I read somewhere that people either take to Othello or they hate it. I took to it. The plot is as improbable as an opera but no one sees an opera for the plot. Beyond this particular plot is a human dilemma that I expect we are all familiar with: Jealousy and its cousin envy. I see Othello as jealous and Iago as envious. Even one of these emotions is dangerous enough, but both of them firing up the minds of people not given to self reflection is disastrous.
The complete title of the play is Othello, the Moor of Venice. Moor is shorthand for African. There’s no specification for what part of Africa. Othello is a celebrated and beloved general in the Venetian army and at the opening of the play he has just eloped with Desdemona, a Venetian woman. Though the story is Othello’s tragedy, this play belongs to his ensign, Iago. One of Othello’s early lines is “I must be found.” One of Iago’s is “I am not what I am.” (I, i). We’ll see how that works out.
The play opens with Iago complaining that Cassio, a “mere arithmetician” has been chosen as Othello’s lieutenant and he, Iago is his “ancient,” his ensign. He envies Cassio’s position. Iago also has it in his head that Othello has “done my office betwixt my sheets,” which is truly insane because there is a suggestion that both Othello and Iago are impotent. Immediately the army is called to fight in Cyprus and Desdemona goes with them and her new husband. Iago begins to orchestrate a symphony of lies designed to insinuate into Othello the notion that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.
In Cyprus, there is an immediate victory and the soldier’s victory party gets out of control. Cassio, who tends to get stupid after one drink, is egged on by Iago with potent liquor until he gets past stupid and starts a huge brawl. Othello breaks up the fight like a father at a pajama party and discharges Cassio from the army. Iago encourages Cassio to ask Desdemona to take up his case with Othello. When Desdemona and Cassio are in conversation, Iago calls attention to them:
IAGO Ha! I like not that.
OTHELLO What dost thou say?
IAGO Nothing, my lord: or if–I know not what.
OTHELLO Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO Cassio, my lord! No, sure, I cannot think it,
That he would steal away so guilty-like,
Seeing you coming.
OTHELLO I do believe ’twas he. . .
IAGO Did Michael Cassio, when you woo’d my lady,
Know of your love?
OTHELLO He did, from first to last: why dost thou ask?
IAGO But for a satisfaction of my thought;
No further harm.
OTHELLO Why of thy thought, Iago?
IAGO I did not think he had been acquainted with her.
OTHELLO O, yes; and went between us very oft.
OTHELLO Indeed! ay, indeed: discern’st thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?
IAGO Honest, my lord!
OTHELLO Honest! ay, honest.
IAGO My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO What dost thou think?
IAGO Think, my lord!
OTHELLO Think, my lord!
By heaven, he echoes me,
As if there were some monster in his thought
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something:
I heard thee say even now, thou likedst not that,
When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?
. . .Show me thy thought.
This is how it starts. I found the slow planting of suspicions in Othello’s mind chilling both on the page and in the three different productions I watched. It worked for me every time. Because the truth is that most of us are not far from jealous and envious thoughts. It doesn’t take much.
*Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmation strong
As proofs of holy writ. (III, iii)
And as Emilia, Iago’s wife says,
*They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they’re jealous. ‘Tis a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself. (IV, iii)
After the initial seed is planted there’s the business with the handkerchief. Iago has asked Emilia several times to pinch Desdemona’s handkerchief and though it’s not clear why he wants it, we can be sure it’s not to have it copied to make a set for Desdemona as a marriage gift. Emilia, who was one of my favorite characters, has got her own problems with Iago. Here is her assessment of her marriage:
*Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs and we all but food;
They eat us hungrily, and when they are full,
They belch us. (III, iv)
When Desdemona drops the handkerchief, I gather Emilia picks it up hoping to gain some attention and favor with Iago. If there was ever a moment to holler in the theater, this is it: “Don’t pick up the handkerchief!” Because the rest of the play hinges on the symbol of and the fantasies around that handkerchief beginning with Iago planting it in Cassio’s closet and spinning the story that Desdemona has given it to Cassio.
By the time Iago’s plan is fully baked, he has agreed to murder Cassio “for” Othello and Othello has determined to kill Desdemona. The scene in the bedroom where Othello smothers his wife is hard to read and hard to watch. At the same time, it’s engrossing, horrifying, fascinating, and sad.
Emilia interrupts the murder and puts together the mischief of the handkerchief. She convinces Othello of how mis-guided he has been. Desdemona, true to the end, dies claiming to have taken her own life. By now Iago, Cassio and a bunch of officials are on the scene. Iago kills Emilia and Othello kills himself. They both die alongside Desdemona.
In five acts, Iago is described by nearly everyone in the play as honest, right down into the last scene. By my count there were thirteen instances. That’s too many to be credible. But Iago told us right from the start, “I am not what I am.”
Othello is portrayed as suggestible. He believes in charms and portents. He says the handkerchief had been a present from his father to his mother and had magical qualities. He’s a soldier, not much given to self-reflection. We assume that he hasn’t much of an interior life but looks outside himself for truth. But at the end of the play when he realizes the truth of Iago’s villainy, he looks down at Iago’s feet and murmurs, “but that’s a fable.” What he expects to see are the devil’s cloven hoofs but instead he sees human feet. Maybe he learns something about his own gullibility. “I must be found,” he says in the first act. Maybe he’s found a piece of himself.
The last thing Iago says is “What you know, you know.” While this can be interpreted any number of ways, I read it as an assessment of how jealousy works. We get jealous thoughts into our heads and that’s the story we are sticking with. We don’t allow any influence to change our minds even it means alleviation of our misery.
Emilia has a speech that I found remarkable and about 400 years ahead of its time. There are still people today who don’t understand this:
*But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so. (IV, iii)
Here are more great lines:
*She gave me for my pains a world of sighs (I, iii)
*To mourn a mischief that is past is gone
Is the next way to draw a new mischief on. (I, iii)
*The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief (I, iii)
*Virtue? A fig! (I, iii)
*Put money in thy purse. (I, iii)
*There are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered (I, iii)
*Reputation, reputation, reputation!
O! I have lost my reputation! (II, iii)
*Who steals my purse steals trash; tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. (III, iii)
*O beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (III, iii)
*Hot, hot, and moist. (III, iv)
*The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow. (IV, iii)
*It is the cause. (V, i)
*Speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well. (V, ii)
*He was great of heart. (V, ii)