Character/Characters in 3.3
As we reach the dramatic mid-point of the play, 3.3., the lineaments of character for the lead figures are becoming clear. This and the next mini-essay will limn these lines.
Iago is a man who, in contrast to the Biblical God (who is what He is), will become what he is not ("I am not what I am"--1.1.65). Though he argues to Othello that "Men should be what they seem (3.3.126)," this is part of the mask he is putting on. It is all part of Iago's elaborate show. By appearing "honest" and straighforward, a man of "exceeding honesty/ And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,/ Of human dealings (3.3.258-259)," Iago can effect what he really wants to accomplish: to plant ideas in Othello's mind which will lead him "by th' nose/ As asses are (1.3.401-402) to his destruction.
In this regard, Iago is like Cassius in Julius Caesar (1599) who will plant letters in Brutus's window which will sway his mind to join the conspiracy (JC 1.3.144-145). But Shakespeare has developed his imagery by the time he gets to Othello five years later. Now Iago is not just one who will plant ideas; he will also secrete poison through the dangerous "conceits" that he speaks to Othello. Whereas the image of planting carries with it the notion of germination and growth, potentially good concepts, the picture of poison conveys only a deleterious image. Poisons "at the first are scarce found to distaste,/ But with a little act upon the blood/ Burn like the mines of sulphur (3.3.327-329)." In a nutshell, Iago's method is deception and his specific tactic is releasing the poison of "dangerous conceits" into the mind of the Moor, whom Iago believes is a man of "weak function (2.3.348)." He knows that the Moor, who is a conscientious military leader, will do the rest to himself.
If "secreting poison" is the phrase that captures Iago's character in the play so far, "downright violence" is a good way to describe Desdemona. She applied this term to herself when speaking to the Venetian Senate in 1.3 in explaining her reason for eloping with Othello. "That I did love the Moor to live with him,/ My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,/ May trumpet to the world (1.3.248-250)." Her "downright violence" is her "unbridled impetuosity," her "violence acted and not violence suffered," to use Johnson's phrase, her breach of all social convention and decorum in pursuing what she wanted. This word also is appropriate to describe her desire to accompany her husband on the trip to Cyprus and her suing for Cassio when he would be reinstated.
She is a woman of passionate termperament who will not mind breaking social conventions, as well as her father's heart, to pursue the loves of her life. Indeed, her downright violence did apparently kill her father. In the last scene of the play, when the plot is unraveling for all, a certain Gratiano announces to Desdemona that her father, Brabantio, has died. "Thy match was mortal to him, and pure grief/ Shore his old thread in twain (5.2.205-206)." This downright violence will not be incompatible with her obedience to her husband. It is, however, obedience with a "twist." For example, when she takes leave of her husband, after being asked three times to leave, she stresses her obedience. "Be as your fancies teach you,/ What e'er you be, I am obedient (3.3.88-89)." Obedience that stresses how obedient it is bears in it the seeds of more downright violence.
Othello is the most complicated of the characters at this stage in the play. Like the Roman Centurion in Jesus' story, he is a man "set under authority." We cannot understand Othello apart from the realization that his life is a fully derivative one: he derives his authority from the Venetian Senate; he derives his knowledge and insight from Iago and even his love originates not from himself in the first instance but because Desdemona first loved him ("She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd,/ And I lov'd her that she did pity them"--1.3.167-168)." Thus he is a man who lives, to use 21st century terms, reactively rather than proactively, a man whose lack of creativity and basic intelligence will be replaced by a certain stolidity and impassivity, a kind of diligence and care for matters under his authority, a sense of thorough regard to duty and to upholding the dignity of the state.
Yet, as the next mini-essay will show, this basic commitment is overshadowed by a central failing in his personal life.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long