14 February 2013

Desdemona's Ethic

The current Globe Theatre as it now stands in London.
Last September, while watching W. Jerome Stevenson, Kevin Asselin, Sophie Moshofsky, and the Oklahoma Shakespeare company perform Shakespeare's "Othello," it struck me how much time Iago spends on stage.

Iago has nine of the play's 15 monologues. 

Othello has selected Cassio as his lieutenant, passing over Iago. So Iago vows to have his way at last. 

He first tells Brabantio of Othello's marriage to Desdemona, Brabantio's daughter. 

Iago hopes to cast Othello in disfavor with the powers of Venice. And Brabantio pleads his case before the Duke in terms both heart-rending for the betrayal he felt and racist against the Moor and bewitcher of Desdemona. 

But Brabantio and Iago are defeated by Desdemona's love for Othello, Othello's honor before the court, and Venice's need for someone to lead their forces against the Turkish fleet then bound for Cyprus.

As Brabantio turns away, he says, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: she has deceived her father, and may thee.”

Othello answers, “My life upon her faith!” 

Thus, they presage the end.

Iago bends propriety, facts, and people to his purpose. Some he corrupts because they are corrupt—Roderigo. Some he corrupts because they are simple—Emilia and Cassio. Some he corrupts because they are honorable—Othello. 

When first he plants doubt in Othello's mind it is through protestation of propriety, love, and loyalty. After Othello demands proof, Iago plants the evidence.

Othello is entangled between Iago and Desdemona's love, and much like the tempest that destroys the Turkish fleet, the jealousy that overcame Brabantio torments Othello too.

The one person Iago does not corrupt is Desdemona. 

When it appears Othello will kill her to restore his honor, Desdemona bids her maid Emilia goodnight: “Good night, good night. Heaven me such usage send, not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.”

As the Biblical Abel's blood cried from the ground, Desdemona protests her innocence from her deathbed, and Emilia unravels Iago's plan. 

Overwhelmed, Othello kills himself to regain his honor—the centerpiece of his self-understanding.

But because Shakespeare tells the story through Iago's machinations, we can feel with Emilia the horrible injustice of Desdemona's death. And in the end, we see it is not Othello's honor, Cassio's survival, or Emilia's testimony that transcends Iago's treachery but Desdemona's love—the one truth Iago cannot bend.


  1. I think I need to see the play again after reading your thoughts on it. :)
    When you first brought up the fact that Othello did not have that many scenes in the play named after him, I did think it interesting. I wonder why Shakespeare did that?
    One thing that stood out to me from the play was the fact that Othello believed a lie over trusting the woman he loved. But I guess I can see how easy it would be to believe a lie if that lie came from a friend that I trusted. It also seemed that her innocence should have saved her - instead she died. Maybe I like happy endings too much. ;) I did like what you said in the last paragraph. Brought up some things that I had not thought about when I saw the play.

    1. I want to see it again too. What intrigues me is how Othello's way of seeing almost guarantees that Iago could deceive him. So...what would have happened if something other than honor had been Othello's primary concern?

    2. Hmmm... good question. I hadn't thought about that. Maybe if instead of first defending his own honor he had defended his wife's, he would have been less likely to have believed such things about her. Plus, if he had talked with her more maybe he would have seen that the things Iago said could not be true. :) But it is more like our natural response to avoid talking about such things.