The Best Scholarly Essay

Anthony Bisti, “Shakespeare’s Othello: Sinned Against or Sinning?”

William Shakespeare was responsible for creating some of the most time-honored characters in all of literature. Richly complex, poignantly human, strikingly real, these characters have had a profound effect on us as readers, leaving an indelible impression on our collective consciousness. Of this formidable cavalcade of characters, few, if any, have left a greater mark than Othello, the Moor of Venice. Like that of any richly developed literary figure, Othello’s story is one which will inspire great debate among its readers and instill internal conflict within individuals. What renders the Moor a deeply controversial figure is the issue of his morality (or, some would argue, his extremely weak sense of it). Thus, we are torn; are we to pity Othello, viewing him as a fundamentally moral being led astray by forces beyond his understanding or control? Or, can it conversely be argued that the supposed ease and celerity with which Othello is deceived reveals to us that his moral foundation was always a shaky one, that there was a dark element to his persona all along? Accordingly, should we consider the character’s dramatic fall to be a heart-wrenchingly tragic moment, or is it simply a case of literary justice being served, the logical (and inevitable) conclusion to a good morality play?

The issue of Othello’s moral (or immoral) nature is, to many literary scholars, the focal point of the masterful dramatic tragedy bearing his name. For the purposes of this essay, three richly detailed and exhaustively supported essays were examined: A.C. Bradley’s “Othello: A Noble Soul Overcome by Passion,” Don Nardo’s “In Defense of Othello” and “Morality, Ethics and the Failure of Love in Shakespeare’s Othello, penned by John Gronbeck-Tedesco. (Commentary from Virginia Mason Vaughn’s Othello: A Contextual History was a late addition to the paper and will also be cited for my purposes). Each essay is strikingly unique and strongly distinguishable, but there runs between the three a common thread, one which binds these differing works into a common gestalt. The three scholars speak with a largely unified voice, defending Othello and proclaiming his character to be an inherently moral and noble one, a soul blackened only by his misplaced trust in one who has chosen to deceive him. Additionally, the writers, (Nardo to the greatest extent), also present opposing viewpoints for the purpose of skillful refutation, thus presenting carefully constructed and well-reasoned arguments.

For the purposes of my own essay, then, I intend to illustrate the common thread binding the preceding three, interweaving my own commentary where effective and appropriate. Like these three scholars, I will also play devil’s advocate for those that oppose their views, but I fully intend for my voice to speak in accordance with Bradley, Nardo, and Gronbeck-Tedesco.

As the greater portion of this paper will be devoted to championing Othello’s morality and declaring his virtue, I will first distill the respectable (though, as I shall opine, fundamentally misguided) arguments to the contrary. Perhaps the greatest charge levied at Othello is his supposed predisposition to a viciously temperamental jealousy, as Bradley acknowledged. “They [those that revile Othello] consider that he was “easily jealous”; they seem to think that it was inexcusable in him to feel any suspicion of his wife at all; and they blame him for never suspecting Iago or asking him for evidence.” Although Bradley does not elaborate on this viewpoint, other than for the purpose of refuting it, I have attempted to personally connect and sympathize with said viewpoint. One could conceivably argue that Othello is indeed too easily jealous and that his suspicion of his wife is virtually groundless. Although the notion that Othello never suspects Iago and never asks him for evidence is simply wrong (as I will later illustrate, he clearly does both), one must acknowledge that Othello holds no tangible and irrefutable proof of Desdemona’s infidelity. Beyond that, we are further compelled to wonder as to why he suspects his wife of sin. Desdemona (and I have yet to encounter, nor can I conceive of, any argument to the contrary) is quite possibly (indeed, probably) the most moral and pure-hearted female archetype since the Biblical Virgin Mary. Being that she appears this way to us as readers, even those of us who consider ourselves “Othello apologists” fight the urge to revile the man when he strikes this saintly women, and especially when he murders her.

Another prominent criticism of Othello, and one which further may help to explain why he so willingly “allows” himself to be deceived by Iago, is that Othello is a self-deceptive figure; such self-deception blinds him to both his aforementioned predisposition to jealous suspicion and to his larger immorality. Fooling himself allows Othello to avoid confronting his sins. “Behind his façade he has quilt feelings, party, probably, because of his sordid sexual adventure with Emilia that provoked Iago’s hatred” (Nardo 185). Othello is also a man who shields himself from his commitment of the Deadliest Sin: Pride. “He is insecure, overproud, oversensitive, hungry for admiration, compulsively concerned with his appearance before the world” (Nardo 185). Thus, Othello blames Desdemona to avoid blaming himself (effectively forgetting his sin with Emilia). He also murders her to restore his wounded pride. He feels that Desdemona has humiliated him, and killing her out of a supposed noble sacrifice makes Othello proud of himself. “This gives him an excuse to destroy her, and to appear before the world great and self-sacrificing. At her deathbed, pretending he has acted in a righteous cause, he is at the apex of self-deceit” (Nardo 185).

Playing devil’s advocate once again, I concede that it is possible to take this argument further. Although, quite surprisingly, none of these essays bring up this point, one could argue that Othello’s final act of self-deceit is his own suicide. Ostensibly, Othello brings the sword to his being in a heroically self-sacrificial fashion; realizing the horrible atrocity he has just committed, Othello wishes to punish himself. However, one critical of Othello could conceivably opine that his actions are once again catalyzed by his own sinful pride; Othello is simply too proud to face up to punishment under Venetian law. Like Volpone, Othello, if he must fall, will take himself down before he allows anyone else to do so.

An additional condemnation of Othello and his supposed immorality is fueled by the issue of his race. Some scholars argue that Shakespeare intended Othello to be portrayed as a stereotypically immoral, even evil black male, a savage barbarian. Othello’s very color is seen as symbolic of evil. “To a symbolist, his skin can seem a sign of darkness, and hence be regarded as a visual emblem of evil” (Nardo 198). According to Virginia Mason Vaughn in her book, Othello: A Contextual History, Emilia’s condemnation of Othello during the play’s finale can be interpreted as reflective of the racism of Elizabethan society, i.e., the racism of Shakespeare’s audience at the time he penned Othello. Emilia calls Otehllo “the blacker devil” and “her [Desdemona’s] most filthy bargain,” concurrently declaring that Othello is “as ignorant as dirt.” Says Vaughn: “Dirt, filth blackness, and the devil – all are intertwined” (67).

Critics averring that Othello was seen as immoral because he is black claim that there is historical evidence to support this claim. Shakespeare’s plays are considered to be indicative and reflective of the Elizabethan society in which he lived, and this society, they say, was (at least partially) a racist one. Says Nardo: “In Shakespeare’s time, Morocco still had exotic, ‘barbarous connotations’” (198). Mason Vaughn elaborates on this statement. She relates that in late 1600, emissaries from Barbary, led by Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the Moroccan Ambassador, paid a visit to London and resided there for some time. “During their six-month stay, the Moroccans were regarded with mingled curiosity and contempt” (58). The Moroccans, like many foreigners, were disliked and mistrusted. Queen Elizabeth I, in fact, attempted to have the Moors ousted from England (58).

Thus, these critics seem to be saying, the Moor is to be represented as an undesirable, a foreigner lacking the sophistication of others in Venetian society. He is meant to be seen as barbaric and violently passionate, with an inability to reason. His race literally colors his morality, making him easily jealous, angry, and suspicious.

In examining all the arguments supporting Othello’s supposed immorality, I would acknowledge that they are argued quite effectively and seem to be well-reasoned and thoughtfully considered. Despite this, however, it is not particularly difficult to combat (and, I would assert, defeat) said arguments, and Bradley, Nardo, and Gronbeck-Tedesco prove this in there respective writings on Othello. Thus, I present counter-arguments to each of the aforementioned points: that Othello is easily jealous, that he is self-deceived, and that he is meant to be seen as a representation of the immoral Moor.

Bradley is, by far, the critic who most vehemently refutes the notion that Othello was too easily jealous. Bradley asserts that Othello’s jealousy is perfectly understandable, even condonable. “Now I repeat that any man situated as Othello was would have been disturbed by Iago’s communications, and I add that many men would have been made wildly jealous….No doubt the thought of another man’s possessing the woman he loves is intolerable to him; no doubt the sense of insult and the impulse of revenge are at times most violent; and these are the feelings of jealousy proper.” This, however, is not Bradley’s central and essential point regarding the jealousy controversy. The scholar contends that Othello’s emotional turmoil and psychological torment result from something deeper and more devastating than mere jealousy. “It is the wreck of his faith and love.” Quite simply, Desdemona’s supposed betrayal shatters Othello’s world.

Nardo posed the jealousy question to several prominent actors who had portrayed Othello, and their collective rejection of the notion of Othello’s overly jealous tendencies gives further weight to Bradley’s assertions. “He is not jealous [said one actor], but when all his beliefs and knowledge are shaken, what is he to do?” (190). Said another actor: “My view is that Othello is not essentially jealous – but emotionally shattered by what he considers an enormous betrayal of trust” (195). Still another actor had this comment to offer: “He [Othello] is not a jealous man. The tragedy is that of a man whose life is hatred when he finds that all he had believed of life is proven false ‘infidelity’ of Desdemona” (195). As Bradley points out, all of this is supported by a crucial line of Othello’s: “If she be false, oh then Heaven mocks itself.” I offer my interpretation of this line in summation of this point. Desdemona has seemed to be Othello to be such a pure and virtuous figure (which, in fact, she is), such a beacon of light in Othello’s world, a world blackened by war, violence, and personal tragedy, that her “falseness” causes Othello to lose faith in the world, in human nature. Even Heaven is a false image if Desdemona’s pure soul has been tainted. Thus, Othello is driven to despair and to desperate acts.

Given all of this, Bradley further refutes the idea that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was a violent crime of jealous passion. Bradley concedes that, after he has heard the “proof” of the handkerchief and after he has also heard Cassio “confess” to his supposed sin, Othello does indeed descend into a frighteningly violent and passionately jealous rage. It is through this rage that he agrees to the murder of his former lieutenant. However, says, Bradley, “The supposed death of Cassio satiates the thirst for vengeance. The Othello who enters the bed-chamber with the words, ‘It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul’, is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no murder, but a sacrifice. He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in hate but in honour; in honour, and also in love. His anger has passed, a boundless sorrow has taken its place; and, ‘this sorrow’s heavenly: it strikes where it doth love.’”

My own thoughts again stand in congruence with Bradley’s. I feel it is crucial to remember the moment when Othello twice kisses his sleeping wife and when he allows her the opportunity to say a prayer (and thus purify her soul) once she awakes. These are not the actions of a man committing a violently passionate crime of jealousy (if Othello were doing such a thing, modern evidence about criminal psychology tells us he would perform the homicide with savagery and celerity); rather, Othello’s actions speak loudly in support of the argument that he is performing a noble sacrifice out of love, saving his wife from her own sin. As an actor Nardo interviewed opined, it is also “a sacrifice to which he owes society” (192). Othello is insuring that Desdemona will not sin against other men in the future. Thus, the jealousy argument is defeated.

I further contend that the argument that Othello is a self-deceptive figure is equally misguided. As indicated by an aforementioned citation, Othello’s self-deception is supposedly motivated by his avoidance of his own guilt, guilt catalyzed by an alleged affair with Emilia. Surprisingly (and disappointingly) the examined essays avoid any further mention of the Emilia issue. However, I feel I must personally acknowledge this point. The issue is never resolved in the play; therefore, as readers, we simply have no way of knowing whether or not this affair occurred. However, we must remember that Iago is the only character in the play to allege or acknowledge the affair. It is laughable to me that some critics would choose to trust the word of Iago! As I will subsequently illustrate, Iago is a figure not to be trusted by anyone.

Iago’s deception of Othello greatly aids in combating the idea that the Moor is self-deceiving. The methods by which Iago operates are ingeniously maniacal and would probably fool the best of men. The focus of Gronbeck-Tedesco’s essay is an extensive discussion of said methods, and it its to this scholar that I will first turn for commentary on this matter. As Gronbeck-Tedesco insightfully points out, Iago’s greatest asset is his power of observation. Those who speak extensively of the faults of Othello’s character are extremely misguided; above all else, Iago most effectively takes advantage of Othello’s loving nature. Although he had originally planned to discredit the Moor (I refer to the senate episode), Iago wisely changes course after observing the exchange between Desdemona and Othello during the reunion following the Cyprus battle. Iago sees the affection with which Othello regards his wife and knows that he can use said love against him. (Othello, as he will later remark, loves too well). “The plan is no longer to discredit Othello directly but to get him to kill Desdemona by first driving him mad with jealousy” (263). In order to further illustrate his point, Gronbeck-Tedesco references the following citation from the play:

The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature,
And I dare think he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband…..(2.1.282-85)

Furthermore, the scholar argues, Iago the character is as talented an actor as any thespian who would play him. My personal take on Iago corroborates this opinion and speaks to his evil genius. He is incredibly convincing with the manner in which he plants suggestions in Othello’s mind, posing some kind of insinuating question or comment about Desdemona’s possible infidelity and then pretending to be reluctant to elaborate further. He uses reverse psychology; his attempts to take back his words and reassure Othello have the effect of forcing the Moor to brood and question his marital relationship to a greater extent. Iago dangles the proverbial carrot and finds that Othello is willing to take the bait. As Gronbeck-Tedesco writes, he effectively ensnares Othello in his twisted game. Now that Iago has planted the seeds of doubt in Othello’s brain, Othello must bid farewell to the tranquil mind. “What Iago says and does issues a set of stakes and obstacles that Othello believes he must address with agency and participation that is coherent with Iago’s own” (263).

The handkerchief episode, Gronbeck-Tedesco further argues, is a prime example of Iago’s ability to paint a disconcerting image on the canvas of Othello’s mind, a mind which, as Iago knows full well, possesses an overactive imagination. Simply by talking about Othello’s handkerchief, even without physically producing the evidence, Iago forces Othello to believe him by connecting his tale to an image with which Othello is familiar. The mentioning of Cassio’s possession of the handkerchief further allows Othello to jump to the conclusion that an affair is occurring. Iago’s evocation of this familiar object convinces Othello that his “friend” knows of what speaks. “Because he is both a creature in the theatre and of the theatre, Iago knows that evidence-no matter how concrete-seldom speaks for itself, especially in matters of the human heart. To make it an index of guilt, Iago speaks for and with the handkerchief, like a ventriloquist, creating the story Othello must believe…By the end of the scene, Iago still has not produced the handkerchief, but, by talking about it, he has earned Othello’s belief nonetheless” (267).

Thus, Iago’s skillful use of trickery and defeat enraptures Othello. However, Bradley raises the intriguing point that Iago’s evocation of the facts, his exploitation of reality, accomplish the same effect, forcing Othello to question the true nature of his wife and her love for him. First of all, Iago helps Othello to realize how little he really knows about Desdemona. “Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had lived with a wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his bosom-friend. Nor is there any ground in Othello’s character for supposing that, if he had been such a man, he would have felt and acted as he does in the play. But he was newly married; in the circumstances he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage; and further he was conscious of being under the spell of a feeling which can give glory to the truth but can also give it to a dream.”

Additionally, contends Bradley, Iago also raises the issue that Othello is a foreigner and is “totally ignorant of the thoughts and the customary morality of Venetian women.” He also suggests (and, as insidious as it may seem, there may indeed be some truth to it) that Desdemona’s attraction to Othello results from Caucasian fascination to what scholars now refer to as the Other. “These suggestions are followed by a tentative but hideous and humiliating insinuation of what his honest and much-experienced friend fears may be the true explanation of Desdemona’s refection of accepting suitors, and of her strange, and naturally temporary preference for a black man.” Othello is visibly shaken by these remarks.

Some will no doubt argue that, even though Iago’s methods are formidably cunning, the Moor is still naïve to trust the man to such an extent. The logic of these arguments is faulty. Othello, for several reasons, has good reason to trust Iago. The first such reason has to do with Othello’s military background and his history with Iago. Gronbeck-Tedesco makes a convincing point regarding this subject. “To move from incident to consequence rapidly, Othello must be willing to believe his subordinates and act on their words. No one understands military ways better than Iago. He relies on the direct relationship between words uttered in the chain of command and the actions of authority. It is this straightforward relationship, so important to military efficiency, that he uses to subvert Cassio in the eyes of Othello” (264). Accordingly, Othello will eventually learn to trust Iago and Iago alone, for it is Iago who disrupts his trust of others important in his life. “When communication with her [Desdemona] is made to break down, Othello’s only resource is the battle companion who seems to have linked arms with him against an alien society” (Nardo 203). The bond Othello shares with Iago spawns and nurtures his deep love for the man.

Had this military relationship not existed, however, Othello still would have had good reason to trust Iago, the reason being the reputation the man has cleverly cultivated for himself. “For his opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him: and that opinion was that Iago was before all things ‘honest,’ his very faults being those of excess in honesty” (Bradley). Nardo elaborates on this point, appropriately citing the play in the process. “‘A Man he is of honesty and trust,” Othello says. ‘Honest Iago…honest, honest Iago.’ ‘Good Iago,’ says Desdemona. ‘I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest,” says Cassio (204). These are just a few examples of innumerable such references in the play.

Thus, Othello was not naïve in trusting a man with such an honest reputation. And, in Othello’s defense, the Moor, out of love for Desdemona, does indeed question his “honest” friend, as Bradley writes. “The bare possibility that his friend is deliberately deceiving him – though such a deception would be a thing so monstrously wicked that he can scarcely conceive it credible – is a kind of hope. He furiously demands proof, ocular proof. And when he is compelled to see that he is demanding an impossibility he still demands evidence.” True, the “evidence” that Iago presents may not hold up in court, but I assert that one can reasonably discern how it deceived Othello. The argument that Othello was too easily deceived or that he deceived himself is thus a weak one.

I shift now to my final refutation, this one being of the suggestion that Othello’s race is to blame for his immorality, that he acts like a savage barbarian because he is a Moor, and that Shakespeare intended him to be viewed in this light. It is Nardo to whom I turn for a counterargument in this instance. The Moors, Nardo argues, were not seen as savage and immoral in Elizabethan society. Although Nardo concedes that there were some exotic or barbarous connotations to the Moors, the writer goes on to assert that “by 1604 its remoteness and mystery had a kind of familiarity. Many Britons at the time enjoyed meeting and working for the current Moorish king, whom Captain John Smith found ‘in every way noble, kind and friendly’” (198). This citation goes a long way in refuting that Shakespeare’s original audience would have viewed Othello as immoral because of his race. Furthermore, it is extremely doubtful that it was the playwright’s intention for them to do so. As an actor Nardo interviewed pointed out to the scholar, Othello certainly does not across to us as a “savage” when viewed in association with Iago and Rodrigo. “He was more civilized than the ‘whites’ around him” (192). Othello’s exercise of restraint and control when disciplining his men after the nighttime scuffle or when he calmly and sacrificially (as opposed to violently and brutally) kills Desdemona support the view of him as civilized; Othello is no barbarian in these instances. Admittedly, Othello does indeed behave savagely at times, especially when plotting the murder of Cassio. However, as Nardo so simply yet effectively argues, “Could not Othello even be savage-without being a savage?” (192-93). Accordingly, should we not consider the view of Othello as the savage, immoral Moor to be fundamentally incorrect?

Thus, we can formulate a most convincing defense of Othello’s character. This Shakespearean hero is no immoral figure whose self-deceit blinds him to his moral flaws. Rather, he is cunningly deceived by another, and it is Othello’s trust in the supposed morality of this person which brings his downfall. Othello’s hot-blooded, jealous nature is conjured by his deceiver, but his act of murder is committed with a cool head and as a noble sacrifice. Finally, he is no savage Moor; for his actions serve to stand in sharp contrast to the maniacal evil of the one who deceives him. Othello is an inherently moral man, one who is, as the play suggests, of a loving and noble nature. He is not full of hate; he, by his own words, loves too well. It is his love which both compels him to commit his murder and to trust the man who leads him down an immoral path. And, let us not forget that Othello effectively redeems himself, sacrificing his own life to atone for his sins.


Works Cited

Bradley, A.C. “Othello: A Noble Soul Overcome by Passion.” Vers. 2.0. September 2002. http://web.singnet.com.sg/-yisheng/notes/shakespeare/othello_b.htm

Gronbeck-Tedesco, John. “Morality, Ethics, and the Failure of Love in Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello: New Critical Essays. Ed. Philip C. Kulin. Great Britain: Routledge, 2002. 255-270.

Nardo, Don. “In Defense of Othello.” Readings on Othello. Ed. Don Nardo. Portland, Oregon: Green Haven Press, 2001. 185-205.

Vaughn, Virginia Mason. Othello. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

 

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George S. Diamond Prizes
Beck Shakespeare Prize

English Prize
The Erskine Prize
Zinzendorf Prize
Beck Oratorial Prizes