Early in Act 2 of Othello, the newly married Othello and Desdemona are reunited in Cyprus, having survived a storm at sea that threatened their separate ships. The meeting is rapturous, almost beyond words:
I cannot speak enough of this content.
It stops me here; it is too much of joy.
And this, and this, the greatest discords be
That e’er our hearts shall make!
In a film, the background music would swell at this point. These lovers, a dark-skinned Moorish general and a white Venetian lady, have triumphed over daunting obstacles: racial difference and the attendant cultural taboos, disparities of culture and of age, the angry opposition of Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, urged on by Othello’s malicious subordinate, Iago, the threat of the attacking Turkish fleet, and finally the raging storm that scattered the Turks and might well have swamped the Venetian ships as well. On this high note of joy, with the forces against their happiness destroyed or rendered powerless, the married life of Desdemona and Othello begins.
But less than two days later, the marriage is utterly destroyed and with it Othello and Desdemona themselves. Discords arise between them that cannot be resolved with kisses. Indeed, when we next see Othello kissing his wife (5.2.18, 21), it is as a nostalgic gesture before he executes her as an unfaithful wife. Even allowing for the conventional economy and foreshortening of drama, this is a precipitous breakdown of love and trust. What goes so quickly and terribly wrong with the marriage of Othello and Desdemona? In what follows, I suggest various approaches to this question; some overlap, some point in opposing directions. Neither separately nor in conjunction can they offer anything like “the whole truth.”
The most obvious and immediate answer is Iago. It is he who plots to poison Othello’s happiness, and to bring down Cassio as well by getting him first stripped of his military position and then suspected by the Moor as Desdemona’s lover. It is Iago whom everyone onstage condemns at the play’s conclusion: in the space of the last 130 lines or so, various appalled characters call him viper, devil, wretch, pernicious caitiff, Spartan dog, and (repeatedly) slave and villain. At the Cyprus reunion in 2.1, Iago’s malevolence already adds a jarring note to the triumphant background music. Directly after the speech quoted above—Othello’s wish that kisses be their greatest discords—Iago says, in an aside,
O, you are well tuned now,
But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music,
As honest as I am.
The question of what drives Iago to ruin the Othello music is one that has long been debated. To his pawn, Roderigo, and to the audience in soliloquy, Iago speaks at one time or another of many grievances: Othello has made Cassio his lieutenant rather than Iago, who wanted, and claims to have deserved, the post; Iago suspects that his wife, Emilia, has betrayed him with the Moor; Iago wants revenge, whether by possessing Desdemona (to be “even with him, wife for wife”) or by shattering Othello’s marital happiness; Cassio is his chosen instrument because Cassio is attractive to women and an additional threat to Iago’s husbandly rights of ownership over Emilia. In spite of this wealth of inciting causes, critics have felt a disparity between the magnitude of Iago’s malevolent work and the motives he gives for it. There are too many of them, for one thing. The fears of being cuckolded, mentioned only once or twice, don’t seem to go very deep. And when Iago, after engineering Cassio’s downfall, does get the lieutenancy at the end of Act 3, scene 3, he expresses no satisfaction either then or later.
Deeper insight comes from a few glimpses Iago affords us into his feelings, apart from the occasions he cites. “I hate the Moor” is his obsessive litany: “I have told thee often, and I retell thee again and again . . .” (1.3.407–8). This may well be suspect, like anything else he says to Roderigo, but even when alone he reiterates it:
I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
’Has done my office. (1.3.429–31)
The phrasing—“And it is thought,” not “Because it is thought”—detaches the hatred from any immediate cause, gives it a dark life of its own. Bernard Spivack pointed out this unexpected And and the resulting detachment. He concluded that Iago was a descendant of the Vice character in medieval allegorical drama.1 At times, certainly, Iago’s malevolence seems too absolute for ordinary motivation, presenting rather what Melville called (in the Iago-like Claggart he created for Billy Budd) “the mystery of iniquity.” But the reader or viewer, as well as the actor assigned to play Iago, may nevertheless find enlightenment of various kinds in human psychology. It is possible, for example, to see Iago not as an inhuman embodiment of evil but as a man who habitually feels the fine qualities and good fortunes of others as injuries to himself. He seems to point to that characteristic in himself later in the play when he tells us why Cassio has to die. As one who can expose Iago’s deception to Othello, Cassio is a practical danger, but that is just an afterthought to Iago’s more basic resentment of Cassio: “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly” (5.1.20–21).
If Iago feels himself a have-not, the graces of Cassio and Desdemona and the glamorous life and language of Othello must rankle in maddening contrast. Probing the subtext further, we may see recurring through his real and imagined grievances the anxiety of displacement. The fantasies of being dislodged from his sole rights as a husband by Othello or Cassio are problematic; more firmly based in reality, and more galling, is his displacement by Cassio as Othello’s lieutenant—and intimate friend. The Moor has passed over his ensign, Iago, with all his experience in the battlefield, to choose the well-bred Cassio, courtly in behavior and schooled in “bookish theoric” (1.1.25). Iago himself is of the lower class: “honest,” the label he constantly receives from others, is complimentary but also patronizing, used to pat inferiors on the head. Insecurity about his “place” in the social hierarchy blends into the specific obsession about the military position he has failed to attain. Complaining, he sounds rather like an NCO jeering angrily at the advancement of a West Point graduate:
’Tis the curse of service.
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to th’ first. (1.1.37–40)
Promotion by seniority (gradation) would presumably have rewarded Iago for his long service in the field, but now it is letter and affection that count: letters of recommendation from influential people,2 and Othello’s own partiality for Cassio, stronger than any regard he had for Iago. In spite of the experience he and his general shared in several campaigns, Iago is shut out from this affection, the closeness that draws Othello naturally to make his (well-born) friend his lieutenant, the one who will act in his stead and represent him. The rejection can be seen as a double one: as Cassio appropriates Othello on the one hand, Desdemona draws him on the other, away from the bond of fellow soldiers into a new intimacy of marriage.
Iago might thus say with Hamlet, “How all occasions do inform against me”: each event stirs his general sense of being put down, discounted, and excluded. His shrewd intelligence makes him all the more resentful at being subordinate to both Othello and Cassio in the army hierarchy. He exults in manipulating them, in being the one truly in command. Manipulating Cassio is easy, for the lieutenant has a defined weakness, susceptibility to drink. With Roderigo’s help it is not difficult for Iago to lead Cassio on to brawling on the watch and quick demotion. Does Othello also show signs of vulnerability? For some critics, narcissism and self-dramatization are all too apparent in the “noble Moor,” enough to destroy his marriage even without much help from Iago.3 Without so thoroughly discounting Othello’s greatness, we may well recognize in him a social insecurity that renders him open to Iago’s insinuations.
I know our country disposition well.
In Venice they do let God see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands. Their best
Is not to leave ’t undone, but keep ’t unknown.
OTHELLO Dost thou say so? (3.3.232–37)
Othello has no knowledge of his own to counter this insider’s generalizations about Venetian wives. He knows nothing of Venice apart from the few months’ residence during which his courtship took place. A soldier since boyhood, he is unused to any peacetime society. Although he is a Venetian by association and allegiance, whatever he knows of the customs and assumptions of Venice is learned, not instinctive. If Iago, a native, says Venetian women are habitually unfaithful, it must be so (“Dost thou say so?”). Paul Robeson, whose second New York Othello production opened soon after the end of World War II, compared the Moor’s insecurity to what an American soldier in the occupying army in Japan might feel in courting a Japanese woman, totally ignorant of the culture and its customs and having no basis on which to disbelieve the advice offered him.
Besides denying him cultural experience, Othello’s warrior-past unfits him for his present dilemma in another way. He is decisive, as a good commander must be. He does not hesitate in doubt, and when resolved must act:
To be once in doubt
Is once to be resolved. . . .
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this:
Away at once with love or jealousy.
What works for the soldier is tragic for the husband; it pushes him past the doubt he cannot tolerate to an act of closure that is irrevocable.
Between Othello’s years of exclusively masculine experience in the “tented field” and Desdemona’s sheltered Venetian girlhood stretches a gap that even the most loving marriage can hardly bridge. He is black, she is white. He is middle-aged, she is young. Neither this disparity in age nor Othello’s unfamiliarity with Venice is in the story on which Shakespeare based his play (in that story, for example, the Moor is a longtime resident) suggests that the playwright was deliberately accentuating this marriage as a union of opposites. The source story also has the bride and groom live together in Venice for several months after the marriage; Shakespeare, keeping his own emphasis, sends his newlyweds off immediately to the challenges of Cyprus, allowing no time to foster personal or social familiarity. Othello and Desdemona are so thoroughly deprived of common ground as to constitute a paradigm of difference in marriage. It is as if Shakespeare were directing our attention to the tragic vulnerability of love itself. Desdemona’s devotion is total; and while Othello’s love may be based in part on her mirroring back to him his best self (“She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” [1.3.193–94]), he has clearly invested his life in their new relationship. Each is dependent on the other, yet each is necessarily separated in isolated selfhood. Beyond Othello’s personal deficiencies, then, we may focus on this unresolvable contradiction and the cross-purposes and misunderstandings it breeds, inherent in any love relation but in Othello dramatically accented and thematized.
The play’s hero as well as its villain may thus be implicated in the disaster that befalls the marriage. From a different perspective, one may see additional psychological dimensions to this tragedy, a tragedy in which social forces have determining power beyond merely individual drives and deficiencies. It is, of course, Venetian society that labels Othello and Iago inferior, Iago for being far down in the social hierarchy and Othello for being foreign and dark-skinned.4 Yet while neither Othello nor Iago is at home in the prevailing social system, they are both deeply embedded in it, like all the other characters, and are shaped by it. The play’s title, as Michael Long notes, is not just Othello or The Moor but Othello, The Moor of Venice.5 The tragedy evolves from and reacts to a particular society, which is dramatized for us first in Venice itself and then, precariously maintained, in its fortified outpost, Cyprus. Venetian society is in many ways attractive, embellished by graceful accomplishments like Desdemona’s singing, playing, and dancing (3.3.216), sustained by a civil order one can take for granted. Brabantio disbelieves those who claim he has been robbed: “This is Venice. My house is not a grange [i.e., a farmhouse]” (1.1.119). Act 1, scene 3 shows us a rational government whose officers deliberate carefully under pressure, hear evidence judiciously.
But if the senators do justice to the alien Moor who has married a senator’s daughter, they are motivated less by fairness than by their desperate need for General Othello to stop the Turkish “theft” of their possession, Cyprus. Brabantio charges Othello with a similar theft on a personal level (1.2.80), and even when it is plain that Desdemona married of her own accord, her father still addresses her as “jewel,” a precious possession whose “escape” is galling (1.3.225). The Venetian value system of acquiring and possessing is clear in the frequency of commercial images in the play’s language, including other literal and metaphoric “jewels” that implicate Iago and even Othello. When Iago repeatedly advises “put money in thy purse,” Roderigo is persuaded he can win Desdemona with jewels. Good name is a jewel, Iago assures Othello—and therefore can be stolen. Iago is in fact the thief of Desdemona’s good name, just as he pockets Roderigo’s real jewels. Othello, too, shows the shaping power of this preoccupation with buying and selling, manipulating and increasing wealth, fearing theft. “Had she been true,” he says of his beautiful wife,
If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite [i.e., topaz],
I’d not have sold her for it. (5.2.175–77)
The pervasive notion of woman as property, prized indeed but more as object than as person, indicates one aspect of a deep-seated sexual pathology in Venice. Othello admires Desdemona’s skin as she sleeps, “whiter . . . than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster” (5.2.4–5). Besides the beauty of alabaster—yet another precious substance—its coldness and stillness are the keynotes. Earlier he had been troubled to feel her hand, “Hot, hot, and moist,” and sense there “a young and sweating devil . . . That commonly rebels” (3.4.45–49). What he wants, it seems, is a beautiful form with no wayward life at all. “Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee / And love thee after” (5.2.20–21).
Fear of women’s sexuality is omnipresent in Othello. Iago fans to flames the coals of socially induced unease in Othello, fantasizes on his own about being cuckolded by Othello and Cassio. In an ideology that can value only cloistered, desireless women, any woman who departs from this passivity will cause intense anxiety. One result is a version of the familiar “virgin/whore syndrome,” which Cassio actually enacts in the play with the two women who concern him most. He exalts “the divine Desdemona,” commanding the Cypriots to kneel to her as if to a goddess (2.1.93). He resists strongly when Iago’s conversation puts her in a sexual context, refusing to speculate about the wedding night, insisting on her modesty (2.3.26–27). The woman with whom he is sexually involved, Bianca, is a strumpet—or is she? Bianca denies it, and we have no evidence from the text that she sells her favors as Iago says. The 1623 Folio list of characters which labels her “a courtesan” is most likely the work of someone in the printing house, the label being derived from the accusations of Iago, Cassio, and Emilia; but perhaps we should separate Shakespeare’s characterization of Bianca from that of these characters. Perhaps what we ought to register is not that Bianca is a slut but that Cassio treats her like a slut. If she has desired him and slept with him, she has, in his eyes, become a slut. Desdemona’s own frankly expressed desire for her husband in Act 1, scene 3 contrasts significantly with his denial of such feelings for her, and after he has possessed her there are suggestions that the revulsion he feels is for his sexual bond with her as well as for her purported adultery with Cassio.6
This is perhaps the most insidious tragic design in Othello, a psychosocial web that ensnares men and women alike. It is never named. In the last scene, Emilia vows to speak out in spite of men—“Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak” (5.2.262–63). But before she can, Iago stabs her into silence. Othello tries to sum up his life before ending it, but his moving picture of “one that loved not wisely, but too well” is incomplete. In that same speech he likens Desdemona to “a pearl . . . richer than all his tribe,” still caught in the Venetian economy of worth. Othello stops his own groping self-analysis with his sword, and Iago, still alive, refuses explanation: “What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.” And the onlookers cannot contemplate the marriage of opposites so disastrously concluded, Desdemona and Othello dead on their marriage bed. “The object poisons sight,” shudders Lodovico; “Let it be hid.”
1. Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), p. 448 and more generally chs. 1 and 12.
3. This view was most strongly argued by F. R. Leavis in “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero: A Note on Othello,” Scrutiny 6 (1937–38): 259–83. The National Theatre production of 1964, with Laurence Olivier as Othello, was based on Leavis’s interpretation.
4. This shared status as outsiders may well draw Othello, when his confidence is shaken, to rely all the more on Iago. Director Joe Dowling took this approach in his 1991 production in New York’s Shakespeare in the Park series: Richard Bernstein, “Looking Inside that Outsider, Othello the Moor,” New York Times, June 16, 1991, pp. 5, 34.
5. The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Methuen, 1976), p. 39.
6. Desdemona, not Othello, begs that they may pursue their married life in Cyprus: “That I did love the Moor to live with him / My downright violence and storm of fortunes / May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord . . . if I be left behind, / A moth of peace, and he go to the war, / The rites [of lovemaking] for why I love him are bereft me.” She was also the initiator in their courtship. Othello in supporting her plea disclaims the urgency of desire: “I . . . beg it not / To please the palate of my appetite, / Nor to comply with heat (the young affects / In me defunct).” In the last scene, commanded to remember her sins, Desdemona replies, “They are loves I bear to you” (5.2.49). “Ay, and for that thou diest,” responds Othello, seeming to find that loving desire for her own husband as sinful as that he imagines she has for Cassio.