Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies . . . Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation. Evil is displayed before him, not indeed with the profusion found in King Lear, but forming, as it were, the soul of a single character, and united with an intellectual superiority so great that he watches its advance fascinated and appalled. He sees it, in itself almost irresistible, aided at every step by fortunate accidents and the innocent mistakes of its victims. He seems to breathe an atmosphere as fateful as that of King Lear, but more confined and oppressive, the darkness not of night but of a close-shut murderous room. His imagination is excited to intense activity, but it is the activity of concentration rather than dilation.
—A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy
Between William Shakespeare’s most expansive and philosophical tragedies—Hamlet and King Lear—is Othello, his most constricted and heart-breaking play. Othello is a train wreck that the audience horrifyingly witnesses, helpless to prevent or look away. If Hamlet is a tragedy about youth, and Lear concerns old age, Othello is a family or domestic tragedy of a middle-aged man in which the fate of kingdoms and the cosmos that hangs in the balance in Hamlet and Lear contracts to the private world of a marriage’s destruction. Following his anatomizing of the painfully introspective intellectual Hamlet, Shakespeare, at the height of his ability to probe human nature and to dramatize it in action and language, treats Hamlet’s temperamental opposite—the man of action. Othello is decisive, confident, and secure in his identity, duty, and place in the world. By the end of the play, he has brought down his world around him with the relentless force that made him a great general turned inward, destroying both what he loved best in another and in himself. That such a man should fall so far and so fast gives the play an almost unbearable momentum. That such a man should unravel so completely, ushered by jealousy and hatred into a bestial worldview that cancels any claims of human virtue and self-less devotion, shocks and horrifies. Othello is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest stage play, the closest he would ever come to conforming to the constrained rules of Aristotelian tragedy. The intensity and focus of Othello is unalleviated by subplots, comic relief, or any mitigation or consolation for the deterioration of the “noble Moor” and his collapse into murder and suicide. At the center of the play’s intrigue is Shakespeare’s most sinister and formidable conceptions of evil in Iago, whose motives and the wellspring of his villainy continue to haunt audiences and critics alike. Indeed, the psychological resonances of the drama, along with its provocative racial and gender themes, have caused Othello, perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, to reverberate the loudest with current audiences and commentators. As scholar Edward Pechter has argued, “During the past twenty-five years or so, Othello has become the Shakespearean tragedy of choice, replacing King Lear in the way Lear had earlier replaced Hamlet as the play that speaks most directly and powerfully to current interests.”
Shakespeare derived his plot from Giraldi Cinthio’s “Tale of the Moor,” in the story collection Hecatommithi (1565), reshaping Cinthio’s sensational tale of jealousy, intrigue, and murder in several key ways. In Cinthio’s story, Alfiero, the scheming ensign, lusts after the Moor’s wife, named Disdemona, and after she spurns his advances, Alfiero seeks vengeance by accusing her of adultery with Cassio, the Moor’s lieutenant. Alfiero, like Iago, similarly arouses the Moor’s suspicions by stealing Disdemona’s handkerchief and planting it in Cassio’s bed-room. However, the Moor and Alfiero join forces to kill Disdemona, beating her to death with a stocking filled with sand before pulling down the ceiling on her dead body to conceal the crime as an accident. The Moor is eventually captured, tortured, and slain by Disdemona’s relatives, while the ensign dies during torture for another crime. What is striking about Shakespeare’s alteration of Cinthio’s grisly tale of murder and villainy is the shift of emphasis to the provocation for the murder, the ennobling of Othello as a figure of great stature and dignity to underscore his self-destruction, and the complication of motive for the ensign’s actions. Cinthio’s version of Iago is conventionally driven by jealousy of a superior and lust for his wife. Iago’s motivation is anything but explainable in conventional terms. Dramatically, Shakespeare turns the focus of the play from the shocking crime to its causes and psychic significance, trans-forming Cinthio’s intrigue story of vile murder into one of the greatest dramatic meditations on the nature of love and its destruction.
What makes Othello so unique structurally (and painful to witness) is that it is a tragedy built on a comic foundation. The first two acts of the play enact the standard pattern of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. The young Venetian noblewoman, Desdemona, has eloped with the middle-aged Othello, the military commander of the armed forces of Venice. Their union is opposed by Desdemona’s father, Brabantio, and by a rival for Desdemona, Roderigo, who in the play’s opening scenes are both provoked against Othello by Iago. Desdemona and Othello, therefore, face the usual challenges of the lovers in a Shakespearean comedy who must contend with the forces of authority, custom, and circumstances allied against their union. The romantic climax comes in the trial scene of act 1, in which Othello success-fully defends himself before the Venetian senate against Brabantio’s charge that Othello has beguiled his daughter, “stol’n from me, and corrupted / By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks.” Calmly and courteously Othello recounts how, despite the differences of age, race, and background, he won Desdemona’s heart by recounting the stories of his exotic life and adventures: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them.” Wonder at Othello’s heroic adventures and compassion for her sympathy have brought the two opposites together—the young, inexperienced Venetian woman and the brave, experienced outsider. Desdemona finally, dramatically appears before the senate to support Othello’s account of their courtship and to balance her obligation to her father and now to her husband based on the claims of love:
My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.
Both Desdemona and Othello defy by their words and gestures the calumnies heaped upon them by Roderigo and Brabantio and vindicate the imperatives of the heart over parental authority and custom. As in a typical Shakespearean comedy, love, tested, triumphs over all opposition.
Vindicated by the duke of Venice and the senate, Othello, accompanied by Desdemona, takes up his military duties in the face of a threatened Turkish invasion, and the lovers are given a triumphal wedding-like procession and marriage ceremony when they disembark on Cyprus. The storm that divides the Venetian fleet also disperses the Turkish threat and clears the way for the lovers’ happy reunion and peaceful enjoyment of their married state. First Cassio lands to deliver the news of Othello’s marriage and, like the best man, supplies glowing praise for the groom and his bride; next Desdemona, accompanied by Iago and his wife, Emilia, enters but must await news of the fate of Othello’s ship. Finally, Othello arrives giving him the opportunity to renew his marriage vows to Desdemona:
It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy,
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the wind blow till they have wakened death,
And let the labouring barque climb hills of seas
Olympus-high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven. If it were now to die
’Twere now to be most happy, for I fear
My soul hath content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.
The scene crowns love triumphant. The formerly self-sufficient Othello has now staked his life to his faith in Desdemona and their union, and she has done the same. The fulfillment of the wedding night that should come at the climax of the comedy is relocated to act 2, with the aftermath of the courtship and the wedding now taking center stage. Having triumphantly bested the social and natural forces aligned against them, having staked all to the devotion of the other, Desdemona and Othello will not be left to live happily ever after, and the tragedy will grow out of the conditions that made the comedy. Othello, unlike the other Shakespearean comedies, adds three more acts to the romantic drama, shifting from comic affirmation to tragic negation.
Iago reviews Othello’s performance as a lover by stating, “O, you are well tuned now, / But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music.” Iago will now orchestrate discord and disharmony based on a life philosophy totally opposed to the ennobling and selfless concept of love demonstrated by the newlyweds. As Iago asserts to Roderigo, “Virtue? A fig!” Self-interest is all that matters, and love is “merely a lust of the blood and a permission of the will.” Othello and Desdemona cannot possibly remain devoted to each other, and, as Iago concludes, “If sanctimony and a frail vow betwixt an err-ing barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian be not too hard for my wits, and all the tribe of hell, thou shalt enjoy her.” The problem of Iago’s motivation to destroy Othello and Desdemona is not that he has too few motives but too many. He offers throughout the play multiple justifi cations for his intrigue: He has been passed over in favor of Cassio; he suspects the Moor and Cassio with his wife, Emilia; he is envious of Cassio’s open nature; and he is desirous of Desdemona himself. No single motive is relied on for long, and the gap between cause and effect, between the pettiness of Iago’s grudges and the monstrousness of his behavior, prompted Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a memorable phrase to characterize Iago’s “motiveless malignity.” There is in Iago a zest for villainy and a delight in destruction, driven more by his hatred and contempt for any who oppose his conception of jungle law than by a conventional naturalistic explanation based on jealousy or envy. Moreover, Shakespeare, by deliberately clouding the issue of Iago’s motive, finds ever more sinister threats in such a character’s apparently bottomless and unmerited hatred and capacity for evil.
Iago will direct the remainder of the play, constructing Othello’s down-fall out of the flimsiest evidence and playing on the strengths and weaknesses of Othello’s nature and the doubts that erode Othello’s faith in Desdemona. Act 3, one of the wonders of the stage, anatomizes Othello’s psychic descent from perfect contentment in his new wife to complete loathing, from a worldview in which everything is as it appears to one in which nothing is as it seems. Iago leads Othello to suspect that love and devotion are shams disguising the basest of animalistic instincts. Misled by the handkerchief, his love token to Desdemona, that Iago has planted in Cassio’s room and by a partially overheard conversation between Iago and Cassio, Othello, by the end of act 3, forsakes his wife and engages himself in a perverse version of the marriage ceremony of act 2 to Iago. As the pair kneels together, they exchange vows:
Iago: Witness you ever-burning lights above,
You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here Iago doth give up
The execution of his wit, hands, heart
To wronged Othello’s service.
Let him command, And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.
Othello: I greet thy love,
Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance bounteous,
And will upon the instant put thee to’t.
Within these three days let me hear thee say
That Cassio’s not alive.
Iago: My friend is dead.
’Tis done at your request; but let her live.
Othello: Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her, damn her!
Come, go with me apart. I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.
Iago: I am your own for ever.
This scene has suggested to some critics that Iago’s true motivation for destroying the marriage of Desdemona and Othello is a repressed homosexual love for Othello. An equal case can be made that Iago here completes his role as Vice, borrowed from the medieval morality plays, sealing the Faustian bargain for Othello’s soul in this mock or black marriage scene.
The play moves relentlessly from here to catastrophe as Othello delivers justice to those he is convinced have wronged him. As he attempts to carry out his execution of Desdemona, she for the first time realizes his charges against her and his utter delusion. Ignoring her appeals for mercy and avowals of innocence, Othello smothers her moments before Emilia arrives with the proof of Desdemona’s innocence and Iago’s villainy. Othello must now face the realization of what he has done. He turns to Iago, who has been brought before him to know the reason for his actions. Iago replies: “Demand me nothing; what you know, you know: / From this time forth I never will speak word.” By Iago’s exiting the stage, closing access to his motives, the focus remains firmly on Othello, not as Iago’s victim, but as his own. His final speech mixes together the acknowledgment of what he was and what he has become, who he is and how he would like to be remembered:
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
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.
Consistent with his role as guardian of order in the state, Othello carries out his own execution, by analogy judging his act as a violation reflected by Venice’s savage enemy:
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and tradu’d the state,
I took by th’ throat the circumcisèd dog,
And smote him—thus.
Othello, likewise, has “tradu’d the state” and has changed from noble and valiant Othello to a beast, with the passion that ennobled him shown as corrosive and demeaning. He carries out his own execution for a violation that threatens social and psychic order. For the onlookers on stage, the final tableau of the dead Desdemona and Othello “poisons sight” and provokes the command to “Let it be hid.” The witnesses on stage cannot compute rationally what has occurred nor why, but the audience has been given a privileged view of the battle between good and evil worked out in the private recesses of a bedroom and a human soul.