By Dennis Abrams
Othello, a black soldier, the “Moor” of Venice
Desdemona, Othello’s new wife
Michael Cassio, Othello’s lieutenant
Bianca, a courtesan in love with Cassio
Iago, Othello’s ensign (a lower-ranking officer)
Emilia, Iago’s wife
Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, a Venetian senator
Graziano, Brabantio’s brother
Lodovico, a relative of Brabantio
Roderigo, a Venetian gentleman in love with Desdemona
The Duke of Venice
Montano, Governor of Cyprus
Senators of Venice
A Clown in Othello’s employment
Possibly as early as 1601-2, perhaps as late as 1603-4. At the very least, Othello was composed during the period during which Shakespeare wrote his major tragedies.
Shakespeare’s greatest debt was to a novella from Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1565), which he read either in the original Italian or in a French version by G. Chappuys. Facts about the Turkish invasion may come courtesy of Richard Knolle’s History of the Turks (1603), although the History and Description of Africa by Leo Africanus (1600) is another possible source.
As they say, famously problematical. A quarto printing (Q1) was published in 1622, just a year before the First Folio text, but is different in some details as well as being 160 lines shorter. Although, as Bloom pointed out in my last post, the difference between the two “enlarges and sharpens our sense primarily of Emilia, and secondly of Othello and Desdemona, but hardly touches Iago.”
Act One: Roderigo and Iago are on their way to inform Brabantio that his daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello – the black commander of Venice’s military forces. Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, while Iago claims to be angry at being passed over for promotion by Othello in favor of Cassio. Brabantio is appalled by the news of his daughter’s marriage and set off with his kinsmen to confront Othello. But the duke of Venice has already summoned his senators and advisors to discuss the sighting of a hostile Turkish fleet heading towards Cyprus, a Venetian colony. Othello arrives and is ordered to defend Cyprus, while Brabantio’s claim that his daughter has been “bewitched” is summarily dismissed when Desdemona enters and confirms her love., after which, the couple immediately leave for Cyprus,. But, naturally, their problems are only beginning: Iago, who has Othello’s absolute trust, is plotting his downfall.
Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that featured black characters were not particularly common. Ones in which they took center-stage were unheard of. In England, there was a long history of “blacking up” in order to represent evil or exotic characters in the medieval mystery and morality cycles, and in courtly entertainment, acting “black” became briefly the fashion – as in Ben Jonson’s 1605 Masque of Blackness, during which female courtiers amused themselves by dressing up as “blackamoors.” Yet in real life, with the rapid expansion of colonial trade to far-flung corners of the world, there were actually very few black people living in England itself (some had been expelled by Elizabeth) during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The world-revealing public theaters must have been one of the very few ways in which the public, at least in London, would have the opportunity to witness such “exoticism” first hand.
Of course, as we have seen, Shakespeare himself introduced a “Moor,” Aaron, into the Roman world of Titus Andronicus, while another, the Prince of Morocco, made a brief appearance (a cameo really) in The Merchant of Venice, a play very much concerned with the idea of an ethnic outsider living in the metropolis. Neither character makes much of a positive impression: Monaco is just a pompous bore, while Aaron is as close as the young playwright got to evil incarnate, a fearsome yet still thinly sketched out villain – neither characterization did much to challenge Elizabethan assumptions about either the moral or intellectual qualities of men who were black, not to mention the underlying lurid fears of miscegenation (both men were, after all, involved or wishing to be involved with white women). Yet, in Othello, everything changes. A black man is the tragic hero, the noble “Moor of Venice” for whom the play is named, while it is a white Italian, Iago, who is the villain.
The apparent contradiction had to have struck Othello’s first audiences hard, and indeed the Duke of Venice admits to feeling it too, hearing that Desdemona, daughter of one of his senators, has done the seemingly unthinkable and married a black soldier, “Noble signor,” he says to her fuming father,
If virtue no delighted beauty lack,
Your son-in-law is far more fair than black.
This division between outward appearance and inner reality will prove to be a crucial – and increasingly malignant – idea in Othello, but for the moment it seems that at least some Venetians recognize that a man who happens to be black need not necessarily be a savage.
This realization, though, appears hard won. In opening scenes of unparalleled bitterness and brutality, we have watched as Iago and Roderigo – Othello’s ensign, and his rival for Desdemona’s hand – do their best to slander his good name. Before the first scene is done, and before he even appears on stage, “the Moor,” as Iago sneeringly calls him) is described as a ‘thick-lips,” a “Barbary [Arab] horse,’ a “lascivious Moor.’ Attempting, and succeeding, to drive Desdemona’s father insane with anger at the news that she has eloped with Othello, Iago puts it in the lowest terms he can think of. ‘Swounds, sir, you’re robbed,’ he taunts Brabantio,
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul.
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe.
(How wonderful is the “Even now, now, very now…?”)
What we are soon to see described by Othello as a love “too much of joy” (2.1.198), a love upon which the play will hinge, is here reduced to nothing more than brute animal lust – and crude racist stereotype.
In fact, over the four centuries that Othello has been on the stage, actors and audiences have likewise had to struggle with the idea that Othello could be both black AND the hero of the piece – one commentator, writing in the South just a few years after the Civil War ended slavery, declared that, in her view, “Shakespeare was too correct a delineator of human nature to have coloured Othello black…Othello was a white man.” Such color blindness (in the worse sense of the phrase) was hardly rare. Though there were occasional exceptions, notably the nineteenth-century African-American star Ira Aldridge, and Paul Robeson in the 1930s and 40s, Othellos were played by white actors in makeup right up through the 1960s. Critics have made a fuss – and some surprisingly still do – over his precise ethnicity, as if by being proved not to be a “veritable negro” (in the words of Samuel Coleridge) he could more easily be understood. (I’ll talk more about the theatrical history of the play as we go along)
The surprising thing, though, is aside from those first few scenes, Othello is really not a play that explores racism in any great detail – The Merchant of Venice, for example, also set in the racial melting pot that was Venice, was far more analytical in that regard. As Othello himself testifies, he is employed as a general by the Venetian state, and as such, has every reason to expect that his position will be respected. And in a sense it is: even though Brabantio is inflamed by racist slander, his real irritation seems to be that his daughter has ignored his wishes; likewise, Roderigo’s grudge against Othello is simply that Desdemona prefers him to the drab Venetian.
“Yet Venice presents itself initially as the place of light and reason, the archetype of a Renaissance with, ruled by a Duke who seems to exemplify all of its emblematic qualities, and this vision is clearly limned in the play’s third scene. Although it is the middle of the night, a disorderly time, the Duke and Senators are met in a brightly lighted council chamber, light here, symbolizing, as it does throughout the play and throughout Shakespeare, a search for control and order. The chamber is full of people, but rather than milling about they are apparently ranged in an orderly way at a central table. And most strikingly, their procedures are so reasonable and logical that they see right through intended deception. A sailor reports that the enemy Turks are heading for Rhodes, rather than Cyprus, but the duke and the Senators reject his report:
This cannot be
By no assay of reason – ‘tis a pageant
To keep us in false gaze.
To the Turks, the play’s chief exterior emblems of disorder, Cyprus is more valuable than Rhodes, so the Duke concludes that, whatever appearances my suggest, that they are actually aiming for Cyprus, and so, of course, it proves. No sooner does he assert confidently that the Turk is ‘not for Rhodes’ than a messenger arrives with more news: the Turks are now openly making for Cyprus. Reason has prevailed, has seen through fiction and deceit.
The phrase ‘false gaze’ is a significant one for the play as a whole and is, typically for Shakespeare, here inserted, as if casually and unimportantly, in an early dramatic interchange among secondary characters. But throughout the rest of Othello the audience will see, again and again, other staged ‘pageants,’ produced like this one to delude the onlooker, to ‘keep us in false gaze.’
For there is, as the play will quickly demonstrate, a radical limitation to the confidence in reason. The wildness of the border place that is Cyprus, buffeted by unimaginable winds and storms, populated by an unstable people, an island on the very outer limits of civilization – this alternative to Venetian reason and smug self-confidence is predicted in the play long before Othello’s army lands literally at Cyprus in act 2. The Cyprus element begins to show itself from the very beginning of the play, in the startling and superbly dramatic – and frightening – opening scene outside Brabantio’s Venetian palace. In this scene, as will quickly become clear, ‘Cyprus’ is already in Venice. And with the human anarchy of the Cyprus world, we can wee, as well, the limits of Venice.
Othello begins, like Hamlet, in darkness, with a whispered conversation between Iago and Roderigo. Something both shocking and surprising has apparently occurred, though it is hard for the moment to know what it is. Roderigo suspects Iago has known all along: ‘Tush, never tell me!’ But Iago protests that he had no idea: ‘If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.’ What is this shocking circumstance that has brought about a meeting in the dark of night? It is simply the news of a marriage. The traditional end of comedy, marriage here has become the beginning of tragedy.
For this is the marriage of ‘black’ Othello, the Moor, and ‘fair’ Desdemona, Brabantio’s ornate Venetian window that Iago and Roderigo now huddle and make themselves that most terrifying of all human disruptions of order: a voice crying out in the night. ‘Awake, what ho, Brabantio, thieves, thieves, thieves!/Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags.’ On the upper stage, peering out of his palace window, Brabantio appears, puzzled and annoyed but not yet really frightened: ‘What is the reason of this terrible summons?/What is the matter here?’ And more pointedly, ‘What tell’st thou me of robbing? This is Venice./My house is not a grange.’ The wishful confident surety of his language tells all: this is Venice, home of order and ‘reason,’ not a grange, a farmhouse, a barnyard. But no sooner does he make this confident assertion than the air is split with images of animals and bestial sexuality: ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.’ ‘[Y]ou’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have coursers for cousins and jennets for germans.’ The voice is, of course, that of Iago, who will speak throughout the play in animal language, who will plant in Othello’s mind, indelibly, the image of Desdemona and Cassio ‘as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,’ and who will summon as well that other bestial presence, jealousy, the green-eyed monster. ‘What profane wretch are you?’ demands the senator Brabantio, in a tone that may waver between imperiousness and doubt. And the answer comes back strongly, the stronger for its anonymity, emerging out of the darkness: ‘I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beasts with two backs.’ And again: ‘[Y]our fair daughter, At this odd-even and dull watch o’ th’ night,’[is] Transported…/To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.’
Iago speaks, under the cloak of night, from a moral, as well as a literal, darkness. He cannot be seen; his voice and Roderigo’s come to Brabantio as out of some cosmic mist, and the whole scene has the immediacy and terrifying persuasiveness of nightmare. ‘Give me a taper!’ cries Brabantio. ‘This accident is not unlike my dream…Light, I say, light!’ ‘Accident’ here means ‘occurrence,’ ‘incident,’ ‘event’: Brabantio has already imagined or dreamt this scene, the spectacle of his daughter and Othello in bed. The outcry in the street comes as a confirmation of the inner thoughts he has not acknowledge to himself, thoughts that were censored or blocked by the ‘reason’ that is Venice. And so he calls for light. As the play unfolds, this dichotomy of light and darkness will mirror the dichotomy of Venice and Cyprus. The anarchic scene at Cyprus in act 2, scene 3, where Cassio’s drunkenness, provoked by Iago, leads to public clamor and the awakening of Othello and Desdemona, is structurally identical to this opening scene: a loud noise in the night, the call for silence (‘Silence that dreadful bell’), and a cry for light. And the scenario will repeat itself a third time, for in act 5, scene 1, the wounding of Cassio and the murder of Roderigo take place in darkness, and the cry will again go out for light. In all of these scenes Iago pretends to be the light-bringer, providing order and clarity, although he is in fact the source of chaos. There is an allusive glance here at the name of Lucifer, literally the ‘light-bringer,’ a name for the rebel archangel often used in the early modern period as synonymous with Satan or the Devil. Iago brings light in order to enforce darkness.
Venice and Cyprus. Light and darkness. Black and white.
European languages have loaded the term ‘blackness’ with negativity, in keeping with the privileging of ‘light’ as reason and goodness. This negative valence has spilled over into racial stereotypes; even if it does not originate in them, it overdetermines them. The process continued, indeed escalated, beyond the time of Shakespeare, so that we find, for example, in Richard Steele and Joseph Addison’s Spectator number 459 of 1712 the phrase “[t]he Blackness and Deformity of Vice,’ described as part of ‘the Christian System.’ The issue is unavoidable in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where Aaron the Moor is repeatedly associated with amorality and lust. Much is made in this play of Othello’s blackness, as physical description and supposed moral symbol. Socio-historical discussions about whether Moors were ‘black’ or ‘tawny’ and whether Shakespeare or his sources are conflating northern with southern Africa have their local interest, to be sure, but the play is unambiguous in putting the word ‘black,’ as a complex epithet, in the mouth of Iago, and also in the mouth of the self-doubting Othello. ‘[A]n old black ram,’ Iago calls him, and we will shortly hear Othello himself muse, ‘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.’ (3.3.267-260). Yet Othello is resented by Iago and Roderigo not so much because he is ‘black’ as because he is a stranger in homogenous Venice. He is, as Roderigo calls him, ‘an extravagant and wheedling stranger/Of here and everywhere,’ a soldier of fortune.
Here then is the key dramatic point, one typically Shakespearean, at the same time establishing and critiquing a stereotype: Othello looks black, but it is Iago who becomes the pole of moral negativity (conventionally, ‘blackness’) in the play. On the other end of this scale, the play represents in emblematic form both false and true images of ‘whiteness,’ since the name of the courtesan, or whore, Bianca means ‘white,’ or ‘the white one,’ Thus we have ‘black Othello,’ and really (i.e., inwardly, morally) black Iago. ‘White” Bianca, and really (i.e., inwardly, morally) white Desdemona. ‘Black’ and ‘white’ here again demarcate a prevailing cultural, linguistic, and symbolic code, mapped onto conventional (Christian) notions of sin and virtue. Although, as the philosopher Stanley Cavell has noted, Desdemona’s name include the word ‘demon’ (Cavell also observes that there is a ‘hell’ in the middle of ‘Othello’), she herself is constantly associated, throughout the play, with images of whiteness and purity; wedding sheets; a handkerchief; skin whiter than snow, and ‘smooth as monumental alabaster.’ It is this purity of spirit that Othello mistakes for sin, just as he mistakes Iago’s malevolence for honesty. The ‘honest’ (that is, chaste and virtuous) Desdemona is accused of dishonesty; the dishonest Iago (insincere, deceitful, lacking in candor and public spirit) is labeled ‘honest’ over and over again in line after line. ‘My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago’ (5.2.161) insists Othello to Emilia when Iago’s perfidy is unmasked, his frantic repetition of the word ‘honest’ an attempt to prove through a kind of magical arithmetic what cannot be found in the evidence before him. The word ‘honest’ as has often been noticed, becomes for the play a pivot of meaning, an emblem of its many false assumptions. When Othello demands what he calls ‘ocular proof,’ visible proof, of Desdemona’s faithfulness, he is asking for exactly this kind of deception, and needless to say he gets it.
The play thus has a strong substructure that links it to the psychomachia, the struggle between two forces, a ‘good angel’ and a ‘bad angel’ for a man’s soul. This is a familiar Shakespearean pattern, which we have often encountered in the history plays, like Richard III and Henry IV, where it was explicitly linked to its medieval origins in the so-called moralities. In Henry IV, the story of Prince Hal, the contest was between Falstaff and King Henry IV; in Othello a very similar contest pits Iago on one side and Desdemona on the other, the two contending for the possession, in the sense of property or ownership and also that of magical or demonic enchantment, of Othello. Iago is in many ways a more sophisticated version of the medieval Vice, that stock character (also explicitly invoked in connection with Richard III and with Falstaff) who was a figure of consummate evil and anarchy, whose purpose was to coax the hero into sin. But another way of understanding this same dramatic situation – a tug-of-war with Othello at its center – is to see both Iago and Desdemona as reflecting aspects of Othello’s own mind. In this case the psychomachia (literally, ‘struggle of the soul’) is taking place within him, and the contest he undergoes is a struggle of conflicting impulses, creative or sexual, anarchic or destructive. Because this is a play, and functions on several levels at once, we need not necessarily choose between the notions of interior and exterior struggle: Iago and Desdemona are real dramatic characters, not hallucinations, although the roles they play are inevitably inflected by Othello’s own fantasies, not only about them, but about himself.
So who is Othello? We have noted that Roderigo, an insular Venetian, calls him ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger/Of here and everywhere,’ and it is plain that Brabantio’s distrust of him comes, in part, from the fact that he does not really fit into the Venetian world. He is a soldier rather than a statesman or a courtier. He is not native to Venice, but comes instead, presumably, from northern Africa, where Mauritania (the place of origin of the ‘Moors’) was located (on the other side of Morocco from where the country Mauritania now lies). From the medieval period through to the seventeenth century, Moors were thought to be black or swarthy, and from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, the term ‘blackamoor’ was used as a synonym for black-skinned African, Ethiopian, Negro, or any dark-skinned person (thus, for example, from Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World: ‘The Negro’s, which we call the BlackeMores’). Equally important, Moors were conventionally Muslims, not Christians. Arguably, Othello’s status as a former non-Christian is as important to the play as his status as a former non-Venetian.
One clue to Othello’s personality, a personality upon which much of the dramatic action will turn, is his decision before that play begins to appoint Cassio – rather than Iago – as his lieutenant. For Cassio is everything that Othello thinks he himself is not. (We may notice that a ‘lieutenant’ – from the French lieu, ‘place’ and tenant, ‘holding’ – is one who holds, or takes, the place of another. The specific military usage, as the officer next in rank to the captain, obviously obtains here, but the more literal sense is ironically that which Othello comes to fear, and Iago to desire.) Cassio is a Florentine, and Florence was for the English Renaissance a center of culture and courtship. Cassio is a ‘great arithmetician’ as Iago complains, that is, a theoretical (or ‘desk’) soldier, a scholar rather than a man of action. Othello admires the courtly Cassio, with his easy good looks and elegant manners, and is all too ready to believe that he could win away Desdemona, could take his captain’s place in her bed We are thus given an indication, before we ever meet Othello, that he is a man who perceives a limitation in himself, a man who doubts his social, though not his martial, abilities. When the audience first catches a glimpse of him, Othello is clearly in control, roused by Iago in act I, scene 2, but, significantly, the figure of speech through which we first hear him describe himself is one of dammed-up energy, of repression, wildness under control:
For know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put unto circumscription and confine
For the seas’ worth.
Love confines him rather than sets him free. ‘[C]ircumscription and confine’ describes a condition of withholding under pressure, and this circumscription will at least burst; in a related image in the middle of the play Othello will speak of his passions as being ‘[;]ike to the Pontic Sea,/Whose icy current and compulsive course/Ne’er knows retiring ebb.’ A compelling phrase like ‘compulsive course,’ although apparently applied only to the speaker as well as to the natural world. Othello’s course of action and reaction is as ‘compulsive’ as any tidal swell.”
More to come in my next post, Sunday evening/Monday morning