Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
Act 1 scene 2.
The line belongs to Othello and it is an example of Peripeteia, a rhetorical strategy of reversals to disarm an opponent. The line is directed at Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, for his opposition to his marriage. Othello the experienced soldier knows how to use language to defuse tension and yet it is language, the very same rhetorical device, that will undo him. Iago uses rhetoric to persuade, disarm, and subvert, with fatal consequences.
Shakespearean critics seem to ignore Othello’s nobility, focusing on his jealousy and short temper. I know this is a broad generalization, but go and read a few essays on The Moor and you will hear the charge repeated that Othello is duped by Iago because he has excessive pride, hubris, and that he is gullible. In short, Othello is stupid. I disagree.
Othello is a tragedy about commitment. It is also a play where language is used to undermine the psychology of another. It foreshadows propaganda. Lenin said that if a lie is told often enough then it becomes Truth. Goebbels said that if you repeat a lie often enough people believe it. Insinuation becomes Belief without evidence. Othello’s tragic flaw is his commitment to Love. He loves Desdemona in a society, not his own, a society that he enters as a free man, with personal power and choice on his side and on his terms. This is Venice and not the Verona of Romeo and Juliet. Venice is not against the marriage.
Othello’s flaw is that he is a romantic. As a soldier he understands principles. As for gullibility and jealousy, they are there, but it is ignited and shaped by the Machiavellian master of manipulation, Iago. Why wouldn’t Othello trust Iago since he known as “honest Iago” and Iago is a fellow veteran? We know Cassio is also a loyal friend. We, as audience and reader, also know from the very outset that Iago is a liar because of all of his soliloquies. We also know that Desdemona is faithful. She is also outspoken. In fact, she stands before the Senate, before her father, a senator, and declares her choice for a husband.
Othello is one of the few Shakespearean plays where the reader or audience knows the truth and motivation of every character throughout the play as the play unfolds. Of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the “tragic act” does not happen until much later in the play. In Romeo and Juliet, a family feud divides Montagues and Capulets and it is the choice of Romeo and Juliet to love each other that is the “tragic act.” In Macbeth, the “tragic act” begins with the murder of King Duncan, and in Hamlet, before the play starts, with Claudius’s murder of his brother, and in Lear, when the King rejects a daughter’s love and wrongly divides his kingdom.
Othello is a man of action, unlike Prince Hamlet. Othello is a man, a career-soldier, who sees War as a natural activity that protects society against barbarians. He is invited to Venice, welcomed by the Senate, as an accomplished military leader, a Condottiere, who is contracted to help safeguard the Venetians from the barbaric Turks. It is a contract that both sides can terminate at any time, although the Venetians know they need him more than he needs them. Othello is a free man with no obligation other than to uphold his end of the contract. Hamlet might be a thinking man but he is not a free man. A ghost tells him what to do.
Has Othello’s nobility been misinterpreted as Pride or Arrogance because of the way he uses language? He, like Iago, uses language to persuade others, but uses it to bring peace, unlike Iago. When Othello first appears, he is a man of magnificent courtesy and dignity to those around him, especially to his future father-in-law. Note the “Othello music” — a phrase from Wilson Knight’s famous essay — in his “Pontic sea speech” in Act 3 scene 3:
Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up. Now, by yond marble heaven,
In the due reverence of a sacred vow
I here engage my words.
I wish that there was a recording of Paul Robeson online for readers to hear his bass voice roll out these lines. These majestic lines conjure up the stately images of Andrea del Verrocchio’s statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice or Donatello’s statue of Gattamelata in Padua. Condottieri.
Othello, as a soldier, is by vocation a master of self-control and discipline, which makes his degradation at the hands of Iago all the more painful to read and watch. Othello is reduced to an epileptic in Act 4 scene 1. Iago stands over a prone Othello and sneers at him. Act 3 scene 3 is Iago’s line-by-line corruption of Othello. The distinguished self-confident man is psychologically disassembled and destroyed. Rather than ask his friend, Cassio, as Desdemona challenges him, whether she had committed adultery, Othello, enraged by her audacity, rushes to judgment. In losing his self-control he kills her and as his own judge he executes himself.
Modern audiences have wrongly focused on Othello’s color. I do not think Shakespeare intended racism. Race is our unfortunate modern birthright. “Black” is used in the play as an Elizabethan expression of moral condemnation. Othello is exotic, but he is not feared because he is “other.” Skin color, for Shakespeare, is a visual strategy for the stage. Watch a production of Othello and notice how Othello is the indisputable center of attention. This is rather ironic since the aforementioned Paul Robeson was the first African-American to portray Othello (1930). That Desdemona is cast as fair and blond is not intended to pander to racial animosities. Her father’s objection to the marriage is wanting better for his daughter. As Emilia says to Othello, “She was too fond of her most filthy bargain” Act 5, scene 2, 157.
Revisiting Iago’s inflammatory language:
an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe (Act 1, scene 1, 88-89)
your daughter covered with a Barbary horse (Act 1, scene 1, 111)
Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs (Act 1, scene 1, 116-17)
The language uses color but not race, uses sexual innuendo and the bestial to provoke the listener, including the audience. The ending of Othello differs from Shakespeare’s other tragedies in that there is no analysis, no final words about the “fall.” Rather than critique the character of Othello, I think the far more interesting question is Iago’s motivation. Coleridge described Iago as the “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.” All that is left at the end of the play is carnage and bodies: Roderigo, Desdemona, Emilia, and “the noble Moor.”