Othello, by William Shakespeare, 1604. Pictured, Signet Edition, 1963.
This fellow's of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities with a learned spirit
Of human dealings. If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings,
I'd whistle her off, and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune. Haply, for I am black,
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have; or for I am declined
Into the vale of years – yet that's not much –
She's gone: I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O, curse of marriage!
That we can call these delicate creatures ours
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others' uses. Yet 'tis the plague of great ones;
Prerogatived are they less than the base.
'Tis destiny unshunnable, like death:
Even then this forked plague is fated to us
When we do quicken. Desdemona comes:
(Enter Desdemona and Emilia.)
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!
Othello’s speech of Act III, Scene iii, represents the dramatic and psychological tipping point of the play. Up until this point characterised as a sturdy, stentorian nobleman, brave warrior, and devoted husband, from here we witness Othello’s murderous intent build and his personality disintegrate. Othello’s leaps of rhetoric reveal his most private, powerful anxieties, his vanities as a private man and public figure. All of these coalesce to create a foundation of credulity for Desdemona’s betrayal, pointing the way forward to his ultimate undoing. Many of the play’s core motifs, recurring ideas, concepts, images and figurations, are furthered in this speech, and open the way for subsequent events.
Othello’s single true soliloquy (Granville-Barker, 1969) opens with the most ironic of statements, that is, his reckoning of Iago’s trustworthiness: “This fellow's of exceeding honesty, / And knows all qualities with a learned spirit / Of human dealings.” It is a central irony, this constant use of the word ‘honest’ and its attachment to Iago, of whom “every moral attribute applied to him by anyone in the play is ironic finger pointing to the truth of its opposite” (Spivack 1958). This motif is entwined with Desdemona’s perceived lack of honesty, she and Iago being dualistic opposites in the work – Desdemona, honest, angelic, but not believed; Iago, dishonest, devilish, readily believed.
Othello’s appraisal is, however, correct. Iago does know all qualities of human dealings. It’s the fashion in which he uses this knowledge that Othello is mistaken about. Iago faultlessly identifies every point of character he can take advantage of. He can establish an assumption of trust, as he has already succeeded in with Roderigo and now Othello himself. Take his avowal, earlier in the same scene: “Men should be what they seem.” This is Iago, exactly the type of man he is warning against, dispelling suspicion of it, whilst simultaneously inferring the presence of others who are not “what they seem.” He warns against jealousy, “the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / the meat it feeds on”, being precisely the emotion he is trying to spark. Such is the method with which he has woven his way into the mind of his quarry, and Othello’s unwitting acknowledgement of his power reflects his skill.
Othello’s next thought is not to weigh the evidence and likelihood of Desdemona’s infidelity, but to contemplate his response to it as if he was a hawk-trainer releasing a half-wild bird “to prey at fortune”. His figuration of Desdemona as a half-wild hawk which, when unable to respond to “training”, ought to be released, flung away, contains both a desperate tenderness – “Though her jesses were my dear heart-strings” establishes the intensity of his attachment to her – and also a surprising, if short-lived, openness to the idea of letting her go her merry way.
The theme of sexuality as animalism is rife throughout the play, commencing in Iago’s fervent images – “The beast with two backs” (I, i), and so forth. When, a few lines later, Othello will cry out, “O curse of marriage that we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites!”, his sexual anxiety is laid bare, the notion that whilst a man is considered master of the female, there is an element of the female – their capacity for sexual pleasure – that is beyond the mastery of a man. The juxtaposition of “delicate” with “creatures” and “appetites” is the ironic fulcrum. The war between the ideal and the base that is the anxiety of the characters and the meat of the play. The concept of the woman as something not quite human is ingrained here as earlier in the hawk metaphor. Desdemona is “delicate” like a dove or moth, yet also a rapacious beast of “appetite”.
Othello segues into a series of stark, painful suppositions as to why Desdemona may betray him. That he is “black, / And (has) not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have” encapsulates his lack of easy social grace, his unfamiliarity, as a foreigner, with the finer points of language, his awkwardness as a black man in a white world, his being not as accomplished in seduction as the boudoir panderers of Venice. That he has “declined / Into the vale of years”, his age greater than Desdemona’s. His swift self-correction, “– yet that’s not much –”, fails to dull the bite of these concise lines, which confirm his panic. Though such aspects of his and Desdemona’s relationship have been drawn out by others – by Brabantio in the first act, by Iago constantly – this is virtually the first admission by Othello, that he shares these apprehensions.
The perfect Venetian maiden, a role as defined by Brabantio and others, supposedly submissive and sublimely ethereal in her thoughts and deportment, is one Desdemona had self-consciously violated in her marriage to Othello. Female idealisation is not merely a social form, but a virtual philosophy, a religion. As Brabantio testifies, when he describes Desdemona as having been “of spirit so still and quiet that her motion / Blushed at herself” (I, iii), she had always fulfilled this role, and continues to after her singular lapse, a lapse inspired by powerful love. The unresolved issue in Othello and Desdemona’s marriage, that, as Brabantio warns, “She has deceived her father, and may thee,” (I, iii), is the single social breach by which Iago leverages his whole plot. The fact that Desdemona was so impressed by his character, that she could be inspired to escape, however temporarily, her social expectations, might serve for a more truly secure personality than Othello’s as proof of love. Yet it is instead for Othello’s insecure self a goad. Living as he does by the values of European civilisation, Othello is idealist turned misogynist (Granville-Barker, 1969), inherently confused then by a “maiden never so bold” being his wife, because it seems to contradict a set of values presented as inherent truths. Here, “we watch a culture reach the limits of its capacity and then snap.” (Long, 1976)
From sexual anxiety it is a short leap to intense sexual jealousy. “She’s gone. I am abused, and my relief must be to loathe her”, is embarrassing in its peevishness. The transfiguration of Desdemona is answered by Othello’s own, in the image of wishing himself a toad squirming in a dungeon rather than be a cuckold. Here is an increasing urgency and disgust in the animal metaphors. To the utterly base reduction in “the forkèd plague” of being a cuckold, Othello’s masculine pride asserts itself and refuses such a reduction. He sees himself in a situation that is “the plague of great ones”, whose relationships, supposedly, are placed under greater, more complex stresses than ordinary men’s. He is “simple, romantic, and – here is the chink in his armour – more than a little vain” (Speight, 1977). This powerful vanity in Othello is inseparable from his social and sexual anxiety. His feeling that Desdemona only loves him for his being a “great” man, rather than a wit or a nimble young lover, means the worst agony conceivable to him is part and parcel with his status, which has both won him and lost him his wife. This double-bind thinking entraps Othello.
It is within Othello’s fault-riven psyche that the concepts of this Christian Europe, with its admiration for purity, fairness, courtly idealism, and nature in its pagan framing filled with dirt, squalor, sex, colour, are at war. Othello is a living contradiction, by the standards he is presented with. A coloured man, defender of white Christian Europe from the infidel Turks. An aging, unhandsome male married to a fair young woman. A non-intellectual warrior without a war to fight, instead contending with politics, administration, and devious plotting. Othello is an outsider, whilst he conflates Desdemona with her status. She is inseparable from the state of
His final declaration, delivered upon seeing Desdemona enter, seems a disavowal of suspicion, and yet, there is a type of extremism encoded here that is ultimately catastrophic. His idealisation has reached the apogee of “heaven mocks itself!” If Desdemona is unfaithful, then heaven itself is a joke. Othello’s idealisation of Desdemona as the incarnation of heaven is, then, entwined with his murder of his angelic wife, his own collapse as a Christian man, and self-extermination as an “infidel dog” (V, ii). Whereas Desdemona, dutiful in heading to her death, achieves the status of martyr, as Emilia confirms in her cry at the climax, “O, the more angel she, / And you the blacker devil!”
So this is Othello at the crux of his own tragedy. Aghast, torn by self-doubt and now doubt in his wife. A man, desperate to believe in the ideals of his adopted society, infected by Iago, who loathes all ideals. Though he concludes with a disavowal of credulity, he is already utterly prepared to believe in the possibility as Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. Iago has prepared the stage, but Othello will enact the war within himself upon it, and end in a savage catharsis.
© Roderick Heath 2008
Granville-Barker, Harley 1969. ‘Preface to Othello’, in Prefaces to Shakespeare: Othello and Love’s Labour’s Lost. B.T. Batsford Ltd. London.
Eastman, A.M. & Harrison, G.B. 1964. Shakespeare’s Critics From Jonson to Auden: A Medley of Judgments. The University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor.
Long, Michael 1976. The Unnatural Scene: A Study in Shakespearean Tragedy. Methuen and Co Ltd. London.
Speight, Robert 1977. Shakespeare: The Man and His Achievement. J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. London.
Spivack, Bernard 1958. ‘Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil: The History of a Metaphor in Relation to His Major Villains’, in Shakespeare’s Critics From Jonson to Auden: A Medley of Judgments. Eds A.M. Eastman & G.B. Harrison. The University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor.