“All of them die: the noble ones and the villains; the level-headed ones and the madmen; the empiricists and the absolutists. All choices are bad.”


Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


Let’s start by finishing up with Jan Kott:

othello act five“They talk about her even before she has appeared. They shout that she has run away with a Negro. Her image is already being shown in the sphere of animal eroticism:

…..an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe.

The prologue of Othello is a brutal one. Iago and Roderigo want to anger Brabantio. This, however, does not explain the obstinacy with which animal comparisons are used. They are there by design. The union of Othello and Desdemona is presented from the very first moment as mating of animals.

…you’ll have your daughter cover’d with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.

Othello is black, Desdemona is white. Victor Hugo, in the fragment quoted [in my last post], wrote about the symbolism of black and white, of day and night. But Shakespeare had been more specific than the Romantics; more material and carnal. Bodies in Othello are not only tormented; they also attract each other.

…your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

The image of the animal with two backs, one white, the other black, is one of the most brutal and, at the same time, most fascinating representations of the sexual act. But there is in it also the atmosphere of modern eroticism, with its longing for pure animality, its fascination with ‘being different,’ its breaking of sexual taboo. That is why its area is so often black and white. Othello is fascinated by Desdemona, but Desdemona is much more strongly fascinated by Othello.

…and she, in spite of nature,

Of years, of country, credit, everything,

To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on?

She has given up everything. She is in a hurry. She does not want a simple empty night any more. She will follow Othello to Cyprus.

That I did love the Moor to live with him,

My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,

May trumpet to the world.

In days of Kean, Desdemona use to go to bed in a nightcap. Modern Desdemonas not infrequently still wear that Victorian nightcap. Heine felt uneasy about Desdemona having moist hands. He wrote that sometimes he felt sad at the thought that, perhaps, Iago was partially right. Heine interpreted Shakespeare with far greater pungency than Schlegel, Tick, and all the other sentimental Germans. He compared Othello to Titus Andronicus, ‘In both the passion of a beautiful woman for an ugly Negro is represented with particular relish,’ he wrote.

Desdemona is two to four years older than Juliet; she could be Ophelia’s age. But she is much more of a woman than either one of them. Heine was right. Desdemona is obedient and stubborn at the same time. She is obedient to the point where passion begins. Of all Shakespeare’s female characters she is the most sensuous. More silent than Juliet or Ophelia, she seems absorbed in herself, and wakes only to the night,

…Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction.

She does not even know that she disturbs and – promises by her very presence. Othello will only later learn about it, but Iago knows this from the onset. Desdemona is faithful, but must have something of a slut in her. Not in actu but in potential. Otherwise the drama could not work, because Othello would be ridiculous. Othello must not be ridiculous. Desdemona is sexually obsessed with Othello, but all men – Iago, Cassio, Roderigo – are obsessed with Desdemona. They remain in her erotic climate.

…The wine she drinks is made of rapes. If she had been blessed, she would never have lov’d the Moor…Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand?…They met so near with their lips that their breaths embrac’d together.

In Othello’s relation to Desdemona a violent change will occur; a change that cannot be explained fully by Iago’s intrigues. It is as if Othello were suddenly horrified by Desdemona. Robert Speaight in his reflections on Othello wonders where their marriage was consummated – in Venice, or only in Cyprus, the night when Iago made Cassio drunk. Such a question may sound absurd, applied to a Shakespearean tragedy, with its double time of invents and synthetic motivations. But, perhaps because Shakespeare leaves out no motivation, this question touches on a dark sphere in Othello’s relations with Desdemona. Othello behaves as if he found a different Desdemona from the one he expected. As Iago says, ‘She that, so young, could give out such a seeming…’ (III, 3). It is as if the outburst of sensuality in a girl who not long ago listened to his tales with her eyes lowered, amazed and horrified Othello.

His bed shall seem a school, his board a shrift…

From the very first night Desdemona felt herself a lover and a wife. Eroticism was her vocation and joy; eroticism and love, eroticism and Othello are one in the same. Her Eros is a substance of light. But for Othello Eros is a trap. It is as if, after the first night, he got lost in darkness, where love and jealousy, lust and disgust were inextricably bound together.

The more violently Desdemona becomes engrossed by love, the more of a slut she seems to Othello; a past, present, or future slut. The more she desires, the better she loves, the more readily Othello believes that she can, or has, betrayed him.

Turnip Top Acting Troupe British Western Front WWI

Turnip Top Acting Troupe
British Western Front

Iago sets all the world’s evil in motion and falls victim to it in the end. Desdemona is the victim of her own passion. Her love testifies against her, not for her. Love proves her undoing. This is the second paradox.

In no other great Shakespearean drama, with the possible exception of King Lear, is the word ‘nature’ uttered so frequently as in Othello.

It is a judgment maim’d and most imperfect

That will confess perfection so could err

Against all rules of nature…

The idea is repeated several times, almost in the same words:

And yet, how nature erring from itself –

What is nature? What is against nature? Desdemona deceived her father. In King Lear we look at daughters with the eyes of the exiled old man. We hear his curses. In Othello, the viewpoint is different. Othello and Desdemona stand in the foreground. Brabantio does not rouse our compassion. But only for the time being: his words will later be repeated by Othello:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see.

She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.

Respect her father, husband, family, class, and estate is consistent with nature. Social order is natural. Everything that destroys it is against nature. Eroticism is nature too. But nature can be good or evil. Eroticism is nature depraved. The theme of Othello, like that of Macbeth and King Lear, is the fall. The Renaissance tale of the cunning villain and the jealous husband has been changed into a medieval morality.


Why, what art thou?


Your wife, my lord; your true

And loyal wife.


Come swear it, damn thyself;

Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves

Should fear to seize thee. therefore be double-damn’d—

Swear thou art honest.


Heaven doth truly know it.


Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.

Angel turns into devil. After animal symbolism, in which eroticism has been enclosed, this is, in frequency, the second semantic sphere of the tragedy. Othello’s landscape consisted of the earth without moon and stars, then of the world of reptiles and insects. Now the setting, as in medieval theatre, consists of two gates: of heaven and hell. Even the sober and down-to-earth Emilia turns into a hellish gate-keeper:

….You, mistress,

That have the office opposite to Saint Peter

And keep the gate of hell!

In front of the two gates Othello utters his great closing speeches before he kills himself:

….When we shall meet at compt,

This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,

And fiends will snatch at it.

Lenny-Henry-as-Othello-002But in fact Othello is no more a morality, or a mystery, than it is an opera or a melodrama. Nature is depraved and cannot be trusted. Eros is nature and cannot be trusted either. There is no appeal to nature, or her laws. Nature is evil, not only to Othello, but also to Shakespeare.  It is just as insane and cruel as history. Nature is depraved but in live, unlike a medieval morality play, it is not redeemed. There is no redemption. Angels turn into devils. All of them.

…turn thy complexion there

Patience, thou young and rose-lipp’d cherubin!

Ay, there look grim as hell!

It is the mad Lear who continues the argument:

Behold yond simp’ring dame,

Whose face between her forks presageth snow,

That minces virtue, and does shake the had

To hear of pleasure’s name.

The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to’t

With a more riotous appetite.

Down from the waist they are Centaurs,

Though women all above.

But to the girdle do the gods inherit,

Beneath is all the fiend’s.

There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption.

(King Lear, IV, 6)

Othello and Lear stay in the same sphere of madness. Nature has been put on trial. Once again Shakespeare’s hatred of nature forecasts that of Swift. Nature is depraved, above all in its reproductive function. Love tales, stories of lovers and married couples, are just as ruthless and cruel as the histories of kings, princes, and usurpers. In both, dead bodies are carried away from the empty stage.

All the landscapes of Othello, the gestures, the rhetoric – the last also in its gradual destruction – belong to the poetics of the Baroque. I visualize Othello, Desdemona, and Iago in black and gold, dipped in Rembrandtan darkness. Light falls on their faces. The first crowd scene, when Brabantio with his retinue sets out in search of Othello, always reminds me of the Night-watch.

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.

Othello is a tragedy of gestures. This, too, is part of Baroque. But the gestures are stayed, held up in the air, as it were. Everyone is motionless for a moment. I would have Othello’s final gestures held up in the same way. Let him approach Desdemona lying on her bed. And let him draw back. He knows now that Iago has won the final argument. The world is sufficiently vile, if she could have betrayed him, if he has come to believe in her infidelity, if he could believe in it even.

…To be once in doubt

Is once to be resolv’d.

Othello does not have to kill Desdemona. The play would be more cruel, if, in that final and decisive moment, he just left her. Cressida does not die after her act of betrayal, nor does Troilus kill himself. Their play ends in a mocking tone.

Othello and DesdemonaOthello kills Desdemona to save the moral order, to restore love and faith. He kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her; so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium. Othello does not mumble any more. He desperately wants to save the meaning of live, of his life, perhaps even the meaning of the world.

And say besides that in Aleppo once,

Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk

Beat a Venetian and traduc’d the state,

I took by th’throat the circumcised dog

And smote him – thus.

Othello’s death can save nothing. Desdemona is dead, and so is the world of feudal loyalty. The condottieri are anachronistic; together with their enchanting poetry, with their rhetoric, their pathos and their gestures. One such gesture is Othello’s suicide.

Desdemona is dead, so are the stupid fool Roderigo and the prudent Emilia. In a while Othello will die. All of them die: the noble ones and the villains; the level-headed ones and the madmen; the empiricists and the absolutists. All choices are bad.


Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?


Why, would not you?


No, by this heavenly light!


Nor I neither, by this heavenly light,

I might do’t as well I’ th’ dark.


Wouldst thou do such a deed for all the world?


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

Iago keeps silent. Probably even on the rack he will not utter a word. He has won all the arguments; but only the intellectual ones. In all great Shakespearean dramas, from Hamlet and Troilus and Cressida onwards, the moral order and the intellectual order are in conflict with one another. They will remain so up to The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The world is as Iago sees it. But Iago is a villain. Like our world, Shakespeare’s world did not regain its balance after the earthquake. Like our world, it remained incoherent. In Shakespeare’s Othello everybody loses in the end.”

And with that, we come to the end of Othello.  For me, this has been a fascinating experience.  For years, it had been my “least favorite” (relatively speaking) of the tragedies:  I tended to agree with Bradley and the like that it lacks the “cosmic’ depth of the others, that it’s too “specific” a tragedy and, quite honestly, I tended to find Othello’s quick plunge into jealousy and rage not quite believable.

But  this time all that changed.  Reading the play along with Garber and (especially) Kott, changed my perception of the play.  Kott, in particular, I thought, brought the play into a completely new light for me:  his view of the play makes sense for me, and elevated the play from a seemingly domestic tragedy into one that’s larger than I’d imagined.

And one more observation of a more general variety…is everyone else noticing how much “easier” it is to read Shakespeare now?  My guess is, it’s in part because of his progression as a writer, but even more because we know how to read him.

So now I’d like to throw it over to all of you.  What did you think about Othello?  If you’ve never read it, what were your initial impressions?  And if you’re read it before, how did your interpretation/experience change?  Please…share with the group!


My next post will be Sunday evening/Monday morning, Sonnet #135, with another post Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning introducing our next play:  All’s Well That Ends Well.  (Heads-up – the title is seriously ironic.  And yes, it’s a comedy.)

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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6 Responses to “All of them die: the noble ones and the villains; the level-headed ones and the madmen; the empiricists and the absolutists. All choices are bad.”

  1. Mahood says:

    Dennis – you mentioned that (on previous readings) you found Othello’s quick plunge into jealousy and rage not quite believable: I have a friend who has always struggled with the character of Iago – she didn’t find him believable (reaching this conclusion presumably from the apparent lack of convincing motivation for his actions). She found the idea of an evil character with absolutely no redeeming features at all…questionable. Thoughts?

    Also, though it’s probably too late now, you mentioned a few posts back an essay by Borges called “Kafka and his Precursors” – would love to read it sometime if the opportunity arose in the future to post it.

    And finally, as Kott mentioned above, the ‘Rembrandtan darkness…the first crowd scene…always reminds me of the Night-watch…Here’s a link to the great painting:

    • Mahood: For me, I find Iago’s malignity perfectly believable — does that mean I’m too dark? And since you asked, I’ll definitely post Borges’ essay in the next couple of weeks. Dennis

  2. Shakespeare getting easier to read as we move on through the plays? I and my reading partner are seeing more of the nuances, I think. And we definitely have ‘favourite’ plays. Othello is one. A brilliant dramatic move, I think, to have Iago go silent once his game is up. (A few hasty thoughts.)

    • Patricia: I think it’s seeing more of the nuances, because we’ve learned to speak his language (as it were). Plus…he’s a better writer in the plays we’re reading now than he was in, let’s say, the Henry VI plays. And as for Iago — what else could he say?

  3. Eddie says:

    I liked Othello a lot more this time than when I read it (20-some years ago!) in college. Not sure why that is. Then it seemed to me more like a high-end second tier play than one of the greatest, but now I do feel it deserves to be near the top, though still to me, behind what I so far consider the best (Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a few others). (I say “so far” because I have not read some of them yet.)

    • Eddie: I feel the same way – I’d always thought that the tragedy was too specific, maybe not quite “cosmic” in the way that Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, are. This time around though…I got it. Maybe it’s the close reading the year and a half immersion in Shakespeare that helped…

      And by the way, hope you can catch up — after Timon of Athens which we’re starting next week — it’s the “big three” — Macbeth, Lear, Antony and Cleopatra. It should be spectacular.

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