OTHELLO

ALAS, HE IS BETRAYED, AND I AM UNDONE.

othello
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.

RODERIGO
Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate.

IAGO
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.

RODERIGO
[…] 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.

DUKE
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.

BRABANTIO
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.

DUKE
Why, what’s the matter?

BRABANTIO
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.

BRABANTIO
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.

DESDEMONA
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.

OTHELLO
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.

IAGO
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.

OTHELLO
O, my fair warrior!

DESDEMONA
My dear Othello!

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.

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

IAGO
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.

IAGO
What, are you hurt, lieutenant?

CASSIO
Ay, past all surgery.

IAGO
Marry, God forbid!

CASSIO
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.

IAGO
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.

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 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.

OTHELLO
“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.

OTHELLO
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.

OTHELLO
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.

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

OTHELLO
I have a pain upon my forehead, here.

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

OTHELLO
Your napkin is too little.
Let it alone.

[The handkerchief falls, unnoticed.]

Come, I’ll go in with you.

DESDEMONA
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.

OTHELLO
Give me a living reason she’s disloyal.

IAGO
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!”

OTHELLO
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.

EMILIA
Is he not jealous?

DESDEMONA
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.

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

OTHELLO
How?

DESDEMONA
I say it is not lost.

OTHELLO
Fetch ‘t. Let me see ‘t!

DESDEMONA
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.

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

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

OTHELLO
The handkerchief!

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

OTHELLO
The handkerchief!

DESDEMONA
I’ faith, you are to blame.

OTHELLO
Zounds!

[Othello exits.]

EMILIA
Is not this man jealous?

DESDEMONA
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.

IAGO
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?

IAGO
Did you perceive how he laughed at his vice?

OTHELLO
O Iago!

IAGO
And did you see the handkerchief?

OTHELLO
Was that mine?

IAGO
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.

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

DESDEMONA
By my troth, I am glad on ‘t.

OTHELLO
Indeed?

DESDEMONA
My lord?

OTHELLO
I am glad to see you mad.

DESDEMONA
Why, sweet Othello!

OTHELLO, [striking her]
Devil!

DESDEMONA
I have not deserved this.

LODOVICO
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.

DEDEMONA
By heaven, you do me wrong!

OTHELLO
Are you not a strumpet?

DESDEMONA
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.

OTHELLO
What, not a whore?

DESDEMONA
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.

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

DESDEMONA
Faith, half asleep.

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

DESDEMONA
With who?

EMILIA
Why, with my lord, madam.

DESDEMONA
Who is thy lord?

EMILIA
He that is yours, sweet lady.

DESDEMONA
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.

EMILIA
Here’s a change indeed.

[She exits.]

DESDEMONA
‘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.

DESDEMONA
Am I that name, Iago?

IAGO
What name, fair lady?

DESDEMONA
Such as she said my lord did say I was.

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

IAGO
Why did he so?

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

IAGO
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.

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

DESDEMONA
If ’twere no other –

IAGO
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?

IAGO
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.

OTHELLO
Peace, and be still.

DESDEMONA
I will so. What’s the matter?

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

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

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

DESDEMONA
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.

DESDEMONA
Alas, he is betrayed, and I am undone.

[She weeps.]

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

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

OTHELLO
Down, strumpet!

DESDEMONA
Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight.

OTHELLO
Nay, if you strive –

DESDEMONA
But half an hour!

OTHELLO
Being done, there is no pause.

DESDEMONA
But while I say one prayer!

OTHELLO
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.

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

EMILIA
But did you ever tell him she was false?

IAGO
I did.

EMILIA
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?

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

EMILIA
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.

IAGO
Zounds, hold your peace!

EMILIA
‘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.

IAGO
Be wise, and get you home.

[He draws his sword.]

EMILIA
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?