The Tragedy of Othello, Moor of Venice

I am so happy to be awash in Tragedy again, treading water in the eddy of images in this beautiful, rich, and multifaceted play about the Moor.  But I’m reluctant to tread on well-trodden ground:

  • What, really, is Iago’s problem (my son wrote a convincing argument diagnosing him as a textbook DSM sociopath)?
  • Why does Othello see Desdemona as anything (military subordinate, child, whore) but his wife?
  • How important a role does race play in the play?

Like the storm that thwarts the Turks, this magnificent maelstrom daunts me.  I find my lifeline in Othello and Iago’s last words.  The former are lengthy and convoluted; the latter, concise and precise. I wince each of the 20 times that  Iago is referred to as honest throughout the play.  “Honest,” I think? Nearly everything that he says to everyone is a lie.  And Shakespeare knows we are going to think that.  We will shake our heads and want to scream at Othello, “he’s anything BUT honest!”  But in fact, in their last comments, Iago does prove himself vastly more honest than Othello.  He may use deceit as his tool, but as Elvis Costello says, his aim is true.  Othello, on the other hand, the ostensibly honorable and valiant military hero, absconds and elopes with Desdemona, deceiving her father, and rather than trust and defend her honor, accuses, convicts, and executes her without due process.  His actions are inconsistent with his image, and he further muddies the water with his fantastic final retelling of the facts.

After mostly all the characters have been wrongly blamed, implicated, and murdered (like I said, happy to be back in Tragedy-land), Othello decides to rewrite the entire play with his last words.  He, like Hamlet, wants his story told by a good flack.  Hamlet trusts Horatio.  Othello won’t outsource, and does his own PR.  We have watched the play.  We know what happened.  But his version belies this reality:

“Soft you:  a word or two before you go./  I have done the state some service, and they know’t –/No more of that.  I pray you in your letters,/When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,/Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice.  Then you must speak/Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well;/Of one not easily jealious, but being wrought,/Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand/(Like the base [Indian] threw a pearl away/Richer than his tribe; of one whose subdu’d eyes,/Albeit unused to the melting mood,/Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees/Their medicinable gum.  Set you down this;/ And say besides, that in Aleppo once,/Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk/Beat a Venitan and traduc’d the state,/ I took by th’ throat the circumcised dog,/And smote him –thus. [He stabs himself]” (V,ii,338-356)

In taking the stand in his own defense, Othello insures that the court reporter will take down his words verbatim.  He makes it, bodies still warm, a part of history.  Understandably mistrustful of what he hears, he, unlike Hamlet, insists that it not only be told in the oral tradition, but written down in “letters” (V,ii,340) for posterity.

“Unlucky deeds?” (V,ii,341)  He brutally murdered his wife with malice aforethought.  Based on hearsay.  But he doesn’t want this to reflect badly on him, so he a) distances himself from the crimes of murder and extreme gullibility by impersonalizing the account (“one,” as opposed to ‘me’ or ‘I’ in V,ii,344 and 345), and b) reminds everyone of his prior good deeds (“I have done the state some service” V,ii,339) up front.  He really never fully acknowledges either the heinous nature of, or full responsibility for, his crime.  He only admits to having “lov’d not wisely but too well” (V,ii,344).  This extreme whitewashing is just a cheesecloth over the lens for retrospective soft focus.  After all, he does not want folks speaking of him with “malice.” (V,ii,343)

He further impersonalizes and distances himself from the slaying by failing to mention Desdemona’s name, virtues, or innocence.  She becomes merely a vague and inanimate “pearl.” (V,ii,347)  Othello’s tears cannot wash away his guilt.  He makes the crime a cancer – an enemy – and because he cannot survive with either within himself, he exorcises both with a dagger to his own throat.  Yet again, he separates himself from the ‘devil’ who ‘made him do it,’ rather than admit and repent smothering his bride.  With his political/military parallel he paints himself as heroic again; he’s the conquering soldier, not the perpetrator.  And other than a private last word with his victim, Othello has spoken his last.

Lodovico’s double entendre “O bloody period” (V,ii,357) aptly punctuates Othello’s soliloquy and the play.

In stark and striking contrast, Iago, that perplexing embodiment of evil and template for all future villains, who claims to “wear my heart upon my sleeve” (I,i,64) pleads the Fifth.  He will give neither Othello, nor the audience, the answer to the burning question of why?  His final words are beautiful, simple, infuriating, and ironically, after all, infinitely more honest than Othello’s:

“Demand me nothing; what you know, you know:/From this time forth I never will speak word.” (V,ii,303-4)

He refuses to rewrite the story, history, or to satisfy anyone’s curiosity.  He is, in fact, truer to himself here than Othello is in his verbose revisionist recounting. So, then, we are left to wonder, agape, who is most villainous in the end.  Both men acted reprehensibly.  But Iago, in the end, dissembles less, and is ultimately more honest.

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