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Total Allegiance to Justice

By Jerry L. Crawford

While it is evident that involvement need not imply direct participation, it remains clear that few people cannot be affected by the spectacle of Othello’s tragic execution of Desdemona. The strength of our involvement arises from the disparity between what we see and what Othello sees, and that disparity is not a product of a single accidental misunderstanding. It is a mistake to dismiss the stature of this play by thinking that the infamous handkerchief was the cause behind Othello’s actions. Iago sees in Othello the potential for the suspicion Othello later comes to have, and does everything he can to foster it—the handkerchief is only one of a great number of circumstantial evidences that ultimately bring Othello to his decision. But the point is that the germ of the tragedy lies in the nature of Othello’s character, in the fact that he is at heart insecure in his marriage; and the tragedy occurs because of that in Iago’s character which could make use of Othello’s flaw. Character is the motivator of the tragedy, not circumstances—the play is the tragedy of and by Othello; it springs from no dirty linen. Part of the impact of the tragedy is due to the stature of the man who falls. He appears from the very first as a man of supreme nobility: his reply to the senators, in its full and easy dignity, makes him appear large in the sense that Gulliver, threatened by the Lilliputians, is large. Othello is incapable of fear, shown from early in the play; his retort to the officers who threaten his life is gentle even in scorn: “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them” (1.2.58; all references to line numbers are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig [Palo Alto, California: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1961]). So it is not only jealousy and certainly not fear that brings Othello to act as he does. Instead, it is Othello’s total allegiance to justice.

For example, Othello dismisses Cassio from his high office with no thought of vengeance, but because it is the just thing to do. And he brings himself to kill his wife in spite of his personal feelings—he does not want to kill her, but his sense of justice demands that he do so. (The temptation to make comparisons with modern headlines is nearly irresistable.) Similarly, when he finally discovers what he has done, he kills himself—not from shame or remorse, but as an act of justice.

Indeed, Othello bears the seeds of his own destruction—but it is the circumstances surrounding him that bring the tragedy to fruition. His love for Desdemona is not passion, but a love whose quality is reflected in Othello’s tone when he speaks of it to the senators—calmly, with dignity, serenity, simplicity and stature. Desdemona is rich and noble—she has gone out of her social sphere to marry Othello, and he is aware of this. When he speaks of his marriage, there is a hint of uncertainty over what has happened, a feeling that he thinks it is almost too good to be true. But this insecurity, if it exists, is buried, latent, and nonfatal. it would not rise of itself to produce tragedy, but needs one who sees its existence and uses it. Without Iago, Othello’s marriage would not have ended in catastrophe. Despite what some critics would have us believe, destruction was not inherent in the relationship, but was brought about by the operation of an outside force.

It may similarly be said that Macbeth would not have come to tragedy without the witches, and that Brutus would not have ended as he did without Cassius. The important point is that these outside forces would not have had the effects they did were it not for the character of the protagonists involved. They were the sort of men they were, and it was possible to prod them. It is not character alone that makes for tragedy, but character acted upon by circumstance, the inextricable interweaving and interdependence of character and event. Othello provides the character, and Iago the circumstance, and both are indispensable to the tragedy.

Shakespeare’s vision of Iago is full, clear, and complete; Iago is one of his great dramatic character creations. The most fascinating thing about Iago’s character is its apparent lack of motive. (Hence, the old Coleridge label of Iago as a motiveless malignity.) It might seem, on the surface, that lago has many reasons to do what he does. For example, he was passed up for the lieutenancy, and he is consequently jealous of Cassio’s position; he suspects both Cassio and Othello have cheated him with Emilia; he shows native patriotism and chauvinistic resentment of the foreigners Othello and Cassio. While any of these might well be Iago’s true motive, none of them, in the light of what Iago does and the manner in which he does it, provides sufficient motive for a completely sane individual. In the original work, Cinthio, from which Shakespeare took the framework for his tragedy, Iago covets Desdemona, and this feeling might be sufficient motive for his subsequent acts. Shakespeare, finding it necessary to have Desdemona coveted, will not allow lago to perform that funcion in his play, and invents Roderigo, a sort of Sir Andrew Aguecheek gone bad, to do the courting. Iago’s objective—the destruction of Othello—remains pure and unsullied.

Iago, in mentioning the reasons for his actions so frequently and in such great detail, shows that he himself is searching for motive for the actions he seems compelled to perform! Actually, he begins his practice on Othello as part of his long-standing practice on Roderigo: he persuades Roderigo that it would be an easy and pleasurable thing to cuckold Othello and asks him point-blank and repeatedly for money. He gets his money, and he comments after Roderigo has gone, “Thus do I ever make my fool my purse”(1.3.390). At the outset, he has no definite plan in mind; he builds his plan as the action progresses. Othello, on his part, is passive to the manipulations of Iago; he is the only protagonist who does not seem to take an active part in constructing the means of his own destruction.

It is not too difficult to see how Othello might be taken in by Iago, considering both his essential greatness and his lack of suspicion, and considering also his alien sense of insecurity. While Othello cannot and does not see what is going on in Iago’s mind until the very end of the play, everyone else also interprets Iago’s motives and manipulations incorrectly. Roderigo is the first to see the depths of Iago’s depravity, but his vision occurs at the moment of his death; Desdemona turns to Iago to help her win back her husband; Cassio, after he has been tricked twice, still calls him “honest Iago.” Iago fools everyone, so that Othello cannot alone be called blind. Iago’s method is superlative; he appears virtuous by the strength of his avowals to avenge those who have been hurt by vice—he rushes to the aid of the “wronged Othello,”who does not yet know that he has been wronged.

Many presentations of Othello have represented Iago as some sort of devil incarnate; however, to do so is a mistake. Iago is passionless and motiveless. He is referred to as “honest Iago” in the play over fifty times! Iago is a devil insofar as he is devoted to evil in the same way that Othello is devoted to justice. But there is something clean-cut and direct about pure Satanism which Iago lacks. He possesses an abnormal concentration of foulness and depravity that would seem to indicate that his mind is unhealthy rather than that his soul is sold. He is abnormally concentrated on the achievement of his purpose, and yet he remains comprehensibly human, and his concentration therefore appears maniacal. His speech when his practices are finally discovered (“From this time forth I never will speak word” [5.2.305) has nothing in common with deviltry, but rather brings to mind the picture of a silent, glaring, supremely malevolent madman. In the face of that horrifying image, Othello’s final action of justice, his suicide, offers lasting redemption.

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