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Othello (I)

IAGO: And wit depends on dilatory time.

OTHELLO: Be sure of it: give me ocular proof…. I’ll have proof…. Would I were satisfied!…Give me a living reason she’s disloyal.

A potent, explosive play could be made of just Act 3, Scene 3, plus a slice of Othello’s eavesdropping on Cassio and mistaken conclusion that the mistress he extolls and mocks is Desdemona, and then straight to strangling his bride on their nuptial bed. Albee’s The Zoo Story or an early Amiri Baraka play would be an antecedent. It would be shocking yet persuasive, have dramatic integrity, and dispell all the critical stewing and justifying over the newlywed Othello’s rapid metamorphosis from Desdemona’s enamoured groom to her brutal killer. 

But of course Shakespeare didn’t write explosive one acts, and the complex rhythms of Othello indicate that he gave himself the daunting task of weaving together Iago’s plotting and Othello’s passion. Two contrary temporalities are at play, and indeed two distinct passions. Scheming requires an elongated effort by Iago—“wit depends on dilatory time” (2.3.361)—as he seeks occasions and meets obstacles and unexpected opportunities, all of which require vigilance, improvisation, and stealth. By contrast, Othello races from suspicion to conviction to homicide with exhilarating and appalling velocity.

Rather than seeking to explain Othello’s haste by attributing some fault or pathology to him—naïveté, gullibility, fear of female sexuality, romantic-heroic self-aggrandizement, or, why not, toxic masculinity—let us look instead to the inner workings of the passion that uncoils with such rapidity. It is not simply jealousy but jealousy intensified and crystallized into suspicion. Othello himself almost understands jealousy and suspicion. As soon as one has doubts, he tells Iago, there is need for proof. Believing he knows his own mind, he thinks that the proof will either confirm his beloved’s fidelity—and so dissolve the jealousy—or confirm her infidelity and so dissolve his love:

Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy.
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions? No. To be once in doubt
Is once to be resolved…. 

                                           No, Iago,
I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof there is no more but this:
Away at once with love or jealousy!
(3.3. 179-82, 191-94) 

Only proof can satisfy a suspicion. What Othello does not suspect is that once a suspicion of infidelity arises it cannot be satisfied except by a proof of…infidelity. Faithfulness cannot be proved, only unfaithfulness can. “To be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved” is replete with Shakespearean double meaning. Othello means that doubt can be resolved as true or untrue thanks to proof, but the course of the play exposes the truth of his words to be, rather, that once his doubt congeals it can only be resolved by being confirmed.

As soon as the capacity for jealousy becomes suspicion, there is but one possible gratification: the suspicion must prove true. Othello’s susceptibility to deception—believing he has proof in the “trifle” of the handkerchief—is part of the passion’s in-built path, its automatism. The suspicious lover is caught in a painful vacillation unless (and until) something, anything, can be grasped as evidence. To Iago still:

                                       By the world,
I think my wife be honest, and think she is not;
I think that thou art just, and think thou art not.
I’ll have some proof.
(3.3.384-87)

Suspicion’s route to jouissance is short. And the asymmetry of fidelity and infidelity with respect to proof destroys Othello’s bravely anticipated either-love-or-jealousy. Love and jealousy do not separate into crisp alternatives. Conjugal bed and murder scene become one. Kisses intermingle with strangulation. Suspicion, the jouissance of its confirmation, and violence are a single coiled arc, as though nearly simultaneous. This is what Shakespeare dramatizes in the compressed temporality of Act 3, Scene 3.
Iago, too, is caught up in a specific jouissance. Intriguer, schemer, deceiver, he needs his acts to spread out, multiply, and escalate. For while his envy, resentment, and vengefulness have the goal of undoing Cassio (his rival) and Othello (his commander), the gratification comes from the patient seeding of deceptions and laying of traps. Every opportunity seized and every danger eluded affirm his superiority to his victims.The more the better. The pleasure lies in the intrigue, including the danger of exposure and thrill of evasion. The drawn-out temporality of intrigue is thus not merely the result of necessity and external circumstances; the intricacies are, rather, the intrigue’s very aim. What seems the cause is really the effect and vice versa. 

I began thinking about the play’s two temporalities and two arcs of jouissance because of a central thesis in Stanley Cavell’s essays on Shakespeare, namely, that motivations in the tragedies do not lie beneath or behind the character’s actions and words but are completely inscribed within act and word. A play is nothing else. One must delve into the words and actions not look beyond them. His reading of Lear, for example, starts from the fascinating hypothesis that Lear tests his daughters not because he wants their love but on the contrary because he wants them to accept his bribe in a show of love that he and they will both know, without acknowledging, to be a sham. In Cavell’s formulation, Lear’s action is an “avoidance of love.” Cordelia’s refusal to make a mere show of love forces upon Lear the fact that he is loved by her and ignites his mad response of disowning her. I am, though, often unconvinced by what Cavell adduces from the plays’ inscriptions of speech, gesture, and action. In the essay on Macbeth, he begins suggestively with the idea that the marital symbiosis of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is a kind of “mind-reading” but fails to get off the wellworn path of demonizing Lady Macbeth as the true witch inspiring her husband’s downfall.
Othello, too, is a marital drama. Faced with Othello’s headlong plunge into accusation and murder, Cavell contends “that we must understand Othello…to want to believe Iago, to be trying, against his knowledge, to believe him. Othello’s eager insistence on Iago’s honesty, his eager slaking of his thirst for knowledge with that poison, is not a sign of his stupidity in the presence of poison but of his devouring need of it.” This paradoxical twist opens the way for him to claim that the tragedy turns on Othello’s psychosexual pathology: “the idea of Desdemona as an adulterous whore is more convenient to him than the idea of her as chaste,” her faithfulness “more terrible” than her faithlessness. At its furthest stretch, Cavell’s interpretation suggets that Othello falters at the prospect of being the one to whom Desdemona loses her virginity; this is supposed to explain the ambiguity in the play surrounding whether the marriage was ever consummated before the groom strangles the bride on her “wedding sheets” (4.2.107). “If such a man as Othello is rendered impotent and murderous by aroused, or by having aroused, female sexuality—or let us say, if this man is horrified by sexuality, in himself and in others—then no human being is free of this possibility.” The if rather than the then is questionable here. That male impotence in the face of female sexuality can give rise to rage and even violence is undoubted. But it is not what this play is about. Despite his own injunction to follow the words and actions, Cavell locates the mainspring of the entire play in silent recesses of Othello’s psyche and in a sexual incapacity never displayed or referred to. 

Cavell’s interpretation is skewed at its starting-point. For, as A.C. Bradley stresses in Shakespearean Tragedy, Othello’s “opinion of Iago” was shared by “practically everyone who knew” him, namely, “that Iago was before all things ‘honest.’” The epithet refers to his bluntness and coarseness, soldierly virtues that are prized, respectively, by commanders and comrades. At issue is how to interpret—and play—the dramatic irony that is put in place from the very beginning, as Iago’s ill intentions are on display before Othello even appears. Should the audience’s constant awareness of Iago’s deception yield a sense of its own superiority over Othello’s gullibility or, rather, a sharpened and intensifying sense of his vulnerability? Cavell construes the dramatic irony in the first way and supposes that Othello should, or even does, have the knowledge needed to rebuff Iago. I construe it in the second way. Without a reason to distrust Iago, Othello slides toward jealousy-induced suspicion and is caught up in it its jouissance circuit.

Bradley’s 1904 lectures are rich in fine-toothed extrapolations and conjectures regarding characters’ traits and motives. He brings the sensibility, and assumptions, of nineteenth-century literature and psychology to bear. For him, the key to Othello’s predicament and the explanation of his precipitous acts lie in, precisely, his “character.” “Othello’s description of himself as ‘one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme’ [5.2.349-50], is perfectly just. His tragedy lies in this—that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable.” Bradley’s extrapolation here is, rather, an interpolation. Othello characterizes himself in this way after his homicidal act, as though to anwser how could I have done this?; his words relate to his deed ex post facto. Bradley, like Othello himself, projects a cause behind the deed the doer does not understand. His interpretation dilutes the ineluctable drama unleashed by jealousy-aroused suspicion by attributing it to the character’s character.

Kenneth Burke, who subtitled his protean study of Othello “An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” challenges Bradley’s and any other method’s tendency to read the play “novelistically” and infer characters’ inner reality in order to explain their actions. It’s another confusion of cause and effect. “Shakespeare is making a play, not people.” Following Aristotle, Burke considers the essence of a drama to be the imitiation of an action, so that (his italics) “every trait the character does have is saliently expressed in action or through action.” In the creation of drama, character does not determine action; action determines character. “The stress upon character as an intrinsic property, rather than as an illusion arising functionally from the context, leads toward a non-dramatic explanation.” The fit between a character’s action and the character’s character Burke calls the agent-act ratio. He anticipates Cavell’s call to heed only words and acts but already takes it a step further in locking onto nothing other than the play’s surface when he designates the totality of action in the play as -“a dialectic of cooperative competition.” How does the drama’s agonistic core (Iago versus Othello) become its triadic unity (Othello – Iago – Desdemona)? 

For Burke, the play is a single completed action witnessed and felt by the audience as agon, terror, pity, and catharsis; the three-personae act of Othello, Desdemona, and Iago is one action. Burke construes the jouissance circuit of jealous suspicion as, instead, the inner dynamic embodied in marriage itself as a form of property. “Desdemona, Othello, and Iago are all partners in a single conspiracy.” Just as the enclosure acts turned common lands into private property, “here is the analogue in the realm of human affinity, an act of spiritual enclosure.” The triad of characters symbolically enacts the inherent marital logic of a man’s possession of a woman and possession “by his very engrossment” as that logic engulfs them both. “Othello’s suspicions…arise from within, in the sense that they are integral to the motive he stands for; but the playwright cuts through that tangle at one stroke, by making Iago a voice at Othello’s ear.… We are readily disposed to accept the dramatist’s dissociation. Yet villain and hero here are but essentially inseparable parts of the one fascination.… The single mine-own-ness is thus dramatically split into the three principles of possession, possessor, and estrangement (the threat of loss).” 

Shakespeare’s marital tragedy is for Burke an exposure and symbolic expiation of the possessiveness by which the male dominance instituted in marriage shapes and misshapes love and eroticism. “Hence,” he concludes, “we may in glimpses peer over the abyss into the regions of pure abstract loneliness,” the loneliness of Othello’s final isolation and suicide. For Cavell, the same marital tragedy is, rather, though not unrelatedly, the drama of homicidal male impotence in the face of uncomprehended, perhaps incomprehensible female sexuality. He draws on Montaigne to extract “the philosophy or the moral of the play”: all the “topics” of “sex with marriage” and “sex with age” as well as “jealousy, chastity, imagination, doubts about virginity…should be food for thought and moderation, not for torture and murder; as fit for rue and laughter as pity and terror; that they are not tragic unless one makes them so, takes them so; that we are tragic in what we take to be tragic.” Readers or audience, we rise above the tragic. Isn’t it pretty to think so? There is no moral of the story for Burke. He traces a ritual or, more accurately, the symbolic enactment of a ritual sacrifice. The horror and pity of witnessing the deceived Othello murder the innocent Desdemona does not make either of them the sacrificial scapegoat. It is the disorder of their deaths that must be relieved by a scapegoat. The “cathartic function” falls to Iago, especially “as regards the tension centering particularly in sexual love as property and ennoblement (monogamistic love), since in reviling Iago the audience can forget that his transgressions are theirs.” His capture and removal answer “the need of finding a viable localization for uneasiness (Angst) in general” regarding the superhuman forces evoked by play. 

Since intrigue is plotting and the plot an intrigue, Iago’s scheming adduces the audience’s fascination with his deceptions and traps, his risks and successes. In Burke’s account, the play’s structure arises in the tension between intrigue and ritual, turning on a moment like the one where Iago kneels with Othello to seal their conspiring together, which is “a lie, when considered rationalistically in terms of the intrigue only, but…profoundest truth, as regards its purely ritual design” insofar as it fuses the villain into the hero and so intensifies the need to separate him from him in the final scapegoating. Such, too, to extend Burke’s analysis, is the rescue of Othello’s “ennoblement.” T.S. Eliot’s distaste for the final soliloquy notwithstanding, Othello has his humanity, nobility, and heroism reaffirmed at the end by his own words and those of others. That aspect of the ending seems to me akin to the guilty, disgraced, and defeated Macbeth’s last-minute manifestation of the martial virtue and virility that marked him as a heroic warrior at the outset of the play, the virtue and virility he squandered in his murderous campaign to grab and hold power. (The suggestive dyslexia of marital and martial ondulates through both plays.)

Iago’s omnipresent agency leads Hans-Thies Lehmann to consider him a figure of drama creation itself: “Iago organizes and stages scene after scene with Othello. He operates with ruse and cunning. Actor, director and dramatist in one, he has others take the stage like marionettes in his ‘piece’ and makes them act and react in order to ensare the hero in his own jealousy.” Lehmann is engaged in a metacritical reflection on the nature of what he calls “dramatic theatre” in its historical and its essential difference, according to his scheme, from ancient and from postdramatic theater. Dramatic theater depends on trust in what’s said, an intersubjective condition that is duplicated within the drama in the verbal interactions among characters. Othello’s trust in Iago’s words is a kind of embem of the relation of the audience to the drama. Lehmann thus describes Iago’s role in creating the drama’s scenes and shaping its hero as “theatre in the theatre.” Othello, we might conclude, is made at once the audience of Iago’s inventions (doubling the theater audience) and a character in Iago’s intrigue (doubling the dramatis persona). The theater is its own double in dramatic theater. Othello’s passivity corresponds to the audience’s. Almost the inverse of Burke’s analysis, Lehmann’s casts Othello as “Iago’s creature.” That analysis is part of the metacriticism of “dramatic theatre” in light of “postdramatic theatre” from Brecht to performance art. The illusions and deceptions fostered by Iago are the illusions and deceptions of drama itself. “Iago manages to to transmit his deceitful—indeed, murderous—essence to Othello, like a virus. What Iago harbours within himself produces symptoms in his counterpart. His own motivation—insofar as one can speak of him having one at all—takes root in Othello: the hyperbolically fantastic rivalry of a jealous man with an imaginary adversary. When Iago provokes and brings out a quality Othello had previously mastered—his violent potential—it amounts to a kind of brainwashing.” The difference between Burke and Lehmann lies in the hinge of the Iago-Othello relation, specifically how to understand how Iago’s jealousy and violence unfolds as the persuasion of Othello to jealousy and violence. Lehmann reduces Othello to an empty, receptive vessel slowly filling with another’s psychic and moral motives, while Burke views the noble hero and the vile villain as two aspects of the same motive of action. The ultimate difference, though, is that Lehmann seeks to show the historical limits and theatrical limitations of “dramatic theatre,” whereas Burke looks to the inner dynamic of Shakespeare’s play as the very model for the “dramatistic” method of criticism he develops in regard to literature as a whole. 

Two other readers of Othello have distinct understandings of the nexus of love, jealousy, and suspicion. Peter Szondi comes closest to seeing the automatism of the suspicion of infidelity: “The tormenting demand for proof belongs to the dialectic of doubt, which has its tragic side. The doubt about a wife’s fidelity—born out of the fear of her infidelity—seeks its proof not in fidelity, but in infidelity.” However, Szondi construes this as a wish revolving around how Othello appears to himself: “Othello’s doubts can be put to rest only by the evidence that proves him right, not by the evidence that proofs him a liar. And this is his only wish.” To the contrary, Othello is the unwitting purveyor of falsehoods, never a liar. It is not that he wishes to be right, but rather that there can be no proof, and no gratification, of his suspicion except evidence of infidelity. 

By the same token, Szondi furnishes an incisive analysis of the role of irony in Iago’s deception. For beyond the dramatic irony through which the audience witnesses every twist and turn of his deceptions, Iago’s rhetorical mode is to stir Othello’s doubt by saying the opposite of what he is seducing him to believe. “Cassio, my lord? No, sure. I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like, / Seeing your coming” (3.3.38-40). “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! / It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (3.3.167-69). His other ironic mode is to speak the truth about himself such that it appears as excessive self-censure and false modesty: “As I confess it is my nature’s plague / To spy into abuses, and oft my jealousy / Shapes faults that are not” (3.3.149-51). An Essay on the Tragic identifies in this rhetorical tissue of irony a key difference from Greek tragedy: “The divine irony that stood opposite the tragic hero in antiquity is replaced in the Baroque by the irony of the villain.” This reading of the Iago-Othello hinge solidifies Szondi’s sense of the tragic as implacable dialectic (in keeping with his great insight that German Idealism in effect discovered dialectic by pondering the nature of Greek tragedy). My reservation about his account of Othello is that the tracing of dialectical turns is under pressure to resolve the play as the inevitable outcome of the dialectic itself. In place of fate’s ironies, irony becomes fate. The story begins when Desdemona deceives and foresakes her father to elope with Othello, and thanks to Iago’s machinations and reminder of her betrayal of her father, Othello comes to believe himself deceived and foresaken by her. Szondi concludes: “The proof of her love turns into the proof of her infidelity. The ironist’s dialectical method thereby transforms man into the opposite of himself. The loving wife appears as the adulteress; the lover becomes the murderer of the one he loves.”

The classicist Giulia Sissa, in Jealousy: A Forbidden Passion, takes the opposite tack. Whereas Szondi postulates the danger lurking in jealousy to be an absolute, destructive dialectic—“Jealousy is love that destroys by wanting to preserve”—Sissa begins from the premise that “amorous jealousy” has been so fundamentally misunderstood by critics and psychotherapists that the inherence of jealousy in erotic love—the ever-latent potential “despair of not being loved”—is mistaken for a pathology. She insightfully points out that the often proferred saw that jealousy “is the green-eyed monster” is not a general truth but rather a moment in Iago’s mockery and baiting of Othello. “Moreover, Iago attributes to jealousy such disconcertingly coloured eyes only because he confuses it with envy, that hag with a livid complexion [Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.768ff] which embodies his only true passion.” Iago’s envy engenders Othello’s jealousy (a crucial distinction lost in Lehmann’s virus metaphor). For Sissa, “medicalization and moralism have killed the ‘tragic figure.’” She aims “to recover our ability to enjoy the tragic—that is, to understand the suffering intrinsic to love, whether it be in Euripedes, Seneca, Corneille, Shakespeare or, indeed, in our own lives.” Her premise and her aim are more persuasive than the reading of Othello by which she tries to realize them. She misses the slide from (amorous) jealousy to suspicion and so keeps the need for proof within the realm of the merely reasonable evaluation of evidence. Othello “suspends his judgement and goes out of his way to test the normality of his jealousy by trying to discover what has really happened between Desdemona and Cassio.” Instead of acknowledging the jouissance toward which suspicion inclines, Sissa is constrained to explain the precipitous movement to conviction and violence with an odd mix of factors: Othello’s own “self-love” and “excessively trusting good faith,” Iago’s “wicked and successful strategy” of course, and even Desdemona’s being “so insensitive, so unsympathetic, so blind to her husband’s state of mind that she did nothing to reassure him(!)—quite the opposite.” The unity of action dissipates. Where Szondi subjects the action to an inexcrable dialectical logic, Sissa fragments it. Neither conclusion is satisfactory. In my view, the force of the jouissance circuit set in motion by Othello’s suspicion of Desdemona is ineluctable but the outcome is not inevitable. Niether psychological nor dialectical determinism obtains. The always difficult, often indeterminate question posed in a tragedy is, Where came the point-of-no-return?—the full, startling impact of which for audience or reader is, There but for the grace of God go I.

As a nonspecialist reader of Shakespeare, not at all steeped in the endless riches of the existing scholarship, I have drawn on the conflict of interpretations among a half-dozen critics who hone their distinct critical methods on their engagement with Othello. Bradley’s interpolation of psychological verisimilitude contrasts with Cavell’s philosophico-moral extrapolations against skepticism. Where Cavell sees a psychosexual pathology afflicting marriage, Burke see a psychosocial pathology inflicted by marriage. Burke’s “dramatistic” agent-act ratio is used to draw from drama the nature of all literary expression, while Lehmann’s metatheatrical interpretation aims to cordon off and delimit the epoch of “dramatic theatre.” The dialectical grip resolving dramatic conflict and paradox in Szondi is countered by Sissa’s claim that tragedy affirms the inescapably unresolved coexistence of love and jealousy. I marvel at the scope and depth of these essays, some of them classics, which span more than a century of modern criticism: Bradley (1905), Burke (1951), Szondi (1961), Cavell (1979/2003), Lehmann (2014), and Sissa (2015). They confirm my motive in recently attempting to account for the vocation of criticism as a vital genre of writing and genre of thought. (See Mood and Trope: The Rhetoric and Poetics of Affect, chapter 4: “This is beautiful, or, The Urge to Persuade”).

February 2020