Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Othello; Or, The World According to Iago

Othello is Shakespeare’s hardest, cruelest tragedy. It is hard to describe and hard to understand, and almost as hard and cruel as Iago, an extraordinarily hard, mean, cruel man.

Alone of Shakespeare’s plays, it has a charismatic anti-hero, Iago, who takes up at least as much of our
pained and perplexed attention as the hero. Why? Why does this play need an antihero who looms so large, and whose motives are so perplexing? What if anything does Othello do to earn the fate that Iago causes him to bring down on himself? Why might one man want to “ensnare” another man, soul and body?—Othello’s question to Iago at the end of the play. Or are the agonies inflicted on Othello and Desdemona entirely gratuitous?

Othello is a Moor, which probably means that he comes from Morocco. He
has risen to the rank of general by merit alone. Iago, one of his officers,
is angry because a man he despises, Michael Cassio, has gotten
the promotion that he, Iago, expected and thinks he deserves. Iago
knows that Othello has just eloped with Desdemona, only daughter of
a Venetian nobleman, Brabantio. With the help of his friend Roderigo,
a would-be suitor, Iago tries to make trouble for Othello by making
sure her father finds out about her elopement. This first attack comes
to nothing when Othello gives his simple and eloquent account of their
courtship before the Duke and the Senate. Then, news arrives that a
Turkish fleet is threatening Venetian interests on Cyprus.
The gale that carries Othello to Cyprus disperses the Turkish fleet.
Iago now has time to put together a more sophisticated plan of attack.
He induces Cassio to start drinking, knowing that Cassio becomes
quarrelsome when drunk. And so it proves, with a little help from
Roderigo. Blows lead to more blows and soon the town is in an uproar.
Othello, furious, demotes Cassio. In despair, Cassio consults with Iago
who advises him to seek help from Desdemona. When Othello sees
them talking, Iago delicately insinuates that Cassio and Desdemona
are having an affair, an idea which instantly takes possession of
Othello’s mind. Desdemona pleads Cassio’s case, and Othello’s jealousy
colors his interpretation of her motives. Whenever she mentions
Cassio’s name, it is as if she were twisting Iago’s knife. When Othello
complains of a headache, Desdemona offers to bind his head with her
handkerchief. But this is no ordinary headache—Othello imagines he’s
growing a cuckold’s horns—and the handkerchief is brushed aside. It
falls to the ground, unnoticed, where Desdemona’s handmaid,
Emilia—Iago’s wife—finds it. Iago has been pestering her to steal it,
and when she tells him about finding it, he snatches it out of her
hands and leaves it where Cassio will find it. Cassio, in turn, gives it
to his trollopy girl friend, Bianca—but not as a gift: he tells her he
found it in his room, and asks her to take out the needlework, because
he likes it and would have it copied before the unknown owner starts
looking for it and demanding its return. A likely story! So thinks
Bianca and she says so, scornfully. But, thinking she has no choice,
she complies.

Meanwhile, Iago tells Othello that he has seen Cassio wiping his beard
with this particular handkerchief— “spotted with strawberries”—and
that, as Othello sees it, clinches Iago’s case. Iago has Othello where he
wants him; he can tell him anything and Othello will believe it. Iago
subtly tantalizes him with sentence fragments, lifted from Cassio’s
conversation, supposedly, and Othello’s imagination does the rest:

Oth. What hath he said?
Iago. Faith, that he did—I know not what he did—
Oth. What? What?
Iago. Lie—
Oth. With her?
Iago. With her? On her; what you will.
Oth. Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her when they
belie her. Lie with her! Zounds, that’s fulsome!
Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief! To confess, and be
hang’d for his labour—first to be hanged, and then to confess.
I tremble at it. Nature would not invest itself in such a shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words that
shakes me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible?
Confess? Handkerchief? O devil! Falls in a trance. IV.1.4

Othello’s mind, as well as his syntax, is unhinged—it is his turn to
speak in sentence fragments—and he faints. Just then Cassio comes by
and wonders what’s going on. Iago tells him that this is Othello’s second
fit in two days and asks him to wait out of sight until he recovers
and departs, because he has something important he wants to talk to
him about. When Othello awakes from his swoon, Iago tells him about
the meeting he has just arranged with Cassio and places him where he
will be able to observe their conversation, unobserved, but not hear it.
The scene plays out as Iago intends: he talks to Cassio about Bianca,
who is in love with Cassio, and Othello (who has been primed by Iago)
thinks they are talking about Desdemona. Then Bianca enters with the
handkerchief, furious at Cassio whom she now sees as a two-timing
rat, throws it in his face and departs in a huff with Cassio in pursuit.
Othello recognizes the handkerchief. He and Iago plot the murder of
Cassio and Desdemona. Cassio’s murder is botched, but nothing prevents
the horrific murder of Desdemona. Poor, simple, self-deluded
Othello insists on calling it a sacrifice, and turning the occasion into a
work of high poetic art.

The handkerchief seals Desdemona’s fate—that and the innocent lie
she tells when Othello asks for it; it also seals Iago’s. When Othello, 
to justify the murder of his wife, cites this key piece of evidence, all 
becomes clear to Emilia, and she reveals how Iago had come into its 
possession. Othello is prevented from killing Iago, but nobody prevents 
Iago from killing Emilia and escaping, briefly. 
When he is caught, he refuses to explain himself. Othello, on
the other hand, wants to talk about what he has done but is as mystified
by Iago as we are. He knows that Iago has manipulated him, but
he has no idea how it was done, or why. What he especially fails to
understand is that he, Othello, had not been an entirely passive victim
of Iago’s insinuations; his imagination rose to the occasion, as it were.
Iago had only to drop a few hints and Othello’s imagination did the
rest. Overcome by grief, shame and despair, Othello kills himself.

Iago is a man of the world: the rough, tough world of the streets, taverns,
camps, fleet. He comes from the ranks, not the officer class. He
has banged about and held his own as a man among men. He knows
what people are like—knows human nature because he has studied it,
and what he has learned is that men are mostly a wretched lot. He did
not have to read Machiavelli to learn that; Iago’s cynicism is homegrown,
self-taught, not something he has learned out of books. He has
discovered the blood and baseness of our nature the hard way, at first

Iago is also the first working-class man to walk the stage on terms
of equality with his social betters. (Othello informs us that he has a
royal lineage.) Though Iago is not the social equal of Desdemona or
Othello or Cassio or even Roderigo, he is their intellectual superior and
moral equal, and he knows it. His lines, his language, have the same
weight, in this play, as theirs. In that sense, Iago’s role has the same
sort of weight as Shylock’s in The Merchant of Venice. In both plays,
the beautiful people of upper-crust Venice are confronted with a force
from below that they do not understand.

Like most strictly practical people, Iago has no use for poetry. The
epic poem of Othello’s life is nothing to him but bragging and fantastical
lies. “Honest” Iago, the practical man who knows the difference
between benefits and injuries, has an aptitude for what we might call
anti-romance: not the poetry of things as they might be, but the prose
of things as they are.

Yet like Othello, Iago is also a man of imagination—with this
caveat: his imagination feeds on what it despises, the emotional
hangups and fixations of others. And while he has a diabolical (the
original sense of diabolikós, “slanderous,” may be relevant here)
knowledge of human weakness, appetites and vices, he himself seems
to have no appetites or vices—or at least no ordinary ones. Which is
not to say that he is a neutral observer of human folly: when he is
talking about sex and sexual appetites, his words acquire a peculiar
energy and suggestiveness, a leering prurience. He is a voyeur who
despises the obscene images that delight his soul, but also a satirist
who loves to dwell on the obscenities he observes.

No one understands Iago—including Iago, who can’t understand
himself. I’ve come to think that Shakespeare himself did not under-
 stand the creature he had invented. Why otherwise would Iago keep
trying, and failing, to explain himself in long, meandering soliloquies?
His motives present a problem because there are so many and they all
seem to count equally with him. It is hard to square the single-minded
intensity of Iago’s malice and his attack with the detached tone of
his assorted and contradictory explanations. This is the problem that
drove Coleridge to describe these explanations in a phrase so apt that
it is now permanently lodged in the critical tradition: “the motivehunting
of motiveless malignity.” One thing is fairly certain however:
Iago is not out to get Othello because of his race. If that were the case,
he’d have said so, somewhere. Iago gives many reasons for hating
Othello, and race is not among them. “Moor” is not a racial epithet or
slur, or used as such in this play. It merely defines Othello according
to his place of origin, as a man from Morocco or north Africa.

When it turns out that Desdemona is safely married and out of reach,
Roderigo turns to Iago and asks him what he should do. Go home and
get a good night’s sleep, says Iago, sensibly, and if Roderigo were a
sensible person that would have been the end of it. But Roderigo is not
a sensible person. He has illusions. He is romantic. He thinks
Desdemona is the love of his life and it won’t be worth living without
her. “I will incontinently drown myself,” he says. He means ‘right
away’ but his weakness and lack of restraint is hinted at in his use of
the word ‘incontinently’—which could also mean ‘unchastely.’
Iago’s first response to Roderigo’s romantic silliness is to make a
joke about it (“If thou dost, I shall never love thee after.”) When
Roderigo persists, petulantly, (“It is silliness to live when to live is torment”),
he tries to educate him. Though Roderigo is more or less uneducable,
there is one idea that he can take in. Here is how the conversation

Iago. O villainous! I have look’d upon the world for four times
seven years, and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit
and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love himself.
Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a
guinea hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.
Rod. What should I do? I confess it is my shame to be so fond,
but it is not in my virtue to amend it.
Iago. Virtue? a fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners;
so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop
and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract
it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or
manur’d with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority
of this lies in our wills. If the beam of our lives had not one
scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and
baseness of our natures would conduct us to most prepost’rous
conclusions. But we have reason to cool our raging
motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts; whereof I take
this that you call love to be a sect or scion.
Rod. It cannot be.
Iago. It is merely a lust of the blood and permission of the will.
Come, be a man! Drown thyself? drown cats and blind puppies!
I have profess’d me thy friend.... I could never better
stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse.... It cannot be
that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor—
put money in thy purse—nor he his to her—It was a violent
commencement in her and thou shalt see an answerable
sequestration—put but money in thy purse. These Moors are
changeable in their wills—fill thy purse with money. I.3. 347

And so on. Finding that Roderigo is one of the many who can’t distinguish
between a benefit and an injury, he says ‘Here, let me give
you some advice. You refuse to believe that your “love”, as you call it,
is a mere lust of the blood, and maybe you’re right; but you can be
sure that that’s all this great affair of Othello’s and Desdemona’s is
about, and I’ll prove it to you. It’s like money in the bank: these two
are like everyone else. Once the novelty of sex with someone of another
race has worn off, they’ll get bored with each other and start looking
around for someone else. That’s your chance. You can bank on it—
and while you’re at it, get some money for this trip because we’re
going to need it.’

We seem at first to be on familiar philosophical ground when Iago
describes reason as a counterweight to the demands of sensuality and
the senses; reason is what prevents the blood and baseness of our
natures from conducting us to preposterous conclusions. This idea is
as old as Plato’s allegory, in the Phaedrus, of the noble charioteer and
his team of passionate horses, and is deeply embedded in Aristotle’s
Ethics. Reason is normative: not only does reason make knowledge
possible, it tells us how we ought to use it. Iago has no use for such
ideas—which being self-educated he has never heard of anyway.
Reason for him is purely instrumental. And most people, as he has
learned in the school of hard knocks, are not governed by reason of
any kind but by their passions, the blood and baseness of their bestial

The fact that human beings have this bestial connection is not, for
Iago, merely an abstract truth, but a subject on which his imagination
dwells avidly. One of the first things we learn about him, when he is
bawling at Brabantio under cover of darkness, is that he has an
extraordinarily dirty mind. Sex is not only bestial but obscene, the
dirty little appetite that we share with the lower animals and make
jokes about. What sets us apart from the other animals is the fact that
they can’t control their sexual urges, or make jokes about them, while
we can. Most people, he finds, are unwilling to call their sexual
appetite by its right name, ‘lust’, and insist on ennobling it as ‘love’—
even as they are “making the beast with two backs.” That’s the greatest
joke of all, he thinks, and he takes unholy delight in rubbing our
noses in it. Which is what he is doing to Brabantio in the first scene:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. I.1.89

The bestial images (and there are more) that delight Iago serve, at
first, only to confuse Brabantio. He doesn’t understand what Roderigo
and his friend are trying to tell him, because he does not have a dirty
or lascivious mind.

If Roderigo is to be of any use, Iago must rid him of his illusions about
love and virtue. He is only partly successful. Roderigo is unwilling to
believe that his love for Desdemona is merely “a lust of the blood and
permission of the will” but he is eager to believe that her love for
Othello is exactly that, for it is in his self-interest to do so—if all
Roderigo wants is to possess her. It doesn’t occur to this weakling that
by allowing Iago to define his interest in Desdemona in these terms,
he too is being defined.

Yet weak, self-indulgent and loose-minded as he is, Roderigo puts
up more resistance to Iago’s insinuations than Othello does. He can’t
rid himself of the idea that Desdemona is a virtuous lady—he keeps
reverting to his habitual illusions—and has to be braced up by Iago’s
cynical realism, as we see in the scene that occurs shortly after they
have arrived in Cyprus. Iago, having observed Cassio’s courtly behavior
to Desdemona, tries to convince Roderigo that this is not courtesy
but “lechery... an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and
foul thoughts.” And Iago, with part of his mind at least, honestly
believes this. He almost never says anything that he knows is completely
false. Though he knows that Cassio and Desdemona are not
having an affair—they haven’t had time, for one thing—he also knows
that given enough time there’s a pretty good chance that they will. And
on this score, probability, he could be right. (It is not so very unusual
for handsome young men to seduce beautiful young women married
to much older husbands. Folklore is on Iago’s side in this.) Roderigo
betrays his own deepest beliefs as Iago dangles the promise of a successful
seduction before his nose. And so the blood and baseness of
Roderigo’s own nature brings him to the preposterous conclusion that
he might become the lover of Desdemona.

The corruption of Othello’s imagination is a different, subtler and
more terrifying affair altogether. More innocent and less sophisticated
by far than Roderigo, Othello is more easily infected by Iago’s cynicism.
Insofar as an intention can be inferred from a result, this would
seem to be the effect that Shakespeare intended to achieve when he
chose for the basis of his play, this tale (from Giraldi Cinthio’s
Hecatommithi, 1565), about a valiant Moor and his villainous ensign:
that is to say, a man from the European outback who, like Othello, had
not yet been affected, or corrupted, by European ways and European

Othello’s nobility is simple, natural, ingrained, like that of the savages
whom Montaigne describes in his essay Of Cannibals. What happens
when such a man meets a modern man, a mean and cynical man
in our modern sense of that word, a man like Iago for whom nobility
is no more than an affectation or an artifice, and virtue is either a joke
or a screen for one’s selfish motives and appetites? He is destroyed, of
course. Shakespeare turned Cinthio’s tale into something new, terrible
and contemporary: a tale about the corrosive effects of European
moderrnity itself when it comes into contact with a pure form of its own
traditional and most deeply cherished ideals, as embodied in Othello
and Desdemona.

When Iago, early in the play, warns Othello that Desdemona’s father,
Brabantio, has the power to bring down on him the full force of
Venetian law for having the temerity to elope with his daughter, he
gets the following superb reply:

Let him do his spite;
My services which I have done the signiory
Shall out-tongue his complaints. ‘Tis yet to know—
Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,
I shall promulgate—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 reach’d; for know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth. I.2.28

Reuben Brower has aptly described Othello’s voice here as “aloof, ceremonious
and romantically grand,” the pace of these lines, slow and
expansive: “Like other heroes, Othello grandly assumes—and demonstrates—
that there are occasions when boasting is fit and honorable.
Altogether, the movement and the matching assurance of diction give
an impression of a temperament well ordered and serene, of a man
who rests—a bit naively—on his dignity.” 

The sentence beginning “For know, Iago....” tells us something
important about the origin of this well ordered, serene and immensely
dignified temperament: it is part of his royal inheritance. He did not
acquire it by knocking about in cities, like Iago. As the story of his life
will shortly make even clearer, Othello is a man from the wide, open
spaces and proud of it. Just how proud can be measured by the
immeasurable value he puts on his love for Desdemona and on the life
he has had to give up in order to marry her. Both are as immeasurable
as “the sea’s worth.” But for Desdemona, he would never have
given up the wild, free way of life that has made him what he is. He
cares nothing for Venice and its laws, and he is certainly not afraid of
anything Venice might do to him. He doesn’t need this city; it needs
him. He wouldn’t be housed here at all if it weren't for Desdemona—
the implication being that if Brabantio manages to make the place too
hot for him, he’ll clear out, go back to his old life in the tented fields
of the outback. (And take Desdemona with him? But of course he hasn’t
thought this through.)

As Othello and Iago are talking, Cassio enters along with some officials
with torches. Iago, thinking (mistakenly as it turns out) that
Brabantio and his friends have come to seize Othello, advises him to
be prudent and “go in.” To which Othello, with the same superb confidence
and dignity, replies,

Not I; I must be found.
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly. I.2.32

A perfect soul? The wine he drinks is made of grapes, as Iago will later
say of Desdemona. But we know what Othello means: it is his way of
saying that he has done nothing wrong, has nothing to be ashamed of,
nothing to hide. Still, the phrase rankles slightly. No one has a perfect
soul. No good Christian, of any persuasion, would have said such a
thing, only an erring barbarian who doesn’t know any better. But you
don’t have to be a Christian to feel that Othello is going a little too far—
just ordinarily sceptical and cautious. Anyone who thinks he has a
perfect soul is riding for a fall. What would it do to him, we may wonder,
should he discover—as is not unlikely, in the rough and tumble of
the world—that his “perfect” soul has a tiny crack? As it happens, the
tiny crack is found in Desdemona’s otherwise blameless soul, when
she tells her little lie about the handkerchief, and that discovery opens
a hole in Othello’s soul through which the misogyny of Iago can enter.
The perfection of Othello’s soul is a weakness, not a strength, for
the perfect soul is also a simple soul, and simple souls tend to make
mistakes that more complicated and less perfect souls would not.
Being without guile, a complicated necessity in an imperfect world,
they assume that others are guileless as well. They know, of course,
that they live in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, but that
knowledge does not lead to wisdom or tolerance. Perfect souls, for
instance, cannot tolerate the smallest blemish in themselves or others,
for there are no grades of perfection; one is either perfect or imperfect.
Since the perfect soul demands the perfect love and the perfect bride,
the merest hint of corruption or imperfection is unbearable. Thus
Othello joins a select group of other Shakespearian perfectionists who
make absolute demands on life and suffer accordingly: Hotspur and
Coriolanus who demand perfect, absolute honor, Brutus who demands
absolute virtue, Hamlet who demands absolute authenticity of himself
and his mother, Lear who demands but cannot give absolute, unconditional
love and Cordelia who demands absolute sincerity.

When it is all over and Othello knows as much of the truth about what
he has done as it is given him to know—which is not much—he tries
to salvage a little dignity and self-respect from the wreckage of his life
before he ends it.

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplex’d in the extreme.... V.2.346

Unlucky? Perplexed? Indeed. Othello certainly has some extraordinarily
bad luck and, “being wrought” upon by Iago, becomes extraordinarly
perplexed. Were we to speak of Othello as he would wish, however,
we’d have to leave out the scariest parts of his story. That word
“perplexed” doesn’t begin to convey the scale and demonic intensity of
his delusions, or the alacrity with which he embraces them. He is not
a passive victim of Iago’s machinations. Something monstrous in
Othello’s soul awakes at Iago’s call, and he is not wise enough or experienced
enough to deal with it. He is not stupid, for then the play
becomes meaningless. He’s an innocent, rather, a man from a simpler
world on the frontiers of European civilization, who relies on his
friend, Iago, to educate him about European ways.
Othello may be correct when he describes himself as “not easily
jealous,” but jealousy is not the right word for the thing that overwhelms
his love for Desdemona with such astonishing ease and speed.
Today, I suppose, we’d call it misogyny, a term that would not be
invented, according to the OED, for another 50 years or so; though the
word seems inadequate to describe the attitude that Othello so readily
takes toward Desdemona—his extraordinary willingness to see her as
a creature of disgustingly super- or sub-human sexual appetites when
Iago gives him a nudge in that direction.

An ordinary man would have ignored Iago or laughed him off; the
bestial images that Iago calls up have long been domesticated in
Western art and literature (beginning, perhaps, with the story of Circe
and her tricks in the Odyssey). But Othello is not an ordinary man; nor
does he know anything at all about art or literature or history. He has
no defense against the thoughts and images that, whispered into his
ear by Iago, begin to infest and infect his imagination. That is to say,
he has no defense against his own imagination, which soon takes on
a power and a life of its own quite independently of Iago’s tutelage.
The brothel scene (IV.2) is Othello’s own invention. Imagination, as
Johnson knew, is not always benign. It has the power to create its own

The corruption of Roderigo, in I.2 and II.1, is a dress rehearsal for the
corruption of Othello, which occurs with astonishing speed. A wink
and a nod, it seems, and the deed is done.

Following his ill-advised interview with Desdemona, Cassio hurriedly
leaves the stage as Othello and Iago enter from the other side.
Cassio knows, in his heart, that he should not be trying to approach
Othello through his wife, and so his sudden departure has a slightly
guilty look which Iago is able to make use of. “Hah? I like not that,”
he mutters.

Oth. What dost thou say?
Iago. Nothing, my lord; or if—I know not what.
Oth. Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
Iago. Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing your coming.
Oth. I do believe ’twas he. III.3.40

And so the seed of suspicion, dropped in the right place at the right
time, begins to grow helped along by Desdemona’s attempt to reinstate
Cassio in Othello’s favor, in the course of which she innocently reveals
the fact that Cassio had known about Othello’s courtship from the first.
This comes as a surprise to Iago. Cassio had earlier pretended to know
nothing of Othello’s marriage, and Iago had believed him. Now he
knows he has been deliberately misled by both Cassio and Othello. No
wonder Cassio got the promotion that he, Iago, had wanted and
expected! Cassio was the insider all along and he, Iago, the outsider.
These are real thoughts, as it were, and they are really running
through Iago’s mind as he asks Othello about this little fact which has
just been inadvertantly revealed (a bit of business that Iago, obviously,
could not have planned on.)

Did Michael Cassio, when you woo’d
my lady,/ Know of your love?”
Oth. He did, from first to last. Why dost thou ask?
Iago. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.
Oth. Why of thy thought, Iago?
Iago. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.
Oth. O yes, and went between us very oft.
Iago. Indeed!
Oth. Indeed? ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?
Iago. Honest, my lord?
Oth. Honest? ay, honest.
Iago. My lord, for aught I know.
Oth. What dost thou think?
Iago. Think, my lord?
Oth. Think, my lord? By heaven, thou echo’st me,
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something.

Iago does mean something but he does not necessarily mean something
monstrous. The question he is mulling over about Cassio’s honesty
could be an innocent one: “And here I thought these liars were my
friends!”  Of course he knows very well that his (in one sense) perfectly
genuine hesitations over Cassio’s ‘honesty’ can and probably
will be understood in a less innocent way. It is an inspired bit of oppor-
 tunism by a genius of improvisation who uses the raw materials of
perfectly authentic thoughts and feelings to construct a sexual fantasy
that only an imagination both powerful and naive could take seriously:
Iago has only to sound as if he means something monstrous
and Othello does the rest.

Unlike Roderigo, Othello has no sense of what is possible or probable
in a place like Venice, or its European outpost on Cyprus, and is as
defenseless against the sophisticated tactics of Iago as one of
Montaigne’s cannibals: “Three of these men, ignorant of the price they will pay some day, in loss of repose and happiness, for gaining knowledge of the corruptions of this side of the ocean; ignorant also of the fact that of this intercourse will come their ruin (which I suppose is already well advanced: poor wretches, to let themselves be tricked by the desire for new things, and to have left the serenity of their own sky to come and see ours!)—three of these men were at Rouen....” 

Othello has met these men in his travels, these cannibals or “Anthropophagi” as he rather pointedly adds, out of a desire
(perhaps) to appear more learned, or more European, than he really is. He is more like
them than he realizes and equally deserving of Montaigne’s prophetic pity.]

Speed is of the essence in Iago’s attack: Othello must not have time
to reflect, ask questions, talk to others, compare notes, and the audience
has to be hurried along at the same rate and for the same reasons;
the web that Iago spins is tenuous, fragile and improbable, and
cannot withstand close inspection. Indeed, the series of deceptions that
are practised on Othello would not deceive any normally intelligent
person—one, that is, who has had some experience of the con men,
card-sharps, shell-game operators, stock-jobbers, etc., that prey on the
innocent or foolish in all complex urban societies. And their frauds are
usually a lot subtler than Iago’s. The essence of his game, as soon as
he has got Othello’s attention, is to make him confuse words, symbols,
and representations with the thing or things referred to, symbolized,
represented. No ordinarily intelligent member of the audience would
accept as conclusive the sort of evidence that Iago offers Othello as
proof of Desdemona’s dishonesty: Cassio’s words and actions in his
sleep as observed and recounted by another; a conversation observed
from afar but not overheard; an easily recognized handkerchief in the
possession of the supposed rival. The flimsiness of all this is not a
fault of the play, however, as many critics (beginning with Thomas
Rymer in the seventeenth century) have supposed, but its point. Only
a very innocent or very stupid man would be taken in by Iago’s
sleight-of-hand, and we know that Othello is not stupid. His is the
radical innocence, as Shakespeare understood it, of the noble savage.
But that is a point that few audiences are likely to appreciate. So if the
tenuousness of Iago’s web is such that a whiff of common sense would
tear it apart, what keeps this play from crashing? The force of Iago’s
mind and imagination and the power of his words.

Take for example the extraordinary conversation I have just quoted,
beginning with Iago’s question, “Did Michael Cassio, when you
woo’d my lady,/Know of your love?” While these questions, answers,
pauses, repetitions and hesitations mimic the spontaneous rhythm of
a conversation, it is a conversation in which only one of the speakers
knows what he is talking about, or where he is going, a duet in which
only one of the singers knows the score, or a dance of which only one
dancer knows the steps. The paired sequence of trochaic questions,
honest ?. . .honest? . . .honest? and think? . . . think? . . .think? each
of which makes up a hexameter line, is breathtaking in its slippery
simplicity and innocence, and terrible with the beauty of a finely
designed, perfectly efficient machine. Iago’s art, in its subtlety and
simplicity, is clearly of a higher order than any machine, and like all
great art it is—in the last analysis if not the first— being performed for
its own sake. The destruction of Othello’s innocence, which entails the
destruction of Desdemona and Cassio as well, is an end in itself—envy
being, oddly enough, a disinterested vice: Iago does not stand to profit
by any of this; whatever happens to Othello as a consequence of his
wife’s murder, Iago will be out of a job. He can “plume up his will”
(1.3.392) on the success of his “double knavery” if he isn’t caught—
or even if he is—and that’s all. But it’s all he cares about.
Iago is an artist and Othello is his masterpiece. Does that make him
the subliminal hero of this cruel tale? It is undeniable, at any rate, that
he is as interesting in his way as Othello and Desdemona are in theirs;
we are torn, it seems to me, between fear and pity for their largely passive
sufferings, and awe at Iago’s wit, intelligence, energy and luck
Hence it is that we may begin to observe the disintegration of
Othello’s perfect soul with something of Iago’s interest and detachment.

Look where he comes! Not poppy nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medecine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou ow’dst yesterday. III.3.333

As Othello enters, we observe him, as instructed, and what do we see?
Not a man who has just eaten poison and looks it, as Iago has just
been saying (“the Moor already changes with my poison”) but a man
whom we can only see, momentarily at least, as Iago extravagantly
and rather touchingly imagines him: a man on whom the most exotic
drugs and “drowsy syrups” of the world will be powerless, a man who,
like Macbeth, will never again get a good night’s sleep. And so we are
distracted from the realities of Othello’s plight by the beauty of Iago’s
poetry—just as, a few lines later, we are being similarly distracted by
Othello’s great farewell to arms aria.

O now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O ye mortal engines whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone! III.3.357

The aria is the point. It’s not that Othello doesn’t know what war is
really like, or that he romanticizes war as he romanticizes himself,
Desdemona, and their marriage, but that war seems romantic and glorious
because it is now part of a world that he has been shut out of.
His occupation is gone, finished. And why is that? Because he has
become a fallen man, though not in Christian terms, for he still a
pagan at heart: he has fallen from the ideal world of epic and romance,
into—as he now believes—Desdemona’s sleazy world, which is also
the world we are shown in Troilus and Cressida, a world of whores,
pimps, courtesans, seducers, seedy politicians, stupid wars, contemptible
heroes. He thought he was above all that, and now here he
is, right down in the middle of it after all, cuckolded by a whore and a
false friend, Cassio—who, it turns out, was nothing but a go-between
and an adulterer. It is in keeping, then, with his new sense of who and
where he is that he should say, with his very next breath, “Villain, be
sure thou prove my love a whore!” (III.3.359)

If he thinks he can’t get any lower than that, he is wrong. As he and
Iago begin to talk, ostensibly, about how this proof might be obtained,
Iago continues, with mock delicacy and real obscenity, to poison
Othello’s imagination:

Iago. I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion.
I do repent me that I put it to you.
You would be satisfied?
Oth. Would? Nay, and I will.
Iago. And may; but how? how satisfied, my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?
Behold her topp’d?
Oth. Death and damnation! O!
Iago. It were a tedious difficulty, I think,
To bring them to that prospect; damn them then,
If ever mortal eyes do see them bolster
More than their own. What then? How then?
What shall I say? Where’s satisfaction?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk. III.3.405

The question that transforms Othello from a casual “supervisor” to a
grossly gaping voyeur—in one line—is a daring masterpiece of subliminal
pornography. Iago’s cool confidence is very impressive, as he
delicately insinuates his obscene idea into Othello’s imagination,
walking as close as he can get to the edge that separates what can and
cannot be safely said—and then even closer in the next half-line: “topp’d”
is subtly, perfectly graphic. If he can get away with that, he can
get away with anything; the rest is easy. After a bit of mock cogitation,
the tedious difficulties disappear and Othello is being entertained, so
to speak, by the sexual antics of Iago’s menagerie, goats, monkeys and
wolves, dressed up as Cassio and Desdemona—or vice-versa.
Impossible that Othello should see this? He just has.

All of this could have been said and done in prose. What’s good
enough for the makeover of Roderigo’s mind, however—a person of no
importance and a fool—is not appropriate for a man like Othello.
Roderigo inhabits the sleazy world of things-as-they-are; a creature,
for the most part, of desires and appetites, without many principles,
and with no imagination at all. Othello’s world, on the other hand, is
that of epic and romance which only exists in poetry. As a poet of
extraordinary power himself, and a man who thinks in images and
metaphors, he is vulnerable to the images and metaphors of a man he
trusts: destroyed by the sophisticated poetry of a man who despises
poetry and romance as humbug. (“Mark me,” says Iago to Roderigo,
II.1. 222-4, “with what violence she first lov’d the Moor, but for bragging
and telling her fantastical lies.”)

Othello’s use of epic simile in his oath of fidelity to Iago is an indication
of the direction that this inveterate self-romancer and dramatizer
of self is about to take:

Oth. O, blood, blood, blood!
Iago. Patience, I say; your mind perhaps may change.
Oth. Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall nev’r look back, nev’r ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. III.3.460

What begins as an ordinary scream for blood takes a sudden turn back
into the epic world, specifically the world of the Iliad: ancient Troy
overlooked the Hellespont.

This extraordinary scene ends as Iago, having knelt and sworn
eternal fidelity to Othello, and receiving in return the coveted appointment
as his lieutenant, says, “I am your own for ever.” But it is
Othello who now belongs to Iago, to be tormented and tortured as Iago

Othello is a simple soul and easily infected by Iago’s misogyny, but not
by his cynicism. Cynicism requires some capacity for rational reflection--
about motives, human nature, the world. Misogyny is endemic
in men who have grown up in societies in which the sexuality of
women is regarded as a force to be rigidly controlled. Cynicism is an
altogether more complicated state of mind; the emotions of misogyny
depend on how the sexuality of women is imagined. A more cynical
Othello would not be surprised or hurt by Iago’s revelations, but he
would also be more sceptical, not only of Iago’s proofs but of his

“Perhaps no human mind,” says Samuel Johnson’s sage, Imlac, “is
in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes
predominate over his reason.... No man will be found in whose
mind airy notions do not sometimes tyrannize....” In this play, that
man is Othello, who not only allows Iago’s airy notions to tyrannize
his mind but even seems to welcome them.

The wilful nature of Othello’s delusion is fully brought out by the
mad scene (IV.2) in which he perversely assumes Desdemona’s guilt,
as a whore, while refusing to tell her why he thinks so. Instead of
directly and openly interrogating her about Cassio, as he does Emilia
at the beginning of this scene, he pretends that he has come to hire
Desdemona’s services in a whore house, of which Emilia is the bawd.
Cassio’s name is never mentioned, nor of course are any of the proofs
that Iago has supplied. (It is only later, behind the scenes as it were,
that Desdemona learns from Emilia that Cassio is the object of her
husband’s suspicions.)

Why doesn’t Othello talk to his wife in the same direct style he uses
when he is talking to Emilia? (Emilia is a servant, to be sure, but that
explains nothing in this situation.) Were he to talk openly and frankly
to Desdemona about his suspicions, there’d be no play; common sense
would prevail, the flimsiness of Iago’s proofs would be quickly
exposed and that would be the end of that. So the question misses the
point: frank, open, direct talk about sex and adultery is just what
Othello will not or can not do. To ask Desdemona direct questions is to
open up a rational dialogue in which information is exchanged and
analyzed, and mistakes acknowledged. It would also mean treating
Desdemona as an ordinary human being instead of the monster he
imagines her to be. What Othello imagines, though, is more real for
him than what he is rationally capable of understanding. Though he
knows that he and Desdemona are not actually in a brothel, her image
as a woman of monstrous sexual appetites has blossomed so extravagantly
that everything he knows or remembers is regarded as a fanciful

A moment of calm and comic reflection intervenes just before the
dreadful finale of this horrifying play. Desdemona is doing what she
has been told and getting ready for bed. She has just been singing a
sad song about a false lover who shrugs off his infidelities with the
ambiguous remark, “If I court moe women, you’ll couch with moe
men.” There follows this curious conversation between Desdemona
and Emilia:
Des. O, these men, these men!
Dost thou in conscience think—tell me, Emilia—
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind?
Em. There be some such, no question.
Des. Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
Em. Why, would not you?
Des. No, by this heavenly light!
Em. Nor I neither, by this heavenly light; I might do’t as
well i’th’dark.
Des. Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?
Em. The world’s a huge thing: it is a great price for a small
Des. Good troth, I think thou wouldst not.
Em. By my troth, I think I should, and undo’t when I had
done’t. Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor
for measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor
any petty exhibition. But, for all the whole world? ud’s pity,
who would not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch? I should venture purgatory for’t.
Des. Beshrew me, if I would do such a wrong for the whole
Em. Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’th’ world; and having
the world for your labour, ’tis a wrong in your own world, and
you might quickly make it right.
Des. I do not think there is any such woman.
Em. Yes, a dozen, and as many to th’ vantage as would
store the world they played for. IV.3.85

I quote this exchange at length because there is no good way to paraphrase
it without losing the sound, to which Desdemona is deaf, of
Emilia’s plain-spoken wit and common sense. Desdemona can’t take
in anything that practical Emilia is half-humorously saying about the
value of chastity in relation to other goods because she, like her husband
(and Isabella in Measure for Measure and, very likely, most of
the audience), regards chastity as an intrinsic and absolute good.
Emilia is joking, but this is serious joking. It is the sort of joking that
must always have gone on in the servants’ quarters at the expense of
their masters and mistresses. The jokes of servant women, who had
their own husbands to deal with as well as the men of the house, both
masters and servants, would have been especially pointed, and we see
an example of this in something Emilia had said earlier about men in

Tis not a year or two shows us a man:
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food;
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us. III.4.106

Only those who could afford to do so thought chastity worth making
a life-or-death fuss about. Emilia is not being cynical, merely realistic.
One may not care for Emilia’s humorous refusal to put chastity at the
top of her list of possible goods, but there is a powerful reason why
she and her point of view cannot be dismissed as a variant of Iago’s
cynicism: were she as cynical as he, she would not be driven by moral
outrage to reveal the truth about how he had got hold of that wretched

If what Emilia is offering us here is comic relief, it can only be relief
from the oppressive notion that chastity is worth killing or dying for.
But that’s what’s about to happen. It’s as if Shakespeare were giving
the audience a bit of advice: don’t let yourself be confused by the ele142
gant and beautiful poetry with which Othello, in his confusion,
attempts to justify and dignify this murder; just because it sounds
good, doesn’t mean it is good. For Desdemona is about to be turned
into an object for our as well as Othello’s esthetic contemplation, which
raises the question: Should one be so calmly, nobly, lovingly reflective
about a person one is about murder?

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul;
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars,
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is the Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d thy rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither. I’ll smell thee on the tree.
[Kisses her.]
O balmy breath, that can almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee
And love thee after. One more, and that’s the last.
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly,
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes. V.2.22

What does that mean, “it is the cause”? Othello repeats that phrase
three times as if he likes the sound of it or as if he had, after prolonged
reflection, satisfied himself that after all “it” is the reason why he is
going to do whatever it is he intends to do. But Othello, as we know
by now, is not a thinker. He also shrinks from calling things by their
right names. He can’t or won’t give his suspicions a name when he is
face to face with Desdemona in his brothel, perhaps because he doesn’t
know how and is really afraid of her, perhaps because he is afraid
of himself. Here he says he’d rather not name “it” to the chaste stars
(much less the wretched audience), so as not to offend them, perhaps;
more likely because to do so would put him on a level with all the other
low, vulgar fellows who murder their wives or lovers for reasons that
are no different from his.

And what happened to the whore-house that Othello had conjured
up in IV.2? The cunning whore of Venice that he had put in it? If
Othello thinks that Desdemona is really a witch who deliberately
betrays men, why is he talking about her in this way? Iago’s imagination
has taken such complete possession of Othello’s; so firm, so complete,
is Othello’s delusion, that he can toy, for the moment—tease
himself, perhaps—with the idea that she is as she appears, knowing,
all the while, that she is not as she appears, that the woman he had
fallen in love with was an illusion. Like Spenser’s witch Duessa (The
Faerie Queene,1590, Bk. I) she only looks beautiful and pure; in reality
she is something else entirely: bait laid to “betray” men. But to
what end? He has heard of witches who betray men but has no idea
what such betrayals are all about—who these witches are, where they
come from, why they do what they do. [Duessa’s mission is perfectly clear: to entice the unwary Christian Soldier, The RedCross Knight, from the true Protestant path. Beneath all the make-up and gorgeous clothes, her “neather parts,” are “misshapen, monstrous” and “more foule and hideous, than womans shape man would beleeve to be” and this duality is for Spenser and his readers an obvious moral and spiritual metaphor. The Catholic Church also looks mighty fine, but is, in reality, damnable.]

It seems, however, that Othello does have a purpose. We all need to
think well of ourselves; for Othello, it is a necessity: the perfect soul
must, at all costs, remain perfect. Since perfection in anything is rare
or nonexistent, one must usually be satisfied with either the appearance
of perfection or an approximation. Neither is acceptable to this
absolutist of the imagination, and in any case what he really wants is
the perfect revenge. But revenge, like murder, is ugly, and, what is
worse, common and vulgar. What to do? A simple solution presents
itself: call it something else; make it a ceremonial sacrifice of which he
 is the officiating priest. And what is the god that Desdemona is to be
sacrificed to? Othello didn’t get that far, but the answer is obvious: his
perfect soul.

Why is Othello’s poetry beautiful? Of course you may not find it so,
and in that case nothing I or anyone else can say is likely to change
your mind. What is undeniable, though, is the transformation of
Othello himself into an esthete and Desdemona into an esthetic object
which he would rather not spoil with his knife:

Yet I’ll not shed her blood
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow
And smooth as monumental alabaster....

He lingers lovingly and beautifully—prolonging the moment for his
own delectation and ours, as if it were a new discovery— over the difference
between putting out a candle and putting out a life. These
reflections lead, by way of the metaphor of the rose which once
plucked “needs must wither,” to one last kiss and sniff, or two or
three, and then one more which wakes her up.
Desdemona awake and conscious is no longer a passive esthetic
object but a recalcitrant human being who strenuously resists her husband’s
accusations, hampered as she is by her own terror and her
ignorance of the details—all she knows is that she is suspected of having
an affair with Cassio.

When, in the brothel scene, Desdemona refuses to submit to the
tyrannous edicts of his fantasy, Othello pretends with acid irony to
think he has confused this innocent stranger with his wife: “I cry you
mercy then./ I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/ That married
with Othello.” (IV.2.90-2) When once more, in the murder scene,
she refuses to submit, denying that she has ever been familiar with
Cassio, or given him any “tokens,” he reacts as though he has just
been hit by a stone.

By heaven, I saw my handkerchief in’s hand!
O perjur’d woman, thou dost stone my heart
And mak’st me call what I intend to do
A murther, which I thought a sacrifice! V.2.65

How could Desdemona be guilty of perjury if she doesn’t know she’s
on trial? But Othello has lost the power to distinguish fictions from
facts. It is appropriate therefore that fictions not facts become, increasingly,
the things that he most passionately cares about. In a fantastic
reversal of the gospel story in John 8, of the woman taken in adultery
and about to be stoned, he accuses adulterous Desdemona of stoning
his innocent heart, thereby forcing him out of his calm, godlike
detachment, as suprahuman judge, into the murderously human rage
which is what he actually feels but thinks he is above.7 It is entirely in
character that he should blame his rage on Desdemona: if she is murdered
instead of sacrificed, that’s her own fault. She shouldn’t have
forced him to call things by their right names. In this furious mood, he
unceremoniously strangles her.

At the end, as the Venetian authorities are trying to make sense of this
terrible story, one of them, Lodovico, says,

O thou Othello that was once so good,
Fall’n in the practise of a damned slave,
What shall be said of thee?

To which Othello replies—ironically?
Why, any thing:
An honorable murderer, if you will;
For naught did I in hate, but all in honor. V.2.295

If he is being ironic, it is as close as he ever gets to self-knowledge.
But it’s hard to tell. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and call
this irony. In that case, the phrase “honorable murderer” is full of self-loathing.
But he really does not want to be remembered as a common
murderer, honorable or not. So, as Othello is getting a grip on the knife
with which he intends to kill himself, he makes a final effort to set the
record straight.

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t—
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand
(Like the base Indian) threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu’d eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. Set you down this;
And say besides that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,
I took by th’throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus. He stabs himself. V.2.356

No one, including Othello, knows the whole story. All he or anyone
else (on stage) knows is that Iago tricked him, his luck ran out, he lost
his way. Maybe he thinks, now, at the end of his tether, that by marrying
Desdemona he had already lost his way: that wild, free and dangerous
way of life she had romantically fallen in love with when he
had described it to her in his simple, elegant, unpretentious style. For
her, it was as if a hero had just stepped out of the literary world of
romance. Now, in his last words, he returns to that world: the story of
the Indian who threw away a pearl, those Arabian trees with their
medicinal gums (which seem to have passed into legend and folklore,
after having been described by Pliny in the first century CE). But who
is that Turk and what is he doing here? Well, it’s another story. Othello
never told it before and may not have intended to tell it now (“I have
done the state some service, and they know’t—No more of that.”),
regarding it perhaps as inconsequential. He tells it now because the
one thing he has left to be proud of is his service to the state of Venice,
and he needs to tell it now if he is to claim credit for something; and
because this particular story allows him to do two things at once: punish
himself as he had punished that malignant Turk (thus subtly identifying
himself with this enemy of Venice?), while at the same time
putting an end to his own misery.

This last speech is deeply incoherent: understanding nothing,
Othello no longer knows who he is or what to say. He holds himself
together just long enough to make a grandly histrionic statement and

I kiss’d thee ere I kill’d thee. No way but this,
Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

As Iago is taken away to be tortured and put to death, he stares
inscrutably at the bodies of the two extraordinary people he has gratuitously

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.

So Iago slams the door of his inner self in our faces, which is not surprising,
knowing what we know. As he informs Roderigo early in the
play, there is something even more contemptible than making an ass
of oneself: letting others know how they can make an ass of you.
To let others know how you feel or what you think is to hand them
a weapon, which will be used—against you. You might as well take
the old expression literally, and put your heart out on your sleeve for
ugly, carrion-eating birds to eat: 

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. I.1.65

Iago seals this confession with a riddle: “I am not what I am.” Like
Jehovah’s “I am that I am” which it parodies, Iago’s riddle defies
rational scrutiny. This is a man who, like Jehovah, intends to be
unknowable. That’s impossible. Everyone, including Jehovah, leaves a
trail. Just as we can learn quite a bit about Iago by reading this play,
we learn all sorts of things about Jehovah by reading the Bible.
We know, for instance, that Iago despises Othello and Desdemona
as pretentious frauds: peel away the glamor and romance and you’ll
find that they are just like everyone else. As the thrill of sex with a
black man wears off, Desdemona will become increasingly bored by
Othello. Then she’ll take another lover. Othello will find out about it
and kill them both. As Iago sees the business, he is merely apeeding up
a process that is naturally bound to occur anyway, and sooner
rather than later. Why should someone else have the pleasure of
watching the eternal story of lust, boredom, betrayal, disillusion, and
hate play itself out? (There’s more than a bit of Thersites in Iago.)
This is not a play about motiveless malignity, as Coleridge thought, or
at least not quite. Iago has a motive for his malignity: pure entertainment.
It is strictly for his own amusement that Iago takes advantage
of Othello’s simplicity to educate him about the ways of the world.

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