Othello on the Brink (3.3.205-240)
The Misery Returns
Iago discovered that when he opened up the subject of jealousy (3.3.165--"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!/ It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock/ The meat it feeds on"), Othello gets a momentary and frightening glimpse into chaos ("O misery!"--3.3.171) before he retreats into firmer ground of rational thought (3.3.176-192). But now Iago has a valuable piece of information. He knows Othello is vulnerable emotionally to the allegation of his wife's infidelity. And, indeed, Othello is more than simply vulnerable. Othello's mental world might collapse if his wife's infidelity is demonstrated or perhaps even adeptly alleged. Iago will therefore nurture this information about Othello, cuddle it, caress it and then use it adroitly in the next 50 or so lines to bring the Moor to new levels of mental torment.
I have already shown that Iago tries to lead Othello back to chaos through sharing his knowledge of Venetian women (they are unfaithful to their husbands--3.3.201-204) and Desdemona's deceitful conduct before her father (3.3.206-208). Indeed, when Othello says, in response to the latter, "And so she did (3.3.208)," he may have been thinking back to Brabantio's warning to him in Brabantio's last words in the play, after the Senate has rebuffed his plea: "Look to her, Moor, if thou has eyes to see;/ She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee (1.3.292-293)."
Two Other Methods of Iago
Iago uses two other means to try to lead Othello back to the brink of emotional chaos. First, he stresses his love of Othello, and second, he observes three times Othello's seeming emotional distress. Both of these give the mistaken impression to Othello that Iago really is concerned for him, much more concerned for him than, for example, his wife Desdemona.
Othello is particularly vulnerable to protestations of love because love is a term with a great plasticity of meaning for Othello. Though the term is used around 80 times in the play, Othello has used it about 10 times before 3.3, and can employ it in a number of contexts. The clearest indication of its multiple-use potential is in 2.3, where in the midst of the civic brawl Desdemona is roused from bed and comes to see what is going on. Othello says,
"I know, Iago,/ Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter [Cassio's responsibility for the brawl],/ Making it light to Cassio. Cassio, I love thee,/ But never more be officer of mine./[Seeing Desdemona] Look if my gentle love be not rais'd up (2.3.247-250)."
Othello uses the word "love" three different ways in four lines. First, it suggests Iago's loyalty to Othello. Then, it describes Othello's sense of affection toward Cassio despite his need to fire him. Finally, it refers to his feelings toward Desdemona. Thus, when Iago reiterates his love for Othello three times (3.3.194,213,217), such statements can be heard in a number of ways by Othello. But he chooses to hear them as statements of utter loyalty. It is almost as if Iago is Peter declaring his threefold love for Christ after his resurrection ("Lord, you know that I love you"--John 21:17; note that Iago has used those identical words, "My lord, you know I love you" in 3.3.117). It is as if Iago is saying, 'My love for you is unequivocal, determined, irreversible.'
Then, Iago tries to demonstrate his love for Othello by remarking three times that Othello seems to be moved. "I see this hath a little dash'd your spirits (3.3.214);" "I' faith, I fear it has (3.3.215);" "My lord, I see y' are mov'd (3.3.224)." By exhibiting this threefold concern it almost encourages the emotionally immature Othello to deny the reality to which the concern points. 'I'm OK,' is all that Othello can say.
But one can place too much responsibility at Iago's door. Othello comes back to the brink of chaos because he does not know himself. Like Brutus in Julius Caesar, he is drawn along by a scheming person while under the impression that he is freely choosing his future. He thinks he is secure because he has wrenched himself back from the precipice by saying that all he needs to do is to see, doubt and prove (3.3.190); this threefold chain of patient investigation will not quickly be broken. But he is not secure. He is led back to the edge of chaos because he wants the knowledge which Iago claims to provide.
A further indication of Othello's tendency to move quickly from apparent control to total chaos is language of "steepness" he uses througout the play. This point is not obvious and has not been pointed out by commentators, but seems to have some resonance in the text. When Othello finally collapses emotionally for the last time in the play, and realizes the horror of his act, he can only envision his future in hell. "Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!/ Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire (3.3.279-280)!" He envisions hell as sliding down a steep cliff into a lake of fire.
Again, when Othello told stories of his exotic and frightening past, one of the scary things he recalled was "Rough quarries, rocks, and hills whose heads touch heaven (1.3.141)." Fear is associated with the steep and impassible hills. Finally, when he is safely delivered from the storm and embraces Desdemona in Cyprus he says he is willling to face it all again if he would experience again the contentment that he now feels, "May the winds blow till they have waken'd death!/ And let the laboring bark climb hills of seas/ Olympus-high, and duck again as low/ As hell's from heaven! (2.1.186-189)." The frightening waves are high as Olympus and then the puny barks are thrust into the depths of hell. Othello's tendency in these passages to see images in the world that raise one up to heaven and then plunge one into hell through steepness underscores his emotional vulnerability. When you has no grip on a steep slope, all you can do is fall into the lake. That is what it feels like for Othello.
Iago's guile and Othello's assailability both bring him back to the brink of desolation.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long