Iago and Equivocation: The Seduction and Damnation of Othello

R. M. Christofides
Independent Scholar

R. M. Christofides. "Iago and Equivocation: The Seduction and Damnation of Othello". Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10). <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/chriothe.htm>.


  1. Much recent attention has understandably been devoted to the hero of Othello, so this essay will tackle its scheming, devilish villain. The seductive capabilities of equivocation in Macbeth have been a familiar mine for critical exploration,[1] but, as this article proposes, Iago’s equivocal mode of address offers similar possibilities. Father Henry Garnet’s equivocations before the King’s Council in 1606 were effectively lies, exemplifying equivocation as a way of lying by withholding part of the truth. Equivocation as dissimulation may also be understood as an adherence to the letter of the truth that invites another meaning. Alternatively, equivocation exploits the ambiguity of meaning, inviting misconstruction or uncertainty by an utterance that lends itself to more than one reading. Iago equivocates with both dissimulations and ambiguities: in language that is perceptibly incomplete, he undoes Othello with the suggestion that what appears to be true is actually false.

  2. Equivocation, according to the poststructuralist theory of language, is the condition of all linguistic exchange. So, from a poststructuralist perspective, Othello’s confusion is the human experience of language. It was Ferdinand de Saussure who privileged the signified within the linguistic sign over the referent in the world. In other words, language itself, not the outside world, determines meaning (de Saussure 65-70, 111-122). For instance, we comprehend the term “man” in its phonemic difference from the terms “can”, “van”, or “fan”, not because it is fixed to an entity or concept in the world. Following Saussure, Jacques Derrida goes on to argue that meaning results from the trace of difference, since we understand a term by reference not to the world but to its differentiating other. Meaning depends on the trace of “man” in “woman”, a trace that marks “the relationship with the other” (Derrida, Of Grammatology 47). An effect of this trace is to unfix, or deconstruct, binary oppositions such as “man” and “woman”. Derrida argues that the signifier, without access to free-standing concepts, is as a result separated from any possible fullness of its own meaning, the fullness only a Logos, or transcendental signified, outside language could ensure. In a world devoid of such divine guarantees, signification cannot be closed, final, or held in place, and equivocation stands as its general condition. 

  3. This essay appropriates the poststructuralist account of language for the Christian universe posited in Othello in order to understand the whole play, as well as the presentation of Iago. Poststructuralist theory rejects transcendental signifieds as metaphysical, but Othello is set in a metaphysical universe where such a transcendental signified can be understood as God, or, appropriately, the Logos. In this designation often used by Christian theology, Jesus Christ is linked to the original Greek “logos” that denotes both “reason” and “word”. The divine reason connects truth, rationality, and language, as in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John. 1.1).  And, according to Christian theology, God, the prime Logos, will deliver a Judgement that will resolve equivocation once and for all. This is evident in the imagery of the play, which makes sense in the light of pre-Reformation iconography still familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. Tricked by Iago’s equivocations, Othello realizes his crime and welcomes damnation with words that invoke medieval depictions of the Doom. His tragedy depends on the gap between truth and language in a world that awaits the arrival of final, unequivocal Judgement.

  4. Traditionally, the problem of Othello has been seen as Othello. A.C. Bradley renounced the idea of Othello as “a study of a noble barbarian […] who retains beneath the surface the savage passions of his Moorish blood”, and instead saw the protagonist as “unusually open to deception, and […] likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable” (151). Bradley rejected the relevance of Othello’s skin colour to his essential character, but still ascribed to him traits associated in Shakespeare’s time with the savagery of blackness. In so doing, he elided the dazzling display of linguistic skills Iago employs in order to influence Othello. Indeed, the general does not submit to Iago’s advances as easily as the malleable pair of Roderigo and Brabantio. F.R. Leavis was more brutal than Bradley, calling Bradley’s approach “completely wrong-headed”. Rather than a noble Moor, for Leavis Othello is “at the best, the impressive manifestation of a noble egotism” (136, 142). Despite this difference of opinion, Bradley and Leavis both saw the fault to lie with Othello’s vulnerability rather than Iago’s ingenuity.

  5. In the modern, postcolonial age race has become the issue. Murray J. Levith’s colonialist and essentialist reading argues that, like Cyprus, Othello has a veneer of civilization “but waiting to erupt at any moment are dark forces”. Desdemona’s murder thus confirms Levith’s view of Othello as a representative of “primitive and elemental chaos” (32). With greater generosity, Ania Loomba and Jonathan Burton both focus on Othello’s race, while Karen Newman, Michael Neill, and Loomba again, examine the relationship between race and sexuality in the play.[2] Stephen Greenblatt, in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, urges us to consider Othello’s fall as a submission to his own definition of himself as an outsider, a vision that Iago’s equivocal prompts encourage. However, Greenblatt’s focus on Othello’s narrative self-fashioning, in the absence of any close, rigorous textual analysis, devalues Iago’s interventions. Elsewhere, Ben Saunders scrutinizes early modern associations of anality in Othello, in the process psychopathologizing Iago’s statements as “insights into Iago’s character that remain unknown to Iago himself” (156). The study of his personality implies that Iago’s often contradictory disclosures are the result of an innate falsehood beyond his control.

  6. On the contrary, I will argue that Iago’s consummate, strategic manipulation of an unstable language tempts Othello to his doom. The state’s best general, Othello commands the stage at the start of the play with his composure, speaks in the civilized Christian tone of Shakespeare’s Venice, and enjoys the full confidence of the senate. What changes is not a consequence of character. Despite this impressive and auspicious beginning, the exotic adventurer eventually conforms to Iago’s account of adultery, a fall that can be attributed to the condition of language: Iago maliciously uses equivocation in order to seduce Othello. Undone, the warrior Moor confirms his damnation and takes his own life. As he does so, Othello invokes the final, unequivocal Judgement that could resolve both equivocation and tragedy. Shakespeare withholds this Apocalypse from the plot of the play, but it makes its presence felt in the vocabulary of Othello: convinced the horrible deed has condemned him to hell’s eternal fires, he calls on soul-snatching devils to whip him to hell, words that illustrate the conventions of pre-Reformation depictions of the Doom.

  7. Othello’s disgrace occurs in a fallen world, and in this world equivocation is the condition of language. Distanced from God, the Logos of Othello’s profoundly Christian universe, this fallen language lacks the stability and resolution divine intervention could offer. Without God to validate language as complete, full of presence, truth, and a single unequivocal meaning, the play’s conflict culminates in tragedy as the power of the unchecked signifier runs riot. Demonically exploiting the heterogeneity of language, Iago, an anti-Logos who counterpoints the truth and rationality of divine reason, uses Othello’s vulnerabilities to make the untrue appear true, tempting the general to his doom like one of the snatching devils that pull souls to hell in the apocalyptic imagery of the play’s end.

  8. Iago displays his fiendishness from the start as a combination of equivocations and lies make his schemes of falsified connections possible. As he outlines his Machiavellian interests to his dupe, the endlessly foolish Roderigo, Iago both states the obvious and defines himself, obliquely, as an equivocator: “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago. | In following him I follow but myself” (1.1.57-58).[3] This riddle at once divides and conflates the two, introducing a distinction between Othello and Iago, between the selfsame and the other, even while it describes the dependency of Iago’s success on Othello’s station. On the other hand, when Iago explicitly calls his allegiance to Othello nothing more than show by playing on the meaning of “sign” as a token or military banner and, alternatively, as a pretence, he names a straightforward lie: “I must show out a flag and sign of love, | Which is indeed but sign” (1.1.158-159). These statements describe the absolute divorce of his secret motivations from his outward presentation, a separation the plotting ensign pledges to unify eventually:

    Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
    But seeming so for my peculiar end.
    For when my outward action doth demonstrate
    The native act and figure of my heart
    In complement extern, ’tis not long after
    But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
    For daws to peck at. I am not what I am. (1.1.59-65)

  9. With Roderigo twisted around his words, Iago invokes the Judgement of heaven. But, like Iago himself, this invocation is not what it seems. He promises a disclosure that never arrives. When Othello demands an explanation for his devilish machinations, Iago keeps his motivations secret: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. | From this time forth I never will speak word” (5.2.309-310).

  10. Just as Iago delivers silence, not closure, the Logos is kept off-stage by Shakespeare, withholding from the play the resolution and stability it could provide. This process, the unfulfilled promise of soteriology, encapsulates the dramaturgy of Shakespeare’s tragedy: without the Logos language is unanchored, but the divine intervention that might thwart Iago is also missing. Instead, in Othello, Iago the anti-Logos revels in the anarchic possibilities of a linguistic creativity, succeeding in his attempts to prompt a tragedy the Logos does not intervene to prevent. So when Iago says that Cassio did “Lie”, he equivocates, allowing Othello to imagine the lurid possibilities the word suggests in this context: “With her, on her, what you will” (4.1.33). Myriad meanings drive Othello into a fit: “Lie with her? Lie on her? We say ‘lie on her’ when they belie her! Lie with her? ’Swounds, that’s fulsome!” (4.1.34-36). Although Othello can explain away one expression as, ironically, the telling of lies about Desdemona, the other, sexual implication torments him. More than just an allegory of evil who views man as “uninhibited and uninspired by any participation in divinity” (Spivack 424), Iago thrives where God is absent, demonically manipulating a fallen, unstable language to bring about tragedy.

  11. Desdemona and Iago’s salacious repartee warns the audience that neither are what Othello takes them to be. Iago makes it clear that he is not the honest ensign others describe him as, while Desdemona forewarns us that the playful and wanton young bride she briefly plays disguises her anxiety over Othello’s uncertain fate on the rough seas to Cyprus: “I am not merry, but I do beguile | The thing I am by seeming otherwise” (2.1.125-126). A fateful echo of Iago’s counterfeit signs of love, Desdemona’s words foreshadow Othello’s mistake: he accepts the satanic Iago’s lies as honesty and Desdemona’s truths as dissimulation and dishonesty, a misrecognition that leads him to brand Emilia with “the office opposite to Saint Peter” at the gates of hell in her role as Desdemona’s mistress, an ironic substitution of place for Iago’s wife (4.2.95). Desdemona’s explicit statement contrasts with Iago’s display of quick-witted linguistic dexterity, a showcase of the skills that will turn the fiction of Desdemona’s lustfulness into an apparent fact for Othello.

  12. In opting for ingenuity over ingenuousness, Othello makes the wrong choice. Iago claims that his “muse labours” (2.1.130) but his subsequent performance contradicts the claims of speech that struggles to be delivered. The ensign begins with simple, aphoristic praise of Desdemona:

    If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
    The one’s for use, the other useth it. (2.1.132-133)

    However, lewder language replaces this restrained tribute of courtesy when Desdemona encourages Iago to praise a “black and witty” (2.1.134) lady:

    If she be black and thereto have a wit,
    She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit. (2.1.135-136)

    Both the “fit” of the Folio and the “hit” of the Quarto emphasize the possible connotation of “blackness” as vulva and hint ominously at Othello and Desdemona’s mixed marriage. Desdemona calls Iago’s absurdities “old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh i’th’ alehouse” (2.1.140-141) but they also indirectly refer to her. Iago reinforces an irreverent attitude to virtue, which he has described as a “fig” (1.3.319), by implying that the innocent are hypocritical because the sinful only perform the same “foul pranks which fair and wise ones do” (2.1.145). Moreover, when Iago goes on to list the merits of an upstanding, morally strong, and chaste woman, a description that bears a strong resemblance to Desdemona, he dismisses such an ideal woman as fit only “To suckle fools, and chronicle small beer” (2.1.163). Here Iago equivocates in the following sense: his apparently flippant and nonsensical rhymes are proved true by his actions. His dismissal of the feminine ideal he presents anticipates the casual manner in which he manufactures Desdemona’s death. Indeed, Cassio’s remark that Iago “speaks home” (2.1.168) can be understood as more than just the apology for Iago’s boldness in courteous society: though it has been argued that Iago consistently reminds the audience of motives that are “connected […] by his class feeling” (Honigmann 84), Cassio’s haughty intervention, as well as Desdemona’s reference to bawdy bars, also suggest that Iago amuses and scandalizes those around him with the very licentious immorality that eventually engineers their downfall. A dangerous honesty comes disguised as burlesque comedic quips, a tactic that acts as a counterpoint to Desdemona’s explicit disavowal of her role in the lewd banter. Tragically, Othello accepts the lascivious lie Iago constructs as truth and rejects Desdemona’s abhorrence of it, taking at face value Iago’s disguise, rather than Desdemona’s disavowal.

  13. Oiling the wheels of this turn from fiction to fact, Iago convinces Othello that what he withholds is virtuous. Iago orchestrates Cassio’s assault on Montano then gives the impression of reluctantly reporting the events. Warned by Montano that his account should not “deliver more or less than truth” (2.3.212), the dissembling ensign responds in words that signify doubly to the audience: “Touch me not so near” (2.3.213). This plea feigns grave disappointment with a charge that might “do offence to Michael Cassio” (2.3.215) and admits to the accusation of both embellishment and calculated restraint, an admission only the audience can hear. With a glee obvious to the viewer, Iago delivers a sober account that fakes neutrality and persuades Othello that his “honesty and love doth mince this matter, | Making it light to Cassio” (2.3.240-241). As a result, Othello is seduced by the assumption that Iago withholds information in order to extenuate Desdemona’s fault: “This honest creature doubtless | Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds” (3.3.247-248). Not only does Cassio’s fall pave the way for Iago’s rise, it also creates the conditions that make Iago’s defamatory attack on Desdemona believable to Othello.


  14. In the temptation scene, Iago repeats Othello’s words in order to give them a different meaning. Derrida stresses the “essential iterability” of language in general, in which he includes the alterity that comes with every repetition because, by definition, a repetition occurs in a different context (Limited Inc 9). Iago pounces on the opportunity offered by the shamed Cassio’s guilty disappearance to repeat, to cite, Othello’s own words with an alternative emphasis. Not an unequivocal statement of the worst, this change of emphasis nevertheless invites Othello to assume it. Iago starts with a question that tempts Othello:

    IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady,
    Know of your love?
    OTHELLO. He did, from first to last. Why dost thou ask?
    IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
    No further harm. (3.3.96-100)

    Iago withholds the supposed thought for which he seeks clarification and then entices Othello with the possibility that there remains a doubt as to Cassio’s role in the wooing of Desdemona:

    OTHELLO. Why of thy thought, Iago?
    IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted with her.
    OTHELLO. O yes, and went between us very oft.
    IAGO. Indeed?
    OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. (3.3.100-104)

    Without any further information offered by Iago, Othello delves deeper into the surprise his ensign displays at Cassio’s frequent role as a go-between. Othello repeats Iago’s words twice, initially with a reciprocal surprise and then as a restatement that attempts to remove suspicion. The very repetition he makes, however, raises an irresistible doubt and Iago reverses the flow of interlocution:

    OTHELLO                                 Discern’st thou aught in that?
    Is he not honest?
    IAGO  Honest, my lord?
    OTHELLO. Honest? Ay, honest.
    IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
    OTHELLO                                             What dost 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! (3.3.104-112)

    If, as Thomas Moisan contends, Othello is an “echo chamber” (50), Iago’s repetitions here, his echoes of Othello, insinuate something different using the same words, a scheme of anaphora that exploits the instability of a fallen language distanced from a stabilizing Logos.

  15. Tormenting a beleaguered Othello, Iago’s equivocal mode of address invites the hero to make his own interpretation of an incomplete text, constructing in the process an abyssal trap without exit. Knowingly tight-lipped, the ensign’s controlled statements entice Othello to volunteer the likelihood of Desdemona’s infidelity. Facial expressions supplement Iago’s speech in order to emphasize his sinister point to an increasingly agitated Othello:

    And when I told thee [Cassio] was of my counsel
    In my whole course of wooing, thou cried’st "Indeed?"
    And didst contract and purse thy brow together
    As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain
    Some horrible conceit. (3.3.115-119)

    Subtle insinuations and grimaces of concern exploit Othello’s vulnerabilities so that the ensign’s abridged linguistic menace manages to accuse Desdemona by proxy. Tactically taciturn, Iago tempts Othello to question Desdemona’s chastity on his behalf: in short, Iago speaks through Othello, reinforcing his manipulation with clarifying body language. To paraphrase Derrida, speech is never complete, full, or stable, and supplementary gestures demonstrate this originary lack. In Othello Iago exploits this lack of self-sufficiency in speech: the scheming anti-Logos echoes Othello with added grimaces that emphasize the alterity of repeated words.

  16. Alternatively, when the situation requires, the opportunistic, predatory Iago quickly swaps taciturnity for loquacity. In response to Othello’s demand that he speak his mind, Iago deliberately procrastinates and stresses at length that his thoughts may be unpalatable “As where’s that palace whereinto foul things | Sometimes intrude not?” (3.3.142-143). Here the devilish ensign employs the tact of “dilatory time” (2.3.368), which requires patience. Patricia Parker identifies three meanings of “dilation” at work in Othello: delay, amplification and accusation. Iago brings all three meanings together and, as Othello begs him not to conceal thoughts from a deceived friend, he increases the pressure:

    IAGO It were not for your quiet nor your good,
    Nor for my manhood, honesty, and wisdom,
    To let you know my thoughts.
    OTHELLO                                             What dost thou mean? (3.3.157-159)

  17. The blasphemous exclamation absent here and in the Folio, but present in the Quarto, emphasizes Othello’s exasperation, as does the “By heaven” (3.3.166) a few lines later that prefixes the general’s determination to know Iago’s thoughts. Othello’s seduction by Iago may be slower in the Folio because his “furious exclamation becomes […] a question, a demand for more information” (Stern 55), but in both texts Iago’s performance intrigues Othello more with each line. By withholding any explicit statement, Iago becomes “the dramatist within the play itself” (Parker 65). Brabantio and Roderigo both fall under his spell, and Othello too allows himself to be orientated by Iago’s use of language, stressing, as Catherine Bates’s examination of the subtly woven webs of narrative in the play asserts, “the literariness, the sheer wordiness of Iago’s narrative” (51). And as his ensign’s word count increases so does the general’s conviction of being wronged. When Iago declares that the “cuckold lives in bliss | Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger” (3.3.171-172), Othello’s simple response of “O misery!” (3.3.175) signifies the completion of a movement from a question of wooing to one of woe.

  18. Iago’s equivocal words also suggest the supernatural but do not confirm it. About to seclude and exclude Othello, the ensign twists the knife with a blackly comic show of reassurance that warns against hell’s malice:

    O, ’tis the spite of hell, the fiend’s arch-mock,
    To lip a wanton in a secure couch
    And to suppose her chaste! (4.1.69-71)

  19. The fiend here, of course, is Iago, who professes, amongst other motives that negate each other, an envy that leads him to mock Othello. To interpret Iago as a devil in turn implies a God who does not intervene in the play. Rather, Iago is more than that: a fiend whose fiendishness remains unproven in a play where divinity is invoked but does not appear on-stage to assert its existence or the existence of its opposite. In other words, Iago himself is an equivocation. Neill proposes that the inconsistent, contradictory motives of Iago’s sexual jealousy and professional envy offer “symptomatic expressions of his core resentment, the cancer of comparison at the heart of his being” (“Changing Places in Othello” 121). We can understand these falsehoods that are disguised as truth another way. As humans we experience language as heterogeneous, unstable, and in a continual state of flux; it is the transcendental signified, the Logos, the Christian God of Othello’s universe, that can bring stability and resolution to language. But, in a fallen world, a fallen language lies at the mercy of Iago, the anti-Logos, who deconstructs the opposition between truth and falsehood that the Logos would reinforce. Set on a hellish rack by Iago, Othello rejects the satanic torture of Iago’s mode of address:

    Avaunt, be gone. Thou hast set me on the rack.
    I swear ’tis better to be much abused
    Than but to know’t a little. (3.3.340-342)

    Othello swiftly demands to be “satisfied” (3.3.395), to be released from the purgatorial space in-between truth and falsehood that Iago drags him into. For Neill, language “begins to break upon the rack of equivocation” in the play (“Changing Places in Othello” 125). Shakespeare’s metaphor of the infernal torture can be extended: Iago’s rack, the purgatory of falsehood disguised as truth his words create, stretches meaning to the point where the dramatis personae border on, seem to glimpse, the play’s universe of immortal and divine existence that exists beyond the human language that invokes it.


  20. Equivocation is the alternating, supplemental current of a metaphysical framework where a Logos is implied but its truths withheld. Iago equivocates to those around him, and the audience, teasing all with the possibility that he stands as hellish divinity dramatized, a representation of evil, a devil let loose on stage. The existence of such a “demi-devil” (5.2.307) implies the corresponding existence of a Logos by seeming to refer to another, supernatural realm where truth resides. In other words, the possibility of Iago’s otherworldliness, as well as Othello’s invocations of heavenly divinity in the final scene of the play, takes us to the threshold of the play’s mortal world, a liminal point where the play’s language of salvation and damnation comes close to convergence with the transcendental world that lies beyond language, where salvation and damnation are unequivocally delivered.

  21. In the final scene of the play, Othello’s language unites human and divine justice as he approaches Desdemona’s sleeping body with murderous intent. One way a Jacobean audience may have understood Othello’s “cause” (5.2.1) would have been as “a matter before a court for decision” (OED, n. 8) and, by extension, also as a “trial” (OED, n. 8.b). Later, Othello warns Desdemona to “take heed of perjury” (5.2.54) as she denies giving the strawberry-spotted handkerchief to Cassio. Moreover, the word “cause” would also have suggested a charge, accusation, or blame (OED, n. 9). Shakespeare later used the word in this sense as a mock judgement when the maddened Lear refers to the affair that produced Gloucester’s bastard son, Edmund: “What was thy cause? | Adultery? Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery!” (The Tragedy of King Lear, 4.5.109-110). Like Lear, Othello plays the judge, but whereas Lear rallies against divinity, Othello describes himself as a minister of celestial Justice: “This sorrow’s heavenly, | It strikes where it doth love” (5.2.21-22). Having just claimed that Desdemona’s “balmy breath […] dost almost persuade | Justice to break her sword!” (5.2.16-17), Othello’s bittersweet words of love and sorrow paraphrase the traditional Christian proverb that God punishes those He loves. Indeed, Othello ominously advises Desdemona to pray “to heaven and grace” for pardon (5.2.29). Here, Othello judges on behalf of God; he assumes the office of the Logos, but, of course, the audience knows Desdemona has been misjudged, that the sword of justice should rightly break. Her insistent denial of adultery exposes the unhappy conflation of transcendental Judgement and mortal judgement made by Othello:

    O perjured woman! Thou dost stone my heart,
    And makes me call what I intend to do
    A murder, which I thought a sacrifice. (5.2.68-70)

  22. Othello’s conflict results in an equivocation between murder and sacrifice that anticipates his damnation for wrongful killing. Unable to reconcile a falsely sworn Desdemona with the innocence she protests, Othello reflects on the cruel act he has just committed, foreshadowing his spiritual ruin when Desdemona’s innocence and his terrible crime are revealed:

    Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
    Of sun and moon, and that th’affrighted globe
    Should yawn at alteration. (5.2.108-110)

    This vision proves an anti-climax: the cataclysmic events that should greet Desdemona’s death do not arrive here. Instead, the words echo the Book of Revelation where St John of Patmos describes the apocalypse heralded by the trumpets of the angels: “And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon” (Rev. 8.12). Othello, who delivers brutal, human justice laced with the language of Christian divinity, invokes a Judgement that he ultimately delivers upon himself: he kills Desdemona and himself in the light of a mortal sense of justice inspired by a Christian Judgement that is called on, but does not answer.

  23. Such imagery shares much with the depictions of the Last Judgement found in Catholic, pre-Reformation churches and cathedrals. Emilia’s horrified response to Desdemona’s hellish fate paints Othello, rather than her mistress, as hell-bound:

    OTHELLO. She’s like a liar gone to burning hell.
    ’Twas I that killed her.
    EMILIA. O, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil! (5.2.138-140)

    Desdemona is imagined as condemned to a fiery perdition, while Othello’s action compounds his skin colour, a blackness that stands in stark opposition to the fair whiteness of the sanctified Desdemona. Emilia’s condemnation also stresses the connection between Othello’s blackness and the devil, which Morris Palmer Tilley lists in his collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English proverbs, a link that, in one proverb, brings the devil together with the coal-blackness of a collier or coalman: “Like will to like, quoth the devil to the collier” (382). Here the descriptions of Desdemona and Othello suggest damnation as depicted in medieval Doom images, where fair, white souls were commonly seen to be carted off to a red, fiery hell by vividly coloured, or dark, often black, devils.

  24. An extant example of a stained glass depiction of the Last Judgement can be seen in St. Mary’s Church, Fairford. The church retains a complete set of late medieval glass made largely in Westminster by Barnard Flower, the King’s Glazier, between 1500 and 1517 with the help of glaziers and glass painters from the Netherlands. Located in Gloucestershire, on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, Fairford lies just east of Cirencester, a town that was accessible from Stratford-upon-Avon in Shakespeare’s day along the Roman road, the Fosse Way. The Great West Window of St. Mary’s Church depicts the Last Judgement and is split in two: the upper half, a Victorian restoration, shows Christ in Judgement, with Mary and St. John the Baptist kneeling down on either side, and a sword of justice rests on one of Christ’s shoulders; below the transom sixteenth-century angels raise the dead with their trumpets, a golden-armoured St. Michael holds scales of justice, St. Peter guards the entrance to heaven, and, to the right, blue devils carry the damned souls to hell where a black, monstrous Satan sits (Figure 1).

  25. In the iconoclastic fervour of the Reformation similar painted images were removed from their place above many chancel arches. However, these depictions of the Doom were widespread, and injunctions by both Edward VI and Elizabeth I failed to obliterate them all. As late as 1643-4, William Dowsing worked his way through Suffolk and Cambridgeshire doggedly implementing a Parliamentary Ordinance to destroy surviving superstitious and idolatrous monuments. In the Elizabethan era an exception seems to have been made for stained glass. The 1559 injunction by Elizabeth I to remove images from places of worship included a clause for the preservation and restoration of stained glass windows, an indication of her “concern that church buildings should be decently maintained” (Marks 231). Moreover, there was also a pragmatic reason why stained glass windows were more likely to survive than other images: they “were permitted to remain intact because of the expense of replacement” (Marks 232). Many windows, like extant wall paintings that can still be seen today, thus had a chance to survive the sectarian battles of the early modern period. Shakespeare may well have seen depictions of the Last Judgement such as the stained glass Doom at St. Mary’s, particularly considering that the trumpet-tongued angels, the fiery, reptilian hell-mouths, and the harrying devils were standard elements of these images, one of which would also have adorned the Guildhall Chapel in Stratford-upon-Avon. Perhaps it was even difficult to avoid them. Not only would the ideological struggle itself have kept such images fresh in the cultural memory of early modern society, but in an era of mandatory church attendance parishioners would have seen these images that were intended to relate Biblical narratives to largely illiterate parishes and spoken about them. Shakespeare must, at the very least, have paid attention. More than that, it would appear he saw a similarity between Christian eschatology and human communication, both of which are endlessly denied the Logos that would constitute an unequivocal idiom.

  26. In Othello the protagonist calls for Judgement with words that illustrate the conventions of apocalyptic imagery, particularly as depicted by images of the Doom. As Iago’s schemes are revealed, Othello calls for the divine to step in: “Are there no stones in heaven | But what serves for the thunder?” (5.2.241-242). At once, Othello seems to expectantly wait for, and despair of, thunderbolts of punishment instead of everyday thunder and lightning. Othello’s final, futile request finds only Iago’s silence:

    OTHELLO. Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
    Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?
    IAGO. Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
    From this time forth I never will speak word. (5.2.307-310)

  27. His soul and body irreconcilable to God, Othello explicitly declares his own damnation. In non-response Iago reiterates his position as the anti-Logos: despite the invocations of the Day of Judgement, the time when all equivocation stops and resolution comes, Iago falls silent and no transcendental body shows its hand. Only the Logos can end equivocation, while Iago is defined by enigmatic irresolution that withholds disclosure. The one, unequivocal good implies the other, equivocal evil.

  28. Othello’s image of the Day of Judgement is much like the Great West Window of St. Mary’s. He imagines the fearful moment of account when he will face Desdemona:

    When we shall meet at count
    This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
    And fiends will snatch at it. (5.2.280-282)

  29. In the stained glass, devils cart souls off to hell where Satan waits. One literally snatches at a soul protected by an angel with a golden staff (Figure 2). More, the vexed journey into the everlasting torture of hell that Othello desires articulates the common depiction of perdition:

    Whip me, ye devils,
    From the possession of this heavenly sight.
    Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,
    Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire! (5.2.284-287)

  30. At St. Mary’s, a red devil with a flail whips a rising soul away from heaven and towards the fires of hell (Figure 3). Despite the fact that no intervention of divinity is apparent to the audience, in the mind of the protagonist Judgement has been delivered that condemns him to the infernal underworld. Othello’s attack on Iago tests the materiality and truth of his belief in a quest for cloven hooves: “I look down towards his feet, but that’s a fable. | If that thou beest a devil I cannot kill thee” (5.2.292-293). A thrust blade wounds Iago, who doesn’t die: “I bleed, sir, but not killed” (5.2.294). True to form, Iago the demi-devil does not confirm that he is a fiend, but teases the audience and the dramatis personae around him with the possibility that he could be a member of the undying devilish assembly that many Jacobean churchgoers would have seen or known of thanks to popular memory.

  31. A Jacobean audience would have been expected to understand on-stage allusions to divine Judgement and hellish damnation. The play’s imagery repeats what Christopher Marlowe made explicit in Doctor Faustus. As Faustus anxiously awaits damnation he fears the grasp from below of fiends that will snatch him to hell: “The divel wil come, and Faustus must be damnd. | O Ile leape up to my God: who pulles me downe?” (13.72-73. Original emphasis). Faustus, like Othello, pictures fiends that pull him down to hell. Marlowe, it seems, was influenced by the same images as Shakespeare, and devils enter the stage to literally drag Faustus off to hell. In Othello Iago snatches at Othello’s soul with equivocations and lies that lead to the smothering of Desdemona and Othello’s suicide, a murderous, bloody scene that plays out in the absence of divine intervention. Kept off-stage by Shakespeare, this absent Logos nevertheless invades Othello’s vocabulary to create imagery illustrative of pre-Reformation conventions of iconography, with Iago as one of the snatching fiends that still hover with menace over the pews of St. Mary’s, and above the chancel arches of many other churches across Britain, as the final, apocalyptic trumpets blast.





Figure 1

Stained glass depiction of the Last Judgement at St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire.



Figure 2

Detail of the stained glass depiction of the Last Judgement at St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, showing a devil snatching at a soul protected by an angel with a golden staff.



Figure 3

Detail of the stained glass depiction of the Last Judgement at St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, showing a devil whipping a soul to hell.


Works Cited

[1] A generation ago, M.M. Mahood focused on differing meanings of “done” in Macbeth, which he linked to a conflict between religious and irreligious notions of time (136-141). More recently, Steven Mullaney argues that the Renaissance traitor, like Macbeth, is “seduced by a language without origin”, while amphibology, a kind of equivocation, “marks an aspect of language that neither treason nor authority can control” (121, 125), while Malcolm Evans emphasizes the tension between the play’s unequivocal, divine idiom and the chaos of language (114). Richard Horwich proposes that coherence is the “unattainable condition” sought by the dramatis personae of the play (366), while Jonathan Goldberg examines the relationship between Macbeth and its sources as an unstable one characterized by a “heterogeneous dispersal” (247).

[2] See Loomba, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama and Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism; Burton (43-63), Newman (143-162), and Neill (“Unproper Beds”).

[3] All references to Shakespeare’s works follow William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed. John Jowett, William Montgomery, Gary Taylor, and Stanley Wells, Oxford: Clarendon, 2005.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).