In this tragedy, normally considered one of the four of Shakespeare’s greatest, the eponymous hero does not always gain the sympathy of the audience or reader: he seems too ready to believe in the infidelity of his wife, Desdemona. It must be remembered that he is new to marriage and has spent his life in battle and is therefore ready to credit the words of his soldier comrade, Iago. There are many devices which make this credulity more convincing: Iago’s skill in the gripping “Temptation Scene”; the double time scheme; Othello’s concept of honour which means that, if this vital attribute is lost in one sphere (love) it is lost in another, (the military); and the fact that he is new also to Venetian society. Shakespeare’s skill is largely that of the working dramatist and this question is often overlooked in theatrical performance.
The character and role of Othello himself.
As the tragedy is of a domestic and realistic nature, it is appropriate to discuss the characterisation. Othello is a Moor and yet references to him as having thick lips and a “sooty bosom” (I, ii,69) place him as Negroid. This racial question is not, in itself, of particular interest except that it affords contrasts with Desdemona’s whiteness and emphasises that one of the main features of the marriage is that it is perceived as unnatural: “For nature so preposterously to err.” (I, iii, 62) She has refused more obviously fitting suitors and chosen someone who, although necessary to the state because of his soldierly skills, is considered an outsider. It also allows imagery of the devil to contrast with the heavenly references applied to Desdemona.
The image of Othello before the machinations of Iago start is firmly established in Act I. Although Iago belittles him in conversation with Roderigo and Brabantio is horrified that his daughter has made such a marriage, the man who enters to answer the assembly is dignified, calm and in control of the situation. Brabantio accuses him of having used “foul charms” (I,ii,73) to abuse Desdemona but Othello replies to this frenzied attack in ringing, aria-like speeches (the Othello music as it has been called) which hold us captivated so that we understand how Desdemona might have been entranced. He points out that Brabantio invited him to the house and that the only witchcraft used was recounting his adventures in battle: “moving accidents by flood and field.” (I, iii,135) The picture we have of Desdemona leaving her household chores to listen is wholly credible and their relationship is established:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d
And I loved her that she did pity them. (I, iii, 167-8)
This points to the fragility of a love that is based on the magic of his speech and has not yet been tested.
We also see him as respectful to the company, if not royal then “of royal siege” (I,ii,22) and in great demand by the officials because of his military prowess: even Iago admits that, “Another of his fathom they have none.” (I,i,153) Othello states that he has placed his whole being in the keeping of Desdemona, put “into circumscription and confine” (I,ii, 267) his “unhoused free condition.” This emphasises that he is a liberal spirit unlike the closed, envious Iago and is not a man naturally prone to jealousy. He is proud of his reputation and honour which he now associates with Desdemona. He is the archetype of the soldier hero, but one who has now co-ordinated his public life with his private. If one aspect is thrown into tumult so the other will be. At this point there is no confusion as he tells Desdemona that he will come into the house for a moment before attending to the business of state: his priorities are clear and his mind is organised. (I,ii, 47) He knows when to fight and when not: “Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it/Without a prompter.” (I,ii, 83) Acknowledging the importance of the threatened war, he accepts that his wedding night must be interrupted provided that his new wife can be cared for as befits her. Firstly he spends an hour “Of love, of worldly matter and direction” with her and she, too must “obey the time.” (I,iii, 97-98)
Despite Iago’s cynical view of him as expressed to Roderigo before the Act closes, we are left with an impression of a noble man, a Christian, a hero with a romantic conception of war and we do not look for introspection or philosophy from him. Above all his magnanimous spirit is stressed as Iago is forced to acknowledge:
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so … (I,iii,390)
In all this there is no tragic flaw, no sense that the disaster would have happened even if Iago had not been there to manipulate it. The union of Othello and Desdemona is sanctioned though fragile. It is not fated to implode.
The Othello of Act II leaves much the same impression. On arriving in Cyprus he greets Desdemona with rapturous blank verse expressing the heights of his happiness:
If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absoute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate. (II,i, 185-9)
These words carry a heavy irony since there will never again be such a moment for the couple. Swiftly he turns to the business of the day, declares a celebration and allows rejoicing at their victory. Here again he is liberal, in control and able to keep public matters separate from private. When this celebration becomes a brawl, he is in command and silences the participants. Yet we do see a glimpse of a fatal flaw when he says of himself that passion has “collied” his best judgement. Anger makes his mind lose its bearings and it is interesting that this happens in response to Montano’s refusal to speak out. Here we have a foretaste of what will happen in the Temptation Scene – and Iago is there to observe it and, in turn, plan to maintain an infuriating silence on occasion. In his trusting way Othello assumes that Iago is telling the truth and fails to notice his cunning, particularly when Iago slips Cassio’s name into the dialogue whilst appearing to defend him. The ruthless side of Othello’s nature is shown in the cashiering of Cassio: he is capable of casting off someone close who has offended him.
The play is constructed as an arc with Act III, iii , the so-named Temptation Scene at the zenith, not of felicity but of plot. Here Othello falls from his position until, in a terrible parody of Christian prayer, he kneels with Iago, almost entirely in his power. When Iago states “I am your own for ever,” this is the inverse of the truth of their relationship. Iago is cunning but what is it in Othello that makes him susceptible?
His mood is easily changed: Iago’s first words about Cassio slipping away alter his equilbrium and he asks Desdemona to postpone her request. He dislikes people failing to tell him directly what they are thinking and assumes that Iago knows more than he is saying, in his role as honest comrade, reluctant to betray a friend.
And for I know thou art full of love and honesty,
And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath. (III,iii, 119-120)
Iago does have to work hard with his deception to snare Othello: when the latter says at line 173 “Oh misery” he is speaking in general terms, sympathising with the suffering of others who may be jealous not his own. He shows self-awareness when he recognises that “once to be in doubt/Is once to be resolved” and shows his admiration for his wife’s talents and comportment. Quite rationally he balances the matter and recognises that she “had eyes and chose me.” He claims that he will need visual proof before he succumbs; “I’ll see before I doubt” – this represents Iago’s greatest challenge. His ignorance of the ways of Venetian society is another weakness and, at this point, he begins to quaver: “I do not think but Desdemona’s honest” is full of negatives and he begins to question the wisdom of his marriage, at which he is also a novice.
In the soliloquy after Iago’s departure (III,iii,260 ff) he reveals that the poison has entered his soul. Doubt as to his fitness as her husband enters his mind and he starts to use the animal imagery typical of Iago, showing that his view of life has been reduced. A see-saw of emotions grips him and, when Desdemona enters, he is overcome with love, even when he makes the fateful reference to the cuckold’s pain on his forehead which leads to the handkerchief motif. He is now overcome with suspicion and, feeling that his honour has been threatened in private life, bids farewell to his honourable career : “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” (III,iii, 360) He needs to know the truth and thus falls prey to Iago’s bizarre story of sharing a bed with Cassio when suffering from toothache. Here Othello believes he has had the ocular proof he demanded and says: “Now I do see ’tis true” (III,iii, 459) He does not wish to be the victim of “fond love” and vows, in the role of the man of action he has always been, to move inexorably forward to the killing of his wife whilst Iago must murder Cassio.
When he has a chance to question Desdemona in Act III, scene iv, he terrifies her with his story of the importance of the handkerchief where once he could keep calm and question witnesses. He knows her to be impressed by stories and yet he makes it impossible for her to tell the truth. Only private misery can bring him to this state of irrationality, as even Iago admits that Othello could keep control on the battle field when a close friend had been killed by cannon fire. (III,iv,130)
From this point onwards he is a broken man and yet Iago must keep dripping the poison in until Othello falls to the floor in a fit and then becomes the wretched figure of an eavesdropper to the meeting of Cassio and Bianca. During his fit his speech is incoherent (chaos has overcome cosmos in language also) and he uses false reason to convince himself that there must be a true cause for him to feel as he does: “Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction.” Illogicality has won. In Act IV scene i, he is in turmoil, one minute believing her foul and the next fair enough to enchant him once more. To bring this about, Iago injects the cruellest poison, that there is nothing unusual about the situation to cause such extreme torment:
…there’s millions now alive
That nightly lie in those unproper beds
Which they dare swear peculiar…(IVi,66ff)
Until this point Othello has the tiny comfort of thinking himself especially wronged. There is a terrible vengefulness in his desire to murder her in the marriage bed and an unforgiveable lapse when he strikes her in public for a private wrong. In scene ii, the “brothel” scene, he again fails to ask her the right questions and loses the one opportunity he has to find the truth. In Act V he reverts to the calm man of action resolved to kill her and resist the temptation to yield to her beauty. The Othello music here carries him forward to “put out thy light.” (V,ii, 7). After the killing his speech is broken but it resumes its coherence once the truth is out and, at l. 267 we have another aria about his intention to commit suicide. The world is what he always believed it to be, good and harmonious, and his beliefs are restored. Critics have commented on the self-justificatory nature of his speech at l. 345 describing himself as “one who lov’d not wisely but too well,” and yet there is truth is all he says.
His death does not cause the downfall of the state and order is soon restored. The audience is left with an overwelming sense of pity but, perhaps, not of fear in Aristotelian terms, as his behaviour is so specialised and lacks the gereralisabilty of the other tragedies.
Iago is one of the most interesting of Shakespeare’s creations in that he can be completely credible on the stage and yet raises questions in the mind of the reader of the text, the main ones being: what is his motive, if any, and how has got away with his villainy for so long? Everyone calls him “honest” and yet he is clearly a rogue and describes himself as two-faced to Roderigo: “I am not what I am.” (I,i,66) It is essential that he is perceived by the others as honest (both truth-telling and trustworthy in character) so that Othello’s belief in him does not appear entirely foolish. He has been much discussed in terms of his motivation, which must also be believable in performance.
We first encounter him dealing with Roderigo from whom he is extracting money: it vital to him to continue cheating this dupe and his techniques here are a foretaste of his handling of Othello later. He is a consummate role-player. Here he presents himself as a man of action not words (although we see that he achieves most of his success with words not action), a faithful friend, a hater of Othello and someone who thinks that self-seeking gives him a soul. On waking Brabantio to tell him of the marriage of his daughter, his language is full of debasing animal imagery (half the animal imagery in the play comes from his mouth) and his description of love and sex is reductive and cynical, intended to wound and cause maximum disturbance: “now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.” (I,i,89-90) Repetition and a sense of urgency lead to a scene of chaos.
Brabantio does call him a villain (I,i,158) but for the wrong reasons, not doubting the truth of his words but accusing him of vulgarity. He then absents himself from the first part of the confrontation. Watching carefully during Act I scene iii, he picks up many tips about Othello’s nature: his sense of innocence in the married state (a weakness) and his determination not to let love interfere with affairs of state (a strength.) Iago must use one to overcome the other. He has also to keep Roderigo in tow as the latter is in despair: using repetition “put money in thy purse”, apparent knowledge of the world: “These Moors are changeable in their wills” (I,iii,341), vows of friendship and, as is always the case in Iago’s lies, an element of truth in the deception. In his false analogy of the will to a garden, (I,iii316ff) the over-simplification has a germ of fact and it is also possible that a woman such as Desdemona would come to realise her error. The blank verse soliloquy at the end of the Act gives a trumped-up motive: jealousy that Othello has been to bed with Emilia; and one which appears real: his determination to obtain Cassio’s place in the army. This turns out to be untrue as he continues his machinations against Othello even when he has been promoted. The imagery is of a “monstrous birth”, an unnatural creation aided by the midwives Hell and night which will destroy what even he can see is Othello’s “free and open” character.” Iago is capable of acknowedging virtue and beauty but must bring it low.
Waiting on the quay in Cyrpus, Iago plays the part of the witty yet cynical, blunt fellow who amuses the anxious company but also shows his opportunistic side when observing Cassio kiss Desdemona’s hand in innocent courtesy: “With as litle a web as this I will ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.” (II,i,167) he knows there is no wrong in the relationship but knows he can twist it so that it looks suspicious.
He loves his position as mastermind, controlling others, the “joker in the pack”, who uses the hierarchical and harmonious structures of society as playthings to further his ends. In many ways he uses Roderigo to test his strategies and lies and, to some extent fails, as Roderigo is adamant that Desdemona is “full of most blest disposition.” (II,i,242) Despite his persuasiveness and confidence, with the prose rhythms pulsing along, he fails to convince Roderigo but does succeed in setting him on to create trouble. His own function is to get Cassio drunk and then, as an added wound, tell the company he is frequently so. When questioned by Othello, he drops Cassio’s name into his account whilst claiming he will not abuse his reputation, but we note the basic element of truth in his narrative. His technique is to wait for a trigger for a fabrication but this must be based on fact, however flimsy. Comforting Cassio, he states that reputation is “an idle and most false imposition” (II,iii,258), a view which he reverses in his Janus-like fashion when dealing with Othello. His soliloquy (II,i,319ff) reveals most clearly his desire to have a nugget of fact in falsehood to add to plausibility. Yet in describing the virtues and open spirits of Othello and Desdemona, he reveals his own closed, envious, two-faced personality: his soliloquies are not introspective but self-expressive, acknowledging his desire to turn all goodness into pitch – with maximum urgency. This motive has a ring of truth.
At this point Iago has reached his avowed objective: the cashiering of Cassio but his main ambition is far from achieved. He starts Act III,iii, the Temptation Scene, with a drip of poison, that Cassio sneaked off when seeing Othello. This does have some effect as we see when Othello is not in the mood to listen to Desdeomona’s unfortunately timed pleas for Cassio’s reinstatement. Iago tries further, repeating the word “honest”, asking if Cassio knew of their love, until Othello suspects there is a monster in his thoughts that he will not reveal. This is a inversed replay of the brawl scene where Iago implied he knew more than he was saying, but here he knows nothing and is weaving a fantasy out of words. Othello has no reason to distrust him and so Iago can manipulate him with more trickery: meaningless aphorisms, “Men should be what they seem”; facial contortions, contracting and pursing his brow, (III,iii,114); the impression of soldier-to-soldier honesty; pride so that he will not be commanded to reveal his thoughts, therefore playing the man who will not betray another; a warning to Othello not to build too much on his words, when he wants him to exaggerate them; praise of repuation implying Othello has lost his; feeding words like “cuckold” and “monster” into the conversation – but he has not yet won. He must be more blunt and tell Othello to watch his wife with Cassio, implying that he, Iago, knows the ways of Venice whereas Othello does not – another truth in falsehood. A clever twist is to say that Brabantio thought it witchcraft when Desdemona deceived him but that is not what the father thought: he believed that Othello had used witchcraft but the misquotation is not noticed. His language becomes even blunter: “foul”, “smell in such a will most rank”,
and he points out that Desdemona may revert to type and prefer a while man. From this point on (and from even earlier) the plot of the drama is Iago’s until the very end: he is the puppet-master and sets his main figure on his downward path of snooping and jealousy. Luck is with him when Desdemona drops her handkerchief and this becomes one of his main proofs.” He can make of this trifle “light as air” (III,iii,324) a confirmation “strong/As proofs of holy writ” to poison Othello and we note his delight in the torture he has created which will “burn like the mines of sulphur” (III,iii,333) and remove Othello’s capacity to rest.
Although Othello now bids faewell to the world he once knew, Iago knows he has not yet completed his task when Othello demands “ocular proof” (III,iii,363) seizing him by the throat. After some empty ditherings, including the fatal comparison to “goats and monkeys” (III,iii,406) Iago hits on the preposterous story of how he shared a bed with Cassio who spoke to him as Desdemona, whilst engaging in a grotesque parody of sex : “then laid his leg/Over my thigh (III,iii,427), a mental picture so disturbing that its unlikelihood is overlooked. Othello is ready for murder but Iago feels the need to use the handkerchief as “proof”, a potentially risky move as it is the only concrete part of his so-called evidence and could easily be uncovered. He cannot resist using it as he was so clever at finding it and can add disgusting details about Cassio’s wiping his beard with it. Now he can talk about “other proofs” (III,iii,444) when there are none and Othello believes that he can “see” that the story is true. Kneeling with Othello he undertakes to kill Cassio whilst Othello murders Desdemona, an idea Iago seeds by begging “But let her live” (III.iii,478) In this scene he has brought love, trust and freedom of spirit down to hatred, suspicion and an imprisoned and poisoned mind, all with words – and this from the purported man of action, honest in deed and word.
During Act IV scene one he needles Othello until he has a seizure and falls, literally and metaphorically, to the ground, before setting up a terrible and base episode where Othello skulks, watching Cassio deride Bianca whilst thinking he speaks of Desdemona. Iago has only to do the ventriloquist’s trick of whispering and then raising his voice for the deception to work but he is so engossed in the pleasure of cheating and the need to finalise his success that he pursues it with Othello, who is not yet fully convinced and is see-sawing constantly between two images of his wife. Iago then denigrates him to Lodovico and plays the friend to Desdemona, suggesting that affairs of state are troubling her husband, before tackling the irate Roderigo. His talents with words are now strained to their limit and he must participate in some of the action, avoiding it as much as possible by setting on Roderigo to kill Cassio.
In Act V, a brief soliloquy gives us his sole genuine motive. When speaking of Cassio he admits:
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly. (V,i, 19-20)
The collapsing rhythm, contrasting with the energetic pulses of his usual speech, betray the real man: he hates the great and the good because he knows how he compares with them. Here he is in a quandary as to who should live or die but stabs both Cassio and Roderigo, the first time in the play that he has acted in the sense of doing rather than acted in the sense of role-playing. Opportunistic as ever, he comments on V,i,106) the pale face of Bianca but recognises that “This is the night/That either makes me or foredoes me quite.” (III,iii,129-30) At the end of the play, when all is revealed, Shakespeare adds a note of mystery to him: now that he is recognised as a devil he cannot continue his practices and so his only way out is silence:
What you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word. (V,II,311)
He is the villain, wicked in thought and deed, and yet he lives on to perplex the characters and the audience as to the nature of evil.