Othello by William Shakespeare (Book Review)

It’s been a while since I read Othello, though I would put it in my top five of favourite Shakespeare plays for several reasons. First, the play clips along at a good pace and avoids scenes of unnecessary comic relief or a longwinded songs from the king’s fool.[1] Second, like the Merchant of Venice it’s set in the context of the Republic of Venice in the late 16th century so it is appealing from a historical perspective.[2] Note that Othello has also been well done on the screen in the last 20 years with an excellent Hollywood version with Othello and Iago played by Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, respectively, as well as a Shakespeare Retold BBC version too.

In the first scene we’re thrown into an ongoing conversation between Rodrigo (who is upset that the lady he was pursing, Desdemona, has opted for Othello instead of himself) and Iago who is upset that Cassio received the Lieutenancy instead of himself. Specifically Iago chastises Othello for selecting the Lieutenant from “preferment”, which “… goes by letter and affection, / And not by old gradation, where each second / Stood heir to th’ first.” In other words, Iago sees it as being his “turn” for promotion due to his seniority, which amusingly mirror Sir Humphry’s thought a few centuries later:

Sir Humphry: The point is that she’s too young, and it’s not her turn yet.

Jim Hacker: I knew you’d say that, this is exactly what is wrong with the civil service. Buggins’s turn. The best people should be promoted, and as soon as possible.

Sir Humphry: Exactly! As soon as it’s their turn.

Iago whips Roderigo into a further emotional state of resentment and they decide to go to the house of Senator Brabantio, the father of Desdemona to let him know his daughter has eloped with the “moor” Othello. I enjoy an offhand remark when Brabantio says “This is Venice. My house is not a grange.” Meaning, that this is a modern city with the rule of law and if you expect that anything has been stolen from this house you are mistaken (of course what is stolen is not physical property but family loyalty, something which cannot be protected by the rule of law). By the end of the first scene, we see that Othello, whom we have not met, has a jealous suitor, a spurned ensign (Iago’s new role is as a standard-bearer), and a powerful Senator whose daughter has left him for an African general (remember we are four centuries before even Guess Who’s Coming Home For Dinner).

What makes Shakespeare’s writing exquisite is how even without seeing the text performed, one can feel the intent and affectation of the characters. Compare how the caustic and racist language Iago uses to torment Brabantio in the first scene: “… you’ll / have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, / you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have / courses for cousins and jennets for germans” with the speech he then addresses Othello in the subsequent scene: “… he [Rodrigo] prated / And spoke such scurvy and provoking terms / Against your Honor, / That with the little godliness I have / I did full hard forbear him.” There is a controversy in Othello studies as to whether Iago’s response is unbelievable because his method for revenge is disproportionate to his initial injustice (what Coleridge called “motiveless malignity”). Yet I myself find Iago completely believable, or rather I could easily imagine someone carrying out his actions (evil is rather banal remember?). He typifies a sociopath who responds with attacks against his self-interest with absolute viciousness. I noticed that Iago’s character can also be seen in Francis Urquhart from Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards trilogy.

As Roderigo and Brabantio go to seek out and confront Othello for seducing Desdemona with “magic”, the Duke of Venice and his council are also looking for Othello as they have just received word that the Turkish fleet is on its way to attack the island of Cyprus, and Iago (being the chief military commander of the Venetian forces) is needed to advise on a military response. Before violence can occur between the aggrieved father/suitor and the general, the messenger of the Duke finds them and they agree to present their case before the Venetian government. Othello, at the height of his power, quickly dispels any notion that he seduced Desdemona with witchcraft and calls her as his witness. He explains that “She [Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” meaning she loved that he was a man of the world who had fought in divers battles around the world and Othello loved her innocence and curiosity. The Duke seems convinced of Othello’s case, especially after Desdemona’s testimony, and provides a series of amusing and haughty platitudes to Brabantio to comfort him abotu his loss:

When remedies are past, the griefs are ended / By seeing the worst, which late on hopes depended. / To Mourn a mischief that is past and gone / Is the next way to draw new mischief on. / What cannot be preserved when fortune takes, / Patience her injury a mock’ry makes. / The robbed that smiles steals something from the thief; / He robs himself that spends a bootless grief. (I.iii.232-240)

Othello is advised to take to sail to Cyprus and take control of the islands defenses,[3] which he does so with Desdemona, Cassio, Iago, and his military force. As good luck would have it, a terrible storm destroys the Turkish fleet, which almost takes down Othello’s ship with too (this Cypriot-Kamikaze did not happen in actual history). Yet the danger to Othello does not lie from the “Mohammedans” but rather the Venetian Iago, he begins to systematically undermine the relation Othello has with Cassio and Desdemona. First, he gets Cassio drunk and eggs on Roderigo to begin a brawl leading to Cassio’s dismissal (as the Lieutenant should have been on watch rather than getting drunk). Second, he convinces Iago that something perfidious is going on between Cassio and Desdemona using the most ingenious prevarications and circumlocutions.

I: Did Michael Cassio, / When you wooed my lady, know of your love?

O: He did, from first to last. Why does thou ask?

I: But for a satisfaction of my though, / No further harm.

O: Why of thy thought, Iago?

I: I did not think he had been acquainted with her.

O: O yes, and went between us very oft.

I: Indeed?

O: Indeed? Ay, indeed! Discern’st thou aught in that? / Is he not honest?

I: Honest, my lord?

O: Honest – ay, honest.

I: My lord, for aught I know.

O: What doe thou think?

I: Think, my lord?

O: “Think, my lord?” By heaving, thou echo’st me / As is there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown. Thou does mean something.

This dialogue continues in what might be Shakespeare’s most masterly handling of the English language. In my reading, Iago represents the dark side of language; its Moriarty. He has mastered it but uses it for his own ends. The end of the dialogue has Iago tell Othello to “Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio” which plants the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind of Desdemona’s infidelity which will eventually grow into murderous and jealous rage. And as Cobb reminds us about ideas:

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed - fully understood - that sticks; right in there somewhere.

To create the penumbra of infidelity on the relationship between Cassio and Desdemona, Iago simultaneously claims to be lobbying for Cassio’s reinstatement with Othello by having Desdemona plead the case before Othello which only rouses his suspicions of her sympathies towards the Florentine. Each subsequent meeting between Othello and Iago grows more intense with the Venetian feeding the flames of Iago’s jealously. His coup de grâce occurs when he manages to get Desdemona’s handkerchief that Othello gave to her and plant it on Cassio. Othello finds this sufficient evidence to pronounce her guilty and with Iago’s encouragement strangles her in bed. However, Iago’s wife upon seeing her mistress strangled reveals that it was she who gave the handkerchief to her husband and Iago quickly realizes that he has killed an innocent woman who loved him. The dialogue between Iago and Desdemona before he kills her in which she pleads her innocence before him is one of Shakespeare most powerful as we watch with horror - helpless - as a murder of misplaced malignity unfolds before our eyes.

Iago along with Edmund from King Lear represents one of the most powerful anti-heroes in the canon. One cannot help but admire the absolute deftness Iago employs in manipulating everyone around him. It highlights the incredible amount of damage a sociopath can wreak when he is willing to abuse all the networks trust that society has created to allow the creation of modern civilization. Iago is a psychological parasite in that his effectiveness stems from having the vast majority of persons not behaving like himself (i.e. a handful of Iagos is only evolutionary stable when the vast majority of the population does not employ his sociopathic strategy). His very last lines of the play are possibly the most chilling as they remind us that we will never know the true extent of the hideous monsters in the “palace” of the human mind.

Demand from me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word. (V.ii.355-356)


  1. For example in The Tempest there is, in my view, a little too time spent following drunks about their island and listening to their bawdy talk. On another note, both plays Othello and the Merchant of Venice are interesting in that they focus on racial/cultural outsiders (Othello being African and Shylock being Jewish) in a modern city-state. 

  2. Economists are particularly interested in Republican Venice as it was one of the first modern economies with a sophisticated financial system and international trade networks. Additionally, with the revival in institutional economics the Venetian Republic provides an interesting case study as to how the political system can became rent-seeking (or extractive), as discussed in Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson. 

  3. As critics have pointed out, when the play is supposed to occur matters for how we interpret the play. In actual history, Cyprus was conquered by the Ottomans in 1570, so if Othello is sailing there in 1569, it could be an indication that his demise augured the fall of Cyprus. 

Written on July 13, 2016