Othello in a Nutshell

Othello is the first of a triumvirate of tragedies written by Shakespeare during a particularly dark period of English history. Taken together with Macbeth and King Lear, both of which were written shortly afterward, Othello exhibits the angst and anger felt by Catholics following the reintroduction of laws which made the practice of the Catholic faith illegal and which made being a priest or sheltering a priest punishable by death. These laws were reintroduced by the new king, James I, in violation of his promise to grant religious liberty and tolerance upon his accession to the throne. First performed on All Saints Day (November 1), 1604, Othello was written in the second year of the reign of James and shortly after the new anti-Catholic laws were put into force. 

As a Catholic himself, Shakespeare would have shared with his co-religionists an intense anger toward the king for his act of treachery and would have shared their deep sense of desolation and despondency at the renewal of the persecution, following as it did so soon after the initial exhilaration at the queen’s death and the king’s accession. There is, therefore, no coincidence in the connection between King James and the character of Iago, the Machiavellian monster at the dark and deadly heart of Othello. In the source from which Shakespeare drew inspiration for the play, Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Alfiero is the name of the Machiavellian character. Shakespeare changed the name of Alfiero to Iago, a Spanish variant of the name “James,” thereby deliberately connecting his ruthless and cynical villain with England’s new king. 

In the very first scene of the play, Iago reveals himself in starkly satanic terms with his declaration that “I am not what I am,” the antithesis of God’s declaration of Himself in Scripture as “I am that I am.” A couple of scenes later, Iago responds scornfully to Roderigo, dismissing the very notion of virtue and the grace that is necessary for its practice: “Virtue? A fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus and thus.” In this solitary line, Iago declares himself to be not only a non-Christian but an anti-Christian. He is homo superbus (prideful man) who believes that he has the power to be what he wants to be without the need for God. 

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Having hatched the plot to bring about Othello’s downfall, Iago’s deceitful words “pour [a] pestilence into [Othello’s] ear,” enflame the Moor’s latent jealousy through the insinuation that Desdemona is in an adulterous relationship with Cassio, thereby poisoning the Moor’s love for his hapless wife. Iago’s actions remind us of Claudius’ pouring of poison into the ear of Hamlet’s father, a murderous act which is itself a metaphor for the lies poured into the ears of those whom Claudius deceives for his own cynical ends. 

Every word that Iago utters within earshot of anyone else is a deliberate deception, making it perilous for anyone, the reader included, to believe anything that he says to others. His true motives are only revealed in soliloquies. It is when he is alone and unheard that he reveals that his own motive for desiring Othello’s downfall is the suspicion that Othello had cuckolded him. He is, therefore, guilty of the same prideful jealousy which he seeks to enflame in the Moor. They share the same fatal flaw.  

If it’s easy to see the darkness in the hearts of Iago and Othello, it is more difficult to see into the heart of the doomed damsel, Desdemona. Is she as pure and chaste as many critics seem to believe? Does she warrant comparison with the Blessed Virgin, as the critic Peter Milward suggests? Is she as immaculate as the Virgin and as blameless as the Virgin’s Son, a spotless victim of the sins of others? 

In order to answer these questions, we need to begin with the reasons for her initial attraction to Othello. It is not his courtesy that attracts her, still less his practice of Christian virtue; it is the tales he tells of his adventures on the high seas and in strange lands, many of which are clearly fabrications. In short, she appears to be attracted by the lies he tells, an unpromising foundation for the building of a relationship. 

Spurning her own father, Desdemona hangs on to every boastful word, devouring Othello’s vaunts “with a greedy ear,” and sets about taking the initiative in the all too brief courtship that follows. Her father is shocked by Othello’s account and is reluctant to believe that his daughter would “confess that she was half the wooer.” Desdemona has gained the husband that she desires and sacrifices her father’s feelings in her decision to elope with the Moor. She acts rashly and recklessly, blundering naively into an ultimately abusive marriage that will lead to her death. 

The fact is that she is not a good judge of character. When asked by Emilia if her husband was not jealous, she replies with an innocence that is the cankered fruit of ignorance: “Who, he? I think the sun where he was born / Drew all such humors from him.” Her hopeless naiveté is accentuated by the immediate arrival of a heatedly jealous Othello. Such weakness on Desdemona’s part plays right into the hands of the fiendish Iago.

Although Desdemona is indeed “guiltless” of the sin of infidelity of which she stands accused, she is guilty of crass credulity in her believing of the fantastic yarns that Othello span about his past adventures and about the “magic” handkerchief that he had given her; and she is credulous in the extreme in eloping with a man whom she hardly knows on the strength of his tales of derring-do. She is, therefore, partially culpable for the perilous predicament in which she finds herself. She is guiltless of the sin of adultery for which she is killed, but she is culpable for her betrayal of her father and the recklessness inherent in her elopement. 

The play’s blameless victim is not Desdemona but Brabantio, the loving father and “kind lord” who died of a broken heart after his daughter’s desertion of him. This being so, it is an error to place Desdemona in the illustrious company of Shakespeare’s noble and saintly heroines. She does not belong with Cordelia, a truly blameless victim, or with the sagaciously irrepressible Portia. Instead, she should be placed alongside Shakespeare’s tragic heroines who fall through a fatal flaw in their character or through the bad choices they make. She belongs with the impetuously passionate Juliet or with the hopelessly weak Ophelia. We can feel great sympathy for her, as we can feel great sympathy for Juliet or Ophelia, but we cannot exonerate her totally. She suffers the consequences of her own irresponsible actions, though it might be conceded, to employ the words of Lear, that she is more sinned against than sinning.  

If the misreading of Desdemona’s character represents a misreading of the play, so does the failure to understand Othello’s description of himself as “one that lov’d not wisely but too well.” These words, among the most famous in all of Shakespeare’s works, have been allowed to define Othello’s character. It is as though we have allowed our understanding of the tragic hero, and by extension the whole tragedy of which he is a part, to be governed by his own final words of self-justification. 

For a Christian, and it is perilous to our understanding of the play to forget that Shakespeare is a Christian, love is always the laying down of the life of the lover for the sake of the beloved. Love is always to die to oneself so that one can give oneself fully to the other. In this sense, Othello never loved Desdemona. On the contrary, in an infernal inversion of the true meaning of love, Othello lays down the life of his beloved for the sake of his own jealousy, sacrificing her on the altar of his own prideful anger. This is not love but its opposite. Rather than being “one that lov’d not wisely but too well,” he was one that loved not wisely nor well enough.

In this darkest of tragedies, Shakespeare censures the age in which he lives, “the time, the place, the torture,” with a tale of darkness, told and tolled with the doom-laden and crushing weight of the playwright’s own heavy heart.   

Editor’s Note: This is the seventeenth in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”

[Image: Desdemona and Othello, by Antonio Muñoz Degrain, 1880]


  • Joseph Pearce

    Joseph Pearce a senior contributor to Crisis. He is director of book publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review, and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. An acclaimed biographer and literary scholar, his latest book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, is newly published by TAN Books. His website is jpearce.co.

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