Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Lots of stories end “and they lived happily ever after.” Othello isn’t that kind of story. By the end of Othello most of the good guys are dead. The play starts out on a bad note: a senator of Venice is upset because his daughter (Desdemona) has been sleeping with a foreign mercenary, Othello. But Desdemona is a good girl and she thinks it’s ok because they’ve secretly gotten married first. So it’s ok, right? Wrong. It’s not ok with Desdemona’s father. Since Othello is a highly successful general in the Venetian army there’s not much her father can do about it. But he warns Othello about Desdemona: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may (deceive) thee. Here lies the key to the whole play. Modern American readers tend to note first that Desdemona is white and Othello is black. That’s because we’re a race-conscious society. But in the context of the play race isn’t the important distinction. Othello is an outsider: not because he’s black but because he’s a Moor. That doesn’t mean Othello isn’t a good man. He is. But he’s not “one of us” (a Venetian). And Desdemona is a good woman. Of all Shakespeare’s women characters Desdemona is truly the Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes type. But mixing two good people like Desdemona and Othello together can lead to a lethal combination. How? All it takes is some evil person to come along and exploit the insecurity and fear a man like Othello inherits when he marries a wealthy and cultured Venetian lady. It takes an evil person to exploit the innocence and naivety of a woman like Desdemona. But it can happen. That evil person in this play is named Iago. If Iago hadn’t come along Desdemona and Othello might have lived happily ever after. But the warning at the start of the play echoes ominously in the back of Othello’s mind: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may (deceive) thee.

In philosophy the word “evil” might be defined merely as the absence of good. Or it might be that evil is just our subjective response to something we don’t like. But in literature “evil” has a face and a name. Evil has to be a creature with knowledge of both evil and good. Only a person or an angel can be evil. A tornado may be bad news but it’s not evil. Cancer is a scourge of mankind but it’s not evil either. Mephistopheles in Faust is evil. The devil in Job is evil. In this play the name for evil is Iago. We find out immediately what kind of man Iago is and what kind of man he isn’t. Iago tells the audience bluntly that I am not what I am. Then what is he? He’s consumed with a rage to lash out and not just destroy other people but make them suffer. Othello is his main target: I do hate him as I do hell-pains. Yet, for necessity of present life, I must show out a flag and sign of love, Which is indeed but sign. In other words, Iago presents himself as if he’s one of Othello’s most devoted friends. In reality he’s his deadliest enemy. Iago wants to destroy Othello and make hum suffer. The best and easiest way to do that is through an unlikely source: Desdemona’s virtue. Iago thrills at the mere thought of it: So will I turn her (Desdemona’s) virtue into pitch; And out of her own goodness make the net That shall enmesh them all. Desdemona is so innocent and naïve that she’ll never know what hit her. Neither will Othello. Iago wants Othello to suffer and jealousy of Desdemona is the best (most devious) way to do that. Iago delights in the thought that Othello will never know peace and quiet ever again: Not poppy, nor mandragora, Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep Which thou owedst yesterday. Iago knows that once Othello suspects Desdemona of adultery then he’ll never get another good night’s sleep. And Iago’s scheme works. This is evil. Two good people (and more) are destroyed by Iago. At the end Desdemona says I have not deserved this… She’s right. Othello says Here is my journey's end… He’s right too. And Iago says Men should be what they seem. Even Iago is right sometimes.


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