“Othello’s tragedy is precisely that Iago should know him better than the Moor knows himself.”


Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


First off – a few interesting points (or at least hopefully so):

1.  What prompted Shakespeare to write Othello?  One intriguing possibility is that the ambassador of the King of Barbary arrived in England in August 1600, for a ‘half year’s abode in London, and naturally, being Muslims and “strange in their ways” they caused quite a stir.  And since Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed at court during the Christmas season (1600-1601), it seems not at all unlikely that he might have encountered “the Barbarians” (as they were known).

One other point – this is a portrait of the Moorish ambassador.  Could it be a portrait of Othello?


2.  Venice in the 16th century.  Keep in mind that it was a powerful city state, with roughly the population of London, and Europe’s most powerful trade link with north Africa and the East.

Perhaps even more important to keep in mind was this:  at the time the play was written, Venice was seen as the pleasure capital of Europe, especially in its sexual tolerance.  It courtesans were particularly renowned, so much so that Lord Byron, who was not the most shockable of men, wrote from Venice in 1817 that the state of morals,

“is much the same as in the Doges’ time; a woman is virtuous (according to the code) who limits herself to her husband and one lover; those who have two, three, or more, are a little wild; but…only those who are indiscriminately diffuse…are considered as overstepping the modesty of marriage.”

The history of costumes in Venice shows that courtesans and “ladies” dressed the same (again the idea of appearance in the play), and as Iago will point out to great effect, Venetian wives both look and behave like courtesans:

I know our country disposition well –

In Venice they do let God see the pranks

They dare not show their husbands…


Given that, why should Desdemona be any different?  It’s possible that one of the reasons Othello believes Iago is for the simple reason that his wife IS Venetian, and the city’s reputation for sexual licentiousness helps to convince him.

I took you for that cunning whore of Venice

That married with Othello.


3.  Is it possible that Othello has bad eyesight?  In his very first scene, Othello asks “But look, what lights come yond?” and Iago tells him, “Those are the raised father and his friends.”  And then, a moment later, he asks again, “Is it they”, and then twenty lines later, when Brabantio finally appears, Iago sees him first and reports, “It is Brabantio, general, be advised.”  Is Shakespeare suggesting that Othello sees less clearly than Iago, and that he depends on Iago to be his eyes?  And while it could be argued here that Iago might be working in the role of lookout, but what about later on, when Othello again asks Iago, “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife? (3.3.37) and, asked whether he had seen the very distinctive handkerchief “Spotted with strawberries,” he still needs confirmation, “Was that mine?” (3.3.438, 4.1.171).  And again, when Lodovico unexpectedly arrives, Iago jumps to Othello’s aid again, “’Tis Lodovico, this, comes from the duke.  See, your wife’s him.” (4.1.214).  Does this help to explain Othello’s trust (and dependence on Iago?  And does it add additional meaning to lines like Iago’s such as “Look to her, Moore, if thou hast eyes to see” and “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio.”?


Now, to continue with Garber:


othello_small_004“The main accusation against Othello in the opening scenes is that he has used some kind of black magic to bewitch Desdemona and win her affections. Thus Brabantio lashes out at him: ‘O thou foul their, where hast thou stowed my daughter?/Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her.’  It must be witchcraft – what else could lead Desdemona to stray so far from parental and civic expectations to fall in love with a stranger and a black man?  As Brabantio insists in his complaint to the Duke,

A maiden never bold,

Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion

Blushed at herself – and she in spite of nature,

Of years, of country, credit, everything,

To fall in love with what she feared to look on!

To the father, witchcraft is the only plausible explanation. But Othello, with a quiet dignity, and the same soldier’s reticence he had shown in the previous scene, preempts the forthcoming accusation:

Rude am I in my speech,

And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace.


And little of this great world can I speak

More than pertains to feats of broils and battle.

And therefore little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnished tale deliver

Of my whole course of love, what drugs, what charms,

What conjuration and what mighty magic –

For such proceeding I am charged withal –

I won his daughter.

What is Othello’s witchcraft?  Language – the source of ‘charm’ (from the Latin Carmen, ‘song’) and magic. A ‘round unvarnished tale.’ Despite his Antony-like protestation “Rude am in my speech’ (compare ‘I am no orator as Brutus was’ [Julius Caesar 3.2.208]), Othello has enchanted Desdemona with his story of himself.  In fact, Othello’s language throughout the play is so resoundingly beautiful that generations of critics, following G. Wilson Knight, have called it ‘the Othello music.’ The story of his courtship, as he relates it, is both charming and domestic, though it casts Desdemona in a conventional gender role, as admiring onlooker, that will incorporate its own dangers:

Her father loved me, oft invited me,

Still questioned me the story of my life


Wherein I spoke of most disastrous chances,

Of moving accidents by flood and field,

Of hair-breadth scapes i’th’ imminent deadly breach,

Of being taken by the insolent foe

And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence,

And portance in my traveller’s history,

Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,

Rough qurries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven,

It was my hint to speak. Such was my process,

And of the cannibals that each other eat,

The Anthrophagi, and men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear

Would Desdemona seriously incline,

But still the house affairs would draw her thence,

Which ever as she could with haste dispatch

She’d come again, and with a greedy ear

Devour up my discourse…


     My story being done,

She gave me for my pains a world of kisses.

She swore, in faith ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange,

‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful

She wished she had not heard it, yet she wished

That heaven had made her such a man. She thanked me,

And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,

I should but teach him how to tell my story,

And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake.

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,

And I loved her that she did pity them.

This only is the witchcraft I have used.

Othello’s is a spellbinding story, out of the tradition of romance and epic, complete with monsters, deserts, caves, and cannibals, with the added appeal that it is ‘true.’ Indeed the magical language works upon the Duke as it worked upon Desdemona: ‘I think,’ he says, ‘this tale would win my daughter, too.’  As we will see, it is only when Othello loses language, loses this capacity to enchant through speech, that he loses the vestiges of ‘civilization,’ which his speech here clearly praises and exemplifies, and that his tragedy begins. Yet there is something very curious about this tale of courtship. ‘She loved me for the dangers I had passed,/And I loved her that she did pity them.’ This is a public, not a personal, perception. She loved me for what I did; I loved her because she admired me. As he will over and over again, Othello here confuses the personal with the public, the outer with the inner man. His own defensiveness, which coexists with his pride (‘Rude am I in my speech’; ‘Haply for I am black,/And have not those soft parts of conversation/That chamberers have’) causes him to misunderstand, radically and tragically, the nature of love in general and Desdemona’s love for him in particular. For when Desdemona appears, as she does in the very next moment, it becomes quite plain that this is not how she would describe their courtship.

Desdemona’s actions and language may remind us of all the other Shakespearean women who face what seems to them to be a choice between father and lover:  Juliet, Rosalind, Cressida, Isabella, Ophelia. Of them all, she is perhaps the most forthright and unambiguous:


Come hither, gentle mistress.

Do you perceive in all this noble company

Where most you owe obedience?


My noble father,

I do perceive here a divided duty.

To you I am bound for life and education.

My life and education both to learn me

How to respect you. You are the lord of duty,

I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband,

And so much duty as my mother showed

To you, preferring you before her father,

So much I challenge that I may profess

Due to the Moor my lord.

Brabantio and The MoorThere is no hesitation here, no doubt or artificial coyness. Where Othello speaks of something like hero worship, Desdemona speaks of love, and of a love that is frankly sexual as well as romantic. They had been interrupted on their wedding night, and now the duke proposes to send Othello to Cyprus to quell the Turks, leaving Desdemona behind. Othello is willing to go: ‘The tyrant custom, most grave senators,/Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war/My thrice-driven bed of down.’ But Desdemona is resolute and determined to go with him, and her speech proclaims a love that will give the lie to any dependence upon mere appearances, upon ‘ocular proof’:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,

My downright violence and storm of fortunes

May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued

Even to the very quality of my lord.

I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,

And to his honours and his valiant parts

Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate;

So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,

A moth of peace, and he go to the war,

The rites for why I love him are bereft me,

And I a heavy interim shall support

By his dear absence. Let me go with him.

Her eloquent certainty may remind us of Juliet’s speech of love-longing for Romeo (‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds,/Toward Phoebus’ lodging’ [Romeo and Juliet 3.2.1-2]). Desdemona is from the first open, generous, sure of herself [MY NOTE:  She knows what she wants.] – unlike Othello.  There is no self-doubt here.

In the council chamber scene, and at several key points thereafter, Desdemona will present herself as a social actor in the context of an otherwise man-to-man negotiation: here, and again when she tried to intervene on the side of Cassio, and indeed in the original offstage scene of wooing, when she paused in her housework to overhear and ultimately to participate in the conversation between Othello and her father. Othello’s notions of woman hood are, it appears, more conventional than Desdemona’s. He prefers a posture of obedience and admiration (‘She loved me for the dangers I had passed’), a woman who ‘knows her place’ and does not overstep it; yet as Iago will be quick to observe on the first opportune occasion: ‘She did deceive her father, marrying you’ (3.3.210). Desdemona’s outspokenness in the council chamber scene is welcome to her husband, but it is a harbinger of trouble ahead. She had told him she wished that ‘heaven had made her such a man,’ but he does not want her to act like a man in the political sphere.

Furthermore, her erotic frankness poses its own dangers. Othello is quick to declare that his own motives for wishing her companionship at Cyprus are not carnal: ‘I therefor beg it not/To please the palate of my appetite,/Not to comply with heat – the young affects/In me defunct.’ Once again we hear from Othello a denial of appetite and personal desire, a denial of the private man. Whether he is protesting too much against a perceived stereotype of the sexually appetitive black man, or merely declaring his own imperviousness to overweening passion, his assertion here draws a line: I am too old and too controlled to be driven by ‘young affects.’ Here it is a boast, but how soon the coin will flip the other way, and he will be convinced that Desdemona could indeed be unfaithful to him, ‘for I am declined/Into the vale of years.’ A failure to reconcile public and private feelings leaves him with no space for self-knowledge. The clearest danger signal here is his willingness to deny and postpone sexual love; it is as if, in proving himself a civilized man, worthy of the title of Venetian, he has to prove he is more than a man, that he must compensate for his own ordinary humanity. Othello seems to project a need to be seen as a superhuman, and is driven as a consequence, into a situation of uncontrollable and destructive passion. With his mythical exploits against cannibals and monsters, his heroic status as the only man who can defend Venice in a time of crisis, Othello never takes the time to see himself as a man.

NDVD_222-1Significantly, at the end of the first act, the act that centers on Othello’s marriage, the only pregnancy is that of Iago’s plot against him: ‘I ha’t. It is ingendered. Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.’  These are the last lines of the act, and again they come out of the darkness, as in scene after scene Iago remains onstage and speaks to the audience in soliloquy, plotting his devices, gulling Roderigo and playing on his lusts. For Roderigo is Othello’s opposite in terms of sexual passion – incontinently lustful, willing to do anything and spend any sum in order to enjoy Desdemona’s body. The first act, then, opens in darkness and closes in darkness, its brief glimpse of Venetian order and reason a prelude to tragedy.”


From Bloom:

“Since the world is Iago’s, I am scarcely done expounding him, and will examine him again in an overview of the play, but only after brooding upon the many enigmas of Othello. Where Shakespeare granted Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth an almost continuous and preternatural eloquence, he chose instead to give Othello a curiously mixed power of expression, distinct yet divided, and deliberately flawed. Iago’s theatricialism is superb, but Othello’s is troublesome, brilliantly so. The Moor tells us that he has been a warrior since he was seven, presumably a hyperbole but indicative that he is all too aware his greatness has been hard won. His professional self-awareness is extraordinarily intense; partly this is inevitable, since he is technically a mercenary, a black soldier of fortune who honorably serves the Venetian state. And yet his acute sense of his reputation betrays what may well be an uneasiness, sometimes manifested in the baroque elaborations of his language, satirized by Iago as ‘a bombast circumstance,/Horribly stuffed with epithets of war.’

Lenny-Henry-as-Othello-002A military commander who can compare the movement of his mind to the ‘icy current and compulsive course’ of the Pontic (Black) Sea, Othello seems incapable of seeing himself except in grandiose terms. He presents himself as a living legend or walking myth, nobler than any antique Roman. The poet Anthony Hecht thinks we are meant to recognize ‘a ludicrous and nervous vanity’ in Othello, but Shakespeare’s adroit perspectivism evades so single a recognition. Othello has a touch of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in him; there is an ambiguity in both figures that makes it very difficult to trace the demarcations between their vainglory and their grandeur. If you believe in the war god Caesar (as Antony does) or in the war god Othello (as Iago once did), then you lack the leisure to contemplate the god’s failings. But if you are Cassius, or the postlapsarian Iago, then you are at pains to behold the weaknesses that mask as divinity. Othello, like Caesar, is prone to refer himself in the third person, a somewhat unnerving habit, whether in literature or in life. And yet, again like Julius Caesar, Othello believes his own myth, and to some extent we must also, because there is authentic nobility in the language of his soul. That there is opacity also, we cannot doubt; Othello’s tragedy is precisely that Iago should know him better than the Moor knows himself.

Othello is a great commander, w ho knows war and the limits of war but who knows little else, and cannot know that he does not know.  His sense of himself is very large, in that its scale is vast, but he sees himself from afar as it were; up close, he hardly confronts the void at his center. Iago’s apprehension of that abyss is sometimes compared to Montaigne’s; I sooner would compare it to Hamlet’s, because like one element in the infinitely varied prince of Denmark, Iago is well beyond skepticism and has crossed into nihilism. Iago’s most brilliant insight is that if he was reduced to nothingness by Cassio’s preferment, then how much more vulnerable Othello must be, lacking Iago’s intellect and game-playing will. Anyone can be pulverized, in Iago’s view, and in this drama he is right. There is one in the play with the irony and wit that alone could hold off Iago. Othello is consciously theatrical but quite humorless, and Desdemona is a miracle of sincerity. The terrible painfulness of Othello is that Shakespeare shrewdly omits any counterforce to Iago. In King Lear, Edmund also confronts no one with the intellect to withstand him, until he is annihilated by the exquisite irony of having created the nameless avenger who was once his gull, Edgar. First and last, Othello is powerless against Iago, that helplessness is the most harrowing element in the play, except perhaps for Desdemona’s double powerlessness, in regard both to Iago and to her husband.

It is important to emphasize the greatness of Othello, despite all his inadequacies of language and of spirit. Shakespeare implicitly celebrates Othello as a giant of mere being, an ontological splendor, and so a natural man self-raised to an authentic if precarious eminence. Even if we doubt the possibility of the purity of arms, Othello plausibly represents that lost ideal. At every point, he is the antithesis of Iago’s ‘I am not what I am,’ until he begins to come apart under Iago’s influence. Manifestly, Desdemona has made a wrong choice in a husband, and yet that choice testifies to Othello’s hard-won splendor. These days, when so many academic critics are converted to the French fashion of denying the self, some of them happily seize upon Othello as a fit instance. They undervalue how subtle Shakespeare’s art can be; Othello indeed may seem to prompt James Calderwood’s Lancanian observation:

‘Instead of a self-core discoverable at the center of his being, Othello’s ‘I am’ seems a kind of internal repertory company, a ‘we are.’’

If Othello, at the play’s start, or at its close, is only the sum of his self-descriptions, then indeed he could be judged a veritable picnic of souls. But his third-person relation to his own images of self testifies not to a ‘we are’ but to a perpetual romanticism at seeing and describing himself. To some degree, he is a self-enchanter, as well as the enchanter of Desdemona. Othello desperately wants and needs to be the protagonist of a Shakespearean romance, but alas he is the hero-victim of this most painful Shakespearean domestic tragedy of blood. John Jones makes the fine observation that Lear in the Quarto version is a romance figure, but then is revised by Shakespeare into the tragic being of the Folio text. As Iago’s destined gull, Othello presented Shakespeare with enormous problems in representation. How are we to believe in the essential heroism, largeness, and loving nature of so catastrophic a protagonist? Since Desdemona is the most admirable image of love in all Shakespeare, how are we to sympathize with her increasingly incoherent destroyer, who renders her the unluckiest of all wives? Romance, literary and human, depends on partial or imperfect knowledge. Perhaps Othello never gets beyond that, even in his final speech, but Shakespeare shrewdly frames the romance of Othello within the tragedy of Othello, and thus solves the problem of sympathetic representation.

Othello is not a ‘poem unlimited,’ beyond genre, like Hamlet, but the romance elements in its three principal figures do make it a very uncommon tragedy. Iago is a triumph because he is in exactly the right play for an ontotheological villain, while the charitable Desdemona is superbly suited to this drama as well. Othello cannot quite fit in, but then that it his socio-political dilemma, the heroic Moor commanding the armed forces of Venice, sophisticated in its decadence then as now. Shakespeare mingles commercial realism and visionary romance in his portrait of Othello, and the mix necessarily is unsteady, even for this greatest of all makers. Yet we do Othello wrong to offer him the show of violence, whether by unselfing him or by devaluing his goodness. Iago, nothing if not critical, has a keener sense of Othello than most of us now tend to achieve:

The Moor is of a free and open nature

That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.

There are not many in Shakespeare, or in life, that are ‘of a free and open nature’: to suppose that we are to find Othello ludicrous or paltry is to mistake the play badly. He is admirable, a tower among men, but soon enough he becomes a broken tower. Shakespeare’s own Hector, Ulysses, and Achilles, in his Troilus and Cressida, were all complex travesties of their Homeric originals (in George Chapman’s version), but Othello is precisely Homeric, as close as Shakespeare desired to come to Chapman’s heroes. Within his clear limitations, Othello indeed is ‘noble’: his consciousness, prior to his fall, is firmly controlled, just, and massively dignified, and has its own kind of perfection. Reuben Brower admirably said of Othello that ‘his heroic simplicity was also heroic blindness. That too is part of the ‘ideal’ hero, part of Shakespeare’s metaphor.’ The metaphor, no longer quite Homeric, had to extend to the professionalism of a great mercenary soldier and a heroic black in the service of a highly decadent white society. Othello’s superb professionalism is at once his extraordinary strength and his tragic freedom to fall. The love between Desdemona and Othello is authentic, yet might have proved catastrophic even in the absence of the daemonic genius of Iago. Nothing in Othello is marriageable: his military career fulfills him completely. Desdemona, persuasively innocent in the highest of senses, falls in love with the pure warrior in Othello, and he falls in love with her love for him, her mirroring of his legendary career. Their romance is his own pre-existent romance, the marriage does not and cannot change him, though its changes his relationship to Venice, in the highly ironic sense of making him more than ever an outsider.

Othello’s character has suffered the assaults of T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis and their various followers, but fashions in Shakespeare criticism always vanish, and the noble Moor has survived his denigrators. Yet Shakespeare has endowed Othello with the authentic mystery of being a radically flawed hero, an Adam too free to fall. In some respects, Othello is Shakespeare’s most wounding representation of male vanity and fear of female sexuality, and so of the male equation that makes the fear of cuckoldry and the fear of mortality into a single dread. Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale, is partly a study in repressed homosexuality, and thus his virulent jealousy is of another order than Othello’s. We wince when Othello, in his closing apologia, speaks of himself as one not easily jealous, and we wonder at his blindness. Still we never doubt his valor, and this makes it even stranger that he at least matches Leontes in jealous madness.  Shakespeare’s greatest insight into male sexual jealousy is that it is a mask for the fear of being castrated by death. Men imagine that there never can be enough time and space for themselves, and they find in cuckoldry, real or imaginary, the image of their own vanishing, the realization that the world will go on without them.

Othello sees the world as a theater for his professional reputation, this most valiant of soldiers has no fear of literal death in battle, which only would enhance his glory. But to be cuckolded by his own wife, and with his subordinate Cassio as the other offender, would be a greater, metaphorical death in life, for his reputation would not survive it, particularly in his own view of his mythic renown. Shakespeare is sublimely daemonic, in a mode transcending even Iago’s genius, in making Othello’s vulnerability exactly consonant with the wound rendered to Iago’s self-regard by being passed over for promotion. Iago says, “I am not what I am;’ Othello’s loss of ontological dignity would be even great had Desdemona ‘betrayed him’ (I place the word between quotation marks, because the implicit metaphor involved is a triumph of male vanity). Othello all too self-consciously has risked his hard-won sense of his own being in marrying Desdemona, and he has an accurate foreboding of chaotic engulfment should that risk prove a disaster:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul

But I do love thee! and when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.

(III, iii.90-92)

An earlier intimation of Othello’s uneasiness is one of the play’s subtlest touches:

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


Othello’s psychological complexity has to be reconstructed by the audience from his ruins, as it were, because Shakespeare does not supply us with the full foreground. We are given the hint that but for Desdemona, he never would have married, and indeed he himself describes a courtship on which he was essentially passive:

This to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline:
But still the house-affairs would draw her thence:
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She’ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse: which I observing,
Took once a pliant hour, and found good means
To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart
That I would all my pilgrimage dilate,
Whereof by parcels she had something heard,
But not intentively: I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffer’d. My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Robeson

Peggy Ashcroft and Paul Robeson

That is rather more than a ‘hint,’ and nearly constitutes a boldly direct proposal, on Desdemona’s part. With the Venetian competition evidently confined to the likes of Roderigo, Desdemona is willingly seduced by Othello’s naïve but powerful romance of the self, provocative of that ‘world of kisses.’ The Moor is not only noble; his saga brings ‘a maiden never bold’ (her father’s testimony) ‘to fall in love with what she feared to look on.’ Desdemona, a High Romantic centuries ahead of her time, yields to the fascination of quest, if yields can be an accurate word for so active a surrender.  No other match in Shakespeare is so fabulously unlikely, or so tragically inevitable.”

More to come…

Our next reading:  Othello, Act Two

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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2 Responses to “Othello’s tragedy is precisely that Iago should know him better than the Moor knows himself.”

  1. Mahood says:

    …as we are on Othello, see from today’s Guardian, online:


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