A Chaos Escaped
Ever since Homer began the Iliad not in the first year of the Trojan War but in medias res, Western authors have realized the power of starting their story not at the beginning but somewhere in the middle, when crisis occurs, or when an identity-forming moment happens. So it is with Shakespeare in Othello. Not only do we join the action right after Othello and Desdemona's elopement, but the first lines of the play assume knowledge of that event, knowledge that will only gradually be provided to the patient reader and listener. But, of course, characters have a past, a past that sometimes is hinted at and almost always shapes their present. In the case of Othello, he has a past that he portrays romantically (1.3) but will also describe as a chaos (3.3). Yet, in another passage, he describes it as a time of freedom (1.2). These contrary assessments are left unresolved in the play, even though the chaos he fears in 3.3 will be his condition after murdering Desdemona in 5.2.
Othello's Past as Freedom
Othello's opening speech gives a clue to one view of his past. When he receives news from Iago that Brabantio, the Senator with double the power of the Duke, is after him, Othello not only defuses the situation with a gracious "Let him do his spite (1.3.17)," but also uses it as an occasion for him to speak briefly about his life. He says,
"for know, Iago,/ But that I love the gentle Desdemona,/ I would not my unhoused free condition/ Put into circumscription and confine/ For the sea's worth (1.32.24-28)."
Here his approach to his past is as something that was a "free condition." When he was "unhoused" (and some scholars see in this a reference to the Italian 'cassare'--to marry; therefore, an "unhoused" person is one without a house because he is without a marriage), he was free, and he would have been reluctant to end this freedom except for his love of Desdemona. He so cherished his earlier freedom that only something so alluring and so strong as the love of this special woman would have made him willing to give it up.
But this sense of past as freedom must be tempered by another reality. When he is talking to Iago in 3.3, just after Desdemona finished vigorously appealing on behalf of Cassio, he ruminates,
"Excellent wretch! [a term of endearment] Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again (3.3.90-92)."
Chaos is come again. If he loses the love of Desdemona, he will again descend into chaos. Just as I argued that Iago's use of the simple word "here" in 1.2.5 connoted his vigorous prodding of Othello to physical action, so the use of the one word "again" in this instance suggests that his prior life, life B.D. so to speak, was chaotic. Thus, his life in Venice not only is a deeply satisfying one because he can use his skills at the service of a civilized state, but because he can avoid the overwhelming feeling of chaos that attended his earlier days.
And how to describe those earlier feelings of chaos? In 1.3 he narrates his "story" to the Senate, a story he had earlier told to a rapt Brabantio and Desdemona. This narration is thus three steps removed from the reality it describes. With repeated narration of stories the episodes of which they tell become more explicable and less chaotic, even as the language might become more fantastic. Repeated narration makes the narratives become frames or chapters in a larger life, rather than surds or uniquely uninterpretable events. Once the events are tamed, the language used to describe them can take on the chaos that was once felt in the presence of the events themselves. But now the language, overwhelming as it is, is tamed by the overriding coherence of narrative.
Thus, Othello's narration to the Senate of the tales he told of his past to the attentive Brabantio and Desdemona (1.3.128-170) takes on a tone of the exotic, the romantic and the adventurous. Despite the fact that the stories were of "hills whose heads touch heaven" and of "antres (caves) vast and deserts idle," they were packaged in a way that would arouse but not terrify the comfortable Venetian listeners. Yet, the response of the Venetian listeners is not to be confused with the original experience of the events. Othello's "disastrous chances," his "hair-breadth scapes i' th' imminent deadly breach," his "being taken by the insolent foe/ And sold to slavery" (1.3.134-148), were chaotic experiences, and Othello's exchange with Desdemona in 3.3 brings back the feeling of that chaos that he escaped through eloping with her.
And so we try to tame our past by telling the story over and over again, but occasionally, perhaps through a vigorous conversation with a loved one, the flood of memory returns, a memory that antedates our carefully constructed narratives of terror and exoticism. Then we know deeply that we never want to return to that chaos again. Which makes all the more provocative the question, Why will Othello eventually credit Iago's story of Desdemona's infidelity rather than her own story of her faithfulness? We don't yet have an answer, but one will arise as we study further.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long