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Robert A. Albano

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Robert A. Albano

First Printing: August 2010

All Rights Reserved 2010 by Robert A. Albano The text presented in this volume appeared earlier as part of Understanding Shakespeare's Tragedies (2009). No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.

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Introduction . Act I ................................................. Act II ................................................. Act III ................................................. Act IV ................................................. Act V ................................................. Final Comments ...........................................

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Other Books by Robert A. Albano Middle English Historiography Lectures on Early English Literature Lectures on British Neoclassic Literature Understanding Shakespeare's Tragedies Understanding the Poetry of William Wordsworth

Robert Albano is an Associate Professor of English Literature in Taiwan.

NOTE: All act and scene divisions and lines numbers referred to in this text are consistent with those found in The Norton Shakespeare (Stephen Greenblatt, editor).

Just as Macbeth may be viewed as a play primarily about ambition, the play of Othello may be viewed as a tragedy primarily concerning jealousy. Shakespeare usually presents his audience not only an impelling dramatic experience, but also a study of a strong and intense emotion, desire, feeling, or passion that overwhelms the protagonist and conquers his rational abilities. Thus, once again, Shakespeare is presenting a play where the principal conflict could be termed as one of Reason vs. Emotion. During Shakespeares time the Christian viewpoint was that God has presented man with a special gift Reason. And with that gift man is capable of controlling his whims, passions, and desires. A man who did not control his emotions was, therefore, viewed as weak and lazy. Shakespeare, however, did not agree with this Christian perspective. Time and again, play after play, Shakespeare presents a strong, noble, virtuous aristocrat who becomes trapped by a powerful emotion and who is defeated by it. This situation happens to Macbeth, it happens to Othello, and it happens to Lear. Shakespeare understood, more so than most of his contemporaries, just how powerful and overwhelming the emotions could be. Shakespeare realized that emotions could become so powerful that they could ruin or destroy a man. 11

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello To describe a Shakespeare play with just one word, though, is a huge oversimplification. And, indeed, the play of Othello is about more than just jealousy. But this particular drama, perhaps more so than any other of Shakespeares tragedies, has eluded some critics. These critics have overlooked the richness of the play because it does not contain the complex structure of the other tragedies. Othello does not contain any subplots or lengthy comic interludes. All of the scenes relate directly to the main action of the story. And, thus, certain critics have dismissed the play as being somehow less rich and satisfying than Shakespeares other major tragedies. Yet, Shakespeare never is quite that simple. And in this play, Shakespeare adds another dimension and point of interest for the audience with the character of Iago. The character of Iago is the antagonist to Othello. Iago is, quite certainly, the villain of the play. But Shakespeare develops this character far more carefully and subtly than villains of other Renaissance plays. One of the ways Shakespeare develops this character is by the use of the soliloquy (a speech or monologue that reveals the inner thoughts of the character). Typically, the protagonist delivers the lengthy or principal soliloquy in the early acts of a tragedy. But in Othello Iago delivers not just one, but three of these speeches. Shakespeare liked to stretch the boundaries and limitations of playwriting. Shakespeare liked to 12

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello experiment and move in new directions. And he was doing so in Othello with his character of Iago. By having this character present three speeches in the early part of this play, Shakespeare has taken the attention off of Othello and placed it on his villain. Iago becomes the central point of attention in the play. In a sense, viewing the play from a different perspective, one could examine the character of Iago as a protagonist. Indeed, he is a vicious and cruel protagonist. And in the literature of later centuries such negative protagonists are referred to as antiheroes. Although Shakespeare is not the first writer to present an anti-hero in literature, this play does establish an innovation in literature because the boundaries have become blurred: the audience cannot simply point to Iago as the villain of the piece or as the protagonist of the piece. But like Othello, Iago is a figure who experiences a tragic fall. And like Othello, that fall is due to an overwhelming passion or desire. One aspect of Iagos character that has caused many critics to pass over him is his evil nature. The major question for some critics and audience members is this: Is Iago just too evil to be believable? Indeed, the extent of Iagos evil is quite great; and many people cannot believe that anyone could be so downright wicked. But other critics and audience members believe that there are many Iagos in this world, as accounts in history and newspapers often seem to indicate. 13

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello The character of Iago is actually quite a complex figure. And a successful production of this play requires an extremely gifted actor who can make the character both fascinating and repulsive to the audience at the same time. The audience is intrigued by this character and wants to learn more about him. Yet, at the same time, the audience hates this figure and hopes for his capture and punishment. As with most Shakespeare plays, the role of fate must be taken into consideration in a study of this play. There are no witches or other supernatural agents in Othello. But there is a supernatural force, unseen and unheard, that propels events into a certain tragic path. At first events occur to the favor of Iago, who proclaims himself superior to the forces of fate. But in time the forces of fate catch up with the wicked figure who believes that he can manipulate the lives of others like so many puppets on his strings. Finally, a word should be said about postmodern productions of Othello in America. Perhaps sometime around the 1960s theater producers envisioned an Othello who represented or symbolized the black man who struggled up from slavery to achieve greatness. Indeed, the problem of slavery during the 19th century forms a sad chapter of American history; and civil rights movements of the 20th century certainly did need to point to that tragic past in order to pave the way toward a better future. But Shakespeares play, written centuries earlier, has nothing to do with that. Othello is an aristocrat. He 14

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello is a nobleman from northern Africa. And, as such, he bears far more in common with Shakespeares other tragic heroes, such as Macbeth or Lear, than he does with the black slaves of America. In short, the connection of Othello to slavery is misleading and inappropriate. It is a misinterpretation of the play. However, the issue of prejudice does play a role in this play. Just as today, prejudice existed in Shakespeares time. And Shakespeare was certainly aware of this and included some of the attitudes towards black Africans that appeared in his time. But prejudice is not the major focus or issue of this play. The play of Othello succeeds because the members of the audience can relate to and sympathize with Othello. The members of the audience feel the passion and experience the anguish of this man. The members of the audience even come to identify themselves with Othello. In this manner, Shakespeare actually overcomes the prejudices of his own audience, who see Othello not as a black man or as an aristocrat, but just as a man, someone who is human just like themselves.


ACT I, 1: IAGO, THE CON MAN The first scene begins in the middle of a conversation between Iago and Roderigo. They are talking on a street in Venice, a port city on the east side of Italy. Roderigo is a gentleman, which indicates he is a man of high social standing. He is also, apparently, a man of some wealth. But, as will be quickly revealed, Roderigo is also something of a fool. Roderigo is in love. But the woman he loves does not love him in return. So, like any stereotyped unrequited lover, Roderigo acts foolishly. He will do anything to win Desdemona; and he does not think rationally. Iago is an ensign in the navy of Venice. At the time of the story, Italy is politically divided into city-states. Each city has its own military force and its own independent rulers. In this case, a duke rules Venice. An ensign in the Venetian navy is an extremely high and honorable rank. In fact, Iago holds the third highest rank in the service. Only the Captain (Othello) and the Lieutenant (Cassio) rank above him. Iago, as will also be quickly revealed in the play, is a false friend to Roderigo. Iago does not actually like Roderigo at all, but Iago somehow learned about Roderigos foolish love. And, so, Iago 17

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello has decided to take advantage of him. The clever Iago knows that this unrequited lover will do anything to win Desdemona. Roderigo is even willing to spend all of his money to get Desdemona. And the greedy Iago realizes that he can easily take away Roderigos money and tell him that he is using it to buy expensive gifts for Desdemona. Thus, Iago is becoming rich by fooling the foolish Roderigo. Iago, then, is also a con man (from confidence man): he knows how to con or cheat people out of their money by falsely gaining their confidence. The first few lines of the play indicate that Roderigo has been giving his money to Iago. Roderigo complains that Iago has his purse as if the strings were thine (2-3: thine means yours). The word purse here refers to a money-bag, and Roderigo is complaining that Iago is spending all of his money. More importantly, Roderigo is upset because Iago has just told him that Desdemona has eloped (run away to get married) with Othello. Roderigo now feels crushed; he feels that his life is over. He is also beginning to realize that he foolishly gave his money away to Iago.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 1: PREFERMENT The first scene then begins to develop the motivation and reason for Iagos actions throughout the rest of the play. And, at first look, Iagos reasons appear to be justified. Iago tries to explain to Roderigo that he had no idea that Desdemona would ever run away with Othello, and Roderigo mentions that Iago had said that he hated Othello (6). Iago then begins a speech about his feelings toward Othello. Apparently, the Venetian navy lost its lieutenant; and Othello had to choose a replacement. Iago, as next highest ranking officer and as an experienced soldier, would be the logical choice. But, instead, Othello chose Cassio to be the lieutenant. In addition to having experience and high rank, Iago also arranged for three high officials of the city to personally recommend him to Othello. But Othello ignored all of this and still chose Cassio. Iago complains that Othello is too full of pride (12). Iago is saying that Othello ignored logic and references because he is too proud to accept advice from others. Iago, who proves to be a good judge of character, may be right. Othello is essentially a good man, but he does have his faults. Iago further complains that Cassio was a poor choice. For one, Cassio is a Florentine (from the city of Florence: line 19). Although Florence is a city in Italy, it has its own government. Thus, Cassio is a 19

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello foreigner to Venice. Of course, Othello, who comes from Africa, is also a foreigner in the service of Venice. But more importantly, Cassio is a scholar (arithmetician in line 18) who only knows about war from history books. He may know about the theory of war, but he has no experience. As Iago expresses it, this is mere prattle without practice (25). The word prattle suggests empty talk. Such theory is useless without having any experience (practice) to know whether the theory will work in any particular military situation. Iago makes a good and valid point. Cassio is not as well qualified as Iago. Iagos scorn and bitter contempt for Othello is clear when he refers to Othello as his Moorship (32). This is an invented word, punning on worship. The expression Your Worship is often used in Britain as a title of honor for persons of high standing. Othello is a Moor, a tribe of people in northern Africa (and from the word Moor comes the name Morocco, the country in northwestern Africa). Iago, then, is ridiculing Othello and suggesting that he is not really deserving of honor or respect. Iagos speech then becomes less specific and more general as he talks about the curse of service (34). Since all commoners and even many minor aristocrats are in the service of others, Iagos words have meaning for them. Most people realize that there is truth to Iagos words. Iago asserts that Preferment goes by letter and affection, and not 20

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello by old gradation (35-36). Here, preferment refers to promotion, to moving up on the social scale. The word letter indicates letters of recommendation, and the word affection refers to whether the person who is doing the hiring or promoting likes the applicant or not. Thus, Iago is stating that people who get promoted do so because they have someone famous write them letters of recommendation or because the boss or executive in charge likes them. The promotion has really very little to do with experience or ability (suggested by the word gradation). In both the Renaissance and in more recent times, numerous people have had the misfortune to be passed over for promotion and see someone less qualified get the position that they should have had instead. Thus, many people can relate to Iago and feel sympathy for him. When Roderigo comments that Iago should leave the service, Iago says no. He then comments that there are two types of servants (a servant being anyone who is in the service of others). The first type of servant (44-49) slaves away for his master and barely gets enough food to live on. And when he is too old, his master kicks him out and leaves him with nothing. The second type of servant (49-54), though, really serves himself and merely presents the shows of service on his master. That is, he pretends to be a good servant; but at all times he is really attempting to make money for himself (the expression lining their coats means to hide money 21

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello within the layers of ones clothing). Thus, the second type of servant stays with his master until he gets enough money to leave him. The passage also suggests that this second type of servant is cheating his master in some way or another or stealing from him in order to make the money that he desires. This passage is a classic example of social criticism. Most servants were treated badly by their masters. The fact that some, or perhaps many, servants deliberately set out to cheat their masters is understandable. They had to look out for themselves because their masters clearly would not. Iago clearly places himself in the second category of servants. Not only is he a scoundrel or villain, but he has no hesitation to hide the fact. The reader should keep in mind that what Iago is suggesting is essentially an act of treachery. And one should not forget that Dante considered this the greatest sin of all. In The Inferno the sinners of treachery are placed in the ninth and deepest level of hell. Iagos relationship to Othello is one of master to servant. Nearly everybody during the Middle Ages and most people during the Renaissance considered that relationship to be sacred. Thus, Iagos bold statement would be shocking to many of the theater-goers in Shakespeares day. Yet, at the same time, many of those theater-goers might sympathize with Iago when he utters these memorable lines:


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello But I will not wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at. (64-65) The heart metaphor here means to display openly ones feelings or thoughts. A daw is a scavenger bird, like a crow or raven; and to peck means to chew or tear to pieces. Iago is thus declaring that he will not allow anybody, including his master, to use him up and then spit him out. Iago will not allow himself to be treated badly. And, indeed, many individuals during the Renaissance would also understand Iagos feelings and sympathize with him. Thus, at the beginning of this play, Shakespeare has already presented a complex villain one who both shocks the people in the audience and yet gains their sympathy.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 1: IAGOS FIRST ATTEMPT TO RUIN OTHELLO Iago then advises Roderigo that the best way to proceed, if he wishes to get Desdemona, is to inform Desdemonas father. Roderigo wishes, naturally, to stop the wedding between Othello and Desdemona. Or, if a wedding ceremony has already taken place, to have the wedding annulled (or canceled). And, of course, Iago is hoping that Brabanzio, Desdemonas father, will seek revenge and bring harm to Othello. A daughter was, after all, considered the property of her father at that time in history. Iago and Roderigo then go out on the street in front of Brabanzios house late at night and yell up to him about Desdemonas elopement. At first Brabanzio does not believe them. But after he checks his daughters room, he comes out of his house with servants to find his daughter and Othello. Iago, the reader should note, leaves the scene (after line 160) before Brabanzio can see him. Iago wishes to ruin Othello, but he wishes to be blameless in case the situation does not turn out the way he hopes. Thus, Roderigo will be left alone to receive any criticism or blame that may come. Iago thus uses Roderigo for his own personal gain. The language that Iago and Roderigo use to describe Othello in this scene is worthy of note. Iago shouts to Brabanzio that an old black ram is 24

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello tupping your white ewe (88-89). A ram is associated as being a highly lustful animal, and the word tupping means having sexual intercourse. The word white connotes purity and innocence. Desdemona is thus an innocent white lamb being raped by the lascivious black ram. Of course, the prejudice against black men is also clearly expressed in this line as well. Iago also refers to Othello as a devil (91) and a Barbary horse (113). The word Barbary indicates Arab or foreign origins, but is also related to the word barbaric (savage, primitive, uncivilized). Thus, before Othello even appears on the stage, the audience envisions or imagines a brute, a creature of lust and savagery. And, because of the animal imagery, they may believe that Othello, or any black man, has more in common with animals than he does with white men. Iagos language thus makes use of and contributes to the popular prejudice of the day regarding blacks and Africans.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 2: TWO-FACED IAGO Being two-faced means being hypocritical or deceitful. Iago hates Othello, but he shows a face of friendliness and comradeship to his general. In other words, he shows a false face to Othello. The second scene begins on another street in Venice. Iago is telling Othello about how Roderigo has informed Brabanzio about the elopement. Iago complains that Roderigo has acted dishonorably (line 8). Ironically, Iago is actually revealing to the audience that he himself is dishonorable. Iagos opening lines are especially full of irony. Iago tells Othello that he would readily kill Roderigo except that such an act goes against his conscience (2). Iago claims that even though he killed many enemies during times of war, he cannot kill those who are not his enemies or kill during times of peace. The line is ironically humorous because the audience already knows that Iago appears to have no conscience at all. Even more ironic is Iagos statement regarding his own nature: I lack iniquity, sometime, to do me service (3-4). The word iniquity means evil or wickedness. And, as the audience will soon clearly realize, there are no limits to the wickedness of Iago. What makes the line even more ironic is Iagos addition of the word service. The word serves as a sign (a semiotic device) to have the audience recall Iagos previous comments about service and the two kinds of servants. As he stated 26

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello quite clearly in the first scene, Iago only serves himself. Shakespeare humorously adds to the irony of the scene when, in response to a question by Othello, Iago responds with emphasis by swearing to Janus (line 33). Janus was a Roman god with two faces. This, Iago swears to the idea of being two-faced. In a way, this is like telling Othello that he cannot be trusted. But, unfortunately, Othello misses this clue and trusts Iago far more than he should.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 2: THE PROUD AND NAVE OTHELLO Some critics suggest that Othello is too proud and that hubris (or pride) is his tragic flaw. Certainly, Othello is a proud and noble man; and the opening lines spoken by him (which creates the audiences first impression of him) contribute to this image of a man who may be excessively proud. In regards to his obtaining Desdemona as his wife, Othello tells Iago the following: I fetch my life and being From men of royal siege, and my demerits May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune As this that I have reached. (21-24) The word siege refers to rank or social position. Othello may be said to be boasting of his aristocratic potion. More importantly, the word demerits means deserts (something that he deserves or is worthy of). Othello is thus saying that he deserves to have a wife like Desdemona and that he is more than worthy enough to be her husband. He adds that he has no need to add any other qualifications for his being worthy (suggested by speak unbonneted) to have achieved such a glorious destiny (or proud fate). The word proud indicates Othellos happiness in gaining Desdemona as his wife. But Shakespeare was certainly aware of the impact of this word. The actor portraying Othello should say these words in a proud 28

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello and joyful voice. The audience is meant to get a sense of Othellos pride. But, at the same time, the audience should also sense Othellos jubilation and happiness at being married. His love is stronger than his pride. He tells Iago that he would never give up his freedom (free condition in line 26) for anything, but with one exception (24-28). And that exception is Desdemona. To Othello, Desdemona is worth more than land and sea combined. So, the audience should get a sense of Othellos pride in this passage. But, more importantly, they should also see the intensity of Othellos passion for his new wife. Another aspect of Othellos character should also be noted his naivet. Othello is essentially a good and honest man, but he wrongly assumes that most other men are good and honest as well. And, worst of all, Othello believes Iago to be a good and honest man. Throughout the play Othello refers to Iago as honest Iago. Of course, Iago is not honest at all; but this irony is lost upon Othello. And this error in judgment is the actual fatal flaw of Othello. Fatal flaw, in the true Aristotelian sense, actually refers to a flaw in action (in the judgment or decision) made by the protagonist. Aristotle, in his Poetics, discusses the concept of fatal flaw in his section on plot, and not in his section on character. Thus, a fatal flaw does not refer to a personality trait (as some scholars have mistakenly asserted). Othellos mistake or error is to trust Iago implicitly. Othello never once questions that Iago may be lying. Othello 29

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello never suspects that Iago might be dishonest. And this error in judgment leads to Othellos downfall. A hint of Othellos nave quality appears in his statement to Iago when Iago warns Othello to hide from Brabanzio and his men. Othello refuses to run away and tells Iago, My parts, my title, and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly (31-32). By the word parts, Othello is referring to his goodness, his honesty, and his sense of honor. The words perfect soul indicate that he is a man without sin and without evil intent. Othello is essentially stating that goodness also prevails or honesty always wins. He is saying that innocent men are never wrongly accused. But, of course, Othello is very wrong in believing that.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 2: CYPRUS, SARCASM, AND MAGIC Before Brabanzio comes to accuse Othello of stealing his daughter, Cassio (Othellos new lieutenant) arrives and informs Othello that the Duke of Venice wishes to see him immediately. Venice is in conflict with Turkey over the island of Cyprus. Cyprus has long been an island of dispute and war because of its strategic location in the Mediterranean Sea (south of Turkey). At this point in time, Cyprus is ruled by Venice; but a Turkish fleet or navy is moving toward Cyprus to attack. The Duke of Venice, then, wants Othello to sail to Cyprus with his forces and protect the island from the invaders. When Othello goes inside to tell his wife that he must leave, Iago sarcastically informs Cassio about Othellos relationship with Desdemona. Iago comments, He hath tonight boarded a land-carrack. If it prove lawful prize, hes made forever (50-51). The word carrack refers to a merchant ship, a ship containing items of great value. Iagos metaphor refers to Desdemona. Iago is implying that Desdemona is an object of great value on the land. But Iago is not referring to Desdemonas virtues as a treasure: he is referring to the wealth belonging to her father. Iagos snide comment includes a doubleentendre (a pun with a sexual implication). The word boarded refers literally to going aboard a ship, but the word was also used in the Renaissance to suggest a man having sexual intercourse with a 31

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello woman. When Iago adds the comment about lawful prize, he is questioning whether Othello and Desdemonas marriage is legal or not. But the real insult is with the last three words of the sentence: hes made forever. The word made here means to be financially well off. Othello is then implying that Othello has married Desdemona for financial gain. This line, then, really says more about Iago himself. Iago is the one who looks out only for himself and would not hesitate to marry in order to gain a treasure. Later in the play, Iagos relationship with his own wife, Emilia, is not so good; and a plausible reason for that is that Iago did not marry her out of love. As Othello and Cassio walk to the Dukes palace, they encounter the angry Brabanzio and his men. Brabanzio believes that Othello must have used magic, perhaps a magic potion, to win Desdemona as his wife. In the first scene, Brabanzio mentions magical charms (I, 1: 172); and in this scene Brabanzio also suggests magical powers by the use of the following expressions: enchanted her (I, 2: 64), chains of magic (66), and foul charms (74). Brabanzio is basically accusing Othello of witchcraft, of a type of magic that is associated with evil and the devil. The word foul does indicate evil in this passage. Although Brabanzio had been friends with Othello, his friendship did not remove his essential attitude of prejudice. He refers to Othellos being black (sooty bosom in line 71) as the primary reason why Desdemona would never accept Othello 32

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello under ordinary (non-magical) circumstances. Not surprisingly, Christians of earlier times might readily believe that individuals from pagan lands could be connected to the devil in some way. Barabanzio then decides to go with Othello before the Duke so that he (Brabanzio) can accuse Othello of using dark magic on his daughter.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 3: A ROUND UNVARNISHED TALE The third scene begins with the Duke and the members of his counsel discussing the various messages they have received from Cyprus. The messages disagree about the number of Turkish ships on the water and whether the ships are actually sailing for Cyprus or for some other land. The Duke knows, however, just how much the Turks want Cyprus; and he knows that he needs to take immediate action. Before the Duke can finish telling Othello about his mission to Cyprus, Brabanzio interrupts and complains about how his daughter has been stolen. The Duke promises that he will bring full justice against the man who had unlawfully taken Desdemona (65-69). But then Brabanzio tells the Duke that the guilty man is Othello (71). The Duke needs Othellos help urgently to settle the matter in Cyprus, and he is shocked that Othello could be guilty of such a crime. So, he asks Othello to defend himself. Othellos defense is one of the longest speeches in the play. He begins (in line 76) by admitting that he has indeed married Desdemona. He then excuses himself for being rude in his speech (81). He is stating that he is not a very accomplished or polished speaker, that he is not very good at making speeches. Shakespeare, here, is perhaps having a little fun with this ironic line; for what 34

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello follows is an extremely smooth and polished speech. This is not intended to suggest that Othello is a liar. Othello is a man of war, a man of action. He is not a politician or a rhetorician. But Shakespeare is a poet. The speech is beautifully written to suggest or symbolize the beauty of truth. The audience is meant to accept Othellos statement about being a poor speaker as the truth even though his speech indicates otherwise. This is a good example of poetic license (an act of a writer who breaks conventional rules or presents an idea contrary to fact in order to achieve an artistic effect). Shakespeare wants the audience to be moved emotionally by the language in this speech. A rude or plain speech would not have this effect. Othello continues to state that he will relate a round unvarnished tale (line 90 a simple and plain story), but he is interrupted by Brabanzio. Brabanzios interruption, which is full of prejudice, again suggests that Othello used magic to win Desdemona. Brabanzio does not believe there is any other possible explanation: It is a judgement maimed and most imperfect That will confess perfection so could err Against all rules of nature. (99-101) Brabanzio means that only a person who cannot think clearly and rationally would believe that Desdemona (referred to as perfection) could act in such an 35

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello unnatural way without being drugged or charmed by magic. Brabanzio, like most people of his day, believes that a well-raised white woman could never fall in love with a black man. He sees the black man as an entirely different species, and individuals from different species should not mate. Brabanzio is stating that the mixing of black and white people goes against the rules of nature. To him, such mixing is like having a cat mate with a dog. The Duke, however, readily realizes the weakness of Brabanzios logic. Othello then requests that Desdemona should be called forth to speak before the Duke as well. As they wait for Desdemona to arrive, Othello begins his unvarnished tale and his extremely eloquent speech (beginning in line 127). Othello begins by explaining how he became friends with Brabanzio and was often invited to Brabanzios house. There, Othello would relate the story of his life. Being a warrior and a man of action, Othellos life was one full of adventure and excitement. He had traveled in many exotic places and often risked losing his life. In his account, Othello also describes the strange and fantastic people and creatures that he saw: And of the cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads Do grow beneath their shoulders. (142-44)


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello The word anthropophagi is another way of saying cannibal or man-eater. During the Middle Ages several travel books were written (such as Mandevilles Travels), and Shakespeares description comes from such books. Such travel books were often full of exaggeration, and many passages were purely imaginary. The writer might claim to have seen a unicorn or some other fantastic creature. Some of these travel books also contained illustrations. The man whose head grows beneath his shoulders is depicted in one. The drawing shows a man whose face is directly on his chest and who looks like he does not have a head at all. Most people during the Middle Ages and Renaissance did not travel much or at all. Thus, the fantastic and imaginary elements of a travel book were accepted as truth. And such books were also extremely popular. They excited the minds and imaginations of the readers. In the same way, Othellos tale excites and delights Brabanzio. More to the point, the tale also delighted Desdemona. Othello explains that as he told his story to Brabanzio, Desdemona would sometimes stop at the doorway and listen (144-49). But because Desdemona also had household chores to attend to, she could never hear the complete story. So, later, Othello met with Desdemona privately and retold his entire life story to her. Desdemona feels pity for Othello when he tells her of the dangers that he faced 37

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello and the difficulties that he encountered (160). Desdemona is moved emotionally by the tale and falls in love with the teller, and Othello cannot but help return the love to the sweet and emotional girl. This is the only witchcraft I have used. (168) Othello declares that he did use magic to win Desdemona, the magic of love. But he did not use any other kind of magic or potions or charms to win her love.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 3: A DIVIDED DUTY The Duke and other members of his counsel are moved by the speech, but Brabanzio is not convinced. He wants to hear what Desdemona has to say for herself. Desdemona explains that she has a divided duty (180). She respects her father and owes him for raising her, but she also has a duty to serve her husband Othello just as Brabanzios wife had a duty to serve Brabanzio. During the Middle Ages and continuing on into the Renaissance, a daughter was frequently viewed as the property of the father until she was married. And then she was the property of her husband. But (as one can see in Romeo and Juliet), the father had the right to choose a husband for his daughter. Desdemona had not received the permission of Brabanzio to get married, and Brabanzio is extremely angry. Brabanzio, more or less, disowns his daughter. He tells Othello that he can have her even though Brabanzio does not like the situation (191-94). And he tells Desdemona that he is happy that he does not have any other children, for he would never trust any of them. He says that he would hang clogs on them if he did have other children (197). A clog is a block of wood that would be tied to the legs of prisoners so that they could not run away. In other words, Brabanzio is stating that he should have tied up or chained Desdemona so that she would not have been able to run away with Othello. 39

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello

ACT I, 3: IMPARTIAL ADVICE The Duke, well aware of Brabanzios anger and sense of disappointment, attempts to advise Brabanzio. The Duke wants to reconcile Brabanzio to Othello and Desdemona, he wants them to become friendly to one another. And, so, the Duke tries to propose a moral or lesson (sentence in line 198) to be learned from the experience. The reader should also note here that Shakespeare switches poetic styles from blank verse to rhymed couplets (beginning in line 201: ended-depended, takes-makes, thief-grief, and so on). The change draws the audiences attention to a slight digression on the topic of impartial (or objective) advice. The Duke asserts the following: To mourn a mischief that is past and gone Is the next way to draw new mischief on. (203-04) The Duke is advising Brabanzio that there is nothing else he can do about this situation; there is no remedy (201). Therefore, the Duke suggests that Brabanzio should just accept the situation and stop being so angry about it. He adds that being angry will just add to the problem. It will just make it worse. The Duke then describes the problem and solution in more philosophical terms. He notes that 40

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello the only way to overcome the problems brought on by destiny or fate (fortune in line 205) is through the use of Patience. The Duke uses personification here for both Fortune and Patience. The Duke is telling Brabanzio to be calm or just smile in the face of his problem. That is the way to defeat the injuries or harms that Fortune brings. In other words, the Duke is telling Brabanzio to just accept the marriage and not be bothered by it. The Duke tells Brabanzio simply to smile in the midst of his trouble. Brabanzio, though, does not find the Dukes advice useful at all. And, to show the Duke how ridiculous the advice is, Brabanzio (in a splendid example of verbal irony) advises the Duke to do the same regarding the Turkish invasion of Cyprus: So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile, We lose it not so long as we can smile. (209-10) The word beguile here means to cheat or steal. Thus, Brabanzio is saying this: So, we should allow the Turks to steal Cyprus from us; as long as we smile, the loss of Cyprus will not matter to us. Brabanzio then proceeds to explain that the objective observer (someone who is not directly involved the situation and who does not feel the emotions that accompany that situation) can easily accept such sayings or morals and believe that they are easy to follow. But when a person is in the same situation, he will find that the advice is difficult or 41

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello perhaps even impossible to follow. Brabanzio knows that the Duke would never follow his own advice regarding Cyprus, and he is telling the Duke that he cannot follow the advice regarding the marriage for the same reason. This passage is another fine example of Shakespeare illustrating the Reason vs. Emotion Conflict. The objective or detached person may think or know that his advice is reasonable, but one cannot always follow reasonable advice when the emotions are involved. Brabanzio is experiencing many emotions: anger, disappointment, sadness, loss. He cannot simply smile away those emotions. Nor could the Duke smile away similar emotions if he should lose Cyprus. Brabanzio sums up his argument with the following:
But words are words. I never yet did hear That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear. (217-18)

In this line, the word pierced means cured (a boil or cyst might be cured by lancing it, by piercing it with a needle). Thus, Brabanzio is saying that a broken heart cannot be cured by words or that sorrow cannot be relieved by words. Shakespeare, perhaps the greatest poet of all time, certainly understood the power of words. But even more so, Shakespeare understood the power of emotions. Time and again, 42

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Shakespeare expresses the belief that emotions are more powerful than reason.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 3: A FATAL ERROR REGARDING DESDEMONA Othello, who is on his honeymoon, must give up his personal desires for business. Othello must immediately set sail for Cyprus. So, Othello asks the Duke to take care of his wife while he is away (line 234). Othello knows that Desdemona cannot stay with her father, and they do not yet have a house to live in. Before the Duke responds, Desdemona makes a request. She asks the Duke if she can go with Othello to Cyprus (line 258). Othello also thinks this is a good idea. Obviously, under normal conditions, a wife would never go with her husband to a place of war. The wife would be a distraction to her husband, and she could get harmed. Othello argues that because he is not a young man, his wife will not be a distraction to him. He argues that he is not lustful like a young man and that he can control his emotions: When light-winged toys Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness My speculative and and officed instruments, That my disports corrupt and taint my business, Let housewives make a skillet of my helm. (267-71) Basically, Othello is stating that women can cook his brains in his own helmet if he ever allows sexual desire (wanton dullness) to interrupt or interfere with 44

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello his business. Or, to state it another way, Othello is declaring that he would never allow his emotions to interfere with his business. In this sense, the passage becomes an ironic example of foreshadowing. Othello, at Cyprus, will allow an emotion to interfere with business. But the emotion will not be lust. It will be jealousy. This passage also indicates foolish pride in Othello. He believes that he is superior to his emotions. He believes that his ability to reason is superior to his emotions. Perhaps in the past Othello always had been master of his emotions. But there is a first time for everything. When an emotion is extremely powerful, then it can conquer even the strongest of minds and the smartest of men. But because Othello is not aware of this, he makes a fatal error of judgment: he allows Desdemona to go to Cyprus. If Desdemona had been left in Venice, the tragedy that follows would never have occurred.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 3: FALSE FORESHADOWING As Othello is leaving, Brabanzio warns him that he better be careful in regards to Desdemona. Brabanzio tells him, She has deceived her father, and may thee (292). This is a kind of false foreshadowing. Desdemona will not deceive Othello, and Othello at this point trusts her completely. But later that trust will disappear, and Othello will think that Desdemona has deceived him. The line suggests that Desdemona is capable of deception. Yes, Desdemona did deceive her father. But she did so out of love for Othello. Love is a powerful emotion that causes one to act irrationally and unnaturally. And jealousy is also a powerful emotion that produces similar actions.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 3: THE GARDEN METAPHOR Toward the end of the first act, Iago converses again with Roderigo. Roderigo is upset and depressed that nothing has happened to Othello for taking away Desdemona. Roderigos hope of winning Desdemona as his own wife is apparently at an end, and Roderigo feels that there is nothing else left to live for. Roderigo wants to commit suicide (line 304). Iago realizes that he can use Roderigo further for his own purposes, and so Iago convinces Roderigo to stop feeling sorry for himself and take action for his own benefit. Iago asserts that he would rather be a baboon than to be a man who would kill himself because of unrequited love (lines 312-13). On the one hand, Iago does make sense. The unrequited lover does act pathetically. The unrequited lover is often a foolish and ridiculous figure. And, in that sense, he is such a sorry example of humanity that even an unreasonable, wild animal, like a baboon, has a better life. On the other hand, Iago comes across as an individual who has never experienced deep passion and love for anyone else. He does not understand how much a strong and powerful passion can move one to extreme and irrational acts. Through Iago Shakespeare again brings up the conflict of Reason vs. Emotion. And he does so through the use of the garden metaphor. Like many Christian elders believed and taught, Iago believes 47

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello that Reason, the rational mind, is the king over passions and emotions. Iago believes that he is in control of his emotions and that only weak individuals allow their emotions to take control over their bodies. Iago explains it this way: Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners (317-18). The word wills in this case does not imply emotions, but something more along the lines of control (or self-control). Iago is stating that people can control their bodies in exactly the same way a gardener can control a garden. A gardener can decide what herbs or vegetables to plant, and he can decide what weeds or plants to remove from the garden. As long as the gardener tends to his garden and works hard at it (the word industry in line 321 suggests work), the garden can be whatever he wants it to be. The metaphor suggests that an individual can make his body whatever he wants it to be. The person has complete control over what thoughts, what ideas, and what emotions he wants to have. In other words, Iago is suggesting that a person can remove the foolish thoughts and feelings of unrequited love simply by the power of his own mind. Iago, thinking that the metaphor may not be understood by Roderigo, then states the matter rather directly: We have reason to cool our raging motions (325). The word motions means emotions or desires. Shakespeare is showing Iagos viewpoint on the conflict in very clear and precise terms. Of


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello course, Shakespeare did not at all agree with Iago on this topic. Having affected a change in Roderigo, Iago then tells him how to proceed. He recommends that Roderigo follow Othello and Desdemona to Cyprus and see how circumstances might change. Iago suggests (although he does not really believe it) that Othello may get tired of Desdemona and Desdemona may get bored with Othello. Iago suggests that Roderigo may eventually get his chance. In the meantime, Iago repeatedly advises Roderigo to put money in thy purse (lines 333, 335, 336, 338, 340, and so on). The comical exaggeration has a double meaning: (1) Iago is telling Roderigo to save up his money so that he will be ready when Desdemona does become available once again. But (2) Iago is planning to cheat Roderigo out of more money.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT I, 3: IAGOS FIRST SOLILOQUY SPORT AND PROFIT The first act ends with Iagos first soliloquy. He begins by boldly referring to Roderigo as a fool who is only valuable to Iago because Iago is able to cheat him out of large sums of money (line 365). Iago continues to suggest that Roderigo is beneath him, that he is inferior to him. But then Iago adds that Roderigo actually serves two purposes: sport and profit (368). By sport, Iago means entertainment. Iago feels that cheating people and manipulating them is fun. It is a source of pleasure. This is the first deeply insightful comment about Iago. Although he comes up with other reasons for his cruel and vicious actions (such as profit or revenge), the primary reason for his evil actions is entertainment. It is pleasure. This is why so many people find Iago to be so utterly and completely evil. Not only does he hurt others, but he takes enjoyment in hurting them. Destroying people is fun to him. Iago then turns his thoughts to Othello. Iago hates Othello for not giving him the promotion, but Iago realizes that being turned down for promotion is such a petty or small reason for carrying out a cruel vengeance against him. And Iago does want to hurt Othello in an extremely cruel way. Iago then indicates that someone had once suggested to him that Othello had slept with Emilia (Iagos wife). Iago does not really believe this I know not if it be 50

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello true but he believes that this reason will justify the evil actions that he intends to take against Othello (369-72). Iago then begins his plot or scheme against Othello. Iago also wants vengeance against Cassio for becoming lieutenant (the position that Iago feels that he himself deserves). So, he plots an act of double knavery (376). He creates a scheme to harm both Othello and Cassio together. Because Cassio is a handsome man (line 374) and because Othello is a trusting man (lines 380-81), Iago believes that to convince Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona will be an easy task. Iago realizes that someone as simple and trusting as Othello will readily become overwhelmed by emotion. Iago realizes that jealousy will cause Othello to act irrationally and violently. Iago knows more about Othello then Othello does about himself; for Othello mistakenly believes that he is always in control of his emotions. At the end of the speech, Iago himself suggests the connection to pure evil and the devil: Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the worlds light (385-86). The evil idea is likened to a newborn monster that will come out in the world with the help of Iagos evil assistance (hell) and the right amount of time (night). However, the passage could also be interpreted as a metaphor that employs personification. Hell (Iago himself) and Night (the late night hour in which Iago is making his 51

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello plans) are the parents of the evil idea. In this reading, Iago thus symbolizes evil or the devil. But Shakespeare avoids this oversimplification by creating a line that can be interpreted in two different ways.



ACT II, 1: ANTI-FEMINIST LITERATURE The location changes to the island of Cyprus in the second act of the play. A terrible storm is blowing, and the ships of both the Turks and the Venetians are having difficulty. Othellos ship, which led the navy of Venice to Cyprus, moves into the storm first and meets with great difficulty. Thus, a second ship carrying Cassio and a third ship carrying Iago and Desdemona are able to arrive at Cyprus before Othello does. The good news for Othello and Venice is that the storm sinks most of the Turkish ships, and those that remain realize that they are not powerful enough to attack Cyprus. So, they return to Turkey. Thus, Othello and Venice win the battle without even having to fight. The reader should note that this is a good example of Shakespeare bringing in fate as an influence on the events of the play. Fate appears to be favorable to Othello at this point, but actually the easy victory allows unfavorable events to proceed as the story progresses. The reader should also note that the storm is a symbol (much in the same way that a storm is symbolic in Lear). The storm here indicates a change 53

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello that will occur in the personality of Othello. Othellos calm and peaceful personality that he revealed in Venice will soon become troubled and stormy in Cyprus. The scene begins with Montano, the governor of Cyprus, and other gentlemen of that island watching the events at sea. Cassio arrives first (line 43), and shortly afterwards Iago and Desdemona arrive along with Emilia (Iagos wife) and Roderigo (line 83). In this scene the character of Iago reveals his misogyny (hatred of women). This trait is first revealed when the gallant Cassio kisses Emilia to welcome her. Iago, who is not at all jealous, jokingly says to Cassio: Sir, would she give you so much of her lips As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, You would have enough. (103-05) Basically, Iago is saying that Emilia talks too much and scolds him too much. He is implying that Cassio would grow tired of her kisses just as he has grown tired of listening to her. When Emilia objects, Iago continues by making comments about all women in general (indicated by the pronoun you):


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello

You are pictures out of door, Bells in your parlours; wildcats in your kitchens, Saints in your injuries; devils being offended, Players in your housewifery, and hussies in your beds. (112-15)

By pictures, Iago is saying that women, when they are out in public, appear to be sweet and charming. And by bells, he is suggesting that they sound sweet and charming in their homes when they have guests (the parlor is where guests would be entertained). But in the parts of the house where there are no guests (such as the kitchen), women display a completely different and dangerous personality. Iago adds that women also pretend to be innocent (saints); but, when they are angry, they are like devils. Then Iago adds that women are like gamblers (players) when it comes to managing the household affairs. He is suggesting that they foolishly throw away the household money. And, finally, Iago insults women by saying they are like prostitutes when they are in the bedroom. Iago clearly does not have anything nice to say about women, and one can guess what his relationship with his wife might be like. Desdemona thinks that Iago is joking or being playful. She is worried about Othello, who is still on his ship in the stormy sea. So, to take her mind off of her worries, she asks Iago what he has to say about her. Iago is first reluctant to say anything offensive, 55

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello but Desdemona urges him to speak his thoughts. Iago then proceeds to describe four types of women. The first type is the woman who is Beautiful and Smart: If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit, The ones for use, the other useth it. (132-33) The word fair means beautiful. Iago is saying that a woman uses her beauty to attract a man and get him to marry her. She also uses her intelligence for just one purpose: to find a way to trap the man into marriage. The other three types of women are also negatively described like the first:
(1) Beautiful and Smart (fair and wise) (2) Ugly and Smart (black and witty in line 134) (3) Beautiful and Stupid (fair and foolish in line 137) (4) Ugly and Stupid (foul and foolish in line 143) (see above) She uses her intelligence to trick an attractive man. She uses her foolishness to trick some unsuspecting man. She is still smart enough to imitate the actions of smart women in order to trick a man into marriage.

Iago is thus stating that every woman in the world fits into one of these four categories. He is 56

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello stating that all women are basically out to trap a man into marriage. This is anti-feminist literature. But these clever and witty comments also would produce much laughter in the Renaissance audience. And many a man back then might have categorized his own wife in such a way. Desdemona then asks what Iago would have to say about a virtuous woman (147). Iago then adds a fifth category of women, and concludes that she would only be good to suckle fools, and chronicle small beer (162). Iago is suggesting that this fifth type of woman, the virtuous woman, is a fool; and her children will also be fools (suckle means to breastfeed). The word chronicle here means to manage household affairs, and small beer is a cheap beer sold to commoners. Thus, the virtuous woman will foolishly end up as a wife for some poor commoner. Not only does Iago think negatively about women, but he also does not think too highly of virtue either. If Iago were just joking, his words could be taken for that of a witty clown. But as the play continues, the audience discovers that Iago sincerely means what he says. He has no love for either women or virtue.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 1: THE SCHEME DEVELOPS The reader should notice that Iago, when he sees Cassio talking with Desdemona, speaks in an aside (a line revealing his thoughts, not heard by the other characters on stage). Iago notes how Cassio is gallant and courteous and kisses Desdemona in a polite, knightly manner (168-76). This gallantry is observable to everybody, but most people do not think that Cassios actions mean anything serious. However, Iago is clever enough to know that if he plants a seed of suspicion or doubt into someones mind, those innocent actions can then be interpreted in a not-so-innocent way. To test this idea, Iago immediately tells Roderigo that Desdemona is in love with Cassio (line 215). The reader should also note that the dialogue moves from poetry to prose at this point. The prose indicates (1) that the level of conversation is socially lower since Roderigo is of a class lower than that of Iago and (2) that the speech is less elevated because Iago speaks of schemes and tells lies. Iago basically tells Roderigo that Desdemona is a young girl with a healthy sexual appetite and that she will eventually grow tired and bored of Othello. He then adds that Cassio is a charming man who would willingly take advantage of an attractive girl like Desdemona. Roderigo at first doubts Iago, but Iago is able to convince him.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Iago then instructs Roderigo to find an opportunity to quarrel or fight with Cassio. Iago explains that Cassio is hot-tempered and will disgrace himself. And once that happens, Iago will see to it that Cassio loses his position as Othellos lieutenant. Then, as Iago explains, Cassio will be gone and Desdemona will turn her attentions to some other man (meaning Roderigo). Iago is thus setting his scheme in motion, but he still has not figured out all of the details.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 1: IAGOS SECOND SOLILOQUY Iago begins his second soliloquy by suggesting that the lies he told to Roderigo are credible or believable and that Othello is such an innocent and unsuspecting individual that he will also readily believe the lies (lines 273-78). In other words, Iago is convinced that Othello will believe his lies as easily and quickly as Roderigo believed them. The careful reader should also note the pun Iago uses to describe Othello: Iago states that Othello will prove to be a most dear husband to Desdemona (278). The word dear means (1) affectionate. But it also means (2) costly or expensive. In this case, Iago is not talking about money. He is stating that the cost of Othellos love or affection to Desdemona will too great; for, if Iagos scheme works, it will cost Desdemona her life. Even at this early point in his plotting, Iago realizes that the consequences will be most serious and deadly. Iago also reveals the cold and despicable aspect of his personality when he ironically states that he loves Desdemona too (line 278). Iago does not mean he has affection for Desdemona. He loves her because he can use her and manipulate her to bring serious harm to Othello. She is like a tool that he can use in whatever way he wishes and then toss away when he no longer has need for it. Once again, Shakespeare is indirectly bringing in the issue of fate. If Desdemona did not love Othello, Iago would never 60

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello have been able to come up with such an evil scheme against Othello. If Desdemona had not come to Cyprus, Iago would not be able to put his plot in motion. If Othello and Desdemona had been married at a later date, Iago would not be able to accomplish such a great act of evil. Likewise, if Cassio were not such a gallant man, the scheme would not work. But everything has come together in such a way that Iago is able to scheme and plot an act of terrible evil against Othello. Iago is an opportunist, and the opportunity is ripe. An intriguing line that is open to some speculation occurs when Iago states that although he feels no lust (or love or affection) for Desdemona, he is guilty of as great a sin (280). What is that sin? Iago supplies one possibility himself when he adds the word revenge in the next line of his soliloquy. Revenge certainly could be viewed as a sinful act. But since lust is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, another of the seven sins might be what Iago is actually referring to in this line. A good possibility is envy. Iago is certainly envious of Cassio for taking the position of lieutenant away from him. However, since Iagos main attention concerns Othello, perhaps another of the seven might be even more appropriate. Iago is not angry. He is extremely cool and calculating in his thoughts and actions. And Iago is also greedy, but that certainly is not a main concern of this play. But the reader may seriously want to consider the characteristic of pride in Iago. Iago 61

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello clearly states that he is superior to Roderigo, and he also believes himself to be superior to Cassio. Further, Iagos plots and schemes indicate that he believes that he is superior to Othello as well. Iago is certainly cleverer and more worldly-wise than Othello. Finally, Iago even believes himself to be superior to fate, as noted in the discussion of the first act. Iago is clearly a proud individual. Thus, a deconstructive reading of this play might position Iago as the central figure and as a man who falls from greatness because of his pride. Or Iago may also be viewed as a foil to Othello (a foil is a character in literature who functions to provide a contrast to the protagonist). Both Othello and Iago may be viewed as men who fall because of their pride. In his soliloquy Iago again brings up the idea that he suspects Othello of being too friendly with his wife Emilia (lines 282-83), and he adds that maybe Cassio also is being too friendly with Emilia (line 294). But the addition of Cassio to this kind of suspicion reveals that Iago himself does not really believe it. They are more of his lies. He feels the need to justify or rationalize the actions he is about to take. He intends to commit an act of great evil. If he is found guilty, he will need a story or an explanation to tell others. Iagos evil is an act of fraud and treachery. Dante placed sinners of fraud in the eighth level of hell and sinners of treachery in the ninth level of hell. These were the deepest levels and the ones where the 62

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello sinners received the most painful punishments. Iagos act of fraud and treachery becomes all the more serious or grievous because, as he notes, Othello feels love for him (295). Othello treats him kindly and generously. But Iago wants to destroy his mind. Iago wishes to push Othello to the furthest extreme of madness (298). Iago wants to destroy Othellos soul. And this is what makes Iago one of the worst villains and most treacherous characters in literature.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 2: THE HERALDS ANNOUNCEMENT An extremely brief scene occurs where a herald or messenger is announcing to the people of Cyprus that there is to be a celebration, a grand feast and party. In fact, the event will be a double celebration: (1) to celebrate the victory of Venice against the Turks, and (2) to celebrate the wedding of Othello and Desdemona. Everybody in Cyprus will be celebrating, and the celebration will last six hours (from 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM). The events of the third scene (in Act II) will take place between those hours.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 3: DISCRETION The third scene begins sometime around 5:00 PM. The feasting and celebration have begun. Othello, who is anxious to start his honeymoon, places Cassio in charge of keeping order and watching guard over Cyprus. He warns Cassio not to outsport discretion (3). In other words, he is telling Cassio to remain discreet (careful, cautious) throughout the night. He is telling Cassio to remain in control and to keep order. Even though everybody else can get wild and enjoy themselves, those in charge of order and safety must be discreet. Although Cassio agrees with and accepts Othellos command, the words soon become ironic. In very little time, Cassio will lose all control and be the exact opposite of discreet. Cassio has a weakness. He cannot control his liquor: he gets drunk very easily (lines 29-30). Iago learns of this weakness and convinces Cassio to have just one drink to toast the wedding of Othello and Desdemona. Cassio tries to refuse, but Iago will not accept a refusal. Cassio takes the drink, and very quickly becomes quite drunk. And, thus, he loses the ability to remain discreet. As planned earlier, Roderigo takes this opportunity to quarrel with Cassio. This action occurs offstage while Iago is talking with Montano, but quite soon Roderigo comes running across the stage with an angry Cassio chasing him (line 130). 65

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Montano attempts to stop the drunken Cassio, but then wild Cassio starts fighting with Montano. Roderigo uses this moment to exit. The noise of Cassio quarreling with Roderigo and, later, Montano, is quite loud and disturbs the private honeymoon time of Othello. Obviously not pleased at having to leave Desdemona, Othello comes with some guards to stop the fighting.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 3: PASSION AND JUDGMENT As Othello attempts to find out what started all the quarreling, he hears a confused story. Montano does not really know what made Cassio angry, and Cassio is still drunk. The impatient Othello himself starts to become angry that the problem is not cleared up immediately: Now, by heaven, My blood begins my safer guides to rule, And passion, having my best judgement collied, Essays to lead the way. (187-90) Here again Shakespeare is revealing the essential internal conflict of many of his plays: judgment vs. passion or, as usually stated, reason vs. emotion. In this passage, the word blood also refers to emotions and the expression safer guides also means reason. Christian leaders of the Renaissance taught that reason rules over the emotions. With reason, any individual is capable of controlling his emotions. But here Othello (and Shakespeare) is contradicting that teaching. Othello is saying that his blood or emotions (in this case, his anger) are beginning to rule over his reason. He is saying that his passion is in control. This passage is important for two reasons: first, the audience becomes aware that in Cyprus Othello is becoming a different man. In Venice, 67

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Othello was cool and calm and logical. He was a man of reason. But in Cyprus his reason is starting to weaken. Othello could become a man of passion. Second, the passage is also important because it foreshadows Othellos central conflict in the play. An emotion will lead the way and be in complete control over his reason in a very short time. But that emotion will not be anger. It will be jealousy. Iago, in a lengthy passage (lines 203-229), explains to Othello what happened between Cassio, Roderigo, and Montano. Although Iago pretends that he cares for Cassio, his phrasing is careful so that Cassio appears to be extremely guilty. Othello accepts Iagos explanation without hearing any further comments, and he immediately fires (dismisses) Cassio. Cassio is no longer his lieutenant.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 3: REPUTATION Cassio is immediately upset and unhappy about what he did and the results. He realizes that he has done serious harm to his reputation and his sense of honor (lines 246-48). He feels that he has ruined the immortal part of himself. That expression usually refers to his soul, and Cassio is suggesting that reputation is connected to personal honor and virtue. Iago, however, tells Cassio that a loss of reputation is nothing. A serious physical wound to the body would be something to moan about and to complain about. But a wounded reputation can be recovered and completely healed. Theres a double way of interpreting this dialogue, and Shakespeare probably intends both meanings. First, the connection of reputation to honor and virtue is an idea that would be meaningless to Iago because Iago is completely lacking in honor and virtue. Therefore, Iago would view a loss of honor and virtue as unimportant. But, second, the word reputation also suggests fame. And fame, as many writers have expressed (see, for example, Geoffrey Chaucers The House of Fame), is like a shadow. Fame is unsubstantial, meaningless, and often undeserved. Thus, even though Iago is manipulating Cassio to put his own evil scheme in motion, there is truth in Iagos words. That is why Iago is so successful. He uses the truth to accomplish evil. A 69

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello lost reputation can be easily regained. Reputation relies on what others think, and what others think can be quickly changed and altered. The opinion of others can alter with the wind (that is, their opinions can change at any moment).


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT II, 3: IAGOS THIRD SOLILOQUY Iagos third soliloquy (lines 310-36) has two main parts. In the first part (up to line 324), Iago talks about his use of truth to declare himself innocent of being a villain. He proclaims that he merely states what is obvious and true. He is saying that he is innocent of any wrongdoing. He adds that his advice to Cassio (to ask Desdemona to speak to Othello on his behalf) is both logical and sensible. And it is. Desdemona does have control over Othello and is able to convince Othello of just about anything (including hiring Cassio back as his lieutenant). The second part of the soliloquy, though, moves in the completely opposite direction. Here, Iago declares himself as a most deceitful villain. The second part begins with the expression Divinity of hell (line 324). The word divinity refers to theology or religious philosophy. Iago is declaring that his philosophy is the philosophy of the devil. His philosophy is truly evil. Iago explains that the best villain or devil is one who uses fraud, deception, and hypocrisy: When devils will the blackest sins put on, They do suggest at first with heavenly shows. (325-26) One may perhaps think of a successful conman who pretends to be honest and caring and helpful, but who 71

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello then turns out to be a crook who robs someone of all of his money. One might also think of the modern evangelist or minister (or even Chaucers Pardoner) who preaches to people that they should give up their greed and give all of their money to God. Of course, the money actually goes into that ministers pocket for his own personal use. Iago is like the deceptive conman or the fraudulent minister. He uses good and honest words for an evil and dishonest purpose. Cassio, of course, does not know that Iago will be hinting to Othello that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona. So, the more Desdemona asks Othello to help Cassio, the more suspicious and angry Othello will become. And, all during this time, Iago will pretend to be a friend and supporter to both Cassio and Othello.


ACT III, 1: A BRIEF COMIC INTERLUDE The third act begins with a very brief dialogue with a clown (rustic) and musician. This dialogue is provided for the purpose of comic relief. The play is becoming quite serious and intense, and comic relief is necessary to relax the audience. The humor of the scene relies on puns. The clown asks the musician about his wind instruments: (1) this literally refers to musical instruments like the oboe or flute. But (2) the expression also is jokingly used to refer to flatulence (or farting). Ones own bottom or rear end is then said to be a wind instrument. The words tale and tail are also used to add to the pun: the word tail here suggesting again the rear end or bottom of an individual. The clown is thus suggesting that the music being played is like the sound of farting. In the second half of the scene, the main plot continues to develop. Cassio asks Iago for his wifes assistance. Emilia is serving Desdemona, and Cassio wants Emilia to ask Desdemona if he can speak to her. Emilia, who does not know about her husbands evil plot, is happy to help Cassio.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 2: A NECESSARY PLOT ELEMENT The extremely brief second scene serves a necessary plot function: to get Othello out of the main city so that Cassio can have the opportunity to go and talk to Desdemona. Othello, then, is going to another part of Cyprus to see about making certain that the island is secure.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 3: THE SEED OF SUSPICION The third scene begins with a dialogue between Desdemona and Cassio. Desdemona promises Cassio that she will help Cassio and will not stop until Othello agrees to allow Cassio to return as his lieutenant. Just as Desdemona and Cassio are finishing their discussion, Othello, along with Iago, returns to the city (that is, they appear on stage, coming in from the back). Cassio, still embarrassed about the way he had become drunk and disorderly, decides that he should wait until Desdemona talks with Othello before he approaches Othello himself. So, Cassio exits (on the opposite side of the stage) as Othello and Iago converse. As they watch Cassio depart, Iago exclaims, Ha! I like not that (33). And then he adds that he would not believe that Cassio would steal away so guilty-like (38). If Iago had not made these comments, Othello, who usually assumes that people are generally good and honest, would not have thought that anything suspicious was occurring. Cassios departure was not motivated by guilt; rather, it was motivated by embarrassment. But Iagos words suggest that Cassio is acting improperly. Iago wants Othello to think that Cassio is guilty of something. Iago then subtly pretends to act as if he thinks Cassio is innocent. This is the first seed of suspicion. Iago wants Othello to doubt the honesty 75

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello of Cassio. Then, little by little, Iago will make additional comments so that Othellos doubt grows and grows. At this point, though, Iagos scheme is just beginning to develop. And Iagos seed works. When Desdemona asks Othello to speak to Cassio right away, Othello refuses (line 56). He is bothered by Iagos comments and wants time to consider the situation. Desdemona, then, gives a very impassioned speech (lines 61-75) about Cassios friendship with Othello and how Othello owes Cassio this much. Othello, then, agrees to do as Desdemona asks: I will deny thee nothing (84). But, because of his doubt, Othello asks Desdemona if he can speak with Cassio at some later time. Desdemona accepts, and then exits.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 3: THE SEED GROWS Othello is then left alone on the stage with Iago, and Iago continues to add to Othellos doubts about Cassio. Iago is quite crafty and sly. He hesitates as though he is reluctant to say anything negative about Cassio, and he argues that he should keep his thoughts to himself. But this makes Othello all the more curious. So, Othello practically forces Iago to tell him why he suspects Cassio. Iagos craftiness works on Othello exactly as Iago hopes. Othello falls for Iagos con. But all along, Othello never suspects Iago. In fact, Othellos dialogue is also full of irony when he attempts to assess Iagos character. In regards to Iagos hesitant or reluctant speech, Othello states the following: For such things in a false disloyal knave Are tricks of custom, but in a man thats just, Theyre close dilations, working from the heart That passion cannot rule. (126-29) Iago is a false disloyal knave, but Othello never sees it. Othello is basically stating that a dishonest man will be hesitant in his speech to trick or fool others, but an honest man is hesitant because he is sorely troubled in his heart. Othellos comment is correct, but Othello is most incorrect in believing that Iago is an honest man.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Some of the best and most often quoted lines of the play also occur during this dialogue. For example, Iago asserts the following:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, Is the immediate jewel of their souls. Who steals my purse steals trash; tis something, nothing; Twas mine, tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name Robs me of that which not enriches him And makes me poor indeed. (160-66)

In these lines Iago contradicts what he had said earlier. A good name refers to reputation. Here Iago is asserting that reputation is the most important quality a man can have. Once again, the concept of reputation is tied to honor and virtue. Iago has not changed his mind, though. Rather, he is lying. He is telling Othello this as part of his con. Essentially, Iago is saying that he does not wish to dishonor or ruin the good name of Cassio. But, of course, he really does wish to make Cassio look like a villain to Othello. And Iago knows that his hesitation or reluctance to say anything bad about Cassio will make Othello more curious and more anxious to find out what Iago knows (or pretends to know) about Cassio. In these famous lines Iago compares reputation to money, which is indicated by the word purse. Iago is stating that money is really nothing. 78

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello This is the belief that Christians proposed in the Middle Ages (see, for example, the morality play Everyman). A person cannot take his money or goods with him to heaven when he dies. He can only take his soul and its virtue. Thus, Iago states that the only true wealth is a good name (reputation, honor, virtue). The passage is practically comical when one considers that Iago believes the exact opposite. Iago is greedy, as the audience already well knows. Iagos words have exactly the effect that he wants. Othello swears that he will know what Iago is thinking (166). And this leads to Iagos famous definition of jealousy:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy. It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger. But O, what damned minutes tells he oer Who dotes yet doubts, suspects but fondly loves! (169-74)

This personification of jealousy as a monster has become a common idea in western culture. The first sentence suggests that the more jealous a person becomes, the worse he becomes and the more ridiculous he becomes. Jealousy makes a person absurd or crazy. Thus, jealousy makes fun of or ridicules the person who is jealous. In the second sentence, Iago suggests that a cuckold (a man whose wife is having an affair) who knows that his wife is 79

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello unfaithful can only be happy if he does not love his wife. The word wronger here refers to the unfaithful wife. In the last sentence, the word tells means counts (to count) and the word fondly means foolishly. Thus, Iago is declaring that a man who loves his wife but who suspects her of being unfaithful will suffer greatly: each minute will be one of agony for him. Iago knows that Othello does belong to this second category of men: he does love his wife. Iago thus predicts what Othello will soon be experiencing. This is foreshadowing. Iago warns Othello, but Othello will not heed the warning. Jealousy is such a powerful emotion that even if one knows the dangers of it, he still cannot avoid those dangers. One might also pause here to take a moment to think about the character of Iago. Where Othello belongs to the second category of men, Iago belongs to the first. He is not affected or infected by jealousy. Iago, then, does not love his wife.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 3: OTHELLOS IRONIC RESPONSE Othello responds to Iagos comments on jealousy. In a short speech, he declares that he is above the effects of jealousy (lines 180-96). He is basically asserting that he is superior to the emotion of jealousy (another example of Othellos pride). In this speech Othello states that as long as there is no proof regarding the infidelity of Desdemona, he cannot be jealous. He trusts her completely. And if there is definite proof, he still will not become jealous. Rather, he believes, if there is proof, he would push Desdemona out of his life and never think about her again. Othello asserts here a rational response to what one might do concerning an unfaithful wife. But, as Shakespeare illustrates time and again, when a strong and powerful emotion asserts itself, reason disappears. Very soon Iago will cast doubts and suspicions, and very soon Othello will become crazy with jealousy. Iago attacks Othellos rational response in a sly manner. Othello suggests that Desdemona is too virtuous to be capable of deception. But Iago reminds Othello that Desdemona did deceive her father, marrying you (210). So, if Desdemona is capable of deceiving her father, then she must also be capable of deceiving Othello. Again, Iago takes the truth and stretches it or exaggerates it to make it appear different than it really is. And again Iagos


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello words have the desired effect on Othello. Othello immediately begins to doubt the fidelity of his wife.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 3: OTHELLOS SOLILOQUY THE CURSE OF MARRIAGE The character of Othello does have a soliloquy in this play. After Iago has firmly planted suspicion and doubt in his mind, Othello dwells on the possibility of Desdemona being unfaithful (lines 262-83). Othello even begins with a half-truth. He still mistakenly believes that Iago is honest, but Othello is correct in realizing that Iago is exceptionally knowledgeable and insightful about human psychology (human dealings in line 264). The remainder of the speech has two distinct parts: (1) in the first part (lines 264-72), Othello still believes that he is superior to the effects of jealousy. He thinks that the reason for this is perhaps because he is an African (black in line 267). That is, he comes from a harsh climate and the environment forced him to be strong and tough in order to survive. Or, perhaps, a second possible reason is that he is older (vale of years in line 270). Othello is thinking that older people are wiser and better able to control their emotions. Of course, Shakespeare himself knows differently (see, for example, the old speaker Will of the Sonnets). In the first part of this speech, Othello concludes that if Desdemona is guilty of infidelity, he will not feel the pangs of jealousy. Instead, he will hate (loathe in line 272) her and send her away.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello But as soon as Othello does think this, then the emotion of jealousy begins to work its poison on him. The second part of the soliloquy begins with O curse of marriage (272). Othello feels cursed. He feels the pain and torment that jealousy can bring. Othello then uses the metaphor of the toad. He states that he would rather be a toad in a dungeon (or prison) than a cuckold. A toad is considered to be one of the ugliest and most loathsome of creatures. Moreover, prisons at that time left much to be desired: they were filthy and unsanitary. Prisoners would often be locked in small rooms for years without any bathroom facilities. The prison cells would become dirty and disgusting, and the stench would be suffocating. Othello, then, is stating that he would rather be the worst creature in the worst place in the world than to be a cuckold. Othello concludes in his soliloquy that to be a cuckold is the fate of aristocrats (great ones, as opposed to commoners or base ones: lines 277-78). All noble men suffer from this plague (277). The concluding remark is another example of antifeminist literature. Othello is taking a single instance of infidelity and applying it as a general statement about life and as a criticism against all women. And, quite ironically, this one instance of infidelity does not even exist. Desdemona is not being unfaithful. Othello, now, is no longer thinking rationally.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 3: THE PLOT THICKENS At this point in the play Othello is almost completely convinced that Desdemona is unfaithful. He does not want to believe it, but the emotion of jealousy is so strong that he cannot think sensibly about the situation. When Desdemona does approach him (line 283), Othello is hot and feverish. He also complains of a pain on his forehead: from invisible cuckold horns (according to medieval superstition, a cuckold would grow horns on his head). Desdemona tries to wipe Othellos sweaty forehead with a handkerchief (or napkin), but he pushes the napkin aside and it drops to the floor. This napkin is a special one, embroidered in a fancy and delicate manner. Othello gave this as a gift to Desdemona, and it plays a significant role in the plot. Emilia picks up the napkin and gives it to her husband (line 320). Iago intends to take the napkin and place it in Cassios room. The napkin will then become the evidence, or the proof, that Iago will present to Othello. And the irrational Othello will believe that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona. Othello appears a few moments later, and his emotions are already starting to drive him crazy. He cannot sleep (lines 334-37), and he becomes irrationally angry at Iago. Othello realizes now that knowledge of his wifes infidelity can make him irrational (lines 343-38). Moreover, Othello cannot 85

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello concentrate on or even think about his work. In an impassioned speech (lines 350-62), Othello indicates that he is a ruined man. His present condition makes him unfit to be a general. All he can think about is Desdemona. Othellos confused mind is reflected in his words to Iago: I think my wife is honest, and think she is not. I think thou art just, and think thou art not. (389-90) But Othello still demands proof. So, Iago fashions another lie. Iago, who shares the officers quarters (their room in Cyprus) with Cassio, tells Othello that Cassio talks in his sleep (lines 420-30). Iago then claims that, in his sleep, Cassio talked about kissing Desdemona and having intercourse with her. Then, Iago mentions the napkin (handkerchief in line 439). This is enough evidence to convince Othello. He begins to talk about getting vengeance (line 451). But Iago wants to make sure that Othello is convinced, and he thinks that Othello may change his mind (455). However, Othello is so enraged at this point that that he cannot think about anything else except taking some kind of action against Desdemona and Cassio. To prove that he will not change his mind, Othello kneels down (that is, he gets down on his knees as if he is praying) and makes a vow or oath to 86

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello enact a full and complete revenge (lines 456-65). Iago then kneels down as well and vows to serve Othello in this task. Othello then commands Iago to kill Cassio at some time during the next three days (line 475-76). Iago accepts. And Othello now makes Iago his lieutenant (line 481). This kneeling scene forms a dialogic relationship with the second scene in the fourth act [this relationship will be discussed later in a section on Act IV, Scene 2].


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT III, 4: THE MAGICAL HANDKERCHIEF In the fourth scene Desdemona tells Emilia that she does not know what is troubling Othello, but she firmly believes that he is incapable of jealousy (lines 27-29; another example of verbal irony). Othello appears, and Desdemona brings up the matter of rehiring Cassio. Othello responds by saying that his eyes are watering; and, so, he asks her for her handkerchief. When she offers Othello a plain handkerchief, he refuses it and asks instead for the special embroidered napkin that he had given her. Desdemona does not know where she had lost it, and she responds that she does not have it. Othello then launches into a speech about how the napkin has magical properties (lines 53-73). The napkin, according to Othello, was made by a sibyl (spiritualist or witch) who was 200 years old. An Egyptian sorceress gave the napkin to Othellos father. The sorceress told him that as long as his wife kept possession of the napkin, he would love her fully and completely. But if his wife lost the napkin or gave it away, he would stop loving her and seek other women. Othello tells Desdemona that the same magic will work in regards to their relationship. If she loses the napkin, he will stop loving her. There are two possible ways to regard the magic of the napkin. (1) Othello is making the story up to test his wife. Or, more likely, (2) Othello really believes what he says about the napkin. People 88

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were extremely superstitious and believed in witchcraft (even King James I believed in the magic of witches). And magical tales of the Near East (or Arabian countries) were well known. In such tales magical objects appear frequently: flying carpets, invisibility rings, Aladdins lamp with a genie inside. Most of the people sitting in the theater when this play was first performed most likely fully accepted and believed in the idea of a magical napkin. Desdemona, of course, becomes frantic when she hears this news about the handkerchief. She does not know where she lost it, and she attempts to get Othellos mind off of the napkin by talking about Cassio. This, of course, is the wrong topic to bring up. Othello becomes infuriated. He then swears and exits (line 95). Desdemona still has absolutely no idea why Othello is so angry and acting so strangely. She incorrectly guesses that Othello has some problem with his work that hath puddled his clear spirit (139). She believes that some affair of business is troubling him. Emilia wonders whether jealousy has infected Othello (line 152). But Desdemona does not believe that such is possible. The fourth scene ends with a conversation between Cassio and Bianca. Bianca is Cassios mistress. He has a relationship with her, but Cassio does not intend to marry her. Cassio shows Bianca the handkerchief that he found (which is the napkin 89

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello that belongs to Desdemona). Cassio realizes that the owner of such a beautiful item will want it back. So, he asks Bianca to try and make a copy of it. And Bianca agrees. Thus, the audience now knows that Cassio has the napkin in his possession. And having it in his possession can only cause him trouble.


ACT IV, 1: THE TRANCE The fourth act begins with a conversation between Iago and Othello. The audience finds them in the middle of a conversation in which they are discussing the possible affair between Cassio and Desdemona. Iago uses a metaphor of a couple in bed together naked, but not having sex (lines 3-4). The metaphor suggests that Desdemona and Cassio may not yet have had sexual relations, but they appear to be very close to doing so. In this metaphor Iago states that lying together but not having sex is harmless. Iago is, of course, being quite crafty: he is planting an image of Cassio and Desdemona lying together naked. And such an image is quite upsetting to Othello. Othello describes Iagos image as hypocrisy against the devil (6). Othello means that the devil himself would view such a naked man and woman in bed together as sinners whether they committed the sexual act or not. In other words, Othello is stating his own belief that Desdemona is guilty of having an affair even if she has not yet had sex with Cassio. Just the intention or desire to have sex makes her guilty. Referring back to the metaphorical couple, Othello adds that they tempt heaven (8). Othello


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello suggests that possibly even God would find such an act to be sinful. Iago now subtly reminds Othello about the handkerchief (line 10). This is the proof or evidence that convinces Othello about Desdemonas infidelity. Being reminded of it, right after imagining Desdemona lying naked with Cassio, disturbs and upsets Othello even more. This is an intensely emotional scene. The actor playing Othello must show the anger and hurt growing inside him. Perhaps his body would quiver, and his voice would waver and rise in pitch and volume. Iago (again in his subtle manner to anger and madden Othello) tells Othello that a person who receives a gift (like a handkerchief) has the right to give it away. But Othello responds that such a person does not have the right to give away her honor (line 14). Iago repeats his own belief that honor is meaningless: They have it very oft that have it not (16). Iago means that many people who are believed to be honorable are actually quite dishonorable. Iago then steers Othellos thoughts back onto the handkerchief. Iago can visibly see the effect of his words on Othello. Iago knows how Othello will think concerning the handkerchief. The handkerchief symbolizes Desdemonas honor. So, in Othellos mind, when Desdemona gives the handkerchief away, she is also giving her honor away. Othello no longer thinks that Desdemona is honorable. Othello is on the edge. He is emotionally 92

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello unstable. And now he is ready for Iago to push him off the edge. And Iago does so. Iago tells Othello that Cassio told him that he is having sex with Desdemona (line 33). The image that forms in his mind is too hard for Othello to bear. He is driven over the edge. The thought drives him crazy. The reader should note how Othellos dialogue has suddenly reverted to prose (lines 34-41). And Othellos own words become nearly incomprehensible. He is picturing the affair in his mind, and the thought is too hard for him to take. So, Othello falls into a trance. He can no longer connect with reality. He can no longer see or hear what is happening around him. He is locked in his own wild mind. Othello, at least for the moment, has gone mad.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT IV, 1: EAVESDROPPING Iagos plan is working just as he had hoped, but he is not finished yet. Othello awakens quickly from his trance, and this perhaps suggests that he has not completely lost all of his mental abilities. Iago realizes that Othello still needs to be pushed or manipulated further so that he will not change his mind about believing that Desdemona is unfaithful. When Othello awakens from his trance, he puts his hand on his head. Iago asks him, Have you not hurt your head? (56). This line has a literal meaning, but also a symbolic one. According to medieval superstition, a cuckold (a man whose wife is having an affair) grows horns upon his forehead. Iago indirectly is calling Othello a cuckold. And, in Shakespeares day, a cuckold is also a fool. Othello still wants direct and substantial proof that Desdemona is having an affair. Iago tells Othello that he can get such proof directly from Cassios own lips. Iago instructs Othello to hide behind a wall or some other object and secretly listen while he talks to Cassio. Othello does as Iago asks. Othello eavesdrops on the conversation that follows (lines 102-62). Iago, of course, knows that Cassio is not having an affair with Desdemona. But Iago also knows that Cassio is having a relationship with a commoner named Bianca. Cassio does not view this relationship seriously. Bianca is someone he likes to 94

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello have fun with, but he certainly has no intention to marry her. Cassio has jokingly talked about Bianca to Iago in the past (lines 96-97). Iagos intention is to get Cassio to speak jokingly of Bianca again, but to make Othello (who is hiding at a little distance away) think that Cassio is talking about Desdemona. The conversation works because Iago, when he mentions Biancas name, says it in a whisper so that Othello does not hear it. Out loud, so Othello can hear, Iago tells Cassio to ply Desdemona well and you are sure ont (104). The word ply here means to petition or ask. Iago is telling Cassio to keep asking Desdemona for assistance in order for him to get back his job as lieutenant. Then, softly, in a whisper, Iago adds, Now, if this suit lay in Biancas power, how quickly you should speed (105-06). The word speed means to be successful. Iago is saying that Cassios suit or request to get his job back would be easy and successful if he were asking Bianca instead of Desdemona. Bianca would do anything for Cassio because she is hopelessly and foolishly in love with him. What is important here is that Othello does not hear these two lines. So, when Cassio starts laughing about Bianca, Othello believes that he is laughing about Desdemona. And, as Cassio continues to joke about Bianca, Othello comes to believe the worst about Cassio. Othello believes that Cassio is a coldhearted lover who is just having a casual sexual relationship with Desdemona and then intends to abandon her. 95

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello The case against Cassio looks even worse when Bianca appears and hands the handkerchief back to Cassio (lines 140-50). Bianca is angry that Cassio asked her to make a copy of the embroidered handkerchief. She thinks that the handkerchief is a love token that some other woman gave to Cassio. Bianca is jealous, and her words convey the impression that Cassio is a cold and heartless lover who chases after many women. Othello is now convinced. After Cassio exits, Othello asks, How shall I murder him, Iago? (163). Othello wants revenge.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT IV, 1: DO IT NOT WITH POISON After speaking with Iago for a short while, Othello is also convinced that he must take out his revenge on Desdemona. And, so, he immediately decides to kill her with the use of poison. Iago, however, tells him not to use poison. Instead, he should strangle her in her bed (197). Because the bed is where she supposedly committed her infidelity, the bed should also be the place where she is punished. Othello likes the idea and says the justice of it pleases him (199). But Iago actually has a much different reason for wanting Othello to strangle or choke Desdemona to death. Poison might not work; a doctor might be able to save her in time. Or if she does die, Othello could always say she died of natural causes. Or perhaps the poisoning might be blamed on somebody else. In Iagos mind, too many things could go wrong if poison is used. But if Othello strangles her, there is little chance that anything could go wrong. And, more importantly, Othellos act will look like that of a madman. Iagos goal is to ruin Othello entirely. If people believe Othello is mad, that will be his downfall. Toward the end of the scene, a messenger named Lodovico arrives. He has just come from Venice and he is carrying an important letter for Othello. The Duke is immediately ordering Othello to return to Venice for important business, and Lieutenant Cassio is to take command of Cyprus 97

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello while Othello is away (lines 228-29). The Duke, of course, does not know that Othello has fired Cassio. And Othello, who is still quite angry, upset, and irrational, is not pleased at all about the news. When Lodovico tells Desdemona that Cassio is to take control of Cyprus, Desdemona says she is happy about this news (line 230). She is happy that the problem between her husband and Cassio will finally be over. Othello, though, interprets her line differently. He is probably thinking that she will be happy to be alone with Cassio while he is away. Thus, he thinks that Desdemona is mad to announce such happiness before him (line 233). So, he hits her. Desdemona is stunned, and Lodovico can barely believe what he has just seen. After Othello exits, Iago speaks with Lodovico. Iago hints that Othello is completely mad. And, later, after Othello strangles Desdemona to death, Lodovico will not need any further convincing. He will believe that Othello is truly mad.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT IV, 2: WHERE I HAVE GARNERED UP MY HEART In the second scene Othello is still overly emotional and irrational. But he is also still fully convinced that his wife is having an affair with Cassio. And he still plans to strangle her. But, as Christian tradition dictates, the condemned man (or, in this case, woman) has the opportunity to confess his sins before being executed. Usually, a priest is called to hear the confession of the man who is about to be executed. In this play, however, Othello wants Desdemona to confess to him. He tells her she will be double-damned if she does not admit to having an affair (line 39). That is, she will be committing two sins: (1) adultery, and (2) dishonesty, which is a type of fraud. Othello is implying that by not confessing, she will be twice as sure to end up in hell. But Desdemona is innocent. She has no sin to confess. And so she tells Othello this, but he does not believe her. And believing her to be both a liar and an adulterer is too much for him to bear. For Othello, Desdemona is everything. She is his life. As Othello states, Desdemona is where I have garnered up my heart (59). By killing Desdemona, Othello will also be destroying himself. To add to the emotional intensity of this scene, Shakespeare then inserts an instance of dramatic irony at this point. Despite Desdemonas tearful pleas regarding her innocence, Othello will not 99

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello believe her. He leaves, and Desdemona is worried and upset. Not knowing what else to do, she asks Emilia to bring her husband to her. Of course, Iago is actually the last person she should talk to. The irony of the scene intensifies when Emilia correctly guesses that some terrible person, some scoundrel, must have been telling lies to Othello (lines 134-37). And then Emilia adds that such a scoundrel should be whipped and punished most severely (lines 140-48). But, of course, at this point Emilia does not realize that the scoundrel she is talking about is her very own husband.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT IV, 2: KNEELING AND THE DIALOGIC RELATIONSHIP
ACT III, 3 Othello & Iago kneel lines 463, 465 Vow for Vengeance 462 Ever-burning lights 466 Neer ebb to humble love 461 Wit, hands, heart 469 ACT IV, 2 Desdemona kneels 155 Vow of Innocence 15665 Light of heaven 154 Ever .. love him dearly 162 Mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense -- 158

In the second scene of Act IV, Desdemona kneels down before Iago and Emilia and declares her innocence. The act of kneeling (getting down on the knees to pray) reminds the audience of a similar action in the third act. Shakespeare uses the action of kneeling as a sign (semiotics) to remind the audience of that scene. The two scenes form a dialogic relationship. The prefix dia means across, and the root logic here indicates meaning or sense. Thus, the meaning or sense of one scene carries back or across to the other scene. The audience members will (at least subconsciously) compare and contrast the two scenes. The language of the two scenes can also serve as signs to connect them. The word light, for example, connects the two scenes. Thus, the word light is also a sign. Othello swears to the ever101

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello burning lights of the sky. He is swearing to the stars and planets. In a sense, then, he is swearing to the pagan gods (like Saturn and Jupiter). But Desdemona is swearing to the light of heaven. She is swearing to the Christian God. Othello makes a vow, but it is an evil one, fed by lies and with a promise of future violence. The words concerning love, (ever or never) also mark the contrast. There is no love in Othellos vow, but there is nothing but love in Desdemonas vow. The dialogic relationship of the two scenes subtly underscores the dramatic tension in the play. Shakespeare cleverly positions these two scenes closely together for an ironic contrast. Everything is wrong about what Othello thinks and intends to do. Yet everything about Desdemona is good and innocent. The vow to supernatural forces, though, may get the audience thinking about the role of fate and God. The audience may and, perhaps, should wonder why fate seems to be on the side of Iago and evil. Fate is decidedly against Othello and Desdemona. Goodness will not triumph over evil in this play.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT IV, 2: FOPPED IN IT The end of the second scene contains yet another dialogue between Iago and Roderigo. Once again, the reader should note the use of prose in this scene. The scene is full of scheming and lying, so the use of prose is appropriate. But having Iago sink to prose may also indicate the lowliness of his position because of his schemes and plots. Iago is a scoundrel. Regarding the trick that Iago has been playing upon him, Roderigo realizes that he has been fopped in it (197). This means that Roderigo realizes he has been a fool. Roderigo had given Iago several valuable jewels that Iago claims he had then passed on to Desdemona (line 190). But now Roderigo believes that Iago has kept the jewels for himself. Roderigo tells Iago that he will go directly to Desdemona himself and ask her to return the jewels. If she does not have the jewels, then Roderigo will get satisfaction or revenge upon Iago (line 202). Once again Iago gets out of this difficulty by twisting the truth to serve his own purposes. He tells Roderigo that Roderigo will be able to have Desdemona the very next night if he will accomplish one brave act. Using the truth, Iago tells him how Othello is commanded to leave Cyprus and how Cassio is to rule in his place. He adds that Desdemona will be going with Othello. Thus, Roderigos hopes to be with Desdemona will be 103

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello crushed unless Othello is forced to stay in Cyprus. And that will happen, Iago tells Roderigo, if Cassio is removed from Cyprus. Furthermore, Iago adds that Roderigo can remove Cassio by knocking out his brains (230). The scene ends with Roderigo only partially convinced, but he exits with Iago so that Iago can explain why this will help him win Desdemona. And, as later events reveal, Iago does convince Roderigo to attempt killing Cassio. Iago has lied to and manipulated Roderigo to get out of a difficult situation. Of course, Iago now realizes that he must take action; but he is hoping that Cassio might accomplish that action for him. When Roderigo attacks Cassio, the possibility exists that Cassio could end up killing Roderigo. Then Iagos problem is over. But if Roderigo kills Cassio instead, Iago will still be pleased. His revenge against Cassio will be accomplished, and Othello will have to stay in Cyprus (where Iago can continue to manipulate him). Also, Iago worries that Othello might tell Cassio about the lies that Iago has spoken against Cassio. Cassio would then want vengeance against Iago. More importantly, Iago has no intention of allowing Roderigo to survive. Iago tells Roderigo that he (Iago) will be near, to second your attempt (23637). He is telling Roderigo that he will help him. But that is not true. If Roderigo kills Cassio, then Iago will kill Roderigo. And Iago can tell Othello that he killed Roderigo in his attempt to arrest the murderer of Cassio. So, one way or another, 104

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Roderigo must die. Iago cannot allow him to speak with Desdemona.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT IV, 3: FOR ALL THE WORLD There is a song in the third scene. But it is a sad and ironic song. The song does not lighten the mood or ease the tension of the play. Desdemona sings this song about a woman whose lover was mad and abandoned her (lines 26-27). The song, then, parallels Desdemonas very own situation. Throughout the song is the repetition of the word willow. The willow tree was a standard symbol of disappointed love during the Renaissance. After the song the innocent Desdemona, who would never dream of being unfaithful to her husband, asks Emilia if she believes that there really are such cruel women who would be untrue to their husbands. The more experienced Emilia tells her that there are such women; she adds that she herself would be untrue for all the world (62). In other words, she would be unfaithful if the reward were large enough. Emilia explains, Who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory fort (73-75). Emilia is stating that if she could make herself and her husband wealthy enough to live like a king and a queen, the act of committing one sin, the sin of adultery, would be worth it. Emilia does not think adultery is a serious sin. She believes she might go to purgatory for it, but not hell. According to early Christian belief, purgatory is a middle ground between heaven and hell in the afterlife. Sinners who are not really 106

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello evil people are placed there to atone for their sins (or to be punished for their sins) for a hundred years or maybe a thousand years before they are finally able to go to heaven. Emilia disagrees with the standard Christian beliefs. According to Christianity, adultery is a mortal sin. According to the Ten Commandments (the laws of God that were given to Moses and that form the foundation of Christianity), adultery is forbidden. So, Christian leaders would say that adulterers will end up in hell. But Emilia is not even certain that adultery is such a serious sin that she would even end up in purgatory. She thinks she might still be able to get into heaven even if she does commit this sin. Emilias assertion here suggests an interesting view of Renaissance society. Emilia was certainly not the only one to reinterpret Christian thinking to suit her own personal beliefs. Such thinking may have been quite common. In a lengthy speech, Emilia defends her position (lines 82-101). This speech is a splendid example of pro-feminist literature and thus provides a first-rate contrast to her husband Iagos anti-feminist commentary. Emilia argues that if husbands can frequently commit adultery without much criticism as to it being immoral or sinful, then such action by wives should not be considered to be so terrible either. Women, Emilia declares, have the same emotions and desires as do men. She adds, The ills we do, their ills instruct us so (101). She is saying that the wives are 107

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello committing this sin because their husbands do. Emilia is arguing that women should be treated and judged equally to men. But, moreover, Emilia may be revealing information about herself and her own relationship with Iago.


ACT V, 1: SMOOTH SAILING FOR IAGO As the fifth act begins, fate or destiny still appears to favor Iago. Roderigo attacks Cassio as Iago had urged him to do. Roderigo is sorely wounded, and in the dark night Iago sneaks up behind Cassio and stabs him in the leg. Cassio shouts out in pain, and Othello arrives on the scene. But Othello is so consumed, or maddened, by his thoughts of Desdemona having an affair, that he ignores Cassio entirely and exits. Two other men (Graziano and Lodovico) arrive, so Iago reveals himself and pretends that he has just arrived in response to the yelling of Cassio. While Graziano and Lodovico are on one side of the stage, Iago comes upon the wounded Roderigo and stabs him to death (line 63). Iago then pretends to be innocent in the whole matter. In addition, when Bianca arrives on the scene, Iago tries to place blame on her. He, of course, does not want anybody to suspect him. Even Emilia, who also arrives on the scene, believes that Bianca is guilty in some way. The reader should see this scene as an example of social commentary as well. Bianca is in a lower social class or position than Iago and Emilia. Thus, she is an easy target for Iago. In any conflict or dispute where one party is socially superior to the 109

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello other, the person with higher social standing always had the advantage. The courts and law-keepers always maintained a bias against the lower classes.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT V, 2: IT IS THE CAUSE The bedroom scene, the final scene of the play, presents one of the most intense and dramatic moments in literature. Othello has come to murder Desdemona, to smother her in her bed. Because the audience knows that Desdemona is innocent and that Othello has been fooled by Iago, the horror of the scene is increased and fills the audience with anxiety. The audience is shocked and dismayed even though they know that Othello intends to kill his wife. The members of the audience may even want to warn Othello or stop him. The suspense is astonishing. Very few scenes in drama reach the emotional intensity of this one. When Othello first enters the bedchamber, Desdemona is asleep. Othello is somewhat hesitant to carry out the murder, and he presents a speech in which he convinces himself to do the dreaded deed. The speech begins with the following lines: It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars. (1-2) Some critics suggest that the word cause is meant in the sense of cause of justice. Othello does think that he is acting justly. But a simpler interpretation might work even better here. The word cause also can mean reason, and the pronoun it refers to 111

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello infidelity. Thus, the line indicates that Desdemonas infidelity is the reason why Othello intends to kill her. That the word it refers to infidelity is made clear in the second line. Infidelity is a serious sin that is in direct contrast to chastity, and infidelity is a word that Othello does not wish to say aloud. But Othello is attempting to justify his actions, to explain his reason for murdering Desdemona. In his speech Othello also mentions two kinds of light: Put out the light, and then put out the light (7). The first light refers to a candle or lamp that is burning next to Desdemonas bed. But the second light metaphorically refers to the light of Desdemonas life. It is referring to her life energy. Othello stops to think about his actions. If he puts out the light of a candle (referred to as flaming minister in line 8), he can easily relight that candle. But if he puts out the light of Desdemonas life, he can never relight that one. Only a god, such as the Greek creation god Prometheus (alluded to in line 12), has that kind of ability. Othello stares upon Desdemona and views her as one of Natures most excellent creations (line 11). And he realizes that he is about to destroy that creation. This is not something that he can do easily. Othello also uses a second metaphor to describe Desdemona and his intended action. Othello compares Desdemona to a beautiful and delicate rose (line 13). Killing Desdemona is like plucking the


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello rose from the bush. The rose will wither and die. Its beauty will be gone forever.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT V, 2: TWO KINDS OF MERCY Desdemona awakens, and Othello asks her if she has prayed that night (line 26). Although Othello intends to kill Desdemona, he does not want to kill her soul. That is, he does not want her soul to go to hell. If she has prayed and confessed her sin to God, then she can still enter heaven. But if she dies without confessing her sin, her soul will end up in hell. Othello, despite his anger and madness, does not wish that upon Desdemona. When Desdemona realizes that Othello plans to kill her, she asks heaven to have mercy on her (lines 35-36). Othello appears to agree with her because he responds with amen (36). The word amen is traditionally used in Christianity at the end of a prayer. The word suggests approval or agreement. But Desdemona and Othello are expressing two entirely different views with the word mercy. Desdemona is expressing her desire for God in Heaven to restore Othello to rational thinking so that he will not physically kill her. But Othello is suggesting that he hopes God will have mercy on her soul and allow it to enter Heaven. When Desdemona continues to tell Othello that she is innocent, Othello becomes angry and completely irrational. He has become so completely convinced by Iago, by Iagos his false evidence, that he believes that Desdemona is not only unfaithful, but a liar as well. And, so, he no longer offers 114

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Desdemona the opportunity to pray and confess. Rather, he smothers her with a pillow (line 92). This is the climax of the play. Desdemona is not quite dead at this point, but she is dying.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT V, 2: WHO CAN CONTROL HIS FATE? The rest of the scene, then, moves rather quickly. Emilia arrives and tells Othello of Roderigos attack on Cassio. Emilia then hears a muffled cry and realizes that Desdemona is dying. Emilia listens to Desdemonas dying words and then confronts Othello. Othello explains that her own husband, Iago, was the one who brought proof of Desdemonas infidelity (line 148). Emilia is stunned by this information, but a few moments later she screams for help. Montano and Graziano, along with Iago, enter the bedchamber. Emilia then confronts Iago before everyone about his actions. Despite Iagos warnings and threats to Emilia, she explains how Cassio received the handkerchief directly from Iago himself (lines 237-38). This is the point of recognition (or epiphany) for Othello. He now realizes that he has been tricked and fooled by Iago (lines 241-42). Othello rushes after Iago, but Montano takes Othellos sword before Othello can reach Iago. However, Iago, who is desperate, angrily stabs his wife. Emilia, before she dies, asks to be placed by Desdemonas side. Iago rushes out of the room, but Montano and others chase after him. Graziano attempts to keep Othello prisoner in the bedchamber, but Othello pulls out a knife. However, Othello has no desire to fight, or to live, any longer. He asks, Who can control his fate? 116

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello (272). As Shakespeare reveals in this play, no one can. Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia certainly could not control their destinies. And, more ironically, even Iago, who thought he was master of his fate, discovers that even he cannot control his own ultimate destiny. For once, Iagos scheme fails him. Fate is a powerful force that even the cleverest of men cannot change or alter. Montano and others bring the captured Iago back into the bedchamber. Othello rushes at Iago; and, before the guards can remove his weapon, Othello stabs Iago. But the wound is not a mortal one, and Iago will live only to be tortured and imprisoned later. There is a second instance of Iagos scheming not turning out as planned. Although Iago killed Roderigo, Iago did not know that Roderigo had written two letters: one of them explains how Roderigo was asked to ambush and kill Cassio (lines 317-18) and the other was a letter that Roderigo was going to send to Iago to express his anger and discontentment (lines 322-24). Thus, even though he is dead, Roderigo is able to bear witness of Iagos treachery. Iago could not control his wife, and he could not control Roderigo. Only the force of fate could.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello ACT V, 2: OTHELLOS FINAL WORDS Before the play ends, Othello makes one final speech. He asks the officers from Venice to relate his story to the Duke and others when they return home. Othello requests that when they explain what happened, they should speak objectively and directly, without bias (lines 351-52). Othello then asks them to describe himself as someone who loved not wisely but too well (353). Othello realizes that he has acted foolishly but also that his foolish behavior was partially the result of his excessive love for Desdemona. Othello then proceeds to relate three metaphors to describe his situation. The first metaphor concerns a poor and lowly Indian who comes from an extremely poor village (line 356). The Indian finds a pearl of extremely great value that would bring enough money to make his entire village comfortable. But the Indian thinks the pearl is just a worthless stone and tosses it away. Othello is comparing himself to the Indian, and Desdemona is the pearl. Othello is thus suggesting that he threw away something valuable because of his ignorance. Othello was ignorant of Desdemonas virtue and honesty. The second metaphor refers to trees found in Arabia and India that drip a sap or resin called myrrh (lines 359-60). Myrrh (which is used in perfume and incense) oozes from these trees, sometimes in great 118

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello abundance. Othello, who is crying in this scene, compares his excessive tears to myrrh. His sadness is so intense that he cannot stop crying. The third metaphor concerns a Turk (and the reader should remember that the Turks are the enemies of Venice) who beat up a citizen of Venice and made fun (traduced) of that city-state (lines 362-63). Othello then adds that he took that Turk by the throat and stabbed him. Then Othello stabs and kills himself with his knife. In this metaphor, Othello is both the Turk and himself. He realizes that his behavior reflects badly upon Venice. His murder of Desdemona is a crime, and that has made him a criminal (or enemy) of Venice. And, so, Othello becomes his own judge and jury and proceeds to execute himself for his crime. Othellos tragic fall in this play is the fall from greatness and honor. He was the hero of Venice and distinguished for his outstanding service to this land. People honored him, and they were proud to have him as the commander of their army. But at the end of the play, Othello is a murderer and a criminal. He has sunk to the lowest level of Venetian society.


PLOT For many theater-goers and admirers of Shakespeare, Othello remains as one of the greatest tragedies ever written. The intensity of emotion and drama of the play is not surpassed by any other drama. But, like many Elizabethan tragedies, Othello does contain some common elements of the genre. The student should particularly pay attention to two elements found elsewhere in Shakespeare plays: (1) First, there is the Role of Fate. Shakespeare often shows that fate is an overwhelming supernatural force that no man is capable of fooling or cheating. On occasion, Shakespeare presents a character who believes he is superior to fate. In this particular play, that character is Iago (another such character is Edmund in King Lear). But these characters often become victims of fate when their own schemes backfire on them. (2) The second common element is the inclusion of the Reason vs. Emotion Conflict. The ministers of Christianity taught that reason is a special gift from God that everyone has, and with this gift everyone is capable of controlling their passions, emotions, and desires. Yet, time and again, Shakespeare reveals that on occasions when the emotions reach an extreme level, mans reason disappears. Man then becomes an irrational creature 121

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello who acts wildly and thoughtlessly. And this is what happens to Othello. Most critics note that Othello differs from other Shakespeare tragedies because it does not contain any subplots or any lengthy comic scenes. A few critics even find this to be a fault of the play. However, Othello is a play about character. And the plot may be more complex than what it at first appears to be. The reader could view the play as having two plots. There is the story of Othello, who is involved in an internal conflict in regards to his jealousy. But there is also the story of Iago. Iago also struggles with an internal conflict. He seeks entertainment, and he maliciously finds that entertainment by manipulating others. Iago is a clever and intelligent individual who believes he is superior to all men and to the forces of fate or God. But, like Othello, Iago also falls. Students of Shakespeare should be aware, however, that not all critics appreciate what Shakespeare has accomplished in Othello. Such critics complain that the focus is too simple or limited. One critic refers to the play merely as a villains wanton destruction of a marriage. The same critic contends that this is not a play of imagination bur rather just a play about the triumph of evil. But, as already suggested earlier, there is far more to the play than that. In terms of charting the plot and rising action of the play, most readers tend to focus on the 122

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello internal conflict taking place within Othello the man vs. himself conflict. This conflict reaches its climactic moment (climax) in the bedchamber scene as Othello is strangling Desdemona. However, the conflict is not resolved with the death of Desdemona. Othello continues to struggle with himself after his death, and the internal conflict is extended when he finds out that Desdemona was innocent. Thus, the resolution of this conflict does not occur until Othello kills himself. But, as noted earlier, a reader could interpret this play by positing Iago as the protagonist or antihero (a protagonist with negative qualities). Iago is in conflict with Othello and other characters of the play, but Iagos primary conflict is one of man vs. fate. Iago is successful in his conflict with Othello, but he is not successful in his struggle against fate. Iagos conflict thus ends with Emilias confession and with Roderigos letter revealing Iagos treachery.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello SOURCES FOR OTHELLO The primary source for the play is a collection of short stories called the Hecatomithi by the Italian writer Giovanni Battista Giraldi in the 16th century. Giraldi uses the device of stories within a larger story or framework similar to Boccaccios Decameron Tales or Geoffrey Chaucers Canterbury Tales. In the Hecatomithi, a group of ten gentlemen and ladies on a sea voyage are the story-tellers. The basic characters of the story are similar to those in the play, but they have different names (with the exception of Disdemona). The villains motives are more conventional: the Iago-character lusts after Disdemona, but she rejects his advances. The plot elements are also similar. For example, Iago steals a handkerchief and plants it in Cassios bedroom. But the murder is even more horrible: Iago and Othello beat Disdemona to death with a stocking that is filled with sand. They then pull the ceiling down on top of her to make the death look accidental. Disdemonas relatives avenge her murder (in a long anticlimactic section). Finally, Iago dies when he is being tortured to force him to confess. His body ruptures or explodes as a result of the cruel implements of torture. Shakespeare also used two other sources. He used Natural History by Pliny (a Roman author of Classical Age) for Othellos speech about not using witchcraft on Desdemona. And he used The 124

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Commonwealth and Government of Venice (1543) for historical facts.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello CHARACTER: OTHELLO Tragic heroes in literature fall because of hamartia. This is a Greek word indicating a fatal flaw in action (but not in a characters personality as some scholars have mistakenly maintained). Here is another formal definition: Hamartia is a concept used by Aristotle to describe tragedy. Hamartia is the fall of a noble man caused by some excess or mistake in behavior, not because of a willful violation of the gods' laws. Othello certainly does have character or personality flaws: he is too trusting or gullible, he is jealous, and he is proud. But Othellos fatal judgment or mistake in action is that he trusts or believes Iago and he acts upon the false information that Iago gives him. Othello is not a story primarily about miscegenation (the mixing of different races). Othello is an aristocrat, not someone who has struggled up from slavery. Unfortunately, this was and sometimes still is an interpretation that has occurred in American theater productions of the play, especially at a time when civil rights movements were intense (during the early 1960s). Othello is not an uncivilized savage. Rather, he is a figure of mystery and attraction to Desdemona. But Elizabethans expected Moors to be aggressive and full of rage beneath their cool exteriors. Works of fiction from the 16th century the Spanish 126

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Palmerin Romances describe the Moors who invaded Spain as barbarians and hellhounds. Moreover, people of the Renaissance held a superstition that a mixture of calm and violent behavior existed in all inhabitants of semi-tropical lands. Critics view Othello in two different ways: (1) Positively, Othello is idealistic, noble, strong, and trustful. And this makes him an easy victim. Or (2) negatively, Othello is too excessively proud (hubris) and has an inflated opinion of his own worth Noted critic G. Wilson Knight suggests that the storm in the beginning of Act II is not only for plot but is also symbolic of the change in Othellos emotional temper.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello CHARACTER: IAGO For some critics, the character of Iago is just too evil to be believable. Such critics then suggest that Iago is a symbol of evil rather than a real character. But other critics have no problem in believing that there are men of such extreme wickedness living in the real world. A question concerning Iagos motivation contributes significantly to the believability of the character. Iago does mention that he suspects Othello may have been Emilias lover (in Act II, 1). But this possibility does not really seem to bother him too much. Rather, he may just be rationalizing the reasons for his evil actions. The true motives are pleasure and action (Act II, 3). Iago is bored with life and seeks sport (which means entertainment). Iago has a frustrated desire for action. But his successful manipulation of others thrills him. He enjoys being evil. Many critics compare Iago to the character of Vice Dissimulation in the medieval morality plays (the same comparison is also made of Richard III). Shakespeare would surely have seen and been influenced by the morality plays, which were still being performed regularly in England when Shakespeare was a boy. But to dismiss Iago simply as an allegorical character would be a mistake. There is far more to the character than that.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Finally, the reader should view Iago as a character swept up by forces of fate. He does not foresee the conclusion of his schemes and becomes a victim of his own wickedness.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello THEMES As with any Shakespeare play, a number of themes and motifs are possible. If a student focuses on the character of Othello, then a theme concerning jealousy might be predominant. Jealousy is an overwhelming emotion that can override and eliminate all traces of reason in even the best of men. But if a student focuses on the character of Iago, then the theme concerning fate predominates. Fate is a powerful and mysterious supernatural force that even the cleverest of men cannot alter. Some of the key idea words that may suggest themes and motifs of the play are indicated below:
evil greed envy jealousy anger lust pride hubris reputation reason vs. emotion fate revenge rage freedom fidelity desire for power political ambition idealism witchcraft nobility trust guilt miscegenation prejudice ambition father-daughter relationships husband-wife relationships

One other theme worth mentioning here is the Two Worlds Theme. Venice and Cyprus are not only separated by a body of water. They are also separated by differences in atmosphere or mood. The 130

Understanding Shakespeare: Othello movement of Othello from one world to the other thus has a significant effect on him. The following table highlights the major differences.
VENICE Calm & Peaceful Civilized Centrally located Ruled by Rational Thought Othello is calm and rational CYPRUS Stormy & Beset by War Uncivilized Border, frontier locale Ruled by Emotions Othello is troubled and emotional


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello DIALOGIC STYLE The reader should also make note of the dialogic and semiotic relationship in the play. This relationship occurs, as noted above, during the two kneeling scenes (when Othello & Iago kneel in Act III, 3, and when Desdemona kneels in Act IV, 2). Shakespeare creates similar relationships in several other plays (such as Macbeth).


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello COMMENTS FROM THE CRITICS Walter Cohen (in The Norton Shakespeare, p. 2095): The play offers various explanations for Othellos suggestibility. Most obviously, Iago expresses Othellos own unconscious racial and sexual anxieties. But Othello is also out of his element. A soldier since childhood, he knows little of peacetime urban existence. Edward E. Foster (in Joseph Rosenblums A Readers Guide to Shakespeare, p. 231): Although Othello has frequently been praised as William Shakespeares most unified tragedy, many critics have found the central character to be the most unheroic of William Shakespeares heroes. Some have found him stupid beyond redemption; others have described him as a passionate being overwhelmed by powerful emotion; still others have found him self-pitying and insensitive to the enormity of his actions. Yet all of these denigrations pale before the excitement and sympathy generated for the noble soldier in the course of the play.


Understanding Shakespeare: Othello Harold Bloom (in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, p. 438): We cannot arrive at a just estimate of Othello if we undervalue Iago, who would be formidable enough to undo most of us if he emerged out of his play into our lives. Othello is a great soul hopelessly outclassed in intellect and drive by Iago. Hamlet, as A. C. Bradley once observed, would have disposed of Iago very readily. In a speech or two, Hamlet would discern Iago for what he was, and then would drive Iago to suicide by lightning parody and mockery. Frank Kermode (in The Riverside Shakespeare, p1202): There is, finally, the figural aspect of the work. Obscurely, it is, no doubt, an enactment of the Fall. There are psychological analogues, so that we can momentarily see the play as a psychomachia, with Iago as the bestial parts of man, and Othello as the higher as, in a high sense, Reputation. Definition of psychomachia: internalized battle between spirit and flesh: conflict of the soul between the spirit and the flesh (literary). From MSN Encarta