Character/Characters in 3.3
More on Othello
Even Iago recognizes that in his own sphere Othello is an untouchable man. He knows that in the middle of the Turkish crisis that the state "Cannot with safety cast him, for he's embark'd/ With such loud reason to the Cyprus wars/ (Which even now stands in act) that, for their souls,/ Another of his fadom they have none/ to lead their business" (1.1.149-153). The powerful Senator Brabantio cannot bring him down; all Othello needs to do, figuratively, is to say "Peace, be still," and the Venetian assembly and crowds, no less than the Galilean lake, falls silent. Yet two things make Othello particularly vulnerable: that he really doesn't "fit" into Venice and that he is a neophyte in exploring the hidden world of his emotions.
Othello's Lack of "Fitness"
Three things characterize Othello's inadept attempts to connect with his Venetian surroundings: (1) the language he uses; (2) his race and (3) his sense of mystery and alienness. We already have an awareness that Othello's language is different even before he begins to speak. When Iago has been rebuffed in his quest for the lieutenancy, he says that Othello nonsuited his mediators with "a bumbast circumstance/ Horribly stuff'd with epithites of war (1.1.13-14)." Bumbast was a cotton material used for padding; hence a bumast (bombastic person) was someone who was "stuffed" or "inflated." Othello rejected Iago's application with inflated rigamarole filled with military expressions. In another essay I have indicated briefly the awkward circumlocutious dilations of Othello. Sometimes the language is too flowery, such as the opening form of address to the Genevan Senators (1.3.76-77); other times the words are rare or unexpected (1.2.21-29). Other times, however, they are words of the most exquisite beauty and power (1.3.127ff; 3.3.345ff.).
Othello is also different because of his race. I have pointed this out in many instances. Even though Othello rarely mentions concerns about his race, others do, beginning in 1.1. Race is the most brutally present subtext of the play. "Haply, for I am black (3.3.263)" captures Othello's growing sense that his race might be the reason that Desdemona would consider cuckolding him. Whereas Othello must be heard in order for one to understand his difference in speaking, he need only be seen or even described for race to be a factor. And, once he is seen by someone, it will be impossible for that person to get the vision of Othello out of his/her mind. Race is an immutable characteristic clinging to Othello.
His mysterious and exotic stories also set Othello apart. He has been to Aleppo (5.2.352); he knows the secrets of the flow of the Pontic seas (3.3.453); he is intimately acquainted with the mysteries of the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief he gave to Desdemona, which was sewed by a two hundred year old sibyl out of hallowed worms and dyed with fluid of mummies (3.4.55-75); he has experienced the pains of slavery and the rush of victory, the frightening exposure to strange men and strange locations, his "moving accidents by flood and field,/ Of hair'breadth scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach (1.3.135-136)." His stories might cause someone to fall in love with him, but they also stress his fascinating and fearful singularity.
Othello's Emotional Emptiness
Othello's military prowess was not matched by a similar depth of emotional security or self-knowledge. This lack of self-knowledge is manifest in at least two particulars: (1) his overly optimistic and unrealistic assessment of his feelings at any one moment and (2) his ability to see deeply into the abyss of despair without, however, having any apparent tools or means to break his fall should he stumble (or leap) into it. His overly optimistic assessment of his feelings can be seen both in his proclamation that landing on Cyprus gives him "too much of joy (2.1.197)," and his quick recovery from the abyss of emotional desolation when Iago warns him to beware of jealousy and his wife's cuckoldry (3.3.177ff). In the former he has described life in too wonderful terms, almost like the Evangelical Christian who wanted God to "stay his hand" from him lest the sense of God's presence and goodness be so powerful that he be overwhelmed and obliterated.
His ability to see into the abyss of despair without having the means to deal with this vision is something which I have mentioned elsewhere and is characterized by the immediate overwhelming sense that all stays and supports might be taken from him and he would be reduced to nonexistence or chaos (3.3.90-92,3.3.171, 5.2.198). It is like a panic reaction that is so frightening and so debilitating that Othello needs to "recover" to a more confident ground, either with reassuring words (3.3.175ff) or pugilistic instincts (5.2.200ff). But his inability to calibrate the levels of emotional distress he might face, and the consequent inability to develop mechanisms to deal with potentially dismaying information, makes him vulnerable to a leap into the inky pit of despair and death.
For example, had Othello a smidgen of emotional depth, he would have taken the possibility of Desdemona's infidelity as something to investigate, possibly to query her or to give the matter some time to develop. Instead, he allows himself to be rushed headlong from conjecture to conjecture until he has to kill what he most loves. It is either a satisfying, clean, and clear set of circumstances for Othello or else he risks the plunge into eternal darkness. He has no skills to deal with the enduring dissonances of life, especially when the dissonances touch his very sense of identity.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long