Act Two, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Though battered by storms, the Venetians, led by Othello, arrive safely in Cyprus to the news that the Turkish threat has been eliminated. Roderigo is also on Cyprus, and Iago is quick to exploit his jealousy: Persuading him that Desdemona is now in love with Cassio, he encourages him to pick a fight with him later that evening. To make this more likely, Iago gets Cassio drunk and in the ensuing brawl Cassio hits a fellow officer. Dragged from his bed (yet again), Othello demands an explanation, which Iago gives in such a way that – without directly casting blame – Cassio is dismissed. Iago then advises Cassio to get back into Othello’s favor by using Desdemona’s influence; but this secret plan is Iago’s way of convincing Othello that Cassio is having an affair with her.
Othello, it seems, has not the slightest clue that there are forces at work against him. But Iago’s racist insults, delivered while Iago is successfully pretending to be Othello’s closest and most trustworthy companion, take on a more frightening aspect when the action relocates to the island of Cyprus. Posted there in order to confront the encroaching Turks, the party of Venetians – Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, plus soldiers – arrive to the news that the Turkish fleet has been broken up by the storm. But though the military threat has vanished, the threat posed by Iago has not. Trapped as he is in this seemingly suffocating outpost, his plot to devastate the colony and Othello, the man at its center, develops and builds in strength completely uninterrupted.
I’m sure a big question for all of you is this: why is Iago so desperate to destroy Othello? Is being passed over for promotion enough to explain it? The play itself has no real answers – or, instead, provides us with too many answers to believe. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Iago’s “motive-hunting of motiveless malignity,” and though it seems that more literal-minded commentators, critics, and readers have taken up the scattered and often preposterous clues that Iago himself throws to the audience (everything from professional envy to his belief that Othello has “leapt into my seat” by sleeping with his wife), Coleridge, I think, comes closer than most to defining the sense of absolute evil that Iago represents. There is a terrifying void in his center, something that simply cannot be rationalized. (As we’ve seen all to often in real life, including Adam Garza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombers…) In one of Iago’s most chilling soliloquies, he even plays tricks with the one thing that is certain about him – his inexhaustible wickedness. ‘And what’s he then that says I play the villain?’ he taunts,
When this advice is free I give, and honest…?:
Dispensing “advice” to anyone who asks (and those who don’t) under the cover of plain speaking honesty, Iago’s devilishness, as he goes on to boast, lies in his ability to produce “heavenly shows” while at the same time plotting the “blackest sins” imaginable – a triumph of duplicity that will see Othello calling his ensign “honest Iago” until almost the last moment of the play.
Once the Venetians are settled in on Cyprus, Iago sets to work. He does so through the simple act of telling stories – more specifically, a single story, that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Here the power to transform is entirely in the service of evil, outlining his plan to ensnare Desdemona:
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
Relying on his knowledge of human nature, on Desdemona’s open-heartedness and Othello’s absolute trust in his ensign, Iago deftly and remarkably turns each and every “virtue” into a flaw, and each characters into their own most destructive enemy. In this sense, it is as though he’s rewriting Othello itself, which begins in the mode of a comedy, with a marriage achieved against all odds by a rebellious daughter (as in, say, The Merry Wives of Windsor or A Midsummer Night’s Dream), followed by a storm that represents deliverance, not evil – and yet which turns into monstrous tragedy, one that, as Iago boasts, does indeed trap everyone.
From Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning:
Iago knows that an identity that has been fashioned as a story can be unfashioned, refashioned, inscribed anew in a different narrative: it is the fate of stories to be consumed, or, as we say more politely, interpreted.
From Marjorie Garber:
“As if to mirror the impending doom, the next act opens with a storm. Venice was a maritime power, like England, and storms at sea were a common and often catastrophic fact of life. But a Shakespearean storm always has an emotional resonance far beyond the historical or meteorological, whether it is the storm in Twelfth Night that brings Viola and Sebastian to Illyria, the storm in The Tempest that will bring the shipwrecked Neapolitans to Prospero’s island, the storm of omens and portents that disturbed the landscape in Julius Caesar, or the thunder and lightning that assail both Lear and Macbeth. Our modern colloquial term ‘brainstorm’ gives some sense of the ease with which this figure can be seen as an interior as well as an exterior event, as, indeed, does Desdemona’s use of the phrase ‘storm of fortunes’ in describing her love for Othello to the Duke. The storm in Othello is a counterpart of the pervasive sea language we have already noticed: the ‘seas’ worth Othello would not, ordinarily, trade for his freedom; the Pontic sea that is as icy and compulsive as his jealous rage; and, in the final scene of the play, the lines ‘Here is my journey’s end, here is my butt/And very sea-mark of my utmost sail.’ In all these instances it is the language of interior journey as well as exterior storm.
Consider Othello’s greeting to his bride when he lands at Cyprus. ‘O my fair warrior!’ he says. This is affectionate and charming, but the oxymoron, the hint of an Amazonian Desdemona, will shortly usher in the language of civil war. There is a faintly ominous ring to his glad welcome to the end of storm, ‘If it were now to die,/’Twere now to be most happy,’ for, ironically, this will be the last truly happy moment either of them will enjoy. The omnipresent pun on ‘die,’ always operative in Shakespeare’s love tragedies, is especially so in Othello, where sexual consummation is deferred in the interest of war and civic duty, and where the lovers will ultimately die together on a bed fitted with their wedding sheets.
Moreover, the journey to the wild fastnesses of Cyprus is, we quickly learn, entirely futile: ‘News, friends: our wars are done, the Turks are drowned.’ There is no job here for Othello the soldier. His forte is waging external wars against an acknowledged enemy, in this case the barbarous, pagan Turk. But the end of these external wars means, as it does all too often in Shakespeare, the beginning of internal war, civil war: first, the drunken brawling of Cassio and the troops, stage-managed by Iago, and second, the war that ensues within Othello himself, as Iago’s monstrous birth comes to light and reveals itself as the monster jealousy. For Iago, serpent and tempter, is hard at work. Othello’s wars are done, but Iago’s are just beginning.
Once again the time is night, Iago’s natural element, and once again Othello and Desdemona withdraw to their marriage bed, for their marriage is as yet unconsummated. As Iago points out with a leer, it is early in the evening, not yet ten o’clock. ‘Come, my dear love,/The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue./The profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.’ The mercantile language here is Othello’s. The withdrawal of the married lovers allows Iago a clear shot at Cassio. Cassio is, as Iago complains, fastidiously courteous, kissing ladies’ hands and apologizing to their husbands for doing so. He is both patronizing and condescending (boasting that ‘[t]he lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient.’); and above all, he is a bad drinker, whose own eloquence deserts him for drunken mumbling (‘Fore God, an excellent song…Fore God, this is a more exquisite song than the other’), like some Florentine version of Sir Toby Belch. Yet Cassio, though he has his weaknesses and character flaws, does not number lust for Desdemona among them, and Iago fails in his tempter’s dialogue, one of the few comic moments in this relentlessly tragic play:
Iago [speaking of Othello’s early bedtime, with a wink]:
He hath not yet made wonton the night with her, and she is sport for Jove.
Cassio: She’s a most exquisite lady.
Iago: And I’ll warrant her full of game.
Cassio: Indeed, she’s a most fresh and delicate creature.
Iago: What an eye she has! Methinks it sounds a parley to provocation.
Cassio: An inviting eye, and yet, methinks, right modest.
Iago: And when she speaks, it is not an alarum to love?
Cassio: She is indeed perfection.
Iago [giving up]: Well, happiness to their sheets.
He has failed in his attempt to compromise Cassio directly, and – like Milton’s Satan – he will have to resort instead to trickery, to ‘other proofs.’
‘[H]appiness to their sheets.’ This second mention of the wedding sheets will not be the last, and they will emerge in the second half of the play as a powerful emblem of Othello’s fall. ‘Strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated,’ Iago will suggest, and Othello will eagerly concur; “Good, good, the justice of it pleases.’ (4.1.197-199). But Iago’s plot is still in the process of building, and the second night provides him with a scenario very like that of the first night, in Venice, in which to work his designs. Again Roderigo is a willing assistant; again a hue and cry goes up, out of the darkness, the noise and confused shouts and – this is terrifically effective in the theater – a great bell begins to toll. Once again, Othello’s marriage rites – the rites for which Desdemona says she loves him – are interrupted, and Othello storms onto the stage:
From whence ariseth this?
Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that
Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?
Silence that dreadful bell –…
What, in a town of war
Yet wild, the people’s hearts brimful of fear,
To manage private and domestic quarrel
In night, and on the court and guard of safety!
Once again, the private and domestic are monstrous to him:
Honest Iago, that looks dead with grieving,
Speak. Who began this? On thy love I charge thee.
I do not know. Friends all but now, even now,
In quarter and in terms like bride and groom
Devesting them for bed…
“[B]ut now, even now’ – this is an echo, detectable to the audience but not to Othello, of Iago’s urgent statement to Brabantio in the opening scene: ‘Even now, now, very now, an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe.’ And of course the scene is the same, as Iago goes on to insinuate by the use of an astonishingly familiar and insulting simile: the soldiers were ‘[i]n quarter and in terms like bride and groom/Devesting them for bed.’ The actual bride and groom, Desdemona and Othello, were presumably doing just that when the bell began to toll. Was the black ram tupping the white ewe? Or has Iago contrived to arrange that they are once again prevented from consummating their marriage? As always, though, the personal note seems to evade Othello. Even when Desdemona appears he returns to the language of the ‘fair warrior’ and the ‘flinty and steel couch of war’: ‘Come, Desdemona. ‘Tis the soldier’s life/To have their balmy slumbers waked with strife.’
Othello’s problem in the opening acts of the play is fundamentally a refusal to acknowledge the private nature of his own passion and his own person. Ultimately concentrated on the public self, on protecting that elusive entity that Cassio also seeks desperately to protect: ‘Reputation, reputation, reputation – O, I ha’ lost my reputation! I ha’ lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial!’ The speaker is Cassio, but it could easily be the Othello of the late acts. Iago’s trenchant reply marks the difference between him and Cassio coldly and clearly: ‘As I am an honest man, I had thought you had received some bodily wound.’ Why bother with a trifle like reputation? ‘As I am an honest man.’ The hollow refrain of ‘honest’ here echoes throughout the scene, as Iago’s honesty is mentioned four times in a hundred lines. The refractions of this word mark out the territories of the play, for ‘honesty’ in the period has a variety of meanings depending upon subject and context: it can stand for respectability, mortal virtue, female chastity, freedom from disgrace. And ‘honest,’ as an epithet meaning ‘worthy,’ might be used ‘in a patronizing way to an inferior,’ according to The Oxford English Dictionary (definition I.C). Cassio’s ‘honest Iago’ is thus conceivably as much a social put-down as a term of praise. That one man’ or woman’s ‘honesty’ is not the same as another’s is a complex and contestatory truth that lies at the heart of Othello – and of Othello.
It is Othello’s very refusal to regard the personal, to trust his own feelings, that gives Iago the opportunity he seeks, allowing him to divide the world into those who work ‘by wit’ and those who work ‘by witchcraft.’ ‘Thou know’st we work by wit and not by witchcraft,’ he reminds an impatient Roderigo ‘[a]nd wit depends on dilatory time.’ In the broad structure of the play, ‘wit’ is associated with Iago, with Venetian politics, with wordplay and doubleness, with plots and plotting, and with maleness: ‘witchcraft,’ with Africa (Othello the Moor; the Egyptian charmer who gave his mother the fatal handkerchief), with magic, charms, and enchantment, and with women (the charmer; Othello’s mother, Desdemona). ‘Wit and witchcraft’ is another way of saying ‘reason and passion,’ or even ‘Venice and Cyprus.’ And for Desdemona’s appeal to Othello on the grounds of the personal – of friendship for Cassio – however touching, is ultimately doomed. ‘Why, this is not a boon,’ she says. ‘’Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,/Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm.’ (3.3.77-79). She asks Othello to be a private person, to grant leeway to a friend who came with him when he wooed her. But rather like Julius Caesar, who brushed away the warning of the Soothsayer because it pertained to him personally, as an individual rather than as a public man (‘What touches us ourself shall be last served’ [Julius Caesar 3.1.8]), Othello distrusts the personal, and takes refuge in the public self.”
From Bloom, continuing his examination of the doomed relationship of Othello and Desdemona:
“Even in a Venice and a Cyprus without Iago, how does so improbable a romance domesticate itself? The high point of passion between Othello and Desdemona is their reunion on Cyprus:
O my fair warrior!
My dear Othello!
It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have waken’d death!
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
Olympus-high and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! If it were now to die,
‘Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase,
Even as our days do grow!
Amen to that, sweet powers!
I cannot speak enough of this content;
It stops me here; it is too much of joy:
And this, and this, the greatest discords be
That e’er our hearts shall make!
From such an apotheosis one can only descend, even if the answering chorus were not Iago’s aside that he will loosen the strings now so well tuned. Shakespeare (as I have ventured before, following my master, Dr. Johnson), came naturally to comedy and to romance, but violently and ambivalently to tragedy. Othello may have been as painful for Shakespeare as he made it for us. Placing the precarious nobility of Othello and the fragile romanticism of Desdemona upon one stage with the sadistic aestheticism of Iago (ancestor of all modern literary critics) was already an outrageous coup of self-wounding on the poet-dramatist’s part. I am delighted to revive the now scoffed-at romantic speculation that Shakespeare carries a private affliction, an erotic vastation, into the high tragedies, Othello in particular. Shakespeare is, of course, not Lord Byron, scandalously parading before Europe the pageant of his own bleeding heart, yet the incredible agony we rightly undergo as we observe Othello murdering Desdemona has a private as well as public intensity informing it. Desdemona’s murder is the crossing point between the overflowing cosmos of Hamlet and the cosmological emptiness of Lear and of Macbeth.
Shakespeare invents in Iago a sublimely sadistic comic poet, an archon of nihilism who delights in returning his war god to an uncreated night. Can you invent Iago without delighting in your invention, even as we delight in our ambivalent reception of Iago?
Iago is not larger than his play, he perfectly fits it, unlike Hamlet, who would be too large even for the most unlimited of plays. I have noted already that Shakespeare made significant revisions to what is spoken by Othello, Desdemona, and Emilia (even Roderigo) but not by Iago; it is as though Shakespeare knew he had gotten Iago right the first time round. No villain in all literature rivals Iago as a flawless conception, who requires no improvement. Swinburne was accurate: ‘the most perfect evildom, the most potent demi-devil.,’ and ‘a reflection by hell-fire of the figure of Prometheus.’ A Satanic Prometheus may at first appear too High Romantic, yet the pyromaniac Iago encourages Roderigo to a
As when by night and negligence the fire
Is spied in populous cities.
According to the myth, Prometheus steals fire to free us; Iago steals us, as fresh fodder for the fire. He is an authentic Promethean, however negative, because who can deny that Iago’s fire is poetic? The hero-villains of John Webster and Cyril Tourneur are mere names on the page when we contrast them with Iago; they lack Promethean fire. Who else in Shakespeare, except for Hamlet and Falstaff, is so creative as Iago? These three alone can read your soul, and read everyone they encounter. Perhaps Iago is the recompense that the Negative demanded to counterbalance Hamlet, Falstaff, and Rosalind. Great wit, like the highest irony, needs an inner check in order not to burn away everything else: Hamlet’s disinterestedness, Falstaff’s exuberance, Rosalind’s graciousness. Iago is nothing at all, except critical; there can be no inner check when the self is an abyss. Iago has the single affect of sheer gusto, increasingly aroused as he discovers his genius for improvisation.
Shakespeare’s finest achievement in Othello is Iago’s extraordinary mutations, prompted by his acute self-overhearing as he moves through his eight soliloquies, and their supporting asides. From tentative, experimental promptings on to excited discoveries, Iago’s course develops into a triumphal march, to be ended only by Emilia’s heroic intervention. Much of the theatrical greatness of Othello inheres in this triumphalism, in which we unwillingly participate. Properly performed, Othello should be a momentary trauma for its audience. Lear is equally catastrophic, where Edmund triumphs consistently until the duel with Edgar, but Lear is vast, intricate, and varied, and not just in its double plot. In Othello, Iago is always at the center of the web, ceaselessly weaving his fiction, and snaring us with dark magic: Only Prospero is comparable, a luminous magus who in part is Shakespeare’s answer to Iago.
You can judge Iago to be, in effect, a misreader of Montaigne, as opposed to Hamlet, who makes of Montaigne the mirror of nature. Kenneth Gross shrewdly observes that ‘Iago is at best a nightmare image of so vigilant and humanizing a pyrrhonism as Montaigne’s.’ Pyrrhonism, or radical skepticism, is transmuted by Hamlet into disinterestedness; Iago turns it into a war against existence, a drive that seeks to argue that there is no reason why anything should be, at all. The exaltation of the will, in Iago, emanates from an ontological lack so great that no human emotion possibly could fill it:
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 tine, 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, whereof I take this that
you call love to be a sect or scion.
(I, iii, 320-33)
‘Virtue’ here means something like ‘manly strength,’ while by ‘reason’ Iago intends only his own absence of significant emotion. This prose utterance is the poetic center of Othello, presaging Iago’s conversion of his leader to a reductive and diseased vision of sexuality. We cannot doubt that Othello loves Desdemona; Shakespeare also may suggest that Othello is amazingly reluctant to make love to his wife. As I read the play’s text, the marriage is never consummated, despite Desdemona’s eager desires.”
More on this in my next post (Thursday evening/Friday morning) in the meantime…any thoughts on the subject?