like to believe that without his intervention all
would have been well. But the very terribleness which so moves us teaches us,
albeit unconsciously, that this is not just another love story, that there is here
an inevitability we wish not to face, one we hide in our condemnation of Iago.
Iago, as I have said, is only a mirror or an agent that causes the unseen to
become visible. Lived over and over again, the love of Desdemona and Othello
would end the same way. Yet no matter how often it happened, each time we
would be as shocked and surprised as we were the first time; for the result runs
counter to our wish and our wishes cause us to bury the truth. Shakespeare is,
in the final accounting, very hard. Iago's speeches, read dispassionately, show
that he is the clearest thinker in the play. Honest Iago is not merely a tragically
misplaced epithet. Iago does tell more of the truth than any other character. It
is difficult to understand his motivation; no villain in Shakespeare seems to act
without some plausible end in view, an end the value of which all men would
recognize, although they might perhaps not be willing to commit the crimes
necessary to arrive at it. But Iago, as does the devil, seems to act from pure
negativity. I am not what I am. Whatever Othello wants, Iago wants the opposite.
He is sub- or super-human. But in opposing Othello he shows that the
world dominated by Othello is a world of fancy. He speaks out for a freedom
which none of the others recognize. Iago wishes to live his own life free from the
domination of other men, and especially of other men's thoughts. He realizes
that true tyranny is not imposed by force but imposes itself on the minds of
men. For Iago, man can free himself only by thought. He has thought through
the emptiness of most beliefs and will not live in subordination to them. He
cannot found his life on self-deception, as Othello does.
His analysis of things generally esteemed leads to several conclusions. He
is in the first place a materialist. The solidity of money as a means for living
freely is clear, so he does not share the noble man's contempt for it. (The nobleman usually has money already, so is not forced to the salutary reflection on its
necessity.) The word "purse" is found in his mouth very often. In the second
place, he knows that reputation is often ill gained and worse lost. He not only
knows it but demonstrates it in his manipulations of Othello and Cassio, and
by his own very good repute. A man must be independent of reputation or he
is the slave of public whim. He tells this beautifully to Cassio, and to show how
opposite Othello's view is, Iago tells him that reputation is everything and the
purse trash. For Iago reputation is trash and he who follows it lives for others.
Since reputation is no real sign of true virtue, it follows that straightforward honesty is undesirable. A man must appear to be what the public wants, and
freedom to live well depends upon cultivating deception. Iago reveals the
strange fact that freedom to pursue the truth requires deception, for the truth
runs counter to much necessary prejudice; and he who wants to be open must
either be a martyr or deceive himself for the sake of popularity. Moreover,
Iago is the only character who has comic lines in an unusually humorless play.
The serious things, so piously considered by the others, are subjects of his wit.
Part of his freedom comes from being able to laugh at mankind, to see that
much of its pretension is comic. Connected with this is his contempt for romantic
love. He sees nothing in it beyond physical passion. Love cannot take on
such grand significance for him, and the attempt to make it sacred is ridiculous.
All the bonds that link humanity and make living together possible have
been dissolved in Iago. Trust is impossible for him because to trust implies
respect for other human beings, a respect in which he is completely deficient. When a man believes that public opinion, or his own sense of shame, are merely
devices of the herd to make men live for others rather than themselves, all the
monsters of passion are released within him. Iago is jealous, lecherous, and
ambitious; his reason and reasonableness allow him to divest himself of all the
clogs of convention but give him no stable goals for action. Only his emancipated
passions supply him with objects of desire. Iago himself has no idea of
what he wants. He is eminently a private man; he can care for no one but
himself and his views justify this selfishness, for there is no reason to serve a
morality created in the interest of others. [Othello, on the contrary, believed that men are fundamentally what they seem to be (III, iii, 139-151; cf. I, iii, 422-425). Iago has made the distinction between seeming and being, and everything he does is based on it. One must live for the real which is radically different from the apparent while seeming to be what one is not. He can use Othello because Othello cares so much about appearance; and because, once he too has begun to distrust appearance, he believes in the possible reality of anything. Iago's, "I never found a man who knew how to love himself" (I, iii, 344-345), is the expression of the moral attitude that is the result of his views.] He is an example of what is often
asserted will happen when men no longer believe in God; he is an atheist.
Now, if such a private view of life and man is grafted on to the thought of a
political man, a man who is interested in public life, the result is the development
of a severe and punishing morality. A political man knows of the necessity
of society, that the common good can only be served if there is a habit of
obedience to law and a deference to custom. If he is convinced that men are
by nature bad, then he must believe in the use of force, deceit and terror to
make them conform. Iago succeeds in convincing Othello of his own view of
mankind yet this does not alter Othello's way of life; he does not renounce
public life and vow to pursue his own passions, as would seem reasonable for a
man with such an opinion. He decides instead to force men to be what he formerly
thought they naturally were. Othello was peculiarly susceptible to this persuasion, for he was stateless. Othello, on the other hand, cannot rest content with obedience grounded on
unconscious repetition; he is universal and a stranger and requires that man
deliberately choose the good. And it is perhaps true that the majority of men,
outside of the particular training which has broken them to the laws,
would not be so just, and would be more likely to consult their private interests.
Othello is gentle and loving as long as he believes in man's goodness; he becomes
a tyrant when he doubts. To fit the cosmopolis of which he dreams men
must be transformed, and what was once innocuous in them now becomes a
great danger. Iago wants and needs the change he produces in Othello. He does
not believe in the common good. But when he can control Othello and use
Othello's fears to punish others, he will be in a perfect position to do as he lists.
His apparently unmotivated vengeance expresses his freedom. A morality
based on ritual and suspicion fits the needs of this hypocrite, informer, and
false accuser. Tartuffes can always stand for morality. The devil can quote
scripture, especially when he has written it. Iago makes use of Othello's good
but misguided intentions, and Othello's tragedy comes when he realizes that
his life has been used to destroy others for the sake of an Iago. Iago is Othello's
ensign, or standard bearer, in something more than name.
Iago is also a stranger, but he does not need to practice self-deception,
since he does not care for honor. For him his profession is simply a job.
He has no need to try to add dignity to it. Of course the result of this is that he cannot
participate in the heroic character of an Othello. However revealing his existence
may be, and the truth is not an unimportant thing, his is not a life that
men would wish to imitate. His critique of ordinary beliefs leaves him in the
end with no real purpose in life at all. He opposes established custom in the
name of freedom, but this freedom is compatible with the basest and most
arbitrary ends. He can trust no one and is full of fear that he himself will be
deceived because men are base. His negativity leads only to the breakdown of
order and turns his life into a chaos.
Othello appears then to leave us with this choice: a mean life based on a clear
perception of reality, or a noble life based on falsehood and ending in tragedy.
Othello is open and loving but deceived. Iago knows well the defects of Othello's
life, but certainly offers no alternative worthy of choice. Yet Iago, in the end,
is himself destroyed, but not by the baseness he understands and fears. Iago,
otherwise so clear-sighted, fails to see one thing. He cannot foresee that Emilia
would be willing to die for the truth. The possibility of a simple unadorned
passion for nothing but truth is not within his ken. But would not a life expressing
such a passion be both noble and, by its very nature, free from deception?
Long story short: Iago, just like Azathoth, may be entropy incarnate. The whole universe tends towards entropy, as life, being rather complex chemistry at the end of the day, has always struggled against entropy. From protozoa to people via plesiosaurs, we all tend towards decay and death and disorder, every day we breathe a victory in this conflict as old as day. Though we win each and every battle against entropy, we all (from protozoa to people via plesiosaurs) are doomed to lose the overarching war at the end of the day. The ending of Othello, with mostly everyone dead, the two survivors (Cassio and Bianca, analogous to the Livtrase/Livslust and Liv, respectively, at the end of Ragnarök) alive yet disabled and traumatised, and Iago vanishing like the Cheshire Cat... exemplifies the core of the story's themes: this Shakespearean tragedy is, at the core, the story of the everlasting, futile yet always elusively hopeful, struggle between Life and Entropy.