Othello, written by William Shakespeare is the story of Othello, the protagonistand tragic hero of the play. A Moor commanding the armies of Venice, he is acelebrated general and heroic figure whose “free and open nature” willenable Iago to twist his love for his wife Desdemona into a powerful jealousy.
Iago is Othellos ensign, and Shakespeare’s greatest villain. His public faceof bravery and honesty conceals a Satanic delight in manipulation anddestruction. Passed over for a promotion by his commander, he vows to destroythe Moor. If Iago is an artist of evil, then this scene is the finest canvas hepaints. This is the crucial moment in the play, the scene where he, , deceivesOthello and induces him to fall. He does so by expanding on the tactics used inprior scenes. Once the seed of doubt is planted in the Moor’s mind with a quick”Ha! I like not that” (III.iii.35) (when they come upon Desdemona andCassio) and a few probing questions about the ex-lieutenant’s relationship toOthello’s wife, Iago retreats into the guise he has adopted. He becomes”honest Iago,” again, as in the brawl in Act II, scene ii–thereluctant truth-teller who must have unpleasant news dragged from him by adetermined Othello. The honesty suggested by his reluctance to speak isreinforced by the moralizing tone that he takes with his commander. Iagoactually lectures Othello, warning him against jealousy (“the green-eyedmonster”) and insisting that he will not speak slander: “he thatfilches from me my good name / Robs of that which not enriches him / And makesme poor indeed” (III.iii.158-61). At the same time, he plays upon theinsecurities of the honest, noble African in sophisticated, decadent Venice bylecturing Othello on how Venetian women are deceitful and treacherous by nature.
The overall effect is to pour verbal poison in his master’s ear–not by lying,but by flavoring truth with innuendo. Othello will later declare that he is”not easily jealous,” and that assessment of his character seems to beshared by most of the figures around him in the play. The critical response ismixed–some critics insist that his claims to be innocent of jealousy are merelyself-justifying, and certainly he slips easily into assuming his wife to beunfaithful. Other critics make the distinction between an inner, self-createdjealousy, which he seems to lack, and a deep insecurity and “trustingnature,” as Iago puts it, which allow a clever manipulator to plant seedsof doubt. Behind his insecurity lies a man uneasy with his place in Venetiansociety: he may have married a white woman, a daughter of a Senator, but can hekeep her? The seizure of the handkerchief is a great coup for Iago in his questto destroy Othello, and he is aided by his wife, who apparently has no scruplesabout betraying her mistress in small matters. Shakespeare will eventuallytransform Emilia into a voice of moral outrage, and by the final scene theaudience will applaud her role in Iago’s destruction, but for now it is worthnoticing that she is only Iago’s accomplice. It will take a great shock toinspire outrage against him–a shock which comes too late. The scene ends withIago triumphant, named as lieutenant (the rank to which he aspired from thebeginning) to a man bent on destruction, and ready to join in that destructionhimself–because in killing Cassio and Desdemona, Othello is killing himself.
And that, of course, has been Iago’s goal from the beginning. Othello’s wild,violent behavior in front of Lodovico, in which he strikes his wife and abusesher for no apparent reason, demonstrate the perversion of order that Iago hasbrought about. There is no one to halt Othello’s lawlessness, because he himselfis the law in Cyprus. Othello’s accusations and refusal to accept Desdemona’sdenials are brutal and unfair, but his language recovers some of the nobilitythat it had lost in previous scenes. Iago-like curses are replaced by sorrowfullaments for what has been lost, and the audience is reminded the heroism anddignity that Othello possessed at the beginning of the play. His cry “O,thou weed, / Who art so lovely fair, and smell’st so sweet, / That the senseaches at thee–would thou hadst ne’er / been born!” (IV.ii.69-72) is apowerful expression of the love that he still holds for his wife, which has beenruined for ever by Iago’s poisons. Othello is wrong, terribly wrong, butShakespeare demands that we sympathize with his error. Othello’s words as heprepares to murder Desdemona reveal the extent to which he has allowed Iago’slogic to dominate his own thinking. His fury has abated, but he is left with asense of being an instrument of divine justice. Desdemona must die, he insists,because otherwise she might betray other men. Othello’s self-delusion is sostrong that he believes himself to be merciful–he will not scar her body, hesays, and he will allow her to pray, because “I would not kill thysoul” (V.ii.34). Some sense of the enormity of his crime impinges on hisdelusion when he realizes that “when I have plucked thy rose / I cannotgive it vital growth again,” (V.ii.13-14)–but not enough to stay his hand.
The actual murder is one of the most painful scenes in all of Shakespeare,because of Desdemona’s manifest innocence, beauty, and purity, and because shecontinues to love Othello to the grave and even beyond, returning to life onlyto gasp out an exoneration for her husband. He rejects her last gift, but hisillumination arrives quickly thereafter, and the audience’s anger at the Moordissipates as he is completely undone by the realization of his terrible error.
There is no need to punish him, really–his horrible self-awareness (“ODesdemona! Desdemona! dead!”) is punishment enough. There is much criticaldisagreement over whether Othello’s final speech “rehabilitates” himto the nobility that marked him when the play began. Certainly, his speech isnot all that one might wish for- -his claim to be “one not easilyjealous” (V.ii.354) is open to question, and when he says that he”loved not wisely, but too well,” (V.ii.353) the audience can onlygroan at his lack of understanding. But Othello passes judgment on himself withthe courage we would expect in a military hero and loyal general, and he killshimself just as he once killed the enemies of Venice. Shakespeare allows him afinal word, too, after this speech, and Othello, dying, reaches for Desdemona,reminding the audience of what a great love has been destroyed. As for thedestroyer, he too comes undone in this scene. His parting words–“what youknow, you know”–deny us the explanation that we crave, but the audiencecan take some satisfaction in watching Emilia, roused from cynicism to righteousvengeance, bring down her husband as surely as he brought down his victims.
Iago’s fury at Emilia might just as well be a fury for himself, who spent theentire play manipulating Brabantio, Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona,and in the end is undone by the person he least expected–his wife. All thistalk of time should make us remember another aspect of this tragedy: prophecy.
If tragedy happens when past is brought into present, then it is prefigured whenfuture is brought into present. This has been the role of Tiresias in this play,and his replacement here by the messenger, another old man who has come withnews from afar, has significance only in terms of this temporal theme that wehave already established. The prophet and the messenger would seem to be in thesame temporal region, for both arrive after the events and before the tragedy,but they arrive with a crucial difference. The messenger comes after theprophet, but from where he comes can see neither past nor future. He can onlynaively render both into the moment, and his language is thus not marked withthe reluctance and iteration of Tiresias. Rather, he speaks freely, without theprophet’s fatal awareness of how the difficulties of language are at oncesupplemental and central to the tragedies of time. The shepherd seems to sensethis, but his resolve is broken. Where earlier Oedipus threatened punishment,here the guards come on-stage and begin to torture the shepherd. The way powerand force here shatter the complex network of language and time.