Shakespeare’s Othello: How does a hero fall?
"For when his emotion follows the powers in their action it carries his perception [discernment] away, as the wind carries a boat away to sea"Krishna to Arjuna Bhagavad Gita, Bk 2
Two thousand years before Shakespeare, the ancient text of the Mahabharata had presented an exposé of the ills of society.
But such was the delay in our evolution as a race that it was germane for Shakespeare, with his acute attention to observation, to once more present on stage stories of the corruption, jealousy and infidelity that laced the behavioural fabric of our society – his purpose being to wake us up to the destructive and divisive nature of the forces that we were succumbing to and buying into in our daily lives. Shakespeare was saying in effect, ‘Hey guys, this is what is happening on your doorstep and it’s not working’.
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (c.1601- 4) is concerned with the destructive nature of jealousy, the invidiousness of deception, the absolute evil of innuendo and slander, and the inability of characters to discern the truth about themselves, each other, and about love – and, as a result of this, being able to be easily and mortally swayed by another’s deceit. Othello is a volatile play, laying bare the tragedy of our lack of awareness around our own true divine nature and the false forces that nudge us over the edge into mayhem and misery. It is a play full of darkness, racial and sexual prejudice, emotional turbulence, and violence.
What do we first know about Othello?
The play is set in a context of imminent invasion where Othello is a ‘noble general’ in the military service of Venice (2.2.11). The audience hear that Othello is a hero, a famous warrior, known for the bravery and courage of his daring escapades, his ‘hair-breadth scapes i’ th’ imminent deadly breach,/ Of being taken by the insolent foe/ And sold to slavery’ (1.3.150-2). This is revealed through the intimate conversation at Brabantio’s table, where Othello, at the invitation of his host, frequently entertains him and his daughter, Desdemona, with his adventures and conquests on the battlefield.
We know that Othello and Desdemona have fallen in love and are devoted to each other. For Othello their love is ‘my soul’s joy!’ (2.1.197). Desdemona has broken strict societal convention to secretly marry a black man, and is running off to Cyprus, the war zone, with him. Othello reassures the Duke of Venice that he wants Desdemona continually by his side even when he is at war, not for lust (‘to comply with heat’) but ‘to be free and bounteous to her mind’ (1.3. 283) Their love is certainly sounding good.
We also know that Othello is truly valued by those he works with who have served under him, able to see through the filter of racial prejudice. Casting the role of ‘hero’ as a black man was ground-breaking in Shakespeare’s time. Even though there was huge colonial expansion in trade there were few black residents in England – Elizabethan and Jacobean plays rarely featured black characters, and plays in which they took centre-stage were unheard of.
The issue of racial prejudice comes up in the play but it is not the central issue. It is there in Iago’s dialogue, as is sexual prejudice with his view of women as the property of men, and in his cynical summary of the role of army wives: ‘you rise to play, and go to bed to work’ (2.1.127). Racial prejudice also erupts in the scene where Brabantio, upset that his daughter has fallen in love with this ‘Moor’ whom he has been inviting around to dinner for chinwags about his military conquests, claims that Othello must have drugged her for her to have even looked at him. The Duke of Venice, however, makes it clear to Brabantio that what makes a human being truly worthy is not the colour of his skin but the virtue of his Soul: ‘And noble signor,/ If virtue no delighted beauty lack/ Your son-in-law is far more fair than black’ – these lines playing on the words ‘fair’ and ‘black’ to refer to both skin colour and moral quality. (1.3.309)
What is the nature of the battle going on?
As the play opens the army is on alert because of an intended invasion by the Turks of the Venetian colony, Cyprus. But intelligence is received that the Turkish fleet is wrecked in a tempest at sea en route to Cyprus. As the threat of the Turkish invasion quickly evaporates it becomes clear to the audience that the real attack and invasion which this play will put under the microscope is not a ‘geographical’ one but is rather the invasion by an invisible enemy – the forces of the emotions and ideals that occupy the psychological haunts of men.
This attack is initiated and put into play with consummate skill and strategy by the central aggressor Iago, who is greatly miffed over being overlooked by his superior Othello, for the position of his lieutenant. Othello has unexpectedly chosen not Iago, but an ‘outsider’, ‘one Michael Cassio, a Florentine’ to be his officer. In his resentment and outrage Iago spins an insulting tale to side-kick Rodorigo that Cassio knows no more about the strategies of war than a ‘spinster’ (1.1.24). He then pulls out the old ‘it’s not fair’ card, complaining that Cassio’s promotion has not come from advancing steadily up the ranks as it should, but from favouritism: ‘Preferment goes by letter and affection,/ And not by old gradation, where each second/ Stood heir to th’ first’ (1.1.36-7). He is particularly galled by Othello going on and on about his love for Desdemona to her in front of him, totally ignoring him except to give orders to collect his luggage from the ship, ‘Go to the bay and disembark my coffers’ (2.1. 225). This tips the balance for an already overlooked, resentful, rejected man, and initiates a conflict internally within his ‘own side’, the Venetian Army. What then constitutes the real foe and what are the Turks compared to this?
Iago, whose mind is as greedy for creation and fabrication as his heart is shut-down and loveless, is now out to get Othello, confiding to Rodorigo that he is going to look like he’s following Othello but will actually ‘follow but myself’ – he will not be serving Othello in love and duty ‘but seeming so for my peculiar end’ (1.1. 61), openly exposing that he is entirely self-serving.
He then proceeds to invade Othello’s world through the deliberate misuse of the power of the word as weapon – in order to unseat him, piece by piece. Into the ears of chosen individuals he pours the poison of innuendo, rumour, doubt, slander and defamation: to Roderigo about Cassio, to Cassio about Desdemona, to Brabantio about Othello, to Othello about Roderigo, Cassio, and Desdemona, inciting some to violence, others to drink, and Othello to jealousy and insanity – the intricate plot of the drama is entirely built of the false creation that is Iago’s slander, persuasion and manipulation.
We have a whole drama about an infidelity that has never actually happened – talk about ‘much ado about nothing’!
The idiocy of it all is jaw-dropping. Shakespeare is surely commenting here on the ill nature of drama and the way we wilfully and destructively create it in our lives.
The audience gets a sense that Iago very much enjoys his role of masterminding his plot, enjoying his own malign ingenuity in devising the schemes to topple those around him as he gradually knocks out the pawns in his game, one by one – all starting with his innocent-sounding but decidedly undermining overture to Othello, ‘Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,/ Know of your love?’ (3.3.105-6). We can feel him enjoying himself as he sees the minute seismic shift in Othello’s surety of his wife’s fidelity, or as he wonders ‘Hmm . . . let’s see, how am I going to get Cassio?’, revealed in the soliloquy: ‘How. how? Let’s see:/ After some time, to abuse Othello’s ears/ That he [Cassio] is too familiar with his wife’ (2.1.409-11). Iago delivers his asides and soliloquies confidently as he creates a veritable ‘handbook’ of ‘how to manipulate and skew someone’s life totally off-track’ . . . without considering the consequences for all . . . including himself.
Iago is indeed a compelling presence in the play and is given by far the largest part. His devious PR program to destroy Othello circulates verbal ammunition through the army camp which acts as a kind of perverse alchemy where the ‘gold’ of life is turned into ‘lead’, where honourable people are turned into asses: as he says of Desdemona, ‘So I will turn her virtue into pitch,/ And out of her own goodness make the net/ That shall enmesh them all’ (2.3.351-3). He likewise observes how well his reverse alchemy of ‘doubt’ is working on Othello: ‘The Moor already changes with my poison:/ dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons’ (3.3.301-2). It is his poisonous verbal net that is in fact what kills Othello, although it is Othello’s own hand – through the abandonment of himself to these invisible forces – that does the deed. Another equally chilling ‘victory’ for Iago is the reverse transmutation of Othello the celebrated hero into the criminal imagined by racist fantasy – the black man stealing into the white girl’s bedchamber to kill her.
Iago’s statement that for Othello neither ‘poppy nor mandragora . . . shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep/ Which thou owed’st yesterday’ (3.3.336) implies that the only medicine able to resurrect a man fatally consumed by suspicion and doubt is truth itself.
The audience begins to realise that the real war being fought on this battlefield is the battle against truth.
Othello has allowed the poison of the ‘green-eyed monster’ jealousy to enter him and this is where the real invasion has occurred to unseat a Son of God (3.3.188). Jealousy is not something we are born with, it is an introduced force that sets us one against another, effectively countering our truth and the fact that we are powerfully universal beings, if we allow it.
Once Othello has let this force in he is no longer ‘himself’ as Desdemona acutely observes: ‘My lord is not my lord: nor should I know him’ (3.4.136). But how has he allowed this invasion? At some level Othello does know the truth, has registered it – he knows that when Iago is speaking to him about Cassio’s supposed seduction of Desdemona, it is ‘As if there were some monster in thy thought/ Too hideous to be shown!’ (3.3.121-2). The tragedy lies in his lack of discernment – in his blindness caused by the belief that Iago is ‘honest’ (something that is clearly untrue as he and Cassio have to continually repeat it to make it exist). This belief will not allow him to admit the fact that he has truly sensed a ‘monster’ in Iago’s thought – instead re-interpreting what he has felt and letting the refraction of belief cast the ‘monster’ onto Cassio, when in fact it nests within Iago. If only he had truly discerned what he actually registered and instead put on his ‘You’re just jealous’ T-shirt that morning he could have brought truth to the situation with the consequence of sparing his own, his wife’s, his friend’s, and Emilia’s life, and the larger consequence of building a foundation for true love in a world invaded by the iniquitous foes of jealousy and doubt.
Tragedy is traditionally about kings and generals, larger-than-life super-heroes who rise to the top but then are toppled. In this drama there are many mini-tragedies which all play their part in the victory, albeit temporary, for evil: that of Brabantio whose jealous ownership of his daughter blinds him to the love and trust that is there, causing him to sow the first seed of doubt in Othello’s ear: ‘Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see/ She has deceived her father, and may thee’ (1.3.313-4); that of Rodorigo whose foolish desire for Desdemona causes him to become Iago’s pawn – to sell all his possessions and become Cassio’s murderer; that of Cassio who allows himself to be nudged off-track by Iago’s plan to make him ‘full of quarrel and offence’ by getting him drunk, when he knows full well that he has ‘very poor and unhappy brains for drinking’ (2.3.31) – he ends in a violent brawl, mortally wounding Montano and so loses his position as Othello’s lieutenant; that of Desdemona who does not stand and say ‘no’ to her husband’s abuse – to his slapping of her face in public – instead succumbing to enact the cliché of the traditional lover’s complaint with the ‘Willow Song’ (symbol of lost or unrequited love) in her bedchamber and protesting to Emilia: ‘O, these men, these men!/ Dost thou in conscience think . . ./ that there are women do abuse their husbands/ In such gross kind?’ (4.3.66-9); that of Emilia who is so insecure in herself and her husband’s love that, to get his approbation, she steals the famous (sexually symbolic) strawberry-spotted white handkerchief which becomes the signature prop in Iago’s evil drama; and that of Iago, the grand manipulator who does not realise that he is a pawn in the game that is running him, a game that will equally and ultimately destroy him, and keep him from that which he yearns for most.
Finally there is Othello himself, who begins as a powerful general, a super-hero and is converted almost overnight into a madman through the plot of a villain. Yet is it enough to point a finger at Iago and say ’It’s all his fault’? That would certainly suit us most comfortably, and we could choose to continue to ingrain the conventionally held view, repeated over the centuries, that Othello is the ‘victim’ of Iago.
There are, however, some simple questions to be asked: why for example, did Othello fail to discern the ‘blackest sins’ behind Iago’s ‘heavenly shows’? Through what fatal ideal was he viewing the ‘honest’ Iago who was in fact the most dishonest of men? Why did he not sit down and ask Desdemona whom he ‘loved’ so well and discuss Iago’s insinuations about her, opening the possibility that they could expose Iago’s deception together and reaffirm their love?
Othello was a renowned and courageous hero at the outer level of life, but this was clearly not sufficient to see him through the inner battlefield where we can be ambushed by the unseen forces that attack us – the ‘insolent foe’.
Did he consult the truly ‘heroic’ aspect of himself – that far-reaching part within him which is aware, all-discerning and all-knowing of the truth of life and the fact that there is not one ounce of emotion or jealousy in true love? Why did he not have the presence of heart to connect with this part of himself that would never have countenanced the destruction of his own life, the lives of Desdemona, Cassio, and Emilia, and the many others affected?
How does a hero fall?
Not just because there is an envious baddy out there, waiting for him, but because the hero has fatally consented to a certain faint-heartedness, and has not had the courage to become the ‘hero of themselves’ and a brother to all. Othello could have been a warrior for truth, but he succumbed to the voices from the shadows. Without one shred of any real evidence he leapt to conclusions, was swept away by the ‘turbulent powers’ that ‘swiftly steal away’ the ‘heart’, as Krishna says of the emotions and ideals in the Bhagavad Gita. He let Iago run and direct this farce put together from fragments of his life in such a way that he was duped into believing that this ugly piece of patchwork quilting was the truth of his life.
Just before his suicide, after killing his beloved Desdemona, Othello bemoans the fact that he had ‘loved not wisely but too well’ (5.2.387) – and it is true, he did not love wisely, but neither did he love well enough or deeply enough to know love when he saw it, or when he had it in his arms.
"Latent in mankind is another way to live. To put it in its simplest form, it can be said that it is a deeply loving way of being. Importantly it is to be duly noted that the word ‘love’ is here used in its true meaning, a meaning that bears no emotion, but a Divine form of super intelligence, an all-knowing that lives in Co-creation rather than in creation. Unfortunately, but not surprising due to the unseen forces that oppose the energetic truths, the word ‘love’, like many words, has been deliberately altered to the point that its accepted or assumed meaning is a distant deviation away from its energetic truth"Serge Benhayon Time, Space and all of us, Book 1 – Time, p 348
Based on and inspired by the Ageless Wisdom as presented by Serge Benhayon