by Wendy Wall
Shakespeare's most domestic tragedy, Othello, opens by showing what is at stake in the marriage between a white Venetian woman and a black immigrant military hero converted from Islam. The first scene makes "home" central to its exploration of "the green eyed monster" jealousy, for here Othello describes his loss of bachelorhood as the state of being "housed": "But that I love the gentle Desdemona, / I would not my unhoused free condition/ Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea's worth," he declares. Othello announces himself as someone whose place in society is outside of it. He lives in tents on military crusades; he doesn't own property. Beneath the veneer of complaint that his marriage will limit his liberty (the old ball-and-chain protest) lies Othello's anxiety about his place and his own desires. Described as a "wheeling stranger of here and everywhere," he finds marriage a sure way to assimilate into family and culture.
The play opens with Iago clamoring: "Awake, Brabantio! Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags!" In his ugly view of Othello and Desdemona's marriage as a pornographic bestial melding, Iago classifies progeny as material goods. In his view, guarding the house is keeping the family. And yet, "house" obviously means more than a physical structure. It signifies a lineage, group or family: "A plague on both your houses," Mercutio cries in Romeo and Juliet.
The striking irony posed by the opening marriage is that Brabantio disowns his daughter after her elopement. Desdemona's exile from the family house is established in a lengthy discussion about where she will live once Othello goes to war. As Othello houses himself in the solid affiliation she offers, Desdemona becomes unhoused, a stranger of here and everywhere. Such is the art of the first act of Othello where the stakes of marriage, identity and belonging are conveyed by reference to the social meaning of the household.
Iago succeeds in provoking Othello to doubt himself and his wife in part by trading on Othello's anxiety as a racial outsider. Othello was the first black tragic hero on the English stage, appearing at a time when England started to invest in the African slave trade. As a convert from Islam to Christianity, he exists on the margins of culture. So when Othello says of Desdemona "When I love thee not, chaos is come again" (with chaos, for a Renaissance audience, being the ultimate nothingness), we understand what is at stake for him. When incited into jealousy by Iago's innuendos and imagery, Othello revealingly complains: "My name, that was as fresh / As Dian's visage,/ is now begrimed and black/ As mine own face." Using his skin as the symbol for moral degradation, Othello echoes Iago and Brabantio's view of his marriage as "unnatural." In his final poignant speech, Othello's alienation causes him to split into two identities: hero and enemy. Attempting to prove himself a war hero once again (rather than a wife-killer), Othello only ends up casting himself as the infidel he has fought in his military campaigns.
Chiefly concerned with the place of theater and the imagination, Othello constantly shows how reality is shaped by words, performances and images—what one senator at the play's opening calls "false gazing." In making Othello conjure tortuous mental images of his wife as adulterous—and crediting these illusions as true—Iago weaves an alternate reality for those around him. He is the consummate playwright, actor and director figure, capable of transforming a mundane and domestic stage prop—a handkerchief-into "ocular proof" of infidelity.
Yet with some poetic justice, the handkerchief is the one smoking gun that unravels Iago's web of fictions and reveals the truth at the conclusion. Framed against the tableau of Desdemona dead on the bed, Emilia stands as the play's final hero, the person calling for justice even at the risk of death. Her husband commands, "I charge you get you home." Her reply? "Perchance Iago I will ne'er go home." In a play whose first act fixates on the structuring role of home for establishing kinship and social place, the final scene appropriately shows a wife observing that home, in this poisonous world of fictions and fantasies, has ceased to function ethically and socially. Belonging, being housed, having a place: the tragedy of Othello is, in part, the story of the fragility and exquisiteness of such desires in a world where home is as illusory as theater.