Othello

by: William Shakespeare

Act IV, scene i

The action of the play takes place almost wholly in Iago’s world, where appearances, rather than truth, are what count. Because of Iago’s machinations, Cassio is perfectly placed to seem to give evidence of adultery, and Othello is perfectly placed to interpret whatever Cassio says or does as such. Throughout the play, Othello has been oblivious to speech, always sure that speech masks hidden meaning. Othello’s obsession with appearances is the reason why he is content to watch Cassio’s supposed confession, despite the fact that confessions are heard rather than seen. He also turns Lodovico’s letters—which announce that Othello has been replaced by Cassio as governor of Cyprus in the same manner in which he believes Cassio has replaced him in the bedroom—into “ocular proof” that he is being supplanted.

Cyprus serves as a contrast to Venice, a place where the normal structures and laws governing civil society cease to operate. Such a world is common within Shakespeare’s plays, though far more prevalent in his comedies. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, for example, the forest functions as an unstructured, malleable world in which the characters can transgress societal norms, work out their conflicts, and then return to society with no harm done. In the first act of Othello, Cyprus is clearly not such a world; it is a territory of Venice, to which Othello and company are called as a matter of state. As soon as the Turkish threat has been eliminated, however, the characters seem to lose their connection to Venetian society, and, with its festivities and drunken revelry, Cyprus then seems to have more in common with the alien, pastoral worlds of many of Shakespeare’s comedies.

At many points, in fact, the plot of Othello resembles those of Shakespeare comedies in that it is based upon misrecognition and jealousy. The resemblances to comedy suggest that the misunderstandings of the play will be recognized and all will live happily ever after. But Cyprus, unlike the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is still connected to Venetian society, and the arrival of Lodovico strengthens the Venetian presence and reminds Othello of the necessity of safeguarding his societal and political reputation. Cyprus, then, becomes a sort of trap, a false escape, in which the societal norms that seem to have disappeared reemerge to capture the transgressors. This mechanism of capture that exerts its force over the characters of Cyprus also occurs within Othello himself. The play refers on a number of occasions to jealousy as an innate force that cannot be planted, but instead grows from within and consumes itself and its host. Othello falls prey to the illusion of his own strength and power, and the jealousy it hides, just as Cyprus gives the illusion of providing a haven from the workings of the law.

Like Cyprus, Othello is half Venetian, half “other,” and his predicament is the result of forces that are half comedic mischief and half deep-rooted, essential evil. Perhaps as a way of embodying these two clashing worlds, the play continues to upset the audience’s relationship to time. Iago claims, “This is [Othello’s] second fit. He had one yesterday” (IV.i.48). We have no basis on which to judge this claim, but if the play’s action does, in fact, span three days, then Othello’s first fit must have taken place before Iago even provoked his jealous rage. Similarly, when Bianca enters and chides Cassio for giving her a handkerchief she believes to be a love token from some other woman, she talks as though she never had almost the exact same conversation with Cassio in Act III, scene iv. The play’s unrealistic lapses, repetitions, expansions, and contractions may contribute to the audience’s sense that Iago’s power is almost like that of a charmer invoking a kind of magic.


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