1 Revenge Othello contains elements of the revenge tragedy even though it is not, strictly speaking, a revenge play. Shakespeare’s audience was particularly fond of this type of play. Containing such popular elements as violence, action and suspense, revenge plays captured the popular imagination. Othello is, in part, a play about how Iago avenges what he imagines is Othello's sexual encounter with his wife and what he sees as the appointment of an inferior soldier, Cassio, to an important military position, instead of himself. He also wants to get back at Cassio for having 'robbed' him of his rightful place. Some viewers regard Othello's reaction to the 'knowledge' that his wife has been unfaithful as an act of vengeance. As we have seen above, this is far too simplistic a view, ignoring as it does the complex factors that determine his action. By the end of the play there is Othello's desire to seek revenge on Iago for having misled him into believing that Desdemona had been unfaithful. Having recognised these revenge elements, we realise how inadequate it is to describe the play simply as a revenge play. Othello as a tragedy The classic description of what a tragedy should be occurs in the Poetics of Aristotle, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC. According to Aristotle, tragedy should feature a hero who is an intermediate sort of person - neither especially good nor especially bad - who passes from happiness to misery as a result not of vice or depravity but because of an error of judgement, which makes him the victim of circumstances beyond his control. Central to this description is the notion of ignorance- that the hero should be unaware of some vital knowledge that is revealed to him at the climax of the drama, precipitating his downfall. The purpose of tragedy is to inspire pity and terror in the audience and to purge or purify them by their witnessing of the spectacle. Shakespeare was one of several playwrights in 17th-century England experimenting with tragedy, and he made a major contribution to the form corresponding with Aristotle at some points but not at others. While it is unlikely that Shakespeare knew anything of Aristotle directly, having little knowledge of the Greek language, he almost certainly would be familiar with the plays of Seneca- (4 BC-AD 65), a Roman playwright whose versions of the Greek tragedies about which Aristotle wrote were immensely popular in the late sixteenth century. Seneca's plays stress the violent aspects of tragedy: they are dark, gloomy and savage, with a great relish for extravagant, bloody language - all features observable in Othello. More important, though, was Seneca's transmission to Renaissance Europe of the tragic form, and this too we can see in Othello. Here the hero falls from prosperity to misery, just as Aristotle says he should; and his fall is the result of an error of judgement about Desdemona's nature and Iago's, which makes him vulnerable to circumstances beyond his control. Throughout most of the play he is in ignorance about Iago's plot and this is only revealed to him in the final climax of the play. Pity and terror, which Aristotle speaks of as producing the catharsis, or purgation, are certainly among the responses of the audience: pity for the fates of Othello and Desdemona, and terror at the horror they have just witnessed. But there are also important differences from Aristotle's prescription, and these tell us a good deal about the characteristic mode of Shakespearean tragedy. For one thing, the Poetics demands a clear distinction between base and noble characters: the involvement of such a crude character as Emilia in the tragic fate of the protagonists is frowned upon because it detracts from the dignity of the action. Shakespeare likes to mix the various elements of his theatre, which classical theory said should be kept apart: comedy and tragedy; the serious and the absurd; lofty, average and low kinds of speech; jokes and disasters. Thus the character of Iago, inconceivable in classical tragedy, is at times humorous even in his wickedness. This mixing of the elements contributes to the sense of variety and richness in Shakespeare's work and - as in the case of Iago - can incomparably heighten the drama. Another, more important, difference from Aristotle results from the emphasis Shakespeare puts on the psychological study of his characters. In the Poetics we are told that the essence of tragedy is action, and that character is a secondary consideration: what matter are the causal relationship of events and the unity of the action - the way in which the end is shown to be an inevitable result of the beginning. While Othello is one of Shakespeare's most concentrated and unified plays, action takes second place to character. To put it another way, the important action is internal rather than external: it goes on in the mind and soul of the hero. Linked with this is Shakespeare's distinctive treatment of what the Greeks called hubris. Hubris is the pride of a man who forgets his human limitations, especially the limits of his knowledge. Ignorance is a theme of Othello, a play in which all the main characters disastrously lack sufficient insight into one another. No one knows the true Iago; Desdemona is ignorant of Othello's violent and suspicious nature; Othello shows by his jealousy that he does not truly understand his wife; Iago's failure to understand the nature of love and loyalty leads him to underestimate these qualities in his wife. In classical tragedy the main victim of hubris is the hero. In Othello, however, it is the villain who manifests this kind of pride most distinctively. While Othello can certainly be called proud in a way - the play's action savagely tames his pride -it is Iago who constantly boasts in his soliloquies about what a clever fellow he is, and how he is making fools of everyone else. It is by looking for a moment at the role of Iago that we shall see what an unusual, even unique tragedy Othello is. Aristotle tells us that all the characters in a tragedy must be good if the audience are to sympathise with them. Iago is indisputably wicked. Furthermore, the usual formula decrees that the hero is brought low by a fault in his own nature which puts him in the grip of uncontrollable circumstances; but Othello is brought low by the human agency of Iago, 2 not by the gods or by destiny. This has led some critics to suggest that Othello's fate is not really grand enough for a tragic hero, because he is pitted against a base individual, not against providence or the divine will. Others have seen the strange uncertainty about Iago's motivation -is he really jealous of Emilia and so upset, about a missed promotion that never seemed likely? In this view Iago's lack of positive motivation - what Coleridge called his 'motiveless malignity'- appears as a sign that he is important in the play not as an individual but as the embodiment of a natural force: irrational, inexplicable evil. Certainly Iago's almost godlike power over Othello, Cassio and Roderigo suggests something more than the human, but perhaps the true explanation of the puzzle lies in the simple fact that this is, on the contrary, an entirely human tragedy with nothing divine about it. This last point would answer another criticism: that the central theme of the play, Othello's love for Desdemona, is not sufficiently important as the basis of a tragedy. Classical critics took the view that sexual love was an insufficient motive for tragedy because it is an animal passion: tragedy, they thought, should deal with what is divine in man - his reason and his soul. Othello has been criticised adversely on just this basis: that all the passions in the play are crude and trivial. But here the general point about Shakespeare should be made. In both Othello and Antony and Cleopatra - two of his greatest tragedies - he makes sexual passion crucial to the play and to the hero's downfall because in both plays it is the nature of man, not the vengeance or ill-will of the gods, which produces the tragedy. In Othello Iago admits to his own devilish nature when he invokes the 'divinity of hell', and the play is full of references to heaven and hell. But heaven and hell are shown to exist on earth and the characters experience them in life. The agencies of fate do not descend from Olympus: they dwell in the minds of the protagonists. A tragedy of misunderstanding A very convincing case can be mounted that Othello is about the danger of ignorance, not only of other people but of oneself. Consider: The Moor marries a girl years younger than he is, whom he has known for only a short while. They are as unlike as it is possible to be: he a black African, a life-long soldier, middle-aged, gruff, brusquely independent, a man's man, unused to relationships except those of the battlefield; she a white European, an educated noblewoman, brought up in one of the most sophisticated capitals of the Renaissance, barely out of her teens, over-protected, romantic, gentle. He claims to love Desdemona, and she him, yet their love seems based on mutual admiration (I.iii. 166-7) more than any basic compatibility. How does this ignorance show itself? He is capable of believing that she is having an adulterous affair with his best friend just after the wedding. This argues faulty knowledge of a stupendous kind. On a battlefield, the forces involved are visible: to see is to act, and to act decisively is to win. In affairs of the heart (the unfamiliar territory into which Othello is plunged by his marriage) much is hidden and the naive assumption that swift action is appropriate disastrously wrong. Why did he not see the difference? His background yes, but also a kind of wilful ignorance? Desdemona thinks he loves her for herself, despite the speech cited above, which says a lot about Othello but almost nothing about her. She is capable of hoping for the best even after he strikes her, and despite hints from Emilia about the danger of jealousy she keeps mentioning the name of a young and handsome man whenever she sees her older and clearly disturbed husband. By the time she sees what is going on, it is too late. Knowing his background, and the furore over her honour caused by her elopement, why did she not look into the crisis more closely? Innocence or ignorance? The theme can be applied to the other characters too. Emilia fails to see what Iago is really like until the last act. Roderigo is the same. Cassio too. And Iago - although he seems to understand himself (as witness his several 'knavery' speeches) - seems to proceed from simple motives (disappointed ambition and jealousy) to a diabolic glee in his power and destructive talent. John Wain makes out a very convincing argument that Iago becomes as insane as Othello, not in his rational grasp on detail, but in his sense of where it's all leading. Why do they misunderstand so fatally? One of the best books on Othello is Jane Adamson's superb study Othello as tragedy (Cambridge University Press, 1980). She manages to encompass both the Bradleyan and Leavisite views of Othello, arguing that the play dramatises the eternal human tendency to see what we want to see, to perceive selectively, to let feelings and needs construct a subjective reality. Throughout Othello we watch how every one of the characters construes and misconstrues things, how they all 'fashion' their view of others to fit with their sense of themselves (or vice versa); and increasingly we become aware - as they themselves never do - of how their fears and desires and needs lead to various kinds of emotional confusion and inflexibility, and how this in turn blocks or deforms their sense of what is and what is not.... Much of the power of Othello as a tragedy is to make us acutely aware of our own needs for emotional and moral certainty, simplicity and finality - our own impulse to think on two spools: black/white, right/wrong - and to categorise people as fair or foul in accordance with our own hot feelings about them. In revealing the web of self-strung delusions in which its characters trap themselves, the play forbids us (unless we delude ourselves) to judge its characters absolutely in terms of moral 'debit' and 'credit', as angels or devils, virtuous victims or hellish villains. Shakespeare is far too subtle to be suggesting anything as crude as 'Don't judge a book by its cover' or 'Look before you leap', but there does seem to be a lot of trouble here over faulty communication, fatal mis-readings of other people and confusing the appearance with the reality. Tragedy? Certainly the scale of suffering justifies the word. And in the classical sense of partly an inborn fault and partly the result of unkind destiny, again there seems a claim to be made. 3 A tragedy of pride Othello is proud. He knows he is a great general, the key to Venice's strength as a military power. He knows he has had an exotic and impressive life, of which people (like Brabantio) love to hear tales. He knows he is loved by one of the most beautiful women in Venice. Desdemona is proud. She is high-born and 'fair', and has made the match of the most heroic of men. She trusts her own judgement over that of her father, following her will with supreme confidence. She knows she is loved by Othello, and that she deserves this love. Iago is proud. He has been slighted in the promotion, but he knows 'his value', and is determined to have it recognised, by fair means or foul. He knows he is the smartest man around, more than a match for all the others simultaneously if he puts his mind to it - and he does. All suffer from the cardinal sin (in the Christian catalogue) of pride. It was the sin committed by Satan, before he fell from grace. It was the reason Adam and Eve disobeyed God and were thrown out of Paradise. It was the thing most to be avoided by those who wished to endure. The Greeks (who invented tragedy) agreed, oddly, with the significance of this fatal quality. They called it hubris, and it was the usual reason in their tragedies for the downfall of great people. Clever arrogant Oedipus (and his father before him) thought he could disobey the gods; his fall was terrible. The Elizabethans inherited both the classical and the Christian view of pride, and it shows up clearly in their drama. Look at Macbeth: he wanted to be King - ambition being pride in action - and he destroyed everything in the service of this overweening hunger for self glorification. Othello too can be read as a tragedy of pride, since all three central characters (it can be argued) suffer from it. Certainly in the case of Othello and Iago it is a primary motivation. With the Ancient, it is thwarted ambition. With the Moor, it is concern with his good name (see especially IV.ii.46-63); being 'cuckolded' is one of the oldest of all humiliations, never more so than in a patriarchal society whose women normally observe a strict rule of chaste monogamy. It is Othello's pride as much as his love which is shattered by Iago's plot, and it is pride which compels him against his finer instincts to carry out the execution of Desdemona. Even his last speech submits to this interpretation. Othello admits to mortal sin, and being wrong, but he blames the 'demi-devil' for his mistake, and dies protesting the honour of his basic motivation ('loved not wisely, but too well'). The fatal consequences of pride: it is a most respectable mainstream reading of this complex play. Love and hatred are clearly central to the play: even more important, perhaps, is the relationship between them, the way in which one can lead to the other, the sense that they are sides of the same coin. Different kinds of love are explored in the play: husband and wife, mistress and maid; but the main area of interest is erotic, for it is here that love can easily turn to hatred, or to jealousy and suspicion. The nature of Desdemona's love is uncomplicated, but Othello's is scrutinised in depth under pressure. Associated with the theme of love and hatred are subsidiary themes of trust, honour, loyalty, betrayal, and the social, sexual and personal factors that complicate these. Iago is as much a focal point in this respect as are Othello and Desdemona. These themes are all focused on the central betrayal of Othello by Iago, and the General's tragic downfall. Tragic fate itself constitutes a kind of theme: though enacted rather than directly discussed in the play, its moral and spiritual implications are made explicit. Man's ignorance of circumstances, fate and other men; his helplessness in the face of evil; the tragic consequences of pride: all these are themes of any tragedy, here explored in the concrete situation of Othello's love for Desdemona. Associated with these themes is the idea of the outsider, which has special relevance for this play. Both Othello and Iago are outsiders in different senses, and their isolation from the human community of the play - literal in Othello's case, moral and spiritual in Iago's -proves to be crucial. If Othello were not a stranger in Venice his insecurity would not react so disastrously upon his temper; if Iago had any notion of anything but the primacy of self-interest he might not act as he does. If even Desdemona were not herself so isolated from family and friends she might be spared her fate. The small number of characters in Othello emphasises the sense of their apartness, each from the other. This is reinforced by threads of imagery running through the play connected with injury and betrayal, speech and silence, deception, savage-beasts and devils, all of which point to the precariousness of life, its perplexity and its perils. Love and Jealousy It is impossible to comment on Othello without mentioning its primary motivations: love, and its corrupted offspring, jealousy. That Othello and Desdemona love one another is easy to establish, viz: For know Iago /But that I love the gentle Desdemona. That I love the Moor to live with him. . . My heart's subdued/Even to the very quality of my lord. and so on. (There are at least two dozen good quotes to support their love throughout the play.) But what sort of love is it? Romantics like Bradley see it as a glorious thing, not merely the 'marriage of true minds' but an almost spiritual experience, the loss of which is cataclysmic ('when I love thee not, /Chaos is come again') in the medieval sense of destroying the whole order of the world. Such a reading involves a sense of terrible pain at the murder and then Othello's realisation after the event of what he has done. Cynics have taken a different view. W.H.Auden for instance saw Desdemona's adulation of the Moor as like a 'silly schoolgirl crush' on a war hero, and Othello's 'I loved her that she 4 did pity them' is a sign that he was gratified by her hero worship, rather than loving her as herself. It is difficult to be sure how Shakespeare saw this theme. On the evidence of the last speech, it can be argued that Othello begins and ends with love ('a pearl richer than all his tribe'), yet in the meantime descends into an abyss of hatred and manages to destroy the one he claims to love. At what point does hatred nullify love? It will depend probably to a fair extent on the reader's own assumptions about the theme - the personal construction of meaning of which modern theorists make much. Jealousy is the other great driving force behind the story. It is at least partly what sets Iago on his devilish course, and it is avowedly what inflames the Moor. Although he is capable of thinking himself 'not easily jealous', many critics see this as self-delusion, in the light of his actions. What is it, and why is it so dangerous? Fear of loss (of the loved one), outraged pride (at no longer possessing utterly the other), shattering of self-esteem, loss of a great ideal (that of eternal and mutual adoration), sexual frustration - all of these can be found in Othello's agonies. Re-read especially Othello's speech to Desdemona (IV.ii.46ff), and consider the metaphors that run through his jealous words - toads, flies, serial rape, heavenly bodies displaced from their orbits, the end of the ordered cosmos (primeval 'chaos') - though his actions are vile, his pain is powerfully imagined. Shakespeare offers no antidote to jealousy, of course. But his depiction of this most human emotion is unforgettable. JEALOUSY The imagery associated with the central theme jealousy suggests the destructive, terrifying and perhaps unnatural qualities of this emotion. It is 'the green-eyed monster, which cloth mock / The meat it feeds on' (III.3.168-9), 'a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself (III.4.161-2). There 15 a strong sense of devouring and being devoured in these images, which fits in with Iago's description of Othello as being 'eaten up with passion'. These lines suggest the exact quality of Othello's monumental jealousy, once he becomes convinced that his wife is unfaithful, his jealousy does indeed feed itself, leading the hero behave monstrously. Jealousy 15 also deeply humiliating in Othello; Iago is correct when he says that it is 'A passion most unsuiting such a man' as the noble Moor of Venice (IV.1.78). Let us look at Shakespeare's exploration of jealousy more closely. There are three examples of jealousy that shed light on the subject: Iago's personal and professional jealousy, which is linked to feelings of envy and sets events in motion; Bianca's suspicions, which mirror Othello's closely, and the Moor's towering jealousy, which propels him towards tragedy. Iago says that hatred and jealousy gnaw at his inwards like poison; his aim is to make Othello and Cassio suffer as he suffers because he fears he has been cuckolded. We can never be sure that Iago's suspicions are true (Emilia denies that they are) but we feel that the ensign uses jealousy to rationalise his devilment. Like Othello and Bianca, his suspicions are groundless. Has jealousy perhaps turned Iago into a villain? Unlike Othello, however, Iago is cool and calculating when he chooses to act on his suspicions; jealousy follows on naturally from hatred in his characterisation. Does Othello's insistence on proof suggest that this jealous husband is a nobler man? Certainly we feel that his sexual jealousy is motivated by affection rather than hatred; in this example the 'green-ey'd monster' (III.3.169) seems to be the 'flipside' of boundless love. What Othello shares with Iago is covetousness; both men feel jealous because they have lost possession of something that they held dear, just as Bianca fears that she has lost Cassio's heart to a new lover. Because Desdemona and Emilia insist that they have done nothing to give their husbands cause to be jealous, we cannot see jealousy except as a negative emotion. We agree with Emilia's assessment that it is monstrous; it destroys love, honour and nobility in those it afflicts. It makes both male protagonists murderous and violent: it is a form of tyranny. It also seems that it is the nature of jealousy not to be satisfied. Iago continues plotting against Cassio after he has disgraced him and is not content with disturbing Othello's peace of mind, he must continue until Desdemona is dead. Finally, it might be argued that we also come to view jealousy as ridiculous as well as terrifying and chaotic. Iago's motives for revenge are surely inadequate and the handkerchief absurdly comes to symbolise Desdemona's virtue. JEALOUSY That Shakespeare intended that the play be at least in part about jealousy is apparent in the way that he has provided so many examples of it throughout the play. Roderigo is jealous of Othello's success in marrying Desdemona; Iago is jealous of Cassio, who has been promoted to the position that he has wanted for himself. More fundamentally, Iago is jealous of the 'worthiness' of both Cassio and Othello. And there is Bianca's jealousy. If the play were no more than about jealousy, we might well wonder what function much of Acts I and 2 perform in the play. More than simple jealousy is at work in the drama. For example, to describe Othello as simply a jealous husband is to gloss over the psychological depth that gives him life in the play. The question of whether he is 'easily jealous' or not ignores why he is capable of jealousy at all. Jealousy and revenge Othello is obviously a play about jealousy and revenge. Iago makes clear from the start that his motive is one of revenge towards Othello, who has both raised Cassio above him, and possibly had a sexual relationship with Emilia. Given Emilia's comments to Desdemona that she would be willing to commit adultery- 'who would not make her husband a cuckold, to make him a monarch?'—and her familiarity with Cassio on Cyprus, we might well wonder whether these suspicions of [Iago’s are not without foundation. Whether they are true or not, [Iago’s jealousy drives him to extraordinary lengths. If we focus on the jealousy displayed within the play, it is Iago who demonstrates the most consistent jealousy and desire for revenge; and it is Othello who is drawn into a web of jealousy and revenge that is unwarranted. But it is not only the men who experience jealousy. Bianca displays her feelings of jealousy about Cassio's 5 possible dalliance with another woman, and Emilia provides an explanation of what drives women to actions which arouse such feelings of jealousy. A critique of Passion and Romantic Love? This is a precarious argument. It proceeds in the play from Iago's famous denunciation in I.iii.330ff, and Othello's ominous: Now, by heaven, My blood begins my safer guides to rule, And passion, having my best judgement collied, Assays to lead the way. (II.iii.203-6) It can be justified in terms of the Elizabethan world view by various scholarly commentaries on the danger they saw in unbridled passion, and how important 'order' was - or perhaps more accurately the tension they saw between 'will' (desires, 'animal' instincts) and 'reason' (godlike control). The medieval cosmology had God and the angels above (understanding and perfect), the animals below (mindlessly going about their rather sordid activities), and man precariously in between (half divine, half bestial). Othello's problems can be read as the ravings of a man who has been devoured by the 'monster' of jealousy, the mad urgings of irrational passion. Even Desdemona's problems can be read as flowing from a marriage made on the basis of passionate attraction and wilfully against her (wise) father's wishes, a dangerously romantic conception. The trouble with the theory is that if reason is good and passion is bad, to put it crudely, then Iago is the better man, and Othello the poorer, and this can only be countenanced by the most twisted view of what the story and our feelings tell us. It is undoubtedly safer to see this thematic idea as partial, subject to important qualifications. Passion plus decorum, or reason humanised by love: these are safer positions. And as always, we have to beware of codifying the thoughts of so complex a dramatist as Shakespeare. Simple formulas do not represent the play in its true subtlety. Motiveless malignity': a case study in Evil It is possible to see Othello as the story of a man destroyed by his own inner weaknesses, as many critics have. But for most people Iago is the prime culprit. In fact, his actions are so villainous that a stronger word seems necessary. Coleridge scoffed at the 'motive hunting of motiveless malignity', suggesting that Iago's wickedness cannot be simply adduced by reference to the various slights he has suffered. It goes beyond the psychobabble of socially explicable crime. It is quite simply evil itself, in a pure form. Shakespeare seems to have had that in mind with various speeches involving the words 'knavery' end 'villain'. And what of: Divinity of hell! When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now. (II.iii.350-3) Furthermore, Iago is no perplexed spectator as his uncontrollable hatred produces misery, no lunatic not knowing what he's doing. He loves every minute of it. He glories in his depravity. Just as Satan was imagined as a supremely brilliant creature whose conscious mission was to corrupt people, so Iago - 'demidevil', 'hellish villain' - almost laughs out loud as he watches the 'poison' take hold on Othello, and contemplates the killings he is provoking. Is this a problem? Do we have to seek out some alternative interpretation, to let Iago off the hook? No. Shakespeare's great plays contain some very memorable villains, and if we leave behind our twentieth century preconceptions they are not a big problem. The religious view of the time accepted good and evil as self-evident truths in a way we no longer do. A modern squeamishness about the concept, a reluctance to see any person as totally bad, may be stopping us responding to Iago as the author intended. As Greer has suggested, evil is not out of date: We no longer feel, as Shakespeare's contemporaries did, the ubiquity [physical presence] of Satan, but Iago is still serviceable to us, as an objective correlative [outward sign or representation] of the mindless inventiveness of racist aggression. Iago is still alive and kicking and filling migrants' letterboxes with excrement. (from Germaine Greer, Shakespeare, 1986) What then is evil, as personified by Iago? The first thing it seems to embrace is power. Iago, deprived of the power he wanted, takes revenge by stealing it. He relishes his power over the Moor, Roderigo, Desdemona and Cassio. The only person who does not submit to his scheming is Emilia, and he kills her, partly it seems to stop her incriminating him (but he is lost by then anyway), partly as a final act of vicious dominance. Linked to power is egotism. Wounded pride sets Iago off, and the growing pleasures of indulging himself keep him going. By the scale of others, his missed promotion is a small disappointment. By his own reckoning, it is a mortal blow. His view of the world is unashamedly selfish - not merely petulant little boy selfish - but awesomely amorally 6 selfish. What suits him is justified, what affects others is beside the point. If nothing else he is a moral lesson in the dangers of totally mad self-preoccupation. Connected in turn to this is emotional deficiency. Evil almost necessarily means is the absence of love. One of Iago's most important speeches (I.iii.330ff) is all about the danger of passion. For him, love is sex, animal appetites, that 'dull. . . blood'. In stark contrast to the Moor and Desdemona he doesn't seem to have any conception of love, either in a romantic or even charitable sense. His ferocious 'will' and coolness under pressure is revealing. He is effectively a man without a heart. He cannot empathise with Othello or Desdemona, otherwise how could he torture them so? The final way of looking at evil is almost metaphysical: it has to do with his world view. Jan Kott sums it up neatly: Says Iago: The world consists of/villains and fools; of those who devour and those who are devoured. People are like animals; they copulate and eat each other. The weak do not deserve pity, they are just as abominable, only more stupid than the strong. The world is vile. Says Othello: The world is beautiful and people are noble. There exist in it love and loyalty. If we strip Othello of romantic varnish. . . [we see] a dispute between Othello and Iago; a dispute on the nature of the world. Is this world good or bad? (Jan Kott, Shakespeare our Contemporary, 1965) In case all this seems to argue that evil wins - a modern form of nihilism we should set limits. Elizabethan tragedies may have ended in death and destruction, but not in ethical disintegration. The melancholy finale of Othello ought not obscure the fact that justice is finally done. Desdemona has been murdered, true, but her killer repents, and takes his own life in self-punishment. The real villain will be broken and executed himself. Both the offenders will (in the medieval world view) go to Hell, but that is itself the sign of a coherent moral system. Sin, and take the punishment. Look at Othello's final speech: it is one of abject repentance. Look at Lodovico's closing speech: it is almost a sermon. Individuals have fallen victim to evil, but the moral 'system' of the world they inhabit is intact: the bad found out and punished, the implied lesson to go and sin no more. Othello is a striking portrait of evil in action, just as most of the old morality plays were, but it does not show evil triumphant. EVIL The play examines a recurring theme in Shakespeare- evil, its source and the way it can corrupt. Evil is often seen as the work of the devil. There are a great many diabolic images in Othello. 'Hell', 'devil', 'fiend' and 'damn' recur frequently in the play. Such images are associated with a variety of characters. The most notable exception is Desdemona, who is seen as angelic or heavenly. It is Iago who in the first part of the play is associated most with the devil. For example' he says he hates Othello 'as I do hell's pains' (Act 1, Sc. 1, 153). Planning to entrap Othello, Iago says his plan is engendered: 'Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light' (Act 1, Sc. 3, 385-6). Iago tells Roderigo that his wits are working with 'all the tribe of hell' (Act 1, Sc. 3, 344) and later he says: When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, As I do now. (Act 2, Sc. 3, 318- 20) The imagery suggests, then, that evil has its origin with Iago. As he increases his hold over Othello, so does the diabolic imagery shift increasingly to Othello. Initially, Othello's speech contains many more references to heaven than to hell. When, for example, he is defending himself against the charge that he lured Desdemona by witchcraft, he says that he speaks 'as truly as to heaven, (Act 1, Sc. 3, 122). Only when persuaded of Desdemona's 'guilt' does his language reflect the 'hellish' flavour of Iago's: 'Arise black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!' (Act 3, Sc. 3, 448). Henceforth, Desdemona will become a 'fair devil' and he will continue to describe her as such, repeating it as he strikes her (Act 4, Sc. 1). She is 'false as hell' (Act 4, Sc. 2, 38) and Emilia is a keeper of 'the gate of hell' (Act 4, Sc. 2, 91). The use of diabolic imagery, then, seems to suggest that Iago is a devilish character who corrupts an innocent Othello with his evil. If we looked at the play only in this way, it would seem to be an allegory: a version of the fall of Adam (represented as Othello) with Iago as Satan. Shakespeare, however, does not allow us to take such a simple view. In the same way that he subverts the stereotypical 'Moor', he asks who the real devil is in the play. It was pointed out earlier that there was a strong association in the minds of most of Shakespeare's audience between blackness and evil. The devil was frequently represented on the stage by an actor painted black. At the very beginning of the play, Othello himself would thus have been seen by Shakespeare's audience as a devil. Iago's description of him as 'an old black ram' would have suggested a goat: an animal associated with the devil. Of course, Shakespeare subverts this view as we hear Othello speak and see him in action. By the end of the play, however, the label that Emilia uses to describe him, 'thou art a devil', seems more and more appropriate. Shakespeare is not alone in his preoccupation with evil. When we read in the newspaper of an 'innocent' child killing children at a school or of a horrendous serial killer, we, too, ask the question, 'How can such things happen?' It is tempting to take the easy view: the devil must be at work. Shakespeare never allows such comforting thinking. In 7 Othello, he does not allow us to locate the source of evil in any one person. It is impossible to conclude that Iago is merely the devil seducing an innocent Othello. We have seen that what causes the tragedy is Othello's readiness to respond to Iago. Without this readiness, Iago's evil plan would never have succeeded. Othello kills Desdemona. The idea of murdering her is his alone. Othello is finally responsible for the evil that he has done. Fate or folly? One of the most vexed questions with tragedy is the problem of determinism. Does a tragic hero fall from grace because his destiny would have it so, or because of his own weaknesses? The Greeks often seemed to have it both ways. Oedipus was the subject of a divine prophesy (even before his birth) - that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Patricide and incest being the two greatest sins conceivable, he was put out to die. He survived and grew up. He came back to his own country as a young man, but in his arrogance quarrelled with and killed an old man on the road (his father) and married the queen of the city he saved (his mother). Thus it was his pride that fulfilled the prophecy. The same conundrum can be applied to Othello. Was the Moor bound to come to disaster because of his inherent simplicity of mind, his pride, his gullibility? Was he marked for tragedy by fate? Or was it ordinary human folly which prompted him to 'choose' to go along with Iago's scheming? Was Othello responsible, or was it just 'bad luck'? The critics have taken all manner of positions on this, some (like Bradley) effectively letting him off completely (it was Iago's fault), many more (like Leavis) denouncing him, and seeing Iago as merely the instrument of destruction. Although it seems like fence-sitting, a composite view does commend itself: that Othello was a good man who did love his wife (as he asserts most plainly at beginning and end), but that he had a fatal flaw (Jealousy, pride, delusion, hastiness?) which was his undoing. When tempted, he fell with the terrible consequences we see. He is responsible (free will), but it was something inherent in him exploited by another (determinism) which precipitated the tragedy. You must make up your own mind. No matter what you decide, you will have critical precedents aplenty for your point of view. This is almost one of the great unanswerables. Acquisition of knowledge of self and others The opening scene demonstrates how Roderigo acquires knowledge of Iago and of Iago’s relationships with Othello and Cassio. Iago simply tells Roderigo what is, in effect, the truth: he hates Othello, the Moor, and is envious of Cassio's promotion above him. However, in revealing these feelings, Iago is able to justify and rationalise them to himself and to Roderigo. Othello, he asserts, is 'loving his own pride and purposes' and Cassio is 'mere prattle without practice'. Roderigo does not, of course, seek verification elsewhere. Iago knows other characters well. Indeed, we see him throughout the play use the knowledge he acquires of others against them. For instance, Iago observes Cassio's mannerly welcome of Desdemona and Emilia and immediately realises that he can use this to his own advantage- 'I will gyve thee in shine own courtship'. And again, when Othello reveals his suspicion of [Iago’s knowledge, Iago is able to use his understanding of Othello to manipulate him to think the worst. In contrast, the Duke does not accept only one source of knowledge when Brabantio enters and accuses Othello of witchcraft and seduction. He is willing to hear both Othello's words and Desdemona's words before making any judgement —just as he listens to all the messengers who bring news of the war in Cyprus. Tragically, Othello's knowledge of himself comes only after he is faced with the truth of his awful deed, and not until then is he able to sort out true words from false. RACE AND COLOUR Strictly speaking, race cannot be considered a theme in the same way that jealousy and love are themes in Othello; however, it is impossible to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation of the play, its characters and events without considering the way race and colour are presented. As we have seen above, the wealth of imagery of black and white, light and dark suggests that colour is important in this play (see Imagery ). It is not possible to define Othello's race and colour exactly, critics have argued about Shakespeare's intentions for his hero; that he is a Negro, that he is Arabian, that he is some other race. A number of critics have also argued that the hero's race is irrelevant; but if this is the case, why did Shakespeare bother to break with dramatic tradition and present a Moorish hero at all? Before Othello black characters in Elizabethan drama were usually villains; the presentation of a noble Moor must mean something. Some commentators suggest that Shakespeare presents a black hero to introduce the idea of difference. Others argue Othello's racial origins make him an outsider. Certainly we might consider the use of a black hero in relation to two key ideas that are explored in the play, dislocation and opposition. We are presented with at least two opposing views of Othello's blackness. Early in the play positive descriptions come from the Moor himself, who seems proud of his heritage, the Duke of Venice and Desdemona. The fact that Othello has risen to the important and powerful position of general and is accepted as a distinguished member of Venetian society suggests that the state he serves at least 'colour blind', prepared to see good in foreigners and accept that they have a useful role to play. But it is noticeable that even Desdemona, who never regrets her marriage and refuses to accept that her love for valiant Othello can ever be tainted, has to explain her choice; she defends her marriage by saying she 'saw Othello's visage in his mind' (I.3.253); in other words, she looked past his colour. Is Shakespeare suggesting that Othello is the exception to the rule that black is usually bad, or urging us to see that racial differences do not matter in affairs of the heart? If this is the case, Desdemona holds a radical point of view, she is probably the only character in the play who does not view miscegenation with anxiety. Do the Duke's words to Brabantio suggest caution? Consider the 8 line, 'your son in law is far more fair than black' (I.3.291). Is this an attempt by the Duke to excuse Othello's blackness? Does this line mean; try to accept your daughter's marriage because the man she has married is virtuous, even though he is black. Or is this an example of another white character pleading for racial tolerance? There is another very negative view of Othello's blackness, which is undermined because we do not respect the speakers, or at least question their judgement. To Iago, Roderigo and Brabantio Othello's colour and racial background - particularly in relation to his marrying a white female - are alarming. Their references to a 'sooty bosom' (I.2.70), 'the thicklips' (I.1.65), and 'an old black ram' (I.1.87) who practises witchcraft in order to subdue a terrified maiden construct a negative stereotype of the hero. These descriptions are inaccurate. The Othello they describe does not exist, although it is possible to argue that the hero begins to display some of the negative aspects of the stereotype when he is persecuted by Iago; he is superstitious (the handkerchief, he is passionate and he does becomes violent. However, many would argue that he shares these characteristics with the white devil who torments him. Ultimately, regardless of the prejudice these characters - and Emilia - show, we will probably respond to Othello's blackness positively, even when the hero himself doubts his attractions. He is more noble and impressive than any of the other male characters in the play and his history is fascinating. We can see why Desdemona chose Othello and appreciate the uniqueness of her choice; is important to remember that the heroine made a very active and positive choice. Othello stresses this when he says 'she had eyes and chose me' (III.3.192); there is no question that the black hero had to force himself on the white heroine and it is also of course Desdemona who insists - publicly - on being allowed to enjoy her marital rights, not her husband. If Othello's colour becomes slightly problematic in the second half of the play it is because Iago's racism is insidious; he destroys the black-white harmony that existed and makes the hero behave in a way that we feel is unnatural for him (Othello finds it almost impossible to reject and destroy Desdemona; for Iago violence comes easily). So far as dislocation is concerned, critics have argued that the hero's tragedy comes about because he can never be anything except an outsider; he is in an untenable position as a black man serving a white patriarchy. These critics would argue that it is absurd of Othello to expect to carve out a place for himself in his adopted society because its members will never truly accept him. There are other ideas of dislocation to consider too. We might feel that the black hero is dislocated because he marries a white woman, turning his back on his profession to become a lover-husband. Othello becomes further dislocated when he views his own race negatively, giving in to Iago's racism. MEN AND WOMEN Various ideas are explored through same sex and male-female relationships in Othello; sex and violence, love and hate, honour and dishonesty, loyalty and betrayal, trust and suspicion. Power is also a key factor in all the relationships portrayed. To begin with we are presented with a picture of powerful womanhood; a daughter has deceived her father and asserted her independence from patriarchy by choosing her own husband. The example set by Desdemona shows that male-female relationships are to be locus of conflict in this play, they are about opposition and power. Throughout the play we see further power struggles between couples and friends; Iago vies with Desdemona for Othello's ear, Desdemona and Emilia defend themselves against their husbands' suspicions, Bianca works hard to assert her rights as Cassio's mistress. Initially, Desdemona and Othello stand apart from the other couples in this play because they appear to have an equal relationship; there is no disillusionment or dissatisfaction here. Bianca and Cassio and Emilia and Iago are not happy couplings. The former is clearly an unequal match between a 'customer' (IV.1.120) who feels a limited affection and a 'bauble' (IV.1.134), whose genuine love makes her unhappy. Cassio reveals the limitations of this relationship which he clearly feels is unworthy in some way - when he tells Bianca to be gone because he would not be seen in her company. Emilia and Iago have a chilling match. Marriage has made Emilia cynical about male-female relationships; she knows she is merely 'food' (III.4.105) for Iago, acceptable until she disobeys him and refuses to be silent, at which point she is dismissed as a 'Villainous whore' (V.2.227). The misogyny of Iago (and Cassio) casts a dark shadow over Othello's relationship with Desdemona, which seems so bright and full of optimism and delight at the start of the play. Despite their different social, cultural and racial backgrounds the hero and heroine symbolise a meeting of two minds in Acts I and II. He loves her for her feminine grace and sympathy, she loves him for his masculine heroism. Essentially, Othello and Desdemona love each other harmoniously because of the differences they perceive in each other. These differences become distorted during the course of the play by an interloper, a man who cannot bear to see two lovers 'well tuned' (II.1.198). In some ways it is possible to see the Othello- Desdemona- Iago relationship as a kind of love triangle; perhaps the ensign seeks to force Othello to return to the masculine values he embodies as a soldier. Let us look more closely at what it is that Iago objects to so strongly when he looks at Othello and Desdemona together. The text suggests that there is something very complicated going on. Iago's responses to the feminine reveal a mixture of fear and loathing. It is possible to argue that part of his contempt for Othello is located in his fear that Desdemona has power, he has been displaced and what's more, Othello married without his knowledge. We know from his sneering references to Desdemona as being the general's 'general' (II.3.310) that he cannot bear the fact that a female now seems to exert power, that he despises Othello for giving into feminine emotions like love. His relationship with Othello becomes a power struggle in which he attempts to assert his false love over Desdemona's true love. He achieves this by denigrating her, by making her voice seem unreliable and his the voice to be believed. This power struggle becomes dearer when we consider the vow he makes at the end of Act III Scene 3. Iago's hatred destroys Othello's love, and leads him to assert his masculine power in an overbearing way. The Moor believes that Desdemona has begun to assert herself sexually in a masculine way, adultery with Cassio means that the duty she said she owed to him has been subverted. We might see the events of Acts IV and V as an attempt by Othello to rein in his wife and reassert his own power over her: we come to associate masculine love with violence. Iago's misogyny triumphs; all the female characters are silenced, their fragile power negated. That they ever had any power in this play is debatable; they are only ever seen in relation to the male characters, who have the power to describe, define 9 and kill them. Even in Act IV Scene 3 when we see Desdemona and Emilia together, the topic of conversation is men and how to interpret them. But although the women are destroyed and the masculine state reasserts itself, masculine power, values and behaviour are not condoned or affirmed by the events of Othello. The masculine hierarchy has lost Desdemona and her valiant husband, who were its jewels, both personally and professionally. Othello's tragedy is that his love, which could have co-existed peacefully with his military career (the state seems to accept this when they allow Othello and Desdemona to go to Cyprus together) is destroyed by the masculine code of one of its basest elements. And finally, it is the women, their characters and actions which are justified. They behave honourably and are vindicated. A case study in misogyny - the feminist reading Iago hates women. He despises his wife, as II.i.108ff makes plain, and uses Desdemona's invitation to praise her in the following scene as an excuse for a battery of slanders about women in general that make the reader gasp. Although he says that one of his motives is jealousy (being cuckolded by Othello), this sits rather oddly with his relationship to Emilia, and seems to have more to do with wounded pride or possessiveness than anything else. As he provokes the Moor and sets in train the fatal sequence of events, he knows quite unmistakably that Desdemona will be the victim. Indeed, he is the one who suggests the form of death. And to top all that off, he murders his own wife anyway! Othello doesn't hate women. He just assumes that his wife is his property, as her father had assumed Desdemona to be his until marriage. When he is led to believe that she has been unfaithful to him, he willingly (if painfully) goes along with the planned execution of the faithless wife. Her only crime is that she has (allegedly) slept with another man, but it is enough to sentence her to a speedy death. There is not the slightest hint that this might not the proper course of action in the circumstances. Of course Othello was written in a pre-feminist time, and dealt with a patriarchal society. Indeed, a case can readily be made that Shakespeare is questioning all of these tendencies. But that doesn't stop the play being a striking case study in the systemic abuse of women. One of the clearest summaries of this interpretation is Madelon Gohlke's brief but perceptive essay in 'Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms'. She argues that the men in plays like Othello see their relations as 'intensely competitive, and relations with women as controlling and violent', and that the stories work out hidden subtexts of fear 'in which women are perceived as powerful. . . or at least deeply threatening to the man' and consequently try to impose 'structures of male dominance. . . expressed in the language of prostitution, rape and murder'. Dread of being thought weak pushes them into violence, as they strive to distance themselves from women and destroy what they fear. Once Othello is convinced of Desdemona's infidelity. . . he regards her not as a woman who has committed a single transgression but as a whore, one whose entire behaviour may be explained in terms of lust. As such, he may humiliate her in public, offer her services to the Venetian ambassadors, pass judgement on her, and condemn her to death. Murder in this light is a desperate attempt to control. It is Desdemona's power to hurt that Othello seeks to eliminate by ending her life.... It is the fear or pain of victimisation on the part of the man that leads him to victimise women.... The paradox of violence in Othello... is that the exercise of power turns against the hero.... the murder of the-woman leads to self murder. (in Schwarz and Kahn, eds., Representing Shakespeare, 1980) The play submits to this view of pathological sexual politics very easily. But it is worth asking: Does the text position you to approve of what Othello does? Is it recommending or even excusing sexual violence against women? If you see the answer a Yes, then the play has a case to answer. If you say No, then it effectively means that the feminist interpretation can be reconciled with what the author presumably intended. Think this out carefully, referring in detail to the text. DECEPTION Central to all of Shakespeare's plays is a concern with the idea of 'false seeming', that is, illusion versus reality. In Shakespeare what appears to be the case frequently is far from being the case. This is true particularly of his characters Few characters are as they seem or as we expect them to be. The most obvious example in Othello is Iago, who deceives everybody. He is an extremely plausible character who has taken in everyone, including his wife. He hides behind the mask of the honest soldier, a stage type with whom Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar. The honest soldier is blunt and unsophisticated, honest, loyal and well-intentioned. This is the view we have of Iago at the opening of the play. In Act 1, Scene I he appears plausibly to us as a practical soldier who has been unfairly overlooked by his commanding officer. He is funny and forthright. We might question the duplicity he says he will practise but it is only at the end of the third scene, when we hear his soliloquy and are privy to his real intentions, that we are forced to revise our estimate of him. The technique makes us, the audience, aware of how wrong we can be about someone- about how deceptive first appearances can be. In the same way, we are introduced to Othello through Iago’s comments about him to Roderigo, and Brabantio's comments in the opening scene of the play. These reinforce the racial stereotype of the Moor that Shakespeare's audience would have brought with them to the theatre. It would have been assumed that a black man appearing on the stage would be evil- a devil or at least an uncivilised alien. Again, the appearance soon proves to be vastly at odds with the reality as we hear Othello tell of his love for Desdemona. 10 If Iago and Othello are not true to type, then neither are many other characters. Cassio, we are reminded, is a Florentine (he comes from the city of Florence). At the time, Florentines were considered worldly and shrewd. Cassio displays neither of these qualities: he is rather naive and lacks subtlety in the way he presses his suit with Desdemona. Venetians, too, had a reputation during Shakespeare's time for loose morals. Venice was the centre of a vast commercial enterprise and the 'world's oldest profession' (prostitution) was practised there vigorously. Desdemona, however, is the opposite of the 'cunning whore'. Emilia, too, with her stated cynicism about love, might be expected to be hard. In fact after Desdemona, she is the most loyal and courageous person in the play. Bianca, who is described by so many characters as a whore, displays an unwhorelike love for Cassio. So many scenes in the play are concerned with false appearances. The play opens with Roderigo's charge that Iago has been deceiving him because he did not tell him that Othello had married Desdemona. In the same scene, Brabantio says that his daughter has deceived him and Iago announces that he will deceive Othello Then in Act 1, Scene 3 we see the Duke and Senators attempting to gauge the real intentions of the Turkish fleet. Much of the rest of the play consists of Iago persuading Othello that an illusion, namely that Desdemona has slept with Cassio, is the reality. Since we, too, have had difficulty seeing things as they are, we are more restrained in our condemnation when Othello has similar difficulties. There is another aspect of this theme presented in the play. Characters not only deceive others, they also deceive themselves. It could be said that we never see ourselves completely as others see us. The truth would destroy us. Shakespeare explores this idea in Othello. In the scene where Brabantio appears before the Duke after Othello has eloped with his daughter, he refuses to acknowledge that his daughter loves Othello. He clings to the belief that witchcraft has been practised on her. He is thus the first victim in the play of the protective self-delusions that make life possible. Frequently in the play characters refuse to face a reality that they are not comfortable with. They deceive not others but themselves. All the major characters employ this unconscious, self-protective strategy. Othello deludes himself by believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful to protect himself from the agony of doubt. Then he deludes himself by seeing himself, for example, as a victim of 'fate'. He has other delusions that make it possible for him to kill Desdemona—that allow him to believe that the act of murder is something other than what it really is: it is an act of objective judgement on her and he is the mere agent of an impersonal 'justice'. He also sees it as an act to protect other men: 'Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men'. It is only such delusions that make it possible for Othello to murder Desdemona. Other characters have similar self-protective delusions. Iago, like Othello, has fears-that he cannot acknowledge. His principal fear is that others are worthier than he is, making him look 'ugly'. Rather than confront this fear, he deludes himself into believing that he is clever by asserting power over firstly Roderigo then Othello. He needs to think of himself as someone who is always in control: both of others and of himself. The image he uses of our lives as a garden (Act 1, Sc. 3) reveals his belief that we can choose to feel whatever we will ourselves to feel. This is the self-protective delusion of the insecure who are afraid of their feelings. He has other delusions: that the world consists of users and losers and that he is a user; that love is a 'mere lust of the blood'. Desdemona, too, is the victim of delusions about Othello. She believes that he is incapable of jealousy. She cannot allow herself to believe that the romantic hero that she married has feet of clay. This delusion makes it difficult for her to apprehend the reality that her husband is indeed capable of jealousy. She tries to believe that reasons, other than jealousy, account for his strange behaviour towards her- matters of state, for example, or 'some charm'. She thus lies to herself. Roderigo is similarly deluded into the belief that he has a chance with Desdemona, despite her obvious love for Othello. It is the persistence of this delusion that makes him vulnerable to Iago's plotting. The power of words Othello can be seen as a play that explores the reliance that human beings place on what they see and what they are told. By the end of the play we have come to realise the power of words in shaping our thoughts. We see this power as even stronger than the evidence of our eyes- 'ocular proof'- and stronger than our interactions with those close to us. As we follow the ways in which the characters in this play deal with the pieces of evidence that are given to them, we are also able to understand the role that the speaker's reputation has in influencing that judgement. Moreover, we come to see that reputations are created as much with words uttered by others as by the deeds carried out by the person, and we are led to question the trust that we have placed in reputations. Reliance on what we see The play poses many instances that allow the audience to question what is being seen by another character. Brabantio, when told by Roderigo and Iago of his daughter's elopement, is loath to believe the words uttered. Roderigo urges him to see for himself. When faced with the 'ocular proof' of Desdemona's flight he utters the curse: 'Fathers, from henceforth trust not your daughter's minds/ By what you see them act'. For Brabantio the confrontation with the unreliability of his perception of the way in which his daughter has behaved is overwhelming- and leads within a short space of time to his death. 11 Much of Iago’s success emanates from his ability to capitalise on what people see- incidents they have actually observed. When Roderigo begins to doubt Iago, the latter is able to recall for Roderigo the scene he has just witnessed in which Cassio greets Desdemona very affectionately. Iago impresses his villainous manipulation on Roderigo through the questions he asks, which put a twist on what Roderigo has in fact seen: 'Did'st thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand?'. When Iago begins to poison Othello's thoughts he meets resistance. Othello wants to see before he will believe: 'I'll see before I doubt'. And he continues throughout the whole process of manipulation to demand 'ocular proof' and urges Iago to 'make me to see it'. The handkerchief with 'magic in the web of it' is an ideal instrument for Iago’s campaign of making visible the proof of Desdemona's supposed infidelity. Iago's attempt at manipulating the murders of Cassio and Roderigo, ironically, must occur in the dark- so that those participating cannot clearly see the events or people participating in them. It is only when light is thrown on the scene (again, ironically) when Bianca, whose name suggests light, has arrived, that Iago must direct those present to see only what he wants them to see. Eager to direct blame towards Bianca he draws attention to her pallid complexion: 'do you see, gentlemen? Guiltiness/ Will speak, though tongues were of use'. Reliance on what we are told Not only do the characters form opinions on the basis of what they see, but they also depend heavily on what they are told. We see the Duke and Senators (Act 1, Scene 3) utterly at the mercy of the differing news stories brought by the Messengers about the composition and whereabouts of the Turkish fleet. The audience becomes aware of the difficulties in establishing the veracity of the reports when there are conflicting stories. The judgement has to be based on an assessment of the words spoken. This important scene helps us to understand how Roderigo, Cassio and Othello himself could be led to believe in Iago’s falsehoods. It was Othello's own stories that first won Desdemona's admiration and love- a situation which Othello admits to in the Senate. He does, however, preface this with his apology- 'Rude am I in my speech'. Iago later cynically describes this situation to Roderigo: 'She first loved the Moor but for bragging and telling her fantastical lies'. Ultimately, it is Iago who has the most to fear from what is being revealed by his own wife. Iago's defence of what he has said to Othello rings somewhat hollowly in the audience's ears as he rationalises his words: 'I told him what I thought, and told no more/ That what he found himself was apt and true'. Emilia's response to the lies that unfold is to tell her part in the story, despite the dire warning from Iago—'charm your tongue';: and the reward for her utterance of the truth is a swift blade between the ribs, delivered by her husband. As the word 'lies' echoes in this scene we are reminded of Act 11, Scene 4 where we encounter the clever pun on the word by the clown linking the notions of truth and lies, the manipulative power of words and the image of the handkerchief with the characters of Emilia, Desdemona and Cassio. Ironically, it is at this point that Desdemona had attempted to move Othello to reconsider his action against Cassio. The power of words to shape thoughts Iago’s strength lies, in part, in his ability to use words with such artifice that he can create thoughts in his listeners. His craft is as much in what he says as in what he leaves unsaid. Iago's skill with words is immediately evident in his interactions with Roderigo. Iago convinces him, against the obvious evidence of his eyes and ears, that Desdemona is interested in his advances, that he should send her jewels to woo her, that he should alert Brabantio to his daughter's elopement, that he should not kill himself, that Desdemona will soon tire of Othello, that he should attack Cassio, and that he should kill him- not to mention the money that he has persuaded Roderigo to pay him for supposed services rendered. While on the one hand Roderigo does seem to be superlatively gullible, we do need to look closely at the ways Iago plants each of these thoughts in Roderigo's mind. Whether speaking in prose or in verse, Iago is able to evade Roderigo's real meaning and turn his comments back on him. When Roderigo says he will drown himself, Iago responds that he will never love him, and suggests that he go and drown puppies or kittens. When he accuses Iago of treating him falsely— ironically the closest to the truth that Roderigo ever comes— Iago praises his 'mettle' and Roderigo is once again persuaded against his better judgement with promise of future advantage. As their interactions continue Roderigo speaks less and less. The peak of Iago’s ability to use words to plant thoughts in the minds of others is of course his manipulation of Othello. Here his artifice is at its best as he is able to use words to create the thoughts in his all too willing listener that contradict what he knows or what he sees. As Othello comes into the drunken brawl, he is convinced by Iago’s denial and understatement that Cassio is indeed the most blameworthy of those involved- and this despite the high esteem in which he has previously held Cassio. And, again, Iago is able to implant seeds of doubt in Othello's mind with his utterance — 'Ha, I like not that'- as the deposed Cassio departs from pleading his cause with Desdemona. Iago's technique in this scene is to create the impression that there is a 'monster in his thought' which so entices Othello that he begs Iago: 'Show me thy thought'. Only then does Othello become convinced that 'This honest creature doubtless/Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds' as Iago reassures him continually in such terms as: 'It is not honest in me to speak/what I have not seen and known'. 12 Such is Iago’s art that he is able to play an intricate game of verbal duplicity. Othello, as an on-stage audience, watches Cassio relating and gesticulating about what Othello believes to be his amorous dalliance with Desdemona. Although he cannot hear Cassio's words, he makes his assumptions on the basis of the story Iago has told him, so that he convinces himself that Cassio is, in reality, talking of his liaisons with Bianca. The power of the speaker's reputation One of the factors that does assist the process of manipulation is the supposed reputation of the speaker. A speaker who has a reputation of being honest and trustworthy is readily believed, while one whose reputation is not so positive is less likely to be believed. Iago on the one hand is seen as honest and trustworthy. Othello himself continually asserts his honesty. Iago takes pains to ensure his reputation for honesty is maintained: ... he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed. Othello's action in killing Desdemona is testimony to his concern for the damage that he perceives to have been done to his reputation. In the speech, 'It is the cause ...', he expresses the distress he feels that he has suffered as a result of Desdemona's supposed unfaithful actions that he believes will make him 'the fixed figure for the time of scorn/to point his slow moving finger at'. The women in this play are all treated as if their reputations are soiled. Bianca is said by Iago to be a 'whore', so that her presence is easily discounted. Emilia is presented by Iago as an adulterer. Indeed, Emilia in the 'willow song' scene does leave the audience wondering whether she might have had some adulterous liaisons. She certainly acknowledges that it is something she would be prepared to do. Regardless of this, she does reprimand Iago for believing her to have had an affair with Othello. When we see Emilia and Othello together we are left unsure. Othello, in interrogating Emilia about the interactions she has observed between Cassio and Desdemona, rejects her testimony based on her reputation as a 'simple bawd'. Even at the moment of his imminent self-imposed death, Othello's concern for his reputation remains uppermost in his mind: 'Speak of me as I am: nothing extenuate'. A reputation for honesty One question this play raises is whether characters deserve the reputations they have acquired. All the women are at some point reputed to be whores. Yet, we see no unequivocally convincing evidence for this during the course of the play. Cassio acquires a reputation for being a quarrelsome inebriate —despite the fact that we see him only once having imbibed heavily, and that on the occasion when Othello had actually given orders for such carousing, as announced by the Herald (Act 11, Scene 2). Cassio's inebriation is, furthermore, primarily managed and orchestrated by Iago as part of the plot to damage his reputation. Iago seems to have an irrefutable reputation for honesty. Yet we know that Iago’s dishonesty is as certain as the Moor's skin is dark. We come to realise that Iago is the arch-manipulator of reputations- not only his own, but those of all the other characters. Iago establishes Cassio's reputation as a 'great arithmetician' who utters 'mere prattle without practice'. He establishes Othello's reputation for credulity in his statement: 'The Moor is of a free and open nature/that thinks men honest that but seem so'. It is Iago who alerts Montano to Cassio's supposed weakness- his inability to control his alcohol intake. It is Iago who assures Cassio that Desdemona will help him for she is reputed to be of 'so free, so kind, so apt, so blessed a disposition'. And it is Iago who, despite the cold comfort he offers Cassio when his reputation is lost- 'Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving'- takes great pains to ensure that his own reputation for honesty is maintained. There is a strong sense of poetic justice in the fact that it is Iago’s own, much maligned wife who finally exposes the falsity of this facade. People with honest reputations manipulate Nevertheless, it is those who have the strongest reputations who have the power to manipulate others. Iago quite clearly has the ultimate power to manipulate events. To do so, he uses both the power of his own reputation for honesty and the skill of his oratory. Iago's ability to manipulate his ill-deserved reputation is best illustrated by those two characters who come closest to penetrating his facade: Emilia and Roderigo. Roderigo gradually becomes disenchanted with the lack of gains being made throughout his attempt to gain Desdemona's favour. At each interaction with Iago he expresses, each time more vehemently than previously, his sense of dissatisfaction. Finally he says: 'I have heard too much; for your words/ And performances are no kin together'. But even in this moment of realisation, Roderigo is defeated as Iago acknowledges his point: 'Your suspicion is not without wit and judgement', and then deftly proceeds to twist his wit and judgement so that he is able to convince Roderigo to engage in the act of murdering Cassio. Similarly, Othello, manipulated by the spectre of [Iago’s honesty and the skill of his oratory, discounts Desdemona's honest answers to his negative questions: 'Are you not a strumpet? What not a whore?' and goes on to kill her and to save his own reputation. 13 Desdemona, on the other hand, attempts unsuccessfully to persuade Othello to restore Cassio to his former position. Her lack of success is partly due to the tarnishing of her reputation and partly due to her lack of skill in using words manipulatively. Emilia only comes to realise the way in which they have all been manipulated by Iago’s stories when she is faced with the death of her mistress, and the false story of the handkerchief. Ignoring her husband's warnings to 'charm her tongue', she makes public the truth, thereby utterly destroying Iago’s reputation- upon which he refuses to speak again. JUDGEMENT Closely related to the theme of deceptive appearances are the themes of judgement and justice. So often during the course of the play characters are called on to 'judge'. So often their capacity to make right judgements is impaired by their emotions. We, the audience, are also put in the position where we are required to judge characters. At the beginning of the play, for example, we may judge the two principal characters, Othello and Iago, according to preconceived notions of 'the soldier' and 'the Moor'. These judgements are proved to be wrong. In the opening scene, Iago complains that he is a victim of injustice. Throughout his speeches he asks to 'be judged': 'as Heaven is my judge', he says. We next meet Brabantio, who is roused by the shouting of Iago and Roderigo. He immediately passes judgement on the elopement of his daughter with Othello. He judges the marriage as unnatural before he has given the couple the opportunity to present their view of the matter. His judgement is clouded by his need to believe that his daughter really loves him, not Othello. Only witchcraft, he believes, can have lured her away from him. The difficulty of weighing up evidence and reaching a correct judgement is also at the heart of the beginning of Act 1, Scene 3. The Duke is presented with evidence from different sources concerning the intention of the Turkish fleet. In this case he is capable of rational judgement because his personal feelings are not involved. He judges correctly that the Turkish movement towards Rhodes is a feint and that they intend to attack Cyprus. Then, by contrast, the Duke is invited to judge Brabantio's 'case' against Othello. Before he has heard who the accused is, the Duke has already told Brabantio that he can throw 'the bloody book of law' at the accused. Only when the Duke learns that the accused is Othello does he allow for the calling for 'evidence' to support Brabantio's charge that Othello has seduced Desdemona using witchcraft. Shakespeare has made the point: that judgement can be fickle in the hands of people. That Brabantio has misjudged Othello is clear when we hear him speak of his love. It is similarly clear that he has misjudged his daughter, who is not the reticent, compliant girl that he imagines her to be. That correct judgement may be more easily arrived at in public rather than private matters is demonstrated by Othello's correct judgement of Cassio's drunken lapse. Accused of brawling, Cassio is 'tried' and found guilty. He has been responsible for maintaining order on an island recently threatened with invasion. His drunken behaviour is inexcusable and Othello passes the judgement that the circumstances demand- instant dismissal. Here he does not allow his personal friendship to get in the way of sound judgement and everybody' including Cassio himself, sees the rightness of this judgement. Othello's tragedy is that he cannot employ the same detached justice in his wife's case. We should note that Desdemona's judgement is capable of being influenced by her personal feelings, too. In contrast with her husband's Judgement of Cassio as guilty, she assumes his innocence because he is her friend. She does not, unlike her husband, look at Cassio's case with detachment Rather she supports him because of her love for him. The worst case of misjudgement occurs with Othello's failure to see Desdemona's innocence in the face of Iago's charges. Central to his misjudgement is the question of proof. He looks for proof of her guilt, for example, in sweaty palms or the handkerchief. We know that the 'proof' that he is looking for is right before his very eyes. What better evidence of her innocence is there than the love that she displays towards him whenever they are together? The extent to which the 'justice' he carries out is a perversion of natural justice is apparent when we reflect on the fact that he has set himself up as firstly the victim, then as the judge and jury and finally as the executioner. These roles are always separated in any true justice system. In a minor key, the idea that misreading evidence can lead to injustice is apparent in other scenes. Thus, for example, Bianca wrongly concludes that the handkerchief that Cassio gives her to 'take me this work out' is 'some token from a newer friend' (Act 3, Sc. 4). That she should be persuaded by such flimsy evidence that Cassio is guilty is a reminder of how the same piece of 'evidence' is so strong a 'proof' for Othello of Desdemona's guilt. In Act 5, Scene 1, Iago pretends to see 'evidence' of Bianca's complicity in the 'plot' to bring down Cassio in her paleness: 'What, look you pale?' he says to her. Of course, we know that Bianca's paleness is caused by her fear that her loved one, Cassio, may have been mortally injured. Iago deliberately misreads this as 'evidence' of her guilt: 'Behold her well. I pray you look upon her'. The extent of his success in getting his hearers to judge her guilty even on such flimsy 'evidence' can be gauged by Emilia's reaction: 'Oh fie upon thee, strumpet!' If evidence is not what it seems to be, then what chance is there of making right judgements? This is one of the questions the play asks. Judgements based on false assumptions The play raises important questions about the nature of judgements and the evidence on which they are based. In the opening scene Iago asks Roderigo: 14 ... to judge yourself Whether I in any just term am affined To love the Moor. Brabantio judges the Moor as a 'practiser of Arts inhibited and out of warrant'. This is a judgement that is inevitably overturned when the Duke has heard evidence from Othello and from Desdemona. Othello is also led into 'a foregone conclusion' when Iago relates the tale of Cassio's supposed dream and sleep-talking. Othello falls into an unshakeable judgement that 'speaks against her with the other proofs' as 'honest Iago' relates the tale of the handkerchief. Other judgements are made in spite of the reputation and the 'ocular proof'. Lodovico is left questioning Othello's public assault on Desdemona: 'This would not be believed in Venice/ though I should swear I saw it ...'. Desdemona questions her own behaviours when it becomes obvious to her that Othello is making judgements that do not coincide with her own perception of her behaviour: 'How have I been behaved that he might stick/ The smallest opinion on my least misuse'. Othello's judgement of Desdemona is false, based as it is on his belief in her reputation as a whore, firmly established by Iago, his own belief in the damage done to his reputation as a courageous warrior, and the need to 'put out the light'. These reputations are established as much by the characters' deeds as by the words used by others to describe them. Othello is a play about deception and revenge, and to this extent it shares certain similarities with the tragedy which immediately precedes it, Hamlet. In the earlier play the hero, envious of 'that man/That is not passion's slave,' (III.2.68-9), learns to control his passion and moves towards a rational outlook which will enable him to revenge the death of his father. Othello, however, is persuaded by Iago to relinquish control of passion (and along with it his 'honour' and powers of rational judgement) in order to revenge a wrong which has not actually been committed. There are one or two further distinctions to be made between the two plays. At the level of plot, the dramatic conflict in Hamlet is between the 'mighty opposites' Hamlet and Claudius, each seeking to outwit the other, and thereby initiating actions which comprise the structure of the play. By contrast in Othello, the entire plot, and its conduct, are in the hands of the villain Iago. His intricate plans which involve the duping of Roderigo, the 'poisoning' of Brabantio's mind, the discrediting of Cassio, and finally the deaths of Desdemona and Othello, are all directed towards the destruction of the hero himself. Othello's compliance with Iago's plots is undertaken without his knowledge of their true objective, and to some extent this lessens the burden of responsibility which we feel he should bear. That he does finally assume that responsibility elevates him to the status of tragic hero. The major themes in Othello, the various connecting ideas which give unity to the dramatic action, are bold and striking. The critic A.C. Bradley, in his book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), has observed that the atmosphere of the play resembles that of 'a close-shut murderous room', indicating the sheer intensity of the action. Indeed, the most cursory reading of the play reveals an absence of direct concern with the wider issues of 'kingship' or 'the Elizabethan world picture' in the sense that we encounter them in the history plays, or in either Hamlet or Macbeth. Even though Othello murders Desdemona at night (darkness being a pervasive feature of the play), his action fails to arouse a response from Nature in the way that, say, Macbeth's murder of King Duncan does: Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse Of sun and moon, and that the affrighted globe Should yawn at alteration. (V.2. 100-2) It is as though Nature's refusal to respond serves to underline the supreme tragic irony of Othello's position at this point since the 'cause' to which he has dedicated himself, and which he discusses at the opening of the final scene of the play (V.2. 1-6) has no basis in reality whatever. He has been persuaded into believing that all women are false, and that Desdemona's physical appearance is evidence of her duplicity. What follows is based upon Othello's acceptance of these two dubious assumptions. Throughout the play we are aware of the discrepancy between what particular characters appear to be, and what they are. This conflict between 'appearance' and 'reality', so pervasive in Shakespeare's plays generally, opens out in Othello into the wider moral perspective of the conflict between 'good' and 'evil', in which nearly all the central characters, with the notable exception of Iago, are unwittingly caught up. It is Iago who provides the key to this intense and elemental conflict, and his frank admission to the foolish Roderigo in the opening scene of the play serves as a principle which guides the action towards its tragic conclusion: For when my outward action does demonstrate The native act, and figure of my heart, In complement extern, 'tis not long after, But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For doves to peck at: I am not what I am. (I. 1.61 -5) 15 This conflict of appearance and reality which the play keeps before us, extends also, in an unusual way, to Othello himself. Ironically, up to the point where Iago persuades him otherwise (III.3.205ff.) he assumes that outward appearance and action is a clear reflection of human personality. When counselled by Iago to hide himself from Brabantio's anger, Othello responds with: Not I, I must be found: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul, Shall manifest me rightly: (1.2.30-2) Later, though by this time a little less certain, he asserts: 'Certain, men should be what they seem.' (III.3.130-2). But, throughout, Othello's own appearance raises some doubts about the validity of this assumption. His 'perfect soul' is not openly reflected in his face which is, of course, black. As if to lend support to this anomaly, Iago's evil is not reflected in the 'honesty' of his face. By direct contrast, Desdemona is both 'perfect' in her soul, and 'fair' in her outward appearance. When asked about her marriage to Othello, her reasons echo the general principle which he has already declared; her perception of the qualities of Othello's mind informs her sense of his visual appearance: I saw Othello's visage in his mind, And to his honours, and his valiant parts Do I my soul and fortunes consecrate: (I.3.252-4) Of course, Iago is aware of the weak foundation of this principle, especially since Othello is the literal embodiment of its possible contradictions. And it is this distinction between appearance and reality which he uses to suggest that there is some substance in the allegation that Desdemona is false. As Othello becomes more suspicious, so he begins to lose the self possession which was a feature of his behaviour in Act I. When he finds that others may not be what they seem, he begins to reflect on his own deficiencies, and as he does so he becomes more aware of his own physical appearance: Haply for I am black, And have not those soft parts of conversation That chamberers have, or for I am declin'd Into the vale of years— (III.3.267-70) Later he seeks to give his own 'blackness' an emblematic value, as a physical reflection of what he believes is his sullied reputation: 'my name, that was as fresh/As Dian's visage, is now begrim'd and black/As mine own face :' (III.3.392-4). This is an attempt to find a measure of consistency amid contradictions. So conscious is Othello of the gulf between appearance and reality that he laments the passage of old customs, and their replacement with others which cannot guarantee certainty; as he takes Desdemona's hand he observes: 'the hearts of old gave hands,/But our new heraldry is hands not hearts.' (III.4.42-3). This leads finally to his own analysis of the contradictions which he believes she embodies: 'O thou black weed, why art so lovely fair?' (IV.2.69). Othello's analysis, however, is not allowed to stand alone. Desdemona does not embody these contradictions, nor is she concerned to draw meaning from Othello's own physical appearance. For her, his 'blackness' is of no significance at all, since she sees his 'visage in his mind' (I.3.252) and holds this view consistently throughout the play. For Emilia, who enters and sees Desdemona lying dead, Othello's 'blackness' is an outward sign of the devilish nature of his action: 'O the more angel she,/And you the blacker devil!' (V.2.131-2). Finally, for us, and for the play as a whole, Othello's 'blackness' carries yet another, perhaps more complex meaning. He is the tragic hero of the play, and black, the colour which Elizabethans normally associated with stage tragedy, is therefore a fitting symbol of his status. Thus, at the heart of the play lies an intricate and vividly dramatic emblem, the meaning of which changes as the action moves forward. At the outset the epithets 'Noble Moor' end 'black devil' vie with each other for supremacy, as we try to evaluate Othello's character. They give way in the middle of the play to his own view of himself as a cuckold (he sees himself at IV.2.75ff., in a striking image, as Vulcan, the blacksmith of the Gods, whose wife Venus committed adultery with Mars), but culminates finally in his establishment as tragic hero taking full responsibility for his mistaken action, and combining these opposites in a new and impressive dramatic unity. Thus, the play ends with a restoration of continuity, achieved at the expense of Desdemona's and Othello's deaths, in which appearance and reality can now be openly distinguished from each other. Desdemona is associated with images of light, divinity and perfection throughout the play. The final metaphor Othello uses to speak of her suggests her purity and precariousness; she is 'a pearl' (V.2.345) he threw away like a 'base Indian' (V.2.345). When he stood over her preparing to kill her Othello still could not quite believe that she was false; the metaphor 'Put out the light, and then put out the light' (V.2.7) expresses this idea eloquently. As discussed above, Iago is most often linked to darkness and devils. The drama of the play occurs as Othello moves away from the light of Desdemona's love towards the darkness of Iago and his world view, becoming a black villain in the process. Note how many of the key scenes or events occur at night. It might also be argued that we associate Othello the Moor with darkness from the very beginning of the play, his first entrance occurs at night, and his 16 final act, the murder of Desdemona, also occurs at night. Has the Moor in some sense fulfilled his tragic destiny when he snuffs out the light on Desdemona (whose name suggests doom) and himself?