The cry ‘O devil’ breaks out among his incoherent words of raving. When Iago’s falsehoods are disclosed, and Othello at last, too late, wrenches himself free from the spell of Iago’s power over him, his sense of the Devil incarnate in Iago’s shape before him becomes overwhelming. If those who tell of the Devil have failed to describe Iago, they have lied ;
Maud Bodkin discusses the Devil in terms of one of the archetypal patterns in poetry. Attempting to define the Devil in psychological terms, she states that he is the equivalent of a persistent or recurrent mode of apprehension. We may say that the Devil is our tendency to represent in personal form the forces within and without us that threaten our supreme values. When Othello finds those values, of confident love, of honour, and pride in soldiership, that made up his purposeful life, falling into ruin, his sense of the Devil in all around him becomes acute. Desdemona has become ‘a fair devil’ ; he feels ‘a young and sweating devil’ in her hand.
I look down towards his feet––but that’s a fable.
If that thou be’st a devil, I cannot kill thee.
We also, watching or reading the play, experience the archetype. Intellectually aware, as we reflect, of natural forces, within a man himself as well as in society around, that betray or shatter his ideals, we yet feel these forces aptly symbolized for the imagination by such a figure as Iago––a being though personal yet hardly human, concentrated wholly on the hunting to destruction of its destined prey, the proud figure of the hero.
Like Mephistopheles in Faust, Iago is a man-like figure who is not really human––he is the Devil in the form of, a man. The comparison comes out best in a situation in the second act of Othello where Othello and Desdemona meet in Iago’s presence. It appears to be one of those moments where the poet’s choice of words and shaping of the action leads us to look back and forward, concentrating in its timeless significance the procession of the play’s temporal unfolding. Each of the chief figures at this moment appears charged with full symbolic value for feeling. The character of the situation––the fury of the storm braved, Othello’s military task accomplished by the elements’ aid––prepares for that idealization of the hero and his bride communicated through the words of Cassio. The words of Othello greeting Desdemona communicate the experience of that high rapture which in a tragic world brings fear. We feel a poise of the spirit like that of the sun at its zenith, or of the wheel of fate, before the downward plunge. Consider these words in their place
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 waken’d
And let the labouring bark climb hills of seas
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.
The name Othello gives his lady, ‘my fair warrior’, recalls the events that have led up to this meeting. It reminds us of Othello’s story of his wooing––how, moved by his life’s tale of warlike adventure, she swore that what he had related was extraordinarily strange but also wonderfully pitiful. Othello believes that Desdemona loved him for the dangers he had passed through and states that he loved her because she viewed his adventures sympathetically. Desdemona is maidenly, so maidenly that she ‘blushed at herself’. In Othello she has found a warrior whom every woman loves to adore. She thinks that she has discovered in him an ‘essential man in all his powers. and protective strength’, while he finds in her ‘essential woman’, and lives in her adoring trust and love as in the secret place his own later words describe :
…where I have garner’d up my heart,
Where either I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up.
In the light that these passages throw upon the relation of the lovers, their high moment appears as, in a manner, a fulfilment of fantasy––the almost inevitable, archetypal fantasy of man and woman in their turning to one another––and this sense of it contributes to the presage of disaster. We may recall Shakespeare’s rendering in big sonnets of the tragic aspect that belongs to love in its very nature. ‘Love’s not Time’s fool,’ he cries, but to prove that Love is not so, against ‘reckoning Time, whose million’d accidents/Creep in twist vows’, is a desperate venture of faith and will.
The Role of Style
In a well-known essay, Wilson Knight discusses ‘The Othello Music’ taking the speech of Iago in which he threatens to ‘set down the pegs that make this music’ as his basis and relating it to his view of the major contrast within the play and the way in which this contrast is depicted. He gives detailed illustration of the way in which Shakespeare has utilized the resources of style in speech to convey the relation between the different worlds, or forces, which the characters represent. The unrealistic beauty of Othello’s speech, when be is master of himself, suggests the romantic world of varied colour, form, and sound, to which Othello belongs :
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance, of glorious war !
Othello’s speech reflects not a soldier’s language but the quality of soldiership in all his glamour of romantic adventure. Othello is a symbol of faith in the human values of love and war, romantically conceived. Desdemona, as she appears in relation to Othello, is not so much individual woman as the Divinity of love. Iago is cynicism incarnate. He stands for a ‘devil-world’, unlimited, formless, negative. He is the spirit of denial of all romantic values. His hatred of Othello is something intrinsic to his nature, needing no external motive. Othello’s world of colour, shape, and music is undermined by him, poisoned, disintegrated. We are made to feel the disintegration through the direct impact of speech, as Othello’s verbal music is transformed by the working of Iago’s ‘poison’ into incoherence––something chaotic, absurd, hideous :
Pish !––noses, ears, and lips. Is’t possible ? Confess ! Handkerchief ! O devil !
Wilson Knight notes that Othello and Desdemona have symbolic significance but they are also warmly and concretely human. Iago, on the other hand, is mysterious, inhuman, ‘a kind of Mephistopheles’. Iago illustrates, we may say, that different plane of representation noted in relation to Greek and medieval art ; and we may raise the question how far it is possible to identify Iago as a projected image of forces present in Othello. We may note first that even when a critic sets out, as A. C. Bradley does, to study Iago’s character as if he were an actual living man, what seems to emerge most clearly is the dominance of the man by a certain force, or spirit. We can feel, says Bradley, the part of himself that Shakespeare put into Iago––the artist’s delight in the development of a plot, a design, which, as it works itself out, masters and possesses him. In regard to this plot it concerns us, as psychological cirtics, to note that it is built not merely, as Bradley remarks, on falsehoods, but also on partial truths of human nature that the romantic vision ignores. It is such a truth that a woman, ‘a super-subtle Venetian’, suddenly wedding one in whom she sees the image of her ideal warrior, is liable to experience moments of revulsion from the strange passionate creature she as yet knows so little, movements of nature to yard those more nearly akin to her in ‘years, manners and beauties’. There is an element of apt truth in Iago’s thought that a woman’s love may be won, but not held, by ‘bragging and telling bet fantastical lies’. There is terrible truth in the reflection that if a man is wedded to his fantasy of woman as the steadfast hiding-place of his heart, the fountain whence his current flows, so that he grows frantic and blind with passion at the thought of the actual woman he has married as a creature of natural varying impulse––then he lies at the mercy of life’s chances, and of his own secret fears and suspicions.
However, although Iago is a consummate devil, Othello does have a sort of instinctive fear of him. We find this even before Iago has set a trap for him. Othello fears the monster ‘too hideous to be shown’ that he discerns lurking in Iago’s thought. He begins to harp upon his honesty :
…for I know thou art full of love and honesty,
And weighs’t thy words before thou giv’st them breath, Therefore these stops of thine affright me the more ;
As soon as Iago has left him
Why did I marry ? This honest creature doubtless
Sees and knows more––much more than he unfolds.
This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit
Of human dealing.
The whole of this dialogue between Othello and Iago, at the very beginning of Iago’s plot, shows the uncanny insight of genius, illustrating in anticipation the discoveries of science. Our halting psychological theory has begun to describe for us the manner in which those aspects of social experience that a man’s thought ignores leave their secret impress on his mind ; how from this impress spring feelings and impulses that work their way toward consciousness, and if refused entrance there project themselves into the words, looks, and gestures of those around, arming these with a terrible power against the willed personality and its ideals. Iago seems to Othello so honest, so wise beyond himself in human dealings, possessed of a terrible power of seeing and speaking truth, because into what he speaks are projected the half-truths that Othello’s romantic vision ignored, but of which his mind held secret knowledge.