and Equivocation: The Seduction and Damnation of Othello
R. M. Christofides
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>.
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
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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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).
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
But seeming so for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, ’tis not long
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.
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).
- 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.
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.
- 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:
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 fair and wise, fairness and
The one’s for use, the other useth it. (2.1.132-133)
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.
If she be black and thereto have a wit,
She’ll find a white that shall her
blackness fit. (2.1.135-136)
- 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.
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:
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:
IAGO. Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my
Know of your love?
OTHELLO. He did, from first to last. Why dost
IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm. (3.3.96-100)
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
Why of thy thought, Iago?
IAGO. I did not think he had been acquainted
OTHELLO. O yes, and went between us very oft.
OTHELLO. Indeed? Ay, indeed. (3.3.100-104)
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.
thou aught in that?
Is he not honest?
IAGO Honest, my lord?
Honest? Ay, honest.
IAGO. My lord, for aught I know.
dost thou think?
IAGO. Think, my lord?
OTHELLO. "Think, my lord?" By heaven, thou
As if there were some
monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown! (3.3.104-112)
- 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:
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.
And when I told thee [Cassio] was of my
In my whole course of wooing, thou cried’st
And didst contract and purse thy brow
As if thou then hadst shut up in thy
Some horrible conceit. (3.3.115-119)
- 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
Nor for my manhood, honesty,
To let you know my thoughts.
dost thou mean? (3.3.157-159)
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.
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
To lip a wanton in a secure couch
And to suppose her chaste! (4.1.69-71)
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:
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.
Avaunt, be gone. Thou hast set me on the
I swear ’tis better to be much abused
Than but to know’t a little. (3.3.340-342)
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.
- 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
And makes me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice. (5.2.68-70)
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:
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.
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that th’affrighted
Should yawn at alteration. (5.2.108-110)
- 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:
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.
OTHELLO. She’s like a liar gone to burning
’Twas I that killed her.
EMILIA. O, the more angel she, and you the
blacker devil! (5.2.138-140)
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
OTHELLO. Will you, I pray, demand that
Why he hath thus ensnared my
soul and body?
IAGO. Demand me nothing. What you know, you
From this time forth I never
will speak word. (5.2.307-310)
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.
- 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
And fiends will snatch at it. (5.2.280-282)
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
Blow me about in winds, roast me in
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid
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.
- 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
glass depiction of the Last Judgement at St. Mary’s Church, Fairford,
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.
of the stained glass depiction of the Last Judgement at St. Mary’s Church,
Fairford, Gloucestershire, showing a devil whipping a soul to hell.
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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).
 See Loomba, Gender, Race,
Renaissance Drama and Shakespeare, Race and Colonialism; Burton (43-63), Newman (143-162), and Neill (“Unproper Beds”).
 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).