Othello offers more textual and editorial problems than most other Shakespearean plays, although it presents a semblance of simplicity to the interpretative critic. Compared with the dazzling complexities of Hamlet, the cloudy sublimities of King Lear or the delicate poetic symbolism of A Winter’s Tale, there seems to be, in Othello, nothing much to dispute about. The play makes its terrific impact on us, we respond deeply or shallowly according to whether we have deep or shallow natures and there, it may seem, is an end of it.
Variety of Opinions
In reality Othello is a difficult play to interpret, and this fact is endorsed by the great variety of conflicting interpretations which have been proposed: If one goes through the representative criticism of this play, one feels like walking placidly down a quiet corridor, opening a door and suddenly coming upon a crowd of people arguing at the tops of their voices. One faction praises Othello, attributing to him a generous share of every virtue under the sun ; another is busily destroying his character, offering a view of him as a coarse, vain, lustful and brutal ruffian who would be very apt, Iago or no Iago, to murder his wife on some delusory grounds. Hands are held up in horror at the wickedness of Iago, some of those most shocked professing at the same time an involuntary tremor of admiration at his unsurpassed brilliance and the coolness of his villainy in another corner, he is dismissed as a mere creature of the plot, a shallow liar and braggart who could never have taken in anyone less stupid and self-centred than his master. Others, again, dwell on his wrongs and murmur that revenge is, after all, a kind of wild justice At the mention of Desdemona’s name, some eyes fill with tears of pure adoration ; others become narrow and suspicious. Not only the characters, but the play as a whole, comes in for totally different interpretations, e.g. that the idea of magic is central to it or that it is not central to it. Many other interpretations are offered, e.g. that it is a Christian tragedy––Othello’s fall is a version of Adam’s, while the fate of Desdemona is an inversion of Eve’s ; or that its plot is incredible––or that the plot has ‘surrealistic rightness’. It is said to be part of the response to James I’s heroic poem, ‘Lepanto’. It is claimed to be a diagram of Spanish political history, with Othello as Philip If and Iago as his enemy, Antonio Perez. ‘Perhaps the greatest work in the world’, trumpets one voice, but another growls, ‘A bloody farce without salt or savour.’
Tragedy of Misunderstanding
On a somewhat superficial level, Othello may be taken as a tragedy of misunderstanding. No one among the characters understands anyone else ; nor are they, for the most part, strong in self-understanding either. If Othello understood Desdemona, he would know that he is simply not the kind of girl who would, during their very honeymoon, start a love affair with his first officer. If Desdemona understood Othello, she would know that he does not yet see her, as a real girl, but as something magical that has happened to him, and that he will run mad if anything should happen to make him believe that her white magic has turned to black. If Emilia understood Iago she would know that he is not merely a coarsely domineering husband who has forced her into endless petty compromises for the sake of peace, but also,, on 8, side hidden from her, a fiend who delights in torture. But then Iago does not, until it happens, know this about himself Unaware of the power of love, he cannot imagine the suffering into which he will plunge Othello by plausibly slandering Desdemona, and therefore cannot imagine the holocaust at the end. Nor can he foresee the transformation that will occur in himself. The great temptation scene is so convincing because it shows Iago’s fall as well as Othello’s. At the beginning of that scene they are both sane men ; at the end, they are both mad, and both in the grip of the same madness. Hence the dreadful tragic irony of––
Othello : Now art thou my lieutenant.
Iago : I am your own for ever.
Iago’s Wild Excitement
Iago, the matador, succumbs to the excitement of his combat with the bull. From that point on, he abandons all thought of motives and works from contingency to contingency. Of course Desdemona must die, for if she lives it will come out, one day, that Iago was lying, and Othello will hunt him down if it takes the rest of his life. Cassio must die for the same reason. Likewise Roderigo, who also knows too much (and, like everyone else in the play, understands too little) must also die. Iago’s original intention, however much he may dress it up in a patchwork of motives, is to do as much harm to Othello and Cassio as his stunted little imagination can suggest. That harm turns out to be as far beyond his original conception as Othello’s love for Desdemona is beyond his vulgarian’s notion of love as ‘a lust of the blood and a permission of the will’. Once he realizes the gigantic suffering he has unleashed, and the destructiveness that goes with it, he cannot halt or even slow down : it is too late. But Iago continues on course for reasons other than self-preservation. He is the perfect type of all those insignificant little men, who all at once feel the urge to destroy another human being, and get drunk on the realization that ibis large, important action is suddenly, incredibly, in their power.
A question naturally arises : how do these misunderstandings arise? In each case, Shakespeare has provided, it seems, a sufficient answer. Desdemona, already young and inexperienced, has been over-protected by her father, so that she has even less knowledge of life and people than she might have. Iago misunderstands because, when it comes to anything that concerns the more generous emotions, he is a brute and a fool. Roderigo misunderstands because, in any case rather stupid, he is persuasively misled by Iago. Othello is taken in by Iago not only because Iago is a good actor but because Iago has previously shown himself trustworthy and is so regarded by everyone ; and also because, for all his power and :importance in Venice, Othello is an outsider. Venice needs him, uses him, rewards him, but does not entirely take him in. His acceptance is partial ; there are certain limits to it, which, though they are not spoken of, are quite clear in everyone’s mind. Brabantio, to take the most notable example, has been glad to have Othello as a guest in his house, has in fact ‘loved’ him, but feels betrayed when Othello marries his daughter. The justification for Othello’s and Desdemona’s secrecy, for the clandestine wooing and midnight elopement, is obviously that if Othello had asked in a normal way for Desdemona’s hand in marriage, Brabantio would have refused, forbidden him the house as he had already forbidden Roderigo, and thereafter would have had the girl watched day and night.
Difference of Race and Complexion
Othello’s being vastly different from Desdemona and others in race and complexion also seems to have something to do with the tragic outcome. Brabantio thinks his daughter must have been bewitched to make her want to do anything as ‘unnatural’ as marrying a black man, and throughout the play the characters who dislike Othello tend to make it an additional point against him that he is a Negro. Those who like him tend to make no fuss about his colour one way or the other ; while there is nobody, however pro-Othello, who says that be is all the more admirable because of his race.
This difference seems to be responsible for causing an underlying sense of insecurity in Othello, which influences his conduct at crucial moments. It is an outward symbol of his isolation. Throughout the play, whether in the close-knit social fabric of Venice, or in the garrison-town atmosphere of Cyprus, he is surrounded by people who are different from himself in every way, just as he was on that far-off day that comes back to his mind in the last few seconds of his life, when in the Turkish city of Aleppo he intervened to protect a visiting Venetian businessman who was being beaten up in the street ; a street full of people whom he chose to defy and dominate, whereas the Venetians were people he had chosen to serve. In each case it was a choice, a conscious decision of the will, not the blind natural instinct that makes a man fight for his own hearth and his own gods. Othello willed himself into a relationship with Venice, and the will is terribly limited in what it can achieve. Hence his insecurity ; hence his touching pride in the way he has carried out his side of the bargain (‘I have done the state some service’) ; hence the fact that Desdemona’s love, which gives him an intimate, living link with Venice and promises to break down his outsiderness, is central to his whole being, so that when he thinks it withdrawn he despairs of going on with anything, even his trade of fighting.