Othello: Wholesale Destruction by an “Honest” Man
Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a great and deeply disturbing play, and I credit Shakespeare for challenging his audiences’ rising racial biases in the play.
In saying that it’s important to note the play predates the racism that develops in following centuries, based on single-race slavery. Shakespeare wrote Othello in 1603, four years before the founding of Jamestown (Virginia) and nearly 20 years before the first indentured African servants were imported to the colony. However, that black Africans were perceived as outsiders or “others” even before the play can be seen by the language used by Queen Elizabeth in her effort to deport several “blackmoors”: “Of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here to manie…. Those kinde of people should be sente forth of the land.” (See Emily C. Bartel’s article “Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I” (SEL: Studies in English Literature, 2006)
Othello, the man as Shakespeare presents him, is noble; an intelligent military leader and hero. He is also a Moor.
What is a Moor? Good question: As Kate Lowe (professor of Renaissance History and Culture, and Co-director of the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, Queen Mary University of London) proclaims on the British Museum and BBC radio program Shakespeare’s Restless World:
The word Moor sounds impressive, but it actually signifies very little. Originally it was the classical word that came from somebody who lived in Mauritania, the Roman province across the top of North Africa. After that it gained other meanings, one of which was black. It also then gained the meaning of a Muslim, but when it is used in Elizabethan England it is just imprecise.
It’s clear in the play, however, that Othello is a Christian, black African, employed by the city-state of Venice. The general is clearly loyal to and appreciated by Venetian government and society. So important to the state’s safety is he that he is permitted great latitude in his personal and professional activities. But a decision in each, his personal and professional life, sets up the good general for dark, diabolic tragedy.
On the personal front, the young daughter of one of the aristocracy falls in love with Othello and encourages his attentions. The middle-aged Moor reciprocates the feelings. They secretly marry, much to the consternation of her father who previously had honored Othello with many invitations to his home (where his daughter and the Moor met and courted).
On the professional front, he chooses for his second in command the faithful Michael Cassio.
Neither decision nor the succeeding act is a problem. But they are doors opening just far enough for the fabulously evil Iago, star of the show, to wiggle his devilish soul through.
The general is clearly brilliant on the field and wholesome in his interpersonal relationships, but Iago is the genius of the story. Officially and reputedly he is Othello’s faithful, loyal ancient (a flag bearer or ensign), but within his soul—which he willing describes to us throughout the play—he lusts for Othello’s virtuous new wife, Desdemona; envy’s the Moor’s professional success; is jealous and angry that Othello has not chosen him as his lieutenant, giving that honor instead to Michael Cassio. For these, and various other reasons he describes to us, he hates Othello.
Iago’s brilliance is in his ability to accurately perceive the inner-motives and weaknesses of people around him. Glorying in his evilness, he then offers each the temptations and suggestions that send them tumbling toward destruction.
Reading Othello is like examining the hub and spokes of a wheel. “Honest” Iago is hub, and he delivers his specially selected poison for and along each spoke individually.
To the hated Moor, he subtly but increasingly with time and “proof” creates doubt of Desdemona’s virtue, leveraging the “green-eyed” monster of jealously to the Moor’s final death. (It looks to these 21st Century eyes that Shakespeare allows Iago, the fiend of the play, to vent his society’s rising disdain for black Africans.)
At the same time, to Desdemona, Iago acts the kind, wise friend, counseling how to deal with the Moor, pretending that he himself is not the very devil working against her.
To Michael Cassio, to whom honor is paramount, Iago plots to destroy Cassio’s honor and tear him from the love of the Moor.
To Roderigo, a man who craves Desdemona, he offers empty promises that he’ll have her, if he’ll just be patient a bit longer.
Iago even uses his eager-to-please and shifting-morals wife, Emilia, faithful servant to Desdemona, to unwittingly betray her mistress.
But there, in his most intimate betrayal he finally is unmasked. It is Emilia who finally discovers and reveals what he is. Unwittingly, she captures it even before she knows the guilty party is her husband: “I will be hanged if some eternal villain, some busy and insinuating rogue, some cogging, cozening slave, to get some office, have not devis’d this slander….”
But she discovers it minutes too late. Othello has killed Desdemona because he has “seen” proof that she has cuckold him with Cassio. He kills himself when he realizes the deception.
Foolish Roderigo is first impoverished and then murdered, Cassio left crippled, and Emilia is slain by her conniving husband.
Crucial to the success of his many conspiracies is Iago’s reputation. He must be seen as thoroughly honest. Evidence of that reputation is overwhelming, with Othello–or Michael Cassio—proclaiming Iago honest at least 16 times. Such phrases as “a man he is of honest and trust;” “Iago is most honest;” “I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest;” “this honest creature.”
And Iago is quick to add to his image of honesty, proclaiming (ironically) “as honest as I am;” “as I am an honest man;” “I protest, in the sincerity of love and honest kindness; “this advice is free I give and honest.”
Iago is honest only with the audience throughout the play. He tells us his thoughts and shows his obsession with destroying Othello and everyone who is dear to the general. Only when Iago has succeeded, been found out and sentenced to torture and death, does he clam up. No longer are we his confidants, and we’re left wondering what in the end he thinks and feels.
The dark-skinned Othello has a soul of light, deceived into murder. The light-skinned Iago has a soul of darkness. The light-skinned Desdemona has a soul of light, but Iago paints it black. Shakespeare allows Iago to sit in the cesspool of racism, but he portrays Othello as an honorable soul, challenging his 1603 audience and–perhaps even more so–audiences today.
Othello warns of selfishness, lust, ambition, but mostly of jealousy and the power of suggestion and insinuation. In Macbeth, you wonder about the intent of the “weird sisters” and their prophecies: Are they merely recounting the future or trying to influence Macbeth. In Othello, there’s no doubt that Iago is trying to crush Othello.
Othello, the Moor of Venice, earns five bards:
Quotes I liked:
Iago: In following him, I follow but myself; heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, but seeming so, for my peculiar end: For when my outward action doth demonstrate the native act and figure of my heart in compliment 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.
Brabantio: He bears both the sentence and the sorrow that, to pay grief, must of poor patience borrow.
Duke: To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.
Iago: 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 manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills. If the balance 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 preposterous conclusions: but we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts
Iago: It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.
Iago: Knavery’s plain face is never seen till us’d.
Cassio: O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains! That we should, with joy, pleasance revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!
Iago: When devils will their blackest sins put on, they do suggest at first with heavenly shows
Iago: How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? Thou know’st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft; and wit depends on dilatory time.
Iago: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on
Iago: The Moor already changes with my poison: Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons. Which at the first are scarce found to distaste, but with a little act upon the blood, burn like the mines of Sulphur.
Emilia: But jealous souls will not be answer’d so; they are not ever jealous for the cause, but jealous for they are jealous: ’tis a monster begot upon itself, born on itself.
Roderigo: Your words and performances are no kin together.
Emilia: Thou hast not half that power to do me harm as I have to be hurt.
Othello: Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely but too well; of one not easily jealous, but being wrought perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Judean (“Judean” in first folio; “Indian” in some), threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe
Next Up: I’m finished with all of Shakespeare! But I will be writing about my impressions after reading all the plays (and poems).