The Character of Life
The Character of Life in Othello
As a representation of life, Othello contrasts markedly with Macbeth. As we have seen in Macbeth, the story is of universal dimensions, a conflict of cosmic powers expressing itself in a particular time and place through particular individuals. Human character plays a substantial role in forging man’s destiny. The scale is grand, the figures are kings, the stakes are a country’s future. Othello lacks the atmosphere of universality and the clear indication of cosmic forces at work. Character is active but does not appear as the major determinant. Though the figures are great, the setting is personal. The casual reader feels relieved and satisfied with the fall of Macbeth, while the conclusion of Othello leaves him uneasy and pained.
A.C. Bradley has identified some of the sources of these impressions, of which we shall mention three. First, the suffering and death of Desdemona appears to be without cause and contrary to all sense of justice. Second, the role played by deception and intrigue seems to reduce the dependence of the outcome on character and will. Third, the part played by accident in the catastrophe accentuates the feeling of fate. We have noted Bradley’s comments here because in analysing the play it is essential that some intelligible explanation be given for each of these points. If Desdemona’s suffering does not arise from her own character and action, if Iago’s intrigues are not a response of life to her and Othello, if key movements in the action depend mainly on inexplicable chance, then we must conclude that in Othello Shakespeare’s vision has not been true to the real world, for all of these suppositions are in contradiction to the character of life.
These difficulties arise from an inadequate comprehension of the forces of life active throughout the course of the play. We tend to overlook the real significance of Othello’s elopement with Desdemona, the marriage of a black Moor to the fair daughter of a Venetian Senator. We are distracted by the presence of Iago, his bitterness at the appointment of Cassio as Othello’s lieutenant, his desire for revenge and the beginnings of his intrigue. There is a tendency to hold Iago fully responsible for the catastrophe that follows without seeing the relationship between the elopement and the fatal consequences of intrigue. But on close analysis we will discover a connection between all the events which follow. In addition we shall find that the characters themselves possess a keen insight into the underlying movement and even a foreknowledge of its fatal conclusion.
When the play opens Othello and Desdemona have just eloped a few hours earlier. But we learn first of Iago’s bitter resentment of Othello’s selection of Cassio as his lieutenant and we fail to see that the marriage is prior to the first stirrings of Iago’s intrigue. Later we shall see that the elopement is not only the primary object but also the primary cause of Iago’s plotting and its fatal consequences.
Iago arouses Brabantio with news of the elopement. “An old black ram...a barbary horse” has stolen away his daughter. Brabantio’s response is instinct with knowledge. “Thou art a villain.” Had others only known it as well!
Brabantio is a man of fixed mental attitudes, who will not listen to anyone or change his mind. He does not think of his daughter’s happiness, only her desertion and betrayal.
And what’s to come of my despised time? (I.i.162)
He enters the council chamber shouting, “My daughter, O, my daughter!” The response of the Senate is prophetic, “Dead?” Brabantio describes Desdemona as a quiet, bashful, sensitive girl who could never fall in love with “what she fear’d to look on!” unless the cause is witchcraft. Much later we learn that the handkerchief given by Othello was sewn by a sorceress and charmed. After hearing Othello’s story, Brabantio asks his daughter to refute it:
If she confess that she was half the wooer,
Destruction on my head, if my bad blame
Light on the man! (I.iii.174)
After hearing of her willing consent to the elopement, he refuses the Duke’s suggestion that she stay with him while Othello is at war. “I’ll have it not so.” The last words we hear him speak are half warning and half curse:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee. (I.iii.293)
By the end of the tragedy just after Desdemona’s death, we learn that her father has died of grief.
Thy match was mortal to him. (II.iii.205)
Clearly the elopement was the cause of Brabantio’s death and his intense bitterness is a sanction and force for the catastrophe that follows. His “bad blame” does fall on Othello. We need only recall two statements. There is the Duke’s warning to the grief-stricken father:
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone
Is the next way to draw new mischief on. (I.iii.203)
And there is his comment on Othello’s assignment to Cyprus when he calls opinion “a sovereign mistress of effects.” We can safely assume that Brabantio’s attitude was shared by others. The Senators’ subconscious awareness--in that initial “Dead?”--of Desdemona’s ultimate fate is indicative that the action has touched a deep level in the social atmosphere of Venice. A fair Senator’s daughter marrying a black Moor is a “gross revolt”, an act to “incur a general mock.”
Desdemona is an exceptional woman. Besides the beauty and charm for which she is revered, she possesses a marked degree of mental idealism and emotional purity. Her love of Othello appears as a mental decision rather than a vital infatuation. She fell in love with the idea of a bold, courageous, romantic adventurer and her heart fully consented. “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d.” (I.iii.167) This is shown clearly in her response to the Duke’s inquiry: I do perceive here a divided duty: (I.iii.181)
Her words are of the mind, not the heart:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. (I.iii.253)
Hers is primarily an act of mental forethought and will, not an emotional attachment, vital-physical attraction or subconscious response. Throughout the story there is this air of purity and absolute loyalty which come only when the heart is uplifted to follow an ideal. Her character approximates Sri Aurobindo’s description of mental love:
There are a number of women who can love with the mind...the heart too can be dominated by the mind and moved by mental forces...there can be a mental love. It arises from the attempt to find one’s ideal in another or from some strong passion of admiration and wonder....By itself that does not amount to love, though often it is so ardent as to be hardly distinguishable from it and may even push to sacrifice of life, entire self-giving etc. But when it awakes the emotions of the heart, then it may lead to a very powerful love which is yet mental in its root and dominant character.29
But there is another aspect to Desdemona’s character that requires comment. In many ways she shows a likeness to her father. Just as he thought only of himself when she ran away and was ready to give her up forever, she seems never to have considered the grief her elopement would cause him. There is an unconscious cruelty in her action born out of indifference or self-forgetfulness which parallels her father’s unpardonable curse on the marriage. The same trait of mental fixation is there in her. Her idealism is doctrinaire and being so it is incapable of seeing how others are affected by her action. Having initiated such action, she becomes vulnerable to other forces which rush in to take advantage of the situation. This blindness applies not only to her father, but to her own subconscious nature and the social environment of Venice.
The general morality of Venice is far from pure and idealistic. We catch a glimpse of it in the jesting conversation between Desdemona and Iago on their landing at Cyprus. We do not even doubt Iago’s comment to Othello though we know it is said with another motive behind it:
I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown. (III.iii.201)
In a climate of weak morality, Desdemona has chosen a high idealism. When one tries to move far above the general level of life, the society responds negatively to cancel the movement. It unleashes forces of resistance which are expressed unconsciously in the Senator’s cry, “Dead?” As Bradley says, “She met in life with the reward of those who rise too far above our common level.”30
The resistance of the society finds a correspondence in the deeper layers of her own personality which share that heritage. Her decision is mental but it lacks the full support of her physical, vital and emotional nature. To quote Bradley, “...she made nothing of the shrinking of her senses.”31 Brabantio calls Othello “what she fear’d to look on.” Iago reminds Othello how “she seem’d to shake and fear your looks” and he replies, “so she did.” Othello describes her decision as “Nature erring from itself.” Desdemona herself reminds Othello of “so many times when I spoke of you dispraisingly” before the marriage. For any act to succeed, a certain harmonious support is required. If the mind overstrains without sufficient emotional or vital support, the act which results is a violence against the lower nature and it has the character of cruelty. Such an act evokes a violent response from life.
Brabantio’s bitterness, general social condemnation, and the revulsion of Desdemona’s subconscious nature are negative forces active in the events which follow. Iago’s own intrigue is not primarily an addition to this list but an instrument or channel through which they express themselves in life. Nevertheless the reason for Iago’s involvement must and will be considered in the course of our discussion.
The chain of events following the elopement is highly significant. The news of war, the council meeting, Othello’s departure, the storm and the landing at Cyprus follow in quick succession. It is as if life were hurriedly taking Othello and Desdemona away from Venice. The social consciousness of the society has virtually ejected them. In this light it is not surprising that Lodovico’s arrival at Cyprus as the Venetian Senator’s representative coincides exactly with Othello’s decision to kill Desdemona. He is unknowingly present to witness the retribution. The violence of the elopement--it is in the nature of an attack on the sanctioned social consciousness of the country--expresses itself as a father’s anger, the threat of war and a violent storm. Iago was right, “it was a violent commencement, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration.” (I.iii.348)
When the storm subsides, it takes an inner turn leading to fatal consequences. In Hamlet also the threat of foreign war appears serious and suddenly resolves when the inner conflict begins. This chain of correspondence reveals the line of causality leading from Desdemona’s character and action to her death. It is not a mere dramatic device of the past but a movement of forces flowing through the channels of individual and social character and finding expression in life events.
Othello is a man of the world, a soldier and adventurer. He has lived a life outside of civilisation and has a “prompt and natural alacrity” for hardness and warfare. He is past youth and has an air of maturity and calm strength which comes from innumerable experiences and recognition by those around him. In addition he has a tendency to romance in the broadest sense of the term. His speech and imagery express a colourful vision of life. He sees himself and others see him as a great romantic hero. His personality is supported by a tremendous vital energy. It is the energy of a warrior not that of a civilised man:
...for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have... (III.iii.262)
He is a man of passion who has gained a certain self-mastery but frequently his self-control reaches its limits:
My blood begins my safer guides to rule. (II.iii.205)
Only Iago seems to have seen beneath Othello’s romantic image the rough, crude energies of a man of nature expressed in such statements as “my heart is turn’d to stone,” “I’ll tear her all to pieces” and “Arise, black vengeance.” Everyone else is surprised and confused. Lodovico asks, “Is this the nature whom passion could not shake?” and Desdemona, “My lord is not my lord; nor should I know him.” Iago recognises his weakness and sums it up well:
If the balance of our lives had no tone scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our nature would conduct us to preposterous conclusions. (I.iii.329)
In Desdemona, Othello has found a perfect complement to his romantic self image. The warrior is fulfilled as the lover. His romanticism is matched by her idealism. His passions can find expression in the intensities of sexual love.
Othello’s reunion with Desdemona on Cyprus is the ecstatic fulfilment of his life, beyond which he can imagine no greater joy. His words are prophetic:
If it were now to die
‘Twere now to be most happy, for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
Succeeds in unknown fate. (II.i.191)
I cannot speak enough of this content;
It stops me here; it is too much of joy. (II.i.198)
Othello has achieved the highest intensity of satisfaction which his being can sustain. As when the soul achieves the purpose for which it took birth and then quickly retires. Othello has exhausted the potentialities of his nature. As John Bayley writes, “having achieved his desire, Othello turns naturally to the idea of death as the only fit and comparable peer of love. How can the tension otherwise be kept up and the lover remain at the summit of his happiness.”32 There is a subtle awareness in traditional societies like the Indian that somewhere an act must be incomplete for it to continue. If the force behind the act fully realises its goal, the tendency to repetition is lost, the force dissolves. If the full joy is received from an act, the act comes to an end. For Othello not only is the act of union fulfilled but his entire life as well. He knows within himself that both must soon end. We recall his words before the Senate, “Come, Desdemona, I have but an hour/Of love, of worldly matters and direction,/ To spend with thee...” (I.iii.299)
By itself this does not explain the consequences which follow. Othello may as well have been called off again to war or died in a storm or been murdered by Iago. But his fortunes are linked here with his wife’s and the outcome is an expression of both their natures. Desdemona overlooks her father’s feelings in marrying Othello. The result is Brabantio’s death. Correspondingly Othello overlooks Iago in selecting Cassio as his lieutenant. The result is that Iago plots a revenge which falls on Desdemona and Othello. According to Othello, it is Desdemona who first comes forward to hear his story. In Brabantio’s words, “she was half the wooer.” It is his “bad blame” which follows them and his warning to Othello, “She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee,” that is the seed of tragedy. Desdemona’s initiative in the elopement is a sanction for her suffering. Their marriage is a forceful coming together, a transgression of the social moorings of Venice, and thus it leads to a violent end.
We have yet to consider the role of Iago and his intrigue, to which Bradley ascribes a major place in the tragedy. Granted that there are forces in life moving to cancel the relationship between him and the Moor, we may still ask why a man like Iago should be drawn into the tragedy as a key figure. One observation bears reflection. We notice some marked similarities between Othello and Iago. Both men are fearless. Both take joy in a sense of power, self-control, execution of will. Both have an artistic tendency--Othello for poetic language and romantic images, Iago for clever plots leading to tragedy in life. Furthermore, the two possess certain character traits which are not merely different but diametrically opposed to each other. Othello is intensely passionate, sensual and emotional. Iago is passionless, cold, without sympathy or affection or feeling, lacking even strong desires. Othello’s mind is simple, open, trusting and frank. He lacks insight into human nature. He has a romantic view of life--men, love, war--an attitude affirming the value of life. Iago has a developed intelligence without the corresponding support of emotion. He is clever, deceitful, secretive and perverse. His insight is subtle and keen. His view of life is cynical. He questions the value of good, virtue, love, etc. Othello is extremely self-confident. He has the mellowness which comes with great achievement and recognition. Iago asserts superiority but is driven by a damaged pride and self-esteem. In summary, the similarity in their characters is the basis for an extreme contrast. Iago, who is limited, destructive and evil, appears as the very negation of Othello who is expansive, creative and good-hearted.
The relationship between Othello and Iago is highly significant. It is as though life has presented Othello with a man who embodies all the elements he lacks in himself and which must be gained or mastered in order to continue living. Othello has created a romantic world in life around himself and Desdemona. It is idealistic in the sense of being far above the dross and pettiness of normal human existence and their own human natures. Desdemona responds to his world with a mental idealism. Both lack a realistic comprehension of themselves, each other and the world around. Life presents them with the realities they overlook. Neither one recognises the challenge or possesses the necessary capacity to meet it. What Othello needs to support his romantic idealism is Iago’s intelligence and knowledge of human nature.
The role of Iago can be closely likened to that of the evil persona in yoga, for all principles of yoga have their versions in life. When man makes a yogic effort to exceed himself and do spiritual work, it happens that another being comes “which is just the contradiction of the thing he centrally represents in the work.... Its business seems to be to oppose, to create stumblings and wrong conditions, in a word, to set before him the whole problem of the work he has started to do.”34 In this case the work was Othello’s attempt to live a romantic dream and, indeed, we may say he succeeded in some measure if only for a moment, but it could not last because the intensity of the experience was too much for his being to sustain. Furthermore, it was established on a basic ignorance of life and civilised man. Life hastened to present him with the realities he had overlooked in the form of Iago. To quote F. R. Leavis, “Iago’s power... is that he represents something in Othello.”35
Iago is similarly related to Desdemona. She takes positive action in life based on mental decisions which have negative results because her mind is fixed and limited. She fails to consider the effect of her action on her father, the social consciousness of Venice or her own nature. The same quality of mind is there in Iago but as its negative complement. Destruction is the aim rather than an unintended result. But he too shows traces of her limitation and lack of insight. He fails to consider Emilia’s love for Desdemona and he never reflects on the fatal consequences which he inevitably brings down on himself. Hers is the joy of an idealistic pursuit regardless of the result. His is the joy of intrigue and exertion of will.
Two more things need be said of Iago. First, he is the primary agent for the expression of the life forces already identified. These forces flow through the channel of his negative personality. His “good fortune”, as Bradley calls it, i.e. the ease with which his intrigues succeed, is a further expression of these forces. The predominance of strength is on the side of the established social order. Neither Othello nor Desdemona possesses the power to successfully oppose it.
Secondly, even though Iago is an instrument of these forces, his own end follows the rules of life. Bradley notes that Iago’s egoism is not absolute, that “traces of conscience, shame and humanity, though faint, are discernible.”36 Bradley cites Iago’s admiration of the “beauty” in Cassio’s life, his momentary doubt whether Cassio must die, his avoidance of Desdemona during the intrigue, and his discomfiture-cum-indignation at Emilia’s exposure of his villainy. These traces of conscience or morality are sufficient to assure Iago’s eventual fall. Had he been totally sincere to the evil course he took without any hesitation or remorse, it is likely he would have succeeded without being discovered. In the end he is betrayed by the thing he tried to destroy, the power of love, Emilia’s love for Desdemona.
Thus far we have made frequent mention of Desdemona’s subconscious reaction against her conscious choice of Othello. This can be most clearly seen in her persistent--almost compulsive--defense of Cassio to Othello. In the heat of his anger she continues to pursue the very topic which has enraged him. Consciously she is unaware, but subconsciously there is a strong will to end the relationship. Cassio represents all that her normal Venetian nature can appreciate. She tells Cassio:
For thy solicitor shall rather die
Than give thy cause away. (III.iii.27)
We admire the goodness of her heart but wonder that she could be so insensitive in speaking to Othello of “the love I bear to Cassio”. When she asks the clown where Cassio is lodged, she uses “lies” instead of “lodges”. The clown makes a jest of her usage. The same word is used by Othello and Iago shortly after--“Lie with her. Lie on her: We say lie on her--” in reference to the suspected illicit love of Desdemona and Cassio. Even on her deathbed, Desdemona is only conscious of loving Cassio:
But with such general warranty of heaven
As I might love; (V.ii.60)
But yet that love has been her undoing and could not have been so had it not been supported by another motive unknown to her, the drive of her lower nature to cancel the relationship forged by her mind and heart.
Besides her defence of Cassio, there is one other incident which seals her fate and in it can be seen a representation of her entire relationship with Othello. It is the dropping of the handkerchief given to her by Othello when they eloped. We noted earlier Brabantio’s claim that Othello has captivated his daughter by means of charms and witchcraft, but we find the idea absurd and along with the Duke we demand better proof than surmise. Yet in his speech before the Senate, Othello tells how he “often did beguile her of her tears” in weaving his fantastic stories of cannibals and “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders”. But the truth of Brabantio’s suspicions is confirmed only much later when Othello relates the history of the handkerchief. It was given to his mother by an Egyptian charmer, the purport of whose speech Othello reports:
’Twould make her amiable and subdue my father
Entirely to her love, but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father’s eye
Should hold her loath’d. (III.iv.59)
It was sewn by a sibyl from hollowed worms and
there’s magic in the web of it... (III.iv.69)
All this can be taken as Othello’s imagination or witchcraft but it has a more profound basis. The power with which Othello woos and possesses Desdemona has the nature of the handkerchief. It is a power and charm from the vital world. This power expresses itself through Othello’s character as the colour, grandeur, and wonder of his life and personality. His romantic nature supports and thrives on it. He projects an image which is almost superhuman, but the force is the vital force of life. Contrast this with Iago who works “by wit, not witchcraft”.
Earlier we saw that Desdemona’s response and attraction to Othello was predominantly mental idealism with the heart’s consent. The two are separated by the wide gap between mind and vital being. They are bound to each other at different points with little common ground. It is a tenuous hold which cannot withstand the pressure of life. Furthermore, the giving of the handkerchief represents an attempt to bind Desdemona’s mental commitment with a vital force. The introduction of the vital elements undermines and cancels functioning at the higher level. When Desdemona hears the story of the handkerchief, her response is:
Then would to God that I had never seen it! (III.iv.76)
We come to the scene in which the handkerchief drops. Desdemona offers to bandage Othello’s head with it but he pushes it away and it falls. The act is by joint initiative and omission. It is a subconscious recognition by both that the relationship is over. On her part it is a rejection of the vital force which binds her, a repulsion from the vital-physical relationship with Othello. On his part, there is a subtle awareness of her repulsion. When they meet again this awareness has become conscious. He wants to look into her eyes and confirm his suspicion. She also is more conscious of the repulsion, “What horrible fancy is this?” (IV.ii.26) For the first time she sees and feels his capacity for violent passions and she is frightened. The next moment she thinks of her father and regrets having deserted him: “Why, I have lost him.” Othello is in a violent rage. Her response is both a question to him and a realisation of the error in her action. “Alas, what ignorant sin have I committed?” The answer comes to her fully just before dying.
Oth: “Think on thy sins.”
Desda: “They are loves I bear to you.”
Oth: “Ay, and for that thou diest.” (V.ii.39)
As Othello and Iago plot murder, Lodovico arrives from Venice. Desdemona pleads on Cassio’s behalf “for the love I bear to Cassio” while Othello reads a letter from the Senate, “This fail you not to do, as you will--.” It is the sanction of the social consciousness for what follows. Alone with Emilia, suddenly Lodovico comes to Desdemona’s mind. “This Lodovico is a proper man....He speaks well.” This is a man her whole nature, her father and the society can accept. She feels her end is near but does not blame Othello, for the decision to marry was hers, “Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve,--” and the decision to cancel the marriage is also her own.
Desdemona’s death follows shortly. As we asked why Iago should have become an instrument for her destruction, we may wonder why Emilia, who bore her a deep loyalty and affection, could not have come a moment earlier and saved her. The answer is that Emilia’s goodness and love are not supported by the strength of purity. Her consciousness is too low to save Desdemona’s perfection. In fact, it is she who gives the handkerchief to Iago. All she can do is yell bravely at Othello after the fact and expose her husband’s villainy. A parallel role is played by Macduff in Macbeth and Kent in King Lear. Each time the loyal friend is unable to prevent tragedy.
In the last scenes, the complex field of forces works itself out. Othello prefaces his murder of Desdemona with attempts to reaffirm his heroic self-image. He refers to his act as a holy sacrifice of love to save Desdemona from further sin:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul--
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!
It is the cause. (V.ii.1)
Yet his vital passion breaks through the poetic cover and reveals the true nature of his act. “Out, strumpet.... Down, strumpet” are cries of pride and anger.
In her last words Desdemona proclaims that she is “falsely murder’d” and dies “a guiltless death”; then she accepts full responsibility for her fate and confirms the purity of her heart and mind:
Nobody; I myself. Farewell:
Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell! (V.ii.124)
Many readers may find it hard to reconcile the fact that Othello’s rage should still continue after these words and her death.
She’s, like a liar, gone to burning hell. (V.ii.129)
She turn’d to folly, and she was a whore. (V.ii.131)
Clearly, his power is not that of love seeking to save her soul. If it were, he would immediately recognise Desdemona’s innocence from her parting words. The heart is capable of such instant recognition and reversal of its emotion. Mind also is capable if it does not cling to its own understanding. But the vital man acts by a power that possesses and controls him. When it reaches a peak of intensity, he becomes blind. Only after the force of passion is spent can understanding come. Othello ignores Emilia’s words. Even after Montano and the others enter and Emilia exposes Iago, he stands dumbly in confusion. When finally understanding begins to dawn on him, he cries, “O! O! O!” and falls on the bed. Still passion reasserts itself: “O, she was foul!” and “she with Cassio hath the act of shame a thousand times committed.”
When finally the truth is evident even to Othello, it is not love nor grief that expresses itself but still more anger. This time it is directed at Iago:
Are there no stones in heaven
But what serve for the thunder?--Precious villain! (V.ii.234)
Then Othello stabs him.
In his final speeches the passion subsides and for a moment he openly expresses his pitiful human condition:
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!
Oh! Oh! Oh! (V.ii.277)
It is the cry of a man, not a demi-god. Then as his last act he attempts to recreate his romantic image and to die with it. But what he says is a sad contrast to the heroic story he told Desdemona in her father’s house. Now he is a man who has done some service to the State, who loved passionately and was carried away by passion to destroy the greatest treasure he ever had.
29. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga (Cent. Ed., Vol. 24), p. 1526.
30. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 165.
31. Ibid., p. 164.
32. John Bayley, Casebook on Othello, edited by John Wain, Macmillan Co. Ltd. p. 181.
34. Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, p. 1660.
35. F. R. Leavis, Casebook on Othello, p. 128.
36. A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 191.