“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on.”

Othello

Act Three, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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othello-iagoAct Three:  When Desdemona intervenes on Cassio’s behalf, Iago suggests to Othello that she is doing so for reasons that go beyond mere friendship. Othello is resistant to Iago’s suggestion at first, but as Iago gradually works on him, the idea of her adultery begins to become seem more and more plausible. When Desdemona reappears, she tries to ease her husband’s obvious unease by binding his head with her handkerchief. Iago’s wife Emilia later finds the handkerchief on the floor and gives it to Iago, who immediately seizes upon it as another way to play on Othello’s growing suspicions. Told by Iago that Desdemona has given it to Cassio as a love-token, Othello demands it back from his wife, who, innocently tries to the conversation back to Cassio.  Now fully convinced of her infidelity, Othello decides on revenge.

othello-and-iago 2As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Iago rather than Othello almost seems to be the play’s main character:  he has nearly a third of the lines in the play, many more than Othello, and he has sometimes been seen as almost a surrogate playwright.  He’s the one in control of the plot, and his willingness to improvise to move things along is masterly, a work of malign genius. On their first night in Cyprus, it is Iago who arranges for Cassio to get drunk and start a fight with Roderigo (who has accompanied Iago, goaded, of course, by Iago’s promise that it is only a matter of time before Desdemona is his.) As Iago well knows, that night is also Othello and Desdemona’s already postponed wedding night, which is once again interrupted as Othello strips Cassio of his post right on the spot. Cassio is mortified and desperate to save his “reputation,” and Iago uses that to persuade him that the quickest way to win his way back into the general’s heart is to appeal to his wife. With all the pieces in place, Iago THEN begins to work on Othello.  When the two men are alone, Iago innocently asks, “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,/Know of your love?”

Othello:

He did, from first to last. Why dost thou ask?

Iago:

But for a satisfaction of my thought,

No further harm.

Othello:

Why of thy thought, Iago?

Iago:

I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

Othello:

O yes, and went between us very oft.

Iago:

Indeed?

Othello:

Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?

Is it not honest?

Iago:

Honest, my lord?

Othello:

Honest? Ay, honest.

Iago:

My lord, for aught I know.

Othello:

What dost thou think?

Iago:

Think, my lord?

Othello:

Think, my lord?’ By heaven, thou echo’st me

As if there were some monster in thy thought

Too hideous to be shown! Thou doest mean something.

While what Iago wants Othello to think he “means” is becoming all too clear, the actual honest truth, that the whole thing is a monstrous fiction, will not be exposed until it is far too late. Iago uses his enviable control over language (and himself) to run rings around Othello – hinting and insinuating, while never quite actually stating.  Deniability is a key component of Iago’s game, as is his technique of making sure that it is Othello who is left to construct his own nightmare, to breed his own “monsters.” And it works, horribly. ‘By the world,” Othello, rages at Iago soon afterwards, “I think my wife will be honest, and think she is not.”

I think that thou art just, and think thou art not.

I’ll have some proof. My name, that was as fresh

As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black

As mine own face. If there be cords, or knives,

Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams,

I’ll not endure it.

Once Othello’s feelings are aroused, they will not be assuaged – it is as if he becomes an entirely other person – and over the next scenes of the play his doubts about Desdemona’s faithfulness (and Cassio’s ‘honesty’) will harden into certainty. Iago, typically, is the first to mention the word “jealousy,” planting the seed in Othello’s head, warning him with apparent concern that “It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on’) For his part Othello is already becoming convinced that his “name” is destroyed (as is Cassio!), and that murderous violence is inevitable.

From Marjorie Garber:

othello and iago 3“Yet, as we have noticed, the play is a domestic tragedy, a simple plot with no subplot, no shift of focus away from the major characters, no ‘comic relief’ except for the venal and Vice-like Iago. Othello differs from the other great Shakespearean tragedies in that it does not provide a sympathetic onstage confidant for the audience. In Hamlet there is Horatio; in King Lear, Edgar; in Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarus, in Macbeth, Lennox, Macduff, and the Scottish doctor.  All these voice the dismay we feel, and even try to intercede – as if for us – in the dramatic action. But on onstage in Othello sees the tragedy unfolding in time to stop it; by the time Emilia does so, and Lodovico, in the final scenes, things have gone too far. Our only onstage confidant is Iago, who repeatedly makes us complicit in his designs, by addressing us in asides and soliloquies. Many stories are told of audience members in the theater over the centuries who have risen from their seats and shouted the truth at an unhearing Othello, that Desdemona is chase, that Iago is his enemy, not his friend. But the play is cunningly constructed to keep us out of earshot, unable to insist, like the Duke and Senators in the third scene of the play, that what Othello sees is a ‘pageant’ to keep him in ‘false gaze.’ Until the last act, no one on the stage – except Iago, knows what the audience in the theater knows. So Othello will say,

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul

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

Chaos is come again.

That is characteristic Othello hyperbole, and it will come true. Perdition will catch his soul; chaos will indeed come again. Desdemona is the play’s principle of order, and the magic of love is the only defense against witchcraft and against mere wit. Othello’s loss of faith in Desdemona, like Troilus’s loss of faith in Cressida, and Hamlet’s in Ophelia and Gertrude, will be irreversible in tragic and dramatic terms, so that for a moment black is white, day is night, and they are all ‘turned Turks.’

Thomas Rymer’s notorious account of Othello in his Short View of Tragedy (1693), set out a number of commonsense objections to its plot and tone. For Rymer, writing almost a century after Shakespeare, the play seemed both exaggerated and trivial, not elegant or important. It is worth reviewing some of his objections, both because they are memorably expressed and because some critics, like T.S. Eliot, have been inclined to think that they have never been ‘cogently’ refuted. For other critics, including many in the last decades of the twentieth century, Rymer’s arguments about blackamoors, women, and farce, turned inside out, have been the basis of a renewed scholarly and historical approach to the play. Here is Rymer:

First, this may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how, without their Parent’s consent, they run away with Black-amoors…

     Secondly, this may be a warning to all good wives that they look well to their linen.

Thirdly, this may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical…

So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was this not call’d the ‘Tragedy of the Handkerchief?…

Had it been Desdemona’s Garter, the Sagaious Moor might have smelt a Rat: but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritana, cou’d make any consequence from it.

     We may learn here, that a Woman never loses her Tongue, even tho’ after she is stifl’d…

There is in this Play, some burlesk, some humour, and ramble of Comical Wit, some shew, and some Mimickery to divert the spectators: but the tragical part is, plainly none other, than a Bloody Farce, without salt or savour.

Othello_158To this point we have been considering the play from the point of view of its protagonist, Othello, the noble Moor of Venice. But nothing that happens in this play, from the beginning to the end, the opening nightmare to the final tragic scene of murder and suicide, would have happened without Iago. Othello has his flaws – he lacks confidence in himself as a private man, a Venetian, and, perhaps, a lover – and Desdemona, compared to an ‘entire and perfect chrysolite’ (the topaz, emblematic stone of chastity), is perhaps flawed in being too flawless for the world of tragedy, and the Jacobean world. But it is Iago, always behind the scene, putting words into Roderigo’s mouth, insinuating, dropping a clue here and a handkerchief there, who is the play’s malign and conscienceless stage manager. Who is he, and what are his motives? Why does he set out so relentlessly to ruin Othello and everything he stands for?

Although his name, like Roderigo’s, is Spanish, and may reflect lingering English-Spanish political tensions, Iago is explicitly identified within the play as a Venetian – in fact, in his own mind, as the only true Venetian, since Othello is a Moor, an adventurer, and a stranger, and Cassio an upstart Florentine with fancy manners and a supercilious tone. Like Othello, Iago is jealous of Cassio’s courtly ways: ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life/That makes me ugly’ (5.1.19-20). Iago has, then, a social grievance against both these foreigners, who outrank him and command him in his home city and his home army. But he claims as well more specific motives. In the first scene of the play he claims that he hates Othello because Othello has made Cassio his lieutenant, Iago only his ‘ancient,’ or ensign, his flag-bearer. At the end of the first act he claims that he hates Othello because ‘it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets/He has done my office’ – that Othello has slept with Emilia. In the next scene he claims that he himself now lusts to possess Desdemona in retaliation for the fact that, as he puts it, ‘the lusty Moor/Hath leaped into my seat.’ And he claims that Cassio, too, has slept with Emilia: ‘For I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too.’ So the motives he brings forth are sexual jealousy, political envy, and reputation. Yet none of these seems convincing. Iago is not a man who – like Othello or Cassio – cares about external reputation. When Roderigo rhapsodizes about Desdemona’s ‘blessed condition,’ he is quick to replay: ‘Blessed fig’s end! The wine she drinks is made of grapes.’ He does not seem overly possessive of the pragmatic and practical Emilia. And although his anger at loss of preferment is real, it does not seem entirely adequate to explain his actions. In fact, his motivations seem deliberately crafted, another Iagoan artifice, something made up after the fact to explain the unexplainable, which is, plainly and simply, ‘I hate the Moor.’ This is what the English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity,’ a splendid phrase that we may use to describe the degree, as well as the source, of his destructive passion. Iago is the limit case of hatred; however true or false his reasons, the emotion he feels is in excess of them. Indeed, here is a better place for T.S. Eliot’s phrase ‘emotion in excess of the facts as they appear’ than Hamlet, whose hero’s malaise Eliot described as lacking an adequate ‘objective correlative.’ The point of Iago’s character would seem to be partly in that very excess, that lack of adequation. As we will see, he is not only a figure of hatred and resistance, but also a figure of desire.

Othello_and_IagoIago is in part the medieval Vice, with his sly humor and his constant attempts to win over the soul of the hero for hell. And he is in part a related medieval and Renaissance dramatic character, the so-called parasite, derived form classical drama, who lives off another, toadies to him, and flatters him for whatever he can get. The great exemplar of this in early modern English drama is the figure of Mosca (‘the fly’) in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, who serves his master and finally turns the table so that his master serves him. This is what parasites do, and it is what Iago does. Iago is also, at times, explicitly and recognizably satanic, as Othello indicates in that pitiful moment at the close of the play when he is confronted with the fact that Iago has tricked him into murdering the woman who loved him above everything in the world: ‘I look down toward his feet, but that’s a fable. If that thou beest a devil I cannot kill thee.’ Iago has no cloven hoof to show that he is a ‘demi-devil.’ As Adam and Eve also discovered, one of the most dangerous things about the Devil is that he can come in such a flattering disguise.

Hate for hate’s sake. Motiveless malignity. Iago is successful precisely because he has no second dimensions, no doubt, no compassion. From the start he is all action, and he is everywhere. Flatting Othello, and then Roderigo. Shouting out of the darkness, calling for light. Yet notice that in fact he does nothing himself. Cassio, made drunk by Iago, causes disorder among the troops. Roderigo, goaded by Iago, rouses Brabantio and wounds Cassio. Othello, crazed and maddened by Iago, kills Desdemona. Iago has suggested all of this, but he performs none of it. Even the handkerchief is found by Emilia, not by Iago. He is a voice in the dark, living proof that words have enormous power, even though over and over we hear characters in the play deny this. ‘[W]ords are words,’ says Brabantio. ‘I never yet did hear/That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.’ Iago’s words poison everyone who hears them, from Brabantio to Othello. He uses, pertinently, the image of poison in the ear, which played such a crucial and literal part in the death of old Hamlet. And Iago’s use of language is worthy of examination. For just as we noticed that he never really does anything, but instead moves other people to do things, so he never really says anything, but uses language instead to insinuate, to imply, to pull out of imaginations the dark things that are already there. Thus Brabantio recognized the image Iago shouted to him from the darkness (‘This accident is not unlike my dream’). He had already imagined Othello and Desdemona in bed. What Iago did for him, and what he will do for Othello, is not to invent but to confirm his victim’s negative fantasies. His skill is that of a mind reader as much as it is that of a provocateur.

It is a mark of Shakespeare’s habitually brilliant dramatic construction that this one quick, immediate example involving a secondary character (Iago brings Brabantio’s fearful ‘dream’ to life) becomes the template for the major action, the duping of Othello with his own fantasies as bait. For this is Iago’s practice and his strategy: again and again he leads Othello to express his own suspicions, suspicions he has already had, for which Iago’s trumped-up ‘evidence’ comes as both unwelcome and entirely convincing ‘confirmation.’ One of the play’s most effective and most devastating plays-within-the-play functions in exactly this manner, while demonstrating once more the way a ‘pageant’ can keep unsavory onlookers ‘in false gaze.’ In act 3, scene 3, Cassio comes to Desdemona to ask her help in getting Othello’s pardon. Their conversation is brief and formal, and it ends with Cassio’s thanks and unhappy departure. At a distance, Othello and Iago appear on the scene, too far away to hear, and Iago, the opportunist, makes of Cassio’s chastened exit a dumb show that he can interpret.  [MY NOTE:  Does Othello’s possible bad eyesight play a role in this?]  ‘Ha! I like not that,’ he says, as if to himself. Instantly Othello’s attention is caught: ‘What dost thou say?”

Iago:

Nothing my lord. Or if, I know not what.

Othello:

Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

Iago:

Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it,

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing you coming.

Othello:

I do believe ‘twas he.

‘That he would steal away so guilty-like.’ This is a crime by suggestion, the more plausible because it appears to begin with a generous denial: Iago saw ‘nothing’; he ‘cannot think’ that it was Cassio.

The same kind of insinuation is achieved through Iago’s constant function in the play as echo. For as with the many echo poems popular in the period (and like the echo song in John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi), when Iago echoes Othello, he turns the meaning of the word against itself. A good example occurs in the same scene, as Iago casually asks whether Cassio knew early on that Othello was in love with Desdemona:

Othello:

O yes, and went between us very oft.

Iago:

Indeed?

Othello:

Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught in that?

Is it not honest?

Iago:

Honest, my lord?

Othello:

Honest? Ay, honest.

Iago:

My lord, for aught I know.

Othello:

What dost thou think?

Iago:

Think, my lord?

Othello:

Think, my lord?’ By heaven, thou echo’st me

As if there were some monster in thy thought

Too hideous to be shown! Thou doest mean something.

The monster, the green-eyed monster, is in Othello’s thought as much as it is in Iago’s. Otherwise Iago’s insinuations would have no effect. This is one reason it is possible to maintain that Iago is inside as well as outside Othello. Put another way, he is the devil Othello deserves. The same kind of temptation directed as the sexually confident Cassio would have no effect.

Iago as echo remembers Brabantio’s warning, as the wedded couple leaves for Cyprus, and reproduces it at the first opportune time. Brabantio had cautioned, somewhat bitterly, ‘Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see./She has deceived her father, and may thee.’ Iago, repeating this, sows doubt: ‘She did deceive her father, marrying you,/And when she seemed to shake and fear your looks/She loved them most.’  What is implied, and what is left unsaid? Desdemona is deceitful, and unfaithful. The proof of her love, averred in open court, now becomes evidence of her propensity for infidelity.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing;

‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands.

But he that flitches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him.

And makes me poor indeed.

This is the same Iago who urged Roderigo, ‘[P]ut money in thy purse.’ But in talking about good name, about reputation, he aims unerringly at Othello’s weak spot, his public reputation, what we would today, in the language of icons and publicity, call his ‘image.’ How powerful this is a motive is demonstrated appallingly in Othello’s own great speech in this scene, where he prospectively abdicates from public life and soldiering because of Desdemona’s supposed infidelity. What troubles him most about it, tellingly, is that other people will know about his cuckolding:

I had been happy if the general camp,

Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known. O, now for ever

Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content,

Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars

That make ambition virtue! O, farewell,

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality.

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

And O, you mortal engines whose rude throats

Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamours counterfeit,

Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone.

If we decapitate this speech, removing the first two and a half lines, and begin with ‘O, now for ever,’ we get Shakespearean grandeur at full spate, round and resounding, a soldier’s heartfelt reminiscence of what he loved about war. But what the speech as a whole says is something rather different: that since his wife is, as he believes, unfaithful, his professional identity is lost. The private and the public are here completely, and confusedly, intertwined. Furthermore, he would rather that every common soldier in the camp had slept with her and kept it a secret, than that she had had a single affair with his officer-friend, and that the affair had come to his notice. It is Othello’s shame, not Desdemona’s, that he speaks of so feeling here.

It should come as no surprise that only two lines later we hear him address Iago: ‘Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore./Be sure of it. Give me the ocular proof.’ We have already heard Desdemona say she ‘saw Othello’s visage in his mind,’ not in the color his skin. Now Othello, as if he did not comprehend the duplicity of the ‘ocular,’ asks for something he can see. Iago is carefully and calculatingly obtuse:

    [H]ow satisfied, my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on,

Behold her topped?

……….

It was a tedious difficulty, I think,

To bring them to that prospect…

………

     Where’s satisfaction?

It is impossible you should see this,

Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys.

‘Supervisor’ and ‘prospect’ are both words that pertain to vision. Does Othello really want to watch? Again, Iago speaks deliberately. I am not sure, he says, that I can show them to you in bed together. The reason he cannot, of course, is that they have not been in bed together. But Othello is led to read between the lines, to read the ‘truth’ that is not there.

And so Iago goes on to invent ‘proofs,’ to invent, above all, what he describes as Cassio’s dream, in which he claims to have shared a bed with Cassio and heard him betray the fact of the affair:

I lay with Cassio lately.

……..

In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,

Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’

And then, sir, would he grip and wring my hand,

Cry ‘O sweet creature!,’ and then kiss me hard,

As if he plucked up kisses by the roots

That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,

And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate,

That gave thee to the Moor!’

Othello’s response is characteristic – ‘O monstrous, monstrous!’ – and Iago’s likewise: ‘Nay, this was but his dream.’ Once again, Iago chooses the posture of exculpation – Cassio didn’t mean it – leaving Othello, like a naïve Freudian, to conclude that the dream told the truth. But of course there was no dream. Whose homoerotic fantasy is this? Soldiers did share beds as a matter of course, especially in battlefield conditions. But the intensity of the scene, with its literal quotation of words that were never spoken, its anatomical specificity (‘lay his leg o’er my thigh’), and the highly particularized nature of the male-male kiss – these are all inventions. For whom?  For Othello, or for Iago?

All of a sudden we hear of ‘other’ proofs. ‘[T]his may help to thicken other proofs/That do demonstrate thinly.’ ‘If it [the handkerchief] be that, or any that was hers,/It speaks against her with the other proofs.’ What other proofs? There are none. But Othello has demanded proof, has demanded it in legal language, a language that looks ahead to his tragic speech in the final act, ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.’ By claiming that there are no other proofs, Iago increases the persuasive power of what are really no proofs at all. As he himself asserts, aside to the audience,

     Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of holy writ…

Unavoidably, ineluctably, these proofs, piled on top of another, all assembled so quickly and devastatingly in a single scene, act 3, scene 3, lead to a devil’s bargain and the selling of a soul, as Othello and Iago kneel together and swear revenge on the woman her husband now calls a ‘fair devil.’ White is black. False is true. ‘[L]et her live,’ suggests Iago, again the devil’s advocate, leaving Othello to make the stern decision:  she must die. ‘Now art thou my lieutenant,’ he says to Iago, and Iago answers, with a terrifying finality, ‘I am your own for ever.’

Dominic-West-Iago-and-Cla-007The scene, with its two kneeling soldiers, is the parody of a marriage, another displacement of sex and death. This is the only marriage scene we see, and in it Iago displaces the bride, Desdemona, as well as the lieutenant, Cassio. Iago’s complicated with, compounded of love and hatred, is to be the person closest to Othello. His resentment of both Desdemona and Cassio is voiced from the first. By the terms of his plot he has achieved this double goal in a single gesture. The bargain is struck, and, in a sense, the tragedy is already complete.”

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My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning – more on Act Three, including a fascinating interpretation from actor James Earl Jones.

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