Shakespearing #28 by David Foley
Othello is about as streamlined and relentless a play as Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s as if he’s inventing the form of the psychological thriller—the claustrophobic dread, the implacable villain, even the false hope of a reprieve dangled before us.
And it’s a tragedy, too, of course, but it’s a strange kind of tragedy. In school, we were given Othello’s jealousy as an example of a tragic flaw. But if Othello’s tragic flaw is jealousy, why is everyone so insistent that he’s not jealous? “I think the sun where he was born,” says Desdemona, “drew all such humors from him.” And Lodovico says, “Is this the nature/Whom passion could not shake?” The terror of the play is not the destruction of a man by a tragic flaw; it’s the idea that even a man like Othello can be consumed by a demon.
He may be the most admirable of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. He’s the kind of leader Shakespeare seems most to approve of: like Henry V, a people’s warrior. When he breaks up the fight between Cassio and Montano, he berates them for brawling “in a town of war/Yet wild, the people’s hearts brimful of fear.” This concern for the effects of war on the common folk is always for Shakespeare the sign of a noble heart. Yet in this same speech, Othello says, “Now, by heaven,/My blood begins my safer guides to rule,/And passion, having my best judgment collied,/Assays to lead the way.” In high school, we called that foreshadowing.
Browsing the internet, I find a 1916 essay about the “moral enigma” of Othello, in which the author worries in a 1916 sort of way about critics who are ready to lay the blame for the tragedy on Iago: “[I]t must be said that there is no Shakespearean tragedy in which the responsibility for the deed of the hero and the subsequent tragedy can be shifted from him to another person of the play.”
But if Othello is responsible, how is he responsible? Even in the speech I’ve quoted, his passions have begun his “safer guides to rule” because of a fight Iago has ginned up. Our 1916 critic wants to leave room for legible moral choice, but 2015 me can’t help reading Othello as a bitter parable about the susceptibility of even the best of us to irrational forces.
We go so quickly—in one long, shifting scene—from a serenely confident Othello to one looking for “some swift means of death” for his wife. You can read this as Elizabethan cultural prejudice—the noble Moor revealing his savage nature—but that doesn’t make the spectacle any more edifying or the moral less enigmatic.
It also puts us on the side of Iago, who’s adept at manipulating cultural prejudices to his own ends, whether those prejudices are against Moors or women. He himself is not irrational, but he has the power to breed irrationality in others. With Othello, he does it by guiding his thoughts away from the woman herself into the phantasmic beliefs about women floating in the culture.
It’s strange how often in these plays a minor character becomes the raisonneur. It’s left to Emilia to break through the nightmare, with some sharp words about men and women in her scene with Desdemona and some sharper ones for Othello in the final scene.
But even she is involved in the great mystery at the center of the play. Why can no one see through Iago? Why are the things that lead us through our worst fears to our worst ends so hard to make visible?
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.