Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

SHAKESPEARE: Othello Act I (Jealousy)

In recent readings both Rousseau and Darwin took optimistic views of human nature.  Rousseau places his confidence in equality.  He says “since the condition is equal for everyone, no one has an interest in making it burdensome for others.” (The Social Contract, GB1)  Darwin places his confidence in Man’s social instinct.  He says “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger…” (The Moral Sense of Man, GB2).  Shakespeare’s Othello gives a different opinion of human nature.  In this play Shakespeare explores one of the fundamental flaws in the theory of human progress: jealousy.  As the play opens Roderigo is jealous of Desdemona’s love for Othello.  Iago is jealous of Cassio’s recent promotion by Othello.  Brabantio is jealous because Othello has stolen away his daughter.  Othello is jealous of the culture and sophistication of the Venetians.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these desires.  Young men normally want a beautiful woman, not just Roderigo.  Ambitious men normally want better jobs with more power and higher social status, not just Iago.  Fathers normally want their daughters to be safe and secure, not just Brabantio.  And many a brutish man wants a good education and good manners, not just Othello.  Jealousy isn’t necessarily wanting something you don’t have, that’s normal; it’s pushing desire beyond the normal boundaries of law and even basic human decency. 

Each of these four men (Roderigo, Iago, Brabantio, Othello) has a character flaw that expresses itself in various ways.  Jealousy represents a breakdown of rational thought and makes each man do foolish things.  Roderigo wants to make love to Desdemona.  Because of jealousy he’ll spend everything he owns to get into bed with her.  Iago doesn’t just want Cassio’s position.  Because of jealousy he wants to destroy Othello for passing him over for promotion.  Brabantio says he only wants his daughter Desdemona to be safe and secure.  But what he really wants is for Desdemona to do as he says.  Because of jealousy Brabantio disowns her when he finds out she’s gone behind his back and married Othello.  Othello is a special case.  That’s why the play is named after him.  For starters, he’s a Moor living in Venice.  Not only that, he’s the brilliant military commander of the Venetian forces.  The Turks (or “Ottomites” as they’re called in the play) are set to attack Venetian strongholds in Cyprus.  Othello, a Moor, is asked to lead the Venetian fight against the Moors.  That’s when all the tensions in the play start converging.  Othello will be loyal to Venice but who will be loyal to him?  Will Desdemona be a loyal wife?  Brabantio plants the seed of jealousy in Othello’s heart when he says: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; she has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.”  This could easily be dismissed as the rantings of a jealous father except for one thing, Iago.  Iago waters the seed of jealousy and it grows beyond the boundaries of Othello’s emotional capacities.  Othello may be a great commander of military forces and a good judge of how to make war on the battlefield.  But he’s ill-equipped to withstand the onslaught of Iago’s psychological warfare.  So Iago uses Othello’s own open-hearted nature against him as he plots his strategy: “the Moor is of a free and open nature, that thinks men honest that but seem to be so, and will as tenderly be led by the nose as asses are.”  The whole play revolves around a central question: why did Othello marry Desdemona in the first place?  It’s not a rational move.  Marriage is really not in his best interests and probably not in hers either.  As an outsider living in Venice is it really wise to go and marry a powerful Senator’s daughter behind his back?  By doing so Othello made an enemy of Barbantio.  Desdemona is disinherited.  Still, it’s possible they might have lived happily ever after; just not in Venice.  But once Iago fans the flames of Othello’s imagination they wouldn’t be able to live happily anywhere.  Jealousy is the key that unlocks the whole human tragedy.


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