Othello and Christ
The Biblical Roots of Othello's Authority
One of the first things you notice about Othello when he initially appears in 1.2 is his dignity, magnanimity and calm. Iago has just tried to incite civic alarm by having Roderigo rouse Brabantio "with like timorous accent and dire yell/ As when, by night and negligence, the fire/ Is spied in populous cities (1.1.75-77)." Then Iago repairs to the Saggitary inn where he tries also to upset Othello (1.2.1-17). Instead of Brabantio's agitation and panic, Othello appears unmoved by Iago's gestures. He is convinced that his services will "out-tongue" Brabantio's complaint (1.2.19). Rather than resting Othello's authority solely on his calm and dignified manner, however, Shakespeare makes three crucial biblical references to show the Christological nature of Othello's authority.
"Put up Your Swords"- 1.2.59,82
Brabantio, aroused by Iago and Roderigo, storms over to the Sagittary and confronts Othello to find out about the disappearance of his daughter Desdemona (who has eloped with Othello). Swords are quickly drawn but Othello relieves the tension with a magnificent line: "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them (1.2.59)." This is strongly reminiscent of Christ's command to the Apostle Peter to "put up your sword" when the high priests and soldiers came to arrest him (Jn. 18:11; Matt. 26:52). The Matthean account then has Jesus rebuke the disciples because he could call down "twelve legions of angels" to fight for him (26:53). Shakespeare echoes the biblical concept, though not language, here too when Othello says, "Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it/ Without a prompter (1.2.83-84)." In both instances, Othello and Christ stand out as dominating figures who can, by gesture or word, subdue whatever forces are arrayed against them.
Brabantio as Pilate
Brabantio decides to take his private grief against Othello to the Senate and, in 1.3., tries to convince that august body that his daughter has been "abus'd, stol'n" and "corrupted" by "spells and medicines brought of mountebanks (1.3.60-61)." When asked who was responsible for that corruption, Brabantio says, "Here is the man--this Moor,... (1.3.71)." His language is almost identical to Pilate's language when he displayed Christ to the people: "Here is your King (Jn. 19:14)!" Though not necessarily implying that Brabantio fully plays the role of Pilate, this suggests that the literary context that Shakespeare wants his hearers to advert to is the Biblical one. Othello's Christlike authority is not only emphasized positively, by Othello's action, but negatively, as it were, by Brabantio's words imitating Pilate.
Iago as the Yet Unredeemed Apostle Peter
Biblically speaking, however, something is missing. We have a Christ-like figure and an accuser, but we need also a betrayer or someone who denies this Christ-like figure at a crucial time. In the play it must be Iago, who sets on the entire web of deceit and pain, and he says a line that mimics another biblical character. Rather than the biblical character being Judas, however, it is Simon Peter. Judas is not selected because he has hardly any lines in the Gospel account, while Peter has many. Whereas Judas handed Jesus over to death, Peter's repeated denials that he knew Christ also function as a kind of betrayal.
Shakespeare again uses the Fourth Gospel and appeals to the post-resurrection story of Jesus' conversation with Peter, who had gone back to his fishing after the resurrection of Christ (Jn. 21). Christ appears to him and gives him a quiz. "'Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?' He said to him, 'You know that I love you (Jn. 21:15; this is then repeated twice, and functions literarily as a threefold affirmation to reverse Peter's earlier threefold denial of Christ)."
When Iago slowly causes Othello to implode psychologically in 3.3, Othello says plaintively, "If thou dost love me,/ Show me thy thought (3.3.115-116)." Iago's response is straight from the Gospel of John, "My lord, you know I love you (3.3.116)." Whereas Peter was on his way to being redeemed, however, Iago was burrowing deeper and deeper into the hell that would engulf not only himself but also Othello, Desdemona, Emilia and others.
Othello is not the only one whose authority for Shakespeare has Christological overtones. As I showed in my essay on Caesar and Christ, Shakespeare carefully crafts the first 25 lines of Julius Caesar 1.2 with several biblical echoes to show Caesar's unquestioned authority. The purpose of these biblical references ought to be clear: Shakespeare is trying to show us that the men whom we study, Caesar or Othello, are men at the peak of their power and almost divine in their status. That both will be brought so low is part of the tragic genius of the Bard.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long