Othello, written by William Shakespeare is the story of Othello, the protagonist and tragic hero of the play. A Moor commanding the armies of Venice, he is a celebrated general and heroic figure whose “free and open nature” will enable Iago to twist his love for his wife Desdemona into a powerful jealousy. Iago is Othellos ensign, and Shakespeare’s greatest villain. His public face of bravery and honesty conceals a Satanic delight in manipulation and destruction. Passed over for a promotion by his commander, he vows to destroy the Moor.
If Iago is an artist of evil, then this scene is the finest canvas he paints. This is the crucial moment in the play, the scene where he, , deceives Othello and induces him to fall. He does so by expanding on the tactics used in prior scenes. Once the seed of doubt is planted in the Moor’s mind with a quick “Ha! I like not that” (III.iii.35) (when they come upon Desdemona and Cassio) and a few probing questions about the ex-lieutenant’s relationship to Othello’s wife, Iago retreats into the guise he has adopted. He becomes “honest Iago,” again, as in the brawl in Act II, scene ii–the reluctant truth-teller who must have unpleasant news dragged from him by a determined Othello.
The honesty suggested by his reluctance to speak is reinforced by the moralizing tone that he takes with his commander. Iago actually lectures Othello, warning him against jealousy (“the green-eyed monster”) and insisting that he will not speak slander: “he that filches from me my good name / Robs of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed” (III.iii.158-61). At the same time, he plays upon the insecurities of the honest, noble African in sophisticated, decadent Venice by lecturing Othello on how Venetian women are deceitful and treacherous by nature. The overall effect is to pour verbal poison in his master’s ear–not by lying, but by flavoring truth with innuendo.
Othello will later declare that he is “not easily jealous,” and that assessment of his character seems to be shared by most of the figures around him in the play. The critical response is mixed–some critics insist that his claims to be innocent of jealousy are merely self-justifying, and certainly he slips easily into assuming his wife to be unfaithful. Other critics make the distinction between an inner, self-created jealousy, which he seems to lack, and a deep insecurity and “trusting nature,” as Iago puts it, which allow a clever manipulator to plant seeds of doubt. Behind his insecurity lies a man uneasy with his place in Venetian society: he may have married a white woman, a daughter of a Senator, but can he keep her?
The seizure of the handkerchief is a great coup for Iago in his quest to destroy Othello, and he is aided by his wife, who apparently has no scruples about betraying her mistress in small matters. Shakespeare will eventually transform Emilia into a voice of moral outrage, and by the final scene the audience will applaud her role in Iago’s destruction, but for now it is worth noticing that she is only Iago’s accomplice. It will take a great shock to inspire outrage against him–a shock which comes too late.
The scene ends with Iago triumphant, named as lieutenant (the rank to which he aspired from the beginning) to a man bent on destruction, and ready to join in that destruction himself–because in killing Cassio and Desdemona, Othello is killing himself. And that, of course, has been Iago’s goal from the beginning.
Othello’s wild, violent behavior in front of Lodovico, in which he strikes his wife and abuses her for no apparent reason, demonstrate the perversion of order that Iago has brought about. There is no one to halt Othello’s lawlessness, because he himself is the law in Cyprus.
Othello’s accusations and refusal to accept Desdemona’s denials are brutal and unfair, but his language recovers some of the nobility that it had lost in previous scenes. Iago-like curses are replaced by sorrowful laments for what has been lost, and the audience is reminded the heroism and dignity that Othello possessed at the beginning of the play. His cry “O, thou weed, / Who art so lovely fair, and smell’st so sweet, / That the sense aches at thee–would thou hadst ne’er / been born!” (IV.ii.69-72) is a powerful expression of the love that he still holds for his wife, which has been ruined for ever by Iago’s poisons. Othello is wrong, terribly wrong, but Shakespeare demands that we sympathize with his error.
Othello’s words as he prepares to murder Desdemona reveal the extent to which he has allowed Iago’s logic to dominate his own thinking. His fury has abated, but he is left with a sense of being an instrument of divine justice. Desdemona must die, he insists, because otherwise she might betray other men. Othello’s self-delusion is so strong that he believes himself to be merciful–he will not scar her body, he says, and he will allow her to pray, because “I would not kill thy soul” (V.ii.34). Some sense of the enormity of his crime impinges on his delusion when he realizes that “when I have plucked thy rose / I cannot give it vital growth again,” (V.ii.13-14)–but not enough to stay his hand.
The actual murder is one of the most painful scenes in all of Shakespeare, because of Desdemona’s manifest innocence, beauty, and purity, and because she continues to love Othello to the grave and even beyond, returning to life only to gasp out an exoneration for her husband. He rejects her last gift, but his illumination arrives quickly thereafter, and the audience’s anger at the Moor dissipates as he is completely undone by the realization of his terrible error. There is no need to punish him, really–his horrible self-awareness (“O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!”) is punishment enough. There is much critical disagreement over whether Othello’s final speech “rehabilitates” him to the nobility that marked him when the play began. Certainly, his speech is not all that one might wish for- -his claim to be “one not easily jealous” (V.ii.354) is open to question, and when he says that he “loved not wisely, but too well,” (V.ii.353) the audience can only groan at his lack of understanding. But Othello passes judgment on himself with the courage we would expect in a military hero and loyal general, and he kills himself just as he once killed the enemies of Venice. Shakespeare allows him a final word, too, after this speech, and Othello, dying, reaches for Desdemona, reminding the audience of what a great love has been destroyed.
As for the destroyer, he too comes undone in this scene. His parting words–“what you know, you know”–deny us the explanation that we crave, but the audience can take some satisfaction in watching Emilia, roused from cynicism to righteous vengeance, bring down her husband as surely as he brought down his victims. Iago’s fury at Emilia might just as well be a fury for himself, who spent the entire play manipulating Brabantio, Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona, and in the end is undone by the person he least expected–his wife.
All this talk of time should make us remember another aspect of this tragedy: prophecy. If tragedy happens when past is brought into present, then it is prefigured when future is brought into present. This has been the role of Tiresias in this play, and his replacement here by the messenger, another old man who has come with news from afar, has significance only in terms of this temporal theme that we have already established. The prophet and the messenger would seem to be in the same temporal region, for both arrive after the events and before the tragedy, but they arrive with a crucial difference. The messenger comes after the prophet, but from where he comes can see neither past nor future. He can only naively render both into the moment, and his language is thus not marked with the reluctance and iteration of Tiresias. Rather, he speaks freely, without the prophet’s fatal awareness of how the difficulties of language are at once supplemental and central to the tragedies of time. The shepherd seems to sense this, but his resolve is broken. Where earlier Oedipus threatened punishment, here the guards come on-stage and begin to torture the shepherd. The way power and force here shatter the complex network of language and time