Introductory Notes on Othello and Tragedy

The tragic universe allows only limited free will. Although free will is more in evidence in Elizabethan than in Greek drama, we still find a pre-ordained pattern. Shakespeare sometimes shows this through supernatural devices to show future events eg Macbeth. Tragedy relies on causation ie act – consequence; human will is powerless to change the chain of disasters.

There were two tragic models in Shakespearean England: Christian morality plays and Classical tragedy; there was no tradition of secular tragedies in England.

Morality Plays

This tradition implies an ordered universe; it is essentially optimistic: man can understand the order and relate to it. It dramatises the choice between good and evil eg Macbeth’s internal debates on moral issues.

Morality plays charted the spiritual progress of a central figure representing mankind (Everyman). Comedy and tragedy were closely aligned in this tradition; Elizabethan playwrights often mixed the two elements eg the porter’s scene in Macbeth. They regarded the main difference between comedy and tragedy in terms of the outcome eg Christian tragedy was caused by a stumbling to sin. It’s a tragedy of choice: if the protagonist chooses evil, he becomes a villain eg Macbeth (the tragic mood is not complete here because evil is defeated). Morality plays focused on the psychology of the protagonist eg Hamlet and Macbeth.

Aristotle and Classical Tragedy

Tragedy, like epic, focuses on a hero. Aristotle, writing the Poetics some 2500 years ago, argued that the hero should be neither wholly good nor wholly bad – the one would make his fate intolerable to us, the other would remove him from our sympathy. He should be rather like us, albeit rather better, and of sufficient status for his downfall to involve others as well as himself. This should arouse pity in the audience because we feel his misfortunes are not entirely deserved but also terror for we can imagine ourselves in his place.

The tragic hero suffers a change in his fortunes from happiness to misery which is caused by a fatal error of judgement (HAMARTIA). The tragic error was generally attributed in Greek tragedy to overweening pride (HUBRIS) which offended divine justice (DIKE). The hubris brought upon itself the judgement of the gods (NEMESIS). The tragic plot moved from a beginning, through complication, to a catastrophe or tragic reversal, both of intention and fortune. This reversal (PERIPETEIA) becomes apparent to the audience before the hero is aware of it and thus produces an element of dramatic irony which is sustained until his tragic recognition (ANAGNORISIS) of the real situation.

Aristotle advanced the theory of catharsis (from KATHARSIS, a medical term) to counter the arguments of Plato, who argued that watching violence and wickedness on stage would encourage the audience to behave likewise. Aristotle argued that witnessing events in dramatic form which in reality would produce horror and pain gives us a release, even pleasure. However, although Aristotle believed that catharsis was a product of tragedy, he didn’t believe it to be its end; its purpose, he argued, was intelligent pleasure.

Senecan tragedy (classical tragedy – highly regarded by Elizabethans)

Seneca wrote for recitation (Shakespeare and his contemporaries weren’t aware of this) so although the stories were very violent, audiences didn’t see the violence. Elizabethans wanted entertainment so Senecan stories were adapted for audiences wanting action. Seneca was interested in the political and social aspects of life ie man’s relations with men rather than his spiritual progress to salvation or damnation, as in the Morality plays.

Senecan tragedy is precipitated from a well meaning act that goes wrong eg Lear dividing the kingdom or Brutus killing Julius Caesar. It’s caused by an error of judgement; the protagonist cannot make the right decision because he isn’t fully aware of the facts eg Oedipus marrying his mother. It’s not a question of sin and judgement but errors with unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences. Once the error of judgement has been made, a kind of tragic logic follows. Senecan tragedy implies a hostile, arbitrary universe, with no benevolent deity to give order and meaning eg King Lear – the gods provide a hostile background to the action of the play; the characters feel that the gods are laughing at them.

The gods intervene more directly in Senecan than in Elizabethan tragedy but there’s no assurance of justice and their actions can be terrible because they are indifferent to humans.

Elizabethans re violence:

Dual view:

1. Violence leads to disorder so is dangerous to society. It is innate in human nature and is problematic because it is individual and lawless. Private revenge was prohibited by Elizabethan law but the code of honour required defence of family so an avenger could legitimately offer himself to Providence as a tool to punish evil.

2. Violence is necessary, sometimes even good, when disciplined and for the sake of good government eg state governed violence ie warriors.

Elizabethans and Revenge

As a culturally broadly Christian audience they believed revenge to be wrong but as Renaissance people, they felt it to be right. It’s from this conflict that much of the tension of revenge tragedy springs eg Hamlet. Othello must be condemned because he assumes that revenge is appropriate to justice and that killing is appropriate to revenge. NB Othello is not strictly speaking a revenge tragedy. It’s one of Shakespeare’s tragedies of love in an extreme situation, menaced from outside – see also Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra. Yet it is also perhaps Shakespeare’s most profound presentation of revenge.

In Hamlet we have to think about revenge: it raises questions such as ‘Is there an appropriate way of dealing with evil?’ In Othello we feel the issues related to revenge. Francis Bacon in his essay ‘Of Revenge’ commented: ‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’. Shakespeare presents the revenge / justice dilemma in dramatic form in both Hamlet and Othello.


A few years after Hamlet (1599-1600) but before Macbeth and King Lear (both 1605-6)

Is Othello Elizabethan?

I use the term Elizabethan somewhat loosely here. Othello was written towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I and was performed at the court of James I. ‘Elizabethan’ is in some respects a term of convenience but also a pragmatic choice: clearly cultural norms do not change overnight with a change in monarch. The Renaissance world saw significant changes and the play’s original audiences would have reflected cultural tensions and shifts. We speak of the ‘Elizabethan’ or ‘Jacobean’ audience but of course there has never been a sole Elizabethan or Jacobean identity, simply a range of voices and experiences (many of which were heard rarely if ever in the public sphere). What we do have is a set of cultural norms, which the play may reflect or problematise, revealing a society in flux, different from our own but not always as much as we’d like to think!

Othello and Race

Elizabethan clichés represented black men as having stronger sexual appetites and being more violent than white men. Shakespeare doesn’t simply reflect such notions; Othello may become violent but it’s not because he’s black. Shakespeare was rather conservative in some ways but here he appears to be questioning commonly perceived notions of race. NB he exploited such notions in Titus Andronicus, presenting Aaron in a manner consistent with popular belief. In Othello he takes the same notions but problematises them.

Black was associated with evil on the Elizabethan stage. Aaron in Titus Andronicus is an obvious example of this – he is an embodiment of individuality at its most negative: defiance of social order, glorying in evil – not unlike the diabolic figure in Morality plays.

The tragedy is that Othello isn’t evil – he’s like us – he’s not perfect but ‘as truly as to heaven I do confess the vices of my blood’ I, iii l.261-7.

The play does work with contemporary black / white imagery but at the beginning it establishes Othello as black and virtuous / ‘fair’. Desdemona, fair in complexion, is made to seem black by Iago (who seeks to blacken her reputation to her husband). Iago is white but has a heart blackened by evil – ‘I am not what I am’.

Shakespeare presents racial prejudice through Iago (with whose views we’re hardly encouraged to sympathise!) and minor characters such as Roderigo and Brabantio. Othello has clearly risen to his current status as a highly respected warrior in spite of racial prejudice. We can only surmise whether or not Shakespeare intended us to see this as a laudable part of his nobility (if anything, he’s presented as an unusual individual as opposed to a representative of his race) but certainly twentieth-century audiences will be likely to see it in this way. Shakespeare wrote for a very different audience; we must be wary of trying to transpose our cultural attitudes onto Shakespearean drama. However, Shakespeare avoids some contemporary clichés, choosing to represent Othello’s downfall not as an inevitable consequence of his race (as somehow hotter blooded than his colleagues), but in part due to his finer feelings.

Othello is a courageous warrior but he can be idealistic, particularly in his love of Desdemona and his friendship with Iago, which blinds him to Iago’s treachery. His romantic idealism makes his relationship with Desdemona fragile in the dangerous political world they inhabit. He is at times almost child-like in his need for reassurance, fearing that those he loves most do not love him. Sadly he fails to see through Iago’s strategems – he trusts the wrong person. The audience can see how clever and persuasive Iago is and has to watch powerless as he cynically destroys Othello and Desdemona and the good that they represent.

In over simplified terms Desdemona represents good in the domestic sphere and Othello represents good in the public sphere, as trusted warrior protecting the people and maintaining order. Elizabethans admired warriors, as symbols of strength, honour and social order, but were not used to seeing black warriors represented on stage. Elizabethans would simply have been surprised, some shocked and discomfited, perhaps trying to see Othello as an unusual black man, somehow not 100% moor. Yet the play underlines the fact the he is a Moor, through and through. The play draws attention to physical differences between Othello and the Venetians – characters speak disparagingly of Othello’s thick lips for example. Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko is represented differently in her 17thc novel, Oroonoko, where she repeatedly comments that although he’s black, he is European in terms of education, behaviour, even physical appearance – as if he’s just been painted black. Shakespeare underlines Othello’s difference – he’s regarded as an outsider.

Iago exploits this, telling him, ‘I know our country disposition well’; he warns him that female infidelity is an accepted Venetian custom. He claims that he fears that Desdemona may repent her marriage to Othello when she compares him to ‘her country forms’ ie young Venetian men and claims that Desdemona ‘must have change’ once she’s ‘sated with his body’. This tells us nothing about Desdemona and Othello but a lot about Iago. He can only understand lust, satiety and disgust; he can see something finer in others but wants to destroy it. This clearly works to an extent because Othello becomes agitated; his language becomes temporarily rhetorical and self-dramatising eg he falsifies his true feelings in his wild assertion that it would have been better no matter how Desdemona had behaved ‘So I had nothing known’ III iii.

However, Shakespeare reverses the usual stereotypes because Othello isn’t a slave but in a position of nobility and authority; he’s not pagan but Christian. Iago, though white and a soldier, isn’t noble and certainly isn’t Christian. The Duke articulates this reversal: ‘Your son-in-law is far more fair than black’ I, iii, l.289-90. Othello is universally respected, a simple and direct man of action with a natural air of authority. Iago comments that Othello is bombastic, ‘loving his own pride and purpose’ yet when Iago tells Othello that he could hardly restrain himself when he heard Othello spoken of in ‘scurvy’ terms (guaranteed to manipulate many people to anger), Othello simply replies ‘Tis better as it is’ I ii l.6. Iago fails to rouse him to anger and Othello reveals quiet dignity, not wounded ego. When Brabantio cries, ‘Subdue him at his peril’ after much verbal abuse, Othello replies, ‘My parts, title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly’.

Othello as warrior

Othello, like many Shakespearean heroes, is ‘noble’, a warrior, thus associated with ‘good’ state controlled violence for the good of society – a man of honour. Warriors were seen as men of special worth eg Hotspur in 1 Henry IV; Prince Hal can only become Henry V when he has learned to assimilate some of the warrior virtues embodied in Hotspur eg courage, fortitude, willingness to sacrifice self for the glory and safety of the state. Shakespeare often shows his warriors to be vulnerable, their very warrior qualities leading to their downfall in a world where the qualities of the Renaissance courtier were becoming more admired than those of the warrior, associated with the old order. Hotspur dies, as does Coriolanus; they die honourably but must die because they cannot survive in the new order. Othello is part of the same value system as Hotspur and Coriolanus. Othello is a man of action, not a subtle politician – this leads to his downfall; Lodovico calls him ‘this rash and most unfortunate man’.

Rather like Titus Andronicus, Othello’s warrior instincts become tainted by illegitimate violence: both become corrupted in spite of noble intentions by the evil they think they’re fighting. This is a familiar tragic theme – a noble man of great abilities losing moral direction in a world where moral choices are complex and confusing; it’s a recurrent theme in Shakespeare. In Titus Andronicus, the focus is on political and social consequences, not the personal psychology of Titus; Othello comes from a different tragic tradition, hence the focus on Othello himself.

Othello, like Hotspur and Coriolanus in particular, has led his people to victory many times; he’s a well respected public figure. Shakespeare presents war as good if it’s for just purposes eg he celebrates warrior virtues and just victory in Henry V.

The bluff soldier

The bluff soldier is related to the figure of the fool, who has a special licence to speak truth, an ability to see through the confusion eg Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra and Kent in King Lear. Iago only seems to be the blunt good and trustworthy soldier. Enobarbus is fundamentally different in that he always speaks the truth and his intentions are good. Iago uses apparent truth to disguise his real machinations. He’s devious and effective in his manipulations. Cassio believes him to be truthful: ‘he speaks home’.

Enobarbus is cynical at times but his cynicism is largely tolerant, a result of his perceptive and amused way of looking at human weakness. Iago sees the same flaws in humanity but rather than smiling at them, he exploits them, revelling bitterly in manifestations of human weakness and baseness. Enobarbus is very outspoken; Iago lacks the courage to be genuinely blunt – he just pretends to be.

Notion of honesty

The theme of honesty is fundamental to Othello, embodying ideas of generosity and faithfulness to friends and employers. The use of the term is often heavily ironic: Iago is often spoken of as being honest eg by Cassio and Othello. He is honest in a brutal and limited manner but only for destructive purposes eg telling Othello that Cassio can’t hold his liquor. Iago’s reputation for honesty fools Cassio, who is persuaded to ask Desdemona to plead with Othello on his behalf.

Desdemona is also described as honest – a different kind of honesty ie chastity, truth telling and faithfulness to friends eg Cassio. Ironically, her honesty in this area leads to Othello doubting her. Iago comments that Othello ‘thinks men honest that but seem to be so’ I iii l.398. He’s gullible because he trusts appearances; he lacks Iago’s perspicacity and fails to recognise his deviousness.

Othello and Desdemona

NB Desdemona means ‘unfortunate’.

They don’t seem to know each other very well eg Desdemona is sure that Othello would never become jealous. It’s an immature relationship, unlike that of Antony and Cleopatra, who are well aware of each other’s faults! Their knowledge even of themselves can be patchy. Othello comments that he’s old enough not to feel ‘the young effects of passion’ yet he’s adolescent in many of his emotional reactions. Their love is incredibly idealistic; it’s difficult to see how it could survive in the real world and makes them very vulnerable.

Desdemona’s possible infidelity – NB even the implication of a wife’s infidelity could seriously injure her husband’s reputation and could undermine his authority. Apart from the inevitable embarrassment at being the butt of jokes about cuckolds, the implication would be that if he couldn’t govern his wife properly, he wouldn’t be able to govern an army or state. Elizabethans believed strongly in political, social and domestic hierarchies, all of which intertwined to create ultimate order.

Iago cleverly blends elements of truth in his lies eg Desdemona can deceive – she deceives her father by running off to marry Othello but she’s not a liar by nature. She has integrity and faces her father when possible. She lies about the handkerchief but the audience can understand why – Othello is bullying her and she wants to avoid unpleasantness; she may well be a bit afraid of him.

Desdemona is impulsively good; in agreeing to help Cassio she pesters Othello – she’s too helpful! He jokes that she’ll make him lose patience by nagging – she’s unwise.

She’s attractive and loving and given lyrical lines and touching scenes eg when she asks Emilia how she can win Othello back. Othello is fundamentally idealistic in his approach to Desdemona but when he fears that she has been unfaithful his language becomes very sensual – images of taste and smell are often juxtaposed with images of foulness and corruption – cf Hamlet.

Jealousy leads to a temporary perversion of his passion. Jealousy isn’t necessarily a defining feature of Othello’s character. In The Winter’s Tale Leontes is a man whose jealousy is a ‘diseas’d opinion’; it’s self-engendered and self-perpetuated, unlike Othello’s. Leontes has been married for years and should know his wife and he’s surrounded by people who tell him Hermione is innocent. Othello’s attitude is perhaps symptomatic of vulnerability due to being middle aged, newly married, an outsider and of a different race – there are a number of complicated factors. Othello only has Emilia to counteract the poison of Iago’s suggestions; it’s natural that he should trust Iago, whose word he takes in preference to that of a ‘simple bawd’.

End of the play – Desdemona makes remarks which could be seen as a confession – it’s deeply ambiguous. If she has a reputation for fibbing (telling ‘little’ lies), perhaps Othello simply takes the worst possible meaning eg he takes the phrase ‘loves I bear to you’ as love affairs. When Iago tells him that Cassio has confessed, Desdemona comments, ‘Cassio has been betrayed and I am undone’; one can see how Othello misinterprets things. They have fundamental problems in communication even though they are in many respects kindred spirits.

Killing Desdemona – we can interpret Othello’s actions as a fatal expression of uncontrolled anger, a response to what he perceives to be justice, or a mixture of both, each fuelling the other. When he realises that he has committed murder and not justice, he kills himself, again responding to the perceived demands of justice. When he kills himself, he shows the courage and control of the warrior, rather as Macbeth ultimately reasserts his warrior values in facing justice and certain death at the hands of Macduff. Othello believes that he’s sending himself to torment and eternal separation from Desdemona. He asks that his great love and perplexity be recorded but not extenuated.

When Desdemona dies she dies loving and loyal. It may strike us as overly sentimental but it needs to be seen against the contemporary backdrop of Renaissance culture. Desdemona is clearly intended partly as a touching picture of the ideal pious Renaissance wife, submitting to her husband, even when wrong, sure of her reward in Heaven. Twentieth-century audiences may feel that she isn’t a sufficiently strong character to anchor the love plot but we need to account for complex and changing attitudes towards femininity, attitudes influenced by culture and era but also genre (the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies inhabit a different dramatic world to that of their tragic counterparts).

The handkerchief

Othello feels wonder that Desdemona can love him. Wonder is linked to superstition, for example belief in the handkerchief. Many in Shakespeare’s audience would have been genuinely superstitious – some still believed in witches and spells. The play was performed for James I, who was particularly interested in supernatural power; we don’t witness supernatural power in Othello but a contemporary audience would have been more kindly disposed to the idea of the charmed handkerchief than twentieth-century audiences tend to be.

Othello seems to believe ‘there’s some wonder in this handkerchief'(III,4, l.55), that there’s ‘magic in the web of it’ as he recounts the tale of the ‘charmer’ who could almost read people’s thoughts and who gave it to his mother. Desdemona, true to her almost childish characteristic of listening wide-eyed to Othello’s tales, is impressed and almost frightened: ‘would to God that I had never seen it’, as if she fears that witchcraft, manifested in the handkerchief, is working against her love. It is a love token, her ‘first remembrance from the Moor’. It was given to Othello’s mother and she gave it to him for his wife. Desdemona is told that if she loses it she’ll lose his love. The loss of such a keepsake clearly presages doom; it’s worthless except as a proof of love but provides a powerful symbol. The irony lies in the fact that she only forgets it because of her concern for Othello, who is sick. The perfection of her love destroys her. The handkerchief ‘drops’ as if by fate, like a veil of severance between them.

Othello sees the handkerchief in the hand of Cassio’s paramour, Bianca, a prostitute. His desire for revenge focuses first on Cassio: ‘How shall I murder him, Iago?’ Iago digs at him, telling him to take it ‘like a man’ ie there are lots of cuckolds so it’s not significant. Naturally, this does nothing to allay his fears. Othello appeals directly to Iago, desperate for human support, ‘but yet the pity of it, Iago’ IV, i l.191. He speaks of Desdemona with loving regret as a person not just an attractive body, speaking of her skill as ‘an admirable musician’, a woman ‘of so high and plenteous wit and invention’. Yet the idealism of his love leads him to the opposite extreme and when he believes he has proof of her infidelity, he comments, ‘Now I do see ’tis true’ ie love has gone and revenge is invoked.

Othello killing Desdemona can be seen as an outward symbol of the anguish lovers may inflict on each other cf Romeo and Juliet (written about 10 years earlier). In the tragic mode, love is a straining after the impossible; it has within it the seeds of its own death. It can be re-born but not as human love – as a kind of divine love – it must die in the process. There is a suggestion of this in Antony and Cleopatra (written a year or so after Othello); it is also clearly significant in Romeo and Juliet, where their last kiss in death represents love after death. It is possible that we are to read the same symbolism into Othello’s last kiss of Desdemona, although he clearly expects eternal separation so it may also be read as a poignant reminder of their earlier joy at being reunited and an image of what might have been.


Iago acts as a catalyst, diabolically discerning the inevitable seed of death. The element of tragedy is innate in Desdemona and Othello; if it wasn’t it couldn’t be developed by Iago. His function is to expedite disaster. He isn’t designed to be a believable human being – he’s more a disembodied intelligence, an abstract potentiality of the human conscience; he may also represent the darker side of Othello.

Iago’s dramatic heritage lies in the morality plays in the figure of Vice. He shares many of the characteristics of such characters: delight in his ‘skill’, elaborate pretences to be the victim’s friend and seeing evil as sport; he also shares the clever and manipulative speech of stage ‘Machievels’.

In The Prince (1513) Machiavelli discussed political strategies for people in high positions if they wanted to retain authority at all costs eg Edmund in Lear endeavours to gain control over the state by ruthless means. Machiavelli embodied the devil to Elizabethans. In Elizabethan plays, it’s usual for Machievellian figures to victimise and torment good people by manipulating and prompting the weak eg Roderigo or the wicked to do evil deeds. Their schemes work by manipulating what is essentially good eg Emilia and Cassio, who is devoted to Othello as general.

Iago is the centre of the play – he acts, the others REACT. Macbeth is goaded by his wife but Iago acts on a purely individual level. Coleridge referred to it as ‘motiveless malignancy’ cf Satan in Paradise Lost – evil for evil’s sake. Iago loves his machinations: ‘Pleasure and action make the hours seem short’ II iii l.369. Iago is ruthless – he maims Cassio and murders Roderigo, yet he seems to regard his schemes as entertaining.

In Act 1 scene 1 Iago is given a possible motive – he resents Cassio’s promotion over him in the army ranks: ‘I am worth no worse a place’ l.385ish. He also hates Othello, ‘I hate the moor’ and thinks that he may have slept with his wife. Iago seems to act simply because he enjoys manipulating and destroying people; his feelings towards Cassio and Othello may be attempts at rationalising or justifying his actions or may simply fuel them.

Iago’s plans – the brawl

Iago’s plan to convince Othello of Desdemona’s disloyalty enables him to gain revenge on Cassio too. He uses Roderigo, his dupe, to provoke Cassio to a brawl while Iago encourages Cassio to drink. Roderigo is easily duped because he wants Desdemona and believes Iago’s lies that she will soon tire of Othello. Iago finds out what people most want and encourages them to believe that in helping him, they will obtain it, again aligning him with the devil.

Othello is presented here as a figure of authority, stern and passionless. He is responsible for the administration of justice and reveals himself to be calm and efficient; he can’t let Cassio off simply because he likes him. NB Othello isn’t simply a dupe; he has no reason to doubt Iago’s testimony here – it’s skilfully couched in terms which make it appear that Iago is trying to extenuate Cassio’s behaviour; this helpful guise is one of Iago’s most effective weapons and everyone is taken in. Roderigo acts as a contrast to Othello because he sees part of Iago’s evil and yet is still duped. For Othello, public duty and justice must prevail over personal affection; he faces the same dilemma with Desdemona later.

Othello fires Cassio and Cassio goes to Iago for advice. Iago suggests that he ask Desdemona to plead for him. Iago is intrigued by the possibilities of his evil jokes – he loves manipulating people. His methods are appalling but intriguing – he’s very clever eg he lets Othello wind himself up. He plants thoughts by suggesting their opposites eg when he pretends to act as arbiter in the brawl between Cassio and Roderigo; by suggesting that Cassio is innocent, he subtly implies the opposite.

The persuasion scenes

Act 3 scene 3 is tremendously important. The first phase, initiated by Iago, is intriguing. l.35 fails because Desdemona is direct about Cassio; she’s very open. Desdemona is impulsive and spontaneous but she saves herself by her truthfulness here. l.95 is very successful – Iago repeats things, as if he doesn’t want to say something. l.137 rouses Othello to think Iago’s got something on his mind; he tells him that he doesn’t have to tell what’s on his mind; this intrigues Othello. He plays on Othello’s own words and his fears then lets Othello talk of it himself eg he tells Othello to beware of jealousy and thus plants the seeds of it – see l.169 – jealousy hadn’t been mentioned before. Othello gets worked up then calms down and resolves not to be jealous because there’s no proof; at this stage at least his rationality prevails over his insecurity. The scene becomes very tense as it focuses on their reactions.

The next phase is that Othello wonders if Desdemona has been unfaithful. He turns on Iago and says he’s responsible. Iago is shaken but he has the handkerchief, which he knows will provide powerful ammunition. He pretends to be offended and leaves Othello in two minds.

End of Act 3 scene 3 – no-one had suggested killing Desdemona. Iago effectively suggests it – one would kill a rival in a courtly situation, not one’s wife. Iago draws Othello in, saying ‘don’t think like that’ and thus constantly telling him how to think. He tells him in l.249 of Act 3 scene 3 to drop it – very clever – he knows Othello won’t because he can’t.

Iago’s speech is energetic, exhibiting a compulsive hatred of that which is good. The rhythms of his speech become slower when he’s dissimulating. In the temptation scenes he attacks less than usual, pretending to speak reluctantly and hesitantly. The ordered harmonies of Othello’s habitual speech express the ordered universe he inhabits, with good and evil at opposite poles and easily identifiable. Iago throws him into a state of confusion and he can no longer distinguish between good and evil. In his state of moral horror and emotional chaos, his speech comes to sound rather more like Iago’s – aggressive eg ‘I’ll chop her into messes, ‘goats and monkeys’ and other ugly animal imagery and grossly sensual images such as ‘lie with her, lie on her?’

Act 3 scene 3 l.460 ff – dramatic and daring. Iago almost takes Desdemona’s place (not sexually!) in an awful inversion of natural relationships built on trust and love – it’s almost a reverse marriage, based on lies and bitterness. Othello kneels and Iago kneels beside him in a travesty of the marriage vows, with Iago vowing to put Othello first and to obey him (in an obvious parallel with the marriage ceremony) and ultimately declaring, ‘I am your own for ever.’ The scene underlines Othello’s fatal trust in Iago: ‘I am bound to you forever’. It can also be seen as a travesty of a religious or knightly oath, which is particularly appropriate in that Othello is a warrior; Iago is now his ‘lieutenant’, the post which had (in reality) lately been occupied by Cassio.

Iago wants to take Cassio and Desdemona’s place in relation to Othello. If Cassio was dreaming of Desdemona, when Iago gets into the bed, he’s taking Desdemona’s place in a sense. He wants the job that Cassio gets, a position of esteem; he wants to be Othello’s confidant and to influence him.

NB it’s Iago’s jealousy that starts everything, not Othello’s – he’s jealous of Cassio’s promotion and jealous that Othello may have slept with his wife. He manages to manipulate Othello so that he can transpose jealousy onto him. During the next act Othello seems to have forgotten the revenge vow (he hasn’t – it’s just fatigue and stress) but Iago maintains it.

Iago’s strategy is daring – he suggests that Othello should listen to him talking to Cassio – very risky. They’re talking about Bianca, a prostitute but Othello assumes it’s Desdemona because he sees things through his jealousy and Iago’s suggestions. Bianca comes in, which is again very dramatic. It’s all done by abstraction and tricks, not ghosts and magic.

Cassio’s dream (according to Iago)

Horace argued that dreams can be the result of a sick person’s fancy or delusion. Homer argued that they may be divinely inspired and prophetic.

Iago describes Cassio’s dream, talking in his sleep to Desdemona. He presents Othello with carefully chosen lies and then says it was only a dream – very effective. NB Satan is known as the father of lies. Iago succeeds by lies, not goading like Lady Macbeth.

NB Iago’s linguistic voyeurism – he likes talking about sex; his report of Cassio’s dream has a sort of leering quality cf Milton’s Satan talking to Eve in Paradise Lost.

Act 4 scene 1 l.32 – Iago really puts the knife in, describing what Cassio and Desdemona have supposedly done; Othello faints. Othello is a strong man, with a strong stage presence – it’s a physical manifestation of the strength of his emotions. It’s very dramatic on stage as the audience witnesses a powerful warrior brought low. Iago tells everyone it’s epilepsy, presumably to make Othello look weak (epilepsy was one of many medical conditions regarded as a weakness at the time) and to make it look as if he’s been hiding the illness from them.

The storm

Storm imagery is deeply significant – cf King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest. The storm represents chaos in the macrocosm that presages chaos in the microcosm of Othello’s soul. There was no storm in Cinthio’s tale (probable source for the play).

There is a real storm – Othello entrusts Desdemona to Iago’s care during the crossing. In a tragic sense, he continues to leave Desdemona in Iago’s hands or at his mercy, throughout the play. Desdemona survives the natural storm, which lets ‘go safely by / the divine Desdemona’ II, i, l.68-73. Iago’s storm, an unnatural one, cannot be seen and will destroy her – it’s something so unnatural and malicious that it’s beyond her ken – she has no hope of surviving it. Shakespeare is aware that naivety and innocence may be attractive and laudable but they are also qualities which, if not tempered with experience and wisdom, will make a character very vulnerable.

The storm creates a frightening and uncertain atmosphere which unsettles the audience and renders us aware of the vulnerability of the characters. Cassio comments, ‘I have lost him on a dangerous sea’ (II,i l.46), prefiguring him losing Othello in a worse storm. He explains, ‘the great contention of the sea and skies / Parted our fellowship’ (II,i l.92-3), prefiguring Iago separating them later.

The elements are threatening: they ‘cast water on the burning bear’ and ‘Quench the guards of the ever fixed pole’ (the guards are two stars in the little bear). Vital navigation aids are lost to sight, paralleling the psychological world of Othello: ‘passion having my best judgement collided [darkened] / Assays to lead the way’ II,iii..195-8. This shows that Othello has a degree of self-knowledge (this is his natural state of self-awareness) but suggests his underlying vulnerability to strong emotion and difficulty in governing it – which Iago will pinpoint and exploit.

Othello uses storm imagery on several occasions, referring to himself as a ‘labouring bark’ or boat and Desdemona as the ‘calm’ harbour in the storm of life, a common enough image: women were supposed to create a domestic harbour for their men. When his bloody thoughts are sweeping him along he compares them to the Pontic sea, ‘Whose icy current and compulsive course / Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on’ III, iii l.461-2.

The sea imagery continues throughout the play. At the end Othello comments, ‘Here is my journey’s end’, the ‘very sea-mark of my utmost sail’ V,ii l.268-9 ie the storm winds of passion lead to the calm of death cf Antony and Cleopatra. It’s also representative of the fact that his moral world is no longer confused – he recognises evil in Iago and good in Desdemona.

Heaven and Hell imagery

Desdemona is referred to as ‘divine Desdemona’ II,i l.68-73, associated with heavenly purity and goodness eg ‘hail to thee, lady’ – cf the religious element in Winter’s Tale (Hermione) and Cordelia in Lear – spiritual worth but in non Christian context. Othello, like Cassio, associates Desdemona with Heaven: ‘If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself’ III,iii, l.282.

Yet Iago woos Othello from his faith in Desdemona, drawing him to fiendish violence, ‘Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell’ (Othello). Desdemona now becomes ‘fair devil’ even ‘devil’ IV,i, l.235 and 239 before he strikes her publicly. J.Mclauchlan argues in his study of Othello (Studies in English Literature series) that Heaven and Hell become confused in Othello’s mind just as the sea and sky were confused in the physical storm. When he fears Desdemona is untrue he feels he’s in Hell – hence he calls Emilia ‘You…that keep the gate of hell’ IV, ii l.92-4. NB The play is predicated on the Christian belief structure – Othello really believes in Heaven and Hell. Hence he tries to persuade Desdemona to confess her sin and ask for grace before he kills her: ‘I would not kill thy soul’. When he comes to see his mistake he feels he’s damned and that he deserves it; he wants punishment: ‘Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!’, ‘Whip me, ye devils’.

Although Desdemona, Othello, Cassio, even Emilia, ask the heavens to intervene, this doesn’t happen. Unlike Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, whose sins are less excusable, Othello isn’t granted a period of repentance and happiness.

Good versus Evil

Good versus evil is a traditional theme – evil destroying good ie a reversal of divine order – cf the morality plays. Evil is rather abstract in Othello – we don’t experience a dark and bloody atmosphere as in Macbeth and Hamlet with ghosts etc. Iago is alone in his destructiveness. Othello is not an allegory but within the scheme of imagery, Desdemona represents Heaven and Iago Hell, dramatising the tension in Othello’s soul between good and evil.

The individual versus society

Othello demonstrates the way in which human nature can deteriorate under pressure, dramatising the precarious nature of order in society. Shakespeare discusses both the personal and the socio-political aspects of this perennial problem. NB The fall of a great man, though personal, inevitably has socio-political implications. The public Othello suffers as the private man becomes more distraught.

Shakespeare was interested in the relation between our social obligations and our individual desires. He’s more sympathetic to the social view; individualism can be dangerous even if intentions are good eg Cordelia in Lear prioritises individual notions of personal integrity over her social duty to behave respectfully to the King her father. When things become personal, noble characters can be drawn away from loyalty to the state and passion can govern as opposed to discipline and reason; personal vendettas, in particular, become the core of a character’s ruin. As the Chinese proverb warns: ‘He who seeks revenge must dig two graves.’

© Dr Beth Swan,