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  • Title: Othello: Introduction
  • Author: Jessica Slights
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-466-0

    Copyright Jessica Slights. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Jessica Slights
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    1Othello is perhaps Shakespeare's most unsettling play. The story it recounts is a fairly simple one about a general who undertakes a tour of duty abroad accompanied by his military and domestic entourage, and who then falls under the influence of a malevolent subordinate who encourages in him a violent sexual jealousy that results in his killing his wife Desdemona. This is no murder mystery. The general's standard bearer, Iago, announces his perfidy almost immediately to the audience, who and the audience watches with growing horror as he enacts a plot to destroy the loving relationship between Othello and Desdemona. Finally, in the play's brutal closing scene, the audience act as silent witnesses to Desdemona's murder and its bloody aftermath. Although other Shakespeare plays offer higher body counts, more gore, and more plentiful scenes of heartbreak, Othello packs an unusually powerful affective punch, stunning us with its depiction of the swiftness and thoroughness with which love can be converted to hatred, and forcing us to confront our complicity with social and political institutions that can put all of us--but especially the most vulnerable among us--at risk.

    Othello's emotional power derives in part from its disconcerting insistence on both the participation and the impotence of its audience. Although we observe the play's most secret moments--the Venetian Duke's emergency meeting about the Turkish military threat, the unpinning of Desdemona's dress at bedtime, Cassio's confession that he has no head for alcohol--as well as its public ones, we are often uncertain about what we have seen and what we should make of it. Rather than displaying clearly and methodically the events it depicts, Othello creates the persistent illusion that we are peering nearsightedly at its action from around dark corners or through half-closed doors. We stumble into the play's opening scene, coming upon Roderigo and Iago muttering together as though we have almost bumped into them as we scurry ourselves through the night-darkened streets of Venice. The play keeps us off balance as we struggle to determine who these men are, to decipher the nature of their relationship, and to make sense of their oblique references to the unnamed Moorish general who seems to engender such hatred in them. Theatrical convention teaches us to expect the elaboration of plans for political rebellion or perhaps even murder from these conspirators, but in this too we are surprised as we overhear only gossip and the bitter whining of thwarted ambition. Our initial confusion is soon mirrored by the frantic response of Desdemona's father, Brabantio, as he is startled from sleep and riled by Roderigo and Iago into a bitter fury even as the circumstances of his daughter's departure from home and subsequent marriage remain unclear.

    The impression that, like Brabantio, we are being called upon to participate in events about which we never know quite enough persists throughout the play. We watch as the Venetian Senate receives conflicting reports about the movements of a Turkish fleet in the Mediterranean, and we ready ourselves for battle as Othello and his forces depart for Cyprus prepared to defend the island from the Ottoman armada. Then we too are suddenly pulled up short--"beleed and calmed" as the play would have it--as we learn with the Venetians that they have arrived on the fortified island with no opposing force to battle because the weather has already defeated the Turkish threat. Nor are we allowed to settle into complacency when the focus shifts back from the potential of foreign quarrels to the domestic broils on which the play opened. Instead, we are repeatedly unsettled by Iago's malign confidences as he soliloquizes with delighted precision his plans to destroy Othello and Desdemona.

    Confirming his place as one of literature's most compelling villains, Iago fascinates us with his single-minded focus on converting Othello's rapturous love for Desdemona into murderous jealousy, and he disarms us with the apparent frankness with which he discloses his plans. For all his confidences, however, Iago's motives remain at best indeterminate, seeming sometimes insufficient (surely even intense professional envy cannot adequately account for his extreme cruelty), and in other moments oddly abundant (if he truly believes that Emilia and Othello have had an affair, why does it take him so long to mention this?). Iago's means and aims are never in doubt, however: he tells us precisely how he hopes to exploit and to ruin those around him, and, by confiding his treachery, he enlists us as tacit accessories to his crimes. More than helpless spectators of his manipulations of Othello, we become in Act 3's central temptation scene, with its erotic echoes of both the serpent's seduction of Eve and the ritualized exchange of vows at the heart of the Christian marriage service, unwilling acolytes of Iago's ritual destruction of his superior. A sense of inevitability gradually displaces the surprises and confusions of the play's earlier scenes, and a gothic tension builds with the increasing likelihood that Iago's horrific devices will succeed. We are left to watch with increasing revulsion a relentless progress toward Desdemona's murder.

    5The inevitability of Desdemona's death at her husband's hand appears to slow the play's progress, and Othello's final scene is one of the most tortuously protracted in Shakespeare. The murder itself, when it finally comes, is agonizingly prolonged, and not until the discovery of Desdemona's body does the pace of the action increase as the characters begin to gather onstage for the tragic finale. Even in its closing minutes Othello disrupts expectations, as Desdemona's death prompts not the murderous retribution of grief-stricken and maddened relatives familiar both from the Cinthio source text and from the revenge dramas so popular in the period, but instead a second murder of a wife by her husband, a bloody suicide, and a silent survival as shocking in its way as the deaths by which it is preceded.

    If the shape and pace of Othello's narrative create profoundly unsettling effects for readers and audiences, the play's subject matter and thematic preoccupations are another source of productive discomfort. This is a play that forces encounters with the destructive consequences of institutionalized sexism and racism and thereby challenges us to analyze how gender and race inflect the operations of power within our households and our states, an analysis as vital now as it was in Shakespeare day. But while Othello raises tough questions about such disturbing subjects as the causes of violence against women and the mutually reinforcing character of stereotypes based on gender and race, the play also refuses easy answers to these questions. A disruptive doubleness operates, for instance, in the play's depiction of its central female characters, whose moments of defiance of patriarchal authority are key to their appealing liveliness but whose violent deaths have been read by some as the necessary consequence of their resistance and by others as the corollary of a sociopolitical system that devalues women's lives.

    In its portrayal of Desdemona's elopement, her defiant determination to accompany her new husband into battle, and the buoyant wit she exhibits as she banters with his subordinates, Othello offers a strong female character prepared to defy convention and to her assert herself in a world governed by men. Similarly, the figure of Emilia, with her clear-eyed analysis in Act 4, scene 3 of an institutionalized double standard that grants men the right to play away from home while requiring of women an incorruptible chastity, complicates the notion that all early modern women were always rendered silent and obedient by patriarchal stricture. At same time, Othello troubles attempts to construct its female characters as proto-feminist icons. Emilia's authority as a social critic is undermined when her position as a plain-speaking truth-teller is compromised by her participation in Iago's scheme to steal Desdemona's handkerchief. And even Desdemona, unquestionably a victim of Iago's malicious scheming and then of her husband's murderous brutality, is not an entirely sympathetic character for many modern readers, who find in her commitment to marriage and her meekness in the face of violence signs of weakness rather than virtue.

    The sense that Desdemona is a disappointment despite, or even because of, her loyalty gets strong structural support in her death scene. In a move that exploits a sensationalism more often associated with nineteenth-century melodrama, Shakespeare stages the apparently permanent stifling of Desdemona's breath only to revive her almost immediately. Here is the opportunity denied readers and audiences of Romeo and Juliet's closing scene: a resurrection, a wife awakened from near-death before her husband's suicide, and, alive with her, the possibility that the play's litany of failure, violence, and misery--in short, its tragedy--will be converted to comedy. But of course Desdemona frustrates this hope when she fails to revive fully, encouraging in viewers a resentment that wanders odiously close to blaming the victim for her own death. And even as she thwarts the conversion of tragedy to comedy, Desdemona impedes the ostensible consolations of justice and of revenge. She asserts her victimization and her innocence on her deathbed--"Oh, falsely, falsely murdered. . . . A guiltless death I die"--but refuses to name her murderer. Instead, she takes responsibility for her own death and asserts Othello's "kindness" to the end. "Oh, who hath done this deed?" asks the distraught Emilia, to which Desdemona replies with her final breath, "Nobody--I myself. Farewell--Commend me to my kind lord--Oh, farewell."

    While Othello's final scene problematizes Desdemona's quiescence, the play's insistence on the cultural embeddedness of its characters finally suggests that both her murder and her reaction to the abuse she experiences at her husband's hands are the product of a deeply masculinist culture. Initially, Venice appears responsive to the needs of its female citizens as the Duke calls upon Desdemona to testify in the matter of her elopement and hears her plea to be allowed to accompany Othello to Cyprus. However, the well-being of women is soon dismissed as a matter best "privately determine[d]," as the Senate turns to the primary "business of the state": the protection of its commercial and political interests in the Mediterranean. The Venetian institution of marriage proves similarly problematic for women. Although marriage looks at first like a way for Desdemona to secure both her passionate love for Othello and a measure of independence from her father, the play is clear that she is exchanging obligation to her father for duty to her husband.

    10Venice's martial ethos also proves especially dangerous for women. Othello is evidently enamored of Desdemona, but he is also a leader in a military community that understands the effects of love as potentially destructive for men. Thus when he is determined to prove his professional commitment to his political masters, Othello declares himself invulnerable to an erotic love he figures as blindness and associates with a loss of masculine control:

    when light-winged toys
    Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
    My speculative and officed instruments
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Let housewives make a skillet of my helm.

    Offering the Senate a comic image of a proud military man charging into battle with a frying pan on his head, Othello implies that falling in love with women makes men vulnerable to domestic coups that put both their physical safety and their dignity at risk. In seeking to distance himself from the ostensibly endangering effects of domesticity, the general gives voice to his culture's anxiety that rather than affirming masculine dominance, heterosexual love enables the effeminization of men and exposes them to ridicule.

    The idea that love for women exposes men to mockery appears consistently throughout the play: in Brabantio's public prediction that Desdemona will be unfaithful to her new husband, in Roderigo's conviction that Desdemona will abandon Othello and take up with him, in Cassio's care not to let his general "see [him] womaned" in Bianca's company, and in the pernicious stereotypes about women's self-indulgence, lustfulness, and disloyalty consistently served up by Iago. Nor is resistance to such constructions of femininity much of an option for Othello's female characters. When Emilia eventually figures out the role Iago has played in Desdemona's death, she refuses to obey his commands that she remain quiet: "No, I will speak as liberal as the north," she announces, "Let heaven and men and devils, let them all, / All, all cry shame against me, yet I'll speak." While her brave words offer a momentary model of resistance to patriarchal control, the terms of Emilia's refusal remind us that hers is a culture that silences women by shaming those who speak out of turn. That the play's liveliest representatives of womanliness are brutally murdered by their husbands, that the institution of marriage fails rather than protects them, and that the Venetian state is either unable or unwilling to stop the violence are fictional realities at the heart of the tragedy of Othello; that they continue to find analogues in the lives of real women and men reinforces the importance of the difficult conversations they prompt.

    Even as it asks readers and audiences to consider challenging questions about gender and power, Othello also demands a focus on complex matters of racialized and religious difference. Its setting in the Mediterranean basin locates the play at a key intersection among the continents and cultures of Africa, Asia, and Europe. This physical positioning signals the play's participation in a set of intricate economic, political, and social relationships informed by race, region, and religion, and variations of these relationships have long animated responses to Othello. The play's engagement with place and ethnicity as markers of identity is signaled in its full title: Othello, the Moor of Venice. For all its apparent specificity, however, the epithet "Moor of Venice" provides little precise detail about the play's titular protagonist, and the rest of the text does little to resolve the ambiguities it raises. Othello announces in the first act that he comes from "men of royal siege" and he later refers to himself as black, but these are the only specific references he makes to his origins and appearance.

    Evidence from history offers some valuable context for discussions of race and ethnicity in Othello, but provides no definite racial identity for Othello. The term "Moor" was an elastic one in the early modern period, used variously as a marker of race, geography, nationality, religion, or some combination of these. The term is associated in texts of the period with light-skinned Arabs from north-Africa, with dark-skinned sub-Saharan Africans, with Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, and with the smaller number of men and women of color who lived in England, some as slaves and others as paid workers. For example, in the chronicle of the Wars of the Roses on which Shakespeare leans heavily in his history plays, sixteenth-century historian Edward Hall refers to "the Moores or Mawritane nacion, being infidels & unchristened people" (xxiiii). For Hall, "Moors" clearly operates as a geopolitical identifier synonymous with "inhabitants of Mauritania," a region of North Africa sometimes called "Barbary" and comprised of much of modern-day Morocco and northwestern Algeria. At the same time, for Hall as for many early modern writers, "Moor" also serves as a religious identifier, a way of naming non-Christian "infidels"--that is, Muslims. Such usage suggests that early modern readers and audiences may have understood in Othello's designation as a Moor a connection to the powerful Islamic Ottoman Empire that vied with the Christian forces of Western Europe for military and commercial control of the Mediterranean from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries--the same Ottoman Empire established in the play's first act as Venice's principal enemy.

    Like Hall, physician and travel writer Andrew Boorde, whose First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge (1547) describes the customs of various Mediterranean peoples, uses the term "Moor" to identify the racially varied residents of Barbary and to indicate their uniform religious difference from his own Christianity: "Barbary is a great countrey, and plentyfull of frute, wine, & corne. The inhabytours be Called the Mores: ther be white mores and black moors; they be Infydels and unchristened" (212). As Boorde's description continues, it becomes clear that the word "Moor" was also linked in the period with a specific set of physical features and behavioral characteristics as well as with the practice of slavery:

    There be manye Moores brought into Christendome, in to great cytes & townes, to be sold; and Christenmen do by them, and they wilbe diligent, and wyll do al maner of service; but thei be set most comonli to vile thynges. . . . they have gret lyppes, and nottyd heare, black and curled; there skyn is soft; and ther is nothing white but their teth and the white of the eye. (212)

    The slippage in his account as he moves easily from a description of economic resources such as fruit and corn to a description of human beings emphasizes that from the perspective of the white Christian European Boorde Barbary's inhabitants existed primarily as commodities to be bought and sold. A parallel slip occurs in Boorde's description of the characteristics of "Moores," as he veers without comment or change of tone from physical description--noting details about hair and skin texture, for instance--to hasty generalization about morality and behavior: "thei be set most comonli to vile thynges."

    15In the early modern English theater, too, the term "Moor" was most often connected with blackness and with Islam, and many of the significant number of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plays that feature Moorish characters depend on similar stereotypes of lustfulness, untrustworthiness, and savagery. The subset of dramas sometimes called the "Turk plays," for instance, took advantage of strong popular interest in and anxiety about the challenge to the military and economic dominance of Europe presented by the Ottoman Empire by offering London theatergoers depictions of Muslim characters and of Turkish history as violent, tyrannical, and treacherous. Robert Greene's Selimus (1594), for example, stages the rise to power of Selim I, emphasizing his excessive ambition, his greed, and the glee with which he celebrates his vicious betrayals as he murders his brothers in order to become Sultan (see Contextual Materials: Selimus). Shakespeare draws on this theatrical tradition for the character of the Prince of Morocco, a suitor for the wealthy orphan Portia of Belmont in The Merchant of Venice (c.1596-98). Morocco is not violent, but he is dismissed by Portia before she has even met him for having the "complexion of a devil," and his performance in the casket test designed to determine whom she will marry marks him as conceited, status-conscious, and materialistic. Aaron, of the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus(1594), is another Shakespearean Moor informed by early modern stereotypes yoking dark skin and moral corruption. A secret lover of the Goth queen who becomes Empress of Rome, Aaron engineers the rape and mutilation of a newly married woman, talks her battle-hardened father into chopping off his own hand, confesses to having done "a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly," and faces public execution repenting only the possibility that he may have done "one good deed" in his life (see Contextual Materials: Titus Andronicus. Even as he embodies an almost hyperbolic amorality, however, Aaron is a perversely attractive figure whose two most appealing features--his wit and his powerful love for his infant son--work together to humanize him and to expose the racism of the Goths and the Romans among whom he lives.

    We cannot know exactly how Shakespeare imagined Othello would look or precisely which geopolitical, religious, or moral associations his Moorishness might have evoked for the play's first readers and audiences. We can, though, note that a version of the offhand racism that contaminates Boorde's assessment of the inhabitants of Barbary, Portia's reaction to Morocco's suit, and Rome's response to Aaron certainly echoes in the bigoted descriptions of Othello offered by Iago and Roderigo. Roderigo's reference to Othello as "the thick-lips" may suggest that the general is a black man; the epithet certainly signals the beginning of a string of racist slurs that link his ethnicity with other characters' efforts to discredit him. Iago picks up where Roderigo leaves off, figuring Othello variously as "an old black ram," "a Barbary horse," and "the devil." By systematically associating Othello's racialized difference with the non-human--even the inhuman--Iago effects a rhetorical dehumanization of his commander. In a move later aped by Brabantio, Iago also avoids naming Othello, referring to him throughout the opening scene of the play only as "the Moor" and, with ironic reverence, "his Moorship." By replacing Othello's name with the indeterminate sobriquet "Moor," the general's opponents deny his individuality and insist instead on his role as a potentially threatening outsider.

    The ambiguities that inform Othello's explorations of the operations of gender and power are, then, also at work as the play engages issues of race. Although its most unpleasant characters introduce an overtly racist discourse that identifies Othello as a "stranger," others emphasize his role as a consummate insider. His enemies foreground his difference and seek to deploy it as a weapon against him, but Othello's supporters appear unthreatened by his ethnicity. The Duke of Venice and the Governor of Cyprus, the two primary representatives of state authority in the play, acknowledge Othello's racial difference, but neither man seems concerned by it. Montanto, whom Othello replaces as Venice's highest ranking representative in Cyprus, uses the epithet "the Moor," but he also refers to Othello by name, and his descriptions of his replacement emphasize Othello's effectiveness as a military commander. The Duke too accentuates Othello's courage and expertise, treating him not as a dangerous outsider but as a trusted leader who can be relied upon to defend Venice's claims against the "general enemy Ottoman." It is worth noting too that while the Duke seems primarily concerned to reconcile Brabantio to Desdemona's marriage because their domestic upheaval risks disrupting state business, his response to the news of the lovers' elopement also suggests that he sees Othello as a reasonable match for a Venetian Senator's daughter.

    Othello's supportive reception by the state authorities reminds us, then, that he is at once "the Moor" and "of Venice." Indeed, the prepositional force of the play's title emphasizes Othello's belonging in and to Venice, a site best known to Shakespeare's first audiences as a wealthy hub of mercantile activity, a multiethnic international port city whose stable republican government, high military spending, and strategic location at the top of a narrow estuary enabled its role as a powerful commercial and cultural nexus linking east and west. Venice also had a reputation in the period as a center for sex tourism, thanks in part to the popularity of travel literature published by English adventurers like Thomas Coryate. Coryate's 1611 account of a trip through continental Europe purports to offer an eyewitness account of Venice's glamorous courtesans, juxtaposing the ostensible wealth and freedom of their lifestyles with the drab existence of ordinary Venetian wives who are depicted as jealously over-managed by watchful husbands (see Contextual Materials: Coryat's Crudities). Thus the Venice of which Othello is a part provides not only an evocative physical starting point for the play's action, but is emblematic of its insistence that its characters are the product of the complexly intertwined discourses of race, religion, commerce, militarism, and gender upon which modern civil society is constructed.

    The interconnections among Othello's broad preoccupations are elaborated not simply through setting, structure, characterization, and plot, but also stylistically, at the levels of the word, the sentence, and the image. Indeed, much of the play's affective intensity is generated through its richly textured language and heightened by its depiction of the power of language to shape human experience. The play's preoccupation with duplicity, for instance, is neatly supported by its surfeit of puns. Predictably, wordplay as a marker of the instability of language is often associated with Iago, for whom multiplicity of meaning and ambiguity of interpretation represent disruptive opportunity. When he first lands in Cyprus with Desdemona and Emilia, for example, Iago answers the elaborate gallantry of Cassio's greeting by locating in its ritual language and gestures a licentious undercurrent of which its speaker is apparently unaware. Kissing Emilia in welcome, Cassio speaks politely, if rather pompously, to her husband:

    Let it not gall your patience, good Iago,
    That I extend my manners. 'Tis my breeding
    That gives me this bold show of courtesy.

    Iago's punning comeback--"Sir, would she give you so much of her lips / As of her tongue she oft bestows on me, / You'd have enough"-- deliberately elides erotic kissing with scolding, and comes at the expense of both Emilia and Cassio, setting a pattern for the Iago's more elaborate and equally self-serving deceptions later in the play.

    20The connection between punning and deceitfulness is perhaps most clearly displayed in the opening lines of Act 3, scene 4, a comic exchange between Desdemona and the Clown that turns on multiple meanings of the word "lie." Desdemona's simple inquiry about Cassio's whereabouts--"Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio lies?"--elicits from the Clown a circuitous response that plays on various definitions of the verb "to lie": to tell a falsehood, to occupy a dwelling place, to recline in bed. None of this brings Desdemona any closer to locating Cassio, but it does construct a powerful verbal chain linking both characters to deceit and to the bedroom. This is, of course, the linguistic chain to which Othello will, in the following scene, add a fatal final link when he recognizes that "lying" is also a euphemism for "having sex." In an earnest echo of Desdemona's query about Cassio, Othello tries to extract information about the lieutenant from Iago, who proves, like the Clown before him, more interested in diversion and duplicity than in providing a clear response:

    OTHELLO. What hath he said?
    IAGO. Faith, that he did--I know not what he did.
    OTHELLO. What? What?
    IAGO. Lie.
    OTHELLO. With her?
    IAGO. With her, on her--what you will.
    OTHELLO. Lie with her? Lie on her? We say "lie on her" when they belie her. Lie with her? Zounds, that's fulsome!

    With Iago's subtle encouragement, Othello extends the interpretive chain linking Desdemona and Cassio all the way to adultery, exchanging his usual confident declarative rhetorical mode for a series of increasingly frantic questions and betraying the extent to which he buys into stereotypes about women's inconstancy by the speed with which he carves his way through multiple meanings of "lie" to the image of Cassio and Desdemona in bed together.

    Of course, Iago's machinations exploit not only the instabilities of language but also the limits of sense perception as he stage-manages for Othello dramatic encounters with Cassio and then between Cassio and Bianca. Inviting Othello to "withdraw" to a position that limits his capacity to hear and see the scene before him, Iago ensures that the general overhears only misleading snippets of conversation between the drama's unsuspecting actors. In effect, Iago creates for Othello an interpretive space within which the gestures and objects he spies confirm his worst fears about his wife's alleged infidelity. Iago's theatrical turn is so devastatingly effective because it appears to provide for Othello precisely the "ocular proof" of Desdemona's betrayal that he has demanded. The dramatic irony produced by the gap between Othello's certainty that he has now seen his wife's treachery for himself and the reader's knowledge that he has instead witnessed Bianca's anger over what she has mistaken for a sign of Cassio's unfaithfulness reinforces an uncomfortable connection between the effects of the play's action on its characters and on its readers. By tracing the shattering effects of Iago's counterfeit dumbshow, the play offers a metatheatrical reminder of our own readerly vulnerability, since, like Othello, we must rely on a language whose multiplicities have been associated with the potential for deception and on a set of five senses that have been exposed repeatedly as dangerously unreliable.

    These intellectually and emotionally destabilizing linguistic and visual effects are magnified by Othello's often bizarre and eerie imagery. Animals feature prominently in the play's figurative landscape, usually in disturbing contexts, and images of monstrousness and cannibalism haunt the characters' speech. Iago initiates this grotesque metaphorics just moments into the play when he announces to Roderigo: "I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at." Although we now recognize as proverbial the phrase "to wear one's heart upon one's sleeve," meaning "to show openly how one feels," the Oxford English Dictionary records Iago's as the first occurrence of this expression. For the play's earliest readers the horrific image of an excised heart displayed outside the body and thus vulnerable to predation by carrion eaters--an image not yet blunted by familiarity--must have been particularly disturbing. These first readers may also have been attuned to the disruptive politics of Iago's metonymic image with its substitution of the heart--the organ most closely linked in the period with private desire--for the livery badge customarily displayed on the sleeve of the household servant as a sign of his submission to the will of a wealthy master. This association of the heart as a signifier of the self with domestic labor supports Iago's attack on the traditional model of service that he blames for Cassio's promotion at his expense. However, it also unleashes a series of animal images that are part of his wider project of dehumanizing both Othello and Desdemona. "An old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe," proclaims Iago to Brabantio, "your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs."

    The connection between the play's language of bestiality and monstrosity and the racist and sexist stereotyping of Moors and of women as lustful, untrustworthy, and nonhuman spreads throughout the play, eventually contaminating Emilia's account of the birth of jealousy--"It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself"--and Othello's account of his marriage to Desdemona, which he likens to the relationship between the hunter and the bird of prey tamed to do his bidding. The play's monstrous imagery is particularly evident as Othello's terror of cuckoldry corrupts the image of the fairytale frog prince by reimagining it as a horrific toad that thrives on poisonous fumes: "I had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapor of a dungeon," the general announces, "Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others' uses." Othello figuratively dehumanizes not only himself but also Desdemona, leaving her unnamed, a "thing"--a mere possession of her husband, like all married women under early modern English law--and reifying her imagined role as adulteress by transforming her into a room or a building whose dark corners house illicit behavior inadvertently "kept," that is, maintained, by Othello. Iago's habit of lacing his language with innuendo has also infected Othello's speech by this point in the play, and sexual slang--"corner" = vagina; "thing" = whore; "use" = sexual employment--lends his image a particular gothic horror.

    Othello associates such doubling linguistic effects as punning and innuendo with emotional treachery and ultimately with physical violence. However, it also insists that plurality of meaning and the limits to knowing imposed by ambiguity are endemic to language and to human experience. Most of the play's major characters are duplicitous in one way or another, and their duplicity is presented as inextricably tied to the complexities of social self-construction. Iago's famous self-denial "I am not what I am" identifies him early as the play's primary deceiver, a man prepared to misrepresent himself to the world and thus a threat to social cohesion. Then, as Iago's influence over his commander grows, Othello announces his own public deception, claiming "I will be found most cunning in my patience." But even as it tracks the contagious nature and destructive force of Iago's strategy of misrepresentation, the play recognizes that deceit can be a tool for social cohesion. After all, it is not Iago but Desdemona who announces "I do beguile / The thing I am by seeming otherwise." Recognizing a social obligation to trick those around her into believing that she is cheerful even as she worries that her husband has been lost at sea in a storm, Desdemona falsifies herself self-presentation not in order to weaken communal bonds but instead to strengthen them. Indeed, in its ironic assigning to its Janus-faced antagonist Iago the dictum that "Men should be what they seem," the play emphasizes that closing the gap between being and seeming may be neither possible nor desirable in the social realm.

    25In his final speech, Othello pleads to be remembered as "one that loved not wisely, but too well." His lines are poignant not simply for their heartrending recognition that in killing Desdemona he has destroyed the thing he most loved, but for their naïve insistence that an unambiguous account of his "deeds" can exist:

    I pray you in your letters,
    When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
    Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,
    Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
    Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
    Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
    Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
    Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
    Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
    Albeit unused to the melting mood,
    Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
    Their medicinable gum. Set you down this,
    And say besides that in Aleppo once,
    Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
    Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
    I took by th'throat the circumcisèd dog
    And smote him--thus.
    [Othello stabs himself.]

    Even as he acts to end his life, Othello tries to manage his legacy by wrenching control of his narrative from those to whom it will fall to tell his story after his death. Like his titular designation "the Moor of Venice," Othello's closing images link his life and person--his deeds, his hand, his eyes, his tears--both to Venice and to the non-Christian, non-white world beyond its boundaries. "Speak of me as I am," Othello begs, but as the play that bears his name insists from its opening moments in a dark Venetian alley, our ability to know others is necessarily limited and narrative control is always contingent.