WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
The life of William Shakespeare has been studied, questioned, and debated since his death in 1616. Because he is considered the greatest playwright in the English language--and one of the world's greatest writers--people have been eager to find out every possible detail of his life, his work, and his thought.
Shakespeare himself offered little help to scholars and critics. Men of his time, no matter how famous, rarely wrote autobiographies, and Shakespeare was no exception.
Those who look to the plays to discover the man behind them are faced with an impossible question: which of Shakespeare's hundreds of characters represents the author: Hamlet? Romeo? Cleopatra? Macbeth? Shakespeare created so many different personalities--from the roughest peasant to the noblest king--that looking for clues to Shakespeare's personal feeling in his characters is frustrating.
Yet because he was a public figure, there is a great deal that's known about Shakespeare's career. Though his private life remains mysterious, his life as an artist is well documented, particularly compared to those of his contemporaries in the theatre.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-on-Avon, England (about 100 miles from London) on April 23, 1564. The exact date is open to question, but the 23rd is when his birthday is celebrated. His father, John Shakespeare, was a prosperous landowner. He was also a glover (a glove-maker) and owned what we would call a general store. He was active in civic affairs, and served for a while as mayor of Stratford. Mary Arden, Shakespeare's mother, was from one of the oldest families in the area, and of a higher social class than her husband. In addition to William, John and Mary had two other sons and four daughters.
Legends abound regarding Shakespeare's early life. According to one, Shakespeare had almost no schooling, was an uneducated "country bumpkin." In fact, Shakespeare's education was as good as that of any young man of his class and age. In grammar school, he studied Latin and Greek, but little English, as that language was considered too young for serious study.
Shakespeare's formal education was cut short when his father suffered financial losses. But he never stopped studying, and, as his plays reveal, he was quite learned in geography, history, the natural sciences, and cosmology.
When Shakespeare was 18, he married Anne Hathaway, a woman seven or eight years his senior. The birth of their daughter Susanna a few months after the wedding suggests that the marriage might have been a "necessity." Though there aren't documents that prove theirs was a happy marriage, they remained together throughout Shakespeare's life. In 1585, Anne gave birth to twins, Judith and Hamnet.
Since we don't know what Shakespeare did professionally before moving to London, it's difficult to say just why he left Stratford. Perhaps a traveling troupe of actors took him on as an apprentice; at least two of these companies came to Shakespeare's town every year. Perhaps he begun writing and felt that London would hold more opportunities than Stratford. Or perhaps he simply needed more money to raise his family. Whatever Shakespeare's reasons, it was one of the most successful moves in literary history.
We don't know exactly when he left Stratford. But by the time he was 28 (1592), Shakespeare was an established actor. Scholars speculate that he began writing full-time in 1592, when theaters closed on account of the plague. He published a narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in 1593, and when the theaters reopened in 1594, his play The Comedy of Errors, was ready for presentation.
Shakespeare's London was both a noisy, rough place and the leading cultural capital of the world. The age took its name (Elizabethan) from Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled from 1558-1603. Under her rule, England rose to new economic, military, and cultural heights. The English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 virtually assured England's political control of the sea. England's power and prosperity attracted merchants from all over the world. And writers, poets, and artists were encouraged and rewarded under the queen's intelligent rule.
Elizabethan London was bursting with color and vitality. Standing on the bank of the Thames (the river that flows through London) you could see boat-taxis carrying merchants and craftsmen from one shore to the other; elegant barges of the nobility; farmers selling produce on the riverbank; and on the poles of London Bridge--the severed heads of executed criminals as a warning to those contemplating a life of crime.
The cobblestoned streets were full of noise, smells, and constant activity. Londoners used chamber pots (this was well before plumbing) and often threw the contents out the window. Almost everyone drank ale (a heavy, bitter beer), since water wasn't sanitary and tea had yet to become the national beverage. Many were tipsy all day, tempers ran high, and street fights were frequent. Conversations were loud, as they had to compete with barking dogs, screaming vendors, horses' hooves clattering on the cobblestones, and rattling carriages.
It's not surprising that entertainment in this boisterous city tended to be fast-paced and involving. In one part of town you could see a bear-baiting match, in which a wild bear was tied up and ferocious dogs attacked it until it died. In another you could witness an execution; beheadings and hangings, considered public events, drew enormous crowds. If your tastes were a bit more refined you could go to the outskirts of town, to one of the many theaters--the Rose, the Swan, the Red Bull, the Globe. Because plays were considered "godless" by the Lord Mayor, theaters had to be located outside the city limits, but this did nothing to hamper their popularity.
Elizabethan theaters were owned and operated by "companies"--groups of producers, actors, and writers who stayed together from play to play, as in a modern repertory company, and shared in the profits. These companies were sponsored by a wealthy merchant or nobleman. Shakespeare stayed with one company throughout his career, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which became the King's Men in 1603 when Elizabeth died and James I took the throne. At one point in his life, Shakespeare enjoyed a triple income--as actor, playwright, and producer.
There is evidence Shakespeare was a good actor. He played small parts in some of his own plays (such as the Ghost in Hamlet) and roles in those of other writers. As the years passed, he began to devote more and more time to his writing, where he enjoyed even greater success.
By the time he'd written Othello (around 1604), Shakespeare was considered the greatest playwright of his day. Among his successful plays before Othello were A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Richard II, Henry V, and Hamlet. Stiff to come were King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, among others.
Many feel that Shakespeare's later plays show a darker, more pessimistic view of the world than his early plays. Under James I (his rule is referred to as the Jacobean period), England lost some of its power and prosperity. Too, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants led to civil strife. Shakespeare's earlier plays reflected Elizabeth's golden reign. By 1604, when Othello was first produced, the headiness of the Elizabethan period was recent history.
In 1612, Shakespeare left the theater and retired to Stratford. His investments enabled him to live comfortably with his family until he died on April 23, 1616.
THE ELIZABETHAN THEATER
The theaters in which Shakespeare's plays were first performed were quite different from those of today. You're probably accustomed to theaters in which the seats face a square stage with a proscenium arch (a "frame" that separates the audience from the actors). Elizabethan theaters were either circular or made of six, seven, or eight sides. The sides enclosed an open court surrounded above by galleries or balconies. Audience members stood or sat in the galleries or (if they couldn't afford gallery seats) sat downstairs on the bare ground--these spectators came to be called "groundlings." Extending into the courtyard was a covered platform, where the action of the play took place. There were no curtains and little painted scenery. In order to let audiences know where and when certain scenes were taking place, Shakespeare often made references to specific cities, rooms, times of day, or weather conditions. There was no lighting other than that provided by the sun. Performances in these theaters were held during the day.
The action of the plays was quick and continuous; only rarely were there intermissions. In fact, the divisions into acts and scenes that are used on stage and in print today were added to his plays after Shakespeare's death.
Theater audiences had to use their imaginations more fully than we do today. Elizabethans focussed more on character and language than on "special effects" (although costumes were often colorful and elaborate). Shakespeare captivated (and does to this day) his audiences with some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry ever written.
Since acting was considered immoral for women, young boys played all of the female roles. This may be why Shakespeare's plays have more male than female characters. It's interesting to think that some of the greatest roles for women ever written--Juliet, Cleopatra, Desdemona, Rosalind--were first performed by boys whose voices hadn't changed!
Shakespeare had an uncanny knack for knowing what audiences enjoyed (and still enjoy!). He offers not only bawdy humor and exciting action, but also exquisite poetry and penetrating psychological and political insight. Shakespeare's still a box-office sellout, over 300 years after his death. Perhaps we miss the special communication he enjoyed with Elizabethans and Jacobeans who were his contemporaries. But we can share their appreciation for the elements that have kept Shakespeare alive for centuries: his splendid language, his understanding of human problems, and his steadfast compassion for all of us struggling to cope on this wonderful and dangerous planet.
PUBLICATION OF SHAKESPEARE'S PLAYS
Shakespeare's plays were never published under his guidance. In his day, plays were considered entertainment, not literature; they were part of the popular culture as television is today. When Ben Jonson, another Elizabethan playwright, published his collected Works, he was considered a hopeless egotist!
There was another reason that plays were not printed for general distribution. Plays were the property of the theater company that produced them. A published play was fair game for a rival company. (It was a long time before plagiarism laws and copyrights made play piracy illegal.)
Nonetheless, 18 of Shakespeare's did appear in print while he was alive, proof that he was a very popular writer for the stage. The plays were printed in single editions, known as quartos. Shakespeare didn't supervise the publication of these editions, so it's hard to gauge their accuracy. There were often many versions of a single play, as Shakespeare rewrote during rehearsals and during the run.
After Shakespeare's death, two of his colleagues printed the plays (18) not included in the quarto editions. This collection became known as the First Folio, and although they're considered closer to Shakespeare's original versions, no one knows how closely they resemble Shakespeare's own manuscript. No version of any play in Shakespeare's handwriting exists today.
It's not crucial to know every detail in Shakespeare's plays, nor what scholars surmise he meant by every obscure word (to us, anyway) of difficult passage. You can enjoy the plays anyway. But it's good to keep in mind that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the plays because no single printed version of any play had Shakespeare's approval. The problems in the texts have puzzled readers for hundreds of years. But the problems are minor compared to the pleasure and enlightenment to be had from Shakespeare's plays.
The Play: Othello:
OTHELLO: ACT I
Shakespeare's story of jealousy, betrayal, and murder begins on a street in Venice in the middle of the night. Roderigo has just learned that Desdemona, the woman he loves, has eloped with Othello, a Moorish general hired to lead the Venetian army against the Turks. Roderigo is angry at Iago, the young Venetian he's been paying to play "matchmaker-" for him and Desdemona.
But Iago has other problems. He's furious with Othello for having chosen Michael Cassio as his Lieutenant instead of himself, who has served loyally as Othello's ensign. Iago hides an evil nature under a mask of honesty, and he delights in the suffering of others. With his jealousy as a partial excuse, he sets out to arrange Othello's downfall.
Roderigo and Iago awaken Brabantio, a Venetian Senator and Desdemona's father, to tell him that his daughter has run off with Othello. Despite the respect Brabantio has for Othello as a soldier, he is suspicious of him personally because he is a foreigner. Iago convinces Brabantio that Othello seduced Desdemona using charms and spells.
Iago finds Othello at the inn where he and Desdemona are spending their honeymoon. Iago warns him that Brabantio's angry, but Othello feels he has done no wrong. A group of men, led by Cassio, arrives to summon Othello to the Senate for an emergency war council. Immediately following, Brabantio arrives with his supporters to put Othello in prison. Othello calmly suggests that they all go to the Senate and let the Duke decide who is in the right.
In the Senate chambers, Othello explains how he and Desdemona fell in love: as he told her of his adventures throughout the world, she listened with awe and sympathy. Their mutual attraction was undeniable, and it happened without charms or potions.
Desdemona is sent for, and she not only confirms Othello's story but pledges her love for him. Brabantio, seeing that he's defeated, is devastated.
Othello is sent to Cyprus to fight the Turks. Desdemona will join him there, accompanied by Iago and his wife, Emilia.
Meanwhile, Iago formulates a plan capitalizing on Othello's open and trusting nature and Cassio's good looks. The details of the plan are still tentative, but Iago's objectives are firm: to see Othello ruined and to win Cassio's job as lieutenant.
OTHELLO: ACT II
The war ends suddenly and unexpectedly when the Turkish fleet retreats, overpowered by a storm. Othello arrives and is joyfully reunited with Desdemona. The Moor calls for a celebration in honor of his marriage and the end of the war.
That night, Iago urges Roderigo (who has come to Cyprus in the hopes of winning Desdemona after all) to pick a fight with Cassio and get the young lieutenant in so much trouble that he will lose his job. Iago gets Cassio drunk, Roderigo starts an argument that leads to a sword fight, and Montano, the retiring governor of Cyprus, is injured trying to stop the brawl. Othello is awakened by the ruckus and promptly fires Cassio. The humiliated lieutenant is encouraged by Iago's advice to approach Desdemona and beg for his job. Cassio doesn't realize that this is all part of Iago's plan.
OTHELLO: ACT III
Cassio goes to Desdemona, who promises to help. Seeing them together, Othello--prompted by Iago--feels the stirrings of jealousy. When Desdemona asks her husband to give back Cassio's job, Iago quickly points out to Othello that her behavior is indeed suspicious.
Othello demands that Iago prove his insinuations regarding Cassio and Desdemona. Unfortunately for her, Desdemona has dropped the handkerchief given to her by Othello. Iago "plants" the handkerchief in Cassio's room and cites it as the "proof" Othello demands. Cassio, suspecting nothing, gives the handkerchief to Bianca, his mistress.
Meanwhile, Iago tells Othello that he has seen the handkerchief in Cassio's hands. When Othello asks Desdemona to show him the handkerchief, she lies and says she still has it, but can't show it to him. Othello, convinced of her guilt, resolves that she and Cassio will die.
OTHELLO: ACT IV
Though a lot has happened, Iago has just begun. He arranges for Othello to eavesdrop as he maneuvers Cassio into talking about Bianca's love for him. Othello thinks he's referring to Desdemona. In a fury, Othello vows to strangle Desdemona that very night. He asks Iago to kill Cassio.
Lodovico, a relative of Desdemona, arrives from Venice. He brings a letter from the Venetian Senate asking Othello to return to Venice, and giving Cassio control of Cyprus. Desdemona is delighted by the news, and Othello, thinking her joy is for Cassio, hits her in front of their guests.
That night, Othello tries to pressure Emilia into admitting that Desdemona has cheated on him, but Emilia swears that her mistress is pure and innocent. Othello refuses to believe her.
Iago persuades Roderigo that killing Cassio is the best way for him to win Desdemona. With premonitions of death on her mind, Desdemona prepares for bed.
OTHELLO: ACT V
Roderigo attacks Cassio, but only wounds him. Cassio, in turn, manages to wound Roderigo, and Iago, hidden in the dark, stabs Cassio in the leg. Cassio's cries bring Lodovico and others running from their rooms. Cassio identifies Roderigo as his attacker, and Iago, pretending to avenge the lieutenant, kills Roderigo to prevent him from confessing their plot.
In Desdemona's bedroom, Othello looks at her sleeping figure with a combination of love and hate. She awakens, and he announces his intention to kill her for her acts of adultery. Desdemona protests that she is innocent, but Othello smothers her, certain that the murder is an act of justice.
Emilia comes in with news of Roderigo's death. Othello admits to having killed Desdemona, but says he had to because she was unfaithful. The grief-stricken Emilia protests, until Othello tells her Iago told him of Desdemona's affair with Cassio. Emilia cries out, and Lodovico, Iago, and others come running.
When Othello cites the handkerchief as proof of his wife's infidelity, Emilia finally realizes that her husband's evil. Iago kills her to protect himself, then makes a run for it.
Montano and Gratiano rush out to chase Iago, and when they return with the unrepentant villain, Othello tries to stab him. He only wounds him, though, and Lodovico orders Othello's sword be taken from him.
Lodovico tells of letters found in Roderigo's pocket linking Iago with the conspiracy to kill Cassio. With his last words, Roderigo also accuses Iago.
After bidding those around him to remember him as "one that loved not wisely, but too well," Othello stabs himself with a dagger he had hidden in his cloak. Kissing Desdemona, he dies.
Lodovico takes charge, ordering Cassio to govern Cyprus and sentencing Iago to death.
Shakespeare's tragic hero is a strong, powerful, dignified Moor. He has come to Venice as a soldier-of-fortune, hired by the state to help Venice win their war against the Turks. He spends nine months in Venice, where his leadership and kindness have made him a popular general. Although born a pagan (a non-Christian) he has converted to Christianity.
While in Venice, he spends many evenings in the home of Brabantio, a Venetian Senator. He entertains Brabantio and his guests with stories of his travels around the world. He tells marvelous and exotic tales of strange people with fantastic customs and unusual appearances.
His stories attract the attention of Brabantio's beautiful daughter, Desdemona, who listens to his words with such eagerness and sympathy that he falls in love with her. She returns his love, and they elope, knowing that Brabantio would disapprove of his daughter marrying an older man of another race, class, and country.
To hear Othello's story up until the elopement with Desdemona is almost to hear a fairy tale--the story of a handsome warrior sweeping a beautiful young princess off her feet, away from the clutches of her possessive father, and on to happiness. One reader has said that it's almost as if Othello has appeared from wonderland; his stories of his past are that rich and magical. Shakespeare, however, has made Othello a human being, not a character from a fairy tale.
Unlike other Shakespearean tragic heroes, Othello is not a prince or a king, although he is descended from "men of royal siege" (rank). In Venice he is seen as a professional soldier, a fine and courageous one, but still a hired general. By placing him closer to the common man, Shakespeare makes Othello easier to identify with, more sympathetic. His story could be our story, and his faults our faults.
Othello's good qualities easily outweigh the bad. We know he's powerful, brave, and authoritative; the respect given to him by the Venetian Senate tells us that. He's also gentle and romantic. The story he tells of courting Desdemona is rich and poetic, and his early scenes with his wife show him full of love and devotion. Cassio's loyalty to him shows that Othello is well-liked by his soldiers. When Cassio feels he has lost Othello's respect, he is broken-hearted.
There are also qualities about Othello that have a good side and a bad side. One of these is his open and trusting nature. Othello believes that others are honest and sincere until he has proof that they're not. This open-hearted love of his fellow man makes Othello an attractive and generous friend. But it also leaves him susceptible to Iago's scheming; Iago knows his plan will work because Othello trusts him and has no reason to suspect that his loyal ensign would scheme against him.
Othello is also naive, particularly about women. He says:
For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith
Tiff now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field;
Act I, Scene iii, lines 83-86
Having spent most of his life in army camps, Othello knows little of women and love. This naivete has charm in the first act, where the strong and powerful general admits to being a shy and cautious lover. In the third act, however, Othello's inexperience allows Iago to convince him that he doesn't understand Venetian women, that they are known for cheating on their husbands.
As a professional soldier, Othello has gained a strong reputation. The discipline he has learned has earned him the respect of the Venetians, who badly need his help. When he fires Cassio, it's to make an example of him to the rest of the soldiers. And he refuses to reinstate him as a matter of principle. Sadly, it is this strict code of honor--both military and private--that forces Othello to kill Desdemona. When a man's honor is lost, according to this code, he must win it back. For Othello, this means Desdemona's death, which he sees as an act of justice, not of revenge. As painful as it is for him, he doesn't see that he has a choice. He is a soldier, trained to live by the rules.
The last of these "double-edged" virtues is Othello's powerful poetic imagination. The stories he weaves for Desdemona are rich and impressive. As Othello retells the story of his courtship in the Senate office, the Duke is so struck that he understands how his daughter was won by such stories. Othello can weave magic with his tales and transform the truth into poetry. Yet this rich imagination has a handicap: it makes Othello vulnerable to Iago's stories of Desdemona's infidelities. Othello's imagination runs wild with Iago's invented details and "proofs."
The most common view of Othello's "tragic flaw" is that he's a jealous person who allows jealousy to prevail over good sense. But is jealousy Othello's problem? Or is he, as he says, a man who is not easily made jealous? Is this the tragedy of a man not jealous by nature, who is made jealous by the cruel manipulations of Iago? Read Act III, Scene iii carefully, and judge for yourself whether Othello is by nature jealous.
Othello is also a passionate man, and this makes him exciting. But he admits that he has a fiery temper (Act II, Scene iii, lines 207-212). Iago capitalizes on Othello's excitability. Once Iago has convinced the Moor that Desdemona's having an affair with Cassio, Othello moves to his deadly revenge quickly and single-mindedly.
Always remember that Othello is a stranger. Despite his strength and pride, he is never completely at home, and is constantly aware that others consider him a foreigner.
What is Iago's motivation in ruining Othello's life? This question has puzzled readers and scholars for centuries. Iago is a fascinating, complex character who can't be analyzed in simple terms. Like many people you meet, Iago can be mysterious and baffling. Just when you think you understand him, he does or says something completely mystifying. Shakespeare was obviously fascinated by the man--he gave Iago more lines than any other character in his work--more than Hamlet, King Lear, or Othello.
Here are some of the facts we know about Iago: He is a 28-year-old Venetian who is Othello's "ancient" or "ensign," a comparatively low-ranked commissioned officer. He seems to have no history of dirty deeds; in fact, almost every character in the play calls him "honest." (The word is applied to Iago 15 times in the play.) He's married to Emilia, a salty outspoken woman; they seem to tolerate each other. If theirs was a love match, we're never told, and it's difficult to guess.
Let's look at some possibilities that might explaining Iago's behavior.
- He loves evil for evil's sake. Some characters in Elizabethan drama are just thoroughly bad; they were born that way. From this point of view, Iago needs no motive. He simply loves to see people suffer.
- He is motivated by jealousy. In the play he expresses openly his jealousy of Cassio and Othello. He is jealous of Cassio's job and of Othello's success as a soldier and with Desdemona.
- He is seeking revenge. The rumors that Othello has slept with Emilia and the possibility that Cassio has also slept with her hurt Iago's pride and make him want to see both men ruined.
- He is motivated by a force he simply doesn't understand. The reasons he offers throughout the play are often contradictory. Iago snatches at whatever excuse he can to justify his horrible behavior.
As you look over the text, try to decide which of these (or other) reasons explain Iago. Remember that his motives may overlap. If there were a simple way to explain Iago, he wouldn't be the intriguing character that has appalled and thrilled audiences for hundreds of years.
Iago does have qualities on which everyone can agree. Here are some of them:
1. He is a wonderful actor. For years, he has fooled everyone into thinking he's honest. Even if Emilia suspects him of being a rascal, she has no idea that he's truly evil. You've seen newspaper reports about the mild-mannered person who suddenly is discovered to be a mass murderer; neighbors who are interviewed often say, "He was the nicest person, so polite and friendly! I can't believe he was capable of such a crime!" Friends of Iago would have said the same thing about him.
2. He is amoral. An amoral person has no moral standards at all. Iago never thinks twice about his behavior. He plunges ahead without a twinge of guilt or regret. Even when the innocent Desdemona becomes a victim of the plot, Iago has no pangs of conscience. He moves to satisfy himself, no matter who suffers. And he goes to his death without a word of regret!
3. He is highly intelligent. Iago plots his actions knowing how everyone will respond. His insight into the behavior of others is practically perfect; he can adapt himself to the personality of whoever he is with--from Roderigo to Desdemona to Cassio to Othello, knowing just how to "play" him or her. Ironically, the one person he misreads is Emilia; he doesn't suspect her loyalty to Desdemona outweighs her feelings for him.
4. He is an egotist. His opinion of everyone except himself is very low. He laughs at Othello's trusting nature, thinks Roderigo is a gullible fool, treats Emilia as a shrew, and scorns Cassio's honest virtues. The only person he respects is himself, and everything he does in the play is for the satisfaction of his own ego.
5. He is a cynic. He shows contempt for all conventional standards of decency. He is loyal only when it serves his own needs. He delights in dishonesty. He doesn't believe in romantic love, attributing it to a sexual itch. His opinion of the human race is so low that he allows innocent people to die without a word of regret.
6. He is extremely proud. Suspicions that Othello has slept with Emilia eat away at him. Othello's appointment of Cassio makes him furious. Iago sees anything that threatens his self-esteem as a personal insult, which must be avenged. He isn't angered by the thought of Othello in bed with Emilia because he loves her, but because another man has gotten the best of him!
Villains in literature are always a source of scary fun. Shakespeare, fortunately, has created in Iago more than just a villain. Iago is a complex character who combines enormous intelligence with an impulse to see others suffer. We may get a vicarious thrill as we watch him operate, but feel a great sense of relief when justice is finally served.
As a young Venetian woman, Desdemona has lived a sheltered life in her father's home. She falls in love, probably for the first time, with a man several years older than herself, from a faraway land, and of a different race. She's captivated by the man's stories and wishes she were a man so that she might also have an exciting life. Knowing that her father would disapprove of her marriage to such a man, she elopes with Othello and goes with him to the war zone.
Desdemona's portrait is that of a lovely, courageous, gentle woman, deeply in love with her husband. Is she a perfect character, free from flaws?
Most Elizabethans wouldn't have thought so. They would have seen her as disobedient and disrespectful. A nice young lady simply didn't marry behind her father's back. They would have shared Brabantio's disapproval of her marriage to a man of a different class, age, and race. And when Desdemona pleads with Othello to reinstate Cassio, Elizabethans would have considered her a pushy, interfering wife.
This is not to say that Shakespeare's audiences weren't moved by Desdemona's death. It's just that their opinion of her was influenced by social customs no longer current. Today, her behavior toward Brabantio, though perhaps insensitive, is forgivable; her begging Othello, even if it comes close to nagging, is hardly a major flaw.
If Iago represents evil in the world, Desdemona may represent the good that evil often destroys. She is guilty only of loving her husband too much. She has no defense against his terrible accusations because she is young and inexperienced. There's been no room in her cloistered world for the kind of thoughts Othello thinks she is hiding. She doesn't even believe that there are women who are unfaithful to their husbands!
If you look at what other characters say about Desdemona, you'll find that everyone praises her innocence, her goodness, her generosity. She risks her husband's anger because she promised Cassio she would help him. Desdemona inspires such devotion in Emilia that she is prepared to die for her. Even on her deathbed, she won't betray her husband. Rather than have him accused of the murder, she takes responsibility for it.
Is Desdemona a believable character? Is there anyone who can be so self-sacrificing? Shakespeare is careful to give her a few minor flaws--her treatment of Brabantio, her stubborn persistence about Cassio, her lie about the handkerchief--to make her realistic. But our overall impression of her is highly favorable, it's her very innocence that makes her a victim of circumstance. How could such a person know about or prepare herself for the likes of Iago?
Cassio is an attractive, likeable young man who seems to be a good choice for Othello's lieutenant. He's loyal to Othello, and is crushed when he errs and Othello fires him. It is partly Cassio's determination to make things right with Othello that allows Iago to succeed: Cassio tries to win Othello's favor by going through Desdemona; it's this friendship Iago misrepresents to Othello.
Cassio has many youthful faults: he's rash, impatient, and not very serious about his relationship with Bianca. He also can't handle his liquor. Yet the offenses Iago suspects him of--sleeping with Emilia, having an affair with Desdemona--are all in Iago's mind.
The innocent Cassio almost becomes a victim of Iago's treachery. Roderigo and Iago almost succeed in killing him. At the end of the play, however, Cassio is awarded control of Cyprus, and we believe that the island is in good hands. His survival tells us that order and decency will survive, despite the price that has been paid.
It's astonishing how quickly our opinion of Emilia changes. When she first appears, she seems little more than coarse, hard-edged, and world-weary. Her opinion of men is very low--after all, she says, it's owing to men's faults that women cheat on them as much as they do.
We're also distressed when Emilia finds Desdemona's handkerchief and doesn't return it to her. She's merely following Iago's instructions, and can't know what he has in mind, but still, she's being dishonest.
However, she redeems herself when she discovers Desdemona near death. Emilia's grief and her willingness to die for the truth tell you that her rough exterior has hidden a good and generous heart (at least where Desdemona is concerned). As one critic said about Emilia's last moments: "If she lived forever she never could soar a higher pitch, and nothing in her life became her like the losing it."
Does Roderigo fall into Othello's clutches because he's foolish or because he's unlucky?
This is a difficult question to answer. All we know of Roderigo's past is that Desdemona rejected him when he tried to court her.
There's no question that Roderigo makes some stupid assumptions: 1) that he can "buy" Desdemona; 2) that she is having an affair with Cassio just because Iago tells him it is true; 3) that killing Cassio will make Desdemona turn to him for love. We watch Roderigo with amazement. We wonder when he's going to realize that Desdemona doesn't love him and never will.
But, in his defense, Roderigo may be just unlucky to have fallen into Iago's clutches. As we know, Iago is a master manipulator. He is able to deceive people who are stronger and smarter than Roderigo. And remember that Roderigo is a man in love and particularly susceptible to being fooled. If you've ever had a crush on someone, you know that people in love don't always think clearly. As Iago convinces him there is hope with Desdemona, Roderigo will do anything he asks. He's that fixated on her.
Do you have sympathy for Roderigo when he's killed? On one hand, he's played a role in Iago's wicked plot. On the other hand, he dies because he was fooled by someone he trusted. Is Roderigo punished too harshly for his failure to see that Iago is wicked?
Brabantio, Desdemona's father, is a Venetian Senator. When we first meet him, he's terrified that his only child has been kidnapped by Othello and seduced with drugs and potions. When he learns that Desdemona's in love with the Moor, he's bitter and resentful. He accepts defeat, but not graciously: he won't allow Desdemona to stay in his house while Othello is in Cyprus, and he warns the Moor that Desdemona could betray her husband if she betrayed her father.
Yet Brabantio is not a villain. He's disappointed when his daughter marries a man so different from herself, and hurt when she does so behind his back. So wounded is he by Desdemona, that when he dies in Act V it's probably of a broken heart.
It's not surprising that Shakespeare chose Venice as the setting of a story filled with passion, jealousy, and sexual tension. For the Elizabethans, the Italians were a wicked people, living lives of treachery, murder, and loose morals. When playwrights of the day wanted to portray wickedness, they often created Italian characters causing problems in England, or set the plays in Italy.
Venice was particularly exciting to the English. The women there were rumored to be very beautiful, and very interested in making love. Venetian men were considered hot-tempered, aggressive, and easily jealous. An Elizabethan audience watching Othello would have been highly suspicious of Desdemona and her behavior. Running off to get married behind your father's back was simply not done. Because Desdemona was Venetian, however, audiences wouldn't have been too surprised. As for Iago, he probably represented the kind of villain Elizabethans thought ran rampant throughout Italy!
One interesting note is that the name Iago is Spanish. (The Italian form is Giacomo.) Shakespeare gave his most evil character a Spanish name, probably because Spain was England's worst enemy. Italy may have been the home of romantic, exotic sin, but true evil, according to the Elizabethans, came from Spain!
The major themes of Othello are 1) appearance and reality, 2) society's treatment of the outsider; and 3) jealousy.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: APPEARANCE AND REALITY
Can we ever know the truth about a person? Is it possible to know if someone is lying to us? How can we discover what lies behind the words someone tells us?
Shakespeare was fascinated with these questions. Many of his most evil characters were thought by others in the play to be sincere and truthful. In Othello, this theme has its most potent and dramatic realization in the character of Iago.
Iago fools everyone in the play into believing he's honest. No one even suspects him of treachery, until the final act when Roderigo first realizes how badly he's been fooled. In short, Iago proves that evil intentions can be masked behind a facade of honesty.
The theme emerges in other characters: Brabantio is deceived by Desdemona's reaction to Othello, assuming she fears him when she truly loves the Moor. Othello suspects that Desdemona is unfaithful, despite her innocent looks. Othello also feels he's being deceived by Cassio, whom he trusts and who appears loyal. Emilia's exterior suggests salty indifference, but she turns against her husband and dies in defence of Desdemona. Even Bianca, who is suspected of dishonesty, is ultimately seen as a sincere and caring woman. And Othello, considered a barbarian by many in the play, is gentle and noble until driven to near-madness by the cruel manipulations of his most trusted "friend."
The inability to judge true from false is a human dilemma that we have all faced. In Othello's case, the dilemma proves fatal. Shakespeare dramatizes the problem by showing the consequences of trusting someone whose mask of honesty is perfect, almost to the very last.
OTHELLO: SOCIETY'S TREATMENT OF THE OUTSIDER
Everyone has known the feeling of being alienated from a group, whether it's as the new kid at school, as a member of an ethnic or religious minority, or as someone who holds an unpopular opinion.
Shakespeare points that problem in Othello by making his hero an outsider, one who doesn't quite belong in the society in which he lives. From the very beginning, when he's held in suspicion by a man who accuses him of seducing his daughter with mysterious charms, Othello stands apart from everyone else. As a man of another race and from another country, much of the conflict he faces is due to the reigning opinion that he doesn't quite belong.
Othello's sensitivity to the issue becomes clear when Iago uses it as proof that Desdemona couldn't be faithful to a man so foreign--such a match is "unnatural," he says. Othello's self-confidence, once so strong, is easily eroded by Iago's ability to convince him that he's inferior to the men of Venice. Shakespeare dramatizes through Othello the tragedy of a man whose insecurities about his background, fed by public opinion, weaken his defenses and allow his worst instincts to take over.
Othello represents how jealousy, particularly sexual jealousy, is one of the most corrupting and destructive of emotions. It is jealousy (fed by his innate sense of evil) that prompts Iago to plot Othello's downfall; jealousy, too, is the tool that Iago uses to arouse Othello's passions. Roderigo and Bianca demonstrate jealousy at various times in the play, and Emilia demonstrates that she too knows the emotion well. Only Desdemona and Cassio, the true innocents of the story, seem beyond its clutches.
Shakespeare used the theme in other plays, but nowhere else is it portrayed as quite the "green-eyed" monster it is in this play. Since it is an emotion that everyone shares, we watch its destructive influence on the characters with sympathy and horror.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: THE SOURCE OF OTHELLO
Shakespeare delighted in taking old stories, adding his own particular brand of genius, and creating something new--and better.
He based Othello on a story in a collection of tales, called Hecatommithi, written in 1565 by Giraldi Cinthio, an Italian. A short synopsis of the original story gives some indication of how Shakespeare merely borrowed stories and made them his own.
The heroine, called Disdemona, falls in love with a Moor. Her family agrees reluctantly to her marriage with him, and the couple lives together in Venice for awhile.
The Moor (given no name) is sent to command the troops in Cyprus. The Moor and Disdemona travel there together, and it's in Cyprus that the ensign (Shakespeare's Iago) plots against them. The ensign is in love with Disdemona. He feels that her rejection of him comes from her love of the captain (Shakespeare's Cassio). Therefore, the ensign's plot is against Disdemona, not the Moor.
The captain loses his job when he attempts a fight with another soldier; he isn't drunk, and the character of Roderigo has no counterpart.
The ensign steals Disdemona's handkerchief (while she is holding his child) and places it in the captain's house. The captain finds it and tries to return it to Desdemona, but he leaves quickly when he hears the Moor's voice.
Together, the Moor and the ensign kill Disdemona by hitting her on the head with a sandbag, and then making the roof collapse to make it look like an accident.
The Moor is eventually killed by a relative of Disdemona, and the ensign is tortured to death for another crime. The ensign's wife has known the story all along.
By making the Moor the center of his tragedy, Shakespeare created a character of nobility and sympathy. (The Moor in the Cinthio tale is unsympathetic.) He transformed an ugly little tale of sexual jealousy into a character study of a good man who, for all his virtue, is caught in a trap of evil and can't escape. It was Shakespeare's genius to take the stuff of melodrama and transform it into tragedy of the highest order.
Not only was Shakespeare one of the greatest dramatists who ever lived, he was one of the greatest poets as well. His language is so extraordinary that his verse has helped define standards for English poetry for the past three centuries.
In Othello, poetry not only defines character, but it also represents Othello's decline from nobility to corruption and his reascent to nobility.
Many readers point to Othello's speeches before the Venetian Senate (Act 1, Scene iii) as proof that he is worthy of our respect. His defense of his love for Desdemona is spoken with such heartfelt simplicity that we know the language represents a gentle and generous soul:
My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange;
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 174-177
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 184-185
Compare Othello's speeches to those of Iago in Act I. In comparison to the Moor, Iago is coarse and foul-mouthed as he tries to turn Brabantio against Othello:
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Act I, Scene i, lines 96-99
It's been suggested that Iago needn't look any further than his own dirty mind and nasty mouth to discover why Othello chose someone else as his lieutenant.
As the play progresses, and as Othello becomes more and more Iago's victim, he begins to lose the poetic gift that blessed him earlier. As evidence that he is being ruined by Iago, Othello begins to use the animal images that are typical of Iago's speech. These are generally images of common or repulsive animals--flies, baboons, goats, monkeys, wolves, wildcats, etc.
Othello also begins to take on Iago's fondness for references to the demonic--hell, the devil, damnation. Iago admits allegiance to Hell in Act I, scene iii, line 421, and by Act V, Scene ii, Othello realizes that he, too, is damned. He looks on Desdemona's corpse and says:
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven
And fiends will snatch at it.
Act V, Scene ii, lines 321-322
There are other patterns of imagery that recur throughout the play. In addition to animal and demonic imagery, look for these images as you read: black and white, light and dark, witchcraft, the sea (especially as used by Iago and Othello), drugs and poisons, and sex.
The richness of Shakespeare's poetry is only partly represented by its imagery. The sounds of the words themselves and the metrical rhythms (the patterns created by the contrast of stressed and unstressed syllables) create their own music. Remember that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be heard, not read. The greatest enjoyment of his incomparable poetry comes with reading it aloud or hearing it performed, on stage or on a recording.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ELIZABETHAN LANGUAGE
All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of Othello.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES
Adjectives, nouns and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. Nouns were often used as verbs. In Act 2, Scene i, line 7, 'ruffianed' is used in a context where modern usage would require 'acted like a ruffian':
If it hath ruffianed so upon the sea...
and 'gender' meaning 'engender' in:
To knot and gender in... (IV, ii, 61).
Adjectives could be used as adverbs. In Act IV, Scene ii, line 240 Iago says: 'It is now high supper-time' where a modern speaker would use an adverbial such as 'quite definitely' instead of 'high'. And verbs could be used as nouns in Act 1, Scene iii, line 391 where 'dispose' is equivalent to 'disposition':
He hath a person and a smooth dispose.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: CHANGES IN WORD MEANING
The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that 'menu' has extended its meaning to include 'a list of computer programs'. Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of 'opposite' which is used to mean 'opposed' in:
Whether a maid, so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation.
(I, ii, 66-68)
or more fundamental, so that 'composition' meant 'consistency' (I, iii, 1), 'portance' meant 'behaviour' (I, iii, 138), 'affects' meant 'desires' (I, iii, 260), 'proper' meant 'handsome' (I, iii, 386), 'fond' meant 'foolish' (II, i, 136), and 'presently' meant 'at once'.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: VOCABULARY LOSS
Words not only change their meanings. They are frequently discarded from the language. In the past, 'anon' meant 'immediately', 'gyve' meant 'fetter', and 'horologe' meant 'clock'. The following words used in Othello are no longer current in English but their meanings can usually be gauged from the contexts in which they occur.
CERTES (I, i, 16): certainly
THEORIC (I, i, 24): theory
TOGED (I, i, 25): dressed in a toga
ANCIENT (I, i, 33): ensign
AFFINED (I, i, 39): constrained
OWE (I, i, 67): own
GERMANS (I, i, 114): close relatives
YERKED (I, ii, 5): thrust, pushed
CARACK (I, ii, 50): ship
INJOINTED (I, iii, 35): united
ENGLUTS (I, iii, 57): swallows up
ANTRES (I, iii, 139): caves
GRISE (I, iii, 198): step
AGNIZE (I, iii, 229): acknowledge
SEEL (I, iii, 266): blind
ACERBE (I, iii, 345): bitter
ENCHAFED (II, i, 17): angry
SE'NNIGHT (II, i, 77): week
ENWHEEL (II, i, 87): encircle
SALT (II, i, 233): lusting, lustful
LOWN (II, iii, 87): rogue, fool
MAZZARD (II, iii, 148): head
QUILLETS (III, i, 23): quibbles
WIT (III, iii, 463): intelligence
ECSTACY (IV, i, 79): fit
CALLET (IV, ii, 120): whore, drab
MOE (IV, iii, 54): more
RELUME (V, ii, 13): relight
REPROBANCE (V, ii, 208): damnation.
Shakespearean verb forms differ from modern usage in three main ways:
1. Questions and negatives could be formed without using 'do/did' as when Othello asks Desdemona:
Weep'st thou for him to my face? (V, ii, 78)
where today we would say: 'Do you weep for him in front of me?' and where Desdemona answers:
O banish me, my lord, but kill me not (V, ii, 79)
where modern usage demands: 'but do not kill me'. Shakespeare had the option of using forms a. and b. whereas contemporary usage permits only the a. forms:
What did she say? What said she?
What does she say? What says she?
She did not speak. She spoke not.
She does not speak. She speaks not.
2. A number of past particles and past tense forms are used which would be ungrammatical today. Among these are:
'chose' for 'chosen':
I have already chose my officer (I, i, 17)
spake' for 'spoke':
Upon this hint I spake (I, iii, 165)
'hid' for 'hidden':
Let it be hid (Act V, ii, 361)
'broke' for 'broken' in:
...the day had broke before we parted (III, i, 31).
3. Archaic verb forms sometimes occur with 'thou' and with 'he/she/it':
But thou must needs be sure (I, i, 103)
With the Moor, say'st thou? Who would be a father?
How didst thou know 'twas she? (I, i, 165)
Or came it by request and such fair question
As soul to soul affordeth? (I, iii, 113-114)
Shakespeare and his contemporaries had one extra pronoun 'thou' which could be used in addressing a person who was one's equal or social inferior. 'You' was obligatory if more than one person was addressed:
The servants of the Duke and my Lieutenant!
The goodness of the night upon you, friends. (I, ii, 34)
but it could also be used to indicate respect as when Othello told Desdemona's father:
Good signor, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons. (I, ii, 60-61)
Frequently, a person in power used 'thou' to a subordinate but was addressed 'you' in return as when Othello and Iago speak:
Iago: Did Michael Cassio
When you wooed my lady, know of your love?
Othello: He did, from first to last. Why dost thou ask?
(III, iii, 93ff)
but if 'thou' was used inappropriately it could indicate a loss of respect. Emilia invariably addresses Othello as 'you' until she realizes he has killed Desdemona, when she switches to 'thou':
Thou dost belie her and thou art a devil.
(V, ii, 134)
One further pronominal reference warrants a comment: the use of 'it' where contemporary English requires 'he/she':
...'tis a worthy governor (II, i, 30).
Prepositions were less standardized in Elizabethan English than they are today and so we find several uses in Othello which would have to be modified in contemporary speech. Among these are:
'on' for 'of' in:
I am glad on't (II, i, 30)
'in' for 'at' in:
And bring them after in the best advantage (I, iii, 294)
'with' for 'at' in:
Tomorrow with your earliest
Let me have speech with you. (II, iii, 7-8)
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: MULTIPLE NEGATION
Contemporary English requires only one negative per statement and regards such utterances as "I haven't none" as nonstandard. Shakespeare often used two or more negatives for emphasis as when Brabantio insists:
For nature so preposterously to err
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense
Sans witchcraft could not. (I, iii, 62ff)
and Cassio says:
None in the world, nor do I know the man. (V, i, 103)
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: POINT OF VIEW
When you read a novel or short story, you're generally guided by a narrator who tells the story. As the story unfolds, the narrator might offer opinions or judgments on the characters and their behavior, letting the reader know how to respond. This is not always the case: some narrators are so unobtrusive that they're almost invisible. But there is always a narrator (or group of them) in prose fiction, and even if they are not readily identifiable, they give the story shape and tone.
In drama, narrators are only used in special instances (such as Thornton Wilder's Our Town, in which one of the characters acts as a narrator). Usually, everything we learn about the people and events in a play comes from the characters words and deeds. Rather than furnish one point of view, a play offers us several as the characters live their lives onstage.
In Othello, Shakespeare stands back and lets us make up our minds about the characters' words and behavior. We watch and listen and decide for ourselves if Iago is evil or justifiably angry at Othello, if Othello himself is worthy of our admiration. No narrative voice tells us how to judge the characters in Othello.
Shakespeare's special genius was his ability to embrace so many points of view in his plays, from those of tailors and peasants to those of soldiers and queens. There can be no final word on his great characters because they are as complex and mysterious as real people. In a great play like Othello, there will always be controversies surrounding the characters' motivations and behavior. A play that gives you all the answers is one you're likely to forget soon after you've seen or read it once. We return to Shakespeare's plays again and again because his point of view on the human condition was so large, so inclusive.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: FORM AND STRUCTURE
Othello is often considered Shakespeare's most perfectly constructed play. It is tightly organized, fast-paced, and exciting, and never distracts the audience with sub-plots or superfluous characters.
Shakespeare created his plays according to a classic structure based on exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution or denoument. In a well-structured play, the elements are not independent of one another; they blend logically and inevitably.
Here are the classic structure elements as they apply to Othello.
Expository scenes introduce the characters and their relationships to one another. Much of Othello's first act is devoted to exposition of Iago's hatred of Othello, Othello and Desdemona's courtship and elopement, Brabantio's mistrust of Othello, and the impending war with the Turks. Exposition sets the scene.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: RISING ACTION
As the characters make moves and countermoves, the plot is propelled forward and conflicts intensify. In Act II, Iago is responsible for most of the rising action. He plans to work revenge against Othello through Cassio. To this end, he gets Cassio drunk, for which Othello fires him. Iago then convinces Cassio to seek Desdemona's help in winning back Othello's respect. Everything, as controlled by Iago's actions, leads inevitably to the climax.
This is the point of greatest excitement and suspense in the play. In Shakespeare, the climax always occurs in Act III. The climax represents the point when the conflicts have gone as far as possible. Some readers refer to this point as a knotting up of the conflicts. How will the knots be untangled?
The climax of Othello comes in Act III, scene iii when Iago succeeds in convincing Othello that Desdemona is guilty of adultery. By the end of the scene, Othello has vowed to kill his wife. The tension is nearly unbearable. What will happen? How will it end?
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: FALLING ACTION
In Act IV of Othello, we see what happens as a result of the knotting in the climax. Although there is a period in which we think--and hope--that Othello will learn the truth, the death of Desdemona is inevitable. Iago's hold on Othello is so strong that Othello can't be moved from his mission of murder.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: CONCLUSION OR DENOUMENT
This is the unknotting of the plot threads that got tangled in the first four acts. After Desdemona's death, there is a great deal that has to be resolved: Emilia's discovery of Iago's treachery, her death, Othello's realization of his horrible deception, his suicide, Iago's punishment, and the restoration of order by Lodovico. Evil has been conquered and goodness regained, but the price was terribly high.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: TRAGEDY AND TRAGIC FLAW
The principles of tragedy were set down in the 4th century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his seminal work on literature, The Poetics. For Aristotle, a tragedy is the story of a noble hero whose downfall is brought about by a specific defect in his character, a tragic flaw. The hero may face opposition from an outside force (such as Othello faces from Iago), but his ruin is really the result of his own mistakes. By the end of the play the tragic hero comes to some understanding of his error and accepts responsibility for his doom. The realization and acceptance of his fate brings him back to the state of spiritual nobility he had at the beginning of the play.
Shakespeare's heros are usually men of royalty: Lear and Macbeth are kings, Hamlet a prince. Othello, although of royal birth, is a general. Some readers have felt that his lower social position disqualifies him from being a true tragic hero. Others feel that Othello earns the title through his character traits: strength, courage, patience, gentleness, romanticism. He is admired by everyone in the play (even Iago admits that Othello is a good man). Othello is considered by many to be a more human hero than other Shakespearean tragic heroes. Some readers find it easier to identify with someone closer to the common man and empathize more readily with his problems.
Aristotle felt that identification with the tragic hero was essential. As we watch a great man ruined by his own flaw--ambition, greed, or pride, for example--we understand that he is human, as we are, and that we could suffer the same fate under similar circumstances. According to Aristotle, our responses should be pity and fear: pity for the man who has met such a horrible fate, and fear that the same could happen to us. Yet because these men recognize their own part in their ruin and because their better qualities eventually overcome their limitations, we feel uplifted and moved by their experience rather than defeated and depressed.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: OTHELLO'S TRAGIC FLAW
What is it that causes Othello's downfall? Some have said that he's simply a jealous person whose jealousy of his wife gets out of hand, Others insist that jealousy is not part of his natural make-up, that the emotion takes over only when Iago pushes him to the brink of insanity.
Most of the evidence in the play tends to support the latter interpretation. Othello doesn't show himself to be jealous early in the play. Manipulated by Iago's skillful lies, Othello must confront emotions he can't handle. His jealousy literally drives him mad. His wisdom and judgment are replaced by anger and hate, and the power of these destructive emotions leads to Desdemona's death and Othello's suicide.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT I, SCENE I
The opening scene introduces us to three of the play's major themes: 1) the contrast between appearance and reality; 2) society's treatment of the outsider; and 3) jealousy.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-8
It's the middle of the night. Outside Brabantio's house an argument is taking place that's just a small sample of many tense confrontations to come.
The argument is between two young Venetians, Iago and Roderigo. For some time, Roderigo has been paying Iago for a peculiar service: Iago has promised that he would make sure that Roderigo would get Desdemona, a lovely young woman, for his own. Whether Iago has promised Roderigo marriage or just sex with Desdemona isn't clear. Whatever the actual bargain, though, it appears that Roderigo has been throwing away his money. Desdemona has eloped with Othello, a powerful Moorish general.
NOTE: A Moor is a native of North Africa, part Berber, part Arab. Readers throughout the years have argued about Othello's skin tone-black or brown, light or dark--but what is important to the play is that he's a foreigner and a man of another race. Shakespeare's audiences would have looked on a Moor with suspicion, as do many of the characters in this play.
Iago swears to Roderigo that he knew nothing of Desdemona's marriage. And he may well be perturbed that he'll no longer get easy money from Roderigo. What kind of person is Iago that he makes such a deal with Roderigo? And what about Roderigo, who has to pay someone to help him win a woman's interest? Shakespeare has captured our interest in a very short time.
NOTE: It's important to know early in the play that Iago isn't to be trusted. We must question everything he says to other characters. In this instance, we don't know for sure if he was unaware that Othello planned to marry Desdemona. He may be feigning surprise in order to fool Roderigo into believing he's on his side. When Iago is alone on stage, his soliloquies represent his true feelings. But when he speaks to someone else, he must always be suspected of dishonesty.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 9-33
Iago tells Roderigo that he hates Othello. It's a statement we'll hear often from Iago, and here we learn one of his reasons--or at least the reason Iago is willing to admit. Othello has overlooked Iago for promotion to lieutenant, or second in command. (Iago is an ensign, the lowest rank of commissioned officer.)
If you've ever been passed over for a job or an honor you felt you deserved, you might have some sympathy with Iago at this point. He feels he's been loyal to Othello and fought by his side in battle; yet he's been ignored. Worse yet, he's lost the job to the Florentine Michael Cassio, who, Iago claims, has read about more battles than he's actually fought.
Is Iago justified in hating Othello? Is it ever right to fight one injustice with another? Whatever your answer, we'll see that Iago's wounded feelings are just the tip of the iceberg where his hatred of Othello is concerned; his motives are much more complicated than he allows Roderigo to know.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 34-66
Roderigo says that if he were Iago, he'd simply leave Othello's service. Iago's reply tells us a great deal about his complex personality. He says he intends to stay with Othello, not out of loyalty, but in order to turn on him. Iago openly admits to being a hypocrite; in serving himself while he pretends to serve Othello, he is only following his true nature. Iago is loyal only to Iago.
Have you ever met anyone who lived only for his or her own needs? Iago's two-faced behavior is a recognizable human trait--we've probably all been hypocritical at times. But Iago is particularly interesting because he is proud of the false image he presents to the world. His line, "I am not what I am," is important because it is a short, dear statement of his personal philosophy. Iago isn't the type to wear his heart on his sleeve.
Why does Roderigo trust Iago after hearing him boast of this false image? We shall see that Iago is very good at gaining people's trust when he wants to. Also, Roderigo isn't very smart and sees in Iago his only hope to win Desdemona.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 67-160
Instead of waiting until morning, or even knocking politely, Roderigo and Iago scream at the top of their lungs that thieves have invaded the house.
What do they hope to accomplish? Perhaps, since they're not sure that the wedding has taken place, they hope that Brabantio can stop the ceremony. Or maybe Iago is just interested in stirring up trouble for Othello.
Brabantio is, not surprisingly, angry at being awakened so rudely. His first response at seeing Roderigo is to think that the young man has come again to make a pest of himself over Desdemona.
Iago keeps out of sight, calling to Brabantio from the shadows. He makes sure that Brabantio doesn't see him. That way, he can't identify him later as Othello's enemy.
What a picture Iago paints as he shouts from his hiding place! He calls Othello "a black ram," "the devil," "a Barbary horse." By emphasizing Othello's strangeness, Iago hopes to arouse Brabantio's suspicion and fear.
And notice how Iago exploits Othello and Desdemona's sexual relationship. He uses images of a ram mounting a ewe, a horse fathering human children, and "a beast with two backs," a vivid picture of a couple having intercourse. Iago knows that a father is sensitive to thoughts of his daughter going to bed with someone. By painting a picture of the two as rutting animals, Iago knows how to strike a nerve.
While Iago slips away, Brabantio discovers that Desdemona is indeed gone, and he is devastated, nearly hysterical. Brabantio has been influenced by Iago's talk of barbarousness. He even tells Roderigo that he wishes he had married her. A few moments before Brabantio was accusing Roderigo of "malicious knavery". Now, in contrast to the "foreign devil," Roderigo seems the better choice!
Brabantio calls for weapons and the help of his neighbors in this crisis. Obviously Brabantio considers Othello a powerful opponent.
Shakespeare wastes no time in creating an atmosphere of excitement in this scene; mistrust, jealousy, deception, and sexuality hang thickly in the air. We have yet to meet Othello, but most of the scene is constructed to whet our appetite. Is Othello a hero? a crazed animal? a magician? What does Iago have up his sleeve, and will he succeed in carrying out his plan? After this scene, we can hardly wait to find out.
NOTE: Already Shakespeare has touched on his major themes:
Appearance and Reality
Shakespeare is fascinated by people who display one face in public and another in private. He often examines the impossibility of knowing if someone is lying or telling the truth. As an actor, he must have known how easily one can blur the line between appearance and reality. In Iago, he creates his most interesting and dramatic example of the person who hides his worst flaws behind a mask of sincerity and honesty. Iago's speech about deceiving Othello is the first of several situations where the issue is raised. The theme becomes increasingly important as the play continues.
Society's Treatment of the Outsider
Iago creates tension and fear in this scene by insisting that Othello isn't to be trusted because he is a foreigner. As a man from a different country and race, Othello is open to the hostility that many outsiders face, even today. As we shall see, Othello's role as an outsider will have a great deal to do with how he is treated and how he behaves.
It's important to know that Shakespeare's audience would have sympathized with these doubts about Othello. The play was first performed in 1604, and the war that serves as its background (between the Venetian and the Turks) took place in 1570. Most Elizabethans would have seen the characters in Othello as near contemporaries, and the treatment of foreigners as a modern problem.
Othello deals with other issues besides racial prejudice, but it is a theme that's especially important as you try to understand the Moor.
Iago's resentment of Cassio is the first reason we are given for Iago's behavior. Iago is jealous that this man has something he feels he himself deserves. Yet Iago has more than simple jealousy on his mind, and he's not the only character in the play to be infected by jealousy's sting. The intention of jealousy in the first scene tells us that it's crucial to the development of Shakespeare's scheme.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-29
After everything we've heard about him, it's something of a shock to see Othello for the first time. Where is the raging demon that Iago and Brabantio have been talking about? Othello, even under pressure, is cool and reasonable.
Outside of the inn where Othello and Desdemona are staying, Iago lies to Othello. He tells the Moor how much he wanted to stab Roderigo for what he was saying about the general. Iago boasts of having defended the Moor's good name.
Iago is trying to stir Othello's anger, lying about Roderigo, and warning him of Brabantio's power. He doesn't succeed. Othello is confident that his record of bravery and achievement will outweigh anyone's doubts. Othello is of royal blood (although he isn't considered royalty in Venice), and feels he deserves the honors he's been awarded. These are not idle boasts. We'll soon see how valuable he is to the Venetian government.
We also feel his love for Desdemona. He says that his love for her is the only reason he would ever sacrifice his freedom, more valuable to him than the wealth of the sea.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 30-36
Othello's refusal to hide when he thinks Brabantio is nearby is further proof of his bravery. He says,
I must be found.
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
Act I, Scene ii, lines 34-36
Do you admire Othello's self-assurance at this point, or do you find him arrogant? Can anyone claim to have a guilt-free conscience? After all, wasn't his elopement with Desdemona unfair to Brabantio? Shouldn't Othello feel some guilt for having run off with Desdemona without a word to her father?
The truth, as so often happens in real life, is to be found between two extremes. Othello is neither completely guilty nor perfect. But his decision to face Brabantio is honorable and right. Othello seems worthy of our respect, and the more we respect him, the worse his eventual fate will seem.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 37-101
Someone besides Brabantio wants to see Othello. Cassio and his men come to tell him he's needed at the Senate chambers for an emergency war council. Without complaint (and don't forget that this is Othello's honeymoon night!) Othello goes inside, probably to tell Desdemona where he is going.
He returns to face Brabantio's fury. Advising both sides to put away their swords, Othello remains calm while Brabantio accuses him of using "foul charms," "drugs or minerals," to seduce his daughter. The old man says that there's no other way Desdemona could have chosen Othello over the handsome young men of Venice. And to punish Othello for his sorcery, Brabantio wants to send him to prison.
How calm could you be in such a situation? Anyone might be tempted to return insult for insult, but Othello simply wonders aloud how the Duke will react, since he is waiting right now for Othello in the Senate chambers.
By not reacting, Othello has put Brabantio on the defensive. For all of the old man's power, he can't fight the Duke's wishes. Brabantio can only hope that the Senate will see his personal crisis as he sees it--as Desdemona's kidnapping. If not, Brabantio says, the government might as well be run by slaves and non-Christians--an obvious reference to Othello's background.
By the end of the scene, our opinion of Othello is more balanced than it was. We still don't know the circumstances of his marriage, but we do see him act admirably in a crisis, and when his honor and reputation are at stake, Othello chooses peace where others might fight.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT I, SCENE III
This scene is important for what it tells us about 1) Othello; 2) Desdemona; 3) Brabantio; and 4) Iago.
Two groups of people surround Othello as he enters the Senate office. One group needs Othello's military expertise. After several conflicting reports, word comes that the Turks (or Ottomites, so named because they are part of the Ottoman Empire) are headed to attack the island of Cyprus. The other group, led by Brabantio, is accusing him of using a vile kind of magic to seduce Desdemona.
Whatever anxiety he might feel, Othello remains confident. Notice that both the Duke and a Senator call him "valiant" before they even notice that Brabantio is there.
Forced by Brabantio to explain what he has done, Othello first replies that he is ill-equipped to speak for himself. As a professional soldier who has lived in army camps since he was seven, and has only been in Venice for nine months, Othello says:
Rude am I in my speech,
And little blessed with the soft phrase of speech.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 92-93
Now in his forties, Othello has never been in love!
Othello offers to tell his story, despite his discomfort with words, and requests that Desdemona be sent for to tell it from her point of view. If she says she has been bewitched, Othello will turn himself over for punishment, even execution.
As the group await Desdemona, Othello describes their courtship. He's far too modest when he calls himself "rude of speech!" His story is so magical and persuasive that many readers point to it as proof of his noble soul.
Othello tells of being a frequent guest in Brabantio's household. (Brabantio was fond enough of Othello to have him to dinner, but didn't want him as a son-in-law) There he wove stories about his romantic and mysterious adventures as a professional soldier. Desdemona listened as often as she could between her household tasks, and one day insisted that Othello tell her everything from beginning to end--the disasters he surmounted, his experience as a slave, the cannibals he encountered, the strange men he met whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.
For Othello, a stranger with little experience with women, Desdemona's attention must be thrilling. To have a beautiful woman cry and sigh over his tales, and then ask him to teach his stories to anyone who might be interested in winning her! It's little wonder that he falls in love:
She loved me for the dangers I had passed,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 183-84
Who can blame Othello? We're all drawn to those who are interested in our lives, and in Desdemona, Othello finds maybe for the first time, someone who thinks of him not just as a soldier, but as a human being.
Desdemona has quite a reputation to live up to as she enters the Senate office. Who is this woman who has won the powerful Othello and dazzled Roderigo as well?
Brabantio tells the Senate that his daughter is too shy to have run off on her own. But as she faces an angry father and the Venetian Senate, she seems brave and articulate. Her reply to her father, when he asks where her loyalty belongs, is direct and honest. She was bound to Brabantio when she was his daughter. Now she is Othello's wife and owes him the same obedience her mother once gave to Brabantio. Love for Othello has given Desdemona the strength to speak out. Her words are so persuasive that Brabantio knows he's been defeated.
Desdemona's strength never wanes in this scene. She insists on going to Cyprus, the island Othello must defend against the Turks. Because she has married a soldier, she feels that she must share his life by being at his side--if not, her love is meaningless. Othello urges the Duke to grant her her wish, since the couple hasn't yet had a honeymoon. The Duke agrees, and Othello asks that Iago accompany Desdemona to Cyprus, along with Iago's wife, Emilia, who will serve as her lady-in-waiting.
By the end of the scene, we feel that Othello has chosen a good wife. She's brave, and determined to make her marriage work despite popular opinion. She's also deeply in love with her new husband.
We first see Brabantio as a furious father, bent on revenge. By the end of this scene, his last appearance in the play, he is bitter and exhausted from his efforts to get his daughter back.
Brabantio, too, has been fooled by the line between appearance and reality. To his eyes, Desdemona feared to even look at Othello. Brabantio never suspected that she was secretly in love with the Moor.
Brabantio doesn't accept defeat gracefully, saying that he'd imprison any other child he might have rather than see her escape from him, as Desdemona has done. He even refuses to let Desdemona stay with him while Othello is in Cyprus.
Brabantio's parting warning to Othello will come back to haunt the Moor:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see,
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 292-293
These are Brabantio's final lines. By the end of the play he is dead, probably of a broken heart.
How do you feel about Brabantio? Is he just an unpleasant old man, spoiling his daughter's happiness? Or is he showing the feelings of many parents facing loneliness and fearing that their child has made an unsuitable match?
Remember that some of Shakespeare's audiences would have sympathized with Brabantio. The age, social, national, and racial differences between Othello and Desdemona would have made Elizabethans just as uneasy as Brabantio. Blacks were often seen in 17th-century England--as soldiers and traders--but they were considered exotic, mysterious, different. An audience of Shakespeare's day might have been moved by Othello and Desdemona's love but it would have been doubtful that such a match could succeed.
Brabantio is a product of his time. No matter how much he respects Othello as a soldier, he considers him his social inferior. Brabantio's prejudices are easy to recognize. There are people today who would react in a similar way.
Iago steps forward again at the end of the scene. Roderigo is ready to drown himself now that Desdemona is married, but Iago has nothing but contempt for such an idea. Why kill yourself because of another person, he wonders. Iago insists that a man must control his fate. The trouble with people, he insists, is that they don't treat themselves well enough.
Iago reveals a strong will and a powerful cynicism. When Roderigo says that he can't change the way he feels about Desdemona, Iago is scornful. He compares man's body to a garden that can be sown and cultivated by the force of his will. We have power over our fates, he implies, so Roderigo can get over his love if he so chooses. Love, according to Iago, is merely lust, a sexual itch that needs to be scratched. Roderigo would be better off, Iago tells him, by making money to ensure Iago's help in winning Desdemona, not sighing over what might have been.
Iago advises Roderigo to follow Desdemona to Cyprus, where his success with her will be assured. How will this happen? Iago assures him that Moors are known for their changeable sexual tastes and that Desdemona will soon tire of Othello and look for a younger man. Iago easily exploits Roderigo's ignorance of Othello's race and the common consensus that the Moor is too old for Desdemona. Roderigo, his hopes high again, rushes off to sell his land.
Left alone, Iago speaks his first soliloquy. Because Shakespeare is always careful to have his characters speak their true feelings in soliloquies, it is important to look at these speeches carefully.
No one is safe from Iago's scorn. He thinks of Roderigo as a fool, an easy mark. But Iago's hatred of Othello is foremost in his mind. In the first scene, Iago has told Roderigo that he was angry at Othello for appointing Cassio as his lieutenant. Now Iago says:
And it is thought abroad that 'twixt my sheets
Has done my office. I know not if't be true.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 405-406
Iago has heard rumors of an affair between Othello and Emilia. Is this what motivates his hatred?
NOTE: Some readers point out that Iago does not say he hates Othello because of the rumor. He says he hates him and he's heard the rumor. The use of and instead of because suggests that the rumor doesn't represent the major cause of Iago's hatred, but is an additional aggravation. It's clear that even a suspicion of wrongdoing on Othello's part is enough to feed Iago's hatred.
A pattern begins to emerge in Iago's reactions. His reasons for hating Othello (some of them mentioned only once in the play) begin to seem like excuses for a general hatred that even Iago doesn't fully understand. We'll see as the play continues that he hates the human race, and delights in seeing people's joy turn to pain. In contrast to Othello, whom Iago describes as having a "free and open nature," and who trusts everyone until he learns otherwise, Iago trusts no one. And those he sees as good and noble, he moves to destroy.
His plan against Othello unfolds in front of our eyes. Now, though, it's just a seed to be nurtured in Iago's malignant brain. He begins with the idea of using Othello's trusting nature and his good opinion of Iago. Then his plan grows to include Cassio--why not see him disgraced, too, and inherit his job? Cassio is handsome, and Iago could suggest that the young lieutenant is too friendly with Desdemona. As trusting as Othello is, it will be child's play for Iago to lead him--"By the nose/ As asses are"--to jealousy.
Iago pledges himself to the demonic in his last two lines:
I have't. It is engendered! Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.
Act I, Scene iii, lines 421-422
NOTE: Shakespeare often uses night to represent disorder and chaos. (Both Acts I and V of this play are set at night.) Daylight usually brings reason and restoration of order. Here Iago sees night and hell as the parents of his plan. He knows very well that his plan is evil, but he moves to put it into action--and does it with gusto!
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT II, SCENE I
The action moves for the rest of the play to the island of Cyprus.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-91
Fear and anticipation grip the people of Cyprus. A violent storm is raging off the coast. Montano, the governor of Cyprus whom Othello will replace, looks anxiously out to sea. Will the Turkish fleet make it to port, or will the storm destroy their ships?
The good news arrives soon: the war is over! The Turkish fleet, badly damaged by the storm, is retreating, and the threat to Cyprus is over.
NOTE: It may seem strange that Shakespeare makes so much of the war in Act I and then drops it after the first few lines of Act II. We saw how the war is used to show Othello's importance to the Venetian government. It also provides Shakespeare with a good excuse to move the main characters--particularly Desdemona--away from Venice, where much of the rest of the story will depend on her isolation and vulnerability. Now that we have accepted Othello's good standing in the community, Shakespeare can continue his story without the interruptions the war--or Desdemona's family--might bring.
Cassio arrives. His ship was separated from Othello's in the storm, and no one's certain that Othello's safe. Cassio prays for the general's safety and describes Desdemona admiringly to Montano.
This is our first real look at Cassio, since he had little to do or say in Act I. What is your first impression of him? He seems sincerely concerned for Othello and loyal to him. He also seems a good choice for lieutenant, especially as compared to Iago, who's cynical and slippery. In short, Othello has probably made a wise choice in Cassio.
Cassio's description of Desdemona shows him to be polite and respectful of her. There's no hint, as Iago will later claim, that Cassio has a sexual interest in her; his admiration comes from distance, and is full of worship, not lust.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 92-209
Desdemona arrives with Iago, Emilia, and a disguised Roderigo. Desdemona's first words are to inquire about her husband. Imagine her disappointment when she learns that Othello is still at sea. Cassio is offering her words of comfort when another ship is spotted.
As the group waits to see if the ship is Othello's, they pass the time by bickering playfully about women and men's attitudes toward them. The discussion begins when Cassio (who seems a charming but harmless flirt) politely kisses Emilia. Iago comments sarcastically about her bad temper and chattering tongue, and Desdemona asks him to make up some rhymes about different kinds of women. Although it's all in the spirit of fun, Iago's poems show that he's as cynical about women as he is about people in general.
Ironically, Iago--the ultimate hypocrite--accuses women of behaving pleasantly in public and unpleasantly at home. Desdemona accuses him of lewd thoughts, but it's clear that everyone expects this attitude from Iago.
Iago hasn't forgotten his evil purpose, for all the fun he seems to be having. When Cassio courteously takes Desdemona's hand and kisses it, Iago sees that his job--making Othello jealous of Cassio--will be easy.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 210-245
At last Othello arrives, and what joy the lovers feel at being reunited after long and dangerous voyages! Their first words to each other express how much they care. Othello says that if he were to die now, it would be at the peak of his happiness. Can anyone doubt this couple is in love?
To them it must seem as if the future holds nothing but promise. The war is over, they are together in Cyprus--a place where Othello is respected and loved--and their long-delayed honeymoon is about to begin. They don't suspect their most trusted friend is moving to disrupt their harmony.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 246-340
Iago moves quickly. He pulls Roderigo aside and begins to convince him that Desdemona is already planning an affair with Cassio. Roderigo can't believe it. He can see as well as anyone that Desdemona and Othello are in love.
Iago takes up his old argument. The relationship between them is unnatural and therefore doomed. Desdemona will soon get tired of this unattractive older man and begin to look for someone young and handsome. Who better than Cassio? Iago points to Cassio's polite kiss as proof that their adulterous affair has already begun.
Roderigo accepts Iago's lies because he desperately wants to believe that he has a chance with Desdemona. His eyes tell him she's virtuous, but Iago swears she isn't. Roderigo sees the truth behind the mask: Desdemona looks pure, and she is. But Iago eventually convinces Roderigo that the mask is a lie.
The plot moves a step further. Cassio is scheduled for guard duty tonight. If Roderigo can pick a fight with him, Cassio will be disgraced, and the people of Cyprus will demand that he be fired. The result? Desdemona will turn to Roderigo after Cassio is gone, and Iago will see Cassio--whose job he covets--humiliated. Roderigo agrees to the plan.
Alone, Iago thinks over his plot. Remember that he's a great improviser, and makes up a lot of details as his whim and opportunity allow. He isn't even sure of the outcome; he only knows he wants to hurt Othello.
Iago reveals more of what's on his mind. 1) He's certain that Cassio and Desdemona love each other. (We've seen that he thinks all women cheat on their husbands.) 2) He loves Desdemona himself, not simply out of lust, but because of the rumors that Othello has slept with Emilia! These rumors have so gnawed away at Iago's imagination that he feels he should sleep with Desdemona as an act of revenge. Or, if that's impossible, he wants to make Othello crazy with jealousy. 3) Iago suspects that Cassio and Emilia have slept together, too. Disgracing Cassio and convincing Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful will mean revenge on two people Iago thinks have hurt him.
NOTE: What are we to make of Iago now? What's happened to his original claim that he hates Othello because of losing the lieutenantship to Cassio? Was that just an excuse to cover the real truth, a truth his pride wouldn't let him admit--that Othello once slept with Emilia? We have seen that Iago doesn't treat Emilia very well, although that wouldn't keep him from resenting Othello for having taken his place in Emilia's bed.
And does Iago truly suspect Cassio of having been to bed with Emilia, or does his suspicious nature move him to distrust everyone?
Many readers feel that Iago grabs at any excuse to defend his evil deeds, that he is a naturally wicked man whose actions can't be fully explained. Like many villains in literature, he seems to love evil for its own sake and for the damage it can bring to others. The excuses he offers sometimes seem contradictory because he is at loss to explain his behavior to himself.
Other readers feel that he is motivated primarily by an intense, singleminded hatred of Othello. There are several explanations for this hatred: 1) Othello's race; 2) Othello's achievements; 3) his success with Desdemona; 4) his open and trusting nature, which Iago sees as a human character flaw.
Both of these theories can be defended by the text. Iago is fascinating because he's so complex. There's no single, simple way to view him.
Whatever theory you choose to explain Iago (and it may be a combination of these or one of your own), you will agree that he is clever and determined. We watch Iago as we would a snake devour a mouse--with fascination and repulsion.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT II, SCENE II
Othello's herald announces a celebration. Because of the retreat of the Turks and the official start of Othello's and Desdemona's honeymoon, everyone is given permission to eat, drink, and be merry (with free food and drink!) from 5 P.M. until 11 P.M.
The party offers Iago the perfect setting for the next phase of his plan.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-265
It is nightfall, and the celebration is nearly over. Othello puts Cassio in charge of the guard and orders him to make sure nothing gets out of hand. Now that his wedding night has finally arrived, Othello wants peace and quiet. Cassio indicates that Iago will be around to help him, and once again Othello remarks on his ensign's honesty.
After Othello has gone to bed, Iago gets Cassio drunk. It isn't easy; the lieutenant knows he has a weak head for alcohol and has already had one drink. But Iago plays on Cassio's loyalty to Othello. There are a group of Cypriot soldiers drinking to the Moor's health, how can Cassio refuse?
Things are going smoothly for Iago. He'll soon have Cassio drunk. Roderigo, depressed over Desdemona, is already drunk, and so are the three Cypriots, thanks to Iago. It shouldn't be difficult to stir up trouble.
Montano joins the group, and the party becomes loud and boisterous. As expected, Cassio is soon drunk, although he swears he isn't. Iago points him out to Montano. Cassio's a good man, says Iago, but recently his drinking has gotten out of hand. Montano's concerned, and suggests they tell Othello. Iago protests; he says he loves Cassio too much to betray him. But, of course, Iago has already planted doubts about Cassio in Montano's mind.
Cassio goes off but soon returns, with Roderigo chasing him. Roderigo has insulted him and provoked a fight. Montano tries to restrain Cassio, but Cassio, drunk and furious, turns on him and slashes him with his sword. Iago orders Roderigo to sound the alarm, then scolds Cassio for his behavior.
The alarm does just what Iago hoped it would: Othello is awakened and comes out in a fury. Why, he wants to know, has his wedding night been disturbed? When no one will answer him, Iago "reluctantly" offers to explain. Claiming that he wouldn't hurt Cassio for anything in the world, Iago manages to shift the blame to the poor lieutenant. He succeeds, by "defending" Cassio, in getting him fired. Othello has no choice but to use Cassio as an example. Desdemona comes out to see what's wrong. Othello assures her that all is well, and they return to bed.
Othello's behavior in this scene is worth examining. His anger is justifiable. He trusted Cassio to keep order, and Cassio failed. His warning to those present, when no one will step forward to tell him what happened, tells us something new and important about his emotional make-up:
Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guide to rule,
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way. If I once stir
Or do but life this arm, the best of you
Shall sink in my rebuke.
Act II, Scene iii, lines 207-12
Othello admits that he has a fierce temper. Even now, his anger is beginning to get the better of his judgment, and he warns that if he's ever given cause to strike out in anger, no one will be safe.
NOTE: Until now, we've seen Othello remain calm in tense situations: during Brabantio's accusations, the investigation of the Senate into his marriage, and at the threat of war. Now we discover that he does have a temper, even though its fuse is long. And if his temper is tested, as it almost is tonight, the consequences could be dangerous. Its good to keep this aspect of Othello's personality in mind as you read further.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 266-364
Poor Cassio! One foolish mistake and he loses both his job and Othello's respect. Iago can't understand why Cassio is making such a fuss. A reputation, he says, is something others give to you. It's often won and lost without any good reason. Cassio can win back his reputation, Iago insists, if he tries. He's only a loser if he calls himself a loser, according to Iago.
Cassio won't be consoled. He's lost everything he prizes for the sake of a few drinks! How can he face Othello now? We feel sympathy for Cassio when we remember that he only agreed to drink out of kindness to his Cypriot hosts and his loyalty to Othello.
Naturally, Iago has words of advice. Go to Desdemona, Iago says. She is so good and so generous that she'll sympathize. Since Othello can't refuse her anything, Cassio, according to Iago, will have his job back in no time. Cassio is grateful for Iago's help and promises to see Desdemona in the morning. How can Cassio know that he's playing the fly to Iago's spider? Cassio unwittingly helps seal the doom of two people he loves.
Alone, Iago pretends innocence. Who could consider him a villain? he wonders. He's just offered excellent advice to Cassio. Where is the evil in that?
But his mask quickly falls. Devils, Iago says, cover their most evil deeds with honest intentions. His plan takes a more concrete shape. He'll tell Othello that Desdemona isn't pleading for Cassio out of kindness, but because she loves the lieutenant and is sleeping with him. The more Desdemona defends Cassio, the more Othello will see it as proof of her adultery. Iago will use Desdemona's goodness to trap everyone in his net. It doesn't seem to bother him that Desdemona will be an innocent victim of his plot.
Roderigo enters, more discouraged than ever. What a pitiful figure he makes! His money is almost gone, he's been beaten up by Cassio, and he has no hope of winning Desdemona. He might as well return to Venice. If Roderigo were not being cruelly used by Iago, he would be comical. As it is, he's just a sad pawn in an ugly game.
Iago convinces Roderigo that things are going well. Just as they planned, Cassio is out of the picture. Roderigo must be patient. Once again, Roderigo accepts what Iago tells him.
Alone again, Iago plots his two immediate objectives: 1) to get Emilia to speak to Desdemona on Cassio's behalf and 2) to make sure that Othello sees Cassio asking Desdemona for the favor. With his ability to think quickly and to seize opportunity where it presents itself, Iago seems to have a clear path ahead of him.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT III, SCENE I
The tension mounts as Iago's plan takes shape. Will he be able to keep control of all his victims?
Cassio has come to the castle, as Iago suggested. As a token of reconciliation, he's brought a small group of musicians to serenade Othello and Desdemona. (It was a common practice in Shakespeare's day to awaken important people with music on special days.)
A clown enters and makes a few crude jokes about the musicians' instruments. His play on words connects the wind instruments with breaking wind.
NOTE: Shakespeare often used clowns in his plays, and usually did so for two reasons: 1) to relieve the tension of the drama and 2) to comment on the action, showing that so-called fools are often smarter than supposedly wise men. Many readers feel the clown is used here primarily for comic relief, although he isn't very funny. Others suggest that his comments on the bagpipes (an instrument of disharmony to Elizabethans) reflect the disharmony about to afflict Othello's household. Almost every reader agrees that the clown has little dramatic significance in the play.
After Cassio sends the clown to find Emilia, Iago appears promising to make sure Cassio can speak to Desdemona privately. Cassio is amazed at Iago's generosity.
Emilia comes to tell Cassio that Desdemona and Othello are discussing him right now. Emilia reports that Othello can't reinstate Cassio right away. Cassio's having injured Montano, an important man, makes it necessary for Othello to wait before reinstating Cassio; he doesn't want to set a precedent of leniency.
If only Cassio would accept this decision and wait for Othello to call him, Iago would have a difficult time proving to Othello that Cassio loves his wife. But Cassio insists on seeing Desdemona right away. And who can blame the lieutenant for wanting to reestablish his reputation as quickly as possible?
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT III, SCENE II
Inside the castle, Othello asks Iago to help him complete some state business and then join him as he inspects a portion of the fort. Iago's in luck. He wants to get Othello away from Desdemona for a short time, and now Othello himself is providing the excuse. Iago just has to make sure they return in time to catch Cassio pleading with Desdemona.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT III, SCENE III
This is the longest and most crucial scene of the entire play. When it begins, Othello is a happy man and a loving husband. When it ends, he has committed himself to murdering his wife. It's been said that this scene is so powerful and compact that it's a complete play in itself. That Shakespeare can accomplish Othello's character change so convincingly within this short space is a tribute to his genius as a dramatist and his ability to create a villain as complete and ingenious as Iago.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-31
Cassio finally has his opportunity to see Desdemona. She promises to do everything in her power to help him. Emilia also urges Desdemona to speak to Othello on Cassio's behalf. She tells Desdemona that even Iago has been upset by this situation, as upset as if he had been fired. It's clear that Iago has succeeded in fooling Emilia, too. She seems as convinced of his sincerity as anyone. Desdemona, too, calls Iago "an honest fellow."
Desdemona assures Cassio that Othello will only stay as distant from him as he must during this unfortunate period. But Cassio isn't satisfied. He wonders if there's a chance that Othello will forget his loyalty and friendship in the meantime.
Desdemona promises to keep Cassio alive in Othello's mind. No matter what Othello might be doing, she'll remind him of Cassio's desire to be his lieutenant again. What irony there is when she says,
Therefore be merry, Cassio,
For thy solicitor shall rather die
Than give thy cause away.
Act III, Scene iii, lines 29-31
NOTE: Desdemona continues to show herself as generous and loyal, completely free of ulterior motives. She takes pleasure in helping a friend, particularly since she feels she's doing her husband a favor, too, by reuniting him with Cassio, a loyal friend and good employee. Her sweetness is so real that her fate will indeed seem terrible.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 32-104
Iago's plot now moves into full swing. He has maneuvered Othello back to the castle at just the right time. Desdemona sees them come in and urges Cassio to stay and listen to her speak about him to Othello. But Cassio is too uncomfortable at the thought of seeing Othello face-to-face, and he slips away.
Always sensitive to the slightest change of behavior, Iago uses Cassio's uneasiness to his own advantage. He tells Othello that he doesn't like the looks of "that." Of what? Othello wants to know. Iago replies, "Nothing, my lord; or if--I know not what."
It's an old trick, isn't it?--to point someone's attention to something, and then pretend it isn't important. Naturally, Othello's curiosity is aroused--wouldn't yours be?
Wasn't that Cassio who just left, Othello wants to know. Iago says it couldn't be. Why would Cassio sneak away looking so guilty? (Of course we know that Cassio was more embarrassed than guilty.) But Othello only knows what he saw.
Desdemona immediately begs that Othello forgive Cassio. Othello refuses, but politely, and says perhaps he will later. Desdemona persists. When? she wants to know. Tonight? Tomorrow? But Othello Will only promise that for her sake it will be soon.
Desdemona isn't satisfied. She wants Othello to promise that he won't keep Cassio away for longer than three days. She can't understand why Othello should hesitate in doing her this favor.
Why does Othello hesitate? It could be that he remains firm as a matter of principle. It's part of military discipline that good soldiers must be used as examples when they do something wrong. Othello can't show himself as weak to the rest of the soldiers stationed on the island. It may also be that he's thinking of Iago's words, "I like not that," and wondering why Desdemona has taken on Cassio's cause.
Can you sympathize with Desdemona's persistence? She's made a promise to Cassio and wants to keep her word. We've all nagged gently at one time or another to get something we feel is important. And she can have no idea that anyone would see her interest in Cassio's problem as anything but innocent.
Othello finally gives in. Despite his principles and his doubts, he can't deny his wife anything for long. He says that Cassio can visit whenever he wants. Asking for a few minutes to himself, the others leave. Othello then speaks of his intense love for Desdemona, saying that chaos will come if he ever loses her.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 105-314
Like a vulture circling a dying animal, Iago stays close to Othello. Here he begins to nurture the seeds of doubt he planted earlier.
It's worth examining this part of the scene in some detail, because it's important to what follows and for our understanding of Othello's fate.
Iago asks Othello questions that seem innocent. Did Cassio know from the very beginning that Othello and Desdemona were in love? Othello replies that he did, that Cassio often delivered messages between the lovers. Othello wants to know why Iago would want to know such a thing. Iago tries to downplay his curiosity, but he's succeeded in arousing Othello's suspicions. Othello wonders if Iago has doubts about Cassio's honesty.
Othello insists on knowing what's on Iago's mind, but Iago stalls by echoing Othello's questions. We can imagine Othello's frustration. Slowly, he begins to lose his temper.
Othello is especially concerned because Iago's evasive tactics suggest that he's dishonest. But Othello believes Iago is honest, and starts to worry that Iago's hesitations hide something he should know.
If Iago were a fisherman and Othello a fish, Iago would be just about to hook Othello. But he decides to play with him a bit more. Iago says that Cassio seems honest, and men should be what they seem. (Another ironic statement from Iago!)
Iago continues to say that he's reluctant to speak badly of anyone, since no one's perfect. Besides, Iago says, it's often his nature to see flaws where they don't exist, so he may be exaggerating. (For once Iago tells the truth to someone, but it's a superficial truth that hides a deeper lie.) Iago also says he's afraid of hurting Cassio's reputation, which after all, is man's most prized possession:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
Act III, Scene iii, lines 184-86
Remember what Iago said to Cassio on the same subject (Act II, Scene iii, lines 275-78)--that a reputation is easily won and easily lost. It's Iago's peculiar genius that he can say contradictory things to different people and convince them all of his sincerity!
We know that Othello is slow to anger, but Iago tests his patience to the breaking point by refusing to say directly what he thinks. When Othello insists that he'll find out what is on Iago's mind, Iago warns him of jealousy. "It's the green-eyed monster," he says, that delights in toying with whatever it has in its grasp.
Iago seems to know jealousy intimately, and we've seen how he has been infected with it. Through Iago, Shakespeare may be airing his own views on jealousy. In this play, jealousy is a monster that affects many of the characters and brings about the ruin of those who fall into its grasp.
Othello swears he isn't jealous. He says he'd need to see proof of Desdemona's unfaithfulness before he would be jealous.
Iago's relieved. Since Othello is not the jealous type, he says, he can speak more frankly. Keep a cautious eye on Desdemona and Cassio, he advises. Watch them carefully, because Venetian women tend to cheat on their husbands, and Othello, as a foreigner, couldn't know this:
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown.
Act III, Scene iii, lines 229-31
The fisherman has hooked the fish. But he makes doubly sure. Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona deceived her father into thinking she feared Othello. If she could fool Brabantio, who has known her for a long time, she could fool Othello, who has married her only recently. (Brabantio's words of warning have come back to haunt Othello.)
He also says that Desdemona's choice of Othello was "unnatural." Often Desdemona starts comparing Othello to men of her own age, country and complexion, says Iago, she may recognize her mistake and regret her choice.
NOTE: In Shakespeare's plays, it's necessary to follow the rules of nature in order to achieve order and harmony. Othello is aware that many people consider his marriage unnatural.
Othello, reluctant to hear more, sends Iago away, and then wonders why he ever married. Othello worries that Iago knows more than he's saying.
Iago returns to give Othello advice: hold your temper. It's important to stay calm, says Iago. Iago suggests that Othello refuse to give Cassio his job back, just to see how hard Desdemona begs him for it.
Alone again, Othello cuts a sad figure. He wonders if he's lost Desdemona because he's nonwhite, old, and different from the graceful, handsome men she is used to. If she has been unfaithful, he vows, he'll be rid of her. But then Desdemona enters with Emilia, and he says:
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!
I'll not believe 't.
Act III, Scene iii, lines 313-14
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 315-37
Desdemona is concerned when she sees Othello's upset, but Othello tries to pass off his sadness as a headache. When Desdemona tries to tie a handkerchief around his head (an old remedy for a headache), he impatiently pushes her hand away, and the handkerchief falls. Unaware that the handkerchief's on the ground, Othello and Desdemona leave.
Emilia stays behind and picks up the handkerchief. She knows that it was Othello's first gift to Desdemona, and says that for some reason Iago has often urged her to steal it for him. She decides instead to have the handkerchief copied and give the copy to her husband. But Iago appears, grabs the handkerchief, and orders her to keep quiet about it.
NOTE: Why isn't Emilia curious about Iago's interest in the handkerchief? Maybe, like many women of her time, she's used to obeying her husband without question. As we shall see, Emilia has no idea of Iago's true nature; she might reason that letting him have the handkerchief without Desdemona's knowing is a small price for a few minutes of domestic peace.
For Iago, getting the handkerchief is his greatest piece of luck so far. He says he'll plant it in Cassio's room and let the lieutenant find it. If Othello sees Cassio with the handkerchief, it will be the concrete proof Othello's asked for. Iago is certain he's already poisoned Othello with his lies.
And Iago is right. Othello's a tortured man. He says he's rather know the truth than suffer the anguish of ignorance. Shakespeare shows the suffering caused by an inability to tell truth from fiction, appearance from reality. Is Desdemona innocent or guilty? Is Iago telling the truth or lying? If you've ever doubted the honesty of a friend or someone you loved, you can understand Othello's confusion and unhappiness.
"Reluctantly," under the pretext of relieving Othello's mind, Iago admits he has proof. (He's now ready to reel in the "fish" after toying with him for so long.) Iago says he shared a bed with Cassio a few nights ago (not unusual for two soldiers on duty). During the night, Iago says, Cassio tossed and turned, cried out in his sleep for Desdemona, cursed his luck that she was married to the Moor, talked of their adulterous affair--and even kissed Iago, thinking he was Desdemona!
Othello is close to his boiling point, and Iago is ready with his most potent piece of evidence: he has seen Cassio wipe his beard with the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona.
Othello is now convinced:
Now I do see 'tis true. Look here, Iago:
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
Act III, Scene iii, lines 497-99
With this conviction comes a need for vengeance, "black vengeance from the hollow hell!"
Iago tries to calm him by saying that perhaps his mind will change, but we have seen (in Act II, Scene iii, lines 207-12) that Othello is unmovable once his passions are stirred. Now he says:
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.
Act III, Scene iii, lines 511-14
Othello kneels to swear vengeance against his wife. Iago kneels as well to promise his help. Othello holds Iago to his promise by asking him to kill Cassio. Iago agrees, but suggests that Othello let Desdemona live. Othello refuses; he goes off to think of a quick way to kill her.
By the end of the scene, Iago has got what he wanted--Othello's degradation. The great general has sunk to Iago's level. Othello's as much a scheming, jealous animal as Iago. Both are in the clutches of the "green-eyed monster." The moment we see Othello giving in to his own worst fears, fed by Iago's ugly lies, tragedy is inevitable.
NOTE: You may be asking a number of questions about the logic of this play. If so, you're not alone.
Why doesn't Othello realize that Cassio and Desdemona have had no time to sleep together? He knows they arrived on separate ships and that he, Othello, has been with Desdemona since he arrived in Cyprus. Also, when did Iago have a chance to share a bed with Cassio? The two soldiers were up the night before, all night, when the fight with Roderigo took place and Cassio lost his job.
There are two explanations for Othello's illogical thinking:
1. We know that Othello, once angered, lets his fury override his reason. In short, he can't think clearly once he suspects Desdemona of adultery and his confusion leads in part to his tragedy.
2. Shakespeare uses what is known as "double time. " Even though the action on Cyprus lasts only 36 hours, there are references in the play to suggest that a much longer time has passed. For example, in Act III, Scene iii, Othello says of Desdemona: "What sense had I of her stolen hours of lust?" When has Desdemona had time for "stolen hours" since yesterday? Also, Emilia says that Iago has asked her "a hundred times" to steal Desdemona's handkerchief. How is that possible, when Iago has just invented the handkerchief idea as a means of proving Desdemona's unfaithfulness?
Shakespeare has used the dramatist's freedom to play with time as he sees fit. "Double time" means that he has used two different clocks to measure the action on stage. To give a sense of a few days or weeks passing, he has characters refer to events that happened in Cyprus days before. This is called "long time."
To heighten the excitement of the play, he has used "short time," compressing everything into thirty-six hours. The play's believability depends on our accepting that everything is happening quickly. We have to believe that Othello wouldn't run into Cassio by chance and confront him with his suspicions. His decision to kill Desdemona must come soon after he's convinced of her adultery. If it takes any longer, it's not credible.
The result of this "double time" is a thrilling and contradictory play. Anyone reading Othello carefully will notice these lapses of logic. But as a master playwright, Shakespeare makes sure that an audience watching the play becomes so involved in the mounting excitement of the plot that these problems of time are unimportant.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-186
Desdemona sends word to Cassio through the clown that she has convinced Othello to see him. The clown continues his wordplay. This time, it's about 'lying"--meaning both 'lying down" and "not telling the truth."
Desdemona discovers that her handkerchief is gone. It's precious to her since it was Othello's first gift to her. She's sorry to have lost it, but is consoled that Othello, not being the jealous type, won't be angry at her. "Is he not jealous?" Emilia asks, and Desdemona replies,
Who? he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humors from him.
Act III, Scene iv, lines 30-31
NOTE: The Elizabethans believed that the body was made up of four elements or humors that controlled emotions and personality. Desdemona is saying that Othello seems to have had the element that creates jealousy drawn from his body by the sun of his native land.
What a change we see in Othello when he comes in! He's not the gracious, loving husband of Act II. He makes crude hints about Desdemona's sexual temperament. She, in her innocence, doesn't understand them.
Othello begins to play with her as Iago played with him, asking her to lend him the handkerchief he knows she doesn't have. If only he would confront her with his suspicions!
Desdemona, seeing that Othello is behaving oddly about the handkerchief, thinks it's safer to lie. His story about the handkerchief's magical powers (which he may have invented to disturb her) makes her say that she has the handkerchief. Her lie is a fatal mistake. It convinces Othello that she's guilty. We can hardly bear to see her make this mistake, a white lie that comes from kindness, nothing more. She doesn't want to upset her husband needlessly by admitting she has lost it.
Unable to understand his behavior, Desdemona wonders if Othello is using the handkerchief as an excuse to keep her from executing her promise to Cassio. The mention of the man's name makes Othello more determined than ever to see the handkerchief, and the two argue back and forth about their separate requests. Finally, Othello leaves in anger.
Is this the man who is never jealous, Emilia wonders. Desdemona is bewildered--she's never seen her husband like this.
Cassio, having received Desdemona's message, comes in with Iago, who still insists that the only way he'll get his job back is through Desdemona. However, Desdemona isn't sure that this is a good time to press Othello about anything. He's in a very strange mood. Yet, as a good friend, she'll try to do whatever she can.
Iago can hardly believe Othello is angry. He has seen him calm in the midst of battle. It must be something very important to set his temper flaring. He goes off to see how he can "help" his friend.
Desdemona is certain she has given Othello no cause to be jealous. But Emilia says:
But jealous souls will not be answered so.
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous. 'Tis a monster
Begot upon itself, born of itself.
Act III, Scene iv, lines 177-80
In calling jealousy a "monster," Emilia sounds very much like Iago. She probably has first-hand experience with the deadly emotion as Iago's wife, but doesn't know the monster has her husband in its power.
Promising Cassio that she'll try again to talk to Othello about his dilemma, Desdemona and Emilia go into the castle.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 187-226
Bianca, a loose woman-about-town and Cassio's mistress, finds him in front of the castle and wonders why he's stayed away from her for so long. (Another example of "long time"--Cassio just arrived yesterday by the short clock.)
Cassio promises to make up for his absence, but asks a favor of her. He gives her the handkerchief he found in his room (planted there, of course, by Iago) and asks her to have it copied for him before it's claimed by its owner, whoever that might be.
Bianca is jealous, suspecting that it belongs to another woman in his life, but she agrees. Cassio sends her away quickly. It wouldn't look right for Othello to see him with a woman, particularly one of Bianca's class.
As the act ends, we wonder what will happen as a result of Iago's manipulations. Iago's like a man building a house of cards, carefully resting one lie against another. He must work quickly. Any one person could destroy his work. If Emilia tells the truth about the handkerchief, if Othello confronts Cassio about what Iago has said, or if Desdemona discovers why Othello is angry, Iago's flimsy structure could fall, and he would be destroyed.
NOTE: The theme of jealousy, which has been woven subtly throughout the play, now emerges as a powerful force. We have seen Iago jealous of Cassio because of the lieutenantship and the possibility of an affair with Emilia, and jealous of Othello because of a rumor that he, too, has slept with Emilia. Roderigo, because of his love for Desdemona, is jealous of Othello. Emilia seems to know a great deal about the subject, and Bianca suspects Cassio of seeing another woman.
When Iago weaves his spell over Othello, the theme begins to dominate the play. Jealous of Othello for what he is, what he has accomplished, and because of Desdemona, Iago sets out to destroy him. In order to do so, he plays upon the emotion he knows best--jealousy. He arouses such intense sexual jealousy in Othello (by making Cassio seem superior to Othello in almost every way) that Othello is ready to kill the person he loves most. It's no wonder that Shakespeare calls jealousy a monster--twice--in this play.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT IV, SCENE I
Iago must keep Othello's temper hot and make sure he doesn't run into Cassio.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-107
Sadistically, Iago continues to poison Othello's thoughts. He paints vivid pictures of Desdemona and Cassio in bed together, all the while pretending to comfort his friend. When Othello begins to waver slightly in his belief that Desdemona has been unfaithful, Iago pulls out another lie. He says that Cassio has confessed to him that he has slept with Desdemona.
This is the final blow, the worst indignity. Othello is so overwhelmed he faints.
Cassio enters. He wants to help Othello, but Iago sends him away. Othello is having a mild epileptic fit, he says, and needs to be left alone. It's happened before, Iago assures him, and is nothing to worry about. Fortunately for Iago, Cassio follows his advice. If Othello were to suddenly revive, he would undoubtedly confront Cassio with his suspicions.
When Othello regains consciousness, Iago tells him that Cassio was just there, and will return soon. Iago suggests that Othello hide while he talks to Cassio, so that he hears how Cassio talks about Desdemona when he's alone with Iago.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 108-229
Of course, it's a trick. Iago gets Cassio to talk about Bianca--how she loves him, chases him, makes a spectacle of herself. Othello listens from his hiding place, his anger growing with every word.
Bianca herself shows up. She's decided that Cassio can't be telling the truth about the handkerchief, that he happened to find it in his bedroom. Angrily, she returns it to him. Cassio runs after her.
Othello has watched Bianca give Desdemona's handkerchief to Cassio, and Iago makes full use of the incident. See, he tells Othello, Cassio jokes about Desdemona in public and even gives her handkerchief to his whore!
"How shall I murder him, Iago?" Othello asks. He wants to kill Cassio more than ever, but can't shake Desdemona's gentleness and beauty from his mind:
Ay, let her rot and perish, and be damned tonight,
for she shall not live. No, my heart is turned to
stone: I strike it and it hurts my hand. O, the
world hath not a sweeter creature! She might
lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks.
Act IV, Scene i, lines 196-200
Have you ever loved and hated someone at once? The line between the two emotions is often very thin. It's unlikely that you've ever plotted a murder, but you can share some of Othello's frustration at feeling two emotions at once, and not knowing which is truer.
Othello's hatred wins out. He first asks Iago for poison to kill Desdemona, but Iago recommends strangling her in the bed in which she cheated on him.
NOTE: It's not clear why Iago argues against poison. Some readers feel that Iago was afraid he couldn't get the poison quickly, and wants the murder accomplished soon. Others feel he's just afraid that Othello, in his crazed state, would bungle giving Desdemona poison. Strangling her is quicker and cleaner.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 230-312
Visitors from Venice have just arrived, including Lodovico, a relative of Brabantio. He's brought Othello a letter that tells him the Senate wants him back in Venice. Othello's work in Cyprus is complete, and Cassio will take over the command.
Desdemona is pleased with the news. Perhaps she thinks their return to Venice will help Othello get over whatever is bothering him. But Othello, in his paranoid confusion, misunderstands her happiness. He thinks she's expressing joy for Cassio. In his fury, he calls her "devil" and hits her in front of their guests!
NOTE: It's been pointed out by some readers that Desdemona always seems to make the wrong step at critical moments. When she should admit losing the handkerchief, she lies and says she has it; when she tries to be cheerful about Othello's news, there's something ambiguous in her reaction and he thinks she's happy for Cassio.
Shakespeare doesn't make Desdemona a bumbler or a fool; far from it. Her mistakes are made out of innocence, and she holds on to her dignity no matter how badly she's treated. What could be more humiliating than being hit in front of others by someone you love? But Desdemona doesn't even raise her voice. And when Othello insults her further, she leaves quietly.
Look how far Othello's come from the good-hearted and loving man we saw earlier in the play! Lodovico speaks for us when he says,
Is this the noble whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake?
Act IV, Scene i, lines 290-92
Iago's reply is a masterpiece of understatement: "He is much changed." Iago must be incredibly pleased. He succeeded in bringing Othello down to his own level. More and more, Othello is adopting Iago's behavior: he's crude, suspicious, insensitive to his wife, sneaky, and cynical; he's even reduced to eavesdropping in the shadows. The change in Othello must give Iago a great sense of power.
NOTE: Readers have pointed out that Shakespeare has shown Othello's corruption in a particularly interesting way. in the first three acts, Iago uses a lot of animal images in his speeches. He mentions flies, rams, baboons, wild-cats, goats, monkeys, and wolves, to name a few. Othello uses no animal images until Acts IV and V, when the control Iago has over him is complete. The poetry that wooed Desdemona is gone, replaced by speeches that refer to wild animals.
For one example, look at Act III, Scene iii, line 453. Describing Cassio and Desdemona's passion, Iago calls them "prime as goats, as hot as monkeys." By Act IV, Scene i, after Othello has hit Desdemona, he leaves Lodovico saying, "Goats and monkeys!" (line 289) His mind is on Desdemona's adultery, and he's thinking in Iago's terms.
Lodovico discusses Othello with Iago, but Iago doesn't offer any explanations of the Moor's behavior. He simply advises Lodovico to watch Othello and see for himself. Lodovico begins to feel that Othello might well be the barbarian Brabantio feared.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT IV, SCENE II
Othello, more and more losing his grip on reality, quizzes Emilia about Desdemona's fidelity. She swears on her soul that Desdemona's innocent, but Othello is too crazed to believe her. He sends her after Desdemona, and when the two women return, he treats Emilia like the madam of a brothel, telling her to guard the door while he talks to his wife.
Alone with Desdemona, he treats her like a whore and tries to get her to confess her adultery. No matter how much she pleads her innocence, he throws insults and accusations in her face. He could stand anything, he tells her--sickness, ridicule--but not the loss of her love. Paying no attention to her cries and protests, he leaves her, offering Emilia payment for her services as a "madam."
Desdemona is shocked by Othello's behavior. Beyond tears, she can barely think. She asks that Emilia put her wedding sheets on the bed, perhaps hoping to regain some of the love and the innocence she remembers from that time. She then sends for Iago.
Iago feigns astonishment at what Desdemona and Emilia tell him. Emilia has a theory about Othello's behavior:
I will be hanged if some eternal villain,
Some busy and insinuating rogue,
Some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office,
Have not devised this slander. I'll be hanged else.
Act IV, Scene ii, lines 153-56
She's the first to suspect that someone's been spreading lies about Desdemona--perhaps the same person who spread the rumor about her and Othello. When she says that it might be someone trying "to get some office,"--that is, to get a desirable job--she is hitting closer to home than she knows. Iago is uncomfortable by Emilia's suspicions and orders her to be quiet. He promises Desdemona that all will be well, and the women leave.
Roderigo enters, furious that he's been tricked. He's spent all of his money, and even given Iago gold and jewels to give Desdemona--and with no results! Roderigo threatens to go to Desdemona to get back his jewels. Of course she's never seen them. If Desdemona doesn't return the jewels, he'll see to it that Iago pays.
Iago is again able to talk Roderigo out of his plan. Othello's been asked to return to Venice, and he and Desdemona will leave the following day. If Roderigo can kill Cassio tonight, Iago promises, Othello will have to stay until a replacement for Cassio can be found. With Cassio dead, Desdemona will need a new lover--and turn to Roderigo. Iago knows that Cassio will have dinner with Bianca that evening; he can be attacked on his way home, and Iago will be there to help. Roderigo is not fully convinced, but Iago promises that everything will go without a hitch.
For the first time, we see the net begin to close in on Iago. Emilia is suspicious that someone is behind Othello's hideous behavior. Although she has no reason to suspect her husband, she might soon put some of the pieces together.
Also, Roderigo, who up until now has been a puppet in Iago's iron hand, begins to show signs of strength and rebelliousness. Iago has to appease him as well as to handle the other complications his villainy has brought about. If either Emilia or Roderigo guess Iago's motives before he can see his plan completed, he's doomed.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT IV, SCENE III
As Othello prepares to walk Lodovico to his room for the night, he tells Desdemona to prepare for bed and to send Emilia away. (It was the custom for women of rank to have an attendant sleep nearby, to provide anything they might need during the night.)
Emilia notices that Othello seems gentler than before. He's cooly polite, not the coarse ruffian he was before dinner. Perhaps, now that he has made peace with himself about his decision to kill Desdemona, an unnatural calm has settled over him.
But Emilia isn't completely convinced that Othello is back to his former self. She tells Desdemona she wishes her mistress had never met him. But Desdemona doesn't agree:
So would not I. My love doth so approve him
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns
(Prithee unpin me) have grace and favor in them.
Act IV, Scene iii, lines 21-23
In her gentle purity, she loves Othello even when he treats her badly.
NOTE: From a modern point of view, Desdemona may seem a weak and silly creature. She takes her husband's insults and accusations without a word of protest. She says she loves him no matter how badly he treats her.
It's important to see Desdemona as a product of her times. She was raised to be obedient to her husband, to follow his rule in all matters. It would be impossible for her to leave her husband and be considered respectable.
Yet it is necessary to think of Desdemona as more than a woman who obeys her husband because of society's rules. She is a woman who, as one reader has said, is "without armor." Her only defense against Othello's accusations is her love for him. She knows she is innocent and can find no answer for Othello's behavior. Her vulnerability comes from her youth and inexperience, not her weakness. We saw her strength when she eloped with Othello and when she faced the Senate. And we saw her loyalty when she fought in Cassio's defense. All her actions come from a kind heart, including her inability to stand up to her husband.
A strange peace has settled over Desdemona, too. Unconsciously, she seems to be aware of her fate, telling Emilia of her mother's maid, who went crazy for the love of a man and died singing a song entitled "Willow." As Emilia prepares her for bed, Desdemona sings this sweet, sad song of infidelity. She suggests that her wedding sheets be used as her shroud (burial doth) if she should die.
The women's conversation turns to adultery. Are there really women who cheat on their husbands, Desdemona wants to know. Emilia assures her that there are, but Desdemona refuses to believe her. (We often refuse to believe things we don't want to believe.)
When Desdemona asks Emilia if she would commit adultery Emilia says she would "for all the world." "The world's a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice." What woman wouldn't cheat on her husband for the whole world, Emilia wonders. If you owned the world, you could make your husband king and right any wrong you might have committed. If women cheat, Emilia adds, its because they're forced into it by the husband's faults. The contrast between the two women is striking--one woman who doesn't even believe adultery exists and another who knows a great deal about it!
Desdemona's parting words to Emilia take the form of a prayer. She asks that she be given the power to face evil and to learn from it, not return it or become worse from it. Does Desdemona know that she will need such strength before the night is over?
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT V, SCENE I
Night has fallen, and the atmosphere is heavy with tension. Through Iago's devious manipulations, the fate of all of the major characters hangs in the balance. Othello believes his wife guilty of adultery and is determined to kill her. Desdemona is the helpless victim of Othello's suspicions and has premonitions that her death is near. Cassio is slated for death at Roderigo's hands, according to Iago's plan. Emilia suspects that some villain is behind Othello's behavior, but she can't know that her own husband is responsible. Roderigo has already lost most of his fortune and is ready to kill someone, all for the love of a woman who barely knows he's alive. As for Iago, the mastermind behind the entire plot, he must step very carefully. One false move and he could lose everything, including his life. The tension is almost unbearable.
Iago has convinced Roderigo that Cassio must die; they're in a "kill or cure" situation--"it makes us or it mars us," as the saying goes. He puts Roderigo in a hiding place, near a spot Cassio will pass. Iago promises to stay nearby, in case the nervous Roderigo makes a mistake.
Iago will gain no matter who dies in the fight--Cassio, Roderigo, or both. If Roderigo lives, Iago will have to return the gold and jewels he was supposed to have given to Desdemona. As for Cassio, Iago says:
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly.
Act V, Scene i, lines 21-22
NOTE: We learn a great deal about Iago in these few lines. Cassio's "beauty"--his goodness, his honesty--is a constant thorn in Iago's side. Evil men often seek a world where everyone is as wicked as they. They're uncomfortable with the virtuous. Iago therefore is determined that Cassio be killed.
When Cassio passes, things happen in a flash! Roderigo jumps Cassio and stabs him, but Cassio's protected by his chain-mail vest (a coat of light steel worn as armor). In defending himself, Cassio stabs Roderigo, and Iago jumps from his hiding place to stab Cassio in the leg. Iago then runs off before he's recognized, and Cassio--wounded by Iago--begins to cry out so loudly that Othello hears him and assumes that Iago has kept his promise and murdered Cassio. Othello hurries off to kill Desdemona.
Cassio's cries have also awakened Lodovico and Gratiano, Brabantio's brother. They rush out, but keep at a distance, afraid of being harmed themselves.
Iago returns, pretending surprise and shock at what has happened. When Cassio points to Roderigo (who lies injured nearby) as one of those who attacked him, Iago rushes to Roderigo and stabs him, leaving him for dead. Ironically, Roderigo, who was the first to be fooled by Iago, is the first to recognize his evil: "O damned Iago! O inhuman dog!" he says.
Lodovico and Gratiano finally come out from their hiding place, and Iago calls them to help as he binds Cassio's wound. Notice how well Iago plays his role of concerned citizen and good friend. Even under pressure, he's a wonderful actor.
Bianca has heard the racket and runs out to see what's happened. Iago immediately points to her and accuses her of being involved in some way because she looks guilty. It seems Iago will do anything to place the blame on someone else. Emilia rushes out and after she hears what's happened, says Bianca must have had a hand in this. Bianca's reply is interesting:
I am no strumpet, but of life as honest
As you that thus abuse me.
Act V, Scene i, lines 143-44
Bianca may be a "loose" woman, but she's no whore. She is honest, despite what people might think. Bianca is another example of someone whose appearance does not represent accurately her character.
As Iago rushes to help carry Cassio for medical help, he sends Emilia to tell Othello and Desdemona what's happened. Then he admits to us:
This is the night
That either makes me or
foredoes me quite.
Act V, Scene i, lines 150-51
Could Iago be losing control? For the first time, fortune doesn't seem to be in his corner. Cassio is alive by sheer luck--his chain mail vest. Iago's attempts to kill him have faded, too. And, as we shall see, Iago hasn't succeeded in killing Roderigo, either.
Iago makes another mistake when he sends Emilia to Desdemona's bedroom. If he were thinking dearly, he would know that this is the night Othello has planned to murder Desdemona. Perhaps Emilia will get there in time to stop him! Iago's cool facade begins to show signs of crumbling.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ACT V, SCENE II
Think for a moment how well Shakespeare has done his job! All of the action of the play has led us to the moment that begins this scene, when Othello enters Desdemona's bedroom to kill her.
The contrasts in the scene are striking: darkness and light, black and white. In the darkness of the bedroom, Othello carries a single lighted candle. Desdemona is lying on the bed, made with her white wedding sheets; her pale complexion is contrasted to Othello's dark face. Compare as well the purity of Desdemona's spirit its "whiteness," and "blackness" of Othello's soul, darkened by suspicion and hatred.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 1-150
Othello's first lines "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!" suggest that it is her adultery that forces him to kill Desdemona.
He compares her life to the candle he is holding. You can snuff out a candle and then relight it, he says. But once you've snuffed out a life, nothing can put back its spark.
He must kill her, he implies, as an act of justice. Her death will prevent her from cheating on other men. But as he looks down at his sleeping wife, he's overcome by her beauty and nearly changes his mind. He kisses her, and then twice more, his final kiss awakening her.
NOTE: Othello begins to resemble the man we met in the first act who spoke so movingly and calmly to the Senate about his love for Desdemona. He has regained some of the composure he lost in Act III. Othello isn't a crazed animal when he enters her room, but a man aware of the duty he feels he must do, however painful. As much as we hate his decision to murder Desdemona, we know that he feels he is right, and we can sympathize with the difficulty he has in actually carrying out the murder.
When Othello tells Desdemona to make her peace with God because he is about to kill her, she protests that she's innocent. Othello brings up the matter of the handkerchief he saw in Cassio's hand, and Desdemona begs that Cassio be sent for--he, too, will swear that they are not guilty. But Othello tells her that Cassio has already confessed--and is dead. What a shock for Desdemona, to hear that the one person who can prove her innocence has confessed to a false crime and is dead! She cries out for herself, but once again Othello misunderstands and thinks that she's crying for Cassio, her lover. In his rage, he smothers her.
Moments too late, Emilia knocks at the door. Before answering her, Othello sees Desdemona move slightly and smothers her again to put her out of her pain. He loses hold of reality for a moment--and speaks of his wife before he realizes he no longer has a wife!
He lets Emilia in, and she tells him of the fight--that Cassio is alive, but Roderigo is dead. Othello realizes that his revenge is incomplete.
Desdemona is still alive. She cries out from her bed, and Emilia rushes to her side. Who is responsible? Emilia wants to know. To the end, Desdemona is unable to accuse her husband:
Nobody--I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord. O farewell!
Act V, Scene ii, lines 149-50
Thinking that she must have disappointed Othello in some way, she takes responsibility for her own death, and dies.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 151-200
For a moment, Othello is willing to accept Desdemona's pure gesture and refuses to admit to the murder. But his conscience won't permit him this lie and he confesses, "'Twas I that killed her." He then tells Emilia of Desdemona's unfaithfulness.
Emilia's response shows her loyalty and friendship. She accuses Othello of lying; she knows Desdemona was pure.
Othello offers her proof--it was Iago who knew the whole story. Emilia is dumbfounded! She can only repeat, "My husband?" three times, as if she hasn't heard clearly. Could this woman ever have known that her husband was such a villain?
Suddenly, we see an Emilia we have never seen before, rising like a tigress whose cub has been killed. Saying Iago "lies to the heart," she shouts for the world to hear that Desdemona has been murdered. Never fearing for her own life (for how can she know Othello hasn't gone mad?) she wants to see Desdemona's death avenged.
Emilia here says just what we would want to say, doesn't she? She gives voice to our grief and fury that Desdemona has died so uselessly.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 201-297
Emilia's shouts of "Murder!" bring Lodovico, Gratiano, Iago (who must be relieved that Othello has succeeded), and others rushing in. Imagine Lodovico and Gratiano's shock at seeing their beautiful relative lying dead.
Emilia immediately throws Othello's words in Iago's face. Did he ever tell Othello that Desdemona was unfaithful? Iago admits it, but orders Emilia to be quiet. It's no use. She is past taking orders from him and continues to cry out in her grief.
Lodovico and Gratiano can't believe what they see. Gratiano is glad that Brabantio is dead (apparently heartbroken over Desdemona's marriage) so that he doesn't have to see this pitiful sight.
NOTE: It's not clear if Desdemona knew of Brabantio's death. Did Lodovico and Gratiano come with the news, and not have the time to tell her? If she does know, why doesn't she mention it earlier in the play? The best answer seems to be that it is one of Shakespeare's inconsistencies.
Othello tries to defend himself with the story of Cassio's confession and the evidence of the handkerchief. Suddenly, Emilia understands everything, including her own part in what happened to Desdemona. Pouring out her grief and rage, she begins to tell the truth, despite the fact that Iago threatens her with his sword. Admitting that she gave the handkerchief to Iago, she makes Othello aware of how cruelly and stupidly he was fooled. Othello moves to kill Iago, but is stopped by Montano, and Iago takes the chance to stab Emilia and run away. Could Iago have ever guessed that it would be his wife who would turn him in?
Emilia goes to Desdemona's side, with words of comfort for her. With her last words, Emilia tells Othello how much Desdemona loved him.
What a long way Emilia comes in a short time! When we first met her, she came across as a loud, talkative cynic. She now seems like a heroine. She sacrifices her life for the truth. Can we ask more from a person than that?
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: LINES 298-427
While the others are chasing Iago, Othello finds another sword in the room. Gratiano comes back, but Othello assures him that he doesn't plan to escape. The Moor can only stand ashamed and guilt-ridden. "Where should Othello go?" he wonders.
Lodovico and Montano return with the injured Cassio and the captured Iago. Looking at Iago's feet (to see if he has cloven or split feet, as devils were supposed to have) Othello decides to test his theory that Iago is a demon by trying to kill him. He only succeeds in wounding Iago before Montano takes his sword from him. Othello isn't even given the satisfaction of seeing Iago die.
Confessions and questions pour out one after the other. Othello admits to having conspired against Cassio, who can only wonder why. "Dear General, I never gave you cause," he says.
Othello asks that Iago be forced to tell him why he "ensnared" his "soul and body." Iago replies:
Demand me nothing. What you know you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.
Act V, Scene iii, lines 352-53
Why won't Iago speak? Isn't this a chance to tell Othello what he thinks of him? Perhaps he truly does believe that Othello knows the reasons, or perhaps none of the reasons really explain his behavior. Can evil ever be explained? Iago's last words leave his motives as ambiguous as ever.
Letters found on Roderigo explain his part in the plot to kill Cassio. Roderigo himself (who was not yet dead, as Iago thought) confessed the rest before he died. Lodovico orders Iago to be tortured to death, a fitting punishment for someone who pitilessly tortured others.
Othello asks to speak before he is taken away. Once again we see the Othello we admired earlier in the play. He asks that when his story is written down or spoken of, the truth be told. Nothing should be exaggerated or set down in anger. He sees himself as 1) a man who "loved not wisely, but too well"; 2) one who, though not "easily jealous" was distracted by doubts of Desdemona's faithlessness; 3) one who carelessly threw away a pearl whose true value he never knew; and 4) one who, although not given to tears, is weeping.
Comparing himself to an enemy of the state, a Turk, who killed a Venetian (Desdemona), Othello tells them to end his story with the death of the Turkish "dog"--and he stabs himself with a dagger he has hidden. He lays himself next to Desdemona's body, kisses her, and dies.
Though he treated Desdemona cruelly, can we hate Othello in this scene? He killed her out of delusion, prompted by a villain who spent all his energy to see his plan succeed. And Othello trusted him because he trusted everyone. Othello never asks forgiveness, but catalogues the flaws that brought him to this terrible moment. He goes to his death with as much honor as he can.
It's to Shakespeare's credit that, as much as we come to care for Desdemona, we can forgive Othello for her murder. Othello's flaws are human--who can say he or she wouldn't act the same way in a similar situation? Because we identify with Othello's humanity, we experience the pity and terror that classic tragedy asks of us.
NOTE: Some readers feel that the play represents Iago's tragedy as well. This doesn't mean that we see in Iago a good man brought down by a human flaw. Iago never has the nobility of Othello. But, to some, tragedy can represent a waste of human potential. In this respect, Iago has abundant skills--brains, energy, insight, wit, cleverness--but he chooses to use them for evil instead of good.
Iago is the one Shakespearean villain who never doubts himself, never has a momentary lapse of conscience. We fear him because he believes in nothing except himself--not in other people, not in virtue, not in love. His total egotism feeds his hatred, and this hatred lays a waste of his abilities, and to the lives of those around him.
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: THE CRITICS ON OTHELLO'S RACE
Shakespeare was not trying in Othello to emphasize any racial differences between the hero and the heroine, though the differences in their background provide Iago with plausible suggestions for Desdemona's alleged disaffection.... When enemies of Othello want to abuse him, they speak opprobriously of his alien looks and wonder that Desdemona could love so strange a man, but that is part of the reality of the characterization, not a hint on Shakespeare's part of "racism." The unhappy times when men would read some suggestion of racial prejudice into every piece of literature concerned with alien characters lay some centuries ahead.
Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar
"The Significance of Othello," 1957
The most important feature of Othello is the colour of the hero's skin. This is superficially obvious enough, but most critics have avoided treating Othello's colour as the essence of the play for two good reasons: first that it is unhistorical to suppose that 'colour', as we understand the term, had much meaning for the Elizabethans or early Jacobeans; and second, that to interpret Othello as a play about race would be like saying that Henry VI is a play about fatness.... [With Elizabethan audiences] the unfamiliarity of the colour-problem would even tend to increase its impact: marriage between Othello and Desdemona must have been very startling to an audience that had never seen a coloured boy walking out with a white girl. Professor Dover Wilson goes further and says: "If anyone imagines that England at that date was unconscious of the 'colour-bar,' they cannot have read Othello with any care."
G.M. Matthews, "Othello and the Dignity of Man" 1971
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ON OTHELLO
...Shakespeare has shown us that his hero is not as strong or as good a man as he thinks he is, that the hero's flaw is his refusal to face the reality of his own nature. This Othello, who (I think) is the Othello Shakespeare intended to convey, is rather different from the modern Othello, who is always thoroughly noble--before, during, and after his downfall... It is not the hero's nobility in Shakespear's tragedies, but the flaw, the sin or error that all flesh is heir to, that destroys him. It is the close interweaving of great man, mere man, and base man that makes of Othello the peculiarly powerful and mysterious figure he is. In him Shakespeare shows the possible greatness, the possible baseness not only closely allied in what is after all mere man but also so casually connected that one must perforce wonder and weep.
Leo Kirschbaum, "The Modern Othello"
From Shakespeare and His Critics, 1961
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ON THE WOMEN IN OTHELLO
[The male characters'] vanity, their preoccupation with rank and reputation, and their cowardice render them as incapable of friendship as they are in love.... The women, in contrast, are indifferent to reputation and partially free of vanity, jealousy, and competitiveness. Desdemona's unwillingness 'to incur a general mock' is evident in her elopement and her defense of it, and her request to go to Cyprus. Emilia braves scorn to defend her mistress.... If Cassio's description of Bianca corresponds at all to fact, she too ignores reputation, comically, to pursue him.
Carol Thomas Neely, "Women and Men in Othello," 1980
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ON THE USE OF THE "DOUBLE CLOCK"
Shakespeare... is not essentially concerned with time and the calendar at all. These, as with the actor and his behavior... must be given plausibility. But the play's essential action lies in the processes of thought and feeling by which the characters are moved and the story is forwarded. And the deeper the springs of these the less do time, place and circumstance affect them. His imagination is now concerned with fundamental passions, and its swift working demands unencumbered expression. He may falsify the calendar for his convenience, but we shall find neither trickery nor anomaly in the fighting of the intellectual battle for Othello's soul. And in the light of the truth of this the rest will pass unnoticed.
Prefaces to Shakespeare, 1946
^^^^^^^^^^OTHELLO: ON IAGO
Iago stands supreme among Shakespeare's evil characters because the greatest intensity and subtlety of imagination have gone to his making, and because he illustrates in the most perfect combination the two facts concerning evil which seem to have impressed Shakespeare most. The first of these is the fact that perfectly sane people exist in whom fellow-feeling of any kind is so weak that an almost absolute egoism becomes possible to them, and with it those hard vices--such as ingratitude and cruelty--which to Shakespeare were far the worst. The second is that such evil is compatible, and even appears to ally itself easily, with exceptional powers of will and intellect.
A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 1905