measure for measure
Isabella (Stephanie Fieger) begs Angelo (James Knight) to spare her brother’s life in The Old Globe’s 2007 production of Measure for Measure.

I need to start this post with a disclaimer: in real life, I am a feminist in every sense of the word. I feel like I have to say this because there may be some decidedly unfeminist ideas about Measure for Measure in this review. You’re allowed to hate me for them – I myself can’t believe some of the things I want to discuss. Measure for Measure does that to you, though – it turns you around, and fills you conflict. And that’s why it’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces.

I find that there are two ways for us to look at Measure for Measure: it can be black and white in that we can look at Isabella as the heroine, and Angelo as the villain. Or, it can be a little grey. No heroes or villains – just people. I think that a black and white Measure for Measure is extraordinarily boring. A grey one? Possibly the best play you’ll ever read in your life.

We open in Vienna, where the Duke has decided to take a little vacation. To Poland, maybe – but it’s nobody’s business, apparently. What’s important is that he’s left Deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo, as it happens, sees things in black and white. He will do anything so that justice (or what he considers justice) can prevail – anything. So he enforces a law against fornication. The brothels are shut down, and a certain someone is arrested.

Well, well. There’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all.

Who’s that, I pray thee?

Marry, sir, that’s Claudio, Signior Claudio.

Claudio to prison? ‘Tis not so.

It is so, sadly. Claudio is sent to prison – his girlfriend Juliet is pregnant, and that means that he was the first one to break Angelo’s ridiculous law. As he’s being escorted to jail, Claudio begs his friend Lucio to seek out his sister, Isabella, so that she may beg Angelo for his life.

The Duke, meanwhile, is still in Vienna.

My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed,
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth and cost witless bravery keeps.
I have delivered to Lord Angelo,
A man of stricture and firm abstinence,
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me traveled to Poland,
For so I have strewed it in the common ear,
And so it is received. Now, pious sir,
You will demand of me why I do this.

Gladly, my lord.

We have strict statues and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use – in time the rod
More mocked and feared – so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose,
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

The Duke, essentially, has been doing a pretty terrible job of upholding the law in Vienna. Everything has gone topsy-turvy, and his lenient ways mean that the people do not fear him. There have been no repercussions. So, instead of dealing with this the way a normal person would, the Duke decides to dramatically put Angelo in charge so that he can creep around in disguise and watch to see if Vienna gets any better.

You can imagine my sarcasm when I say that this is an incredible plan, nothing will go wrong, and that the Duke is a genius.

Lucio arrives at Isabella’s strict nunnery – Isabella wouldn’t mind one bit if it were stricter, actually. She is incredibly invested in becoming a nun. Luckily for Lucio, he’s arrived just in time. She’s a novice yet. He explains Claudio’s situation to her, and asks her to go to Angelo.

Alas, what poor ability’s in me
To do him good?

Assay the power you have.

My power? Alas, I doubt –

Isabella genuinely doubts that she can win Angelo over. Like Desdemona, I could immediately see how one might play Isabella incorrectly. She can come off as hesitant, even a little meek, but there is a fire in Isabella. And it’s that fire that ends up knocking Angelo off of his feet.

As Isabella goes off to find Angelo, Escalus, a judge, is asking him to maybe chill out a little bit.

Ay, but yet, let us be keen and rather cut a little
Than fall and bruise to death. Alas, this gentleman
Whom I would save had a most noble father.
Let but your Honor know,
Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue,
That, in the working of your own affections,
Had time cohered with place, or place with wishing,
Or that the resolute acting of your blood
Could have attained th’ effect of your own purpose,
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Erred in this point which now you censure him,
And pulled the law upon you.

‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny
The jury passing on the prisoner’s life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes. What knows the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take ‘t
Because we see it; but what we do not see,
We tread upon and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offense
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When that I censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.

Escalus is very kindly – and a bit of a pushover. Obviously, if Angelo were in Claudio’s place, he’d hope for mercy. But Escalus is speaking to somebody who literally cannot relate to Claudio. That is something that we have to acknowledge about Angelo – he has spent his entire life walking the straightest, cleanest path he possibly could. They say his blood is ice water, so when it comes to sex and love, it’s fair to say that he simply does not understand. And with no understanding, there can be no mercy.

He decides to execute Claudio the very next day. The others are uncomfortable with this.

What’s the matter, provost?

Is it your will Claudio shall die tomorrow?

Did I not tell thee yea? Hadst thou not order?
Why dost thou ask again?

Lest I might be too rash.
Under your good correction, I have seen
When, after execution, judgement hath
Repented o’er his doom.

Go to. Let that be mine.
Do you your office, or give up your place
And you shall be well spared.

Shockingly, I am going to try to be as understanding of Angelo as I can be. Giving him the tidy label of villain takes all the interest out of this play. In this post, there will be no heroes, heroines or villains.

That said, I’m sure we can all agree that Angelo is far too severe a person. He is confident in what he’s chosen to do – so confident, in fact, that he’s willing to deal with the executioner’s guilt that the provost is warning him about. Why shouldn’t he be willing to deal with it? After all, it’ll never come. Not to Angelo.

Isabella finally arrives with Lucio in tow. Angelo is short with her, already knowing that he won’t be budging.

Well, what’s your suit?

There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice,
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not.

Isabella is very diplomatic in her approach. She tries to reason with Angelo by very honestly expressing that she understands that her brother had done something awful. But Angelo has no pity for Claudio. Isabella gives up almost instantly, and makes to leave.

LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
Give ‘t not o’er so. To him again, entreat him,
Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown.
You are too cold. If you should need a pin,
You could with more tame a tongue desire it.
To him, I say.

ISABELLA, [to Angelo]
Must he needs to die?

Lucio tells Isabella she is being too cold – only passion can melt Angelo’s icy front. Angelo has already dismissed this conversation. I could see him in my mind, his back turned to the door. I could see Isabella turn around suddenly, and ask him for mercy once again. And I can sense why that would leave him reeling.

So far, absolutely nobody has argued with Angelo. We have seen the provost and Escalus very meekly try to reason with him – and we have seen how one sharp reprimand from Angelo causes them to drop all their suits. What he says goes. But now, in his office, he has a nun that won’t back down.

He’s sentenced. ‘Tis too late.

LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
You are too cold.

Too late? Why, no. I that do speak a word
May call it back again. Well believe this:
No ceremony that to great ones longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe
Become them with half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you, and you as he,
You would have slipped like him, but he like you
Would not have been so stern.

Pray you begone.

Isabella speaks passionately, and all Angelo can do is ask her to leave. I think he has no idea how else to respond. Isabella doesn’t leave.

Your brother is a forfeit of the law,
And you but waste your words.

Alas, alas!
Why all the souls that were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be
If He which is the top of judgement should
But judge as you are? O, think on that,
And mercy will breathe within your lips
Like man new-made.

Be you content, fair maid.
It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him. He must die tomorrow.

Angelo’s responses grow longer the more impassioned Isabella becomes. It’s like he bristles, and realizes that Isabella won’t be going down without a fight. He tells her that she is wasting her words, but he begins to do the same.

Yet show some pity.

I show it most of all when I show justice,
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismissed offense would after gall,
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies tomorrow; be content.

So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he that suffers. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.

I adore Isabella’s lines up there – her words apply to so many things, and even to situations that we experience now in the modern world. She absolutely refuses to back down. And what’s amazing is that Isabella is not speaking nonsense – and I think that this is what unnerves Angelo most of all.

That in the captain’s but a choleric word
Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.

LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
Art avised ‘o that? More on ‘t.

Why do you put these sayings on me?

I was very struck by Angelo’s question to Isabella, because it was almost like he was betraying himself. It was such a change from his stern, severe replies. Does he ask this question with an offended tone? Or is he flabbergasted, unsure how to deal with Isabella?

She responds –

Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself
That skins the vice o’ th’ top. Go to your bosom.
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life.

ANGELO, [aside]
She speaks, and ’tis such sense
That my sense breeds with it.

[He begins to exit.]

Fare you well.

Gentle my lord, turn back.

I will bethink me. Come again tomorrow.

Hark how I’ll bribe you. Good my lord, turn back.

How? Bribe me?

Angelo, cold Angelo, finds himself filled with something he has never experienced before: lust. So he makes to leave, and the sharp tone he was using throughout this entire act dissipates as he attempts to make his escape. I can imagine how he might absolutely freeze when Isabella calls after him, and how he might turn to face her and ask shakily, “How? Bribe me?” Isabella is being completely innocent, of course. It is Angelo whose blood has run cold because it’s almost like she knows what he hopes for her to bribe him with.

He manages to get rid of Isabella – but she’ll be back tomorrow. Angelo is left alone.

Save your Honor.

[She exits, with Lucio and Provost.]

From thee, even from thy virtue.
What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she, nor doth tempt; but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What does thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live.
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges seal themselves. What, do I love her
And feast upon her eyes? What is ‘t I dream on?
O cunning enemy that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook. Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how.

This is why I can’t call Angelo a villain. Every so often, he has these startling moments of clarity. And, unlike Shakespeare’s other villains, he doesn’t delight in his evil. If anything, he’s disgusted by it. Angelo is no villain – he’s just a man feeling a rush of emotion like he has never felt before. It does not excuse any of his later actions, but it’s worth noting. Angelo (and by extension, Shakespeare’s) question of whether the tempter or the tempted is at fault is absolutely fantastic. Why would a man in Elizabethan England put such a question down on his page?

Angelo wonders if he only feels this way because he wants to corrupt her innocence. He’s wrong, of course. He feels this way because Isabella has challenged him in a way other women have not.

We come to 2.4, which is arguably the best act in this entire play. If you Google Measure for Measure, you’ll mostly hear crickets. But if you really look, you’ll find discussions about 2.4 because it is that good.

When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my intervention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel. God in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew His name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception. The state whereon I studied
Is, like a good thing being often read,
Grown sere and tedious. Yea, my gravity,
Wherein – let no man hear me – I take pride,
Could I with boot change for an idle plume
Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.
Let’s write “good angel” on the devil’s horn.
‘Tis not the devil’s crest.

Angelo, while waiting for Isabella, is still agonizing over his lust for her. In Shakespeare’s plays, names are very often shortened. Desdemona becomes Desdemon, Cressida becomes Cressid. But there is something so intimate about Angelo’s use of Isabel instead of Isabella. I was almost offended for her, and shocked that he would say her name like that. But he says that she has been filling his thoughts – he can’t pray, he can’t think – so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

I really enjoyed the line, “Blood, thou art blood.” Angelo, possibly for the first time, is acknowledging that he’s a human man, and is subject to sexual appetite like others are. But this acknowledgement is dangerous – it could act as an excuse for what he’s about to do.

Isabella arrives, and Angelo panics at the sudden flood of heat he feels. But when she enters, he tries to stifle all of that.

How now, fair maid?

I am come to know your pleasure.

Immediately, Angelo is thrown off. Angelo feels each of Isabella’s words in his bones – everything she says reminds him of how badly he wants her.

And Isabella? She’s just here for Claudio.

Say you so? Then I shall pose you quickly:
Which had you rather, that the most just law
Now took your brother’s life, or, to redeem him,
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she hath stained?

Sir, believe this:
I had rather give my body than my soul.

Isabella is incredibly self-sacrificial, and just cannot seem to hear what Angelo is trying to say.

Admit no other way to save his life –
As I subscribe not that, nor any other –
But, in the loss of question, that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-binding law, and that there were
No earthly mean to save him but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer,
What would you do?

Angelo tries to pose a hypothetical situation to Isabella, but she does not respond the way he hopes. She absolutely would not sacrifice her body – absolutely not. He continues to push.

Plainly conceive I love you.

My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for ‘t.

He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.

Curiously, Angelo tells Isabella that he loves her. I’m not sure that he does – but what I’m sure of is that he thinks he does. Angelo has no idea how to process the way Isabella makes him feel. And Isabella, bless her, turns the conversation back to her brother. She knows her purpose, and will not stray from it.

Isabella, understandably, is shocked that Angelo would proposition her like this. She threatens to tell everybody, and Angelo immediately becomes defensive.

Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, th’ austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein.
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes
That banish what they sue for. Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
By ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,
Or by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.

There are two things that are wrong with Angelo, two things that make him behave this way: one is that he is completely incapable of properly and sensibly dealing with the feelings he has for Isabella. And two, he now has the Duke’s power under his belt, and knows he’s untouchable. Angelo is attracted to Isabella because she challenges him – but he draws the line at being refused. Has anybody ever refused Angelo before?

Still, he is not a villain, but rather a fallen angel, as Shakespeare clearly meant for him to  be when he named him Angelo. And there’s that frustratingly intimate ‘Isabel,’ once again.

A comment about this scene before I go into Isabella’s last soliloquy. I haven’t seen a full production of Measure for Measure, nor have I seen the BBC version in its entirety (I tried, but found myself unable to enjoy it). Regardless, I noticed that when 2.4 is put on, directors put in a lot of physical manipulation on Angelo’s part. A quick image search will show you Angelo with Isabella pinned down to his table, or with her arm twisted behind her back and pressed against him. But I propose that no physical contact should take place. Angelo is fired up, yes, but I don’t think he’d touch Isabella. I think this scene is much more intriguing if no touching takes place at all – if all Angelo did was move closer and closer to Isabella without touching her, I’d be a happy audience member. It would add to the tension more than if we allowed Angelo to handle Isabella. Also, would Angelo handle her violently? Maybe, but maybe not. Angelo knows what he’s doing is wrong, and he has certainly snapped in this scene to the point where manhandling could make sense. But let us consider that for Angelo, snapping could very well mean standing uncomfortably close. Snapping could mean clenched fists. He has spent his whole life as a block of ice – I highly doubt he’d go from zero to a hundred just like that. Or, if we let Angelo touch her, let him snatch his hand back immediately – because he knows that he’s doing something wrong. He knows, and just can’t stop himself from continuing to proposition her. And the purity and passion he sees in Isabella makes the touch burn enough for him to break contact. Again, whether or not Angelo is truly a villain is in our hands. When we choose how he handles Isabella in this scene, we are choosing a label for him once and for all.

Isabella is left alone.

To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me? O, perilous mouths,
That bear in them one and the selfsame tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof,
Bidding the law make curtsy to their will,
Hooking both right and wrong to th’ appetite,
To follow as it draws. I’ll to my brother.
Though he hath fall’n by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honor
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he’d yield them up
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorred pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die.
More than our brother is our chastity.
I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.

I felt terrible for Isabella here, because there’s absolutely nobody she can complain to. Who would listen to her? Angelo wasn’t lying when he said his spotless reputation would protect him. She feels confident that Claudio wouldn’t want her to free him in this way, so she makes for the prison to tell him that it’s a lost cause.

When Isabella tells Claudio what has happened, he is understandably offended for her. She thinks he’s on her side, but then he hesitates.

Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.

O, you beast!

Now we must ask ourselves a very important question: is Isabella in the wrong here? Is she being overly self-righteous? Is her chastity equal to his life?

Just as Angelo isn’t the villain of this story, Isabella is not the heroine. I say this because – and you might want to punch me for this – I think that they’re too similar to be on different ends of the moral spectrum. Angelo is too severe when it comes to the law, and he allows his power to consume him as well. Similarly, Isabella is too severe when it comes to her own chastity, and she allows her dedication to it to prevent her from being more sensitive with her brother. That isn’t to say that she should agree to Angelo’s deal – she shouldn’t have to. I’m saying that calling Claudio a beast is decidedly harsh for someone like Isabella. But it makes sense, because she is like Angelo.

The Duke (did you forget about him? I did.) appears dresses as a Friar – he pulls Isabella aside after her fight with Claudio and tells her about Mariana, Angelo’s ex-fiancée. Long story short, Angelo abandoned Mariana when her brother and dowry were lost at sea. And, because Angelo is who he is, he was awful to Mariana after the fact.

Can this be so? Did Angelo leave her?

DUKE, [as Friar]
Left her in her tears and dried not one of them with his comfort, swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them but relents not.

None of this surprises me, really. Isabella is shocked at Angelo, but she doesn’t realize that before meeting her, he had no feelings. Why should he have cared about Mariana? Again, that’s not to say he’s in the right, but I’m trying to carefully skirt around calling him a straight up rotten-to-the-core person. Angelo is who he is, and that’s all I can say.

The Duke/Friar is bringing up Mariana because he has a plan. Isabella will accept Angelo’s deal, but Mariana will take her place. Simple, and suspiciously similar to the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well.

I didn’t think much about this particular plot device until my roommate/friend (who, unfortunately for her, has to listen to my passionate outbursts about the plays I’m reading) mentioned that it was uncomfortable, because the men in question couldn’t possibly consent to it. And, you know what? She’s right. So often we look at Shakespeare’s plays though Elizabethan England colored glasses – but if we can’t look at something through a modern lens then, as Harold C. Goddard put it once, it’s nothing but a historical artifact. And since I see Shakespeare’s plays as being far more than artifacts, I should take a moment to criticize this plot device. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Angelo isn’t in the right here. In fact, he’s very much in the wrong. He’s dealing with these newfound emotions of his in the worst possible way, and he knows it. But Isabella, the Duke/Friar, and Mariana aren’t in the right either. When we hear about how Angelo left Mariana, we hear it from the Duke/Friar, who is arguably an unreliable narrator. We don’t know every single reason Angelo didn’t want to be with Mariana, and it isn’t right to force him into a tryst with her. So although it would be great if everything were pretty and clear cut, nothing really is in Measure for Measure.

And there are two other things for us to think about. First, why did Isabella agree to this so quickly? Well, possibly because she and her brother ended their argument on bad terms. Isabella’s compassion could only be stretched so far, but she still leaves the jail feeling guilty. So she agrees quickly so that balance may be restored.

The second thing is this: if the Duke knows this about Angelo, then why did he leave him in charge? I’m starting to think that his desire to see Vienna become lawful is bullshit – maybe he knew this would happen. Maybe he knows Angelo better than he lets on.

So Mariana sleeps with Angelo, but he thinks it’s Isabella. Claudio should be safe, right?

No, actually, because Angelo sends an order that Claudio be put to death the very next morning. This is going to be very difficult for me to explain away, because this is clearly a very villainous act. But I’m going to try.

Angelo gets what he wants when he spends the night with ‘Isabella,’ but that doesn’t change the fact that, as a character, he is very aware of the terrible thing he’s done. He is beyond thinking sensibly – he hasn’t thought sensibly since he met Isabella. If he leaves Claudio alive, then people will see that the law is just as lax as it was before. If he leaves Claudio alive, people will suspect something between him and Isabella. But if he gets what he wants and has Claudio killed, then what could happen to him, really? This isn’t necessarily a villainous person’s train of thought – this is the train of thought of someone who has been panicking for a few acts now. I don’t really pity Angelo, but I make an effort to see him as a human, because this play becomes a lot more fascinating as a result.

The Duke/Friar makes it so that Angelo is sent the disguised head of another prisoner. He hides Claudio away…and tells Isabella that her brother is dead.

DUKE, [as Friar]
He hath released him, Isabel, from the world.
His head is off, and sent to Angelo.

Nay, but it is not so.

DUKE, [as Friar]
It is no other.
Show your wisdom, daughter, in your close patience.

O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!

DUKE, [as Friar]
You shall not be admitted to his sight.

Unhappy Claudio, wretched Isabel,
Injurious world, most damnèd Angelo!

Perhaps worse than Angelo is the Duke himself. Keeping Isabella in the dark like this is a terrible thing to do – she is overcome with grief, which she expresses as anger and a desire to pluck Angelo’s eyes out.

But the Duke/Friar tells her that the Duke will be back from Poland (sure) soon, and that she’ll be able to have her revenge on Angelo. She can tell the ‘Duke’ how Angelo forced her to spend the night with him.

Angelo hears about the Duke’s return. Although everything has been essentially swept away, he is still anguished.

This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant
And dull to all proceedings. A deflowered maid,
And by an eminent body that enforced
The law against it. But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears a credent bulk
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have lived,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge
By so receiving a dishonored life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had lived.
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right. We would, and we would not.

Angelo regrets killing Claudio, and even regrets forcing Isabella into having sex with him. Again, this is a startling moment of clarity. He isn’t pleased with what he’s done – and now that the fervor has died off, he feels shame. How can we call Angelo a villain if he does not present us with a smug, self-satisfied front?

The last act is pretty long, but also pretty fantastic. Everything happens all at once, and it’s exhilarating. Isabella appears before the Duke, who isn’t in disguise anymore, and demands justice.

ISABELLA, [kneeling]
Justice, O royal duke. Vail your regard
Upon a wronged – I would fain have said, a maid.
O worthy prince, dishonor not your eye
By throwing it on any other object
Till you have heard me in my true complaint
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice.

The repetition of the word justice at the end there really works. Isabella is a fantastic speaker, and she always demands the attention of everybody around her. I really do love that about her.

Isabella explains all to the Duke – and she even calls Angelo an archvillain. That kind of works against the point of this entire post, but of course Isabella would think Angelo a villain. I’m allowed to see all sides as a reader, but Isabella can only see and process the way things are affecting her personally.

The Duke calls Isabella mad, but then Mariana steps forward and claims that Angelo slept with her. Angelo, who was silent for a bit, finally speaks and acknowledges Mariana. But as things begin to escalate, he begins to panic again. He asks the Duke to allow him to deal with these so-called insane women by himself.

The Duke, who seems really invested in making this as dramatic as possible, exits and re-enters as the Friar. When the Duke is revealed, Angelo is absolutely terrified.

O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes. Then, good prince,
No longer session hold upon my shame,
But let my trial be mine own confession.
Immediate sentence then and sequent death
Is all the grace I beg.

Angelo is prepared to pay for what he’s done – again, it’s because he knows it was wrong. He does have a sense of right and wrong – his actions are what really work against him in this play.

The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana, but then sentences him to death anyway. I will say that Mariana is pretty pleased with the marriage, but not pleased at all with the death sentence. It’s almost like she knows that Angelo isn’t as terrible as he appears – she says that he is the man she desires to marry. Very strange – what does she know that we don’t?

Mariana begs for Angelo’s life – and then she asks Isabella to beg for him as well.

There’s no way Isabella could do this, you think. Absolutely no way. She called Angelo an archvillain, she hates him with ever fiber of her being.

But then she kneels down and begs for his life.

First, I think it’s important to say that Isabella, despite not being perfect, has some very divine qualities to her. She is very passionate and can get carried away, but she is merciful and compassionate. Second, what on earth did Angelo feel, seeing Isabella actually get on her knees and beg for his life? If he didn’t love her before, I’m quite sure he loves her now. I’m sure he’s shocked at how merciful she is – maybe it inspires feelings of wishing that he were that way as well.

But we are at the end of the play, and there is no space for a reconciliation of any kind to happen between Angelo and Isabella. Instead, the Duke begins to pair people off with one another. Angelo will remain married to Mariana, and the Duke himself will marry Isabella.

And Isabella is silent.

Not to be dramatic, but I felt Isabella’s silence in my bones. My heart literally sunk for her – all she wanted was to be a nun. And even that was torn away from her by this Duke that doesn’t even ask for her hand in marriage – he demands it. What does Isabella do while silent? Does she give Claudio a look? One that asks him to think about what his actions have done to her? Or does she look at Angelo questioningly, still desperate to understand everything that’s happened, wondering if he knew that things would end this way?

Isabella is wronged at the end of this play. And although she was wronged by Angelo multiple times, she is wronged by the Duke most of all.

But, because this is technically a comedy, Isabella has to end up with somebody. That’s the Shakespearean rule. If not the Duke, then who?

Well – Angelo.

I know that this is extremely controversial, but hear me out. I think that Angelo met his match when he encountered Isabella, and Isabella found hers in Angelo. They challenge each other as characters, both of them incredibly passionate about what they’ve chosen to dedicate their lives to. And, if staged correctly, if the director is committed to avoiding drawing boxes around the characters, I would even go as far as to say that there is chemistry between them. Even when the topic is unrelated to sex, Isabella and Angelo have conversations that are just electrifying to experience as a reader. And because I think so, I had to put a disclaimer at the top of this post.

Measure for Measure, like Love’s Labor’s Lost, is one of those plays that I wish had a sequel. I find myself worrying for Isabella, because I know that she won’t be happy with the Duke. I know that Angelo won’t be happy with Mariana, even though she’ll be happy with him. And I know that there will always be a strange cloud hanging over these characters as they encounter each other again and again, as they are bound to do.

I always wonder what a good first Shakespeare play would be. Certainly not Hamlet, that much is sure. And although the histories are my favorite, one has to put a lot of effort into reading them. But maybe Measure for Measure is the answer – it’s dramatic, and could lead to hundreds of interesting discussions in the classroom. Its unpopularity is totally undeserved – this play was amazing, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of my favorites that I’ve read this entire year.

Coriolanus is next. The end approaches us!




Othello (Blair Underwood) holding Desdemona (Kristen Connolly) in the Old Globe’s 2014 production of Othello.

There is a part of me that is terrified to write about Othello. Can I do this play justice? Will my words mean anything? Will my thoughts come off as shallow?

I love Shakespeare, that much is true. And – please don’t read this as boasting – I have been told more than once that I have a natural talent when it comes to the Bard. Despite all of this, I’m always hesitant to speak up, because I have a great fear of saying the wrong thing. One wrong thing, I always think, could ruin my reputation of being a natural Shakespearean. I promised myself I would write a post for every play I read. And I promised myself to read every single play left unread to me – that included Othello. So here I am.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Macbeth, particularly, is the bane of my existence. But it would be unfair of me to ignore the genius and artistry of Othello. I can say without the slightest hint of exaggeration that it’s one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Harold C. Goddard goes on about Othello for pages, unable to stop digging into this play. Speaking of Goddard – he definitely deserves the credit for this post, even though I’m the one typing it out. As always, I highly recommend both volumes of The Meaning of Shakespeare. The more I read, the most convinced I am that they are the height of Shakespearean analysis.

We open in Venice, where Iago is speaking with Roderigo.

Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate.

Despise me
If I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capped to him; and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.
But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them with a bombast circumstance,
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war,
And in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators. For “Certes,” says he,
“I have already chose my officer.”
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damned in a fair wife,
That never set squadron in a field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster – unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togèd consuls can propose
As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had th’ election;
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christened and heathen, must beleed and calmed
By debtor and creditor. This countercaster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient.

Iago hates Othello for giving the lieutenancy to Cassio. He absolutely refuses to try to understand why Cassio was chosen over him. He saw himself as the superior choice and now, instead of making an effort to improve upon himself so that he can move up later, Iago becomes consumed with an obsessive hatred, the likes of which Shakespeare had never written before.

Iago is often called Shakespeare’s most successful villain – he is unmatched in his villainy. While I still prefer Richard III, I do understand where all the scholars are coming from. In Richard III, multiple characters are suspicious of Richard. Some of them even know what he’s doing. But in Othello, Iago manages to act while unnoticed. I do think that Richard could have done the same – it was his ugliness that prevented the other characters from trusting and loving him. Iago is not handicapped by his appearance or by anything else, really. And so he is able to bring things to a vicious boil before he is found out. Richard attempts to play the innocent, but is never fully successful due to his appearance. Iago, on the other hand, succeeds.

To Goddard, Iago is the very picture of modern war. “But let [modern war] look in the glass and it will behold Iago. In him Shakespeare reveals, with the clarity of nightmare, that unrestrained intellect, instead of being the opposite of force, and an antidote for it, as much of the modern world thinks, is force functioning on another plane. It is the immoral equivalent of war, and as certain to lead it in due season as Iago’s machinations were to lead to death.”

Roderigo has cause to hate Othello as well, it turns out. He feels entitled to Desdemona, who has gone and married Othello. To create the very first spark of drama, Iago and Roderigo go to wake Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. Why, you ask? To tell him that his daughter has run off with Othello, of course.

[…] If ‘t be your pleasure and most wise consent –
As partly I find it is – that you fair daughter,
At this odd-even and dull watch o’ th’ night,
Transported with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,
To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor:
If this be known to you, and your allowance,
We then have done your bold and saucy wrongs.
But if you know not this, my manners tell me
We have your wrong rebuke. Do not believe
That from the sense of all civility
I thus would play and trifle with your Reverence.
Your daughter, if you have not given her leave,
I say again, hath made a gross revolt,
Tying her duty, beauty, wit, and fortunes
In an extravagant and wheeling stranger
Of here and everywhere. Straight satisfy yourself.
If she be in her chamber or your house,
Let loose on my the justice of the state
For thus deluding you.

Roderigo has to be the one to say these words, of course. Iago plays the role of everybody’s friend in this play – he is very careful not to speak ill of Othello to anybody but Roderigo who, to be completely honest, isn’t that clever.

Desdemona isn’t in her chamber, and Brabantio erupts into a fury. Iago scampers off to warn Othello of Brabantio’s anger, but Othello is unfazed. He knows he hasn’t done anything wrong, and has not forced Desdemona’s hand.

Othello is called before the Duke, and brings the fuming Brabantio with him.

Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you
Against the general enemy Ottoman.
[To Brabantio.] I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signior.
We lacked your counsel and your help tonight.

So did I yours. Good your Grace, pardon me.
Neither my place nor aught I heard of business
Hath raised me from my bed, nor doth the general care
Take hold on me, for my particular grief
Is of so floodgate and o’erbearing nature
That it engluts and swallows other sorrows
And is still itself.

Why, what’s the matter?

My daughter! O, my daughter!

Naturally, the Duke is prepared to punish the person who took Desdemona from her father. But that person is Othello, and he admits to the marriage. He tells them that no witchcraft took place – he is prepared to explain all.

A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on!

Desdemona’s father describes her as never bold. The men in this play constantly assume to know what the women are thinking and feeling, never bothering to ask them directly until they are forced to. It is why everything falls to pieces – it’s something that Iago can count upon.

While Desdemona is being sent for, Othello recounts the story of how they came together. Othello charmed her with the stories he used to tell – stories that Desdemona would devour. Shakespeare clearly intended for there to be something masculine in Desdemona, if her love for Othello’s violent stories is anything to go by. Her father sees her as a white little dove, completely two dimensional and shallow. But Othello clearly sees more in her.

Desdemona finally enters and sets everything straight.

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 showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.

As soon as Desdemona spoke, I knew I was being faced with yet another character who has been accused time and time again of being weak and foolish. That said, I am here to defend her. Desdemona is not weak, and this passage tells us so. She succeeds where Ophelia did not – she is not willing to sacrifice her own happiness just to satisfy her father. She will sacrifice everything for love, but will not bend to authority. This is Desdemona’s strength.

The Duke sends Othello to Cyprus, and allows Desdemona to go with him. That was the real reason Othello was called before the Duke – this Desdemona business just happened to distract everyone for a moment. We should be blunt for a moment and recognize that the marriage was being called into question because Othello is black.
I am editing this post days after it was posted because it bothers me how little I discussed race initially. Othello is a play about race – there is no arguing this point. But who is Othello, really? Was he meant to fall into the stereotypes the Elizabethans believed about black people?

My answer to this is that we just don’t know. When I read this play, I saw Othello as a calm, strong, just man. But that was my reading – I’m sure that people have played Othello as violent, angry, and treacherous. But he can’t be, because Desdemona loves him. Her love is unconditional, and although she can only see the good in people, she is not so blind that she would love someone awful. So I declare that Othello, despite being black, was not what Elizabethans imagined black people to be.

I mentioned why Desdemona fell in love with Othello – she saw things in him that others refused to see because they were too busy concerning themselves with the color of his skin. But why does Othello love Desdemona? Well, because for the first time in his life, someone sees him. Desdemona does not see a brute of a general, she sees a kind, loving, and good man. I have no doubt that nobody has ever seen Othello this way – and if people always look at you through the lens of their own prejudices, you may begin to think that their ideas about you are true. So Desdemona sees Othello for who he is, and he is then able to see himself through her eyes. He sees her goodness, and he loves how she can love and understand people regardless of who they are or what they look like.

That said, Iago is not only successful because he is capable of putting on a convincing guise of innocence – he is successful because he is white. White privilege also permeates this play, and it’s important for us to recognize it.

When we write about Othello, we tend to discuss Iago at length. He is, after all, Shakespeare’s ‘greatest villain.’ But to ignore the title character is to ignore what this play is actually about – I fell into that trap myself with the first iteration of this post. Othello is about race whether we choose to discuss it or not. And now that I’ve properly established that, we can move on.

So, please your Grace, my ancient.
A man he is of honesty and trust.
To his conveyance I assign my wife,
With what else needful your good Grace shall think
To be sent after me.

Othello has Iago accompany Desdemona to Cyprus. To the audience, this is a terrible idea. To Othello, and to literally everyone else, Iago is as trustworthy and kind as they come. I have to say that this play can be frustrating at times – there were multiple instances where I was desperate for someone to suspect Iago. But he is simply just too good at what he does.

Roderigo, in an attempt to be dramatic, threatens suicide now that Desdemona has been lost to him. Iago immediately scolds him for this – he knows that having Roderigo in Cyprus will be useful to him, one way or another. So he convinces him to pack his bags and follow them. Roderigo, fool that he is, decides to sell all of his land. Left alone, Iago tells us his true intentions.

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane
If I would time expend with such a snipe
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
‘Has done my office. I know not if ‘t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man. Let me see now:
To get his place and to plume my will
In double knavery – How? how? – Let’s see.
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose
As asses are.
I have ‘t. It is engendered. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.

Most of us, I think, are familiar enough with the plot of Othello. We know that Iago sets Othello against poor Desdemona by accusing her of being unfaithful with Cassio. But seeing it written out on the page really makes it clear just how cold the blood running through Iago’s veins is. He would seek revenge on Othello, but it is clear that he doesn’t care who else is brought down in the process. He involves Cassio because he wanted the lieutenancy. But he involves Desdemona because he needs another pawn for his game.

As luck would have it, the Turks are drowned. That takes care of that, I suppose. While Desdemona nervously waits for Othello to arrive safely, she speaks with Iago.

Desdemona and Iago do not interact with one another very often, which is strange because everything he does affects her. To Goddard, they are two sides of a coin. Interestingly, to him, fused together, they would be Hamlet. “Hamlet’s most endearing traits – his ingenuousness, his modesty, his truthfulness, his freedom, his courage, his love, his sympathetic imagination – are all Desdemona’s. His darker and more detestable ones – his suspicion, his coarseness, his sarcastic wit, his critical intellect, his callousness, his cruelty, his sensuality, his savage hatred, his bloodiness, his revenge – are all Iago’s.” I do like this observation, but we could just simply say that Desdemona is good and Iago is evil. Whether or not they come together to make Hamlet is debatable.

Othello eventually arrives unscathed.

O, my fair warrior!

My dear Othello!

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 winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of sea
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 her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.

I want to ignore the obvious love that exists between Othello and Desdemona for a minute and focus on what he’s saying here. He hopes for another tempest, because they bring the promise of the kind of joy he is experiencing. But Othello should be careful with his wishing – a storm is approaching them. And it’s name is Iago.

Iago, meanwhile, takes it upon himself to convince Roderigo that Desdemona is romantically involved with Cassio. I suppose he could have roped Roderigo in a different way – he could have told him the plan as he told it to the audience. But, as I said, Roderigo is not that clever. Iago knows this, and is saving a lot of time by lying to him as well.

I cannot believe that in her. She’s full of most blessed condition.

Blessed fig’s end! The wine she drinks is made of grapes. If she had been blessed, she would never have loved the Moor. Blessed pudding! Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Didst not mark that?

And, just like that, Roderigo is convinced. Iago’s great skill is manipulation – but it’s not like he has to put a lot of effort in when it comes to poor, brainless Roderigo.

At night, Iago gets Cassio drunk. A scuffle breaks out – Cassio fights Roderigo (but does not kill him, sadly), and wounds an official of Cyprus. Othello wakes up to this mess and, after Iago explains what happened, strips poor Cassio of his lieutenancy.

What, are you hurt, lieutenant?

Ay, past all surgery.

Marry, God forbid!

Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

Iago, of course, calls Cassio ‘lieutant’ simply to rub salt in the wound. He pulls Cassio together and advises him to seek out Desdemona. Iago is sure that she’ll want to help, and will ask Othello to return the lieutenancy to Cassio.

Iago, interestingly, is always at the scene of whatever ruckus he causes. I can’t help but think he enjoys watching everything unfold. He makes himself available to pick the pieces up – but only so he can rearrange the puzzle to suit his own desires. With Cassio gone, Iago addresses us once again.

And what’s he, then, that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
Th’ inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit. She’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her
To win the Moor – were ‘t to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemèd sin –
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as he appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now. For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:
That she repeals him for his body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.

It says enough about Iago that he is willing to prey upon Desdemona’s goodness. Truly a terrible man – and yet, an excellent villain. It makes it difficult to decide how to feel about him.

Cassio asks Desdemona for help, but quickly escapes once he sees Othello approach.

Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guiltylike,
Seeing your coming.

Here we go. Iago continues to lay the foundations for his plot. Why would Cassio slink away so guiltily? he asks innocently.

“Think, my lord?” By heaven, thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something.
I heard thee say even now, thou lik’st not that,
When Cassio left my wife. What didst not like?
And when I told thee he was of my counsel
In my whole course of wooing, thou cried’st “Indeed?”
And didst contract and purse thy brow together
As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain
Some horrible conceit. It thou dost love me,
Show my my thought.

Othello eventually becomes frustrated with Iago’s vagueness and demands he share his thoughts plainly. How quickly Othello took Iago’s bait! Iago continues to plant seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind.

Farewell, farewell!
If more thou dost perceive, let me know more.
Set on thy wife to observe. Leave me, Iago.

IAGO, [beginning to exit.]
My lord, I take my leave.

Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless
Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.

IAGO, [returning]
My lord, I would I might entreat your Honor
To scan this thing no farther. Leave it to time.

Does Iago exit and then return to make this charade more realistic? Or did he leave, remember that he needs some kind of insurance, and then return? Either he is unmatched in his villainy, or there is some part of him that is playing this by ear. Either way, Othello is in deep.

But why was it so easy for Iago to catch Othello in his net? Well, because Othello can scarcely believe that Desdemona loves him. Why should she love someone like him? Othello is insecure in his way, and I am sure that Iago knows this. The mere suggestion of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness pops the bubble he’s been living in. He believes he was right all along to think that their relationship was too good to be true.

Desdemona enters and finds Othello.

Why do you speak so faintly? Are you not well?

I have a pain upon my forehead, here.

Faith, that’s with the watching. ‘Twill away again.
Let me but bind it hard; within this hour
It will be well.

Your napkin is too little.
Let it alone.

[The handkerchief falls, unnoticed.]

Come, I’ll go in with you.

I am very sorry that you are not well.

I wanted this exchange here because it will be very important later. The handkerchief falling is a huge deal – but who drops it?

Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago. Great, yet another thing he can use against Desdemona and Cassio.

Othello goes mad with jealousy – everything he was before is gone. He is practically unrecognizable now. Iago played him for a fool and succeeded.

Give me a living reason she’s disloyal.

I do not like the office,
But sith I am entered in this cause so far,
Pricked to ‘t by foolish honesty and love,
I will go on. I lay with Cassio lately,
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs. One of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves.”
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry “O sweet creature!” then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
O’er my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then
Cried “Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!”

O monstrous! Monstrous!

What on earth. Iago’s story is ridiculous – I have no idea why he decided to add so much unnecessary detail to it. Apparently, Cassio makes fully formed sentences and kisses in his sleep. And, apparently, Iago just lay there as this entire thing took place. But Othello  is blinded by his jealousy – even the most ridiculous of stories is believable to him now.

Othello is convinced by this “proof” – he vows to kill Desdemona. Iago will kill Cassio and, what do you know? Iago is given the lieutenancy.

Desdemona, kind creature that she is, is intent on healing the wound between Othello and Cassio.

Is he not jealous?

Who, he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humors for him.

This tiny exchange made me sad. Desdemona is so happy to have someone like Othello by her side – because she is good, she can only see good in him. To be fair, Othello was lovely before Iago got into his head. That is why she is able to say these things without sounding silly.

Othello enters, and begins to question Desdemona about the handkerchief. See, he believes she’s given it to Cassio. I wonder where he could have heard such a thing.

It is not lost, but what an if it were?


I say it is not lost.

Fetch ‘t. Let me see ‘t!

Why, so I can. But I will not now.
This is a trick to put me from my suit.
Pray you, let Cassio be received again.

Fetch me the handkerchief! [Aside.] My mind misgives.

Come, come.
You’ll never meet a more sufficient man.

The handkerchief!

A man that all his time
Hath founded his good fortunes on your love;
Shared dangers with you –

The handkerchief!

I’ faith, you are to blame.


[Othello exits.]

Is not this man jealous?

I ne’er saw this before.
Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief!
I am most unhappy in the loss of it.

Now, tell me – if Desdemona were actually guilty, would she keep bringing Cassio up like this? No, of course not. She promised to help Cassio, and that’s what she keeps trying to do.

But who dropped the handkerchief?

Shakespeare doesn’t specify, but I say it was Othello. She tries to wrap his head in it, and he brushes her off. Thus, the handkerchief falls to the ground. Desdemona doesn’t notice because she is overwhelmed with concern for her husband. Her love and concern for him are absolute – the handkerchief falling to the ground did not distract her from him.

Cassio, meanwhile, finds the handkerchief in his room. He gives it to Bianca – a prostitute who is in love with him – and asks her to copy the embroidery on it. What can I say? The man wants a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries. I’d want one as well.

Iago continues to torture Othello with his stories about Desdemona and Cassio. Othello, eventually, has a fit and passes out. Iago graciously waits for him to awake before making things worse.

Stand you awhile apart.
Confine yourself but in a patient list.
Whilst you were here, o’erwhelmèd with your grief –
A passion most unsuiting such a man –
Cassio came hither. I shifted him away
And laid good ‘scuses upon your ecstasy,
Bade him anon return and here speak with me,
The which he promised. Do but encave yourself,
And mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns
That dwell in every region of his face.
For I will make him tell the tale anew –
Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when
He hath and is again to cope your wife.
I say but mark his gesture. Marry, patience,
Or I shall say you’re all in all in spleen,
And nothing of a man.

Iago positions Othello so that he is able to see a conversation between Iago and Cassio. The keyword here is see – Othello doesn’t hear much of this conversation. Iago, of course, speaks to him about Bianca. Othello sees Cassio’s face and how he gestures and absolutely loses his mind.

Bianca arrives with the handkerchief in hand – and Othello sees this as well.

OTHELLO, [coming forward]
How shall I murder him, Iago?

Did you perceive how he laughed at his vice?

O Iago!

And did you see the handkerchief?

Was that mine?

Yours, by this hand! And to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him, and he hath giv’n it his whore.

Othello resolves to kill Desdemona once again – and at Iago’s suggestion, decides to strangle her in the very bed she betrayed him in.

Lodovico, a Venetian gentleman, arrives and gives Othello a letter. Desdemona sees Othello bristle at the letter as he reads it.

May be the letter moved him.
For, as I think, they do command him home,
Deputing Cassio in his government.

By my troth, I am glad on ‘t.


My lord?

I am glad to see you mad.

Why, sweet Othello!

OTHELLO, [striking her]

I have not deserved this.

My lord, this would not be believed in Venice,
Though I should swear I saw ‘t. ‘Tis very much.
Make her amends. She weeps.

Poor Desdemona. She does not deserve this – she leaves sadly, and does not seem to be angry at Othello. She’s confused, yes, but not angry at him for what he’s done. Her love for him is so pure, so unwavering – and still, all she can ever do is see the good in people.

Othello torments her further by accusing her of being a whore right to her face.

By heaven, you do me wrong!

Are you not a strumpet?

No, as I am a Christian!
If to preserve the vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none.

What, not a whore?

No, as I shall be saved.

I admire how forcefully Desdemona defends herself. Othello is in too deep to listen to what she is saying – he let Iago think and speak for Desdemona, but refuses to listen to her as she speaks for herself. This will ultimately lead to his downfall.

Othello leaves, and Emilia finds Desdemona in a daze.

Alas, what does this gentleman conceive?
How do you, madam? How do you, my good lady?

Faith, half asleep.

Good madam, what’s the matter with my lord?

With who?

Why, with my lord, madam.

Who is thy lord?

He that is yours, sweet lady.

I have none. Do not talk to me, Emilia.
I cannot weep, nor answers have I none.
But what should go by water. Prithee, tonight
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets. Remember.
And call thy husband hither.

Here’s a change indeed.

[She exits.]

‘Tis meet I should have been used so, very meet.
How have I been behaved that he might stick
The small’st opinion on my least misuse?

Desdemona ominously asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed, and asks to speak to Iago. And when Emilia leaves, Desdemona cannot help but wonder if she’s done something wrong. She doesn’t speak ill of Othello. Desdemona is truly divine in her love – it’s like she isn’t even of this earth.

When Iago arrives, he is uncharacteristically kind to Desdemona. Oh, he’s good at being fake-kind, of course, but this is something else entirely.

Am I that name, Iago?

What name, fair lady?

Such as she said my lord did say I was.

He called her “whore.” A beggar in his drink
Could not have laid such terms upon his callet.

Why did he so?

I do not know. I am sure I am none such.

Do not weep, do not weep! Alas the day!

Iago is a master at feigning compassion, this is true. But his words are so simple and sympathetic – almost out of character for him. And it continues.

I pray you be content. ‘Tis but his humor.
The business of the state does him offense,
And he does chide with you.

If ’twere no other –

It is but so, I warrant.

[Trumpets sound.]

Hark how these instruments summon to supper.
The messengers of Venice stays the meat.
Go in and weep not. All things shall be well.

While reading, I had a thought. It seemed silly, but Goddard ended up echoing it word for word. We wondered – who taught Iago how to be so convincingly sympathetic? None of what he says to Desdemona is truly genuine, of course. But how does he know what to say?

Being around Desdemona awakens the sympathy in him that is constantly being suffocated by his hatred and cruelty. “To feign goodness successfully it is not enough that we should have had experience with goodness in the past; we must retain the potential goodness. Otherwise the counterfeit will be crude. Iago’s is so true it could be passed for genuine coin. It was the unconscious Iago that made it so. […] Only let that individual be taken off guard, suddenly confronted with some circumstance or person alien to the world to which he has conditioned himself, and that fundamental human nature will reassert itself.” Goddard recalls how Raskolnikov is reborn after being kissed by a little girl in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (a book that is very close to my heart). Although we never see Iago truly reborn, we can say that his short interaction with Desdemona leaves him shaken. Iago said before that Desdemona has the power to calm feelings of anger or revenge – why should he be immune?

Iago is either human, or he is a true villain. I say that he is human, and that it makes him all the more interesting.

But back to villainy. Iago convinces poor, stupid Roderigo that the best way to keep Desdemona around is to murder Cassio. Hey, he has to get rid of him one way or another, doesn’t he?

I have rubbed this young quat almost to the sense,
And he grows angry. Now, whether he kills Cassio,
Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,
Every way makes my gain. Live Roderigo,
He calls me to a restitution large
Of gold and jewels that I bobbed from him
As gifts to Desdemona.
It must not be. If Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly. And besides, the Moor
May unfold me to him. There stand I in much peril.
No, he must die. Be ‘t so. I hear him coming.

Again, instead of improving upon himself, Iago would much rather just get rid of Cassio. But he also needs to get rid of Roderigo now. He’s put himself in quite the tight spot.

Roderigo is unsuccessful in his attempt to kill Cassio. Cassio, however, does manage to hurt him pretty badly. Iago takes this opportunity to stab Cassio in the leg before leaving. As usual, he was loitering at the scene just to make sure that everything unfolded in his favor.

Iago returns and plays the innocent. He kills Roderigo to punish him for stabbing Cassio. That’s one problem nipped in the bud.

Othello enters his bedchamber and wakes Desdemona up with a kiss.

Peace, and be still.

I will so. What’s the matter?

That handkerchief
Which I so loved, and gave thee, thou gav’st to Cassio.

No, by my life and soul! Send for the man
And ask him.

Sweet soul, take heed, take heed of perjury.
Thou art on thy deathbed.

Ay, but not yet to die.

Oh, poor Desdemona. I kept wishing that Othello would listen to her, even for a moment. In Julius Caesar, the men ignore Calphurnia – that leads to Caesar’s death. Here, Othello makes the same mistake.

Othello insists that Cassio has confessed to the infidelity, and tells Desdemona that Iago has killed him.

Alas, he is betrayed, and I am undone.

[She weeps.]

Out, strumpet! Weep’st thou for him to my face?

O banish me, my lord, but kill me not!

Down, strumpet!

Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight.

Nay, if you strive –

But half an hour!

Being done, there is no pause.

But while I say one prayer!

It is too late.

[He smothers her.]

Desdemona weeps for Cassio because she is good. But Othello is beyond being able to see that. She desperately begs him for her life, but he smothers her anyway. Othello’s love for Desdemona was not as strong as her love for him – if it had been, he would have never been able to kill her in this way. He loved her, but it wasn’t enough.

Emilia enters, and is in shock at what she sees. She is not scared of Othello, though – then again, Emilia is not scared of much. I love her for that. Iago enters with Gratiano (a Venetian gentleman) and Montano (the official of Cyprus that Cassio hurt in the drunken scuffle).

EMILIA, [to Iago]
Disprove this villain, if thou be’st a man.
He says thou told’st him that his wife was false.
I know thou didst not. Thou’rt not such a villain.
Speak, for my heart is full.

I told him what I thought, and told no more
Than what he found himself was apt and true.

But did you ever tell him she was false?

I did.

You told a lie, an odious, damnèd lie!
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!
She false with Cassio? Did you say with Cassio?

With Cassio, mistress. Go to! Charm your tongue.

I will not charm my tongue. I am bound to speak.
My mistress here lies murdered in her bed.

Iago is a good villain, that much is true. But he wasn’t counting on Emilia to be his downfall – his villainy was nowhere near as perfect as he thought it was.

Zounds, hold your peace!

‘Twill out, ’twill out. I peace?
No, I will speak as liberal as the north.
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.

Be wise, and get you home.

[He draws his sword.]

I will not.

Iago spent a lot of this play calling Emilia a fool and, for the most part, being unnecessarily sharp with her. He didn’t think to trick her as well – he probably thought she was too stupid to be a threat. What a huge mistake! Emilia reveals all, and Iago has officially been found out. He should have covered all of his bases.

Iago kills Emilia, but it’s far too late.

Othello stabs Iago – but not to death. He then stabs himself – because he would rather kill the part of himself that Iago managed to ruin than stay alive. He dies, and Iago is taken off to be tortured.

Iago was not the same after his conversation with Desdemona. I believe he was shaken by her presence, by her radiant goodness. It threw him off, and that is why he failed. He wasn’t threatened by the women but, oh, he should have been.

That’s it for Othello. This month is Measure for Measure and Coriolanus. After that, there are only four plays left! Time has definitely flown – what will I do after?