Othello

While you may not have ever heard of or read some of the earlier plays we’ve encountered this semester, I’m betting that you have come across Othello, whether having read it, seen it performed, or simply learned about it through cultural osmosis. The play deserves the attention it’s received, in part because of the beautiful, tragic plot, but also because of its magnetizing characters, the philosophical questions it raises, and its pure lyricism with some of the most beautiful language Shakespeare ever wrote.

You might also have encountered it simply because of the polarizing interpretations to which it is prone. There is no denying that this is a difficult play because it raises, but perhaps does not answer, questions about racial identity. One of the most pressing questions is: does Shakespeare present us with a character who is susceptible because of his race, or is Othello’s skin color secondary to his role as tragic hero? Many different answers have been offered to this central inquiry. Another way of putting this would be: Is Othello a racist play?

            There are obviously a lot of issues to discuss with this play. My frame for our analysis, perhaps unsurprisingly, is one of optics. In other words, my thesis for us to investigate is that this is a play deeply invested in the act of seeing alongside what cannot be seen. My hope is that such a frame for the play will then allow us to query the play’s representation of race, marriage, domestic vs. public life, envy, and theater itself. As one of the Senators of Venice says in a line that could serve for the whole play, “’Tis a pageant / To keep us in false gaze” (1.3.20-21). There is so much that is false about the gaze in this play, and our task as critics is to discern the false from the true. This is particularly the case when we consider Iago’s enigmatic lines, “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (2.3.345-346). The lines are particularly ironic given that Iago works to establish and label Othello as the “devil”—associated with blackness—throughout the play. And we can’t ignore the troubling fact that Desdemona’s name has the term “demon” embedded within it. Who is devilish in this play? The true devil, we learn, is Iago, one who like Richard III will put on “heavenly shows.” But is that equation enough to answer the many questions circling around identity that this highly intimate play offers?

            To begin, then, I’m going to suggest that Othello is a highly complex play, but that one of its primary emphases is on how we see others, and how we see ourselves. Repeatedly, the play turns to the problems of vision—and how others can shape our vision in certain ways. What we should notice right away is how intimate this play is: unlike other Shakespearean tragedies written around the same time—Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear—Othello features a relatively small cast of characters, the tragedy does not have large-scale political implications (the politics of Venice remain unchanged by the end of the play), nor does the play traffic in cosmological or supernatural mysteries of epic proportions. Nonetheless, Othello himself is decidedly an epic character, and he deliberately cultivates an image of himself as at once both reassuringly assimilated—he insists upon his Christianity—and yet exotic, as in his description of his travels with which he wooed Desdemona. But in this play Shakespeare highlights the close-knit connections among characters, and thus we gain insight into the very act of seeing, apprehending, and understanding others.

             Shakespeare adapted Othello from the short prose story in Giovanni Baptista Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565), which was translated into French in 1584. What’s remarkable is how Shakespeare takes this relatively straight-forward narrative and twists it so that we are in a house of mirrors: the motives of figures who become Emilia, Iago, Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona, in Cinthio’s narrative, are much more straightforward. Shakespeare, however, renders this narrative into one of suspense, immediacy, and charged, often perverse, sexuality.

Pornographic Images in the Mind

            Part of Iago’s disturbing genius is his ability, indeed his obsessive talent, at instilling pornographic images into the minds of others. He identifies the salacious and capitalizes on it, particularly when he uses racial epithets to drive home Brabantio’s fear of miscegenation or Othello’s of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity.

            To Brabantio, Iago hides his identity but at the same time conveys vivid impressions of Othello and Desdemona’s coupling. He warns Desdemona’s father, “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (1.1.90-91) [Tupping in a term that refers to copulation between sheep]. This is the first of many animal images applied to Othello. As Iago continues to protest to Brabantio, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans” (1.1.113-116). Finally, Iago collapses the physical distinctions of Othello and Desdemona into a pornographic image that can’t help but be mentally conjured once mentioned: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (1.1.118-120). Curiously, Brabantio has actually already imagined such a scenario, one that has haunted him despite his initial disbelief that Desdemona has eloped with Othello: “This accident is not unlike my dream. / Belief of it oppresses me already” (1.1.146-147). Why has Brabantio been dreaming of Desdemona and Othello? We learn later that he willingly invited Othello into his home, though that invitation did not extend to desiring his daughter. Instead, perversely, Brabantio would prefer even the fop Roderigo to a black man: “Oh, would you had had her!” (1.1.179).

            Iago pushes this further in an interesting moment of layering erotic images. Turn with me to Act 3, Scene 3, in which we hear of a fabricated event that also intimates Cassio’s sexual relationship with Desdemona:

            I lay with Cassio lately,

            And being troubled with a raging tooth

            I could not sleep. There are a kind of men

            So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter

            Their affairs. One of this kind is Cassio.

            In sleep I heard him say, “Sweet Desdemona,

            Let us be wary, let us hide our loves!”

            And then, sir, would he grip and wring my hand,

            Cry “O sweet creature!”, then kiss me hard,

            As if he plucked up kisses by the roots

            That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg

            Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then

            Cried, “Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!” (3.3.429-441).

We should notice the homoeroticism of this image, and it’s one that will also carry over into Iago and Othello’s marriage-like vows later in the scene.  

Othello’s Identity

            Othello is, we must admit, a figure whose self-assurance dissipates by the end of the play. Part of this can be attributed to Iago’s machinations, but not all. Instead, Othello’s sense of self is already questioned before the play begins. He is “the Moor of Venice,” as the title to the play proclaims, but that is an oxymoron. There can be no Moor of Venice because Moors are outsiders, much like Shylock and his Jewish brethren in The Merchant of Venice. As Roderigo claims, Othello is “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere” (1.1.139-140). As we discussed with Merchant, the term “stranger” is a charged one, and Othello is not simply racially different from his wife and those he leads, but nationally and perhaps religiously as well. Although Othello will insist on his Christianity, a Moor was commonly thought in Elizabethan England to be a Muslim, to be aligned or the same as the common enemy to Christendom, the Turk. This is why, as we will discuss on our second day of the play, Othello’s final lines are so difficult to untangle. There, he will be at once Christian Venetian and circumcised Turk, collapsing identities. But even before Roderigo and Iago’s outrageous racism in Act I, Shakespeare’s audiences would have understood Othello as this “stranger.”

            Of course, the emphasis on Othello’s “stranger” attributes centers on his skin color. It is unclear if Othello is to be understood as from Southern or Northern Africa, or what his precise complexion is. Othello will refer to himself as black, but that term in Shakespeare’s day could have simply meant non-white. And we can’t necessarily trust Iago and Roderigo’s racist descriptors, for they may be conflating a whole host of racist associations into one animalistic image for Brabantio.

            Up until Iago infects Othello’s imagination, Othello is self-assured. He has done Venice great service in the wars, and yet we also witness his true affection for Desdemona. We get the impression that Othello, however, like Titus, is a man unused to the soft pleasures of courtship or urban living. He tells Iago that were it not for his pure, singular love for Desdemona, he would have remained strictly a solider: “But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition / But into circumscription and confine / For the seas’ worth” (1.2.25-28). And Othello will insist upon his assimilation even when angered. When Roderigo and Iago bring out the uproar in Cyprus, Othello enters, demanding, “Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that / Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites? / For Christian shame, put by this barbarous brawl!” (2.3.164-166).

Othello believes that appearances do mirror the inner self. He is insistent on this point, as when he proclaims “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly” (1.2.31-32). Here we should pause—“perfect soul”? Perhaps Othello means simply that he is innocent of any wrongdoing in marrying Desdemona, but the claim might strike a Christian audience as suspect. Who, of anyone, has a perfect soul? It is Othello’s belief that he and others do possess a perfectibility that will be his undoing. He believes, initially, that Desdemona is perfect. He wishes to retain an abstract image of his new bride, while Desdemona will present instead a very real, embodied self that contradicts this image.

This play is charged in its sexual politics, not least because the question of whether Othello and Desdemona have had sex is left unanswered. Critics disagree on this point, though it seems to me that lines delivered by Othello such as “The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue; / That profit’s yet to come ’tween me and you” (2.3.9-10) suggests that they have not consummated their marriage. Each night they are interrupted by an event that Iago has brought about, so it’s possible that Othello’s abstraction of Desdemona is furthered by the very fact that he has not experienced her sexually.

Looking at Women

            Alongside the demeaning looks upon Othello’s skin color and identity that occur repeatedly throughout the play, there is also a persistent gaze upon women and the suspicion that women are able to hide their true selves from the eyes of others. Brabantio begins this rhetoric with the lame moral, “Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds / By what you see them act” (1.1.174-175). His last words in the play are also focused on vision and the falsity of seeming and truth: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. / She has deceived her father, and may thee” (1.3.295-296).

Desdemona is a compelling Shakespearean heroine, and I want to suggest that her character undergoes a transformation in the play. She is often played as highly innocent, without the term “whore” in her vocabulary (Act 5). But I tend to read her as bolder, and I want to know if you agree with me. For example, look at Desdemona’s description of her choice of Othello:

            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 subdued

            Even to the very quality of my lord.

            I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,

            And to his honors and his valiant parts

            Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate (1.3.251-257).

Her “downright violence”? And her wish to go to war with her husband? These desires suggest a more proactive and fearless woman than we see later in the play. We should also think about what Desdemona means by the curious line “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” Note that this is not her mind, but his. Does that mean that she shares Othello’s image of himself? Or that she has deliberately overlooked his skin color? That she has transformed his complexion by looking inwardly?  

            Problematically, Desdemona’s purity is the subject of much debate among the men in the play. Iago calls her a “supersubtle Venetian” (1.3.358), referencing the common trope of Venice as home to famous courtesans. Iago plays frequently upon this stereotype, arguing to Roderigo that her desire will move from Othello to Cassio:

Her eye must be fed; and what delight shall she have to look on the devil? When the blood is made dull with the act of sport, there should be, again to inflame it and to give satiety a fresh appetite, loveliness in favor, sympathy in years, manners, and beauties—all which the Moor is defective in. (2.1.228-233).

Iago, as we’ve learned, is the one who directs others to have their eyes fed by imaginary and contrived scenarios. This is another moment of instilling pornographic thoughts into another, and Iago later in this same scene will enjoin Roderigo to hold these thoughts in his mind: “Villainous thoughts, Roderigo!” (2.1.263). And Iago will use the very same argument with Othello himself, warning the General:

            I know our country disposition well;

In Venice they do let God see the pranks

            They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience

            Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. (3.3.215-218).

The implication is that Othello does not know the Venetian disposition because of his status as a “stranger.”

            Desdemona is more forward with Othello than we might expect as well. She is not afraid, that is, to assert her role in the relationship. This does not, unfortunately, work to her advantage. As she promises Cassio:

            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. Therefore be merry, Cassio,

            For thy solicitor shall rather die

            Than give thy cause away. (3.3.22-28).

Desdemona imagines a domestic situation in which she has power over Othello, and of course Iago will use her earnest, innocent insistence on the part of Cassio to her undoing. Let’s look closely at how Desdemona continues Cassio’s suit, having someone take on the role of Othello and someone else of Desdemona:

Desdemona:                Good love, call him back.

Othello:                       Not now, sweet Desdemon. Some other time.

Desdemona:                But shall’t be shortly?

Othello:                       The sooner, sweet, for you.

Desdemona:                Shall’t be tonight at supper?

Othello:                       No, not tonight.

Desdemona:                Tomorrow dinner, then?

Othello:                       I shall not dine at home.

                                    I meet the captains at the citadel.

Desdemona:                Why, then, tomorrow night, or Tuesday morn,

                                    On Tuesday noon, or night, on Wednesday morn.

                                    I prithee, name the time, but let it not

                                    Exceed three days. In faith, he’s penitent;

                                    And yet his trespass, in our common reason—

                                    Save that, they say, the wars must make example

                                    Out of her best—is not almost a fault

                                    T’incur a private check. When shall he come?

                                    Tell me, Othello. I wonder in my soul

                                    What you would ask me that I should deny,

                                    Or stand so mamm’ring on. What? Michael Cassio,

                                    That came a-wooing with you, and so many a time,

                                    When I have spoke of your dispraisingly,

                                    Hath ta’en your part—to have so much to do

                                    To bring him in! By’r Lady, I could do much—

Othello:                       Prithee, no more. Let him come when he will;

                                    I will deny thee nothing.

Desdemona:                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.

Othello:                       I will deny thee nothing. (3.3.57-91).

What clues do we get in these lines regarding Desdemona’s character? Or her love for Othello? What do we learn about Cassio? And, importantly, what’s the overall tone of this exchange?

Witchcraft and Vision

            Although there is not any real or visible supernaturalism in the play, there are hints that one’s vision and affections can be manipulated through magic. Brabantio wonders if Desdemona has been bewitched by Othello, asking, “Is there not charms / By which the property of youth and maidhood / May be abused? Have you not read, Roderigo, / Of some such thing?” (1.1.175-178). But even if Roderigo has read any such idea, he nor Brabantio nor anyone in this world has witnessed a transformation or bewitchment like Brabantio claims. Let’s look at some of his longer speeches on this front, because it reveals the inherent fear of miscegenation operating in the play.

            O thou foul thief, where hast thou stowed my daughter?

            Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her!

            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 shunned

            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—to fear, not to delight.

            Judge me the world if ’tis not gross in sense

            That thou hast practiced on her with foul charms,

            Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals

            That weakens motion. I’ll have’t disputed on;

            ’Tis probable and palpable to thinking.

            I therefore apprehend and do attach thee

            For an abuser of the world, a practice

            Of arts inhibited and out of warrant. (1.2.63-80).

Much of Brabantio’s specious logic rests on the idea of sight. We learn here that Desdemona would be unnatural if she passed up the “curled darlings of our nation” (a description that doesn’t speak much in their favor!) for Othello, one for whom Brabantio actually seems unable to describe precisely, relying on the vague “such a thing as thou.” But in using the language of those things that are “gross in sense,” Brabantio is relying on a notion of naturalness, or the idea that like seeks like. As we shall see, Othello too will adopt this logic, or rather, he will believe that Desdemona was unnatural in her desires once Iago works upon him. Do others in the play share this perspective? Some critics, and the editor of our textbook, seem to think that Iago does. What do you think?

            Brabantio’s fear is that this “stranger” has taken what does not belong to him. Othello has, in his view, abused the supposed distance that he should maintain from Venice itself. As an outsider, Othello should not be permitted to take the treasures of the state. But Othello insists on his own clear conscience and Desdemona’s true love for him. He plays upon the idea of witchcraft to suggest that his only fault was delivering a tale beautifully. Here we should note that Othello, perhaps out of modesty or lack of self-knowledge, claims that his “witchcraft” is of an unadorned sort. He claims, that is, that he is a plainspoken man, unused to the arts of rhetoric. Of course, as we quickly discover, that is blatantly untrue. To Othello’s promise that “I will a round unvarnished tale deliver” (1.3.92) we hear one of the most enchanting speeches in all of Shakespeare. It’s a longer one, but well worth our time because of what it reveals about Othello, how he views himself, and how Shakespeare crafts/shapes our view of the hero:

            Her father loved me, oft invited me,

            Still questioned me the story of my life

            From year to year—the battles, sieges, fortunes

            That I have passed.

            I ran it through, even from my boyish days

            To th’ very moment that he bade me tell it,

            Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,

            Of moving accidents by flood and field,

            Of hairbreadth scapes i’th’imminent deadly breach,

            Of being taken by the insolent foe

            And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,

            And portance in my travels’ history,

            Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

            Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,

            It was my hint to speak—such was my process—

            And of the Cannibals that each other eat,

            The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads

            Do grow beneath their shoulders. These thing to hear

            Would Desdemona seriously incline;

            But still the house affairs would draw her thence,

            Which ever as she could with haste dispatch

            She’d come again, and with a greedy ear

            Devour up my discourse. Which I, observing,

            Took once a pliant hour, and found good means

            To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart

            That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,

            Whereof by parcels she had something heard,

            But not intensively. I did consent,

            And often did beguile her of her tears,

            When I did speak of some distressful stroke

            That my youth suffered. My story being done,

            She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.

            She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,

            ’Twas pitiful, ’twas wonderous pitiful.

            She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished

            That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,

            And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,

            I should but teach him how to tell my story,

            And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

            She loved me for the dangers I had passed,

            And I loved her that she did pity them.

            This only is the witchcraft I have used. (1.3.130-172).

Breathlessly we are bound to listen to this travelogue, spellbound like Desdemona. Othello’s adventures, ironically, further distance him from the Venetians who so need him to lead their army. Notice the emphasis on pity in the speech. Othello has not experienced such pity from a woman before, and his love for Desdemona rests on her inclination to pity the general. Given such a tale, of course she would prefer Othello to the “curled darlings”!

The Unseen Motives

One of the most famous cruxes of the play is in locating Iago’s motives. He at once seems so human in his desires and yet allegorical in representing pure evil, like the Vice of the medieval stage tradition. I do want us to avoid a strictly allegorical reading, however, because I think Shakespeare is careful to instill humanity and realism in the play’s characters. But what do we see of Iago’s motivations? The problem is not that there are none, but that there are too many, and as readers/audiences we have to wade through a plentitude of “reasons” for why he hates Othello and wishes to undo not only the General but also Cassio and Desdemona. We learn, for example, that initially Iago credits his lack of promotion as his reason for ire. He believes that Cassio, who has been promoted as Othello’s lieutenant, is merely a scholar, one who has not experienced war. He is a “great arithmetician” (1.1.20), one who only knows “Mere prattle without practice” (1.1.27). Iago claims to Roderigo that he himself is a true solider, one whose experience has been proven and witnessed by Othello: “And I, of whom his [Othello’s] eyes had seen the proof” (1.1.29) is passed by in favor of the Florentine Cassio.

            How far are we to trust this initial account of Iago’s hatred? As he gleefully admits to Roderigo, he is never what he truly seems, and this term “seems” is related to the act of “seeing” that we are tracing today. For Iago very early in the play asserts to both his dupe Roderigo and, importantly, to us, that he is not ever what he appears to be:

            For, sir,

            It is as sure as you are Roderigo,

            Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.

            In following him, I follow but myself—

            Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

            But seeming so for my peculiar end.

            For when my outward action doth demonstrate

            The native act and figure of my heart

            In compliment extern, ’tis not long after

            But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

            For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (1.1.57-67).

Notice how this last line is not actually, “I am not what I seem,” but rather a disavowal of any clear identity whatsoever: “I am not what I am.” There is so much swapping of identities here that it’s dizzying as well: “Were I the Moor,” for example, indicates perhaps a desire to indeed be the Moor, at least when it comes to possessing Desdemona, as we learn later.

            Some critics believe that Iago’s main source of hatred derives from sexual insecurity. Perhaps Iago experiences unbounded anxiety over Othello’s potential sexual prowess, as he suggests in his first soliloquy:

            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 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.

            The Moor is of a free and open nature,

            That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,

            And will as tenderly be led by the nose

            As asses are.

            I have’t. It is engendered. Hell and night

            Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. (1.3.387-405).

When we meet Iago’s wife Emilia we will see how preposterous the idea that Othello has slept with her is. Iago’s relationship to his wife is an interesting one, and I tend to follow critics who believe that Emilia is somewhat afraid of Iago, at least until her love/loyalty for Desdemona at the end of the play conquers that fear. In Shakespeare’s source Cinthio it is very clear that the Emilia-figure is frightened of her husband, but Shakespeare leaves their relationship open to some interpretation. It must gall Iago, for example, when Cassio greets Emilia, harping on his status as a gentleman:

            Let it not gall your patience, good Iago,

            That I extend my manners; ’tis my breeding

            That gives me this bold show of courtesy (2.1.99-101).

But in Iago’s soliloquy, what we notice is how quickly he moves from this “mere suspicion” to what seems more credible, the fact that he will do away with the obstacle of Cassio through the idea that the Florentine is a sexualized being, one who is “proper” (a term that also appears later when describing men). Notice too in this speech that Iago is thinking out-loud, walking us through his plotting bit by bit. Such a strategy heightens the dramatic tension but also indicates that Iago is not completely a puppet-master. True, he imagines birthing forth this plot, but it relies on the contingencies of reading/observing others. Iago is able to work as he does because he, like we saw with Cassius, is a consummate observer of human nature.

            Finally, let’s look at yet another articulation that Iago gives us of his motives. I know, at this point it’s far too much. But perhaps that’s the point: Iago has so many motives that he has lured us into a false sense of knowing what he is about. In providing us with so many clues, he invites us to play the motive-hunter. What I’m struck by is how all of these potential motives focus on sexuality, on looking upon other bodies in a typically erotically charged way.

            That Cassio loves her, I do well believe’t;

            That she loves him, ’tis apt and of great credit.

            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. Now, I do lover her too,

            Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure

            I stand accountant for as great a sin—

            But partly led to diet my revenge

            For that I do suspect the lusty Moor

            Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof

            Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my innards;

            And nothing can or shall content my soul

            Till I am evened with him, wife for wife,

            Or failing so, yet that I put the Moor

            At least into a jealousy so strong

            That judgment cannot cure. Which thing to do,

            If this poor trash of Venice, whom I trace

            For his quick hunting, stand the putting on,

            I’ll have our Michael Cassio on the hip,

            Abuse him to the Moor in the rank garb—

            For I fear Cassio with my nightcap too—

            Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me

            For making him egregiously an ass

            And practicing upon his peace and quiet

            Even to madness. ’Tis here, but yet confused.

            Knavery’s plain face is never seen till used. (2.1.288-314).

At this point, audiences are rightfully dizzy. And so now that we’ve encountered three separate, quite long speeches by Iago regarding his motives, I’m curious to hear what you think of them. How do we trudge through these many options? Or should we? Is Iago toying with us?

Group Discussion

Now I’d like for you take the frame I’ve presented and see how it plays out in the most famous scenes in the play: Iago’s “conversion” of Othello into a jealous man. Perhaps conversion is the wrong word, it’s more like poisoning the General. Starting at line 100, in groups go up to line 254. Then, after reading the lines together, I ask you to discuss the following questions.

  1. What is Iago’s rhetorical strategy here? How would you characterize it? Is it sudden or gradual?

  2. How quickly does Othello believe Iago? What in Iago makes Othello credit his account?

  3. Who introduces the notion of jealousy specifically? Why is that important?

  4. Why does Othello believe that, if Desdemona is guilty, he can no longer be a soldier? Why is “Othello’s occupation’s gone” (373)?

  5. What evidence does Iago use?

  6. Why does Iago focus so much on vision here? Does Othello pick up on this? Where in the text might we see this?

Day Two 

First we will hear from each group on what the heck is going on in 3.3. Then our group discussion leaders will take over. But, I want to make sure today that we highlight several particular moments.

            I’d like for us to look at the second half of 3.3, in which Othello demands the “ocular proof” (376). Notice the focus on the limits of seeing in the following exchange:

Othello:           By the world,

                        I think my wife be honest and think she is not;

                        I think that thou art just and think thou art not.

                        I’ll have some proof. My name, that was as fresh

                        As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black

                        As mine own face. If there be cords, or knives,

                        Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,

                        I’ll not endure it. Would I were satisfied!

Iago:                I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion.

                        I do repent me that I put it to you.

                        You would be satisfied?

Othello:           Would? Nay, and I will.

Iago:                And may; but how? How satisfied, my lord?

                        Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

                        Behold her topped?

Othello:           Death and damnation! Oh!

Iago:                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. But yet I say,

                        If imputation and strong circumstances

                        Which lead directly to the door of truth

                        Will give you satisfaction, you might have’t. (3.3.399-424).

Notice how we get Iago’s ability to instill pornographic images in the mind here in full force: he employs animal imagery to convey the lewd image of Desdemona and Cassio together before turning to the homoerotic description of Cassio dreaming that we discussed on Tuesday. We also witness Othello’s loss of language. Here he speaks in exclaimations, and it’s the beginning of a process that will be in fuller display in later scenes before he faints.

The Handkerchief

And of course we have to tlak about one of the two most significant props in the play (the other is the bed and the bedsheets), namely, the handkerchief. What is startling is that Emilia has not only taken it up and given it to Iago, but that she directly lies to Desdemona about it. When Desdemona asks “Where should I lose that handkerchief, Emilia?”, Emilia responds with the simple “I know not, madam” (3.4.23-24).

            Othello’s first description of the handkerchief borrows from the discourse of magic and exoticism. Recall that we discussed on Tuesday how Othello works to establish his normality/acceptance in a Christian world. What has changed in this moment? Or is it similar to his description of his “witchcraft” in the first act?

Othello:           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 wived,

                        To give it her. I did so; 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 could match.

Desdemona:    Is’t possible?

Othello:           ’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 skillful

                        Conserved of maidens’ hearts. (3.4.57-77).

What do you make of this particular prop? Why does Othello ascribe so much importance to it? Do we in fact believe this narrative he provides? And what aura surrounds this talismanic handkerchief?

Emilia and Desdemona

I find the relationship between Emilia and Desdemona to be a fascinating one. Particularly before Desdemona’s death, Emilia has changed loyalties, and we witness a highly intimate, we might say even sweet, scene between the two women. Emilia is much more practical than Desdemona, and her commentary on how men treat women rings poignantly in this particular play. When Desdemona asks if she would cheat on her husband “for all the world,” Emilia answers in the affirmative. I want to hear what you think about Emilia’s response:

            But I do think it is their husbands’ faults

            If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties

            And pour our treasures into foreign laps,

            Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

            Throwing restraint upon us? Or say they strike us,

            Or scant our former having in despite?

            Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,

            Yet have we some revenge. 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 not we 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. (4.3.89-106).  

The Bedchamber

As I mentioned on Tuesday, many critics consider this play a domestic tragedy. Certainly the final scene helps convey that point, for it takes place in the most intimate of spaces. Let’s look at how the scene begins and see if we can discern the change that has come over Othello at this point:

Othello:           It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.

                        Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!

                        It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood,

                        Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,

                        And smooth as monumental alabaster.

                        Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.

                        Put out the light, and then put out the light.

                        If I quench thee, thou flaming minster,

                        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 plucked thy rose,

                        I cannot give it vital growth again;

                        It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the tree.

                        Oh, 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. One more, and that’s the last.

                        So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,

                        But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly;

                        It strikes where it doth love. She wakes. (5.2.22).

Recall how we discussed Othello’s tendency to abstract Desdemona. That seems present here. But what else is going on? What is Othello thinking of? What are his emotions?

Othello’s End

Now let’s close-read Othello’s final speech, paying careful attention to questions of looking, of identity, and of the genre of tragedy/domestic tragedy:

Othello:           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,

                        Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees

                        Their medicinable 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 smot him, thus. (5.2.348-366).

© 2020 by Dr. Katherine Walker

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