“Lie with her? Lie on her?”


Act Four, Part One

By Dennis Abrams


Othello Slaps DesdemonaAct Four:  Iago continues to fuel Othello’s growing jealousy, to the point where he collapses in a fit.  When he recovers, Iago “arranges” for him to overhear a meeting with Cassio, during which Othello becomes even more certain that Desdemona is unfaithful. He resolves to kill her, while Iago takes on the mission of killing Cassio. When a deputation arrives from Venice recalling Othello, he publicly abuses Desdemona (to everyone’s horror) and later, in private, accuses her of being a whore.


In Othello, Shakespeare gives us little opportunity to catch our breath.  (Just wait until we get to Macbeth – a miracle of compression).  Moments after beginning to suspect Desdemona, Othello is racked by doubt; just a few minutes after that, he is swearing “capable and wide revenge” with Iago’s more than gleeful help, convinced by the “evidence” and resolved not to go back.  After the handkerchief makes its appearance and Cassio is effectively framed, the effect on our hero is devastating: “Lie with her? Lie on her?”  Othello desperately cries:

We say ‘like on her’ when they belie her.  Lie with her? ‘Swounds, that’s fulsome! Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief. To confess and be hanged for his labour. First to be hanged and then to confess! I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips! Is’t possible? Confess? Handkerchief? O devil!

(He falls down in a trance)

And although Othello will quickly recover from his fit, the mental turmoil that it represents (as does the collapse in his use of language) will stay with him until the end of Act Five.

But first, Desdemona must die.  Although it was Iago who planted the idea of her infidelity into Othello’s mind, the idea of killing her in revenge is all her husbands. “O blood, blood, blood!” he rages, just moments before Desdemona appears, as innocent of the knowledge as she is in character.  She assumes that state business has distracted and frustrated Othello, making him unwell, but as we have seen, her ministrations do nothing but further infuriate him. The terrible cycle of jealousy does its work all to well.  After that horrific (is there any other word to describe it?) public shaming during which Othello actually hit her in front of guests from Venice, the couple have a final tearful argument. Othello taunts her with his own certainties and refuses to listen to her denials. “What, not a whore?” he cried incredulously?


No, as I shall be saved.


Is’t possible?


O heaven forgive us!


I cry you mercy then.

I took you for that cunning whore of Venice

That married with Othello.

There is something infinitely moving about Othello’s lingering torment, but of course, he is not its main victim.  That role will fall to Desdemona in Act Five.

From Garber:

othello_gallery2“And what are Iago’s proofs? Two pieces of evidence: a handkerchief, and a conversation overheard. First, the handkerchief. A white handkerchief, spotted with strawberries. Othello tells the story of the handkerchief more than once, and the details differ in each telling. In one version it is a gift from his mother, woven by an Egyptian charmer, and said to have the power of guaranteeing love: ‘There’s magic in the web of it.’ In another version it has been given by Othello’s father to his mother. (These variations suggest that Othello’s story-telling abilities are even more sophisticated – and dangerous – than previously thought.) Othello, characteristically, takes the thing, the sign, for the intangible fact of Desdemona’s love, and when he fears she has lost the handkerchief, he is certain that he has lost her love. The handkerchief, properly a private love token, now becomes, again characteristically, a public spectacle. The white handkerchief marked with red becomes – because Othello makes it so – another version of the white wedding sheets that are so often mentioned in the play. The red embroidery now becomes the emblem of the blood of her virginity, and Othello is now convinced that Cassio has had them both. In a most serious and tragic sense he hangs out his dirty linen in public. For him the handkerchief is the wedding sheets, and the wedding sheets therefore become a shroud. Deferred sexual consummation, and again deferred sexual consummation – Othello the hero, the patient, public man, wedded to his ‘occupation’ as general and governor, willing to leave the marriage bed at the city’s command to instill order in the populace – and now he finds, or thinks he finds, his wedding sheets are already stained by someone else’s love. A short step leads to the second piece of ocular proof, the play-within-the-play so artfully staged by Iago, in which Iago and Cassio joke about Bianca, the courtesan, and Othello, again placed so that he can see but cannot hear, thinks they are joking about his wife. He misinterprets this dumb show, as Iago means him to do – for what he sees, after all, is the telltale handkerchief, given by Cassio to Bianca to ‘take the work out,’ to copy the design.

From the very beginning, Othello, whose tale would have won the Duke’s daughter, has denied his own eloquence: ‘Rude am I in my speech,/And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace’; ‘Haply for I am black,/And have not those soft parts of conversation/That chamberers have.’ Generations of audience and critics have responded to his stirring language, but the breakdown of Othello’s speech follows the loss of his faith in Desdemona, Iago’s manipulation of language through subtraction – insinuation, artful echo, pause, and silence – ultimately outlasts and outwits the grand speeches and resounding periods. Once again it is Iago who lures Othello into this state, and the turning point, fittingly, is the utterance of the ambiguous word ‘lie.’:


What hath he said?


Faith, that he did – I know not what he did.


What, what?


              Lie –


                       With her?


                                With her, on her, what you will.


Lie with her? Lie on her? We say ‘lie on her’ when they belie her. Lie with her? ‘Swounds, that’s fulsome! Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief. To confess and be hanged for his labour.  First to be hanged, and then to confess!…It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips! Is’t possible? Confess? Handkerchief? O devil!

Othello says, ‘It is not words that shakes me thus’ – yet is only words that do, Iago’s words.

othello's fitLoss of language here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare, is emblematic of loss of humanity. Othello’s decline into incoherence, fragments of sentences about fragments of bodies, is a sign of his temporary abandonment of human codes and qualities. The ‘fit’ into which he falls, sometimes called ‘an epilepsy,’ and associated not only with linguistic loss of control but also with sexual orgasm, the ‘little death,’ marks the disintegration of the iron discipline he tried to enforce upon his own desire, his own sense of himself as a soldier, general, diplomatic, Venetian hero, and husband. The magic web of language has become for him a snare. Yet his magnificent language will return, at full throttle, in the final scenes of the play, during and especially after the murder. It is Iago who chooses the path of silence, and the ultimate, willed, dehumanization that accompanies it. ‘From this time forth,’ he will declare at the end of the play, ‘I never will speak word’ (5.2.310).  He will retreat into the archetype from which he grew, a ‘demi-devil,’ a Vice. We saw in a play like Measure for Measure that silence onstage is an emblem of death, as the muffled and unspeaking Claudio is dead – until he recovers to speech. Iago chooses this living death; he chooses against humanity. And yet he cannot be killed.

Iago is the ‘bad angel,’ and Desdemona the ‘good.’ The power of Desdemona’s extraordinary character is such that she, too, bursts through archetype. She is ripped from the play’s apparently ‘comic’ beginnings in courtship and marriage. A ‘maiden never bold,’ according to her father, she becomes bold, like Juliet, when she sees her husband and reaches out to him. She is ‘one entire and perfect chrysolite,’ and yet she is no Isabella – she articulates passion and desire, and she speaks out, finally to her own cost – she is an articulate and ardent woman who intervenes in the world of politics and policy conventionally reserved for me. Othello, even in his jealous agony, praises her skills as a seamstress and a musician, skills possessed by some of the most noteworthy Shakespearean women. And as if for emphasis, the play presents her framed by two women who reflect the very things she is not: Bianca, the courtesan; Emilia, the obedient and pragmatic wife. Bianca is the whore Desdemona is accused of being, yet she is in love with Cassio, who treats her lightly. Emilia, Iago’s wife, is a realist and a literalist, like Hamlet’s gravedigger, or Macbeth’s Porter. Like them, she sees things not for what they could be, but for what they are. Desdemona asks her, in tones of incredulity, whether she could imagine that a woman might be unfaithful to her husband, and Emilia’s reply has the frank, down-to-earth tone of Pompey the bawd in Measure for Measure:


Wouldn’t thou do such a deed for all the world?


The world’s a huge thing. It is a great price for a small vice.

In this exchange lies a huge conflict of cultures. Emilia in Desdemona’s place would see no difficulties.  But Desdemona’s goodness, and belief in the goodness of others, is her death warrant.”


From Bloom:

“Shakespeare creates a terrible pathos for us by not showing Desdemona in her full nature and splendor until we know that she is doomed. Dr. Johnson found the death of Cordelia intolerable; the death of Desdemona, in my experience as a reader and theatergoer, is even more unendurable. Shakespeare stages the scene as a sacrifice, as grimly countertheological as are Iago’s passed-over nihilism and Othello’s ‘godlike’ jealousy. Though Desdemona in her anguish declares she is a Christian, she does not die a martyr to that faith but becomes another victim of what could be called the religion of Moloch, since she is a sacrifice to the war god whom Iago once worshiped, the Othello he has reduced to incoherence. ‘Othello’s occupation’s gone’; the shattered relic of Othello murders in the name of that occupation, for he knows no other, and is the walking ghost of what he was.

Millicent Bell recently has argued that Othello’s is an epistemological tragedy; but only Iago has intellect enough to sustain such a notion, and Iago is not much interested in how he knows what he thinks he knows. Othello, as much as King Lear and Macbeth, is a vision of radical evil; Hamlet is Shakespeare’s tragedy of an intellectual. Though Shakespeare never would commit himself to specifically Christian terms, he approached a kind of Gnostic or heretic tragedy in Macbeth, as I will attempt to show. Othello has no transcendental aspect, perhaps because the religion of war does not allow for any. Iago, who makes a new covenant with Othello when they kneel together, had lived and fought in what he took to be an old covenant with his general, until Cassio was preferred to him. A devout adherent to the fire of battle, his sense of merit injured by his god, has degraded that god into ‘an honourable murderer,’ Othello’s oxymoronic, final vision of his role. Can such degradation allow the dignity required for a tragic protagonist?

A.C. Bradley rated Othello below Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth [MY NOTE:  Until this reading, I had as well, now I’m not so sure.] primarily because it gives us no sense of universal powers impinging upon the limits of human power. I think those powers hover in Othello, but they manifest themselves only in the gap that divides the earlier, foregrounded relationship between Iago and Othello from the process of ruination that we observe between them. Iago is so formidable a figure because he has uncanny abilities, endowments only available to a true believer whose trust has transmuted into nihilism. Cain, rejected by Yahweh in favor of Abel, is as much the father of Iago [MY NOTE:  Good point!] as Iago is the precursor of Milton’s Satan.  [On this topic, there’s an interesting essay by Borges called “Kafka and his Precursors” –anyone interested in having me post it?]  Iago murders Roderigo and maims Cassio, it is as inconceivable to Iago as to u s that Iago seeks to knife Othello. If you have been rejected by your god, then you attack him spiritually or metaphysically, not merely physically. Iago’s greatest triumph is that the lapsed Othello sacrifices Desdemona in the name of the war god Othello, the solitary warrior with whom unwisely she has fallen in love. That may be why Desdemona offers no resistance, and makes so relatively unspirited a defense, first of her virtue, and then of her life. Her victimization is all the more complete, and our own horror at is thereby augmented.

Though criticism frequently has blinded itself to this, Shakespeare has no affection for war, or for violence organized or unorganized. His great killing machines come to sorrowful ends: Othello, Macbeth, Antony, Coriolanus. His favorite warrior is Sir John Falstaff, whose motto is: ‘Give me life!’ Othello’s motto could be ‘Give me honor,’ which sanctions slaughtering a wife he hasn’t known, supposedly not ‘in hate, but all in honour.’ Dreadfully flawed, even vacuous at the center as Othello is, he still is meant to be the best instance available of a professional mercenary. What Iago once worshiped was real enough, but more vulnerable even than Iago suspected. Shakespeare subtly intimates that Othello’s prior nobility and his later incoherent brutality are two faces of the war god, but it remains the same god. Othello’s occupation’s gone partly because he married at all. Pent-up resentment, and not repressed lust, animates Othello as he avenges his lost autonomy in the name of his honor. Iago’s truest triumph comes when Othello loses his sense of war’s limits, and joins Iago’s incessant campaign against being. ‘I am not what I am,’ Iago’s credo, becomes Othello’s implicit cry. The rapidity and totality of Othello’s descent seems at once the play’s one weakness and its most persuasive strength, as persuasive as Iago.”

And finally, as a special bonus for the weekend, William Hazlitt’s remarkable analysis of the play and its characters:

othello posterOTHELLO.


IT has been said that tragedy purifies the affections by terror and pity. That is, it substitutes imaginary sympathy for mere selfishness. It gives us a high and permanent interest, beyond ourselves, in humanity as such. It raises the great, the remote, and the possible to an equality with the real, the little and the near. It makes man a partaker with his kind. It subdues and softens the stubbornness of his will. It teaches him that there are and have been others like himself, by strewing him as in a glass what they have felt, thought, and done. It opens the chambers of the human heart. It leaves nothing indifferent to us that can affect our common nature. It excites our sensibility by exhibiting the passions wound up to the utmost pitch by the power of imagination or the temptation of circumstances; and corrects their fatal excesses in ourselves by pointing to the greater extent of sufferings and of crimes to which they have led others. Tragedy creates a balance of the affections. It makes us thoughtful spectators in the lists of life. It is the refiner of the species; a discipline of humanity. The habitual study of poetry and works of imagination is one chief part of a well-grounded education. A taste for liberal art is necessary to complete the character of a gentleman. Science alone is hard and mechanical. It exercises the understanding upon things out of ourselves, while it leaves the affections unemployed, or engrossed with our own immediate, narrow interests.–OTHELLO furnishes an illustration of these remarks. It excites our sympathy in an extraordinary degree. The moral it conveys has a closer application to the concerns of human life than that of any other of Shakespear’s plays. “It comes directly home to the bosoms and business of men.” The pathos in Lear is indeed more dreadful and overpowering: but it is less natural, and less of every day’s occurrence. We have not the same degree of sympathy with the passions described in Macbeth. The interest in Hamlet is more remote and reflex. That of Othello is at once equally profound and affecting.


The picturesque contrasts of character in this play are almost as remarkable as the depth of the passion. The Moor Othello, the gentle Desdemona, the villain Iago, the good-natured Cassio, the fool Roderigo, present a range and variety of character as striking and palpable as that produced by the opposition of costume in a picture. Their distinguishing qualities stand out to the mind’s eye, so that even when we are not thinking of their actions or sentiments, the idea of their persons is still as present to us as ever. These characters and the images they stamp upon the mind are the farthest asunder possible, the distance between them is immense: yet the compass of knowledge and invention which the poet has strewn in embodying these extreme creations of his genius is only greater than the truth and felicity with which he has identified each character with itself, or blended their different qualities together in the same story. What a contrast the character of Othello forms to that of Iago: at the same time, the force of conception with which these two figures are opposed to each other is rendered still more intense by the complete consistency with which the traits of each character are brought out in a state of the highest finishing. The making one black and the other white, the one unprincipled, the other unfortunate in the extreme, would have answered the common purposes of effect, and satisfied the ambition of an ordinary painter of character. Shakespear has laboured the finer shades of difference in both with as much care and skill as if he had had to depend on the execution alone for the success of his design. On the other hand, Desdemona and Aemilia are not meant to be opposed with any thing like strong contrast to each other. Both are, to outward appearance, characters of common life, not more distinguished than women usually are, by difference of rank and situation. The difference of their thoughts and sentiments is however laid as open, their minds are separated from each other by signs as plain and as little to be mistaken as the complexions of their husbands.


The movement of the passion in Othello is exceedingly different from that of Macbeth. In Macbeth there is a violent struggle between opposite feelings, between ambition and the stings of conscience, almost from first to last: in Othello, the doubtful conflict between contrary passions, though dreadful, continues only for a short time, and the chief interest is excited by the alternate ascendancy of different passions, the entire and unforeseen change from the fondest love and most unbounded confidence to the tortures of jealousy and the madness of hatred. The revenge of Othello, after it has once taken thorough possession of his mind, never quits it, but grows stronger and stronger at every moment of its delay. The nature of the Moor is noble, confiding, tender, and generous; but his blood is of the most inflammable kind; and being once roused by a sense of his wrongs, he is stopped by no considerations of remorse or pity till he has given a loose to all the dictates of his rage and his despair. It is in working his noble nature up to this extremity through rapid but gradual transitions, in raising passion to its height from the smallest beginnings and in spite of all obstacles, in painting the expiring conflict between love and hatred, tenderness and resentment, jealousy and remorse, in unfolding the strength and the weaknesses of our nature, in uniting sublimity of thought with the anguish of the keenest woe, in putting in motion the various impulses that agitate this our mortal being, and at last blending them in that noble tide of deep and sustained passion, impetuous but majestic, that “flows on to the Propontic, and knows no ebb,” that Shakespear has strewn the mastery of his genius and of his power over the human heart. The third act of OTHELLO is his master-piece, not of knowledge or passion separately, but of the two combined, of the knowledge of character with the expression of passion, of consummate art in the keeping up of appearances with the profound workings of nature, and the convulsive movements of uncontroulable agony, of the power of inflicting torture and of suffering it. Not only is the tumult of passion heaved up from the very bottom of the soul, but every the slightest undulation of feeling is seen on the surface, as it arises from the impulses of imagination or the different probabilities maliciously suggested by Iago. The progressive preparation for the catastrophe is wonderfully managed from the Moor’s first gallant recital of the story of his love, of “the spells and witchcraft he had used,” from his unlooked-for and romantic success, the fond satisfaction with which he dotes on his own happiness, the unreserved tenderness of Desdemona and her innocent importunities in favour of Cassio, irritating the suspicions instilled into her husband’s mind by the perfidy of Iago, and rankling there to poison, till he loses all command of himself, and his rage can only be appeased by blood. She is introduced, just before Iago begins to put his scheme in practice, pleading for Cassio with all the thoughtless gaiety of friendship and winning confidence in the love of Othello.


   “What! Michael Cassio?
That came a wooing with you, and so many a time,
When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
Hath ta’en your part, to have so much to do
To bring him in?–Why this is not a boon:
‘Tis as I should intreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing meats, or keep you warm;
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your person. Nay, when I have a suit,
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise, and fearful to be granted.”


Othello’s confidence, at first only staggered by broken hints and insinuations, recovers itself at sight of Desdemona; and he exclaims


“If she be false, O then Heav’n mocks itself:
I’ll not believe it.”


But presently after, on brooding over his suspicions by himself, and yielding to his apprehensions of the worst, his smothered jealousy breaks out into open fury, and he returns to demand satisfaction of Iago like a wild beast stung with the envenomed shaft of the hunters. “Look where he comes,” &c. In this state of exasperation and violence, after the first paroxysms of his grief and tenderness have had their vent in that passionate apostrophe, “I felt not Cassio’s kisses on her lips,” Iago by false aspersions, and by presenting the most revolting images to his mind [see the passage beginning, “It is impossible you should see this, were they as prime as goats,” &c.], easily turns the storm of passion from himself against Desdemona, and works him up into a trembling agony of doubt and fear, in which he abandons all his love and hopes in a breath.


“Now do I see ‘tie true. Look here, Iago,
All my fond love thus do I blow to Heav’n. ‘Tis gone.
Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell;
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! Swell bosom with thy fraught;
For ’tis of aspicks’ tongues.”


From this times his raging thoughts “never look back, ne’er ebb to humble love” till his revenge is sure of its object, the painful regrets and involuntary recollections of past circumstances which cross his mind amidst the dim trances of passion, aggravating the sense of his wrongs, but not shaking his purpose. Once indeed, where Iago shews him Cassio with the handkerchief in his hand, and making sport (as he thinks) of his misfortunes, the intolerable bitterness of his feelings, the extreme sense of shame, makes him fall to praising her accomplishments and relapse into a momentary fit of weakness, “Yet, Oh the pity of Iago, the pity of it!” This returning fondness however only serves, as it is managed by Iago, to whet his revenge, and set his heart more against her. In his conversations with Desdemona, the persuasion of her guilt and the immediate proofs of her duplicity seem to irritate his resentment and aversion to her; but in the scene immediately preceding her death, the recollection of his love returns upon him in all its tenderness and force; and after her death, he all at once forgets his wrongs in the sudden and irreparable sense of his loss.


“My wife! My wife! What wife? I have no wife.
Oh insupportable! Oh heavy hour!”


This happens before he is assured of her innocence; but afterwards his remorse is as dreadful as his revenge has been, and yields only to fixed and death-like despair. His farewel speech, before he kills himself, in which he conveys his reasons to the senate for the murder of his wife, is equal to the first speech in which he gave them an account of his courtship of her, and “his whole course of love.” Such an ending was alone worthy of such a commencement.


If any thing could add to the force of our sympathy with Othello, or compassion for his fate, it would be the frankness and generosity of his nature, which so little deserve it. When Iago first begins to practice upon his unsuspecting friendship, he answers–


—-“‘Tis not to make me jealous,
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are most virtuous.
Nor from my own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
For she had eyes and chose me.”


This character is beautifully (and with affecting simplicity) confirmed by what Desdemona herself says of him to Aemilia after she has lost the handkerchief, the first pledge of his love to her.


“Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse
Full of cruzadoes. And but my noble Moor
Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness,
As jealous creatures are, it were enough
To put him to ill thinking.
Aemilia. Is he not jealous?
Desdemona. Who he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humours from him.”


In a short speech of Aemilia’s, there occurs one of those side-intimations of the fluctuations of passion which we seldom meet with but in Shakespear. After Othello has resolved upon the death of his wife, and bids her dismiss her attendant for the night, she answers,


“I will, my Lord.
Aemilia. How goes it now? He looks gentler than he did.”


Shakespear has here put into half a line what some authors would have spun out into ten set speeches.


The character of Desdemona herself is inimitable both in itself, and as it contrasts with Othello’s groundless jealousy, and with the foul conspiracy of which she is the innocent victim. Her beauty and external graces are only indirectly glanced at; we see “her visage in her mind;” her character every where predominates over her person.


“A maiden never bold:
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion
Blushed at itself.”


There is one fine compliment paid to her by Cassio, who exclaims triumphantly when she comes ashore at Cyprus after the storm,


“Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures, letting safe go by
The divine Desdemona.”


In general, as is the case with most of Shakespear’s females, we lose sight of her personal charms in her attachment and devotedness to her husband. “She is subdued even to the very quality of her lord;” and to Othello’s “honours and his valiant parts her soul and fortunes consecrates.” The lady protests so much herself, and she is as good as her word. The truth of conception, with which timidity and boldness are united in the same character, is marvellous. The extravagance of her resolutions, the pertinacity of her affections, may be said to arise out of the gentleness of her nature. They imply an unreserved reliance on the purity of her own intentions, an entire surrender of her fears to her love, a knitting of herself (heart and soul) to the fate of another. Bating the commencement of her passion, which is a little fantastical and headstrong (though even that may perhaps be consistently accounted for from her inability to resist a rising inclination [“Iago. Ay, too gentle./Othello. Nay, that’s certain.”]) her whole character consists in having no will of her own, no prompter but her obedience. Her romantic turn is only a consequence of the domestic and practical part of her disposition; and instead of following Othello to the wars, she would gladly have “remained at home a moth of peace,” if her husband could have staid with her. Her resignation and angelic sweetness of temper do not desert her at the last. The scenes in which she laments and tries to account for Othello’s estrangement from her are exquisitely beautiful. After he has struck her, and called her names, she says,


—-“Alas, Iago,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him; for by this light of heaven,
1 know not how I lost him. Here I kneel;
If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love,
Either in discourse, or thought, or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense
Delighted them on any other form;
Or that I do not, and ever did,
And ever will, though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement, love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me. Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.
Iago. I pray you be content: ’tis but his humour.
The business of the state does him offence.
Desdemona. If ’twere no other!”–


The scene which follows with Aemilia and the song of the Willow, are equally beautiful, and shew the author’s extreme power of varying the expression of passion, in all its moods and in all circumstances.


   Aemilia. Would you had never seen him.
Desdemona. So would not I: my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns,
Have grace and favour in them,” &c.


Not the unjust suspicions of Othello, not Iago’s treachery, place Desdemona in a more amiable or interesting light than the casual conversation (half earnest, half jest) between her and Aemilia on the common behaviour of women to their husbands. This dialogue takes place just before the last fatal scene. If Othello had overheard it, it would have prevented the whole catastrophe; but then it would have spoiled the play.


The character of Iago is one of the supererogations of Shakespear’s genius. Some persons, more nice than wise, have thought this whole character unnatural, because his villainy is without a sufficient motive. Shakespear, who was as good a philosopher as he was a poet, thought otherwise. He knew that the love of power, which is another name for the love of mischief, is natural to man. He would know this as well or better than if it had been demonstrated to him by a logical diagram, merely from seeing children paddle in the dirt or kill flies for sport. Iago in fact belongs to a class of characters, common to Shakespear and at the same time peculiar to him; whose heads are as acute and active as their hearts are hard and callous. Iago is to be sure an extreme instance of the kind; that is to say, of diseased intellectual activity, with an almost perfect indifference to moral good or evil, or rather with a decided preference of the latter, because it falls more readily in with his favourite propensity, gives greater zest to his thoughts and scope to his actions. He is quite or nearly as indifferent to his own fate as to that of others; he runs all risks for a trifling and doubtful advantage; and is himself the dupe and victim of his ruling, passion–an insatiable craving after action of the most difficult and dangerous kind. “Our ancient” is a philosopher, who fancies that a lie that kills has more point in it than an alliteration or an antithesis; who thinks a fatal experiment on the peace of a family a better thing than watching the palpitations in the heart of a flea in a microscope; who plots the ruin of his friends as an exercise for his ingenuity, and stabs men in the dark to prevent ennui. His gaiety, such as it is, arises from the success of his treachery; his ease from the torture he has inflicted on others. He is an amateur of tragedy in real life; and instead of employing his invention on imaginary characters, or long-forgotten incidents, he takes the bolder and more desperate course of getting up his plot at home, casts the principal parts among his nearest friends and connections, and rehearses it in downright earnest, with steady nerves and unabated resolution. We will just give an illustration or two.


One of his most characteristic speeches is that immediately after the marriage of Othello.


   “Roderigo. What a full fortune does the thick lips owe,
If he can carry her thus!
Iago. Call up her father:
Rouse him (Othello) make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets, incense her kinsmen,
And tho’ he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies: Tho’ that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on it,
As it may lose some colour.”


In the next passage, his imagination runs riot in the mischief he is plotting, and breaks out into the wildness and impetuosity of real enthusiasm.


   “Roderigo. Here is her father’s house: I’ll call aloud.
Iago. Do, with like timourons accent and dire yell,
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
ls spied in populous cities.”


One of his most favourite topics, on which he is rich indeed, and in descanting on which his spleen serves him for a Muse, is the disproportionate match between Desdemona and the Moor. This is a clue to the character of the lady which he is by no means ready to part with. It is brought forward in the first scene, and he recurs to it, when in answer to his insinuations against Desdemona, Roderigo says,


   “I cannot believe that in her–she’s full of most blest conditions.
Iago. Bless’d fig’s end. The wine she drinks is made of grapes. If she had been blest, she would never have married the Moor.”


And again with still more spirit and fatal effect afterwards, when he turns this very suggestion arising in Othello’s own breast to her prejudice.


   “Othello. And yet how nature erring from itself–
Iago. Aye, there’s the point;–as to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,” &c.


This is probing to the quick. Iago here turns the character of poor Desdemona, as it were, inside out. It is certain that nothing but the genius of Shakespear could have preserved the entire interest and delicacy of the part, and have even drawn an additional elegance and dignity from the peculiar circumstances in which she is placed.–The habitual licentiousness of Iago’s conversation is not to be traced to the pleasure he takes in gross or lascivious images, but to his desire of finding out the worst side of every thing, and of proving himself an over-match for appearances. He has none of “the milk of human kindness” in his composition. His imagination rejects every thing that has not a strong infusion of the most unpalatable ingredients; his mind digests only poisons. Virtue or goodness or whatever has the least “relish of salvation in it,” is, to his depraved appetite, sickly and insipid: and he even resents the good opinion entertained of his own integrity, as if it were an affront cast on the masculine sense and spirit of his character. Thus at the meeting between Othello and Desdemona, he exclaims–“Oh, you are well tuned now: but I’ll set down the pegs that make this music, as honest as I am“–his character of bonhommie not sitting at all easily upon him. In the scenes, where he tries to work Othello to his purpose, he is proportionately guarded, insidious, dark, and deliberate. We believe nothing ever came up to the profound dissimulation and dextrous artifice of the well-known dialogue in the third act, where he first enters upon the execution of his design.


   “Iago. My noble lord.
Othello. What dost-thou say, Iago?
Iago. 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 it.
Othello. O yes, and went between us very oft–
Iago. Indeed!
Othello. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern’st thou aught of that?
Is he not honest?
Iago. Honest, my lord?
Othello. Honest? Ay, honest.
Iago. My lord, for aught I know.
Othello. What do’st thou think?
Iago. Think, my lord!
Othello. Think, my lord! Alas, thou echo’st me,
As if there was some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shewn.”–


The stops and breaks, the deep workings of treachery under the mask of love and honesty, the anxious watchfulness, the cool earnestness, and if we may so say, the passion of hypocrisy marked in every line, receive their last finishing in that inconceivable burst of pretended indignation at Othello’s doubts of his sincerity.


“O grace! O Heaven forgive me!
Are you a man? Have you a soul or sense?
God be wi’ you; take mine office. O wretched fool,
That lov’st to make thine honesty a vice!
Oh monstrous world! take note, take note, O world!
To be direct and honest, is not safe.
I thank you for this profit, and from hence
I’ll love no friend, since love breeds such offence.”


If Iago is detestable enough when he has business on his hands and all his engines at work, he is still worse when he has nothing to do, and we only see into the hollowness of his heart. His indifference when Othello falls into a swoon, is perfectly diabolical.


   “Iago. How is it, General? Have you not hurt your head?
Othello. Do’st thou mock me?
Iago. I mock you not, by Heaven,” &c.


The part indeed would hardly be tolerated, even as a foil to the virtue and generosity of the other characters in the play, but for its indefatigable industry and inexhaustible resources, which divert the attention of the spectator (as well as his own) from the end he has in view to the means by which it must be accomplished.–Edmund the Bastard in Lear is something of the same character, placed in less prominent circumstances. Zanga is a vulgar caricature of it.


My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning.

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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1 Response to “Lie with her? Lie on her?”

  1. Hi! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m undoubtedly enjoying
    your blog and look forward to new updates.

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