Othello: Moral and Immoral Aspects of the Play
Certain aspects of the moral dimension of the Shakespearean tragedy Othello are obvious to the audience, for example, the identity of the most immoral character. Other aspects are not so noticeable. Let us in this essay consider in depth this dimension of the drama.
Francis Ferguson in “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other” describes the deception of Iago: how he paints as evil a guiltless association between Cassio
The main conflict of the play is a strange one, for Othello
cannot see his opponent until too late
. But the audience sees with extraordinary clarity. In Act II Iago tricks Cassio into disgracing himself, and then takes advantage of the guileless affection between Cassio and Desdemona to create, for Othello, the appearance of evil. He explains this scheme to the audience, with mounting pleasure, as it develops; and by Act III he is ready to snare Othello himself. . . .(133)
The moral and immoral dimension of Othello, especially the latter, is enhanced simply by its location in Italy. Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “The Engaging Qualities of Othello” comment on how the exotic setting of this play satisfied the Elizabethan dramatist’s dream of portraying evil:
Elizabethan dramatists were fond of portraying characters of consummate evil, and if they could lay the scenes in Italy, all the better, because the literature and legend of the day were filled with stories of the wickedness of Italy. [. . .] Venice especially had a glamor and an interest beyond the normal. Every returning traveler had a tall tale to tell about the beauty and complaisance of Venetian women, the passion, jealousy, and quick anger of Venetian men, and the bloody deeds of Venetian bravoes. (127)
Even the remarkably good wife of the Moor is not without her weak moments, so that even she cannot be considered “perfect”. Angela Pitt in “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies” comments on Desdemona’s faults:
Once married, she continues to commit slight offences against the correct code of conduct for the ideal wife. She is no sooner married than she leaves hearth and home (the traditional limits of the woman’s realm) to be with Othello. She sees Cassio without her husband’s permission and is far too concerned with Cassio’s request. Her plan of how she will discuss the matter with Othello at every moment so that even ‘his bed shall seem a school’, shows far too much self-possession and strong will.
Desdemona has, therefore, some quite serious faults as a wife, including a will of her own, which was evident even before she was married. (45)
Standing out like a dark silhouette on a white background is the sinister character and master of deception in the drama – the general’s ancient. Morton W. Bloomfield and Robert C. Elliott in Great Plays: Sophocles to Brecht highlight the dominant evil force in the play, Iago:
For critics, the chief problem in the play is the character of Iago. The debate usually centers around whether he had sufficient motives for his cruel actions or whether, on the other hand, he is an example of “motiveless malignity.” The question cannot be resolved here, nor is it necessary to try to resolve it. Iago, whether because of his disappointment at not having been given Cassio’s position, or because of his belief that Othello had cuckolded him, or because of his love of evil for its own sake, is nevertheless a man who has rejected all ties of morality and idealism. (39)
Totaling the lies which the ancient tells to everyone about him would require considerable effort and time. In Shakespeare’s Four Giants Blanche Coles comments on the lack of veracity in Iago’s speech:
The story that Iago tells Roderigo about the promotion of Cassio over him is not true, although it has been accepted by many discriminating scholars. Careless reading alone can account for this misapprehension, careless reading which for the moment dulls their alertness to one of the most essential requirements of Shakespearean character analysis. That requirement is that the reader must never accept, or must always be ready to challenge, the word of any character unless the veracity of that character has been established, or unless the statement is accepted by more than one person of confirmed honesty. (76)
Iago’s lying is a type of immoral conduct which the ancient practices from beginning to end of the drama. But is lying his chief motivating evil? Roderigo’s opening lines to Iago in Act 1 Scene 1 take us to the very root of the problem:
Tush! never tell me; I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine, shouldst know of this. (1.1)
In other words, the wealthy playboy has been paying off the ancient for the soldier’s intercession with Desdemona on behalf of Roderigo. This payoff has been in progress before the play begins, and it continues even in Cyprus. Yes, it would seem that money is at the root of Iago’s moral downfall, and of all the tragic misfortune in this drama. In order to assure that Roderigo’s gifts, both in the form of money and jewelry, continue to himself, he initiates an intrigue which begins with the late-night storming of Brabantio’s residence, and ends with the deaths of Roderigo, Desdemona, Othello and Emilia.
The intrigue begins when Iago suggests to the wealthy playboy that he may be able to recover Desdemona by taking immediate strong action with her father against the general:
Call up her father,
Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies: though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on't,
As it may lose some colour. (1.1)
This incident leads to the public accusation against the Moor by Brabantio in front of the duke and senators of the city council. Brabantio is publicly embarrassed by Othello’s and Desdemona’s disclosures before the assembly; and he refuses to permit his daughter’s stay in his home during the Cyprus campaign. Later, Desdemona suspects that his influence is the reason why Cassio is awarded the governorship of Cyprus and Othello is recalled home. Even in the first two scenes it is apparent that Iago’s lust for money has set in motion a series of events that are snowballing into something more and more tragic.
Alongside this chain of events triggered by the avarice of Iago is another chain of events springing from innocence and morality. They center around the characters of Desdemona and Othello: She leaves her selfish father to share her love with the ideal man. He calmly rebuts the accusations, some prejudicial in nature, against his conduct toward Desdemona. She defends the Moor’s moral integrity and her own in front of the council; he does likewise. She unselfishly agrees to live with another family while her husband is busied in the war with the Turks; he concurs in this sacrifice. While waiting with Emilia and Iago at Cyprus, she heroically calls the ancient a “slanderer” and comes to the aid of his wife, who has been repeatedly downtrodden and hit upon by Iago. When the general’s ship arrives safely into the Cyprus port, he immediately greets his wife before anyone else, “O my fair warrior!” and “O my soul's joy!” When Governor Montano asks Cassio if the Moor is wived he responds with: “Most fortunately: he hath achieved a maid / That paragons description” – a reference to her goodness. The general, as a “celebration of his nuptial,” declares a period of “feasting” and recreation. Obviously, both Othello and Desdemona are very morally upright characters of exemplary conduct.
Meanwhile, existing side-by-side this lovely couple is another pair, the ancient and Roderigo, who carefully plot to undo and destroy the virtuous newlywed couple: “Her eye must be fed; / and what delight shall she have to look on the / devil?” Roderigo agrees to invest heavily in this sinister plot; “I’ll sell all my land,” he says, in order to buy jewelry for Desdemona and to pay off Iago. Act 2 sees results for the two when the lieutenant, lured into a drunken state by Iago, attacks Roderigo and Montano – and is dismissed by the Moor: “Cassio, I love thee; / But never more be officer of mine.” Soon afterwards Iago deceptively advises the ex-lieutenant to approach Desdemona to intercede with the general, to “importune her help to put you in your place again.”
Act 3 sees the steady advance of immorality and the retreat of morality. Iago maneuvers the general into position for viewing Cassio’s departure from Desdemona’s quarters: “Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?” The ancient works on the general’s mind, making it more vulnerable to suggestions regarding the faithlessness of Desdemona: “If more thou dost perceive, let me know more. / Set on thy wife to observe.” Furthermore, the ancient totally deceives the Moor regarding the subordinate’s intentions; Othello can see nothing but goodness in his officer: “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, / And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit / Of human dealings.” Just barely surviving is the general’s belief in Desdemona’s honesty: “If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!” Additionally in Act 3, Emilia yields to the temptation to hand over the decorated handkerchief to Iago, the one which “so often you did bid me steal.” Possession of the kerchief emboldens the ancient to concoct even more fantastic episodes to prove the falsity of Othello’s wife, for example, Cassio’s dream in which he has Desdemona as a lover: “’Sweet Desdemona, / Let us be wary, let us hide our loves,’” “then laid his leg / Over my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then / Cried ‘Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!’” The diabolical statements by Iago seize the emotions of the general: “I’ll tear her all to pieces!”
A glimmer of hope for a moral resurgence surfaces when Cassio approaches Desdemona again: “I do beseech you / That by your virtuous means I may again / Exist, and be a member of his love / Whom I with all the office of my heart / Entirely honor.” But this reiteration of the heroine’s virtuosity is inadequate to stem the tide of immorality: A prostitute, Bianca, enters the play; Cassio gives her the purloined kerchief; Othello recognizes it: “By heaven, that should be my handkerchief!”; the general and Iago plan the murders of Cassio and Desdemona; Roderigo ambushes Cassio; Iago murders Roderigo to cover his theft and then falsely accuses Bianca; Othello is incited by Cassio’s screams to murder Desdemona.
At the climax it is only Desdemona and Emilia who reflect morality in their actions. There is an exception, in a sense, and that is Othello, who thinks that he is doing the world a favor by eliminating a source of evil, namely his supposedly false wife. But Emilia is the one who, in asserting the innocence of her murdered mistress, resuscitates morality in this play. Emilia refutes the untrue notions which Othello says motivated him to kill; she counters Iago’s lies (“She give it Cassio? No, alas, I found it, / And I did give’t my husband.”) and lays the guilt for Desdemona’s murder on his shoulders. And she sacrifices her very life for the truth; she dies a martyr, stabbed by evil Iago.
A final moral question occurs to the audience: Can the protagonist, who has committed a double killing in the last scene, be saved? It would seem that Othello also is a martyr in a sense, voluntarily paying in full for the crime that he committed. In William Shakespeare: The Tragedies, Paul A. Jorgensen discusses the theology of the final scene:
It is better not to look too anxiously into the theology of the outcome. Othello has no doubt that he is damned. But better theologians than he would place more credence and hope in the genuineness of his final passion. From the stern general who had, as his first line, the cold “’Tis better as it is” (1.2.6), he has traversed a pilgrimage of known and feeling sorrow. And, it must be repeated, it will depend upon the beholder whether one judges or rejoices in the transfiguration of loving not wisely but too well. (66)
David Bevington in William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies comments that the basic story in the play is a moral one:
[. . .] Othello shares with these other plays a fascination with evil in its most virulent and universal aspect. These plays study the devastating effects of ambitious pride, ingratitude, wrath, jealousy, and vengeful hate – the deadly sins of the spirit – with only a passing interest in the political strife to which Shakespeare’s Roman or classical tragedies are generally devoted. Of the four, Othello is the most concentrated upon one particular evil. The action concerns sexual jealousy, and although human sinfulness is such that jealousy ceaselessly touches on other forms of depravity, the center of interest always returns in Othello to the destruction of a love through jealousy. [. . .] The battle of good and evil is of course cosmic, but in Othello that battle is realized through a taut narrative of jealousy and murder. (217)
Bevington, David, ed. William Shakespeare: Four Tragedies. New York: Bantam Books, 1980.
Bloomfield, Morton W. and Robert C. Elliott, ed. Great Plays: Sophocles to Brecht. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1965.
Coles, Blanche. Shakespeare’s Four Giants. Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard Smith Publisher, 1957.
Ferguson, Francis. “Two Worldviews Echo Each Other.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare: The Pattern in His Carpet. N.p.: n.p., 1970.
Jorgensen, Paul A. William Shakespeare: The Tragedies. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
Pitt, Angela. “Women in Shakespeare’s Tragedies.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Shakespeare’s Women. N.p.: n.p., 1981.
Shakespeare, William. Othello. In The Electric Shakespeare. Princeton University. 1996. http://www.eiu.edu/~multilit/studyabroad/othello/othello_all.html No line nos.
Wright, Louis B. and Virginia A. LaMar. “The Engaging Qualities of Othello.” Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996. Reprint from Introduction to The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare. N. p.: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1957.