The bankruptcy of reason.
Othello and Iago

Othello the Moor of Venice is one of Shakespeare's great tragedies. The text relates the story of a Moor and his unhappy love for the beautiful Desdemona.

Othello is a naval hero from the Renaissance, in the service of the republic of Venice. His sweetheart wife loves him despite her father's warnings. Iago, a subordinate, maligns Admiral Othello's young wife to him and he strangles his spouse in jealous rage. Afterwards it turns out that she was innocent. The war-hero, heart-broken, commits suicide.

As a human being Othello is as richly endowed as Cleopatra, but in a totally different way. As a lover he is patient, wise and full of confidence in his chosen partner. The admiral is generous like Antony but keeps a much better distance between profession and feelings. He is absolute, on the other hand, in his demand for fidelity in his partner; this is a corner-stone in their relationship.

Othello therefore becomes a study in a major prerequisite for the growth of loyal fellowship. Even when Iago starts his backbiting of Desdemona, he is rebuffed by the hero. When he persists, the admiral switches to demanding proof.

Destiny spares Desdemona the kind of pressure brought on Juliet and Cleopatra when the ground begins to shake. The admiral has, furthermore, been lucky in his choice of a wife. She is faultless, loves her husband and wishes for no one else. The Venetian lady is chaste, courteous and handsome, far more modest than her Egyptian predecessor. She has respectable reasons for trying to influence her husband in his choice of a next-in-command.

With Machiavelli for a friend

Life still goes wrong for them because of two special circumstances. The first concerns the comrade-in-arms Iago. The second is a lack of frankness between the spouses; we shall return to that point presently.

Othello's friend Iago was recently passed over when the admiral chose his second-in-command. Iago's feeling of disgrace is all the greater because he believes the admiral to have had an affair with his own wife. Iago is a man with no confidence in anyone. Against this background his deep hatred for his chief increases.

Enmity is a special case of indifference to the welfare of others. Iago harbours a similar hatred of Cassio, while Desdemona and Roderigo are thrown to the wolves simply because it suits his purpose. Iago next abuses the confidence shown him by his own wife. Ultimately his feelings for Emilia too prove to be superficial; in the last act he does not hesitate to stab her when she exposes him.

Iago is portrayed as an insecure and intensely jealous person in all areas of life. He is therefore related to Othello's jealousy. In addition he is a human being without ties to others since his values are centred exclusively around his own ambition.

At the same time the scoundrel is a master in disguising his hate. He who hides his feelings is calculating, and we realise that cunning is a special case of intelligence and reason. The special point about cunning is that it leads effort to be concentrated upon limited goals, especially our own. Hence Iago becomes a knowledgeable and single-minded antagonist. In a shrewd way he thinks out the right means to lead his surroundings to their ruin.

The description of the way in which Othello is lured to his destruction by his ‘friend’ is a masterpiece. The plot starts with misgivings and uneasiness. Then the instigator pretends that the suspicions are the admiral's own, while Iago protests that this mistrust is unreasonable on account of all that they both know about Desdemona. At most the suspicion should be allowed to continue as a possibility
if the wife's character should turn out to be as bad as the admiral now fears.

The advisor is a study in alert self-interest. Resolute love is interpreted as naïveté. Nothing in his surroundings is of an importance comparable to himself; other people count only as instruments for his personal ambitions. Such far-sighted points of view are adopted in every context. For instance, Iago assures Roderigo that Desdemona will quickly tire of Othello. “How poor are they that ha' not patience!”

Iago never doubts his own understanding. We are not told, on the other hand, of the deepest motives that have thrown him out of gear. Instead, we are given a penetrating study of the statecraft of Machiavelli transferred to private life and of the resulting misfortunes. Iago shows us the calculating reason of a man, as did Cleopatra that of a woman.

The villain's cunning is so thoroughgoing that everyone trusts him. To him that is yet another reason to exploit them. In this way Iago points to some of the dangers we face when we let love direct our lives. For the calculation of others too is part of our world.

As supreme leader Othello has great powers to resist the impositions of others. Iago still gets the upper hand by arranging a couple of wily episodes. He lets Cassio talk about his mistress while Othello, listening, believes the conversation to be about Desdemona. He further manages to get hold of a handkerchief that Othello has given Desdemona as a pledge of love.

Nature as a danger

With these two incidents Othello's trust breaks down. He then quickly develops two of the characteristics that brought Romeo to his end.

First and most important, the admiral is not frank. He tries speaking with Desdemona but never tells her fully of Iago's ‘proofs’. The concealment gains in dimension by Desdemona's one act of cowardice: She knows that the family handkerchief has disappeared but dares not admit its loss. Instead she maintains that she has it still, while her husband has knowledge to the contrary.

Othello is then delivered into the grips of his only other kinship with Romeo: a wild violence once he is certain in his mind. When the husband thinks he has examined the wife's case as thoroughly as possible, he strikes without restraint.

The total reversal is logical. The warrior's love is built on unlimited trust and once the trust is broken the world founders. From then on every bit of information is interpreted from a new and frightening angle. Othello asks Iago to keep Desdemona under close surveillance and to kill his next-in-command, while Othello exerts himself to obtain final proof of his wife's adultery.

Everything that Desdemona now does is turned against her. The fact that she left her father in favour of Othello becomes a presage of betrayal of her husband as well. The turn-around is so abrupt that the rugged warrior faints, or does he have an epileptic fit? The wife's forgiveness at the end is taken as proof of her untruthfulness in life.

Othello is toppled by the same haste that led Romeo to disaster and ultimate suicide. The great Moor is certainly more careful than the Veronese, and this postpones his mistakes. But in the final analysis there is no difference in the feelings that are allowed to rule him on the deepest level. When ‘certainty’ has been obtained, the wildness of the adult is fully as violent as that of the very young lover. The only real difference is that Othello has a terrible antagonist, Iago being a far greater danger than any encountered by Romeo.

Iago calls on jealousy and revenge, a basis just as strong as the first sexual infatuation. Our natural feelings are once again exposed as inadequate weapons. Challenges from far beyond our close circle are always a possibility. If they materialise, they become threats that may destroy even the most promising beginning. — Just where lies the danger?

It is too simple to conclude that Othello's tragedy is caused by the terrifying effects of jealousy; for the hero — in contradistinction to Iago — is initially not at all jealous.

Nor is this a case of an undeserved defeat due to intoxicated love. To be sure, Desdemona is to a great extent felled through her own feelings, but these are feelings of goodwill towards poor Cassio. Her love for her husband has none of the unreasonableness that characterised Cleopatra. She is, however, vulnerable in a different way: Her love is of the hero-worship kind and she is far from being on terms of easy intimacy with her husband. Furthermore, having abandoned her father she is entirely dependent on Othello alone. But in the present conflict she is guilty only of a simple desire to cover up an unfortunate occurrence. This tiny offence nevertheless turns fatal faced with the husband's absolute demand for complete confidence in their marriage.

The admiral falls because of his one unconditional demand. Desdemona's hero-worship is matched by Othello's idealism. His conception of marriage is one of idealised perfection. The tragedy would require no more explanation if Desdemona had indeed met Othello's trust with faithlessness; but she has actually been true to him. How then can Othello's ideal of a trustful relationship between husband and wife lead to disaster? This is possible because such an ideal must be matched by scrupulous honesty. The downfall is therefore caused by the lack of painstaking frankness on the part of both. The reason why they are not quite open is perhaps that such exposure would take some of the glow of perfection out of the light in which they perceive each other.

Iago is in a sense considerably more exciting. Our scoundrel believes in a quality valued by most of us: reason as our best safeguard. Iago trusts his own mental powers, and this brings about
his downfall. All his efforts have been completely self-serving, however. His defeat is therefore not considered tragic and is not felt as frightening. Rather, we witness the reassuring punishment of a ruthless villain.

The two central dangers in the plot have now been identified. Iago shows us the limits to what reason can accomplish, in that even a glittering intelligence leads astray if its goals are too narrow. The other danger is the limit of love's power. In a world where our reason is an insufficient guarantee, our valuable feelings can be protected only through complete openness. This requires that we abstain from idealising marriage, our partners or ourselves.

Man's lot is to try to grasp an infinite horizon. His view being limited, he is bound to fall down. His mistakes are life's inevitable tragedy.