Marchers for Life, bundle up! See you on Constitution Avenue.
“For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man.” Henry V, Act II, Scene 2
The two great “turning-to-evil” Shakespeare plays are Macbeth and Othello. Let us, as time allows, study both of them for insights into the mysterium iniquitatis, the mystery of evil, the Fall. Othello first.
Specifically, Act III, Scene 3 of Othello. Act III comes at the center of a Shakespearian drama. All preceding events lead up to Act III, and then everything flows from what happens in Act III. Scene 3 often falls in the middle of Act III, serving as its center. The perfection of a play comes directly from the way in which Act III, Scene 3 serves as the turning point of all the plotlines, the epicenter of the drama–the central, decisive moment.
Act III, Scene 3 of Othello is the Platonic form of Act III, Scene 3’s. It is impossible for a mortal to conceive of a more absolutely perfect dramatic construction than this play.
You may recall that we have discussed this before. Shakespeare’s Othello has an Act I that Verdi’s Otello does not have, which makes Shakespeare’s characters human, as opposed to Verdi’s idol Desdemona and demon Moor.
As we learn in Shakespeare’s Act I, Desdemona has played a hard trick on her father in marrying Othello. And Shakespeare, unlike Verdi, makes Desdemona playful (almost) to a fault. As Othello later puts it, “My wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well.” So when Iago begins to work on Othello, the deceiver has material to work with–as he worms into the bulwark of Othello’s faith in Desdemona’s virtue.
Act III, Scene 3 begins with a newlywed general thoroughly in love with his wife. And the scene ends with an enraged (supposed) cuckold ready to murder. An impossible transition? Now, the scene is long, to be sure. But I think that one of the scene’s 546 lines makes Othello’s transformation believable. Allow me to build the case.
Michael Cassio. Othello’s lieutenant, relieved of his duties in Act II, due to an ill-advised drunken swordfight. (Iago had gotten him drunk.) The splendidly good-looking and debonair Cassio, who will soon prove himself to be less than thoroughly virtuous. Act III, Scene 3 begins with Desdemona swearing to convince Othello to give this Adonis his job back.
She quickly succeeds. Because she is not just beautiful. She is, as we know from earlier scenes, clever, quick, and maybe even pert. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, when she doesn’t want it to. Nonetheless, all her points about Cassio have weight, so Othello gives in.
She exits the stage, and Othello declares, “Perdition catch my soul but I do love thee! and when I love thee not, chaos is come again.”
Chaos comes, as it came to Eden. But: Why would the faithful, trusting husband even say such a thing in the first place? Does he not tempt fate with such a statement? Does some lack of confidence lurk in his soul?
The attack ensues, from “honest” Iago. (The serpent made the First Parents believe that he, and not God, was the honest one.) Iago, another of the general’s senior staff officers, betrays to Othello misgivings of some kind, but won’t elaborate. Othello presses him to speak. Again, tempting fate. Why press?
Iago elaborates his suspicions, regarding Desdemona’s possible affair with Cassio. Othello swears he will never be jealous. Without evidence, he will never doubt Desdemona’s faith. And if evidence appears, he will simply stop loving her. No jealousy for this titan of strength and reasonableness. No mushy middle.
Something comes fully into view now: The Moor conceives of all things very soberly–except himself. Desdemona fell in love with him when he recounted his marvelous exploits, including doing battle with men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders. (Sure, they may exist.) Is Othello a man? Or is he something else? A black Hercules? Is he the paragon…
…whom our full senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident, nor dart of chance,
Could neither graze nor pierce?
(…as Ludovico puts it in Act IV.)
No. Like all of us, the Moor is a mortal man, a human being, limited in scope and faculties, prone to emotional disturbances. But does he know that? Nearly unhinged with emotion at the thought of Desdemona being unfaithful, he insists that Iago should “fear not my government” (his self-government, he means, which is precisely what the deceiver preys on so successfully).
Indeed, Iago works brilliantly on Othello’s conceit that his martial virtue and detachment from the flesh makes him superior to the Venetians. Othello, it turns out, will quickly believe his city-state-in-law to be a race of voluptuaries.
Iago comes at him with the perfect attack:
Wear your eye thus, not jealous nor secure:
I would not have your free and noble nature,
Out of self-bounty, be abused; look to’t:
I know our country disposition well;
In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leave’t undone, but keep’t unknown.
After Iago finally leaves the stage for a moment, Othello says something hard to understand about being among the “great ones,” who, “prerogatived less than the base,” must (he would appear to say) hate, rather than share love in a way that is anything less than perfectly honorable.
Then the telling line comes. Othello, thinking himself quite alone (if he can think at all, oppressed as he is by emotion), exclaims, “Ha! False to me?”
Now, only the actors who operate above my pay-grade can really expound how to utter this line. But, for my money, it is ‘false to me?’ As in: It’s one thing to be false. Bad. But: To be false to me–to Othello, the living legend of a general, the storybook warrior, the perfectly self-possessed powerhouse, the black Hercules… Inconceivably monstrous!
The deceiver has preyed upon the hero. Othello doubts. (Someday I will offer a study of Iago’s word choice in this play. Satan himself could not have chosen his words better. Iago’s lines are the world’s masterpiece of evil poetry.) Othello thinks: This city of Venice nurses a lascivious and self-indulgent race, meretricious women bandying around constantly with sneaky Lotharios. I never should have fallen for her! My nature is too noble and disciplined to abide this. Only Iago has told me the truth. (Like the serpent alone told the truth to our First Parents. Not.)
The Moor works his way through one more fit of rage, directed at Iago, which the deceiver withstands with breathtaking alacrity, and then Othello bellows:
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy fraught,
For ’tis of aspics’ tongues!
The Fall. Othello’s transformation is complete. Now he sees only signs of dishonesty wherever he looks, signs which Iago manipulates with stunning dexterity. When the Moor, in the end, has killed his beautiful, innocent bride, and then discovers Iago’s tricks, he erupts with righteous indignation. But Iago protests: He has only led the tragic protagonist by the nose. All the choices have been Othello’s own. Indeed, they have been.
What got the better of the noble warrior, the man to whom the Venetian senate entrusted the fortunes of their state? How did Othello enter Act III, Scene 3 as a loving husband, and then leave it convinced that he must murder his wife?
The most believable of all faults. The original one.