Though "long seeming dead" (5.2.328) because it was written exactly 400 years ago, Othello is alive with issues and questions for today. The story may have originated in a tale told by Cinthio and adapted by Shakespeare, but Shakespeare's spin on the yarn keeps us reeling today. This and the final mini-essay will consider several questions "for further discussion."
1. Why do people/we throw it all away when they/we have so many things going for them/us? Even when he is trying to exonerate himself or mitigate the harshness of his action, Othello confesses freely that he had thrown away a "pearl" that was "richer than all his tribe (5.2.347-348)." In this regard I will adopt the Quarto reading of "Indian" rather than "Judaean" because Othello is interested in minimizing his blame, and to talk about himself as a person like Judas at this point would maximize it. But even if it would be more accurate to say that he murdered his wife, he did throw away the valuable "pearl." Why did he, and why do we sacrifice what is most precious to us when we need not do so? Why do people leave their families for other intimate relationships, for the allure of drink or gambling, for a broader field of "excitement," when what they have is not just good but very, very good? Why is it that a prominent college president would take multiple millions of his school's endowment, without telling anyone, and invest it in a risky Idaho venture that soon tanked, thus destroying his career and hurting the school? We give up relationships, jobs, good things for no apparent good reason, and by so doing cause others to suffer immeasurably? Why?
2. Why do we rely on hearsay evidence to our destruction when eyewitness testimony is readily available and will put our minds at ease? Othello told Iago that he would require "ocular proof (3.3.360)" of Desdemona's infidelity before he would judge her, but this wasn't true. Iago then plied him with innuendo and the purported report of his experience sleeping next to Cassio where Cassio admitted his desire for Desdemona. The "evidence" rested on a tissue of lies, hints, and lurid suggestions calcuated to enflame the emotions and throw Othello into a frenzy. And it also made Othello dispense with his requirement for "ocular" proof of faithlessness. Othello's conduct is in stark contrast to the behavior of the Venetian Senate when learning about the Turkish threat (1.3.1-45). When they heard one account, they debated it and waited for another report. Then they compared reports and decided on which wass more probable. Political bodies deliberate, apparently, but people abandon judicious consideration even when it would be easy to act cautiously.
Why couldn't Othello bring himself to ask Desdemona directly about infidelity? He asked Emilia about it, but ignored her answer (4.2.1ff). He became enthralled by Iago, ensorcelled by the vividness of his language and urgency of his pleas. Othello's conduct makes us ask whether and why we rely on filmy language, gossamer explanations, diaphanous hints rather than "ocular" proof. Is truth so difficult to come by, so elusive, so painful in the discovery that we simply must abandon our straight-ahead quest for objective data in favor of multiple hearsay?
3. Similar to # 2, Why do we rush to judgment, to our detriment, when there is no need to do so? When we experience extreme mental upset, our mind, in the words of Brutus, "suffers then,/ The nature of an insurrection (JC 2.1.68-69)." Whether it is because the "genius" and "mortal instruments" are then in conflict, as Brutus says, or whether we use much less colorful language to characterize it ("I'm so stressed out"), we often want to resolve the dissonance as soon as possible. Stress in our lives causes our view of time to change. It becomes almost impossible to take the "long view" of something; issues have to be resolved right away.
I think there are some things where we can live with doubt and uncertainty in life, and other things that we just have to resolve "right away." Some people have a higher tolerance for a messy house or office than others. Likewise, there are different levels of tolerance for intellectual "messes" or inconsistencies that we experience. Some scholars can go throughout their entire lives mulling over a problem without feeling any need to "solve" it, while others feel that unless they are slaying intellectual dragons every day that chaos impends. But all of us, seemingly, have our vulnerabilities, where we will rush to ill-advised and ill-informed judgment when either the data is available that would help us or we would be better served by giving the matter more time. Othello, too, rushes to judgment with inadequate information. Are we likewise vulnerable to this?
4. How do we react to being hurt? Emilia's line when Othello confronts her with a drawn sword near the end of the play rings in our ears, "Thou hast not half that pow'r to do me harm/ As I have to be hurt (5.2.162-163)." Othello is a play about the capacity to be hurt and the various ways that people respond to the loss occasioned by hurt. Though I spoke in the first mini-essay about the losses suffered by four characters (Iago, Brabantio, Cassio and Othello), the women also suffer great loss and react to it. Desdemona will respond to Othello's "green-ey'd monster" of jealousy by submitting to his advances and demands, even to the point of death. I have tried to point out that on occasion there is strength in her submission, but others see it only as a sign of weakness. Then, there is Emilia. She reacts to the loss of Desdemona with forthright speaking, with a quest for the truth that comes out of her desire to speak "as liberal as the north."
Othello therefore provides us at least six "models" for how we react to being hurt. We can, like Iago, react furiously but contain the rage and plot the destruction of those who hurt us. We can, like Cassio, bemoan the loss but then seek reinstatement. We might, like Brabantio, be so overwhelmed with the loss of a relationship (his daughter) that he objects before the Senate but then, when he gets no satisfaction, go home and die of grief. We might, like Othello, become obsessed with the other person, the supposed instrument of our pain, and kill him/her. We might, like Desdemona, patiently bear the obloquy and abuse of others until we are killed by them. We might, like Emilia, discover something about ourselves in being hurt and take on a new persona by relentlessly pursuing the truth of the matter, even though it leads to more deaths.
What will it be for us? How do we respond to the losses and hurts of our life? To a certain extent, as I argued in my essays on the Book of Job, we respond to emotional hurt in the same way that we suffer physical pain. We scream out and try to avoid it. But then, we keep living, and have to face the emotional wreckage or challenge before us. Othello helps us focus on the issue of how loss affects us and what strategies we employ to get beyond it.
The final essay will pose a few more questions.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long