Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Othello. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 425-507).

Act 1, Scene 1. (435-39: Iago’s resentment, Brabanzio’s rage at loss of daughter)

Iago may not be acting from world-historical outrage, but he sets forth two reasons for his hatred of Othello: first, his sense of injured merit because Othello has given the lieutenant’s job he coveted to Cassio (435, 1.1.19ff), and the possibility (stated in Act 1.3) that his wife has slept with Othello. Iago is a self-conscious Machiavel and a consummate actor (like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus). As he says to Roderigo, “I follow but myself” and “I am not what I am” (436-37, 1.1.42-65): he may be Othello’s trusted underling, but that isn’t how he sees himself “five years from now,” to borrow a phrase from the corporate interview playbook. Iago may be comfortable in his own skin, but he is not at peace with himself. There’s something impish about him, too, something of the downright evildoer—he seems to enjoy stirring up trouble for the hell of it, and he shows no regard for the destruction he brings to Desdemona, whom he knows to be innocent. He maneuvers with diabolical skill in the gap between what he seems to be and what he is, turning everything that happens to his own advantage. He and Roderigo regale Brabanzio with race-baiting taunts to find his secretly married daughter. (437, 1.1.88ff)

Act 1, Scene 2. (439-442, Othello willingly arrested, off to Venice)

Othello shows no fear of Roderigo or Brabanzio when they apprehend him: “Keep up your bright swords…” (441, 1.2.60ff). On the spot, Brabanzio accuses Othello of witchcraft: “thou has enchanted her” (441, 1.2.64), he tells the Moor; otherwise, he insists, the girl would never “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight!” (441, 1.2.71-72) He can’t even imagine the attraction of the foreign or the exotic, even though he’s been listening to Othello’s stories with admiration, too. To Brabanzio, Venice is the world. (He’s strangely provincial given that Venice is a cosmopolitan sea empire that had long since known how to cut a deal or two with Arabs and Turks.) Brabanzio immediately accepts Iago and Roderigo’s reductive, grotesquely abstract “devil” and bestial “ram” characterization of Othello. Othello hardly lacks charm, but the father welcomes Iago’s stereotypes.

Act 1, Scene 3. (442-50, Othello vindicated, Desdemona strong, Iago enlists Roderigo)

Othello carries the day when summoned to Venice because of his military bearing and chivalric eloquence. When the Italians accuse him of witchcraft, he promises to deliver a “round, unvarnished tale” (444, 1.3.90); but then he romances them with his beautiful, moving words. Othello cuts a dashing figure, and he is aware of his effect upon others. He is proud of his conquest, like a soldier who has won the prize fairly. The tale he delivers is anything but unvarnished. It is filled with romantic extravagance. Perhaps he has been sold into slavery, fought tremendous battles, and seen many remarkable sights. But did he really see “Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (445, 1.3.143-44)? No, these are tales he’s picked up and remembered the better to build up an image of himself as an adventurer. He exploits Desdemona’s interest in such stories, crafting from that propensity a contract-in-hand to “beguile her of her tears” and to “dilate” his life’s journey. What sanctifies Othello’s dilatory works of art? Well, the fact that he sincerely loves Desdemona—he means her only good, so it’s acceptable to incorporate some “make-believe” elements into an already exciting account of himself: “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (445, 1.3.166-67). Othello is rather like Sir Philip Sidney’s good Christian poet, whose “feigning” of “notable images” shouldn’t be condemned just because the images aren’t literally true. Othello isn’t a naïve other or a silent warrior but a poetical, confident man.

Perhaps his tragedy will be that he just can’t imagine anyone wielding such poetical power for anything but the good reasons that motivate him in his courtship of Desdemona, or in his speech to the Duke and Senators that frees them to return to considerations of State rather than dwelling on private grudges and love affairs. His way of “seeming” (i.e. embroidering his life story) is so pure that it’s folded into the essential goodness of his being. In a sense, all poets are liars—Plato tells us so, right?—but some feigning and pretending is nobly done and not engaged in as a means to do evil, as it is with Iago. Othello’s naivety, then, isn’t that he’s unable to speak anything but plain truth; it’s that he can’t conceive of a man who willfully spins lies for base purposes. A good man is free to gild the lily, but a wicked man ought to show himself for what he is. In this sense, it’s fair to say that Othello proves tragically unable to deal with the difference between seeming and being. Then, too, Othello may be poetical, but he’s not John Keats’ poet of “negative capability,” the kind who can throw himself into doubts and uncertainties as if they were his own proper element. Othello’s feigning seems more tactical and less supple, more task-oriented, than that of the Keatsian “chameleon poet” who wants to escape from his own skin.

Both the absolute otherness imposed on Othello by men such as Brabanzio (who can scarcely process the Moor at all) and the charismatic appeal of the man’s bearing and language are at work early in Othello. Perhaps both, taken together with the sad events later in the play, go a long way towards demonstrating how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. In spite of Othello’s wondrous gifts of bearing and speech, he is easily destroyed by Iago, a man with the sort of knowledge of Venetian society Othello lacks. Generalized virtues cannot permanently trump an intimate knowledge of local cultural practices, symbolism, and assumptions, at least not if someone is determined to use these specifics against an outsider. Othello is a classic tragedy in that a good man is destroyed by the virtues that have won him admiration—his inability to comprehend how devious and selfish others can be. It’s true that Othello has so far followed his personal desires, and we might suppose that he’s putting Venice at risk if a tumult ensues. But he deals so forthrightly with the Venetian authorities that the affair blows over, and he is free to return to his work for the general welfare. How, Othello might ask, could others be so petty as to damage the public good for purely private reasons, like those of Iago?

Our first glimpse of Desdemona shows us a strong-willed young woman who is not afraid to act boldly and speak her mind, even in the presence of her powerful father and Venetian statesmen. Her strength accords well with Othello’s soldierly virtue. (446-47, 1.3.180ff, 247ff) Later, Desdemona will be put in an impossible position—her considerable aplomb doesn’t translate into an ability to charm Othello out of his suspicions, so her goodness works against her. But with the devilish Othello out to destroy her, it’s hard to see how anything she says, no matter how skillful, would help. Terse protestations of virtue and fancy talk alike would fail to overcome the “ocular proof” by which Iago will falsely damn her.

Iago’s creed is worth noting. To Roderigo’s passive, faux-suicidal blubbering about the defects of his “virtue” (in this usage, it means “nature”), Iago blurts out “Virtue? A fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are / thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the / which our wills are gardeners…” (449, 1.3.316-18). In terms of Renaissance psychology, this means that while we are subject to the pull of our appetites (which belong to the “sensitive” part of human nature), we can control these appetites. We can let our choice-making power, our “will,” be informed by reason and thereby control the effects of appetite. (The elements of the rational part of human nature are “understanding” or reason and “will” or rational appetite, the inner power of motion that can incline towards God and reason or towards our lower appetites.) Iago is suggesting that while the body and the appetites may hold sway for a time in Desdemona, she is bound, in due time, to become sated with Othello, and then her rational element will lead her to despise this older man whose appearance and culture are so unlike hers. (449, 1.3.342ff; also 455, 2.1.228-29) Like will return to like. Well, Iago hardly puts Renaissance psychology to the noble uses of Pico della Mirandola, who implies that the grandest goal of humanity is to transcend itself for the greater glory of God, but he knows how to craft a cunning scheme from its premises: Roderigo need only “put money in his purse” and wait for Desdemona to turn again to Venice.

Here Iago’s second motive comes to light: he’s heard that Othello may have cuckolded him. And although he may be patient in devising his wicked schemes, he shares Othello’s disdain of long-continued suspicion: the mere supposition that Emilia may have cuckolded him demands payback; the matter must be resolved. (450, 1.3.367ff) He will wage a pre-emptive war against this man who has already frustrated his hopes of advancement and who may also have insulted his marriage. In some cold, calculating way, Iago himself is subject to the cat-like “green-eyed monster” jealousy, and his way of dealing with the discomfort it’s caused him is to pass it along. That there’s also something to the “baseless evil” charge often leveled against Iago, we may see from his brazen determination to “plume up” his will “in double knavery” (450, 1.3.376).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2. (450-57, Iago sets up Cassio, airs his own suspicions)

This scene turns on trifles: witty banter, smiles, and an innocently flirtatious kiss between Desdemona and Cassio: how easy it is to weave an unflattering tale, and take advantage of others’ insecurities. (454, 2.1.167ff) As Iago will say of the handkerchief in 3.3, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (473, 3.3.326-28). In the second act generally, Cassio, who much values his martial reputation and is loyal, is easily typecast by Iago first as the genial soldier, then as the quarrelsome drunkard, and finally as the importunate suitor. Iago goes to work on Roderigo against Desdemona’s character (456, 2.1.243), and prevails upon Roderigo to assault Cassio and thereby anger Cyprus and Othello against the man. Iago again mentions his second reason for hating Othello, stating “nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him, wife for wife” (457, 2.1.285-86). He even has the same suspicion of Cassio – “For I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too” (457, 2.1.294). An ambitious man, Iago envies and opposes anyone who stands above him. Perhaps that is the ultimate reason for his villainy.

Act 2, Scene 3. (457-65, Cassio dismissed, Iago moves forwards with his scheme)

Enter Othello the honor-absolutist to render judgment. Iago plays Othello like a fiddle, and the final lyrics are, “Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be officer of mine” (462, 2.3.231-32). Now Iago advances his diabolical scheme (463, 2.3.291ff) to advance Cassio’s suit by Desdemona’s pleading. Iago delights in his own equivocations, and triumphantly remarks, “So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (464, 2.3.334-36).

Act 3, Scenes 1-2. (465-66, Desdemona takes Cassio’s part)

Emilia reports that Desdemona is making headway on Cassio’s suit: “The Moor replies / That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus… / But he protests he loves you… (466, 3.1.42-45).

Act 3, Scene 3. (466-77, Iago sows doubt, turns Othello against Desdemona)

While Iago and Othello look on from a distance, Desdemona promises to continue with Cassio’s suit to Othello (466-67, 3.3.20-22). She converses with Othello to great effect: “I will deny thee nothing” says Othello, and when she leaves, “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (468, 3.3.77, 3.3.91-93). Chaos is Iago’s decreative aim, and he immediately begins to set doubts in Othello’s mind: “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, / Know of your love?” (468, 3.3.96-97) Cassio’s earlier usefulness as go-between in Othello’s romancing of Desdemona now plays against him.

We should hear alarm bells in Othello’s admission of his great fondness for Desdemona: once Othello begins to suspect, he will be thrown off balance until the end. Iago makes the Moor draw “the truth” from him, and reinforces the Othello-principle that we must all be what we appear to be: “Men should be what they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (469, 3.3.132-33) Iago knows that Othello lacks (to borrow from Keats’ letters) “negative capability”—he can’t exist for an extended time in the midst of uncertainty. If there’s a problem, it must be dealt with presently, not left to fester. Othello is the kind of military man who insists on gathering hard evidence and rendering a firm decision, court-martial style, the way he judged Cassio. His lack of knowledge about Venetian mores and subtlety (an English stereotype for the Italians generally—subtle, devious, sly) makes him anxious, easy prey to the overblown trifles in which Iago trades, and very susceptible to the honest-sounding counsel his deceiver offers: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy? / It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (470, 3.3.169-71). Othello insists his trust in Desdemona and in himself is great: “she had eyes and chose me. No, Iago / I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, proof; / And on the proof… / Away at once with love or jealousy” (470, 3.3.193-96).

But Othello is older than Desdemona, and he is black: facts Iago exploits brutally and masterfully (471, 3.3.233-43). Othello now seems uncertain that his charm and rhetorical skill can hold his wife’s loyalty. Iago has already told him, “In Venice they do let (God) see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (471, 3.3.206-09). Generalized virtues can’t trump knowledge of local culture, symbolism, and assumptions. Othello is classical tragedy: a good man is destroyed by his virtues. The play demonstrates how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. Othello comes round to a characteristically absolute statement: “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings / I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune” (472, 3.3.264-67). Othello can’t reconcile his honor-ideal with the messy, ethically dubious world of Venice.

Shakespeare explores this rigid idealism often in his plays, and I believe he considers it a trap. For example, Brutus in Julius Caesar, or the title character in Coriolanus (as well as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, since his so-called eastern extravagance is the obverse of strict Roman honor, and disables him from combating Octavius’ machinations), or comic idealizers such as Orlando in As You Like It. There are many shades of gray, nuances, roles a man or woman must play, imperfections and exigencies to deal with. Idealism is noble, but it is a disabling quality in a saucy, ever-changing world.

The handkerchief device and marriage vignette (in which Othello and Iago kneel and vow revenge) mark the height of Iago’s villainy. Disturbed while talking with Desdemona, Othello drops his wife’s handkerchief (473, 3.3.290ff); from there Emilia finds it and gives it to Iago, who then resolves, “I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin, / And let him find it. Trifles light as air…” (473, 3.3.325-28). At next meeting, Othello is mad with jealous rage: “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (474, 3.3.364-65). He demands absolute proof, as the uncertainty has become intolerable: “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not” (475, 3.3.389ff). So the fact that Cassio has been seen to “wipe his beard” (476, 3.3.444) with Desdemona’s handkerchief drives Othello to distraction. Iago kneels and swears undying fealty to Othello (476-77), and his damnation consists in swearing by Christian symbols to do the devil’s work. His words are pious, but his intentions transform them into the markers of a black mass. Perhaps there’s irony in his swearing by “yon marble heaven” (476, 3.3.463) since the audience may see him swear by a painted image of the sky. Iago has become Othello’s lieutenant, and is engaged to murder Cassio while Othello plans Desdemona’s demise.

Act 3, Scene 4. (477-81, The Handkerchief! Emilia and Desdemona ponder cause)

Othello expects the same romantic extravagance from Desdemona as he lavishes upon her: the handkerchief, he tells her, is an emblem of the romantic magic, the charm, that underlies his erotic fidelity. Its loss is catastrophic now that it has come to symbolize her chaste loyalty. (478, 3.4.53ff) Othello is a romantic idealist as well as a military idealist. A version of the handkerchief’s history: it was given him by his mother, who got it from a female Egyptian sorcerer, and its possession guarantees loyalty in love. Its fatal consequentiality is further underscored by the claim that it was “dyed in mummy, which the skilful / Conserved of maidens’ hearts” (478, 3.4.73-74; later, he will claim his father gave it to his mother: see 5.2.224.) Desdemona is forced to dissemble (479), while Othello’s vocabulary moves towards perfect accord with his obsession: “the handkerchief!” repeated several times. (479, 3.4.90ff) Desdemona and Emilia ponder this strange behavior on Othello’s part (480, 3.4.137ff). Michael Cassio closes the scene by asking his girlfriend Bianca to make a copy of the handkerchief because he wants the pattern before he returns it to the owner.

Act 4, Scene 1. (481-88, Othello rages over Cassio and Iago’s talk, strikes Desdemona)

Othello, already driven into an epileptic fit at the loss of the handkerchief (482b, 4.1.41), will now be subjected to one further supposed proof: Iago engages Cassio in a conversation that Othello takes for lewd and contemptuous talk about Desdemona when in fact Cassio is only making jests about his relationship with Bianca (483, 4.1.79ff, 484-85). Bianca brings in the handkerchief (485, 4.1.143ff), making Othello think Cassio has given it to her out of contempt for Desdemona. Othello sees this spectacle and becomes deranged with contradictory impulses: “O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!” and “I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!” (486, 4.1.186, 190) Iago comes up with the idea of strangling her in her “contaminated” bed. (486, 4.1.197-98) When he strikes Desdemona (487, 4.1.235ff), Lodovico, who has come with a letter announcing that Cassio has been installed in Othello’s place as commander in Cyprus, is there to see it. He assumes Othello is an abusive husband.

Act 4, Scene 2. (488-93, Desdemona tries to defend herself, Othello unmovable)

Although Desdemona has shown some Venetian subtlety, piety and honesty are the hallmarks of her character. But Othello has been warped into taking signs of virtue for their opposite: evidence of whoredom and cunning. From now on, everything she says “can and will be used against her”; she is under arrest without even knowing it. Her self-defense (489-90), while moving, is rather feeble: “By heaven, you do me wrong” and “No, as I am a Christian” (490, 4.2.83, 85). Simply being accused of certain offenses (such as adultery) so strips a person of others’ good opinion that it’s tantamount to conviction: guilty until proven innocent. (One thinks of Kafka’s The Trial or the trials of 1984—to come under suspicion is already to have no identity except that constituted by one’s presumed malefactions.) It’s common in Renaissance plays for virtuous characters to prove themselves helpless when abused by the wicked and the cunning. If your name is something like “Bonario,” as is the case for a good character in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, look out!

Emilia, Iago and Desdemona hash out the sorry state of affairs – Emilia’s enraged: “The Moor’s abused by some most villainous knave…” (491, 4.2.143ff), Iago unctuously in false accord, and Desdemona prayerful, saying, “If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love … / Comfort forswear me” (491, 4.2.156ff).

Then Iago continues his work on the already angry Roderigo, egging him on to murder Cassio and thereby keep Othello in Cyprus, along with Desdemona. (492-493)

Act 4, Scene 3. (493-95, Emilia’s strength, Desdemona’s loyalty)

While Desdemona can only sing a sad song of frustrated love (“Willow, willow” 494, 4.3.38ff), Emilia proves more capable. A fit opponent for her husband, Emilia tries to temper Desdemona’s moral absolutism, which rivals that of Othello: advocating female adultery, Emilia argues, “I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall” (495, 4.3.84-85). Desdemona’s reply is a declaration of loyalty to Othello (495, 4.3.76-77), an attitude she will maintain even as Othello strangles her. Emilia’s bawdy pronouncements on gender relations are the stuff of Shakespearian comedy (one thinks of Portia and Nerissa’s “ring scheme” in The Merchant of Venice), but here they only deepen the sense of impending tragedy.

Innocence can seldom defend itself as eloquently or convincingly as evil can, even when the innocent person is as intelligent as Desdemona. One remembers Yeats’ line in “The Second Coming” that “the best lack all conviction” while “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In Shakespeare, it isn’t usually true that the best people lack conviction—what they sometimes lack (consider Cordelia in King Lear as an example to set beside Desdemona) is the right phrase, the moxy to take advantage of opportunities to advance their good cause. And even if our good folks have considerable linguistic capacity and courage, the disposition we call “goodness” seldom, if ever, gains by rhetorical sleight—the problem seems intractable. Lear’s daughter Cordelia may be a bit stiff and clumsy as a speaker, but we all feel the rightness of her lament, “What shall poor Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” Or consider Machiavelli’s characterization of the problem: to paraphrase what he writes in Il Principe, “those who try to be virtuous in all things must come to grief among so many who aren’t virtuous.”

Act 5, Scene 1. (495-98, Cassio wounded by Iago, who then silences Roderigo)

Iago arranges for Roderigo to kill Cassio, but the bungler only manages to wound Cassio in the leg, and Iago stabs Roderigo to death lest he blab the truth. (495-97) Othello applauds from above: “Thou teachest me. Minion, your dear lies dead, / And your unblessed fate hies” (496, 5.1.34-35). Iago insistently blames Bianca for the entire ruckus. (498)

Act 5, Scene 2. (498-507 end, Othello smothers Desdemona, dies on own terms)

Othello resolves to kill Desdemona softly: “I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / …Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (498, 5.2.3-6). Desdemona attempts to defend herself from Othello’s crazed accusations and calls to beg forgiveness of God, but there’s no chance of success, and he smothers her (499-501) in two successive bouts. When Emilia enters, Desdemona’s dying words amount to an attempt to remove all blame from Othello: “Commend me to my kind lord” (501, 5.2.134).

Othello initially wrangles with Emilia and engages in some waffling and denial: “You heard her say herself it was not I” (501, 5.2.136). But the truth comes out in short order, and Othello infuriates Emilia by accusing Desdemona of adultery, thanks to Iago’s information. (502, 5.2.148ff) Things move quickly: Iago mortally wounds Emilia for revealing the truth about that fatal handkerchief (504) and Othello wounds Iago, who will not speak further about his motives for working so much misery: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (505, 5.2.309). At last, with whatever small weapon remains to him – he had been stripped of his sword a bit earlier — Othello makes himself an example in all strictness, preempting Venetian justice (In Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Othello escapes, only to die shamefully later.) Othello bills himself extravagantly as a man who “loved not wisely but too well” (506, 5.2.353). His eloquence and elegance reassert themselves in his final struggle. Othello’s death seems right since his words and manner, as he understands, cannot make up for the destruction of a faithful wife. His epigrammatic self-description indicates a desire to control others’ interpretations of his downfall; perhaps that’s a tragic hero’s right (see Hamlet’s plea that Horatio should tell his story), but the ending remains disturbing. Othello had twice let loose the question, “Ha, ha, false to me?” (3.3.338, 4.1.190) as if especially incredulous that he should suffer the indignity of betrayal. My sympathy goes to Desdemona, not to Othello, in spite of his sincere horror at what Iago’s treachery has led him to do.

How should we assess Othello as a tragic hero? The moral quality of Shakespeare’s protagonists varies: Richard III is an effervescent villain, Macbeth an introspective man who appreciates from the outset the full evil of the path to power he contemplates; Brutus and Cassius betray dueling motives against Julius Caesar, noble and base; Romeo and Juliet die because of pitiable misunderstandings rather than grievous faults; King Lear is brought down in part by a fundamental confusion between his public and private selves; Hamlet the revenger undergoes strange alternations of stricken dawdling and rashness, Coriolanus isolates and debases himself in his patrician rage, etc.

Othello takes his place alongside them all, a warrior who becomes the victim of his own deeply ingrained all-or-nothing attitude towards everything and everyone, an exotic other who is the victim of cultural misunderstandings that put him at the mercy of subtle Iago. As I mentioned earlier, Othello’s fall from grace seems classical in that he is laid low and commits his deadly errors because of his noblest qualities: a soldierly, unwavering commitment to right conduct, fidelity and truth. His absolute generosity of spirit towards Desdemona, once put in question by Iago, gives way to cruel resolution and a refusal even to hear “the accused’s” honest plea. It may be that what underlies Othello’s downfall is in part the basic fact that if we turn heroic absolutist values over and view their obverse, what we will find is an equally strong counter-sentiment or counter-anxiety against which the heroic code is posited. Only those who act from some level of awareness of this unsettling relationship have any real chance of success: they are not so likely as others to be trapped by the productions of their own heart and imagination. Othello, it seems to me, lacks that awareness and never – not even after the worst is known and all lies exposed before him – shows an ability to mediate between the ideal and the anxiety that both underwrites and threatens it. Ideals are necessary and noble, but they’re also potentially lethal: “handle with care,” this play seems to advise us.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake