O Misery! (3.3.171)
Chaos Briefly Returns for Othello
Once Iago gets Othello to be an interpreter of events [in this case, the state of Iago's mind, in 3.3.118-124] and not simply an observer or a poser of brief questions, he has him where he wants him. Othello is far more skillful in the glorious theater of war than he is in the subtle world of interpretation. Yet, he will interpret here because, as I have previously suggested, his minority condition requires it. He has to get to the bottom of what Iago is thinking, which Iago does not want to reveal in 3.3.118-165. Othello is convinced that Iago's "close dilations, working from the heart" (3.3.124--his most secret thoughts) need to be elicited from Iago. Thus the thrust of the conversation for the next 40 lines is Othello's attempt to get Iago to tell him the deep workings of his heart.
Iago's Seeming Reluctance
Iago uses two arguments to support his desire not to reveal his secret thoughts to Othello. On the one hand, thoughts are private things, and even slaves are not required to reveal them. Second, if truth be told, Iago says, his thoughts are of such jealous nature 3.3.147--is he trying to plant this idea in Othello's mind already?) and are so imperfect that to reveal them in their scattered and unsure condition would be good for neither Othello nor Iago. But, by saying this, he has heightened Othello's desire for the thoughts even more.
It is only when Othello pulls out all the stops and calls on the heavens to make Iago speak that Iago issues his impassioned warning about jealousy. "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on (3.3.165-167)." But then, as if applying this general observation about jealousy to Othello's specific situation, he says, "The cuckold lives in bliss/ Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;/ But O, what damned minutes tells he o'er/ Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves (3.3.167-170)!"
A Little Glimpse of Chaos, Again
Iago has not simply given Othello a general warning about jealousy; he has tied it to the stinging humiliation of cuckoldry. When this is combined with Iago's planting the idea in Othello's mind that Cassio stole away "guilty-like" from Desdemona, and that she pled Cassio's case with inordinate and inappropriate zeal before Othello, it is all too much for Othello. All he can say is "O misery (3.3.171)!"
We should be aware what is and what is not implied in this single word "misery." As this point, Othello has not concluded that his wife is guilty of sleeping with Cassio. He is not even a genuine doubter. What has happened, however, is that just as he had a passing vision of what life might be like if he didn't love Desdemona anymore (3.3.91-92--"when I love thee not/ Chaos is come again), so the abyss has been opened once again for him, this time by Iago's comment. He says "O Misery!" because the thought races over him, fast as lightning, of what life might be like if the situation described by Iago comes true. It would be the end of all his hopes and certain misery.*
[*Othello has a habit of letting his mind rush to the extrapolated end very quickly before he pulls back from the precipice of imagined disaster and returns again to a sense of self-command and control. A third instance of this trait is in the last scene of the play, 5.2., where evidence is mounting that Desdemona, whom he has just murdered, was innocent of cuckolding him. The thought rushes through his mind that he might have killed her unjustly, and all he can say is "O, O, O! (5.2.197)," and then fall on the bed. Yet he continues to talk as if Desdemona was guilty (5.2.200--"O, she was foul!").
Returning to Control
But then, as soon as Othello has uttered the wrenching cry from the soul, a cry which bores deeply into his innermost fears, he returns to a sense of control. If there is a jealous feeling, what should one do? One should check out the feeling 'scientifically.' "No! to be once in doubt/ Is once to be resolv'd (3.3.179-180)." Thus, doubt is actually a good thing, since it allows the possibility of solving the mystery of a person's fidelity.
Then, as if lecturing Iago on a most trivial and basic point, which Iago has failed yet to grasp, he continues, "No, Iago,/ I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;/ And on the proof, there is no more but this--/ Away at once with love or jealousy (3.3.189-192)!" It really is all so simple, Othello explains. If there is an allegation of infidelity, first "see" it. If the allegation appears to provide evidence of infidelity, then "doubt." Then, go ahead and "prove" the doubt, and one either has an unfaithful wife or one is mistaken. It is as clear and as straightforward as that.
We should not miss the subtle dynamics of human relationship as they are expressed in 3.3.140-192. 1) Iago has brought Othello into the realm of interpretation, and now Othello needs to learn Iago's secret thoughts in order to know the truth about things under his authority. 2) Iago strings him along until he is in rather desperate straits for the information. 3) Then, when Iago releases the information, he does so obliquely, with clear enough indication that cuckoldry is at issue and that Othello is concerned, but with no "smoking gun" convicting Desdemona or even any circumstantial evidence at this point. 4) Othello, then, rushes to a premature conclusion where his mental and emotional world would completely collapse but then quickly reaffirms control through an aggressive an apparently logically-consistent statement. The only thing is, however, that Othello's attempted (re)assertion of intellectual/interpretive control over the situation after Iago has spoken rings hollow. It seems to be convincing only to himself. As we will see in the next mini-essay, Iago takes Othello's show of bravado and uses it immediately against him.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long