“Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,/Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof:”


Act Three, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams



Othello persuades himself that he is acting rationally by demanding “some proof” of Desdemona’s infidelity, but he fails to take into account Iago’s skill at manipulation – or the mysterious workings of chance.  As Iago had planned, Othello’s is “a jealousy so strong/That judgment cannot cure,’ and he will be convinced by what seems to be the flimsiest of grounds.  That “proof,” absurdly, is a handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries,” that Desdemona happens to drop. Seized on by Emilia, who hands it over to her husband, the handkerchief then makes it way to Cassio’s chamber and becomes the sole piece of evidence proving Desdemona’s guilt. As Iago jubilantly (and rightfully) declares, “trifles light as air/Are to the jealous confirmations strong/As proofs of holy writ.”  Thomas Rymer, who famously belittled (as we read in my last post) Othello as a “bloody farce,” irreverently suggested that it should be called “the Tragedy of the Handkerchief,” and while few have been brave enough to defend him, Rymer, I think, does put his finger on the absolute horror of what the play presents:  a husband, clearly in love with his wife, who is persuaded into murderous jealousy by mere gossip, with a wife sent to her death by a “little napkin” – even if, as Othello later claims, that the handkerchief was woven for his mother and has “magic in the web of it.” But, maybe, that IS the point – even the tiniest or apparently most insignificant details are put under huge pressure by this play, and when they fail to take the weight, the whole tragedy collapses with spectacular force. Desdemona’s well-meaning, innocent eagerness to help Cassio comes back against her; Emilia’s attempts to earn her husband’s love make her an unwitting accessory to his plot.

The play’s greatest perversity, though, is seemingly built into its very structure.  Othello is the site of one of Shakespeare’s most virtuosic theatrical coups, the so=-called “double time-scheme.” Othello and Desdemona have, on one level of the play, almost implausibly little time together: their new marriage is threatened first by her father’s angry intervention, then by the news that Othello must be sent to Cyprus; in the same way, their wedding-night is interrupted by Cassio’s brawl (leading some critics to infer that the match remains unconsummated – I tend to go with this), and then by the witless group of musicians he pays to play outside their window in a misguide attempt to win back Othello’s favor.  It has been no more than 33 hours – just under a day and a half.  On stage, of course, Othello FEELS much longer, seemingly lengthened by Shakespeare’s scattered gestures to more extended time periods. The effect is of a play at once too long and too short:  long enough for Othello and Desdemona’s marriage to feel genuinely convincing, yet short enough for it to be insecure; short enough for Iago’s plot to remain secret, yet long enough for it to works it way to completion. Though he is ignorant of it, Othello picks up on this impossible, torturing tension (to those on stage and us in the audience). “What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?” he cries,

I saw’t not, though it not; it harmed not me …

He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol’n,

Let him not know’t and he’s not robbed at all.

Those “sto’ln hours” are, of course an impossibility; there is simply no time available in the action of the play (even if there were reason) for Desdemona to be unfaithful. Shakespeare steals time from us too, just as Iago steals from Othello his mind. Time, it seems, is just another ingredient of Iago’s plot.

From Bloom:

iago“Iago’s terrible greatness (what else can we term it?) is also Shakespeare’s triumph over Christopher Marlowe, whose Barabas, Jew of Malta, had influenced the young Shakespeare so fiercely. We can observe that Iago transcends Barabas, just as Prospero is beyond Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. One trace of Barabas abides in Iago, though transmogrified by Shakespeare’s more glorious villain: self-delight. Exuberance or gusto, the joy of being Sir John Falstaff, is parodied in Iago’s negative celebrations, and yet to considerable purpose. Emptied out of significant being, Iago mounts out of his sense of injured merit in his new pride of attainments: dramatist, psychologist, aesthetic critic, diabolic analyst, countertherapist.  His uncreation of his captain-general, the return of the magnificent Othello to an original chaos, remains the supreme negation in the history of Western literature, far surpassing the labors of his Dostoevskian disciples: Svidrigailov and Stravrogin, and of his American pupils, Claggart in Melville’s Billy Budd and Shrike in Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts. The only near-rivals to Iago are also his students, Milton’s Satan and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge in Blood Meridian. Compared with Iago, Satan is hampered by having to work on too cosmic a scale: all of nature goes down with Adam and Eve. McCarthy’s Judge, the only character in modern fiction who genuinely frightens me, is too much bloodier than Iago to sustain the comparison. Iago stabs a man or two in the dark, the Judge scalps Indians and Mexicans by the hundreds. By working in so close to his prime victim, Iago becomes the Devil-as-matador, and his only best aficionado, since he is nothing if not critical. The only first-rate Iago I have ever seen was Bob Hoskins, who surmounted his director’s flaws in Jonathan Miller’s BBC television Othello of 1981, where Anthony Hopkins as the Moor sank without a trace by being faithful to Miller’s Leavisite (or Eliotic) instructions. Hoskins, always best as a gangster, caught many of the accents of Iago’s underworld pride in his own preternatural wiliness, and at moments showed what a negative beatification might be, in the pleasure of undoing one’s superior at organized violence. Perhaps Hoskins’ Iago was a shade more Marlovian than Shakespearean, almost as though Hoskins (or Miller) had The Jew of Malta in mind, whereas Iago is refined beyond that farcical an intensity.

Triumphalism is Iago’s most chilling yet engaging mode; his great soliloquies and asides march to an intellectual music matched in Shakespeare only by aspects of Hamlet, and by a few rare moments when Edmund descends to self-celebration. Iago’s inwardness, which sometimes echoes Hamlet’s enhances his repellent fascination for us. How can a sensible emptiness be so labyrinthine? To trace the phases of Iago’s entrapment of Othello should answer that question, at least in part. But I pause here to deny that Iago represents something crucial in Othello, an assertion made by many interpreters, the most convincing of whom is Edward Snow. In a reading too reliant upon the Freudian psychic mythology, Snow finds in Iago the overt spirit that is buried in Othello: a universal male horror of female sexuality, and so a hatred of women.

The Age of Freud wanes, and joins itself now, in many, to the Age of Resentment. That all men fear and hate women and sexuality is neither Freudian nor true, though an aversion to otherness is frequent enough, in women as in men. Shakespeare’s lovers, men and women alike, are all very various; Othello unfortunately is not one of the sanest among them. Stephen Greenblatt suggests that Othello’s conversion to Christianity has augmented the Moor’s tendency to sexual disgust, a plausible reading of the play’s foreground. Iago seems to see this, even as he intuits Othello’s reluctance to consummate the marriage, but even that does not mean Iago is an inward component of Othello’s psyche, from the start. Nothing can exceed Iago’s power of contamination once he truly begins his campaign, and so it is truer to say that Othello comes to represent Iago than to suggest we ought to see Iago as a component of Othello.

Shakespeare’s art, as manifested in Iago’s ruination of Othello, is in some ways too subtle for criticism to paraphrase. Iago suggests Desdemona’s infidelity by at first not suggesting it, hovering near and around it:


I do beseech you–
Though I perchance am vicious in my guess,
As, I confess, it is my nature’s plague
To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy
Shapes faults that are not–that your wisdom yet,
From one that so imperfectly conceits,
Would take no notice, nor build yourself a trouble
Out of his scattering and unsure observance.
It were not for your quiet nor your good,
Nor for my manhood, honesty, or wisdom,
To let you know my thoughts.


What dost thou mean?


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 filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.


By heaven, I’ll know thy thoughts.


You cannot, if my heart were in your hand;
Nor shall not, whilst ’tis in my custody.




O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!


O misery!

This would be outrageous if its interplay between Iago and Othello were not so persuasive. Iago manipulates Othello by exploiting what the Moor shares with the jealous God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a barely repressed vulnerability to betrayal. Yahweh and Othello alike are vulnerable because they have risked extending themselves, Yahweh to the Jews and Othello to Desdemona. Iago, whose motto is ‘I am not what I am,’ will triumph by tracking this negativity to Othello, until Othello quite forgets he is a man and becomes jealousy incarnate, a parody of the God of vengeance. We underestimate Iago when we consider him only as a dramatist of the self and a psychologist of genius; his greatest power is as a negative ontotheologian, a diabolical prophet for destruction who has a vocation for destruction. He is not the Christian devil or a parody thereof, but rather a free artist of himself, uniquely equipped, by experience and genius, to entrap spirits greater than his own in a bondage founded upon their inner flaws. IN a play that held a genius opposed to his own – a Hamlet or a Falstaff 0—he would be only a frustrated malcontent. Given a world only of gulls and victims – Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Roderigo, even Emilia until outrage turns her – Iago scarcely needs to exercise the full range of powers that he keeps discovering. A fire is always raging within him, and the hypocrisy that represses his satirical intensity in his dealings with others costs him considerable suffering.

That must be why he experiences such relief, even ecstasy, in his extraordinary soliloquies and asides, where he applauds his own performance. Though he rhetorically invokes a ‘divinity of hell,’ neither he nor we have any reason to believe that any demon is listening to him. Though married, and an esteemed flag officer, with a reputation for ‘honesty,’ Iago is as solitary a figure as Edmund, or as Macbeth after Lady Macbeth goes mad. Pleasure, for Iago, is purely sadomasochistic; pleasure, for Othello, consists in the rightful consciousness of command. Othello loves Desdemona, yet primarily as a response to her love for his triumphal consciousness. Passed over, and so nullified, Iago determines to convert his own sadomasochism into a countertriumphalism, one that will commandeer his commander, and then transform the god of his earlier worship into a degradation of godhood. The chaos that Othello rightly feared if he ceased to love Desdemona has been Iago’s natural element since Cassio’s promotion. From that chaos, Iago rises as a new Demiurge, a master of uncreation.

In proposing an ontotheological Iago, I build upon A.C. Bradley’s emphasis on the passed-over ancient’s ‘resentment,’ and add to Bradley the idea that resentment can become the only mode of freedom for such great negations as Iago’s Dostoevskian disciples Svidrigailov and Stavrogin. They may seem insane compared with Iago, but they inherited his weird lucidity, and his economics of the will. Rene Girard, a theoretician of envy and scapegoating, feels compelled to take Iago at his word, and so sees Iago as being sexually jealous of Othello. This is to be yet again entrapped by Iago, and adds an unnecessary irony to Girard’s reduction of all Shakespeare to ‘a theater of envy.’ Tolstoy, who fiercely resented Shakespeare, complained of Iago, ‘There are many motives, but they are all vague.’ To feel betrayed by a god, be he Mars or Yahweh, and to desire restitution for one’s wounded self-regard, to me seems the most precise of any villain’s motives: return the god to the abyss into which one has been thrown. Tolstoy’s odd, rationalist Christianity could not reimagine Iago’s negative Christianity.

Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most dazzling performers, equal to Edmund and Macbeth and coming only a little short of Rosalind and Cleopatra, Hamlet and Falstaff, superb charismatics. Negative charisma is an odd endowment; Iago represents it uniquely in Shakespeare, and most literary incarnations of it since owe much to Iago. Edmund, in spite of his own nature, has the element of Don Juan in him, the detachment and freedom from hypocrisy that is fatal for those grand hypocrites, Goneril and Regan. Macbeth, whose prophetic imagination has a universal force, excites our sympathies, however bloody his actions. Iago’s appeal to us is the power of the negative, which is all of him and only a part of Hamlet. We all have our gods, whom we worship, and by whom we cannot accept rejection. The Sonnets turn upon a painful rejection, of the poet by the young nobleman, a rejection that is more than erotic, and that seems to figure in Falstaff’s public disgrace at Hal’s coronation. [MY NOTE:  Wow…I’d never thought of that.]  Foreground Othello requires that we imagine Iago’s humiliation at the election of Cassio, so that we hear the full reverberation of

Though I do hate him as I do hell-pains,

Yet for necessity of present life

I must show out a flag and sign of love,

Which is indeed but sign.


The ensign, or ancient, who would have died faithfully to preserve Othello’s colors on the battlefield, expresses his repudiation of his former religion, in lines absolutely central to the play. Love of the war god is now but a sign, even though revenge is as yet more an aspiration than a project. The god of war, grand as Othello may be, is a somewhat less formidable figure than the God of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but by a superb ontological instinct, Iago associates the jealousy of one god with that of the other:

   I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin,
And let him find it. Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ: this may do something.
The Moor already changes with my poison:
Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur. I did say so.

The simile works equally well the other way round: proofs of Holy Writ are, to the jealous God, strong confirmations, but the airiest trifles can provoke the Yahweh who in Numbers leads the Israelites through the wilderness. Othello goes mad, and so does Yahweh in Numbers. Iago’s marvelous pride in his ‘I did say so’ leads on to a critical music new even to Shakespeare, one which will engender the aestheticism of John Keats and Walter Pater. The now obsessed Othello stumbles upon the stage, to be greeted by Iago’s most gorgeous outburst of triumphalism:

Look where he comes. Not poppy nor mandragora

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep

Which thou owedst yesterday.

If this were only sadistic exultation, we would not receive so immortal a wound from it, masochistic nostalgia mingles with the satisfaction of uncreation, as Iago salutes both his own achievement and the consciousness that Othello never will enjoy again. Shakespeare’s Iago-like subtle art is at its highest, as we come to understand that Othello does not know precisely because he has not known his wife. Whatever his earlier reluctance to consummate marriage may have been, he now realizes he is incapable of it, and so cannot attain to the truth about Desdemona and Cassio:

I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners 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 troop, and the big wars,
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
The immortal Jove’s dead clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone!

Othello_1This Hemingwayesque farewell to the big wars has precisely Hemingway’s blend of masculine posturing and barely concealed fear of impotence. There has been no time since the wedding, whether in Venice or on Cyprus, for Desdemona and Cassio to have made love, but Cassio had been the go-between between Othello and Desdemona in the play’s foregrounding. Othello’s farewell here essentially is to any possibility of consummation, the lost music of military glory has an undersong in which the martial engines signify more than cannons alone. If Othello’s occupation is gone, then so is his manhood, and with it departs only the pride, pomp, and circumstance that compelled Desdemona’s passion for him, the ‘circumstance’ being more than pageantry. Chaos comes again, even as Othello’s ontological identity vanishes, in Iago’s sweetest revenge, marked by the villain’s sublime rhetorical question: ‘Is’t possible? my lord?’ What follows is the decisive moment of the play, in which Iago realizes, for the first time, that Desdemona must be murdered by Othello:


Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof:
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath!


Is’t come to this?


Make me to see’t; or, at the least, so prove it,
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on; or woe upon thy life!


My noble lord,–


If thou dost slander her and torture me,
Never pray more; abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amazed;
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that.

Iago’s improvisations, until now, had as their purpose the destruction of Othello’s identity, fit recompense for Iago’s vastation. Suddenly, Iago confronts a grave threat that is also an opportunity: either he or Desdemona must die, with the consequences of her death to crown the undoing of Othello. How can Othello’s desire for ‘the ocular proof’ be satisfied?


And may: but, how? how satisfied, my lord?
Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on–
Behold her topp’d?


Death and damnation! O!


It were a tedious difficulty, I think,
To bring them to that prospect: damn them then,
If ever mortal eyes do see them bolster
More than their own! What then? how then?
What shall I say? Where’s satisfaction?
It is impossible you should see this,
Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
As ignorance made drunk. But yet, I say,
If imputation and strong circumstances,
Which lead directly to the door of truth,
Will give you satisfaction, you may have’t.

The only ocular proof possible is what Othello will not essay, as Iago well understands, since the Moor will not try his wife’s virginity. Shakespeare shows us jealousy in men as centering upon both visual and temporal obsessions, because of the male fear that there will not be enough time and space for him. Iago plays powerfully upon Othello’s now monumental aversion from the only door of truth that could give satisfaction, the entrance into Desdemona. Psychological mastery cannot surpass Iago’s control of Othello, when the ensign chooses precisely this moment to introduce ‘a handkerchief,/I am sure it was your wife’s,/did I today/See Cassio wipe his beard with.’ [MY NOTE:  “See Cassio wipe his beard with.”  Brilliant.]  Dramatic mastery cannot exceed Iago’s exploitation of Othello’s stage gesture of kneeling to swear revenge:


Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. Now, by yond marble heaven,

In the due reverence of a sacred vow
I here engage my words.


Do not rise yet.

Witness, you ever-burning lights above,
You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here Iago doth give up
The execution of his wit, hands, heart,
To wrong’d Othello’s service! Let him command,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.

They rise


I greet thy love,
Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance bounteous,
And will upon the instant put thee to’t:
Within these three days let me hear thee say
That Cassio’s not alive.


My friend is dead; ’tis done at your request:
But let her live.


Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!
Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw,
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.


I am your own for ever.

It is spectacular theater, with Iago as director: ‘Do not rise yet.’ And it is also a countertheology, transcending any Faustian bargain with the Devil, since the stars and elements serve as witnesses to a murderous pact, which culminates in the reversal of the passing over of Iago in the play’s foreground. ‘Now art thou my lieutenant’ means something very different from what Othello can understand, while ‘I am your own for ever’ seals Othello’s starry and elemental fate. What remains is only the way down and out, for everyone involved.”


Yes, it is spectacular theater.  But how to perform it?  Actor James Earl Jones, one of the great Othello’s of our time, in his essay “The Sun God,” included in the marvelous new collection Living With Shakespeare, talks about his history of performing the role, and this excerpt, his concept of how to perform Act Three in a post-9/11 world.

“My father, who was an actor, was obsessed with Shakespeare, and he was obsessed with Othello. He never really achieved it, but it was his dream. He couldn’t accept my Othello either. Gladys Vaughan, my director, warned me, ‘He can only try to get you to do his performance, and that would destroy yours.’  She was right, of course, but to this day I’m still haunted by my father’s dream.

3411-298212632My father always spoke of Tommaso Salvini, the Italian actor who travelled with Stanislavski’s troupe. While everybody else spoke the language of their host countries, Salvini only spoke in Italian. Therefore, he spoke everything Othello said in Italian – but it didn’t matter if the audience understood the language or not, since he was able to communicate the feeling. At the moment when he said that infamous line ‘be sure thou prove my love a whore’ (3.3.397) he would throw Iago on the floor, and then he would stand over him and raise his foot as if to stamp his head in. Salvini was an operatic type, he was a big guy, and a stamp from his food would have hurt – indeed, it would have killed the man lying there on the floor. At that moment, with his foot poised and about to come down, the audience would stand up en masse in protest.

Salvini’s gesture wouldn’t work now, because the audience doesn’t have that kind of connection to the stage anymore. In the age of television and movies, especially with special effects, all we see is brutality played out fully. In Trevor Nunn’s 2004 film version featuring Sir Ian McKellen as Iago and Willard White as Othello, Othello charges Iago so that they both end up on the floor, Othello pinning Iago the ground with his hands around his throat. It is a similarly threatening act – perhaps even more threatening than Salvini with his foot – but no matter how well executed, the context of theatrical convention has in part fobbed such gestures of their effect. We know that the foot isn’t going to come down; we know that the throat isn’t going to be cut.

I’ve sought out different Othellos from my father’s time over the years, but I’ve always been intrigued by his vision of that one, crucial moment. I’m now resolved that is has got to be something that the audience can’t but experience. We need to feel that Iago knows he is about to die – not that ye may die, but that he is really and truly about to die. That Othello is going to kill him. That his next breath, his next heartbeat, will be his last. We, too, in the audience and perhaps even on the stage, need to feel that Iago is about to die – that the play has gone beyond mere fiction and is turning into a terrible reality.

My interest in this account of Salvini is not about pure shock value. It has do to with the fact that I have come to firmly believe that the entire balance of the play depends on getting that one moment right – one last chance to put Othello back in charge where he is not Iago’s dupe and victim, but is responsible for his own fall from grace.

The long exchange between Othello and Iago in Act 3, Scene e is known as the Temptation Scene. Iago insinuates that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Taking Iago by surprise, Othello then commands:


Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof:
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath!


Is’t come to this?


Make me to see’t; or, at the least, so prove it,
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on; or woe upon thy life!

767_Othello70375There’s no way of knowing what actions Shakespeare had in mind to go with those words. Can I even speculate? In the source text, Cinthio’s “Hecatommithi,” the character of the Moor threatens to cut out his ensign’s tongue unless he can prove the allegations. We can be reasonably sure, I think, that Shakespeare took it for granted that his corresponding scene would be accompanied by a similar threat of torture.

To get the full effect of the scene today, though, the act of violence needs to be shocking even to what we think we know of savagery. There has to be something as impressive as Salvini standing with his foot raises over Iago’s head, but it has to be more than simple violence. It has to be the violence of a certain mind game which has to do with the idea: I take over your life. The phrase ‘I take over your life’ can mean different things to different people, but however you get there it should end with the victim not owning his life anymore.

I have an idea of how that could be staged and performed. I’ve never tried it, but I’m convinced that it’s the only way to keep the scene, and the entire play, from turning to pathos…The only thing I can conceive of that would save the Temptation Scene, and so the play, is to employ an act of torture – and what is very present in the consciousness of the Western world is that thing we call ‘waterboarding.’

It’s simple and believable; it’s historical (the Spanish inquisition used a version) and yet it’s terrifying modern. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has called the use of waterboarding a ‘no-brainer’ and encouraged it as part of a ‘robust interrogation system.’ I concluded, sitting there watching one of the first interviews in which he spoke of such ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ that anyone who condones such acts has joined the savagery.

If one were to do something of this sort in Othello, then the set designer would have to be prepared to provide some sort of fountain or tub of drain water in the Temptation Scene. The actor’s head would have to be under water for however long it would take until the audience started to become seriously disturbed. They would have to believe that they were unmistakable witnessing somebody being tortured, and water is the only thing that could do it – water and time. There would have to be many seemingly endless seconds when there would be no sound on stage except the splashing of Iago’s hands flailing in the water. The average person can hold his breath for about a minute under water; after that, the body goes into stress. If, when he comes up, Iago tries to be cute again, Othello pushes him back under until he owns him completely. This is where the torturer says, ‘I hereby commit you to death,’ and then immediately afterward, “I hereby own your lie’ – and that repetition should go on until there is a total submission of Iago’s hubris. The rush of the verse would stop for these prolonged seconds of suspense; the iambic pentameter would be suspended. There are times when action is more important than poetry, and the savagery would disrupt those lines with an energy all its own. ‘Nay, stay: thou shouldst be honest’ could be a dunking of several seconds. The line suggests that Othello is wavering, and I don’t think he should waver here. The submissions would continue until Othello says, ‘Now do I see ‘tis true.’ These vicious actions would transform a scene in which there is, I believe, too much talking between those man into the dramatic turning point in both character and plot that I can be. It should be an ugly scene. Whatever hubris or fire that is left in Iago must be wrung out of him. Othello takes over Iago’s life.

That play deserves that moment to be ugly, for it marks Othello’s transition from a noble man to the alter-Othello, the man from chaos. He begins to sacrifice his larger, kinder, more magnanimous self for a much smaller and yet more violent self. The Sun God has chosen to no longer restrain himself, and his entire world is thereby thrown into peril. He has spun out of his own orbit; he has thrown the cosmology of that world out of balance; he has fallen from grace. Just as you can’t be the villain of that sort of savagery without being transformed, you can’t commit that form of interrogation without giving up something of your soul.

With such savagery surrounding it, the key line of the scene – indeed, of the entire play – wouldn’t require additional force: ‘be sure that you prove my love a whore.’ It’s all there in that one line.  Prove to me that she’s a whore. He doesn’t say, ‘Prove to me she isn’t a whore.’ I believe that Othello then terrorizes Iago into proving, and that Iago then has the license to tell all the lies he wants. We resort to torture to hear what we want to hear, and the irony is that if we want to hear lies then we’ll hear lies. Iago offers the story of what he heard in Cassio’s dream. Iago himself must be unprepared for the attack: ‘O grace! O heaven forgive me!/Are you a man? Have you soul? Or sense?’ The lines cannot be Iago’s acting his part; they must come from a real place of fear. After the waterboarding, which is a sort of ghastly baptism, Iago would then return as a different man. I can’t help but think of the photo of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after he has been waterboarded, looking like he’s practically dead.  After Iago has gone through such an experience, his spirit would be more subdued even as his hatred would be empowered. His hubris is gone, replaced by animus; he is more lethal now, but he is strangely muted. Like Hamlet when he comes back from sea, having survived the attempt on his life, from that moment on Iago has nothing more to lose.”


Fascinating.  What do you all think?  And how’s the pace for the reading/posting for everyone?

Our next reading:  Othello, Act Four

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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3 Responses to “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,/Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof:”

  1. Shari says:

    Hey there just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The text in your article seem to be running off the screen in Internet explorer.
    I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let you
    know. The style and design look great though! Hope you get the issue
    fixed soon. Cheers

  2. Eddie says:

    Just getting caught up on the readings for this play now, though I finished reading it on schedule with the group. I would find it very interesting to see this waterboarding version performed!

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