At its core, Othello is a revenge tragedy. By 1604, this was no strange genre for Shakespeare, having written both Titus Andronicus and of course Hamlet, as well as other works which dabble in revenge: Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, and with a different tone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By focusing on the contrast to the two more pure revenge tragedies, we can see the impact that Hamlet had on Shakespeare’s unwillingness to create a traditional revenge tragedy as he did with Titus. For Titus falls in line with the traditional revenge tragedy made popular by Kyd, and picked up by Marlowe in the 1590s. These are plays of action, which beget retaliatory actions, and the cycle progresses. Hamlet refused to partake in this tradition.
We cannot doubt Hamlet’s love for his father – even if it was simply the love of a dutiful son.
’A was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall ot look upon his like again. (Hamlet I.ii)
This does not suggest love as we immediately conjure at the sound of the word, but surely affection, and surely as much affection as Titus had for his sons (let’s discount the one he kills himself). But Hamlet would not undertake the immediacy of action that Titus does. There is no way Hamlet would be fooled by Aaron into chopping off his finger, even if he thought he could save his father, nor would Hamlet be foul enough to bake his enemies into a pie. Confronting his ghost-father, Hamlet says:
Speak, I am bound to hear.
So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” (I.v)
at which point Hamlet does not act, but seeks out rational proof. No one in the corrupt world of Titus Andronicus would need pressing from a ghost to act, the revenge would be instinctive. Hamlet takes the gut reaction of revenge and mixes it in with that human quality – rational thought, which leads to inaction until the matter is thrust upon him. So what happens after Hamlet? When Shakespeare cannot go back to the traditional form of revenge, but cannot recreate Hamlet either? Let’s follow the trajectory: in Titus actions supersede all: in Hamlet actions and thoughts dual each other for supremacy in Hamlet’s mind: in Othello, thought has not only won out, but become action itself. “There is nothing either good or bad,” Hamlet says, “but thinking makes it so” (II.ii), but even Hamlet is not yet ready for his own mantra. His first “action” – killing Polonius – is not produced in a moment of thought, nor does his thinking make it happen – it is an irrational, Titus-like gesture. The remnants of a tradition he longed to shake off. But this thought sets Shakespeare on his course for Othello, where thoughts turn to words, words to speech, and speech governs action. Language governs everything in Othello, and is the instrument of revenge.
As Hamlet notably opens with a question, setting the web that is to follow, Othello begins with a refutation of speech:
Tush! Never tell me (Othello I.i)
Colloquially, this is an inconsequential “you’re kidding me,” but expressed in this way – the desire not to hear – it strikes as an ominous foreshadow. For we may take Roderigo’s meaning as friendly, albeit, worried, but when Othello says –
Avaunt, be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.
I swear ‘tis better to be much abus’d
Than but to know’t a little (III.iii)
he is sincere. He then goes on to bid farewell to all in one of the more notable speeches in the play:
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the lumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambitions virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality.
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone. (III.iii)
Yes, probably the most striking part of the speech – what students love to pick up on – is the sensory imagery. Othello, the pure empiricist – Locke pre-Locke – is ruled by hard evidence. He shall not judge without ocular proof, and yet here, as he begins to doubt, he bids farewell to all that he is –and to all the sights and sounds around him, reducing him to….. Well, he is not fully parted with himself yet. Taking Iago by the throat, Othello demands ocular proof:
Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore. (III.iii)
There are two interesting speech acts presented here. The first is that while Othello is bidding farewell to his sensory world, he begins that speech with the echo of Roderigo’s first line. Even if the entire camp was taking advantage of Desdemona (Othello’s wife), it would be fine so long as Othello did not know. “Tush! Never tell me” – you’re kidding but more than that – do not tell me. Where would Hamlet be if the ghost had not told him what he did? Still mourning away? Where would Macbeth be if the witches did not poison his mind? A content Thane? Words, post-Hamlet do what only hands could do in the world of Titus, and what only deceptive acts could do in the world of The Spanish Tragedy. So long as words are not spoken – all is well.
As for Othello calling his love a whore – and let’s for the sake of there being too many tangents ignore the bitter irony of “my love” and “a whore” in the same breath – I think it is worth noting here that this is the first insulting name Othello attaches to her, even in an indirect way. In the first half of the play, Othello refers to his wife as “my love” or “sweet” or “chuck” (which is indeed affectionate, for some reason), but those are taken over by whore and a series of synonyms of whore. And this was exactly as Iago planned. While Iago’s (and later Othello’s) victims find pleasure in ignorance, Iago uses words to orchestrate his revenge. But why?
At the end of Act I, Iago, forming his plan, advises his “friend” Roderigo to “put money in thy purse” and follow him to Cyprus. Winning over the reluctant Roderigo, Iago beats the refrain in almost every line – “fill thy purse with money”. Alone with us, Iago delivers one of his famous “look at how evil I am” soliloquies.
Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe.
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery–How, how? Let’s see:–
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. (I.iii)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while working on his lectures on Shakespeare, scribbled a note in response to this part of the play:
The triumph! again, put money after the effect has been fully produced.–The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity–how awful! (Coleridge Lectures, 1808-1819)
This has led to an unfortunate misinterpretation which states that Iago has no motives for any of his actions. Some, reading Coleridge’s quote beyond the word motiveless, at least recognize that Coleridge states that Iago hunts for motives after the deed: thus his motives are no more than rationalities. This is, I think, a fair reading, for the section that the note was scribbled in, but should not be confused with every one of Iago’s actions. In this matter, Iago has convinced Roderigo to fill his purse with money and follow him to the wars. He does not give a clear motive (action) for the demand, but convinces Rodergio with rhetoric and promises (words): how Desdemona will fall out of love as quickly as she fell in it: how the Moor is changeable: how he (Iago) is always looking out for Rodergio. Roderigo needs not direct action to be motivated, but the words alone sustain him – at least until the end of the play. It is after Rodergio is gone that Iago tries to “suit the action to the word” – Coleridge’s “hunting of motiveless Malignity”. What Coleridge strikes on is my very theme – Othello is a world in which words alone suffice as deeds.
So if we are taking Coleridge’s note as a reflection of the lines which Coleridge refers to and not the play as a whole, what then are (the no longer motiveless) Iago’s motives? It should not be surprising that in the world of words, Iago’s hate springs from the many-tongued one. For that particular reference, let’s jump back a few years, when Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry IV. Here is the opening.
Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues
Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports. (2 Henry IV prologue)
The play is driven by rumours, false reports spawn false deeds – here Shakespeare dips his toe into what Hamlet will become. Again, Hamlet’s motive – his reason for (in)action spawns from words: true or false? We never know. In Iago, Shakespeare brings back the Prologue painted full of tongues.
I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. (Othello I.iii)
The truth is irrelevant: the rumour will suffice. And Iago, affected by the rumour, inhabits the rumour to plant the very idea in Othello’s mind in regards to Desdemona. Beyond Rumour driving Iago to revenge, he expresses his feelings at the opening of the play in regards to him being passed over for lieutenant, a position given to Michael Cassio.
‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I–God bless the mark!–his Moorship’s ancient.
By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.
Why, there’s no remedy; ’tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection. (I.i)
Iago’s complaint is that he – a man of practical experience – was passed over for an academic – one who had never seen battle: “mere prattle without practise”. This very reason Iago gives to supplant Cassio becomes the act by which he does it – resigned that he, a reasonably experienced soldier, gains nothing by his deeds in the world of words, throws down his militaristic might and picks out the very rhetoric he curses Cassio for. Iago’s soliloquy at the end of Act I is his very own “farewell to arms”.
Having circled around the same message for some time now, I would like to shift to the finer intricacies of this world of words, patterns that highlight the contrast of how Othello progresses, particularly in comparison to the large and garish Titus Andronicus. I’ll begin with how Shakespeare weaves the character of Desdemona. Montano, governor of Cyprus, asks Cassio if Othello wived, to which Cassio provides the following praise:
He hath achieved a maid
That paragons description and wild fame,
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
And in th’essential vesture of creation
Does tire the engineer. (II.i)
Desdemona cannot be praised in simple terms, and would a poet attempt it, he would tire himself out before reaching his full potential. In the world of words – according to Cassio – Desdemona cannot be named. Immediately following, Desdemona enters with Iago and Emilia (Iago’s wife). Iago’s character in this moment is a strange one, even for the changeable Iago. He is not the humble ensign, nor “honest Iago” nor the villain we see in private – in this scene he takes the shape more akin to Feste before him and Lear’s Fool after him. Playing around with Desdemona and Emelia, he “praises” women as a fool would. Desdemona draws attention to this. “These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh I’the alehouse” (II.i) conjures up the image of Feste entertaining Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, or Falstaff in 1 Henry IV or Merry Wives of Windsor. The more relevant conclusion is that, through his superior wit and command of language (again, the qualities of a Shakespearean Fool) Iago has distorted and destroyed Cassio’s bathetic praise of Desdemona. After all, corrupting words is part of Iago’s business.
And what’s he then that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For ‘tis most easy
Th’inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit. She’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements; and then for her
To win the Moor, were’t to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as her appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain,
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell:
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now’ for whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:
That she reals him for her body’s lust,
And by how much she strives to do him good
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all. (II.iii)
This is psychological – linguistic – revenge that goes even beyond Hamlet’s capabilities. Actually I should not be over-estimating Hamlet, he was pretty terrible at revenge, as good as he was at thought. Moreover, not even Aaron – the real motiveless Malignant – creates such a devilish plan. First Iago enmeshes us with two elements we cannot resist: sublime poetic rhetoric, and the truth. How is he a villain in this moment? Cassio falls out of favour with Othello due to his drunken conduct, and so Iago suggests a good plan to get Cassio back in Othello’s favour. He is right in that Othello would deny Desdemona nothing: if Cassio wins over Desdemona, Desdemona will win over Othello. This is true, and we cannot deny it. Yes, we know that Iago set up Cassio’s actions (although this does raise an important question about how far a drunk person’s responsibilities extend – one better suited for other places). Yes, we know that Iago will use Desdemona’s pleas against her by poisoning Othello’s mind – these are acts of villainy sure, but they do not discount the fact that Iago is speaking the truth at the beginning of the speech, do they? We are as much victims here as Cassio, Desdemona, and Othello: trapped in the world of words. So who are we to side with in the end? I’ll come back to that in a moment.
There is a wonderful moment at the beginning of Act IV when we see the physical consequences of the world of words when Iago is control of it.
Hath he said any thing?
He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.
What hath he said?
‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.
With her, on her; what you will.
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–
Falls in a trance
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught;
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach. (IV.i)
Othello falls into a trance, literally collapses, from an over-exertion of words, a tumult of thoughts. And all it took to spark this incident was a double-meaning of “lie”: a nudge from Iago and Othello did the rest. “Work on, my medicine, work!” His medicine is a double-entendre: a play of words.
Now we come to the final act: the night, as Iago says, “that either makes me or fordoes me quite” (V.i). There is a certain brilliance for a play which deal in part with the degeneration of empiricism to have a penultimate scene consumed by the lack of sight. We are presented with a scene in which the characters have, as their only cues, sounds, or words. I would love to see a production in which this scene takes place in a total blackout. The actors don’t even need to be present, just their voices echoing in the theatre. Roderigo, under Iago’s instruction, attempts to kill Cassio, but is instead killed by Cassio. Iago, under cover of night, chops Cassio’s leg in two and runs away. Cassio and Roderigo, both bleeding to death, call for help. Graziano (Desdemona’s uncle) and Lodovico (a kinsman) hear the cries – voices in the night and come to the conclusion that
‘Tis heavy night.
These may be counterfeits. Let’s think’t unsafe
To come into the cry without more help. (V.i)
Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, Desdemona, and Emelia – all are willing to rush into something without proof, to mostly tragic ends. Here we have to lords who are so much the contrary that they are unwilling to help two dying men because it is too dark, they cannot know anything their eyes cannot tell them. Thus the hyper-empiricism is just as harmful (albeit not to Graziano or Lodovico) as the loss of rationality. Iago uses the darkness and chaos to rid himself of Roderigo, and blame Cassio’s wounds on Bianca: a courtesan who followed Cassio from Venice, and one of the rather pointless foils in Shakespeare, taking her place beside Lady Macduff and Octavia.
Following this plot line to its end, we have Iago’s undoing in his own world of words. Here we realize the power struggle that exists in this world: the spoken words (which Rumour and Iago rule) and the written word. It is Roderigo’s letters – a confession of everything Iago did – that fordoes Iago. Spoken words can be twisted easily, but when words are cemented on paper and can be passed around and spoken by anyone, they are hard to tame. Combine that with Emelia’s shrewishness (another form of words that cannot be tamed) and Iago is finished: choosing as his end – silence.
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth, I never will speak word. (V.ii)
And so for the last few moments of the play, Iago becomes a mute, a silent figure standing on stage. I love that, after speaking approximately 28% of the lines in this play, his final word is word: this is Shakespeare’s subtle genius.
Desdemona is a wonderful character, and her death is one of those great moments of the dark sublime that Burke writes of. Othello was originally going to poison her, but Iago suggests smothering instead. What is the great impact of smothering? There are a few. Othello notes that he will kill her but not stain the white sheets with blood or ruin her fair, white skin. What I find most horrific and incredible about this form of murder is that it is the one that could be presented most realistically on stage. On stage stabbings are fun to watch, particularly when done properly, but the theatre in a stabbing, or such death, has such a great presence that we cannot for a second be fooled into thinking there is a threat of danger. Smothering is slow, and (if acted well) can trick out minds in ways false blood never can. There is a famous story of an audience member standing up and trying to save Desdemona – and if watching the play, I don’t think it is hard to see why. It is the perfect death. But I would require nine more pages just to explore the character of Desdemona, an underrated Shakespeare female character – reduced to an object even as she rejects it: more powerful than Lady Macbeth and simultaneously powerless as Lady Macduff.
But to close, I return for a last time to the world of words. Othello’s speech before killing himself includes these lines.
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well,
Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinable gum. (V.ii)
This is a typical tragic end for Shakespeare: a character passing on his story for someone to pass on to us. Yet here we see Othello pick up the reins of this world of words, and end his life by stressing how he wishes to be spoken of – transforming his body, his deeds, his triumphs – into words.