Othello's Fears II (in 3.3)
A Military Man/ A Married Man
If we want to understand the scope of Othello's fears in 3.3, we must also focus on his military identity and his married condition. The former makes him awkward in dealing with issues in a peaceful context and the latter brings someone into the inner emotional space of his life to challenge him in ways that were not usual in his "unhoused free condition." 1.2.26.
Othello, the Military Man
Othello's entire personal identity, as well as his position in Venice, rests on his position as lead military commander. Even as Iago tried to rouse Brabantio against Othello, Iago knew that the Senate had no choice but to send Othello to deal with the feared Turk in the Cyprus wars. 1.1.149-150. Othello confesses the centrality of his military identity to the Venetian Senate:
"Rude I am in my speech,/ And little bless'd with the soft phrase of peace;/ For since these arms of mine had seven years' pith,/ Till now some nine moons wasted, they have us'd/ Their dearest action in the tented field." 1.3.81-85.
But once the Turkish fleet is destroyed by the storm, the inner storm begins for Othello. He will proclaim a party rather than a muster of troops (2.2), and when he puts down a civic brawl in 2.3 he does it with terms of disgust rather than glory ("Are we turn'd Turks, and to ourselves do that/ Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?"--2.3.170-171). Though these two activities do not seem at first to destabilize Othello internally, they create the context for Iago to enter in and raise the doubts in 3.3. But Othello is ready to be destabilized because he is not doing what he is supposed to be doing--fighting.
To use a biblical analogy, when King David decided to stay home from war in the Spring of the year, the time "when kings go out to battle" (II Sam. 11:1), his eyes fell on Bathsheba. If he was fighting the external battle, he wouldn't have been subject to the temptations and the fall presented by an inner battle. So it is with Othello. If he had not "wasted" so much time in peaceful situations, he could be out fighting the foes of Venice. But the foes have been routed by the divine hand ("heaven"), and now Othello has only himself and his inner insecurities with which to grapple.
The Married Man
But he is also newly married to Desdemona. Though they seemed to love the other for different reasons (as I explained in other essays), Desdemona's presence in Othello's life brought about an end to the "chaos" which he said would "come again" if he loved her no longer. 3.3.90-92. But why does he even say that in the place that he does, that is, 3.3.90-92? I suggest here that Desdemona's unexpected and vigorous challenge to Othello in 3.3.40-80 made him doubt for a split second whether he loved his new wife, and for that same split second he saw the yawning abyss of chaos that would engulf him if he stopped loving her. Note the language he uses after the vigorous exchange he has with her and she has left his presence:
"Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again." 3.3.90-92.
The phrase, "But I do love thee," means "if I do not love thee." Thus a hellish fate sandwiches two references to not loving Desdemona. The only reason I would suggest that he mentions these ideas twice is that something about the interaction with her in lines 40-80, combined perhaps with Iago's insinuations already evident earlier in 3.3 made the following thoughts come into Othello's mind. He must have thought:
'Iago is saying some things that need to be explored, things like "I like not that" or "steal away so guilty-like." Indeed, wasn't that Cassio that just fled the room? Then my wife comes in and begins to talk in very unrelenting and pushy terms on Cassio's behalf. I don't quite know what to do. I just need some time for my own thoughts and ruminations. I tell her to leave me alone and she keeps pestering me about Cassio. So I tell her twice that "I will deny thee nothing." Still she persists and finally she leaves. I do love her, surely I do. And I need her because I am starting to feel that there is something in what Iago is saying that needs to be explored. But I need to be alone now. If I stopped loving her the chaos I feel beginning to well up in me will return again. I just need to sort things out.'
And so Othello does the worst possible thing in this situation. He dismisses his wife, without whose love chaos would return, and decides to expose himself, without her protection or help, to the machinations of Iago. By dismissing her Othello is saying that he would rather listen to Iago at this moment than to Desdemona. Both may bring something destabilizing into his life, but the yearning to solve Iago's potential mysteries tugs stronger on his heart than the need to listen to Desdemona plead Cassio's suit.
Though none of these factors or fears are mentioned expressly by Shakespeare as he begins 3.3 (who would have expected him to do so?), they all stalk the inner regions of Othello's mind, making him vulnerable to Iago's words and seemingly inattentive to his wife's concern. Something about the doubt planted by Iago will require all his energy to sort out. Ironically, by dismissing Desdemona, the one who can keep him away from the chaos he fears, he opens himself up to that same chaos. In the next 300 lines, chaos will overwhelm him.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long