by Carol Thomas Neely
Carol Thomas Neely is Professor of English Emerita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These scholar notes were first published in Stagebill written for CST’s 1995 production of Othello.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice was first performed in 1604, around the time of Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure. Like them, it is the stuff that current headlines are made of. In it, status hunger mixes with racial and sexual fears and prejudices to corrupt love and justice. Othello begins with Iago’s racist, sexist taunt to Brabantio: “An old black ram is tupping your white ewe.” It concludes on a bed covered with wedding sheets where a murderous consummation enacts Iago’s fantasies. With no extraneous character, no subplot, no comic diversion, the play is relentless. Like the characters, the audience wants justice and relief; we want to blame someone else and absolve ourselves.
As the play begins, Othello and Desdemona display extraordinary courage, self-assurance, and love. He eloquently asserts his authority: “My parts, my title, and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly.” She boldly defends her elopement before the Venetian Senate: “That I did love the Moor to live with him, / My downright violence and storm of fortunes, / May trumpet to the world.” But the different expectations they bring to this cross-cultural match create potential for divisions within and between them. Desdemona is a dutiful, white Venetian daughter who chooses to disobey her father and move outside her house, her milieu, her city, seeking adventure. Othello, long an adventurer, is a freed slave, a black African in white Europe, a converted Christian and Venetian general who fights Turks, aliens like himself. An outsider who has moved inside, he seeks security and contentment through love for Desdemona: “And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again.”
Iago corrupts Desdemona’s and Othello’s virtues by catalyzing their vulnerabilities—as he does to all those he exploits. By promulgating sleazy racial, sexual and cultural stereotypes, Iago triggers insecurities. Then he offers satisfactions: to the impotent Roderigo, Desdemona; to the proud Cassio, his reinstatement; to the agonized Othello, proof of infidelity and opportunity for revenge. Iago finds or plants in his victims his own deepest compulsion: to elevate himself by putting down others, to “plume up my will in double knavery.” He exults in his plot to deface beauty by spreading filth: “So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all.” The audience, made confidante to his scheme, may be seduced into unwitting participation.
At the center of Iago’s web is the handkerchief, which, as it passes from Desdemona to Emilia to Iago to Cassio to Bianca, is transformed from a symbol of one woman’s passionate fidelity to a mark of all women’s inevitable promiscuity. Replacing his vision of Desdemona with Iago’s, Othello takes her for a commonplace “whore of Venice,” who must be sacrificed to the cause of justice. But Desdemona, although baffled by Othello’s raging jealousy, refuses to reduce him to “the Moor.” She seeks instead a strategy which will reverse Iago’s and bring good out of bad. Desdemona dies affirming her love, but it is Emilia who uses the handkerchief, once proof of guilt, to reveal innocence. As Emilia dies for her mistress, the audience has found its hero.
Othello’s own death speech seems more self-serving than self-cleansing. He claims that he loved “not wisely but too well;” he blames Iago who perplexed him; he imagines that his Venetian general self can be redeemed by killing his alien slave self now denigrated as a “circumcised dog.” The conclusion, like the play, is harrowing for the audience who wants clarity and catharsis. We may wish to remember the Othello who was “great of heart” and forget the man who murdered his innocent wife. We may wish to demonize Iago, judging him guilty and finding satisfaction in his promised torture. Or we may agree with Lodovico that the marital death bed “poisons sight” and must be hidden. But if, as audience, we are too easily satisfied with redemption, revenge, or concealment, do we not deny our own vulnerability to, our own complicity with, the poisonous commonplaces about others which circulate now as then?