Thursday, March 15, 2007

Week 07, Othello

Scene-by-Scene Notes on Othello

Act 1, Scene 1.

1.1.65ff. Iago may not be acting from world-historical outrage, but he sets forth two reasons for his hatred of Othello: first, his sense of injured merit because Othello has given the lieutenant’s job he coveted to Cassio, and the possibility (in his view, as stated later in 1.3) that his wife has slept with Othello. Iago is interesting because he’s a self-conscious Machiavel and a consummate actor (like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus). As he says to Roderigo on 1252, “I am not what I am” (65)—he may be Othello’s trusted underling, but that isn’t how he sees himself “five years from now,” to borrow a phrase from the corporate interview playbook. Iago may be comfortable in his own skin, but he is not at peace with himself. There’s something impish about him, too, something of the downright evildoer—he seems to enjoy stirring up trouble for the hell of it, and he shows no regard for the destruction he brings to Desdemona, whom he knows to be innocent. He maneuvers with diabolical skill in the gap between what he seems to be and what he is, turning everything that happens to his own advantage. (1252)

Act 1, Scene 2.

1.2.62ff. Brabantio accuses Othello of witchcraft: “thou has enchanted her,” he tells the Moor; otherwise, he insists, the girl would never “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight!” He can’t even imagine the attraction of the foreign or the exotic. To Brabantio, Venice is the world. (He’s strangely provincial given that Venice is a cosmopolitan sea empire that had long since known how to cut a deal or two with Arabs and Turks to protect its interests.) Brabantio immediately accepts Iago and Roderigo’s reductive, grotesquely abstract “devil” and bestial “ram” characterization of Othello. Othello hardly lacks charm, and he is a Christian just like Brabantio, but the father welcomes Iago’s stereotypes. (1254)

Act 1, Scene 3.

Othello carries the day when summoned to Venice because of his military bearing and chivalric eloquence. When the Italians accuse him of witchcraft, he promises to deliver a “round, unvarnished tale” (90ff, pg. 1256 Riverside ); but then he romances them with his beautiful, moving words. Othello cuts a dashing figure, and he is aware of his effect upon others. He is proud of his conquest, like a soldier who has won the prize fairly. The tale he delivers is, of course, anything but “unvarnished.” It is filled with romantic extravagance. True enough, perhaps, he has been sold into slavery, fought tremendous battles, and seen many remarkable sights. But did he really see “Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (144-45)? No, these are tales he’s picked up and remembered the better to build up an image of himself as an adventurer. He exploits Desdemona’s “seriously inclin[ing]” (146) towards such stories, crafting from that propensity a contract-in-hand to “beguile her of her tears” and to “dilate” his life’s journey. What sanctifies Othello’s dilatory works of art? Well, the fact that he sincerely loves Desdemona—he means her only good, so it’s acceptable to incorporate some “make-believe” elements into an already exciting account of himself. Othello is rather like Sir Philip Sidney’s good Christian poet, whose “feigning” of “notable images” shouldn’t be condemned just because it isn’t literally true.

It would be an oversimplification, therefore, to say that Othello is a “noble, naïve cultural other.” He is not the strong, silent warrior type, either. Rather, he’s a poetical and romantic man with tremendous self-confidence (at least until Iago shakes him to the core). Perhaps his tragedy is that he just can’t imagine anyone wielding such poetical power for anything but the good reasons that motivate him in his courtship of Desdemona, or in his speech to the Duke and Senators that frees them to return to considerations of State rather than dwelling on private grudges and love affairs. His way of “seeming” (i.e. embroidering his life story) is so pure that it’s simply folded into the essential goodness of his being. In a sense, all poets are liars—Plato tells us so, right?—but some feigning and pretending is nobly done and not engaged in as a means to do evil, as it is with Iago. Othello’s naivety, then, isn’t that he’s unable to speak anything but plain truth; it’s that he can’t conceive of a man who willfully spins lies for base purposes. A good man is free to “gild the lily,” so to speak, but a wicked man ought to show himself for what he is. In this sense, it’s fair to say that Othello proves tragically unable to deal with the difference between seeming and being. Then, too, Othello may be poetical, but he’s not John Keats’ poet of “negative capability,” the kind who can throw himself into doubts and uncertainties as if they were his own proper element. Othello’s feigning seems much more tactical and less supple, more task-oriented, than that of the Keatsian “chameleon poet” who really wants to escape from his own skin for as long as possible.

Both the absolute otherness imposed on Othello by men such as Brabantio (who can scarcely process the Moor at all, as his acceptance of Iago’s ridiculously impoverished epithets suggest) and the charismatic appeal of the man’s bearing and language are at work early in Othello. Perhaps both, taken together with the sad events later in the play, go a long way towards demonstrating how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. In spite of Othello’s wondrous gifts of bearing and speech, he is easily destroyed by Iago, a man with exactly the sort of knowledge of Venetian society Othello lacks. Generalized virtues, it seems, cannot permanently trump an intimate knowledge of local cultural practices, symbolism, and assumptions, at least not if someone is determined to use these specifics against an outsider. Othello is a classic tragedy in that a good man is destroyed by the very virtues that have won him admiration -- his inability to comprehend how devious and selfish others can be. It’s true that Othello follows his personal desires, and we might suppose that he’s putting Venice at risk if a tumult ensues or his leadership is questioned. But he deals so forthrightly and honestly with the Venetian authorities that the whole thing blows over in no time, and he is free to return to his honorable work for the general welfare. How, he might ask, could others be so petty as to bring him down and damage the general welfare for purely private reasons, like those of Iago? This is inconceivable to a man like Othello.

1.3.180ff and 248ff. Our first glimpse of Desdemona shows us a very strong-willed, noble young woman who is not afraid to act boldly and speak her mind, even in the presence of her powerful father and Venetian statesmen. Her strength accords well with Othello’s soldierly virtue. She is by no means a pale, retiring victim. I suppose Desdemona is simply in an impossible position—on the one hand, her considerable aplomb doesn’t translate into an ability to charm or fast-talk Othello out of his suspicions; her goodness works against her. But on the other hand, with the devilish Othello working against her, it’s hard to see how anything she says, no matter how skilful, would help. Terse protestations of virtue and fancy talk alike would no doubt fail to overcome the “ocular proof” by which Iago has falsely damned her. (1256-57)

319ff. Iago’s creed is worth noting. To Roderigo’s passive, faux-suicidal blubbering about the defects of his “virtue” (in this usage, it means “nature”), Iago blurts out “Virtue? A fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are / thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the / which our wills are gardeners…” (319-21). In terms of Renaissance psychology, this means that while we are subject to the pull of our appetites (which belong to the “sensitive” part of human nature), we can control these appetites. We can let our choice-making power, our “will,” be informed by reason and thereby control the effects of appetite. (The elements of the rational part of human nature are “understanding” or reason and “will” or rational appetite, the inner power of motion that can incline towards God and reason or towards our lower appetites.) Iago is suggesting that while the body and the appetites may hold sway for a time in Desdemona, she is bound, in due time, to become sated with Othello, and then her rational element will lead her to despise this older man whose appearance and culture are so unlike hers. (See pg. 1259 Riverside , 1.3.342ff; see also pg. 1262, 2.1.225-31.) Like will return to like, he promises Roderigo. Well, Iago hardly puts Renaissance psychology to the noble uses of Pico della Mirandola, who implies that the grandest goal of humanity is to transcend itself for the greater glory of God, but he knows how to craft a cunning scheme from its premises: Roderigo need only “put money in his purse” and wait for Desdemona to turn again to Venice.

386-404. Here Iago’s second motive comes to light: he’s heard that Othello may have slept with his wife Emilia. And although he may be patient in devising his wicked schemes, he shares Othello’s disdain of long-continued suspicion: the mere supposition that Emilia may have cuckolded him demands payback; the matter must be resolved. He will wage a pre-emptive war against this man who has already frustrated his hopes of advancement, and who may also have insulted his marriage as well. In some rather cold, calculating way, he himself is subject to the cat-like “green-eyed monster” jealousy, and his way of dealing with the discomfort it’s caused him is to pass it along. That there’s also something to the “baseless evil” charge often leveled against Iago, we may see from his brazen determination to “plume up” his will “in double knavery” (303-04).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2.

This scene turns on “trifles”—some innocently witty banter and a perhaps mildly flirtatious kiss, a drink or two or three in response to Othello’s generous insistence that his men enjoy a time of revels, a lost handkerchief with a fanciful history: how easy it is to weave an unflattering tale, and take advantage of others’ weaknesses and deep insecurity. (1261 Riverside , line 167ff.) As Iago will say of the handkerchief in 3.3, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealious confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (322-24). In the second act generally, Cassio, who much values his martial reputation and is loyal, is easily typecast by Iago first as the genial soldier, then as the quarrelsome drunkard, and finally as the importunate suitor. Iago himself doesn’t see much virtue in Cassio, by the way—as we see from 236-41 of Scene 2 (pg. 1262), Iago credits the Florentine with nothing more than Hamlet’s “indifferent honest” disposition; he’s neither better nor worse than the average lout, and a clever man may steer him at will.

As for Desdemona’s virtue, well, innocence can seldom defend itself, certainly not as eloquently or convincingly as evil can. This seems to be true even when the innocent person is as intelligent and capable as Desdemona. One remembers Yeats’ line in “The Second Coming” that “the best lack all conviction” while “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In Shakespeare, it isn’t usually true that the best people lack conviction—what they sometimes lack (consider Cordelia in King Lear as an example to set beside Desdemona) is the right phrase, the moxy to take advantage of opportunities to advance their good cause. And even if our good folks have considerable linguistic capacity and courage, the disposition we call “goodness” seldom, if ever, gains by rhetorical sleight of hand—the problem seems quite intractable. Lear’s daughter Cordelia may be a bit stiff and clumsy as a speaker, but we all feel the rightness of her lament, “What shall poor Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” Or consider Machiavelli’s characterization of the problem: to paraphrase what he writes in Il Principe, “those who try to be virtuous in all things must come to grief among so many who aren’t virtuous.”

Act 2, Scene 3.

Othello is an absolutist in matters of honor, which is always a concern for him. Once honor is lost, it’s impossible for him to recover his trust in another person. Honor is an ideal that Othello can’t reconcile to the messy, ethically dubious world of Venice . Shakespeare explores this rigid idealism often in his plays, and seems to consider it a trap. For example, Brutus in Julius Caesar, or the title character in Coriolanus (and, I suppose, Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, since his “eastern extravagance” is merely the obverse of strict Roman honor, disables him from combating the machinations of the clever Octavian), or, on a lighter note, all those hopeless idealizers in the comedies (Orlando in As You Like It comes to mind). There are many shades of gray, many nuances, many roles a man or woman might and sometimes must play, any number of imperfections and exigencies to deal with. Idealism is noble, but it is a disabling quality in a saucy, ever-changing world. Iago plays Othello like a fiddle in this scene, and the final lyrics of the tune are, “Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be officer of mine” (249-50). And now Othello thinks even more highly of Iago than ever, unsuspecting of the diabolical scheme the man announces near the end of 2.3, with its promise to advance Cassio’s suit by Desdemona’s earnest pleading and thereby, as her husband looks on with horror, turn her “virtue into pitch” (360, pg. 1267 Riverside).

Act 3, Scenes 1-3.

At 3.1.71, we hear that Michael Cassio’s very usefulness in Othello’s own suit to Desdemona now plays against him—he had, after all, served as go-between in furtherance of their secret, forbidden love. Why might he not pursue the lady himself? The thought is ungracious, but not unreasonable.

We should hear alarm bells in Othello’s admission of his great fondness for Desdemona: after she makes her case in behalf of Cassio and exits, Othello says, “When I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (91-92). Chaos—yes, that’s exactly the aim of Iago’s decreative schemes. Once Othello begins to suspect, he will be thrown completely off balance until the very end of the play. Iago makes the Moor draw “the truth” from him, and reinforces the Othello-principle that we must all be what we appear to be: “Men should be what they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (127-28) Iago knows that Othello lacks (to borrow from Keats’ letters) “negative capability”—he can’t exist for an extended time in the midst of uncertainty. If there’s a problem, it must be dealt with presently, not left to fester. Othello is the kind of military man who insists on gathering hard evidence and rendering a firm decision, court-martial style, the way he judged Cassio. His lack of knowledge about Venetian mores and subtlety (an English stereotype for the Italians generally—subtle, devious, sly) makes him anxious, easy prey to the overblown trifles in which Iago trades, and very susceptible to the honest-sounding counsel his deceiver offers: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy? / It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on” (165-67, pg. 1269 col.2 Riverside ). Othello is also older than Desdemona, and he is a black man (perhaps sub-Saharan rather than the more familiar Arab) in a white culture—both facts that Iago exploits masterfully. At base, Othello seems to be uncertain that even his great charm and rhetorical skill can hold his wife’s loyalty (2957). How can he, when (if we are to believe Iago), “In Venice they do let [God] see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (202-03)?

Act 3, Scene 4.

With its articulation of the handkerchief device and the “prayer vignette” in which Iago kneels along with a murderously earnest Othello, this scene is perhaps the height of Iago’s villainy. Othello is practically mad with jealous rage by now—”Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (359)—and so the fact that Cassio has been seen to “wipe his beard” with Desdemona’s handkerchief easily passes Othello’s current standard of conviction. Much has been made of the scene in which Iago swears undying fealty to Othello, but I think it will do to suggest that Iago’s damnation consists in swearing by Christian symbols to do the devil’s work; his words are pious, but his intentions transform them into the markers of a black mass. Perhaps there’s savage irony in his swearing by “yond marble heaven” (460) since, after all, the audience may see him swear by a painted image of the sky in the theater and some torchlight, and not the heavens or the stars themselves. In any case, he’s now attained part of his end: he has become Othello’s lieutenant, and is even engaged to murder Cassio while Othello plans Desdemona’s demise.

Othello expects the same romantic extravagance from Desdemona as he lavishes upon her: the handkerchief, he tells her, is an emblem of the romantic magic, the charm, that underlies his erotic fidelity and should underlie hers. Its loss is catastrophic now that it has come to symbolize her chaste loyalty. (We should note that Othello had casually dropped it at the end of 3.3. thanks to the headache caused by his agonized thoughts about Desdemona; from there innocently Emilia picked it up and gave it to Iago, who planted it with Cassio). Othello is a romantic idealist as well as a military idealist. At lines 58-64, Othello gives us a version of the handkerchief’s history—it was given him by his mother, who herself got it from a female Egyptian sorcerer, and Othello claims that its possession guarantees the loyalty of the possessor’s lover. It’s fatal consequentiality is further underscored by the claim that it was “dy’ed in mummy which the skilful / Conserv’d of maidens’ hearts” (74-75). (Later, in trying to justify his murder of Desdemona, he will claim that his father gave it to his mother—does that indicate dishonesty, forgetfulness, or a little slip on Shakespeare’s part? I don’t know; see 5.2.216-17.) Desdemona, of course, doesn’t have it, and is forced to temporize by dissembling, while Othello’s vocabulary finally moves towards perfect accord with his obsession: “the handkerchief!” repeated several times.

Act 4, Scene 1.

Othello, already driven into what seems like an epileptic fit at the loss of the handkerchief, will now be subject to one further “proof”: Iago engages Cassio in a conversation which, thanks to a bit of low-talking at the right instant, the Moor takes for lewd and contemptuous talk about Desdemona when in fact Cassio is only making jests about his relationship with the prostitute Bianca, who is overly fond of him. And, of course, Bianca brings in the handkerchief, making Othello think Cassio has given it to her out of contempt for Desdemona. Othello beholds this spectacle, and becomes positively deranged with contradictory impulses: “O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!” and “I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!” (196, 200) And when he strikes Desdemona, Lodovico, who has come with a letter announcing that Cassio has been installed in Othello’s place as commander in Cyprus , is there to see it and make the reasonable inference that Othello is an abusive husband and a man with little control over his worst impulses.

Act 4, Scene 2.

Although Desdemona has shown a touch or two of famed Venetian subtlety, we have no cause to suppose that anything but piety and honesty are the hallmarks of her character. By now, however, Othello has been warped by Iago into taking such signs of virtue for their exact opposite: evidence of pitch-dark whoredom and vile cunning. From now on, everything she says “can and will be used against her”; she is under arrest, so to speak, without even knowing it until very late in the play. Her self-defense, while moving, is also rather feeble: “By heaven, you do me wrong” and “No, as I am a Christian” (82, 84). To be charged with a fault like adultery, it seems, is sure to put one in the position of being considered “guilty until proven innocent”; simply being accused of certain offenses so strips a person of others’ good opinion that it’s tantamount to conviction. (One thinks of Kafka’s The Trial or the trials of 1984 and shudders—to come under suspicion is to be already a person with no identity except that constituted by one’s presumed malefactions, with no possibility of appeal.) It’s common in Renaissance plays for virtuous characters to prove themselves helpless when abused by the wicked and the cunning. Iago is still at work, egging on the already angry Roderigo to murder Cassio to keep Othello in Cyprus , along with Desdemona.

Act 4, Scene 3.

While Desdemona can only sing a sad song of frustrated love (“ Willow , willow”), Emilia proves less helpless; a fit opponent for her husband, she advises her younger mistress as a kindly Machiavel should, though to no effect. From 65-103, Emilia tries to temper Desdemona’s moral absolutism, which rivals that of Othello. Desdemona’s reply consists in a declaration of unstinting loyalty to Othello—an attitude she will maintain even as Othello strangles her. Emilia’s bawdy pronouncements on gender relations are the very stuff of Shakespearian comedy (one thinks of Portia and Nerissa’s “ring scheme” in The Merchant of Venice, for instance), but here they only deepen the sense of impending tragedy.

Act 5, Scene 1.

Iago arranges for Roderigo to kill Cassio, but the bungler only manages to wound Cassio in the leg, and Iago stabs Roderigo to death lest he blab the truth.

Act 5, Scene 2.

Othello makes himself an example in all strictness, preventing the wheels of Venetian justice from rolling. In the end (after a few moments of unseemly waffling and denial around 95, right after he strangles Desdemona), he doesn’t look around for someone else to blame. (This is not the case in one of Shakespeare’s main sources, the Italian author Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, in which the Moor makes his escape, only to die shamefully later on.) Othello bills himself extravagantly as the example of a man who “loved not wisely but too well” (350-52). His eloquence in word and elegance of manner reassert themselves in his final struggle. Othello’s death seems right to most readers, I should think, since his words and manner, as he apparently understands, cannot make up for the disparagement and destruction of a faithful wife. His epigrammatic description of what he has done indicates a desire to control others’ interpretation of his downfall; perhaps that’s a tragic hero’s right (we recall Hamlet’s plea that Horatio should live on to tell his story truly), but this doesn’t keep strip the ending of its disturbing quality. We may remember the occasions on which Othello had let loose with the incredulous question, “Ha, ha, false to me?” (3.3.334, 4.1.200) with seeming emphasis on the word “me,” as if it were especially egregious that he, of all men, should suffer the indignity of betrayal. My sympathy goes to Desdemona, not to Othello, in spite of his apparently sincere repentance.

Othello’s complexity as a tragic hero is in keeping with the fact that the moral quality of Shakespeare’s protagonists varies a great deal: there are the unrepentant villain Richard III and the more introspective one Macbeth; the conspirators against Julius Caesar with their respectively mixed motives running from the petty to the grand; Romeo and Juliet who die more because of pitiable misunderstandings than from any character flaw; King Lear’s confusion between his public and private selves; Hamlet’s sometime dawdling and sometime arrogant rashness, etc. Shakespeare is bound by no particular theory of drama, so he is free (as in fact were the great Greek dramatists, whose work preceded Aristotle’s theory, after all) to follow his own genius instead of adhering to the notions of Aristotle or anyone else.


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