As I continue on my literary journey which includes sundry readings of Shakespeare, I have naturally decided to do so by way of reading a tragedy followed by a comedy so as to give myself much needed comic relief. Thus, having spent a good month in the highly dark tragedy of Macbeth followed up with the delightful Twelfth Night, I then decided to embark on a play I was quite familiar with, yet only by word-of-mouth and its own popularity, one Othello. One of the most powerful plays I have read, Othello takes the reader on the path of a highly acclaimed general in the Venetian army to the depths of suicide. Though acclaimed for his might, Othello, a Moor, is the victim of several themes that provoke his downfall — stereotyping and prejudice, envy, lust and cuckoldry, and even love. But for all the stereotyping that leads to Othello’s fall, all the lust and deceit evident in unfaithful trysts, nothing is more pertinent to the fall of so great a general than the deadly sin of envy which in Othello’s case was derived from an unhealthy (or we might say unnatural) love for the fair Desdemona.
Like other tragedies of Shakespeare, the downfall of Othello is due to false information, but unlike such plays as Julius Ceasar, there is hardly anything comic about Othello’s gullibility, and Iago, who could be said to be the lead role, may just be one of the most evil of Shakespeare’s creations I have encountered. For Iago appears to have very little motive for the world of hurt he creates except for his confession that he “hate[s] the Moor; / And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt [his] sheets / [Othello’s] done [his] office” (1.3.381-83). This lack of motive at first glance does seem to hinder the play’s credibility and Iago’s status as an evil character. He’s more closely related to the Joker in the new Batman movies who only longs to “see the world burn” for the sake of seeing it burn than a Richard III or Macbeth who have an eventual goal in mind. He clearly has no motive for the fair Desdemona, giving false assurance to Roderigo that “if [he] the next night following enjoy not Desdemona,” then he can “take [Iago] from this world with treachery and devise engines for [Iago’s] life” (4.2.215-17). However, one cannot even fathom that Iago’s motives stem from the initial goodwill towards a friend as shortly after this assurance is given to Roderigo, he reveals he cares not whether Roderigo kills Cassio or vice versa, only that Cassio dies so he is not exposed. His lack of motive removes him slightly from the play, giving him a distance from the other characters as he functions on his own. Yet it adds to his evilness, as the most evil characters are those who need no motive for their wickedness.
All this to pose the question about Iago’s relevance to the play. He functions more as a plot device than as anything essential to the greater context in the world of Othello. Iago is more of an evil force than an evil character, representing the deadly sin of envy. Since he really has no motives but Othello’s death, this view may not be so far-stretched. Iago is but a symbol, a means to the bitter end of Othello, that means being a horrible jealousy, an evil seed planted in Othello’s mind that eats away at him until his soul is decayed. And this envy proves to be deadly as Lodovico tells Iago to look on the bed full of three dead bodies (one being his wife’s): “O Spartan dog, / More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea, / Look on the tragic loading of this bed: / This is thy work. The object poisons sight” (5.2.360-63).
As those objects poisoned the sight of those who laid on eyes on them, so Iago’s words served as poison to bring down Othello, and his last words in the play as well seem fitting to his character: “What you know, you know; / From this time forth, I will never speak word” (5.2.302-03). This declaration is fitting for a person who had no motives, and in the end, though he wins nothing and loses everything, an indifference to all that has occurred suggests his personality itself is a grand acquiescence, the poison of his words and the envy they wrought being far more destruction as a whole in the play.
But envy for envies sake is nearly impossible, and the root cause for Othello’s case was an unhealthy love for his wife. After being falsely told that Desdemona has been sneaking off with Cassio, Othello in despair proclaims his damnation if he stops loving her: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I also love thee; and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (3.3.91-93). And earlier he characterizes Desdemona as his “soul’s joy” and states that if his current bliss with her was to cease, none could parallel it.
If it were now to die, ‘Twere now to be most happy; for I fear, My soul hath her content so absolute That not another comfort like to this Succeeds in unknown fate.
Othello clearly places a lot of weight on his relationship with Desdemona, and the affections placed on her are significantly paralleled to the ease and quickness with which he is deceived by Iago, for “he that is robbed, not wanting what is stolen, / let him not know’t, and he’s not robbed at all” (3.3.345-46). Othello goes on to explain that if Desdemona had slept with all the general soldiers without him knowing, he would be happy. But now that he has but a hint of one affair, and if that be false, but for the idea, he is bitter. This displays the heart of the matter in Othello’s case: He loved his wife to such a degree that for him to cease that love would be perdition for his soul, and the very thought or rumor of cuckoldry made his soul bitter with jealousy. The same is true in any example of envy. When we as humans place far too much of our joy and peace on transitory objects which fade away like grass, people even, the longing and desire to hold on to those subjects creates ourselves a cage. If we truly have something which we cannot live without on this earth, we may very well cease to exist when that thing leaves us, either physically or mentally.
In Tolstoy’s epic novel Anna Karenina, Anna’s husband, Alexei, takes a much different approach, and the results differ greatly because of it. In his case, a rumor of adultery has made it to his ears, but he loves his wife in a much more respectable way and assures her that he will stick to their pact they had made and not give in to jealousy. The result is that Alexei (though perhaps not the best of husbands) is faithful to Anna despite her being unfaithful to him. He loves her in such a way that respected her character even if third party evidence did not support her own words. And his end is far better than Othello’s. For Othello, on the other hand, is guilty of not too much love so much as too much of the wrong type of love. It could even perhaps be argued that Othello’s actions reveal very little true love towards his wife, love which would initially disregard Iago’s claims and bring up the subject with his wife who should be more believable in his eyes. But like the cuckolded Alexei in Anna Karenina could be said to be blinded by love, so too is the love blind of the one who constantly suspects his wife of unfaithfulness. However, the loves are much different, and Othello’s was a gateway for envy.
Regarding jealousy, there is a sense in which “being jealous” is actually holy and pure, for Christ is jealous for his church. I suppose a man being jealous for his wife would be not envious of attention or even of being cuckolded by another man. Rather he would be jealous concerning her purity. His indignation at the act of unfaithfulness would not be so much due to her actions against him but against God. That he is being deceived is secondary and perhaps should not even be dwelt upon, for it only opens up the door to a grave path of envy. As Iago wisely, though deceitfully, tells Othello: “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough; / But riches fineless is as poor as winter / To him that ever fears he should be poor” (3.3.175-77). To be poor and trusting with a mind at ease is far greater than rich and anxious.
Othello, however, early on in this deception by Iago claims he will “see before he doubts” yet still allows himself to be further persuaded without ever seeing his wife in the act (minus, of course, the handkerchief). By the end of the same scene in which he demands to see evidence, he declares, “Damn her, lewd minx: O, damn her, damn her!… I will withdraw / To furnish me with some swift means of death / For the fair devil” (3.3.478-81). He has gone from longing for “ocular proof” to conceiving ways of putting her to death in a matter of lines.
After act 3 the weight of Othello’s suspicions lies on him and he gives in to the stereotype that alleges the susceptibility of great men’s inability to have a faithful wife. Stereotypes certainly run deep throughout he play: Iago is stereotyped as honest, Othello being a black man in a white world , a converted Christian from Islam, is considered by prejudices as an outcast from the very beginning of the play. And this weighs heavily on his conscience as his last words reveal his perceived divided identity in life.
And say besides, that in Allepo once, Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, I took by th’throat the circumcised dog, And smote him — thus!
Othello’s envy leads to his fateful encounter with his wife. The two dialogue together almost as if they are in two separate conversations entirely, and it is difficult to assume that Desdemona feels any real threat from her recently changed husband until it is too late. It is notable that in this dialogue, Othello finally approaches his wife directly regarding the handkerchief. But all her confessions to her true identity, her loyalty, are completely devalued by Othello because envy has so marred his ability to consider anything the she, the most logical person to believe, has to say. This play frustrates the reader as it would the viewer, for had Othello simply confronted his wife upon first hearing about her infidelity, he would have been spared a most grievous end.
Othello as a play fools its audience much like Othello is fooled by Iago. While the audience assumes by Iago’s deceitful words that Desdemona has had multiple adulterous encounters (as would need to be the case for his accusations to have any weight), the play itself only spans roughly 33 hours as Desdemona is murdered on the second night they arrive in Cyprus. The illogicality of this is lost on an audience or reader, however, on a quick first time experience with the play. The entertained are so wrapped up in the mystery of what is occurring — the frustration they may have with Othello — that they too are duped by Iago’s poor argument for Desdemona and Cassio’s relationship. But something else is also occurring here. The seed of envy sowed in Othello’s conscience in act 3, scene 3 is such a seed that does not require much time for growth to do its evil. While it would be true that perhaps envy is a sin that festers, Shakespeare’s Othello displays a character whose doubts irrigate and grow roots of suspicion; the small green bud of jealousy rapidly sprouts with limbs of distrust and cynical leaves; an ugly flower of this distrust in one so loved blooms and morphs into a creature of unutterable ugliness; this lack of trust is Envy in the hideous phantom of a green-eyed monster, and Othello as such a monster created for himself a set of lovely green horns.