Othello is a man of action. Hamlet is a man of inaction. If Hamlet were placed in Othello’s world and vice versa one could assume that both would function well in those circumstances. Othello is a man of action in a play that demands his hesitation and thought. Hamlet is a philosopher in a situation that asks him to act. The resultant drama of both plays is that neither character reacts tidily to their situations. The fact that both plays also end in tragedy may mean that neither choice of conduct is ideal. Hamlet and Othello represent the extremes of thoughtful inaction and thoughtless violence, respectively. To their detriment, both characters adhere to the logic of their world. Despite their protagonists’ differences, Hamlet and Othello have much in common. Both plays deal with the betrayal of a loved one and the protagonists’ responses to that betrayal. The betrayals are similar in that they involve female characters in the play and the question of their supposed infidelities. Both plays also make references to ears, hearing, and the possibility of deception in speech. Ultimately, both plays demand that their main characters be something they are not. The texts push the characters to act and react in ways that are contrary to their natural habits. The challenge for both Hamlet and Othello is to accept those demands by stepping outside their constructs. The problem is that neither is able to transcend the logic of their world to successfully avert tragedy.Othello is not a character prone to philosophizing. Neither is he the “barbarian” Iago dubs him. Othello presents its main character as a courageous soldier, a loving husband, and a respected statesman. The one thing he is not is a critical thinker. On the contrary, his lack of thought is glaringly obvious. Iago too easily convinces him and Othello too quickly acts on those doubts of Desdemona’s faithfulness. He has the skills to “love deeply” and fight bravely, yet those tools do not help him in the end. The text seems intent on portraying him as a thick-headed fool, all brawn and no brain.Hamlet is presented as a courtier and a scholar. He is not a valiant warrior, yet he lives in the shadow of his father, a celebrated war hero. When the Ghost of his father comes to tell him to avenge his death, he is dressed in his military garb. Hamlet the philosopher must confront his inadequacy as a soldier in the same way that Othello the soldier reveals his inadequacy as a philosopher.Othello oozes with agency. He has a depth and intensity that separates him from the rest of the characters in the play. That depth is intricately tied to his history as a warrior. His history in battles gives him a sense of self. His actions redeem him when faced with adversary. Othello has confidence that comes with the knowledge of respect well won. When Iago tells him that Brabantio speaks against him, Othello self-assuredly replies, “Let him do his spite;/ My services, which I have done the signiory,/ Shall out-tongue his complaints.” (1.2.17-19) Othello’s calm signifies his security in his own nobility. He knows that his “services” validate him in the world of Venetian nobles. In the economy of honor in the play Othello has banked enough to withstand attacks on his character. The only tools he has to “out-tongue” Brabantio are not words, but a lauded history of actions.Those experiences form his narrative. His ability to shape his own narrative, to be in control of the story of his past are what Desdemona finds so appealing. Though in his own words Othello is “little blest with the soft phrase of peace” he redeems himself by telling his “unvarnished tale.” He is in control of his own narrative; his past speaks for him in ways that lucid pontificating can not. Desdemona and Brabantio value him for what he has done and what he can do. They “questioned me the story of my life/ From year to year ? the battles, sieges, fortunes/ That I have passed.” (1.3.130) Othello’s person is the sum whole of those experiences. The story of his life is the story of military accomplishments and exotic locales. His tale is clear and “unvarnished” by complexities and complications. Not only does he display mastery of his life through narrative; the narrative itself is testament to his action.If Othello’s self-narrative is clear and untarnished, Hamlet’s is fraught with contradiction and inconsistency. This is obvious when Hamlet promises the Ghost that he will avenge his father’s death. He declares that he willWipe away all trivial fond records,All saws of books, all forms, all pressures pastThat youth and observation copied there,And thy commandment all alone shall liveWithin the book and volume of my brain. (1.5.99-103)He so easily wipes away the years of grooming, training, and formal education that has prepared him for a life in court society. Yet he can only process his conduct using the language of education and civil society. He replaces “fond records” and “books” with a commandment that will exist in the “book” of his brain. His language belies his purpose. If he were to really replace his revenge for culture, he would not need to articulate it. Violence implies a rejection of speech; the act speaks for itself. His commitment to avenge his father’s murder is therefore problematic. Contained within his promise of violence is allegiance to culture and civility. In his eagerness to appease his father’s Ghost he swears whole-heartedly in the only way he knows how ? by referring to the “book” of his brain. The only way he can express true resolve is by offering the power of his mind. The point of this promise is that it should be translated into action, not thought.Hamlet’s promise of revenge contains a contradiction in content and in practice. Not only does he rename the violence promised as a “commandment” to be contained within a book, he also refutes the promise as he is making it. He is talking to a Ghost, a representation of the past. This is a past that retells itself until it is resolved. The Ghost’s narrative is one that begs to be retold and remembered, echoed in the Ghost’s request of “Remember me.” In the same breath that Hamlet vows revenge, he wipes away “all forms, all pressures past.” Included in those “pressures past” is the memory of his father. He is telling the representation of his father’s past that he will wipe away any record of that past. His promise is then meaningless. This speech, articulating whole-hearted allegiance to the Ghost, is filled with conflicting ideas.Hamlet’s idea of his self-narrative could not be more confusing. The intellectual grooming of his past is so distasteful to him that he rejects it and starts anew. He replaces his narrative of books and records with a narrative of revenge. But the logic of his promise collapses in on itself when examined closely. He thinks that he needs to wipe away the past in order to memorialize it. Hamlet actually does want to memorialize the Ghost in a meaningful way. The irony is that when attempting to narrate his decision, Hamlet’s speech is thoughtful yet lacks clarity of thought.Despite the pitfalls of thinking too much, Hamlet is confined by his thoughts, whereas Othello is unencumbered by the shackles of thought. The text repeatedly uses the word “free” when describing him. Othello tells Iago after he has emphasized his love for Desdemona and is about to face Brabantio’s anger that, “I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine/ For the sea’s worth.” (1.2.26). He asserts the value he places on his freedom and his resolve to not let the views of others “circumscribe and confine” him. And when Othello asks that Desdemona accompany him to war he wants only “to be free and bounteous to her mind.” (1.3.266) Their relationship is built on the foundation of free minds. Othello loves his freedom and enjoys the freedom that loving Desdemona affords him. Given that Othello is a former slave, it makes sense that his sense of freedom is important to him. He has earned his freedom, further underscoring his sense of independence.Othello embodies the freedom to act that Hamlet lacks. If, for Hamlet “Denmark is a prison,” then for Othello Venice is a place where he can assert his autonomy as a decorated soldier. He is not bound by the hesitation and thrust towards constant reflection that plagues Hamlet throughout the play.Iago picks up on this aspect of Othello’s character and uses it against him. “The Moor is of a free and open nature/ That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,”(1.3.397-398) remarks Iago after the ordeal with the senate. Iago understands that Othello’s “free and open nature” leave him susceptible to the suggestion of betrayals. Othello’s freedom also encompasses freedom from thought. His mind is free and open in that he does not have fixed notions about the characters of others. He simply thinks those honest that “seem to be so.” Once those individuals no longer “seem to be” honest, Othello’s world breaks down. Even when convincing Othello of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness Iago stresses his allegiance to Othello’s sense of autonomy. “I would not have your free and noble nature/ Out of self-bounty be abused,” (3.3.202-3) Iago says in an effort to allay Othello’s fears. He creates a situation of dependence by underscoring Othello’s “free nature” in assessing these matters. Othello is too free and generous with his affections; he needs Iago to protect him from the abuse of others. Iago also alludes to Othello’s “free nature” because he knows Othello possesses the liberty to take action when resolved. Othello’s freedom to act prevents him from stopping to think; he values his agency too much to allow for a moment of reflection.Othello’s mistake is that he looks to Iago for thought. As a man of action, he has little confidence in his deductive capabilities and is therefore susceptible to the nagging doubts Iago plants in him. The scene where Iago starts to convince Othello of Desdemona’s disloyalty is a volley of “thoughts.”Oth: What does thou think?Iago: Think, my lord?Oth: Think, my lord! By heaven thou echo’st me As if there were some monster in thy thought To hideous to be shown? If thou dost love me Show me thy thought.Iago: My, lord you know I love you.Oth: I think thou dost. (3.3.106-20)Othello is begging Iago to share his thoughts. He looks to Iago to process information for him. He has so little confidence in his own ability to think things through and thus appeals to his best friend for that. If Othello has no faith in his own thoughts he is justified in this ? this passage demonstrates his flawed thinking. Iago clearly does not love him, yet Othello “thinks” he does. If Iago needed anymore evidence that Othello is easily fooled, he receives it in this scene. By asking Iago to “show” his thoughts, Othello confesses to lacking mental acuity. Any “thinking” that Othello does have is useless because it is so obviously mistaken. The text constructs Othello as an actor and not a thinker. The moment that he alludes to his thinking process is the moment when Othello reveals his true weakness. Hamlet’s initial resort to violence, like Othello’s display of thinking, works to worsen his situation. The scene where he kills Polonius is the one time where he gives into his violent impulse and acts impetuously. This act of uninhibited violence is also one of absolute clumsiness. The image of Hamlet stabbing through the arras, ignorant of his target, trying to convince himself is it Claudius when there is no possibility that it could be Claudius since he has just left him in another room, is so emblematic of his enterprise. When Hamlet does resort to violence, he stabs into the darkness, ungracefully killing, and not fulfilling his purpose. Killing Polonius also works against him in that he commits the injustice towards Laertes that Hamlet himself is trying to avenge. He perpetuates the cycle of violence and undeserved death that he rails against at every opportunity. Hamlet’s first moment of action equalizes him with Claudius; he becomes that which he hates. Hamlet want to prove his mettle as a warrior of justice, but he can not break so easily from the “glass of fashion and the mould of form.” When he does attempt to act against his natural inclinations, he accomplishes nothing.Even when both characters do what they are accustomed to, it does not help their situations. Hamlet’s philosophizing is his way of decoding and revealing the political truths of the court. In Hamlet’s circuitous approaches to the act of revenge is the constant presence of a fruitless endeavor to address Claudius’s sins by talking about them. His pontificating never leads to a resolve; rather it serves to stultify the action. He can never openly acknowledge the evil he knows Claudius has committed. Hamlet is verbally castrated; he is free to soliloquize, but only in a limited capacity. He can never address the issue through speech, yet for most of the play that is his choice of defense. Philosophizing becomes a comfortable position for Hamlet. It validates his inadequacy to act.The one scene when Othello displays his ability to maintain resolve and carry out his purpose, is the moment when he should be acting against his nature. When he kills Desdemona he maintains a stoic determination to kill her no matter how much she professes her innocence. At first he seems loathe to kill her, the only thing working in Desdemona’s favor is Othello’s residual feelings of love for her. Yet those emotional attachments can not sway his decision that “She must die, else she’ll betray more men.” He has already decided on her guilt, and all he knows is his commitment to his own decision. This is the moment where the text begs Othello to listen, to stop, and to think. Desdemona herself asks him to “have mercy” on her. She asks him to be the arbiter of something he is not capable of; she wants him to be something beyond himself.Othello’s confrontation with his tragic loss is simple. As Emilia enters the room Othello reasons, “If she come in, she’ll sure speak to my wife. My wife, my wife! What wife? I have no wife.” In this statement Othello’s simplistic thought process is displayed. In the same moment of realization is the simultaneous acceptance of a new reality. The desperation of the second “my wife” is matched only by the calm resignation of the truth “I have no wife.” He is a man accustomed to war and violence; the death of his wife garners a second cry and is ultimately met with the resolution of his despair.In the same way that Hamlet is confined to thinking his way through the world, Othello is resigned to acting his way to a resolution. When these characters step out of their usual modes of behavior is the point where they display their inability to function successfully within their worlds. Hamlet would never ask anyone to share their thoughts; he is too satisfied and too involved with his own pontificating to access the ideas of others. Othello would never delay avenging a dead father the way Hamlet does; he lacks the capacity for reflection that causes Hamlet to delay.The tragedy is that they remain stuck in the logic of their respective worlds. When they do break out of their individual world views they are unable to do so effectively. It’s interesting to think how well both characters would work if they could switch worlds but the truth is that they can not. They are only offered the opportunity to remain in their worlds and function according to their nature. They have no choice but to accept the challenge of the text, yet they are doomed from the start because of their character construction. The message of those plays, when examined in light of their protagonists’ constructive differences is that one should aim for a unity of thought and action that is neither extreme.
“IAGO: Stand you a while apart.Confine yourself but in a patient list.Whilst you were here, o’erwhelmèd with your grief – A passion most unsuiting such a man – Cassio came hither. I shifted him away,And laid good ‘scuse upon your ecstasy,Bade him anon return and here speak with me,The which he promised. Do but encave yourself,And mark the fleers, the gibes and notable scornsThat dwell in every region of his face.For I will make him tell the tale anew,Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and whenHe hath and is again to cope your wife.I say, but mark his gesture. Marry, patience,Or I shall say you’re all-in-all in spleen,And nothing of a man” (Othello 4.1.72-87).Over the course of Othello, the title character endures several metaphorical falls. Indeed, one need only compare his social status in Act I and in Act V: at the start, Othello commands respect for his grand military successes; by the close of the play, unearthly jealousy has reduced him to homicide, stripped him of power, and ultimately led him to stab himself. Rather than one meteoric decline, as in Oedipus Rex, however, it seems that Othello falls a little bit with each scene. The most significant of these dips in honor occurs in Act IV, Scene I (immediately following a literal swoon by Othello, not coincidentally), when Iago tricks Othello into believing that he has seen “ocular proof” (3.3.365) of Desdemona’s infidelity, thus leaving him, once and for all, destined for a tragic end. The obvious flimsiness of this evidence must compel us to ask two important questions: why is Othello so willing to trust Iago? And why is he so quick and careless to condemn his wife? For the answers, we need only look at Iago’s words to his master, in which he outlines his plan – which we know to be deceitful – to entrap Cassio in a confession.Our understanding of Iago’s state of mind at this time depends on our interpretation of his character as a whole. More specifically, there are two popular ways to think about Iago: as a human, or as a devil (or even Lucifer incarnate). If we think of him as a devil, and therefore as a wholly evil entity, the very term “state of mind” is irrelevant; a character whose being is inclined unwaveringly in one particular direction does not have mood swings, but rather, in Iago’s case, remains malicious throughout. This view of Iago, though popular, is overly simplistic; in order to do the play justice, we must think of Iago, like we would any other character, as a human being. On this interpretation, his condition at this point in the play is relief and, one would assume, rekindled optimism for his plan. Cassio’s recent entrance, had Othello been conscious, likely would have spelled doom for the ensign, as the Moor would have had the opportunity to question his lieutenant outright and thus dispel Iago’s deception; instead, Cassio’s appearance gives Iago the perfect opportunity to cement his master’s fury, and thereby his downfall. Othello’s faint – caused by Iago’s trickery – enables that very trickery to continue, to build to its climax, leaving the ensign in a state of barely-controlled relief and renewed vigor when he gives this short speech.Iago’s language in these lines adheres to his speech patterns throughout the play. The lines follow closely to the iambic pentameter form: nine of fourteen lines (the first and last line are incomplete) have ten syllables exactly, while the rest all have eleven. This poetic conformity reflects the ensign’s feigned submission to Othello. Indeed, his entire plan hinges on his staying in the Moor’s good graces – on his role as Othello’s most trusted advisor – so he must simulate obedience, probably even more so than he normally would to a military or social superior. There is no rhyme scheme in these lines, which removes the atmosphere of formality from a supposedly professional relationship; though Iago’s strict iambic pentameter simulates a willingness to submit, his lack of a formal rhyme scheme makes the conversation more intimate, like one between two friends, rather than master and ensign. In this way, Iago cleverly maneuvers himself into a position where he has influence over Othello’s decisions, but does not seem to pose a threat.Also worth noting, in terms of Iago’s linguistic choices, is line 83: “Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when.” This repetition of interrogatives, spoken aloud, sounds like the blows of a hammer; these words truly do hammer into Othello’s brain the utter shame of his potential cuckoldry. This echo effect is but another cunning ploy by Iago to shatter his master’s reserve. We can imagine a nearly-broken Othello wincing at each word, culminating in the next line, “He hath and is again to cope your wife.” Not only has Cassio slept with Desdemona, but he plans to do so again – a clear sign of disdain for Othello’s dignity. The grammatical construction of this line, which makes “your wife” the direct object of a rather indelicate verb (in contrast with a formation like “sleep with your wife,” which employs a euphemism, and in which Othello’s beloved is not objectified as a sexual conquest), makes its content brutally honest and thus infuriating to the Moor.
Speech in Shakespeare’s “Othello” possesses a power beyond that of deeds’. It is Othello’s fantastical storytelling that won him Desdemona at the start, Iago’s poisonous suggestion that leads the general to murder his own wife, Emilia’s testimony that traps the villain in the end. Not all of this speech is true, and we will never know for sure whether Othello’s handkerchief is magic or why Iago created his plot; but words, regardless of their truth, convince the characters even more than physical evidence does. When characters control their speech, either by remaining silent or by bursting out, they exert the strongest power they can have over the play’s world.Iago, a skilled manipulator, is in complete control of his voice. He finagles Roderigo’s purse by persuading the young man that he will send the money to Desdemona, and then works on harder prey. Upon seeing Cassio finish talking to Desdemona, Iago mutters, “I like not that” a comment he pretends to be private but wants Othello to hear. Othello asks Iago what he said, and Iago replies, “Nothing, my lord; or if–I know not what.” After insinuating Cassio’s guilt, Iago gets Othello to mention that Cassio repeatedly visited Desdemona before her marriage. Iago exclaims, “Indeed!” and then falls silent, despite Othello’s prodding for an explanation. These two lines rouse Othello’s suspicions because they appear involuntary, and are therefore more likely to be indications of Iago’s true thoughts. The words themselves, however, are innocent. That Iago dislikes whatever Cassio was doing, perhaps kissing Desdemona’s hand or even just standing next to her, is probably true; Iago hates everybody in the play, particularly Cassio. His other comments are meaningless, but they are pauses that invite Othello to infer the darker motivations behind; Iago’s silence, not his speech, frames Desdemona.Iago excuses his silence by saying that “oft my jealousy/Shapes faults that are not,” and he is honest. He discourses about Cassio’s military inexperience and his tawdry affairs, warns Othello of Desdemona’s unnatural behavior and deceptive practices. And yet he avoids directly accusing Cassio, and never claims that Desdemona is having an affair. Instead of lying, Iago uses silence to make Othello fill in the gaps. If Iago had laid the whole accusation bare, Othello would probably be incredulous and ask Desdemona to confirm the truth, just as Emilia, when Othello tells her about Iago’s deceptions, asks her husband, “Did you ever say that she was false?” Though he admits to doing so, he never did, replacing that claim with circumstantial evidence. For example, he says Cassio had an erotic dream about Desdemona, and the audience is no more justified to discount that claim than Othello is to believe it. Cassio’s tongue has loosened against his will before, revealing a less noble officer than he first appears. He has previously made mildly insulting remarks about his social inferiors, telling Desdemona, “[Iago] speaks home, madam, you may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar,” and excuses his own “breeding” for kissing Emilia. (Since Cassio knew this “courtesy” would offend Iago, his reasons for taking it are somewhat suspect.) After Iago has gotten him drunk, Cassio shows the true extent of his sense of superiority. He shouts, “The lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient,” and attacks Roderigo for his presumption, crying “a knave teach me my duty?” Iago partially proves that Cassio is the “rash and very sudden in choler” man he claimed, undeserving of the lieutenancy, and partially makes him so, much as he handles Othello. Cassio’s courtly, hyperbolic praise for Desdemona, “a maid/That paragons description and wild fame,” may likewise have transformed during sleep into the baser, “cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!” Cassio, obsessed with safeguarding his reputation, can afford to admit his lapses only to Iago, whom he trusts, who has already seen Cassio’s drunkenness, whose opinion he cares little for, and who thinks far worse of the lieutenant than any confession could account. If Cassio has any faults other than drinking, fighting, and whoring, he takes great pains to hide them. He also has some virtue, and can hardly bear to acknowledge his drunkenness. For both these reasons, when Othello calls upon him to account for his brawling, Cassio responds, “I pray you pardon me, I cannot speak.” Montano, the other combatant, is too wounded to explain what happened, and Roderigo has slipped away. By orchestrating the silence of his comrades, Iago remains the only one able to tell Othello what happened, and by his favorite tactic of pretended reticence, convinces the general that Cassio was more at fault than he actually was. Othello thinks that Iago is reluctant to condemn Cassio more than he does because of loyalty to his “worthy friend.” Because Iago will not say that Cassio is bad, Othello thinks he is worse; because his trusted ensign keeps silent, the general thinks the truth too horrible to reveal. But when Iago keeps his mouth shut, it is to avoid divulging good. He hates to acknowledge it just as much as Othello shudders to contemplate his wife’s infidelity. Othello presumes, because he cannot stomach ill deeds, that no-one can. When Iago says that Cassio lay, “With her, on her, what you will,” Othello falls into a epileptic fit. He thinks it is as painful for the hesitant Iago to say such things as it is for himself to hear them. The Moor cannot even tell Desdemona her supposed crime; he “should…to cinders burn up modesty/Did I but speak thy deeds….Heaven stops the nose at it.” With Iago, his mouth is freer to shout, “Damn her, lewd minx: O damn her, damn her!” but Othello does not notice this effect of Iago’s presence. At first, it is joy that Othello cannot name, he “cannot speak enough of this content, it stops me here,” but once Iago has finished his work, the voluble Othello has no content to speak of. Whenever the general opens his mouth to praise Desdemona, Iago warns, “Nay, you must forget all that,” and by Act III, Othello’s wonderful tales of “deserts vast and antres idle” have become “fantastical lies” about the handkerchief’s magic powers, to frighten Desdemona.When speaking about the handkerchief, Othello asks Desdemona where it is, and she will not answer at first. His constant questioning, “is’t lost? Is’t gone? Speak, is’t out of the way?” implies that Desdemona here hesitates. “Heaven bless us!” is her final unfortunate response, as though she were praying to be pardoned for adultery. Her mind refuses to compass Othello’s meaning, and so she thinks nothing of her words and lies about the handkerchief, as though this would protect her from its powers. Her pauses also cause Othello to trust her less both in the future and the present, as her initial dithering makes the lie that much more transparent.Soon after, she makes the same mistake for similar reasons. Othello never tells Desdemona what she has allegedly done until too late. He calls her a whore and Emilia a bawd, but prostitution is not Desdemona’s supposed crime. He orders her to swear she is honest and she will not, possibly because of confusion that he meant “honest about the handkerchief,” possibly out of sheer overwhelmedness or modesty but probably because she cannot believe Othello does not love her; she blinds herself to Othello’s meaning and asks whether he is mad because of Brabantio, which he is obviously not. “[Othello’s] unkindness may…never taint my love,” says Desdemona, as though her husband simply were not feeling himself. (“Unkindness” in Shakespeare’s usage often hovered between “unnaturalness” and the modern sense) She then decides, despite every sign to the contrary, that politics is the real reason for Othello’s behavior. And when she knows herself lost beyond all hope to her husband’s love, she refuses to say so, but only, “answers have I none.”She does manage to swear that she is neither a strumpet nor whore, unfortunate word choices in the context of being treated like “a public commoner” and not an adulteress, as the words could mean either. Her earnest prayer of, “heaven forgive us!” just as before moves Othello from the brink of believing her back to renewed suspicions. Othello, already believing Desdemona lost, told her with dubious theology to be “double-damned,” but the first item she would be damned for (dishonesty) is the same as the second. He wanted Desdemona to convince him that she really was honest, and her avoidance of Othello’s command, though she somewhat makes up for the deficiency a few lines later and even swears her faithfulness just after Othello has left the room, damns her just as Iago’s silence does.”I cannot say ‘whore’,” she confides to Iago, and oddly enough, shares that quality with him. (Iago does speak it in Othello’s presence, but never, even during soliloquy, in reference to Desdemona.) Othello trusts Iago because the ensign will not mention foulness, and suspects Desdemona for that same quality. Iago’s poison has made “what is to him as luscious as locusts…as acerb as coloquintida”; Othello fluctuates between believing Iago and not daring to, but by the time of their “marriage” is prepared not only to hear but to put any slander on her. While Iago patiently listens, Othello rages about Desdemona’s infidelity and pours out his words in a gush of imagery mocking the kind seas that brought the couple to Cyprus. Desdemona does not keep her peace for the whole play; she speaks at Cassio’s request and Iago’s manipulation. She pesters Othello with the suit, promising to “talk him out of patience” and giving a long, repetitive entreaty with its nagging cadences of, “Shall’t be shortly?…shall’t be tonight?…tomorrow dinner then?” etc. Othello dismisses Desdemona and murmurs a loving aside, apparently about to give in, but Iago turns her words against her and implicitly contrasts them with his own virtuous reticence. Othello, though possessed of an elegant tongue, professes his own inexperience in speech to the Duke’s council; he mistrusts his own words, doubting that they wooed Desdemona enough, and in his worry wonders whether she tired of him because he lacks “soft parts of conversation.” Iago demonstrates the power of his words as he employs them to cast doubt on Desdemona’s, but Othello fails to understand the tactic. “It is not words that shakes me thus” he exclaims upon falling into a fit, yet, of course, it is; words, and the play of his imagination. To Othello, more honesty resides in Iago’s hesitant speech than in Desdemona’s long scolding. As Iago’s tightens his grip on Othello’s mind, he speaks more freely. At first he swears, “you cannot [know my thoughts], if my heart were in your hand” and “I am not bound to…utter my thoughts,” but later changes his tack, saying, “as I am bound, receive it from me.” He tells Othello what the general already half-believes, furthering Othello’s trust in words with him. The more Othello listens to Iago, the more words control him, and the less he realizes it. He abandons his demand for “ocular proof” in an instant; Cassio’s mocking words and Desdemona’s uneasy speech convince him at least as much as the sight of the handkerchief does. By his skill and luck, Iago finds enough of this proof to prevent Othello from realizing that he only heard half a conversation and saw no proof at all. This “handkerchief scene,” which mixes verbal and visual evidence, confuses Othello’s trust in the visual with his suspicion of speech, and makes him put all his faith in Iago’s account. And it is at this point that Desdemona, when speech could help her most, goes silent. Because Desdemona, unlike Othello, is unwilling to harm her beloved, another character must testify for her. The somewhat less pure and virtuous Emilia, heretofore quiet, calls for help, rails at Othello, and condemns Iago. It is difficult to say just how much Emilia knew about her husband’s plot, but she does come very close to unmasking him, knowingly or not, before Desdemona; she also wails, “I thought so then” upon hearing his scheme. She stood by while Othello shouted at his wife, demanding the handkerchief Emilia gave to Iago. In spite of all this suspicion, she does not open her mouth until Desdemona is already dead. Iago complains that his wife nags him constantly when not in public, but he also claims that she has slept with about half the army, and we never hear Emilia pestering her husband. She declares herself eager to make him happy, doing “nothing, but to please his fantasy,” and indeed she seems to have some strange notion that Iago’s fantasy can be pleased, avoiding the realization that she has married a “demi-devil” whose sole joy on earth is to destroy the greatness of better men than himself. When she asks him about the least of his crimes, suggesting Desdemona’s guilt, she adds, “I know thou didst not, thou’rt not such a villain./Speak, for my heart is full.” Emilia, like Desdemona, dares not incriminate her husband.Unfortunately for Iago, Emilia is not the epitome of virtue, maidenly silence, and devoted matrimonial love that Desdemona plays. This woman finds the role of servant to a kind mistress more important than that of wife to Iago. Like Othello, she has two competing relationships, one built upon love, the other based on authority; for her the positions are switched. Emilia and Desdemona discuss sexual infidelity as equals; Iago orders his wife around. Similarly, Othello “marries” Iago and then abuses Desdemona. Othello wavers between trusting his fears and his hopes about his spouse, moving between explosive rage, explosive love, and mute horror. If he cannot name “the cause,” Emilia can too well, mentioning it no less than five times in fourteen lines. She is not Iago’s wife for nothing; her canny calculations of what it would take to make her cheat on her husband contrast both Othello’s and Desdemona’s innocent and impractical tongue-tied purity. Emilia is less effective than her husband; she does not approach his level of thinking everyone as base as possible. Perhaps Desdemona’s advice of, “Do not learn of him, Emilia, though he be thy husband” caused her unlucky trust in the essential goodness of humanity (unlikely) or perhaps, like Desdemona, Othello, and Roderigo, Emilia could just refused to wrap her mind around Iago’s unbounded villainy. Yet she is the first to see it (except for poor Roderigo, who made the mistake of confronting Iago alone; were it not for Gratiano’s protection, Emilia would have ended up like the young Venetian before she could tell of the handkerchief) and when she finally realizes a fraction of its extent, she speaks.Emilia’s powerful, vengeful outburst of righteous indignation–“You told a lie, a an odious, damn’d lie!”–is the first truly free speech in the play. She will not stop for shame, like Cassio, or as Iago pretends to, for Desdemona’s modesty or Bianca’s fear; Iago cannot command her silence like Roderigo’s or Othello’s. Nor is her accusation, like Othello’s, Brabantio’s, or Roderigo’s (i.e., of Desdemona, not of Iago) spurred by him. Emilia, once she has seen the truth, confronts it though she betrays her husband, endangers her life, and threatens her disgrace. She does not react like Othello or Desdemona; she tells Iago plainly of the matter and he, not realizing the trap, admits to making the suggestion. When she explains the matter of the handkerchief, Othello believes her open outrage where he doubted Desdemona’s fearful prayers.Iago, having lost his power over speech, reacts in the only way he can: he murders Emilia, and refuses to speak. His half-defiant gloat, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know./ From this time forth, I never will speak word,” is his final taunt to the audience and Othello; we never doubt for an instant that he will break his oath, despite all the tortures the state can inflict. The play is over; most of the characters are or will soon be dead; he has no more reason to speak, no gulls to trap, no audience to confide in. Order has triumphed and the truth has outed, the state will handle everything and report what has happened. But none of that matters. Iago’s silence still controls the play, the question of his motive still unsolved. Cassio may reign in Cyprus, but Iago rules both the hopelessly ignorant Venetians, sure that he will open his lips to pray, and the minds of the audience. Reputation and government may have the last word, but speech, the true heart of morality and power, lies beyond them.
In Shakespeare’s play, Othello, the men hunt the women, as a human hunts animals in the wild. The man exerts dominance and expects the woman to accept her submissive role in relation to his dominance. The central couples involved in showing this type of male-female relationship are Othello and Desdemona, Iago and Emilia, and Cassio and Bianca. Shakespeare illustrates the hunt in the sexual encounters, the marriages/ relationships, and the murders exhibited by these characters during the play. Simultaneously, the way the men hunt the women in the play is mirrored by the way Iago hunts all of the characters. The hunting which is displayed throughout Othello is reinforced by the plethora of animal images Shakespeare uses in the language of the play.Emilia clearly sees, and articulates, the nature of the hunter-hunted male-female relationship. She shows this understanding when she says “what is it that [men] do when they change us for others? Is it sport? I think it is” (IV,iii,107). Emilia is examining the inclination of men to sleep around. She explains it by saying that men do not see women as humans, but rather as animals who are fun to chase, but once conquered, lose some of their intrigue and the men want to move onto other women. Iago shows that he has this opinion of women when he says that Desdemona and Emilia are “wildcats” in their “kitchens” who “rise to play and go to bed to work” (II,i,123,129). Iago is saying that his vision of women is that when they are not in bed they are just playing. This goes along with the definition that The American Heritage Dictionary gives of “sport” — that it is a type of “game” with a certain set of rules (a hunt, for example). Similarly, the use of the word “wildcats” to describe them again calls up the sport (of hunting) image. It is a game for men to get the women from the kitchens into bed. Then, when the women are in bed they simply fulfill their duties to their husbands to sleep with them. Once they are in bed (having sex), the game has ended. Othello also makes reference to women as inhuman prizes when he calls Desdemona “honey” (II,i,225), although this reference is unintentional on his part. By calling her “honey” he is utilizing a common term of endearment, calling a woman “honey” is like calling her ‘sweet’ because honey is sweet. However, the term also has a flip side of meaning to it which affirms the way men hunt women in order to get them into relationships or into bed. This side is that humans must break through the protecting barrier of bees to achieve honey. To achieve his “honey” (Desdemona) Othello must get her to fall in love with him, in other words, break through her defenses and get into her heart. The reader is not privy to that portion of Othello and Desdemona’s relationship in the play, that part takes place before the action of the play begins, but it can be inferred. The “sport” that Emilia talks about is the hunt of women.Seduction, which is the starting point of a male-female relationship, is portrayed as having certain rules, as does a hunt (a type of a game/sport), in Othello. The rules are often established societally. Roderigo attempts to abide by the societal rules by trying to get Desdemona from her father, Barbantio. He sees her father as having the power to tell her, Desdemona, who to marry because that was the custom of the society. A woman’s father was “the lord of [her] duty” until he gives over that ‘lordship’ to his daughter’s husband (I,iii,212). This means that it was her duty to do whatever she told him to do (including to marry a particular person). Roderigo appeals to the power of Barbantio rather than going directly to Desdemona which is what Othello does. But, Othello undermines the lordship of Barbantio by doing that. Iago reveals this when he tells Barbantio that “[his] daughter [Desdemona] and the moor are making the beast with two backs” (I,i,130). The fact that Desdemona is having sex with someone before getting her father’s permission goes against the rules of the ‘seduction-hunt’ to which Roderigo is adhering. Barbantio does finally give this power over to Othello saying “I have done” (I,iii,219). Othello and Desdemona’s relationship started out not following the rules, but eventually fell back under their cover. While Cassio’s relationship with his mistress Bianca is one that does not follow these type of mainstream societal rules, it has rules nonetheless. Cassio successfully seduces Bianca by means of sexual contact. He has sex with her and attaches a minimal importance to that and she in turn clings onto that ‘importance’. She shows her dependence on him during the encounter they have. “What, keep a week away? Seven days and nights, Eightscore eight hours, and lovers’ absent hours” complains Bianca to Cassio, describing how she missed him (III,iv,196-7). She is only his mistress and yet by performing in bed he gave her the impression that he was in a sort of relationship with her whereby he was implicitly required to visit her on a regular basis.The scene in which Othello murders Desdemona, he acts entirely as a predatory animal, lacking human characteristics. Othello kills her using no manmade instrument. He simply smothers her. This is the same up-close, intimate, primitive way that an animal is required to kill. Ironically, Othello justifies the action as a man would. His justification relies on the ‘higher duties’ he has to other men, saying “she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (V,ii,7). He is attempting to humanize himself while dehumanizing her through tricking himself into thinking he is a rational being. This murder scene also reveals itself to be ironic when looked at with regard to the passage in which it is said that Desdemona will “tame” Othello (III,iii,25). During the murder scene it is her existence which brings out the most primal of his actions (the urge, and ability, to kill). She does not “tame” his animalistic side but rather aggravates it. Moments before Othello commits suicide, directly after he kills Desdemona (his wife), Othello says he is a “circumcised dog” (V,ii,416). At this moment he at last sees plainly, the deception has cleared away from his mind, and he understands himself to be an animal, not a human, as he had thought before. The fact that he is not human reveals to him that he did not hunt (as a controlled sport) Desdemona, as he thought he had. But that instead he was only participating in a very base, animalistic action lacking in rules, control or humanity.Through evaluating Othello in reference to hunting, it becomes apparent that as the men in the play are hunting the women, Iago is hunting the men (and by consequence, also the women). He is the key designer of the play, and essentially wrote the play by planning out its action. He says he will “ensnare as great a fly as Cassio” (II,i,183). Similarly, Iago says he intends to lead Othello “by the nose, like an ass” (I,iii,445), and then, later, in the second act, Iago again says he will make Othello an “ass” (II,ii,331). These phrases show that Iago sees himself as the human hunter. He verbally changes people who are thought of as humans into animals over whom he has control and dominance. Iago will control how they perceive the world and eventually trap them by means of these fabricated perceptions.When Iago kills his wife, Emilia, he follows through with the above explored male-hunts-female relationship. He kills her at the point that she is no longer running from him, at the point that she is no longer obeying the turns he says he makes unquestioningly. But, although she thinks that she is defying him by stopping her running, in reality he has cornered her, he has hunted her down. Emilia says “tis proper I obey him [Iago], but not now” (V,ii,233). She believes that she is going against him, standing up to him, but in truth Iago wants her to tell Othello that Desdemona was not actually committing adultery because he wants Othello to commit suicide. Iago then kills her, which is the completion of a hunt, and this action is understood because she was perceived to be disobeying her “lord”. Unlike Othello, Iago maintains his human status in murdering because he remains entirely in control of the events occurring at the point that he murders. This human control is shown physically in that Iago uses his manmade sword to kill Emilia, he does not revert to the animalistic smothering Othello uses to kill Desdemona.The hunter/hunted relationships which are explored throughout Othello draw a parallel between the supposedly refined court life, and the life in the wild.
Choose one non-dramatic text offered on the module, (an extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains,) and show how it might help us understand Othello. The extract presents a sustained attack by Coleridge on Shakespeare for his lack of realism in the ‘monstrous’ depiction of a marriage between a ‘beautiful Venetian girl,’ and a ‘veritable negro,’ in Othello. He sees Shakespeare’s transformation of a ‘barbarous negro’ into a respected soldier and nobleman of stature as ‘ignorant’, since at the time, ‘negroes were not known except as slaves.’ (Appendix) The extract seems to raise two questions – how central is the taboo of miscegeny to the play, and to what extent is Othello’s reputation able to counter this prejudice? It is certainly not hard to conclude that it is probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play. There is a clear theme of racism throughout, one which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as erring, ‘against all rules of nature,’ [1.3.102] Nothing separates Othello from, ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,’ [1.2.68] except skin-colour – he matches or even exceeds them in reputation. At the start of the play, he appears confident that,OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my perfect soulShall manifest me rightly.Othello 1.2.31-2when he is called in front of the court on charges of witchcraft, yet the malevolent Iago is able to call on Othello’s deep-rooted insecurities about his race in order to play Othello and Desdemona against one another until their marriage fails. Essentially, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. He demonstrates how this miscegenation is threatening to the existing social order, and ultimately, Othello’s lifetime of achievement is not sufficient to pursuade others from prejudice in a moment of crisis (such as Desdemona’s elopement,) or sustain his self-esteem in the long-run. Othello is structured so that the main premise of the play, introducing the main themes, appears near the beginning. It is obvious that Iago has an agenda planned of malevolent proportions with Othello at its target. He is the catalyst of all the destructive happenings within the play starting from the very beginning when he and Roderigo approach the residence of Brabantio in 1.1. He uses crude, racist language to appeal to the senator’s traditional beliefs, including such phrases as, IAGO: Even now, now, very now, an old black ramIs tupping your white ewe! Othello 1.1.87-88Iago even goes so far as to propose that Brabantio’s grandchildren will be animals because of his daughter’s base marriage with an ‘other.’ IAGO: …you’ll haveyour daughter covered with a Barbary horse,you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll havecoursers for cousins, and jennets for germans. Othello 1.1.109-112Later we are told that Iago’s motive is jealousy and he uses the rhetoric of racism to undermine Othello, playing on Brabantio’s prejudices to provoke him, even though, as Othello relates later, ‘Her father loved me, oft invited me.’ [1.3.129] A shock and a few crude comments from Iago is all it takes to make a respected figure turn against a close friend of equal stature simply because of skin colour.Technically, Brabantio was not legally allowed to nullify his daughter’s marriage to the Moor as she was over the age of consent. Culturally, however, he had all the support necessary to challenge the marriage given common racist assumptions of the time, and accuses Othello of sorcery and witchcraft. This means firstly that he is unable to imagine his daughter wilfully deceiving him, an understandable reaction given her past dutiful behaviour, ‘so tender, fair and happy’ [1.2.66] and the nature of the patriarchal society in which she lived. Secondly, like Coleridge, he cannot believe she would ever ‘fall in love with what she feared to look on,’ [1.3.99] without the aid of spells, and thirdly, he suggests that Othello’s race makes him capable of these powers of ‘black’ magic – we have to ask ourselves; if Desdemona had eloped with Roderigo, would he be accused of witchcraft? If Brabantio had not reverted to his prejudices and stayed calm, he might have thought of questioning the legality of the marriage based on the Canon Law’s requirement of consummation, but he fails to do so, choosing instead to attempt to nullify it by claiming that his daughter was the victim of spells and witchcraft. In other words, Brabantio, a respected member of Venetian society, could have contested the marriage contract logically and legally, but instead he falls back on using prejudiced assumptions as weapons, encouraged by Iago. These events, so early on in the play, establish the idea of white purity and goodness, suggesting that other races represent darkness and evil. The clear cut binary opposition between the blackness of Othello and the fair whiteness of Desdemona is established and united in matrimony, a concept that Shakespeare seems to be experimenting with to suggest the chaos that would ensue in a cultural context. Although Othello is not made out to be the cleverest and most cunning character of the play, he is one Shakespeare’s bravest characters, and he does exemplify a certain wit uncommon to the European notion of a Moor. He is an eloquent, romantic man who has won the heart of a senator’s daughter, despite his confession that ‘rude am I in my speech,’ [1.3.82] and the Duke admits that ‘this tale would win my daughter too.’ [1.3.172] Othello is a hero who has led a long life full of good deeds, which was necessary for a Moor to have his existence tolerated in a predominately white culture. He has fought as a Venetian soldier and won the trust of his people. But has he really won their trust? We witnessed how quick Brabantio was to forget his honourable nature. Othello had won the love of Desdemona with his stories of battle and he had also promised an injured Brabantio that he would be a loyal son-in-law by that same token. He should be able to transcend certain preconceived notions of race through his heroism and courageousness. He took on the whole socio-political structure and had his way with it for a time, but the play shows all too clearly how thin the value of his reputation was to become, in the eyes of others, and to himself. In Act 1, the audience witnesses Brabantio’s reaction to his daughter’s elopement, and this is extremely significant. Othello has hitherto been treated with great reverence in Venetian society, but Shakespeare creates a moment of crisis to examine the extent to which Othello’s reputation defines him when he needs it most. As long as logic exists, there will be little space for prejudice, which is based on illogical and irrational ‘gut’ feelings, but Iago works by removing logic, his crudity and base animal imagery brings out the primal side of others. Sadly, he shows how easily this can be achieved through a moment of crisis and a few choice words. Act 1almost presents the play in miniature; Iago goes on to bigger and better things when he manages to make Othello turn social prejudice in on himself. The scene with Brabantio also goes to show that Iago’s provocation is as capable of enraging a civil Venetian senator as it is (as the Elizabethan audience would see it,) a hot-blooded Moor. Othello’s racial ‘characteristics’ such as a quick temper and jealousy, (assumptions held at the time) do not bring about his downfall – Iago does – but he is only able to achieve it by working on Othello’s weaknesses, his insecurity over his race being central to this. The ‘temptation scene’ of 3.3 is crucial to an understanding of the methods used by Iago to make Othello doubt Desdemona, by making him doubt himself. His first move following Othello’s refusal of her infidelity is to assure him that, ‘I know our country’s disposition well’ [3.3.204] reminding him of his nature as an outsider, and as such, of a lesser authority to know the ways of Venetian women, and indeed, women in general, playing on his insecurities at his lack of experience in relations with the opposite sex. He is forced to trust Iago to explain the world to him. ‘And yet how nature, erring from itself – ‘ [3.3.231] is the crucial point at which we see Othello crack – he has linked Desdemona’s rejection of the ‘curled darlings’ [1.2.68] or ‘natural’ choices for husbands with the existence of something innately unnatural and suspect in her character. At line 267, he makes a rare reference to his blackness in a negative way, and begins to compare himself to Cassio, who is fair, eloquent, and courtly, and reveals his insecurity over his age too. However, when he sees her, he refuses to believe Iago, but as we see, the damage has been done, and he returns to Iago to demand ‘ocular proof.’ [3.3.363] Othello is then deceived very easily by a thin and insubstantial illusion, after which, he vows to kill her, without confronting her once. The ease with which Iago was able to achieve this feat is frightening, and rests wholly on a simple optical trick and his ability to play on Othello’s insecurities, a large part of which is his race, and disbelief at Desdemona’s love.We must not forget to look at the behaviour of Desdemona in order to witness the cultural taboo in action. Desdemona is portrayed as a divine figure, but extremely naive. Her naivety is illustrated in her conversations with her husband. She does not know that Othello is the object of Iago’s manipulation, nor does she understand the implications of her speech. In Act 1, Iago states that, IAGO: It cannot be thatDesdemona should long continue her love to theMoor. Othello 1.3.342-344 He echoes Coleridge’s concern that her love of Othello ‘would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’ (Appendix) In Act 2, again conversing with Roderigo, Iago states that she will find the fault in her choice because she will notice how Othello lacks,IAGO: love-liness in favor, sympathy in years, manners andbeauties. Othello 2.1.226-228 Everyone seems to believe that Desdemona has little knowledge of the actions she is taking, and all the characters see the marriage as an inevitable failure.One of the most controversial scenes in all of Shakespeare takes place in the bedchamber where the Moor’s virtuous wife sleeps soundly. The action is slowed down to a sombre pace. Othello has reverted to a savage-like state as everyone had suspected. Desdemona’s death was inevitable or rather expected by everyone who first saw the marriage between the two as forbidden. However, Othello’s death is much more symbolic because it represents the ‘other’ failing after trying to achieve the status of the white man. Othello ultimately acknowledges the fact that he is an ‘other’ when he realises his irreconcilable fault and chooses to take his own life. Thus upon his suicide his last words implicate that those who stand in his presence should speak of him as he truly is, and know that,OTHELLO: Like the base Judean, threw a pearl awayRicher than all his tribe Othello 5.2.345-346At the end of the play Othello commits suicide in front of the audience, a public declaration of his shame at his dishonour, brought about by Iago, but only because he was able to play on the insecurities buried deep within Othello.Clearly, the binary opposition represented in the relationship between the black Othello and the white Desdemona is an illustration of cultural tension. The failure of these two individuals to mate successfully demonstrates a cultural failure. Racism is the tool used in Othello by Iago to destroy the lives of two visually different types of people. However, as Davison explains,Othello is not ‘about’ race, or colour, or even jealousy. It dramatises the way actions are directed by attitudes, fears, and delusions that rule the subconscious than by evident facts. (Davison, 1988, p.64)We can criticise Shakespeare’s use of racism from a contemporary perspective, but it is important to remember that it was inherent in the culture in which he was writing, and Iago is shown as simply recognising an effective way to bring about Othello’s downfall – he also makes him insecure about his age and lack of experience with women. Othello is an example of a noble black man at a time, supposedly, when, ‘negroes were not known except as slaves,’ (Appendix) yet racism inherent in the society which he lived was capable of reducing him to the barbarous state everyone at root expected of him. Thus Shakespeare presents us with a morality play at the historical height of the colonial slave trade with racism and miscegeny at its core, first we witness this through Brabantio, then the tragic consequences when Othello, with Iago’s help, turns social prejudice onto himself.Bibliography:Davison, P. (1988) Othello: An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism Hampshire: Macmillan PressShakespeare, W. (1997) Othello (c. 1602) E. A. J Honigmann (Ed.) Surrey: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd. Wheale, N. (2000) Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Critical Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Performance: Materials for the Second Assignment (Hand-out)Appendix:From: Wheale, N. (2000) Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth Century Critical Evaluations of Othello. Shakespeare Text & Performance: Materials for the Second Assignment (Hand-out, p.7)Extract from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains, four volumes, 1836-9, quoted in Bate (Ed.) 1992: 482:Roderigo: What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,If he can carry’t thus. [1.1.67]’…here comes one, if not the only, seeming justification of our blackamoor or negro Othello. Even if we supposed this an uninterrupted tradition of the theatre, and that Shakespeare himself, from want of scenes, and the experience that nothing could be made too marked for the senses of his audience, had practically sanctioned it, — would this prove aught concerning his own intention as a poet for all ages? Can we imagine him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth, –at a time, too, when negroes were not known except as slaves? — As for Iago’s language to Brabantio, it implies merely that Othello was a Moor, that is, black …. No doubt Desdemona saw Othello’s visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’
“I must weep, / But they are cruel tears,” says Othello near the end of his soliloquy in Act Five, Scene Two, right before killing Desdemona. Traditional Shakespearean murderers do not shed tears prior to killing their victim; in Shakespeare’s Othello, however, the Moor is an ambivalent man justifying his actions through a cathartic release of emotions. Shakespeare uses techniques including a clever use of soliloquy, the use of repetition in diction, and tangible symbolism that together support his important underlying theme of Othello: preserving the ideal of Justice.The clever use of a soliloquy in Othello’s speech creates an intimacy between the reader and Othello; this contributes to understanding Othello’s preservation of the ideal of Justice. Because the speaker is not addressing anyone but his soul, we as readers play the role of a mirror reflecting his image, but concurrently taking on our own perspective. In doing so, we feel much closer to him than if he were addressing another speaker and the reader was simply looking in from an outsider’s perspective. Shakespeare reminds the readers that Othello is not happy with his decision, and so when he says, “Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars” (line 1) he doesn’t want the stars to hear from Othello himself why he wants to commit such a crime. He is uncomfortable recounting to not just any stars – but chaste stars – Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. Here, we literally get into his mind.Very palpably the reader feels more of this insight into Othello’s mind through his determination. When Othello says, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men (line 6),” he conveys that he is killing Desdemona for her own good, and that in committing this murder, he is giving Justice to all those men to whom she would have been unfaithful. When he says, “Put out the light (line 7),” Othello speaks to himself – obviously as it goes in soliloquies – but also to the ‘mirroring’ reader. As he instructs us to turn off the lights, while he himself will “then put out the light” (line 8) by killing Desdemona, the reader feels a sense of closeness and intimacy between himself and Othello.Othello then goes to question himself, “Should I repent me, (line 10)” from which we readers feel empathy for him because he expresses remorse. Shakespeare wrote such an important line in order to convey ambivalence in Othello, whose mixed feelings of getting Justice and considering remorse create an image of Othello not as a ruthless beast, but a human just like the reader himself. This clever use of soliloquy is almost a heart-to-heart between Othello and his conscience, a role which the reader assumes by default. Since Othello is sharing his feelings with his conscience and ultimately with the reader, he conveys true emotions that make the reader sympathize with his actions.The reader feels this sympathy for Othello even more potently immediately. When he asserts, “I will kill thee, / And love thee after (lines 18-19),” his love knows no bounds and even Desdemona’s death itself cannot extinguish his love for her. As he addresses a sleeping Desdemona, he offers recompense for her murder – loving her even after she is dead. The reader understands how much love Othello has for Desdemona and how much it hurts him to kill her. Yet, Justice must prevail and her death is certain as Shakespeare implements Othello to preserve Justice.Shakespeare uses the repetition in diction in order to emphasize and stimulate Othello’s emotions. As aforementioned, the reader is intimate with Othello in his soliloquy, and as Othello’s emotions are stimulated, so are the reader’s. When Othello says, “Put out the light, and then put out the light (line 7)” and “but once put out thy light,” (line 10) Othello is emotionally-charged in his decision. Shakespeare spends several lines on emphasizing Othello’s adamancy on darkness in the chamber as a means to convey the blindness of Justice: the act of preserving it should be seen. Othello is all for Justice, and the emphasis on putting out the light to produce darkness gives ground to Othello’s determination in preserving it. This ties in to earlier when Othello mentioned that the chaste stars must not be told of the current predicament; now, it seems as though they should also not see what will ensue.When Othello says, “One more! One more… One more, and that’s the last! (lines 17-19),” a sense of urgency builds in him, as he requests of himself permission for another kiss with Desdemona. His ambivalence appears once again, as part of him wants to sit there and kiss her, while another part wants to preserve Justice by killing her. Repeatedly craving for another kiss emphasizes the fact that Othello is not committing the murder out of ruthless intent, but even his final desire – a kiss – for her is auspicious. The importance of such an urgent plea is that Othello does not want to do the deed, but because he is preserving Justice, he must do it so that Desdemona will not “betray more men” (line 7). He is doing her a favor by ending her dishonor at one instance of ‘infidelity’.It is Othello’s belief that Desdemona has committed infidelity that prompts the series of events that lead up to Desdemona’s murder. Shakespeare uses symbolism in Othello’s soliloquy to effectively imply that Othello is only committing the crime because he wants to preserve Justice, not because he is a ruthless murderer. Othello says, “Yet I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow (lines 3-4),” depicting that he is going to make it quick and simple, without causing any physical damage to her. Evoking images of skin and snow convey the gentleness and the subtlety in which he would kill her. Instead of saying that he is going to gut her innards with a dagger, he supplants this cruel murderous strategy with a much less ruthless method. Othello says, “Put out the light… If I quench thee (line 7-8),” communicating that Desdemona’s death is akin to putting out a light – again, quick and simple.Strangling Desdemona is not only quick and simple, but it evokes the feeling of intimacy because Othello is physically touching her. Granted this intimacy is achieved in order to commit a crime, his last desire of “one more” was to touch her – in a kiss. Shakespeare in a way makes this feasible to Othello through this contact. When Othello says, “When I have plucked / the rose,” (line 13) again this symbolism of touch is conspicuous: as Othello plucks the rose, symbolizing Desdemona, he is holding the rose in his hand, as if again making physical contact with her. These striking images of intimacy evoke in the reader’s mind Othello’s sheer love and affection for Desdemona, and because he loves her so much he is successful in his goal of preserving Justice and killing her. He says, “So sweet, ne’er so fatal (line 20),” as it is tragic that because he loves her so much he must kill her so that he can protect her from committing adultery by “betray[ing] more men (line 6).”The tears that Othello sheds for Desdemona at the end of his soliloquy consummate his love for her; it is the last act of devotion to her before finally strangling her. As Shakespeare presents Othello not as a ruthless killer bent on exacting revenge but a benign lover committing a beneficial act of love, he shows just what the potency of love can lead a man to do. Othello’s goal of achieving Justice eventually occurs in an act of love itself through the various dramatic techniques Shakespeare uses.
Shakespeare’s Othello (Shakespeare, 1604) is a tragedy that unfolds based on the actions and language of one character: Iago. As a result, the plot is linear, yet the play manages to maintain a multidimensional effect. Shakespeare uses the language of the characters to achieve this multifaceted quality. Through the use of language (specifically Iago, Othello, and Desdemona), Shakespeare propels the plot, engages the audience, creates dramatic irony, and reveals the characters’ psyches.The eponymous character enters the play as an image rather than a physical presence. Preconceived notions of the play being about a black man notwithstanding, the first impression of Othello is associated with the unnamed man that Iago and Roderigo are in the middle of slandering when the play begins. Shakespeare builds the anticipation of seeing this man through the vivid images which Iago and Roderigo use to describe him. The audience learns he is a man of high military rank who is an independent thinker. Iago describes that there were “Three great ones in the city/ In personal suit to make me his Lieutenant” (I:i:8-9) but the thus far unnamed Othello “Evades them with a bombast circumstance” (I:i:13) by instead appointing Cassio. The race of the unnamed man is disclosed when Iago yells to Brabantio, “An old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe” (I:I:88-89). While a Jacobean audience would already know Othello is black by the use of the word ‘Moor’, a modern audience less familiar with the term would be clued in by Iago’s vivid descriptions.Another function of the vivid language that is used to describe Othello is to aid the audience’s perception of his physical attributes. In performance, the character of Othello could be played by a white man who lacks the physical characteristics of a Moor. This would be especially plausible in the Jacobean era when all players tended to be white males. Although skin color can be changed easily enough by makeup, other physical characteristics attributed to a black man would be left up to the imagination. When Roderigo asks, “What a full fortune does the thicklips owe”, his insult hones in on a physical attribute that a white actor would probably be lacking (I:I:68). Iago and Roderigo’s venomous insults would have assisted the Jacobean audience’s imagination of Othello’s physical appearance.In addition to informing the audience about Othello, the language used in the opening scene gives an important portrayal of the character of Iago. His bigotry and spite make an immediate appearance. He dehumanizes Othello with animal imagery, “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”, and panders to Brabantio’s preexisting prejudice to instigate a ruckus (I:I:115-116). Iago more subtly reveals his other prejudices when he categorizes people by their heritage; his distaste for “Michael Cassio, a Florentine” (I:i:19), and holding in high regard his fellow Venetians, the “Three great ones in the city” (I:i:8-9).When the audience first meets Othello in Act I scene ii they are immediately subject to an instance of dramatic irony with Iago. Iago tells Othello of Brabantio “speaking such scurvy and provoking terms against your honor, that with the little godliness I have, I did full hard forbear him” (I:ii:7-10). Iago’s feigned servitude is impeccable, and his words assure Othello of Iago’s loyalty while demonstrating his brilliance in deception to the audience.Othello’s first few speeches solidify him as a man who is calm, noble, dignified, and judicious. Although marrying Desdemona without Brabantio’s acquiescence in the context of the Jacobean time period is indeed a critical offense, Othello is able to use his words and reputation to exonerate himself in the eyes of the Senate. His poetic words were even what won him Desdemona’s love. Othello describes how his story-telling wooed her;This to hear would Desdemona seriously incline;But still the house-affairs would draw her thence,And ever as she would come with haste dispatch,She’ld come again and with a greedy earDevour up my discourse.(I:iii:145-150)Othello’s speech pattern is gallant and grandiose. G. Wilson Knight described it in the phrase coined “the Othello music” (Knight, 72). If you separate much of Othello’s language from the text, it maintains its integrity and reads as verse. For example, the lines:O heavy hour!Methinks it should now be a huge eclipseOf sun and moon, and that the affrighted globeShould yawn at alteration.(V:ii:97-100)and,Nay, had she been true,If Heaven would make me such another worldOf one entire and perfect chrysolite,I’d not have sold her for it.(V:ii:141).taken out of the context of Othello still read poetically.Othello does not maintain this dignified disposition throughout the duration of the play. His speech manages to deteriorate from grandiose orations to monosyllabic utterances. Shakespeare uses Othello’s language to directly reflect his psyche. As Iago’s accusations of Desdemona’s infidelity start to eat away at Othello’s trust, there is a change in his speech pattern. As his jealousy intensifies his speech increasingly imitates Iago’s, whose words are lewd and short, with the emphasis being more on the unsaid than the said. Iago’s speech is often very suggestive and evasive, leaving the actual facts up to the imagination of the listener (who often imagines the worst case scenario). For example, Othello responds to Iago’s elusive questioning, “Think, my lord?”, with,Think, my lord? By heaven, he echoes me,As if there were some monster in his thought,Too hideous to be shown(III:iii:109-112)As Othello’s jealousy builds, he takes upon this facet of the unsaid. In the following exchange with Desdemonda, it is apparent that he has adopted some of Iago’s disjointed speech pattern,Othello Pray, chuck, come hitherDesdemona What is your pleasure?OthelloLet me see your eyes,… Look in my faceDesdemonaWhat horrible fancy’s this?OthelloSome of your function, mistress,Leave procreants alone and shut the door,Cough, cry, or hem, if anybody come;Your mystery, your mystery; nay, dispatch.DesdemonaUpon my knees, what does your speech import?I understand a fury in your words,But not the words.(IV:ii:23-34)He also adopts Iago’s foul, lewd vocabulary. ‘Zounds’ begins making a regular appearance in Othello’s speech, as well as sexual slurs that he directs at Desdemona. He calls her “that cunning whore” (IV:ii:91), “devil” (IV:i:235), “impudent strumpet” (IV:ii:80), “lewd minx” (III:iii:482), and “perjur’d woman” (V:ii:64).After Othello discovers that he murdered Desdemona under false pretenses, his original speech pattern returns, indicating that Iago no longer holds a veil over Othello’s eyes, figuratively speaking. Othello’s last speech, before killing himself, has echoes of his former spoken music. In one particularly tender part, he implores the other men,Then you must speakOf one who lov’d wisely, but too well:Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,Perplex’d in the extreme; of whose hand,Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away,Richer than all his tribe.(V:ii:344-349)Thus there is a final return to his stately use of language before he commits suicide.It is important to note, however, that these speech patterns only take affect when the characters are engaged in dialogue. Both Othello and short-spoken Iago articulate in fluid iambic pentameter when addressing the audience in their monologues. In both instances this allows the audience a full glimpse of the private thoughts of each character. This is especially important with the character of Iago, because he propels the plot of the play. Iago’s speech morphs to fit his present objective. While most characters stay consistent with their use of verse or prose, Iago constantly switches between the two and uses whichever suits his purpose. The other characters’ use prose or verse depending on their situation, whereas Iago controls the situation based on his choice of language. When Shakespeare allows the audience to know Iago’s full agenda, they experience dramatic irony and have no false pretense about the absolute selfishness and evil of Iago’s character. Additionally, the experience of Othello is so much more tragic and frustrating when the audience is aware of the truth. Iago’s language is Shakespeare’s tool in conveying all of these facets to the audience.Twice in Othello Shakespeare uses song as a literary tool. The first such instance is when Iago sings to Cassio in his attempt to get Cassio drunk. In addition to rousing the drinking spirit within Cassio, Iago’s song would incite and provoke Shakespeare’s Jacobean audience. Iago speaks about his song, “I learn’d it in England, where indeed they are most potent in potting: your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander, –drink, ho!—are nothing to your English!” (II:iii:71-74) . Clearly such favoritism towards a non-Venetian culture is out of character for the bigoted Iago, but Shakespeare uses this opportunity to get a rise out of his English audience. In Iago’s second song, he describes King Stephen,He was a wight of high renown,And thou art but of low degree’Tis pride that pulls the country down,Then take thine owd cloak about thee.(II:iii:87-90)This song alludes to Iago’s character; in seeking redemption for his wounded pride he pulls down the infrastructure of Othello’s domestic life, and focuses solely on looking out for himself regardless of its affect on others.The other instance in Othello where Shakespeare uses song as a literary technique is Desdemona’s singing of the “Willow Song”. The song is a harbinger of what is to happen in the immediate future; it indicates that Desdemona is about to die at the hands of her husband. The song is rich with symbolism relating to the present situation in the play. Green is the color representing envy, and the song goes, “Sing all a green willow must be my garland” (IV:iii:50). Envy is the emotion that dictates Othello’s action; Desdemona dies because of her husband’s jealousy. She continues,Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approveNay that’s not the text…… I call’d my love false love, but what said he then?(IV:iii:51-54)This lyric confusion is deliberate and further foreshadows the events of Desdemona’s death. Before Desdemona dies Emilia asks her, “O who has done this deed?” and Desdemonda answers, “Nobody, I myself farewell:/ Commend me to my kind lord, O, farewell!” (V:ii:124-126). Rather than place the blame on Othello, Desdemona falsely claims that she has killed herself.Another technique that Shakespeare uses is repetition. Often in the play there are words or phrases repeated two, three, even four times. This technique has several different purposes. On one hand, use of repetition fuses one idea between two characters, as shown in the following example:Iago Lie.Othello With her?Iago With her, on her, what you will.OthelloLie with her, lie on her? – We say lie on her, when they belie her, – lie with her, zounds, that’s fulsome!(IV:I:31-36)Shakespeare indicates Iago and Othello’s agreement and like-mindedness through the use of the repeating words; like a musical duet the two characters bounce ideas off one another and arrive in harmony. In this instance they agree upon Desdemona’s infidelity. The word lie has several different meanings; laying down, untruth, and graphic sexual conduct. Iago uses such an ambiguous phrase to hint at the worst while using a relatively harmless word.Shakespeare also uses repetition as a way to mock; akin to a child annoyingly repeating his parent’s question. Iago uses this technique to fuel other characters’ rages, as in the following exchange:OthelloDost thou mock me?IagoI mock you?(IV:i:59-60)A third use of repetition is simply to drive home a point. This is seen with Cassio’s “Reputation, reputation, I ha’ lost my reputation!” (II:iii:254) and Othello’s “O fool, fool, fool!” (V:ii:324). Their anguish is made undeniably evident with the repetition of their lamentations.Finally, it is important to note that although Iago is very much a bigot, he is extremely careful about what he says to whom. His bigotry never shows its face unless it is in his favor to reveal it; for example to fuel Roderigo or Brabantio’s actions. However, the one instance in which he has no problem revealing his prejudice to its recipient is in Act II scene i when he showcases his blatant misogyny in front of Emilia and Desdemona. He taunts them,Come on, come on, you are pictures out of doors;Bells in your parlours; wildcats in your kitchens;Saints in your injuries; devils being offended;Players in your housewivery, and housewives in your beds.(II:i:109-112)and continues, “You rise to play, and go to bed to work” (II:i:115). He has no regard for women other than as sexual objects. This is his critical mistake, because it is Emilia who reveals him as the criminal mastermind at the end of the play. Iago, who in all other aspects is so careful about his language, falls victim to his one time of unedited speech. At the end of the play, Iago, the character whose language perpetuates the play’s entire plot, falls silent.Thus Shakespeare ends the play that is propelled by Iago’s language by having him speak no more once he is revealed. Iago’s final words are, “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:/ From this time forth I will never speak a word” (V:ii:348-349). Such is a fitting end to a tragedy whose tale is woven by a twisted use of words.Works CitedKnight, G. Wilson. “The Othello Music”. Othello: A Selection of Critical Essays. Ed. John Wain. London: Macmillan, 1978.Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. M.R. Ridley. London: Arden, 1958.
In William Shakespeare’s Othello, the deceptive Iago weaves an intricate web of lies with which he enmeshes Othello alongside his many other victims. His manipulation of other characters, machinations that serve as the driving force behind the plot, and sly staging of various scenes in the play not only establish him as the play’s beguiling villain, but also reveal that he performs the roles of the play’s surrogate playwright, director, and prompter. Whereas Shakespeare’s use of theatrical language highlights Iago’s multiple theatrical roles and influence in the play, the resulting dramatic self-reference provides him with an avenue by which he can step outside the play’s realm and deceive the audience just as he dupes Othello, Cassio, and himself; thus, Iago reaffirms himself as the play’s villain. At the same time, it undermines the appearance of power that Iago possesses because it reinforces that Iago is merely another fictional character in the play that lacks the volition to be able to control his future just like all the other characters. A character who rebels against authority, Iago refuses to subjugate himself to another and tries, even when all hope is lost, to reassert his power through silence.Frequently in the play, Iago employs the language characteristic of a playwright as he plots out what will happen next in the play’s action of events. As he stands alone in front of the Cyprian castle, Iago soliloquizes: “Now, ‘mongst this flock of drunkards / Am I to put our Cassio in some action / That may offend the isle” (II.iii.55-57). Since “action” can refer to an exciting flurry of events, Iago’s statement can mean that he will set Cassio up so that a lively, action-packed scene will ensue; however, “action” can also refer to the unfolding events of a drama. That Iago specifically states that he will “put… Cassio in some action,” coupled with his uncanny knowledge that he is a character in a play and the fact that only the playwright has the privilege of contriving the plot and putting characters in it, suggests that he is a surrogate playwright. Moreover, Iago scripts out future scenes throughout the play and is able to foretell future events and to predict the reactions of the other characters with an uncanny accuracy and confidence. For example, Iago plans what will happen when he will question Cassio about Bianca: “As he [Cassio] shall smile, Othello shall go mad, / And his unbookish jealousy must conster / Poor Cassio’s smiles, gestures, and light behaviors / Quite in the wrong” (IV.i.100-103). “Shall” expresses inevitability and thereby conveys Iago’s confidence in his prediction, making it unlikely that this is merely a conjecture by one of the characters in the play of how the plot will unfold. His ability to predict future events and the assurance with which he makes these predictions suggest that he is a surrogate writer of the play, for only the playwright has the knowledge of what will happen in the future. Since one can interpret “shall” as a directive as well, it may be somewhat strange that Iago uses the word while he speaks to himself, but with this word, Iago plots out his own actions which will determine the course of future events. His predictions have such accuracy that one can use them as a script of what will happen in the scenes that will follow. Thus, his language, ability to foretell events confidently, and machinations that drive the plot forward all function to depict Iago as a surrogate playwright.Even as he directs the actions of the other characters, the other characters also direct him, thus placing him in a position where he plays both the part of an actor and director at the same time. When Desdemona and Cassio talk with each other aboard the ship on the way to Cyprus, Iago watches them and remarks: “now again you are most apt / to play the sir in. Very good! well kissed! and excellent / Courtesy! ‘Tis so, indeed. Yet again your fingers to your / lips? Would they were clyster pipes for your sake!” (II.i.173-176). In the play that he has planned out in his mind, Iago has cast Cassio – although Cassio doesn’t know it – as Desdemona’s courtier and secret lover with whom she is having an affair. Praising and criticizing Cassio’s actions as if he were an actor in his play, Iago carefully observes the scene and comments as a director supervising rehearsals would. However, it is Cassio’s initial action of taking Desdemona by the palm that initiates Iago’s commentary; thus, in a way, Cassio ironically directs Iago’s actions even as Iago directs his. Therefore, as he casts people in parts of his play and supervises rehearsals, Iago simultaneously plays both the part of the director and actor.Helping other actors with their roles, Iago also acts as a surrogate prompter. When Barbantio orders the attendants to seize Othello and to get him under their control through force if necessary, Othello remarks: “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter,” thereby informing Barbantio that he will not resist since it is not the time for him to fight in the play (I.ii.83-84). It is significant that he specifies that he does not need a cue to fight in particular, for this shows that he knows his role as a military general; in fact, he is so comfortable with it that he is confident that he does not need the assistance of a prompter to play the part flawlessly. The use of theatre language makes the drama briefly self-referential to call attention to the fact that every play has a prompter, helping one to recognize that Iago has slipped into this role, which he does early on. In contrast to the confidence he had in his acting ability as a military general, Othello finds himself at a loss for what action to take next after he finds himself in the role of the envious husband. After forcing Othello into the part of the jealous, suspicious husband by driving him to question Desdemona’s fidelity, Iago takes on the duty of a surrogate prompter now that Othello needs assistance with his part, for only an actor who needs help would need the assistance of a prompter. For instance, when Othello still questions Desdemona’s faithfulness, Iago urges him to “Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio; / Wear your eyes thus, not jealous nor secure” (III.iii.197-198). With his cues to “look” and “observe,” Iago not only advises the audience, but he also instructs Othello to assume the role of the audience, even modeling how he should act. By introducing doubt in Othello’s mind and then suggesting and demonstrating how he should act, Iago incites Othello to act as a jealous husband would just as a prompter would help an actor to learn his lines and perform his part effectively. Iago takes on this role as surrogate prompter to get himself into a position whereby he can manipulate the actions and minds of others, leading them to their downfall through deception under the guise of friendship and concern.Shakespeare uses theatrical language not only to highlight Iago’s multiple theatrical roles, but also to thereby convey the helplessness of the characters that Iago manipulates. In act I, scene 1, Iago says to Roderigo, “I am not what I am” (64). This phrase resounds strongly of God’s description of himself to Moses as “I AM WHO I AM” in Exodus 3:13 of The Bible, except that Iago substitutes “what” in the place of “who.” Interestingly, Iago’s statement may seem awkward since “who” – not “what” – is the proper pronoun one should use to describe a person; however, this pronoun substitution may be deliberate, for with this modification, Iago expresses that he is not merely a character and asserts that he exists beyond the play. The way in which Iago phrases this self-description portrays him as a sort of anti-God who has the opposite effect that a dues ex machina does. Just as God controls the world, Iago similarly controls the events and characters of the play. Iago’s constant promptings of how the characters should act, his scripting and staging of scenes yet to come, and comments about the actions of the other characters foster a weird sense that the other characters in the play are fictional characters in Iago’s play. This effect portrays the actors’ loss of personal willpower and inability to control what will happen to them during the course of the play, for Iago’s psychological and physical manipulation of them controls their actions. Moreover, that Iago depicts himself as godlike further emphasizes their vulnerability to his whims. Ludovico’s description of Othello in the last scene of Act V demonstrates the general’s helplessness when he states: “O thou Othello that was once so good, / Fall’n in the practice of a damned slave, / What shall be said to thee?” (291-293). That Ludovico describes Iago as having fallen into a performance of a slave implies that Othello assumed that role involuntarily and lacked the agency to be able to control the events around himself. Furthermore, that Roderigo describes Othello as a slave brings into question who the master is; in this case, it is Iago. This relationship between master and slave also raises an interesting parallel relationship between an actor and director, for both actor and slave are similarly subservient to a dominating director or master. Thus, because the language of the theatre shows how Iago controls the production of the play, it depicts the passivity and helplessness of the characters since Iago controls their thoughts, action, and fate.While his machinations and actions make it easy for the audience to mark him the villain of the play, Iago uses theatrical language to challenge their characterization of him. After coaching Cassio on how to get back into Othello’s good graces, Iago soliloquizes: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain, / When this advice is free I give and honest, / Probal to thinking, and indeed the course / To win the Moor again?” (II.iii.324-327). There is an ambiguity regarding to whom Iago refers with the pronoun “he.” At this point in the play, none of the characters suspects Iago of his deceitful plotting; the character who knows the most about Iago’s true intentions and nature is Roderigo, but at this point, even he trusts Iago to help him win Desdemona for his own, not knowing that Iago will kill him in the end. While this soliloquy may merely be a rhetorical statement, Iago can be addressing the one group of people who know of his deceit – the audience. Throughout the play, Iago shares his treacherous plans in soliloquies and thus reveals his genuinely evil nature to the audience. By demonstrating awareness that he is performing a part in a play, he steps out of the play’s realm and calls attention to the play’s artificiality just for a moment so that he can address the audience and challenge their characterization of him as the villain with an unnerving accuracy as he uncannily presumes that they have done so, which they have.Stepping out of the play, Iago uses this opportunity to manipulate the audience’s thoughts just as he manipulates the thoughts and actions of the characters in the play. Still addressing the audience, Iago continues with the previous soliloquy: “How am I then a villain / To counsel Cassio to this parallel course, / Directly to his good?” (II.iii.336-338). By bringing up the valid claim that he is doing a good deed by advising Cassio on how to get what he wants, Iago forces the audience to question their designation of him as the play’s villain. With this statement, Iago leads the audience to play with the idea that he may not be the villain, since what he says is true. However, this uncertainty only lasts for a moment, for he continues: “Divinity of hell! / When devils with the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (II.iii.338-340). By directing the ending line “As I do now” to the audience, Iago reveals that he has just tricked the audience in the same manner that devils do and more importantly, just as he dupes his victims in the play, thereby reaffirming the audience’s judgment of him as the villain. Furthermore, the duped audience despises Iago even more for his lack of shame and awareness of his evil nature. In this manner, Iago’s use of theatre language gives him an opportunity to address the audience and manipulate their thoughts as he does his victims in the play so that his villainy extends beyond the play’s realm.As this scene empowers Iago with the ability to extend his realm of deceit, it also strips him of power because it calls attention to the fact that he too is merely another one of the play’s fictional characters. By the end of his soliloquy, Iago has led the audience to the conclusion that he does indeed “play the villain” in the play by duping them as well (II.iii.324). By reinforcing his audience’s characterization of him as the villain, Iago inadvertently emphasizes that he plays a role in the play Othello, and thus, he is a fictional character. Because fictional characters have a determined fate since the playwright and his script have already determined their future, they lack control of their future. No matter how cunning and powerful Iago may appear to be, Iago will always end up in the hands of the authorities at the end of every production of the play. Thus, while the theatrical language gives Iago a chance to extend his reign of terror to the audience, it simultaneously weakens the audience’s perception of him as wielding so much power, for it reminds them that he is merely a fictional character like the other characters and thus has no more control than they do over his future.When Iago fails in his attempt to control the other characters with his speech, he turns to action and then to silence. When Emilia first begins to reveal Iago’s deceit, Iago orders her to “charm…[her] tongue,” but when she fails to heed his command, he alters his order, telling her instead: “I charge you get you home” (V.ii.184, 195). With the verb “charge,” Iago not only imposes a task upon her, but he also draws upon his authority as her husband as he commands her. As Emilia challenges his authority by disregarding his directions, Iago draws his sword and stabs her, thereby reasserting his power over her. Shortly thereafter, Othello tells Cassio to demand Iago to explain why he plotted against him, and Iago answers: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.303-304). A demand calls for another to do something based upon authority and thereby implies that one wields power over the other. Iago refuses to comply with the demand not only because he wants to frustrate their attempts in figuring out the truth, but also more importantly, he refuses to acknowledge that they control him. His silence is his last attempt to try to reestablish his power, although it is a feeble attempt considering that he is now physically under their control. Thus, Iago’s silence shows his refusal to let anyone subjugate him, even though it is clear that he no longer wields any power over the other characters or himself.While Iago is clearly the villain of the play based upon his treachery and deceit, metadrama complicates this characterization by not only challenging and reaffirming this designation, but also by amplifying and diminishing the appearance of Iago’s possession of power. He may be Othello’s servant, but his theatrical functions in the play as director, prompter, and playwright distance him from the plot and thereby give him an apparent control over the other characters. However, while his theatrical roles delude him into thinking that he is in control, they also reveal that the other characters influence and direct his actions just as he directs them. The thought of living under subjugation repulses Iago so much that he expresses his refusal to submit to the authorities by taking an oath of silence although there is no hope of escaping their control. He ironically does not realize that his character exists throughout the play under the direction of others, such as the other characters in the play and Shakespeare himself. It is possible for Iago to live under authority – even though he may not think so – just as long as he is not aware of it. Unfortunately, his very nature as a fictitious character automatically places him under the control of the playwright; thus, his hatred of authority dooms him to a life of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.Works CitedShakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice. The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephan Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Group, 2002. 1402-1444.The Holy Bible: New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1986.
The name Iago comes from Latin, “Iacobus,” meaning “one who trips up another and takes his place.” This name also belongs to the most important character in Shakespeare’s Othello and one of the most wonderfully evil characters of all time. The character Iago is more than worthy of his name, for in the process of “tripping up” the character Cassio in order to gain Cassio’s lieutenancy, Iago takes extreme measures to take revenge on Othello, the general who first deprived him of the lieutenancy. In taking these measures, Iago wreaks havoc on the lives of the characters and creates a reign of disorder. Thematically, this disorder is manifested in the juxtaposition of opposing sides: honesty versus deceit and appearance versus reality, black versus white and good versus evil, and God versus the Devil. Iago exemplifies the theme of opposition and contradiction and casts an aura over the play which reflects this theme with his paradoxical statement, “I am not what I am.” (Act I; i)This statement is significant in many ways, one being that it reflects the theme of contradiction within the play. It is also significant because it directly repeals God’s statement to Moses in Exodus III: “I Am that I Am.” By this God meant that He was All, the “I Am,” the Ego, the complete and only Being and Power. By deliberately contradicting God’s statement, Iago insinuates that he is the opposite of God, implying that he may be the devil. The idea of Iago as a representation of Satan will be discussed further on.Iago’s self-denying statement can also be used as a formula throughout the play – whenever he uses the words “I am,” they can be replaced with the words “I am not,” to produce a completely different meaning to what he says. This idea obviously coincides with the theme of opposition in that it deals with opposing meanings. For example, at one point Iago says to Roderigo, “I am for you.” (Act I; ii) Plugging in the formula translates this statement to “I am not for you.” This makes much more sense, because Iago is not “for” Roderigo at all – he is merely using Roderigo to carry out his schemes, and he greatly dislikes Roderigo, thinking him to be an idiot for his passive cooperation and his gullibility. A more important example of how this formula can be used is when Iago says “As honest as I am.” (Act II; i) This is one of the many references made to Iago by himself and others as being “honest.” He is, of course, not honest at all, which is why it makes sense to use the formula so that his statement says “As honest as I am not.”Iago appears to be honest but is really dishonest; this idea reflects the theme of opposition – in this case, the opposition of honesty and deceit as well as appearance and reality. Other elements of the play likewise reflect these ideas, such as the reality of Desdemona’s innocence and the distortion of reality, her unfaithfulness, which Iago makes Othello believe to be real. Iago makes Desdemona and Cassio seem dishonest, while really Desdemona is chaste and loyal and Cassio is honorable. All of these contradictions arise from Iago’s craftiness, and they are also related to Iago’s “I am not what I am” statement – he is not what he is, and so he makes others seem to be not what they are.The theme of opposing sides is also manifested in the ideas of black versus white and evil versus good. Othello, a Moor, contrasts greatly with the rest of the characters, who are all white. His coloring creates conflict in some areas, such as the way in which others view him. Brabantio, for example, is Desdemona’s father, and he becomes angry when she elopes with Othello, mainly because Othello is black. He speaks harshly to Othello and accuses him of witchcraft, demanding of him why else his daughter would “run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou – to fear, not to delight!” (Act i; ii) The conflict between black and white later becomes prominent as the dark Moor begins to oppose his fair-haired, blue-eyed wife due to his ever-growing suspicion, constantly fed by Iago’s guile.The theme of black and white is centered on at one point in a witty speech by Iago about women:If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,The one’s for use, the other useth it….If she be black, and thereto have a wit, She’ll find a white that shall her blackness hit….She never yet was foolish that was fairFor even her folly helped her to an heir.(Act II, i)This clever rhyme seems to favor fairness over blackness, which reflects Iago’s hatred of Othello.The theme of black versus white is a variation of the theme of evil versus good. Iago, of course, is evil, and he is in opposition with good, represented by Othello, especially, and by all the other characters. The irony of Iago versus Othello is that it creates a contradiction within a contradiction. The first contradiction is, once again, good versus evil. The second contradiction is that good is usually represented by white and evil by black, but in this case the colors are reversed.Not only does the theme of opposing sides exist in the form of good versus evil, but it presents itself in the form of God versus the Devil. As mentioned before, Iago may be considered a representation of Satan because of his declaring himself the opposite of God with his “I am not what I am.” Another time Iago implies that he represents the devil is when he describes how he deceives others with his appearance: “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now.” (Act II; iii) Also, the role of a destructor which he assumes directly opposes the idea of God as the Creator, so Iago must represent the opposite of God, the devil. Who, then, is the god against whom Iago is warring? According to Harold Bloom in Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, Othello is Iago’s god. Though this may not at first seem logical, one must consider the following ideas: Iago, being a representation of Satan, revels in his evil qualities and loves to wage war. In fact, war is his religion. Because Othello is a general of war, Iago worships him as a god. When Othello passes Iago over and gives the lieutenancy to Cassio, Iago becomes nothing, hence “I am not what I am.” Because he is nothing, he must war against his god, Othello, who, like God in the Bible who is All, is everything to Iago because war is everything to Iago. Iago’s love of war also reflects the theme of opposition in the play, because war is essentially about opposing sides.Incidentally, Iago states at one point that, had Othello not passed him over, Iago never would have become “nothing.” Iago conveys this idea to Roderigo in the words “It is as sure as you are Roderigo, Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.” (Act I; i) Iago means to say that if he were as powerful as the Moor and he had received the lieutenancy, he would not have become the nothing that Iago is, the “I am not” which constitutes his being. He never would have experienced the emptiness of his soul, which led to his lack of morality and then his malicious pursuit of mischief. In fact, he never would have become the wonderfully evil character who is so esteemed in literature.The meanings of names plays a small but significant role, as illustrated previously with the meaning of Iago’s name. There are two more significant names, however, which have not yet been mentioned. The name Bianca, which belongs to Cassio’s lover, means “white.” This is a contradiction, because white is associated with purity, and Bianca is a prostitute, someone who is certainly far from being pure. Her name also coincides with the black and white theme. The name Desdemona, from Greek, “desdaimonia,” means “of the devil.” This is significant in two ways. Firstly, it reflects the theme of contradiction because Desdemona is completely pure and far from being “of the devil.” It is also significant, however, that Othello comes to think the devil is in her because she is disloyal – at one point he even strikes her and says to her when she weeps: “O devil, devil! / If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears, / Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile. / Out of my sight!” (Act IV; i) It is evident that Shakespeare’s choice of names was anything but random.When Othello’s rejection of Iago sparks in Iago’s empty soul the desire for revenge, Iago embarks on a journey which eventually ends with his defeat. Somewhere along the way, however, Iago ceases to have a motive for his causing murder and mayhem and begins to do it for pure pleasure, indulging in his passion for war-waging. In this way, his evil takes on a life of its own. Iago is able to succeed in his destruction of others for two main reasons. One idea belongs to Harold Bloom, that the absence of comedy allows for Iago’s success. This is because comedy would mean wit, and the presence of wit, which is so strategically lacking in any other character but Iago, would mean his ruin. One reason that Iago succeeds in beguiling Othello, therefore, is because Othello has no wit and cannot see through Iago or outfox him. Another reason is the nature of Othello’s character. Othello is entirely dependent on how others view him for the way in which he views himself. This is the reason that he marries Desdemona – he loves her only because she loves him for his greatness and valor. When Othello feels he is losing Desdemona, he begins to lose himself as well, because his identity is dependent on her and how she views him. Iago knows this and uses Othello’s vulnerability against him, telling him Desdemona is untrue and shaking his confidence in himself until he cannot see clearly. Shakespeare’s Othello certainly revolves around the character Iago, and not only because every other character is just a pawn in his game of war and revenge. The entire thematic structure of the play revolves around the contradiction and opposition which arises from the disorder caused by Iago, and which is manifested in Iago’s ominous statement, “I am not what I am.”
As Othello, Laurence Olivier entreats the Venetian nobles to relate the true account of his actions and motivations. Olivier’s words seem almost imploring, suggesting that he is an outsider seeking approval from those with foreign sympathies. At the beginning of his address, little in his demeanor resembles that of Laurence Fishburne’s Othello, whose quiet yet confident dignity courteously yet firmly dictates the judgment to be passed upon himself. Speaking with emphatic tones, Fishburne’s delivery establishes Othello as one who views himself as an equal, if not a peer. The juxtaposition of these two portrayals yields contrasting possibilities for the interpretation of Shakespeare’s final scene in Othello; along with the text, it suggests an ultimate duality in the protagonist’s perception of his relationship to different others.Othello’s murder of Desdemona can, in one sense, be traced to his insecurities about being different in a society of courtly Venetian whites. Tragically, it is only too late that Othello realizes his difference had no diminishing effect on Desdemona’s love for him and should have had no bearing on his love for her. Upon coming to this realization, Othello appeals to the Venetian nobles, “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” (5.2. 351-353). Othello’s capacity to love, albeit too late realized, suggests a certain nobility. At the same time, Othello makes such an appeal because he realizes that others may associate his lack of wiseness with blackness and further associations of baseness and ignoble difference.While realizing that others may continue to judge, Othello seems to come to terms with his difference. Conscious but no longer self-conscious of his outsider status, Othello compares himself to foreigners; he calls himself “the base Indian, [who] threw a pearl away” (5.2. 356) and one “Albeit unused to the melting mood, / Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees” (5.2. 358-359). Othello further compares his pending suicide to his earlier slaying of “a malignant and a turbaned Turk / [who had] Beat a Venetian and traduced the state” (5.2. 362-362). Paradoxically, Othello is at once an assaulter and defender of the Venetian state. As Desdemona’s murderer, he is like the Turk who transgresses moral and state laws; by taking his own life, however, Othello executes the letter of the law. The latter qualifies him as part of the Venetian circle, even though he is a stranger. Simultaneously victim and victimizer, transgressor and avenger, Othello bears a dual relationship to the world of nobles and courtiers.An exaggerated portrayal of this duality can be seen though a comparison of Olivier and Fishburne’s renditions of Othello’s suicide. Olivier’s Othello kills himself with a violent defiance – a perhaps desperate attempt to prove that he can match the supposedly higher morality of white men by avenging Desdemona’s death. Implicit is Othello’s conviction that others deem him different and base. In contrast, Fishburne’s Othello takes his own life with a gracious stoicism – as though he were a dignified agent enforcing a law that he stands behind with white others. Implicit is his assumption that he bears a level of moral and other equality matching that of those witnessing his death.To the very end, Othello is conscious of the criticism and judgement of others. On the one hand, he realizes that some may only see him as a black man who murdered a white woman. By avenging Desdemona’s death upon himself, however, Othello preemptively attempts to counteract such judgments while asserting the purity of his love for Desdemona. Indeed, Othello states that he is the equal of anyone who may dismiss him as a base black man; his suicide contains an implicit acknowledgement and acceptance of the same moral standards that even those supposedly superior to him use to judge acts of violent death – that those who murder should be punished by death.