The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia
A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?” Well, why does anyone hate anyone? Why does anyone love anyone? The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious. Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency. They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind. The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however. We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.
There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:
- Iago resents Othello for choosing Michael Cassio as his lieutenant.
Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or ancient. He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage. Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i]. And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three. Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?
- Iago abominates Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.
This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii]. Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him. Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.
- Iago is sexually jealous of Othello. He is desirous of Desdemona, Othello’s wife.
This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation. If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].
Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i]. This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over. He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.
- Iago despises Othello for his race.
It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.” Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone. George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”
There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.]. Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed. Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father. Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii]. He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness. He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.
Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself. While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.
Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation. A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].
Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello? Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?” In other words: Who are you in relation to me? Are you similar to me? Are you different from me? To what degree are you different from me? How do I measure myself against you? In the case of stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility. This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.” Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello. If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed. This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.
Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being. There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self — which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being — and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit. In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself — how he exteriorizes himself as Othello — and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.
Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences? This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd. However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.
Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?
My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona. He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello. Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him. From the third scene of the third act:
OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.
Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions. Iago is reactive, not active. It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:
OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?
IAGO: Honest, my lord?
OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.
OTHELLO: What does thou think?
IAGO: Think, my lord?
OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?
The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s. Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time. It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches. It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago. Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.
It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism. One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady… This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels. ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].
The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s own idea, not Iago’s. Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind. Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end. Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.
Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation. When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon. She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence. Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals. She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death. As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii]. Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s difference and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii]. Is Iago wrong? As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday? The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other. Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.
In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be. By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being. Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is. When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself. Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is. From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.
Dr. Joseph Suglia