In Othello’s Vise


Othello isn’t easy. As A.C. Bradley noted in 1913, “from the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vise, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation.” I find this to be terribly true; in fact I have a hard time reading Othello or watching a production of Othello, and I think this is not only due to the fact that I ‘know what’s coming’ (as I do, or we all do, with most of Shakespeare’s classic plays) but because I know that there is no way to get there that will be anything less than reprehensible. There is no way to redeem or “recuperate” Othello, as a play, it seems to me: The racism is trenchant and the portrayal of the title character is, I think, not only a stereotype but an unabashed caricature. Of course I can’t dismiss the play, either. The vise, v-i-s-e, that Othello holds us in is bound up not only with the caricature of O’s vice, v-i-c-e (jealousy, lust, etc) but with a deep-seated cultural temptation to continue to read in precisely the way that Shakespeare has written. I fear I don’t want to look at Othello because I don’t want to look at myself; and therefore I don’t want to look away, because I want to want to change the way I look
The undeniably great (and undeniably racist) poet T.S. Eliot once wrote that “About anyone so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong.” This seems particularly, poignantly true of Othello. Perhaps it is mistaken to accuse the Bard of creating a racist caricature powerful enough to recreate itself through these centuries; but it seems to me that we have for too long been carrying forth the presentist and pretentious mistake of recognizing only the positive, progressive ways that Shakespeare has contributed to our culture. There isn’t really evidence for stereotypes of black characters on the stage before Othello or Aaron, the Moor of Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare may well have invented these stereotypes, just as he invented “us,” as Harold Bloom continues to argue. 
For better or worse, it is undeniable that the play’s main concern is the play of black and white. Like “nature” or “natural” in King Lear’s obsessive dissection of being and seeming, the moral and aesthetic and racial implications of the tropes of white and black as fair and foul are railed on relentlessly throughout the text. This is classic Shakespeare: Part running joke, part provocative deconstruction yet reconstruction—perhaps even underscoring—of standard cultural practice. Just as with the bastard son Edgar in King Lear, we are made to feel sympathetic to his plight at first: Why should a “natural” son be treated to unfairly?—But evil Edgar’s disgusting behavior soon gives the reader, whether they were looking for it or not, ample proof as to “why.” So with Shakespeare’s chiasmatic criss-crossing of the traditional implications of “black” and “white.” European languages have long loaded the term “blackness” and “dark” with negative associations (evil, immorality, wrongness), and held “light,” “white” and whiteness aloft with innocence, reason and goodness. Thus we find, to use one of innumerable examples, phrases like “the Blackness and Deformity of Vice” appearing in The Spectator in 1712. In Shakespeare’s Othello, much of the play’s wit is displayed in the play between these polarities.
But first, the gray area: Othello’s physical descriptions are so stereotypical of a Sub-Saharan African man that we might almost forget he is meant to be a Moor; or Shakespeare’s caricature of one. Othello, rarely called by name, is instead referenced as “the thicklipped” (Act I, scene 1)…or, “The sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou,” as Brabanzio addresses him in Act I, scene 2. But the Moors, as we know, were Medieval Muslim residents of Northern Africa, of Algeria and Morocco. In the middle ages the Moorish territories extended across the straits of Gibraltar onto the Iberian peninsula and into modern day Spain. Whether Shakespeare had any idea what or who he was talking about is talked about in equally uncouth contemporaneous socio-historical discussions of whether Othello is meant to be “black” or “tawny”—a lighter-skinned, Northern African, etc. Regardless of accuracy, he is, or his skin is, coal-black in the text’s rendering.
The conflation of these cultures in the imagination of Northern Europeans is neatly summarized by the word “blackamoor,” which was applied to any and all dark-skinned, African and Middle Eastern peoples. It is essential to remember as well that the Moor or the blackamoor is not only not white but not Christian… But more on that later.  But for the time being let’s not forget to note that Othello is dated to around 1603 or 1604; in the 1590s Queen Elizabeth issued repeated dictums denouncing and scapegoating England’s black population, even attempting to ban and deport black people from the island. This would seem to indicate that there was a black population to ban, and generally refutes the claim that Shakespeare had never seen or known a black or African person (or an Arab or Muslim person). Further refutation comes from the presence of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud at Queen Elizbeth’s court in the year 1600; Messaoud stayed for six months as the ambassador from the Morocco, trying to get Queen Elizabeth to go to war with Spain. Shakespeare may not have spent much time with Messaoud but it’s difficult to imagine that he could have been completely ignorant of his existence.
In any case, the play itself opens in complete darkness. Iago and Roderigo awake Barbanzio from his sleep with a reality like a nightmare he has apparently already dreamed: “An old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe…” Iago taunts. (The bestial imagery of the play, particularly in Iago’s lines, is relentless. “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you’ll have your nephews neigh to you…” he threatens Barbanzio in the first scene; and later it’s the image of Desdemona and Cassio “as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys” which he uses to unhinge Othello so thoroughly). In fact three of the play’s pivotal scenes take place under cover of darkness: This first, where Barbanzio must call for lights to search the street for his daughter; and again in the antic scene of Act 2, scene 3, in Cyprus, where Othello and Desdemona are awakened by Cassio’s drunken brawl; and finally in Act V, scene 1, when Cassio’s wounding and Roderigo’s murder are carried out by Iago under darkness which he himself calls out for a light to end. In all of these scenes Iago postitions himself as the bringer of light and clarity when he is, in all, in fact, the source of the crimes and the chaos. We can’t help but think of Lucifer, whose name means light-bringer, the rebel archangel synonymous with Satan in the early modern period.
So we have darkness and light, in addition to black and white, “Christian” Venice and “Turk” otherness. These conflicted tropes are concentrated in the play of the name, the terrible ability of words and language to conceal or obliterate or displace what it is they actually mean. Appearances deceive, but so do speeches and names. Here I’ll quote Marjorie Garber at length, whose incredibly lucid book, Shakespeare After All, is particularly helpful on the subject of these double-crossings: “Othello looks black, but it is Iago who becomes the pole of moral negativity (conventionally, ‘blackness’) in the play. On the other end of this scale, the play presents in emblematic form both false and true images of ‘whiteness,’ since the name of the courtesan, or whore, Bianca means ‘white,’ or ‘the white one.’ Thus we have ‘black Othello,’ and really (ie, inwardly, morally) black Iago. ‘White’ Bianca, and really (ie, inwardly, morally) white Desdemona.”
Similar to an evil Lucifer whose name means light-bringer and the morally-questionable Bianca whose name means the white one, Iago’s misleading epithet is honest, and his name may harbor its own import as well. But first the repetition of this assurance, “honest Iago,” which might even be more heavy-handed than the tropes of “nature,” sight and appearances in King Lear; there is no chance, given some thirty to fifty repetitions of the word, that a reader or an audience would miss the misdirection intended here — and yet, of course, Othello does. When all Iago’s deviousness is finally revealed, Othello can only stutter to Emilia: “My friend, thy husband, honest, honest Iago…” (Act V, scene 2). But Iago is a spin-off of Santiago, Spain’s St. James, the patron saint of the country, who is known as the “slayer of the Moors.” St. James supposedly liberated the Iberian peninsula from Moorish rule in 844 during the Reconquista, an important prelude to the Crusades. From Santiago we get Santiago de Compostella, the great cathedral, which was the destination of the classic 9th century Catholic pilgrimage the Way of Saint James, or the El Camino. People still walk this route all the time, as you may know; though it’s become more a bohemian rite of passage than a Catholic pilgrimage. In any case, Iago’s name may mean, honestly enough, ‘conqueror of the Moors’—Though he’s no saint. Then again, as W.H. Auden points out, “In Iago we have, I think, a very remarkable portrait by Shakespeare of the villain as an inverted saint, a saint manqué. On the surface, nothing might seem less probable. Yet Shakespeare was surely right in suggesting this, because the saint and the villain have very similar psychologies. In both, ethics and aesthetics become almost the same thing.”
Let’s consider more of the conflicts in Iago’s character, while we’re on the subject. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s most invidiously undermotivated characters. Once again, in Shakespeare’s source (a tale by an Italian writer named Cinthio) there’s a clear motive: Iago lusts after Desdemona and, spurned by her, is spurred on to wreak havoc on her chosen husband, “the Moor.” But in Othello, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Instead we have Iago’s “motiveless malignancy” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously called it. There are several suggestions — at one point Iago claims that he suspects Othello and his own wife, Emilia, have been sleeping together; he also suggests that he may after all have a thing for Desdemona (though this is Roderigo’s territory for the most part)… The important speech is Act II, scene 1:
And yet Iago’s own words are, elsewhere, both ambiguous and assured: “I do hate him as I hate hell-pains,” he says in the opening scene, and perhaps most famously: “But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
And in the final scene, when the truth is “brought to light” and Othello begs to know why Iago has deceived and tortured him thus, Iago remains silent. For the first time in the play, Iago has nothing to say for himself.


But what do we know? The most plausible motivation seems to be that Iago is angry that he was passed over for a promotion, in favor of Cassio; but even this doesn’t seem to be explicit enough to satisfy critics or audiences. This is where one version of the play’s racism creeps in: We can’t help but wonder if Iago’s resentment of Othello is racially motivated, or we can’t help but supply him with that motivation. Other interpretations even suggest that Iago’s lust, or repressed lust, is not for Desdemona but for Othello. There is indeed an element of seduction to Iago’s campaign. In Kenneth Branagh’s Iago, for example, there are moments when he sneaks a hand along Roderigo’s thigh, or when he flips Emilia around in bed, that I think are meant to hint at an interpretation of Iago as a jilted homosexual. But a lonely, plotting, jealous, homosexual Iago is not really any less hateful than a hateful, race-motivated Iago. Either way, the systematic ruin of our tragic hero is here frighteningly undermotived.
          But worst of all is that he falls for it. Indeed, Othello’s credulous and easily enraged nature has given rise to the worst of the stereotyping that goes on in the play and in criticism of the play. Othello, we’re lead to believe, must just not be very smart. This is a problem in part because it’s a false racial stereotype and in part because it shifts the audience’s intimacy uncomfortably towards Iago. Iago is the entertainer, the wordsmith, a Puck figure gone wrong — but whom we nevertheless seem meant to delight in. Othello, meanwhile, is insecure: Rude am I in my speech, / And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace,” he proclaims in the first act; and again: for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have…” (Act II, scene 3). But Othello’s insecurities mask a facility with language that verges on grandiloquence. G. Wilson Knight famously dubbed this “the Othello music.” A.C. Bradley, with more than a note of exoticism, has called Othello ‘by far the most romantic figure among Shakespeare’s heroes’ and ‘the greatest poet of all Shakespearean heroes’ — a claim he defends, even in comparison to Prince Hamlet.
          Othello may only affect insecurity to appear docile and subservient in the courts and conversations of Shakespeare’s Venice, where he knows better than any how precarious his position is. That position depends entirely on his continued usefulness to the city-state as a military leader; but this ‘use’ is thematized metaphorically in Othello’s use of language, in his ability to tell his tales. Indeed, as Othello explains before the court in the first act:  “Her father loved me; oft invited me; / Still question’d me the story of my life, / From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes, /That I have passed. / I ran it through, even from my boyish days, / To the very moment that he bade me tell it…” What follows is one of Othello’s most gorgeous voice-overs; an enchanting monologue of his adventures as an “extravagant and wheeling stranger.” It was through his story-telling that he wooed Desdemona, he explains, and the Duke responds: “I think this tale would win my daughter too.” As Stephen Greenblatt and Alan Sinfield point out, Othello must continue to produce this narrative, to perform this role and tell this story about himself, in order to continue to occupy the place in Venetian society that a Moor would normally never be able to occupy. Like Aeneas enchanting Dido, Othello’s adventures win him an unexpected love; but like Scherherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, he must continue to weave this narrative, day after day and night after night, in order to keep his head.
          What is Othello’s “story”? For one thing, he is a converted Christian; his language is more overtly Christian than any other character in the play… But when he loses his calm and dignity to jealousy and rage in the final scenes, this is all too easily read as a return to his original or true “heathen” religion (presumably Islam) as well as a return to his true “heathen” nature: Violent, rash, jealous, lustful. Savage.The caricature Othello plays is recognizably that of “the noble savage,” an archetype that may be traced back to Saladin, the 12th centurysultan who defended the Muslim Levant against the invading Crusaders of France and Western Europe. Saladin, the famous nemesis of Richard the Lionheart, was renowned for his dignity and chivalry in battle, and became a sensationally popular image in Medieval romances. These oral poems and ballads in turn are exemplified by such tales as The Song of Roland, or Le Chanson de Roland, a middle French text which glorified (and fictionalized) the Battle of Roncevaux as the turning of the tides against the Moors and Muslims of the Iberian peninsula (the Moors were, at the time, on the verge of pushing their empire into the heart of Europe; the Reconquista, or Re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula that followed the Battle of Roncevaux laid the ideological foundation for the Crusades and the “reconquest” of Jerusalem. Big air-quotes there.) “The noble savage” is an archetype seemingly without end, but perhaps we can point most easily to Native American heroes like Pocahontas or Crazy Horse to see how far this sort of thinking has taken and mistaken us.
          The scholar S.E. Ogude has pointed out that Othello, even more than the other characters in the play, is racially motivated: Based on his language, Othello aestheticizes Desdemona’s whiteness just as much as he or anyone else denigrates his blackness. Ogude calls this Othello’s “color worship” and the evidence abounds. An inordinate amount of Othello’s references to Desdemona are preceded by the adjective “fair.” She is his “fair lady,” his “fair warrior” and later, even, “the fair devil.” In the final scene this becomes even more definite. Determined to strangle his bride and end her life, Othello nevertheless resolves not to harm her skin

          Yet I’ll not shed her blood,
          Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
          And smooth, as monumental alabaster. (Act V, scene 2)
In fact, Othello is so consumed in his worship of her “monumental alabaster” that he is afraid he won’t be able to go through with killing her: “Get me some poison, Iago, this night. I’ll not expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty unprovide my mind again.” (Act IV, scene I). This is one of the double binds of Othello’s vise: His worship of Desdemona’s racial identity is as powerful as his society’s discrimination against him, and his worship of Desdemona’s racial identity makes him guilty of precisely the sort of vice that society imagines him to be guilty of.    
          Like Lucifer the light bringer, “honest Iago” and “Bianca the white,” Desdemona’s name may contain the opposite of her reputation, or the opposite of her character’s (or skin’s) virtuous associations. As her chastity comes into question Othello starts referring to her as “Desdemon,” so that we are certain to see and hear the demon in an otherwise faithful Desdemona. The irreligiosity is overt: “Have you prayed tonight, Desdemon?” Othello asks, as a prelude to his murder in the final act.  Indeed, “her name, that was as fresh / As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black / As mine own face,” Othello bemoans in Act III, scene 3. “Desdemon” brings up another feature of the play that I don’t think receives enough critical attention, generally: Suspicions of witchcraft and the possibility of the supernatural. Brabantio’s preliminary, xenophobic assumption is that Othello has, in some literal way, bewitched his daughter: 
Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense,
Sans witchcraft could not. (Act I, scene I).
Othello replies that only his storytelling beguiled the young girl. “This only is the witchcraft I have used.” (Act I, scene I). But when Othello collapses, either fainting, or in an epileptic fit, depending on the interpretation (the stage direction is: “Falls in a trance”) Iago remarks slyly: “Work on, / My medicine, work!” (Act IV, scene 1).  It is indicative of our investment in racial readings of Othello that I don’t think anyone’s ever really argued that this medicine is literal. It would make sense that Iago is poisoning Othello in some literal way, given the extremity of this reaction; it’s difficult to believe that the battle-hardened soldier would really faint at these false accusations, even if we can imagine that he would be so gullible as to believe them.
Shakespeare’s definitive engagement with the supernatural and sources like the Maleus Maleficarum, the Renaissance handbook for rooting out witches, is best and most thoroughly demonstrated elsewhere, in plays like Macbeth or The Tempest, but I think it’s interesting that the textual evidence in Othello is sidelined, presumably in favor of the “bigger” issue of race that’s at stake in the play, pun intended. Scholars link Macbeth’s obsession with witchcraft to the succession of King James, who replaced Queen Elizabeth as ruler of England (and Shakespeare’s patron) in the year 1603; but these are the years that Othello was being written as well. James was an avid witch-hunter who oversaw extensive persecutions of supposed witches in the 1590s, as king of Scotland; he even published an extensive diatribe on the subject, Daemonologie, an alarmist book which presented the king’s conspiracy theories about circles of satanic witches who threatened to undermine the kingdom. James’ pursuit of witches and Elizabeth’s scapegoating of black residents of England were simultaneous, and surely not unrelated, phenomena. As Feudal society began to flounder and merchants and other upper middle class peoples began to demand more social mobility and power, Britain’s lords and ladies may have been looking for places to lay the blame for what they saw as the corruption of their society.  But, as Iago says with his usual wordplay, “Thou know’st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft.” (Act II, scene 3). Perhaps it’s a stretch with Othello, but that we don’t make the effort is, in itself, indicative of the way we read and study Shakespeare. Certain plays tackle certain issues, we assume; or it’s convenient to assume so. But aren’t our assumptions always the problem?
          I believe Othello is essentially a racist play, which asks us to think in racist ways, but perhaps I should acknowledge some of the progressive moments that the play’s productions have afforded. The usual argument, that Shakespeare is to be absolved of his misrepresentations because he chose to represent a black tragic hero on the stage at all, at a time when no such thing had ever been done before, is tired but never seems to disappear. For example, are we glad that Hattie McDaniel played a totally racist stereotype in Gone With The Wind in 1939 and won an Oscar for it, because she was at least a black person on the screen, and opened the doors to less racists portrayals later on? I’m not so sure. Of course society progresses incrementally, rarely in the leaps and bounds we’d like it to. (Then again the election of Barack Obama really did seem to come out of nowhere). In any case, Othellohas remained one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays, and it has fostered some radical moments in the history of theater. There’s evidence that Margaret Hughes played the part of Desdemona in 1660, as the first female on the stage in early modern England. There’s also the famous American production, directed by Margaret Webster in 1943, starring a black man, Paul Robeson, as Othello. This pre-desegregation production was the first ever in America to cast a black actor as Othello with an otherwise white cast (there had been all-black performances previously). Othello and Desdemona’s interracial romance scandalized audiences, but Webster and Robeson’s Othello ran for 296 performances, almost twice as long as any Shakespearean play ever produced on Broadway. Does this make up for the infinite number of times Othello was played by a white man in garish blackface (by Laurence Olivier, for example) as a complete farce? Some critics would say yes, and would go so far as to say this is the only way Othello shouldbe played: In minstrel-style blackface, with makeup melting under the stagelights, completely ridiculous, so that no one can ever forget how much of a ridiculous stereotype Othello really is…
          Well. These are some of the ways to think about Othello; some of the ways I do. Part of me wants to argue like a good old boy that how uncomfortable the play makes us is evidence of its real greatness, that Shakespeare was so thoroughly critiquing his contemporary society that he is still critiquing ours today. In this line of reasoning I might say that we need to examine our cultural heritage so that we don’t repeat it. But another part of me wants to say that we should ignore Othello, retire it, and spend our time instead studying the cultural traditions of indigenous peoples in Northern Africa during the early modern period, or studying the teachings of the Koran, or even just reading poems by Langston Hughes or novels by Toni Morrison. Of course it has to be both: We need to understand, or admit, how Othello has formed and deformed us, and take that understanding forward and outward into our other studies and our lives. Othello leaves us no good options, really: If we identify with him we identify with a murderer; and yet we do, and we must. But if we do as we must, we also empathize with and revivify a caricature that has no place in an empathetic understanding of who human beings are. The double binds of Othello’s vise stay hard and fast, it seems.
My favorite line of the play may be in in Act V, scene 2, when Othello makes one of those asides whose poetry G.Wilson Knight exoticized and romanticized (“the Othello music”) and which I think encapsulates the sadness at the center of this play. In their own bed, in the eroticized and gratuitous spectacle of rough interracial sex that is the play’s hair-raising climax—before he puts out the light that is wife’s life, before he murders her — Othello softly asks for darkness, in a sad half-lullaby:  
Put out the light, then put out the light.
But he isn’t given darkness. The lights are blindingly on when he climbs the bed and strangles his innocent wife, just minutes before the truth is “brought to light” and he takes his own life, begging the cast and the audience to continue telling his tale, even in his absence: