Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John A. ColemanApril 08, 2012

      I saw, the other night, a truly superb production of Othello, The Moor of Venice at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley. It was that company's first venture in forty-five years to mount a Shakespeare play. The artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, had told his Othello star, Aldo Billingslea, for over six years that he had wanted to do an Othello with him ( Billingslea had for seven years been part of the acting troupe of the famed Oregon Shakespeare Company in Ashland and now is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Santa Clara University). But, argued Minadakis, he was waiting until he had an apt Iago whom he eventually found in Craig Marker who, as Iago, in many ways steals the spotlight in the play. As myself a yearly attendant at the Oregon Shakespeare Company I have seen, over the years, a number of Othellos. The Marin Theatre Company's production was far superior to any of the Othellos I had seen in Ashland because both the Othello and Iago were truly equal in acting ability.

      Iago, of course,has as many lines and more soliloquies than Othello. Iago's charm, acute intelligence and almost Satanic cunning captivates any audience. We do not like or admire Iago but can not help but be fascinated by his cleverness. Harold Bloom in his study,Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, contends that Iago served as a model for Milton's Satan. As Bloom notes, unlike most Shakespeare plays, there is no comic relief at all in Othello. He says of Iago: " Who, before Iago, in literature or in life, perfected the arts of disinformation, disorientation and derangement. All of these combine in Iago's grand program of uncreation, as Othello is returned to original chaos, to the Tohu and Bohu from which we came. Iago remains the perfect devil of the west, superb as psychologist...and negative theologian."  George Bernard Shaw thought Iago " defies all consistency, being, at once, a course blackguard and also refined and subtle."

        The sub-title of the play, " The Moor of Venice", reminds us of Othello's outsider status as a mercenary captain, a non-citizen of Venice. Like many outsiders, he easily missed the subtleties of a culture's nuances and also had--perhaps habitually--some suspicions of others' reactions to him ( including those of Desdemona's love). I was reminded of a conversation I had years ago with Terry Francois, an African American Supervisor of the city of San Francisco. Francois had told me that if I went to a restaurant and was told there was a two hour waiting list, I would spontaneously credit the notification. As a black man, however, Francois said he often had suspicions that, perhaps, racism was dictating the decision about such a long waiting list.

       It turned out that I had been reading, right before seeing Othello, a study entitled Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age by a Berkeley law professor, Christopher Kutz. Kutz is keen to know how we deal with accountability for harm when there are multiple perpetators and how we measure the different degrees of complicity. My purpose in reading Kutz was in preparation for a chapter I need to write on global warming where, of course, the issue of accountability and differing degrees of complicity in the harm loom large.

       There are four possible actors complicit, somehow, in Desdemona's murder. If we were some court of law how might we take account of such complicity among Othello, Iago, Emilia ( Iago's wife) and the citizens of Venice? Kutz argues that there is no one rigid framework for accountability. Usually, in law, we tend to place blame on the direct agent of harm. But we can imagine circumstances in which the indirecct actors seem to warrant more bitter responses than the direct agent. Consider Othello's murder of Desdemona. The scheming Iago has manipulated circumstance and passion in order to build up a volcanic jealousy in Othello. Iago has guided him in almost every detail. " Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated." Thus, Othello's dual role as agent and instrument ( almost victim) complicates our moral assessment of him and of Iago. Othello is clearly wronged, although he in turn wrongs. Indeed, Othello is wronged in part by being led to wrong his wife. Iago brings about the killing by manipulating Othello. Yet it would be dramatically and legally and linguistically too simple to say he causes Othello to kill Desdemona. If Othello had been nothing but a dupe we might simply say Iago killed Desdemona.

       To be sure, Iago plays Othello like a harp but one that is already tautly in tune, a product not just of Iago but of Othello's own arrogance and sexual insecurity, character flaws for which Othello is rightly held accountable. In Shakespeare's own imagined Venice and by our own standards, Othello's act was an excessively passionate response to the charge of adultery, even if the accusations had been true. Othello was doubly wrong: for believing too quickly in the ambiguous proofs he was offered and in killing on their basis. As an audience, we, along with Emilia, hold Othello guilty of the murder. Yet, Emilia, herself, is complicit because of her stealth stealing of Desdemona's handkerchief without which the suspicion of adultery would have gone nowhere. Emilia, herself, knew that Iago might be up to some terrible mischief when she gives the handkerchief to him. Emilia also pretends she knows nothing of the whereabouts of the handkerchief when both Desdemona and Othello ask after it--at a time when the murder might have been stopped. On her deathbed, Emilia admits the justice of her dying by being complicit in wronging Desdemona.

       Yet our anger at Othello is mixed with sorrow and regret. He is Iago's victim as well as Desdemona's killer. Othello is exclusively accountable for the murder. He caused it. Yet Kutz reminds us that accountability looks to more than cause. He conjures another form of complicity than direct cause which he calls inclusive accountability. Iago is the " hellish villain" of the play. He conceives the killings partly out of resentment ( and his own sexual jealousies). The contempt ( and eventual punishment) heaped justly upon Iago would be unjustly applied to Othello. As Kutz remarks: " iago is  genuinely a case of inclusive accountability since Iago's relation to Desdemona's death is not purely causal. Desdemona's death was something he promoted, indeed engineered, but it did not occur by his hand or by someone who could be reckoned fully his instrument." ( the way Rodrigo in the play is Iago's pure instrument).

       In one place Shakespeare insinuates that the citizens of Venice's racism and double-acting toward outsiders might have played some role in making Othello prone to suspicions ( much like the remarks of Terry Francois about claimed long lines for dinner). To their credit, Emilia and Othello both confess their differing complicities in Desdemona's death and repent of them before they die. When confronted, Iago refuses to give any account of his actions: " Demand me nothing: what you know, you know. From this time I will never speak a word." To which Ludivigo says:" What, not to pray?" No remorse or confession of complicity comes from iago's mouth.

        Kutz remarks about complicity: " Our onlookers sense of Iago's culpability reflects our awareness of the structure of the situation, as well as of his motives but it is not reducible to any one of the elements of causality, character and intention nor is it a simple additive sum. Only by first noting the participatory nature of the killing and then examining these further considerations can we reflect adequately upon the particular response warranted by Iago's misconduct." Which is, of course, anger, horror and disgust. Even as we remain, almost against our will, quite intrigued by Iago, the devil.



Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
9 years 8 months ago
Thanks for this interesting post about one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. Though I've seen several productions of Othello, the one I always use as my referent took place about 25 years ago with James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago. Talk about a pairing "truly equal in acting ability"!
9 years 8 months ago
The answer to Blooms question: " Who, before Iago, in literature or in life, perfected the arts of disinformation, disorientation and derangement...?"

If you will recall, it was that cunning 'smooth tonued' serpent in Genesis 3 who 'perfected the arts of disinformation and disorientation...' and that is the lesson of Genesis 3!

Amy Ho-Ohn
9 years 8 months ago
" ... it was that cunning 'smooth tongued' serpent in Genesis 3"

Odysseus was no slouch either.

Does Richard III predate Othello? The play was certainly written earlier, but the action may be later.

The latest from america

A Reflection for the Saturday of the First Week of Advent
Maurice Timothy ReidyDecember 04, 2021
“Here democracy was born,” Pope Francis said. “Yet we cannot avoid noting with concern how today — and not only in Europe — we are witnessing a retreat from democracy.”
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 04, 2021
Photo: iStock
You might call it the Walmart of hymnals. It doesn’t drill down into any one category. It doesn’t specialize. But it covers most of the bases that most parishes and parishioners would expect.
Addison Del MastroDecember 03, 2021
Photo: Apple Corps Ltd
Peter Jackson's "Get Back" is fascinating, tedious and indispensable all at the same time.
Bill McGarveyDecember 03, 2021