Desdemona’s “Just Understanding” of Othello’s Virtue

George F. Held


Othello_MSC2004Editor’s note: A theme of TOO is that the entire culture of the West has been corrupted. This includes essentially all the arts and academic fields in the social sciences and humanities. It is therefore not surprising that Shakespeare criticism has been influenced by the reigning culture of the academic left. This essay is an abbreviated version of the second chapter of George F. Held’s ebook, Othello’s Disenchanted Eye, available at Lulu. Held shows that Othello, a play about an interracial marriage, has been seen through the eyes of current racial sensibilities.

I have stated elsewhere[1] that Othello is an “ethically lucid play.” I stand by that statement, but will now provide evidence which will to some extent undermine it. The play, though generally lucid, is not simple, and has been subject to gross misinterpretation. In his introduction to the play Frank Kermode writes:

His marriage to Desdemona, founded upon her just understanding of his virtue, is a triumph over appearances; it is grounded in reality and independent of such accidents as color or the easy lusts of the flesh; it is more like the love of Adam and Eve before than after the Fall. The archaic grandeur of Othello’s diction (as in the long speeches to the Senate in I.iii) and the extreme innocence of Desdemona (as the courtly Cassio expresses it in II.i) are ways of emphasizing these simple themes; one may see them ideally reflected in the music which Verdi wrote for Otello’s heroic entry, and the soaring purity of his Desdemona. . . .

There is room for another and more worldly view of the honesty of Desdemona’s proceedings; Iago and Brabantio express it. Her penetrating to the truth of Othello under an appearance conventionally thought repulsive can seem less a result of her purity of response than of some pagan witchcraft of his. It is precisely because such a union must appear to the disenchanted worldly eye perverse or absurd that Iago can destroy it. He represents a sort of metropolitan knowingness, a pride in being without illusion and a power to impose upon others an illusory valuation of himself. He converts to his own uses all the praise of honesty which properly belongs to Othello and Desdemona.[2]

Kermode sees the play in terms of a dichotomy involving two opposing groups: the first group consists of Othello and Desdemona, the second of Iago, Brabantio, and all those disenchanted with Othello’s and Desdemona’s union. The views of the members of each group[3] are similar to each other but differ substantially from those of the members of the other group. Specifically, the members of the first group adopt an unworldly, just, accurate view of race, color, Othello’s “virtue,” and “the honesty of Desdemona’s proceedings,” whereas the members of the second group adopt an unjust and inaccurate “worldly view” of all these same things. The views of the members of the first group are the result of their desire and ability to see reality as it is and to look beyond mere appearances; the views of the members of the second group are the result of convention and prejudice.[4] I will show that this analysis is not merely oversimple but entirely bogus and is itself a product of modern politically correct prejudice.

That Othello’s “virtue” is more real than his race and color is an odd conclusion to draw from a play in which his race and color are frequently emphasized[5] and remain constant from beginning to end but in which his virtue is undermined, in his own eyes entirely lost (V.ii.245), and in our eyes and those of the characters on stage (cf. V.ii.291, cited below) shown to be, at the very least, quite flawed. The politically correct idea, here dressed out in Platonic and Aristotelian terminology, that race and color are unimportant, unreal, or mere “accidents,” simply gains no support from the play. In order to draw this idea from it, Kermode must indulge in several gross distortions and obfuscations.

Kermode asserts that Iago is able to destroy this marriage only because of the “disenchanted eye” (= prejudice) of the others. He implies that the marriage, except for this prejudice, would have been stable and durable because it is “founded upon her just understanding of his virtue.” But if the marriage had been founded upon just her understanding of his virtue, it would never have been destroyed, for her understanding of his virtue never wavers or changes (cf. IV.ii.159–61, IV.iii.19–21, cited below). Stable marriages, moreover, are normally “founded upon” the spouses’ mutual understanding of each other’s virtues and vices. Kermode does not raise the issue of his understanding of her virtue or of either spouse’s understanding of the other’s vices. The marriage proves unstable precisely because it is founded upon more than just her understanding of his virtue. It is founded also, and most importantly, upon his understanding of her virtue, and this proves to be fragile. Iago is able to destroy the marriage by undoing that fragile understanding. The emphasis which Kermode puts on “her just understanding of his virtue,” coupled with his failure to mention his understanding of her virtue, is a rhetorical sleight of hand, a trick of misdirection. The trick allows him to maintain the politically correct illusion that this interracial marriage is in and of itself stable and durable, and thus enables him to blame its destruction on the usual suspects, the prejudices of others. But the others in this case exhibit remarkably little prejudice, and this little plays no role in the undoing of the marriage. It is because of Othello’s “disenchanted eye,” not those of the others, that Iago can destroy the marriage.

Iago, Roderigo, Brabantio, and Emilia all make statements which imply anti-Black prejudice, but Iago’s statements on this, as on other matters, are not necessarily heartfelt.[6] In any case, he is not particularly motivated by racial prejudice to destroy Othello. He cites several reasons (I.i.8–33, 41–65, II.i.295–302) for wanting to do so, but race is not one of them and, as has often been pointed out, Iago’s motives for wanting to take revenge on Othello, like his motives for wanting to kill Cassio (V.i.18–19), are merely the rationalizations of a psychopath for whom evildoing is its own reward.[7] He harms others when and if he can, not because he has reason to hate them. He would want to destroy Othello even if Othello were White.

The prejudices of the other characters play no role in Othello’s undoing: Roderigo is the only one who intentionally helps Iago in his plot against Othello, but, although he is prejudiced, he is not motivated by prejudice to help Iago, but rather by his desire to marry Desdemona himself.[8] Brabantio who dies of a broken heart over the marriage (V.ii.204–9) has no influence on the play’s action after the initial scenes. Emilia expresses disenchantment with the marriage (V.ii.157, 160–01), but when she does, the marriage is already over, for Desdemona by then is dead.

No one else in the play expresses disenchantment with the marriage. No one, not even Brabantio, opposes the marriage on the grounds that a Black should not be allowed to marry a White.[9] Brabantio opposes it on the grounds that Othello has used witchcraft to persuade Desdemona to marry him. The others hear him out and honestly evaluate the charge on its merits. Once they decide that the charge is baseless, they make no other objections to the marriage and in effect give it their approval (cf. “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than Black”: I.iii.289–90).

They may view interracial marriage as “perverse or absurd,” but never say so or do anything to undermine this interracial marriage. Are they nevertheless partly to blame for its destruction? The fact is that what destroys the marriage is not anything said or done by the others, but rather solely Iago’s machinations and Othello’s gullibility and propensity for violence. Kermode’s blaming the others for the marriage’s destruction is a perfect example of the politically correct habit of blaming violence by Blacks on Whites’ disenchantment with Blacks, thus undercutting Blacks’ sense of responsibility for their own actions. It is only because Kermode can depend on Whites’ habitual acceptance of partial blame for acts of violence by Blacks that he so baselessly attributes to the others some of the blame for the marriage’s destruction. These others bear no blame for it whatsoever, as Othello well knows. He blames no one but himself and Iago. These others behave toward Othello and Desdemona as they would toward any conventional couple,[10] and after Desdemona’s murder it is only Emilia who makes an issue of Othello’s race in order to give him some, by that time, well-deserved insults. But neither she nor anyone else in the play blames Othello’s murder of Desdemona or his propensity for violence on his race. The play may present Othello as prone to jealousy because he is Black, but it presents him as prone to violence rather by reason of his individual character, profession, and experience.

Besides Iago, Roderigo, Brabantio, and Emilia, the only person in the play who makes anti-Black, pro-White statements is Othello himself, for example:

                     Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have. (III.iii.263–65)

Compare also his statements cited below about Desdemona’s white skin and beauty and especially the following statement which explicitly gives the lie to racial equality:

                     of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.[11] (V.ii.346–48)

It is ironic that he who was accused of having bewitched Desdemona has rather been bewitched by her and her White beauty. Has Othello simply internalized the anti-Black pro-White prejudice prevalent in the White society in which he lives? That is a convenient way of accommodating his statements with the demands of political correctness. I surmise, however, that we are expected to think that he simply has an eye for true beauty.

Kermode implies that Desdemona’s “understanding” of Othello’s “virtue” differs from that of the others and that hers is “just,” theirs unjust. But what does he mean here by “just” and by “virtue”? “Just” here might mean “accurate” or “morally correct” (because not a product of prejudice). I believe that Kermode intends “just” here to carry both of these senses and that the reader naturally takes it in both senses. The reader interprets Kermode to mean that Desdemona is able to obtain an accurate understanding of Othello’s virtue precisely because she is free from the conventional, unjust prejudices which hamper the others from doing so. “Virtue” here might mean “valor” (Othello’s most outstanding and obvious virtue) or “good character.” I suspect that Kermode intends it to carry both of these senses, and that the reader takes it in both senses. “Virtue,” as Kermode uses it, therefore is ambiguous. Its ambiguity is similar to that of “quality” as Desdemona uses it when she explains why she married Othello:

                    My heart’s subdu’d
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honor and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. (I.iii.250–54)

By “quality” Desdemona means “mind” or “character” and (by implication) “good character.” But Desdemona knows Othello principally from his tales about his military exploits, and these tales would substantiate not so much that Othello has a generally good character, but merely that he is a valorous and honorable soldier. That “quality” here in fact means little more than “honor and valor” is intimated somewhat ominously by Desdemona’s statement that “to his honor and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” What she knows about him is really just that he possesses honor and valor, and on the basis of that she assumes that he has a generally good character. That is her “understanding” of Othello’s “virtue,” but the others in the play possess exactly the same “understanding” of Othello’s “virtue.” They know that he possesses honor and valor, and on the basis of that they all[12] assume him to be a good man in general. That is why they are shocked at his killing Desdemona; witness Lodovico’s words: “O thou Othello, that was once so good” (V.ii.291). Desdemona’s “understanding” of Othello’s “virtue,” therefore, does not differ from that of the others. If her “understanding of his virtue” is just (in any sense of the term), then so is that of the others.

The other characters therefore, although perhaps prejudiced, are not hampered by prejudice from reaching exactly the same understanding of Othello’s “virtue” as does Desdemona. At the play’s beginning she, they, and we all share this same understanding. But we all learn more about “his virtue” in the course of the play: we learn that it is flawed and accompanied by certain concomitant vices. If she did not know this when she married him, how then was her “understanding of his virtue” “just” in the sense of “accurate”? The fact is that Desdemona lacks an accurate understanding of many things; her upbringing has not prepared her for the world or “reality.” She does not look beyond appearances to see what is real, but rather ignores reality in order to maintain her fixed beliefs. It is her belief in “his virtue” which is stable and real, not so much his virtue. Her belief in “his virtue” and her love for him survive the wholly undeserved blow at IV.i.240, and she professes that they will survive not only “beggarly divorcement” (IV.ii.158) but even death at his hands:

                    Unkindness may do much;
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love. (IV.ii.159–61)

Her love for him will survive not only the most extreme abuse, but even induces her to positively “approve” all his behavior toward her and to find “grace and favor” in it.

                    My love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks and frowns,—
Prithee, unpin me,—have grace and favor [in them]. (IV.iii.19–21)

She is now, as it were, a female Job enduring undeserved hardships at the hands of her god[13] Othello while continuing to laud him for his “grace and favor.” But Othello is no god, and she is not obliged by the marital vow, by purity, or by any other virtue to treat him like one. Desdemona here behaves like a child who, no matter how much his parents abuse him, continues to love them and to believe that they are good people both because he does not know any better and because it would be too terrible to think otherwise.[14] Desdemona’s approval of Othello’s misdeeds is motivated by pusillanimity and foolishness. Her virtue, not just his, turns out to be flawed. She in fact undergoes a metamorphosis like that of Lady Macbeth, although Desdemona’s is much less credible. Lady Macbeth, a presumptuous virago at the play’s start, by its end turns into a feeble housewife frightened by physical danger and crushed by ethical burdens. Desdemona at the play’s start is a tough independent young woman who not only chooses for herself an unconventional husband but magisterially divides up her duties between him and her father, like Portia dispensing justice at an impromptu court:

                    My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord. (I.iii.180–89)

By the play’s end, however, this “second Daniel” has turned into a clueless, submissive “child” who expects and accepts “chiding,” even when she has done nothing wrong, and views it as teaching:

I cannot tell. Those that do teach young babes
Do it with gentle means and easy tasks.
He might have chid me so; for in good faith
I am a child to chiding. (IV.ii.110–13)

Her previous readiness to speak up for herself and her rights has metamorphosed into an obsequious and silent acceptance of her plight: “It is my wretched fortune” (IV.ii.128). A change in Othello’s diction reflects this metamorphosis: whereas others at the play’s start refer to Desdemona as “maiden” or “maid” (I.iii.94, 112), he there refers to her as his “lady” (I.iii.115, 125), but by the play’s end she is for him only an “ill-starred wench” and “my girl” (V.ii.272, 275). That she actually is a “child” in general and not merely in regard to Othello’s “chiding” is brought out by her conversation with Emilia shortly before her death:

Dost thou in conscience think—tell me, Emilia—
That there be women do abuse their husbands
In such gross kind? (IV.iii.61–63)

Desdemona is an innocent in both the best and the worst senses of the term. She is pure in the sense conveyed by Verdi’s music, but she is also a fool, a pious fool but a fool just the same. This is brought out best perhaps by her stock Christian response to Emilia’s hypothesis that someone has slandered her: “If any such there be, heaven pardon him!” (IV.ii.135). Emilia’s rebuttal: “A halter pardon him! and hell gnaw his bones!” provides a welcome relief from Desdemona’s childlike naïveté. Emilia is more worldly, less pious, and less pure than Desdemona, but it is her understanding here which strikes us as just (in any sense of the term), not Desdemona’s. Emilia’s courage in confronting Othello’s threats (and later Iago’s):

   Emil. Do thy worst!
This deed of thine is no more worthy heaven
Than thou wast worthy her.
   Oth.         Peace, you were best.
   Emil. Thou hast not half that pow’r to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. O gull, O dolt,
As ignorant as dirt! Thou hast done a deed—
I care not for thy sword, I’ll make thee known,
Though I lost twenty lives.  (V.ii.159–66)

Emilia’s courage likewise contrasts favorably with Desdemona’s submissiveness in face of Othello’s abuse of her.[15] That Emilia’s understanding is more just than Desdemona’s is brought out most of all by their last conversation:

   Des. A guiltless death I die.
   Emil. O, who hath done this deed?
   Des. Nobody; I myself. Farewell!
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell! [Dies]
   Oth. Why, how should she be murd’red?
   Emil.                    Alas! who knows?
   Oth. You [heard] her say herself, it was not I.
   Emil. She said so; I must needs report the truth. (V.ii.122–28)

Nothing in the play supports the idea that an otherworldly view or understanding of things is inherently superior to a worldly view or understanding of them. Kermode is wrong to suppose otherwise. He is also wrong to suppose that an “understanding” of something (e.g. another person’s virtue) may be “just,” that is, morally correct, while another is unjust. Understanding is a purely intellectual activity, and hence morally neutral. Understandings are accurate or inaccurate, not just or unjust (in a moral sense). Kermode’s phrase “just understanding” is an oxymoron which points to the confused nature of his thought and purposes. He wishes to compliment Desdemona for having the mental wherewithal to marry a Black man, that is, the will to do so and the evident belief in the propriety of interracial marriage. It is this act and this belief which Kermode thinks are “just.” Opposition to or disenchantment with this act and this belief he thinks is unjust. However, since this interracial marriage leads so quickly to the demise of one spouse at the hands of the other, the play is a rather awkward exemplar of the justness, propriety, and generally benign nature of interracial marriage. Kermode hence prefers to compliment Desdemona not directly on this act and this belief, but rather on something else which he and his dependably politically correct readership associate with such an act and such a belief: a superior intelligence or understanding.

St. Augustine was admirably realistic in promulgating the Christian faith. He told his acolytes: “Believe in order that you may understand” (Crede ut intelligas: Sermon 43.7, 9). Promulgators of faiths are often less realistic in regard to the relationship between belief and understanding. They tend to suppose that their beliefs follow rather than precede some special understanding. This is especially true of promulgators of political correctness. They suppose that their beliefs are based on a superior grasp of the nature of things and are evidence of the intellectual superiority of people like themselves. Hence they view their opponents as not just morally but also intellectually inferior to themselves and are inclined to demean and dismiss their opponents’ beliefs as mere convention or prejudice, that is, as products of bad or outmoded thought or of no thought at all. It is thus that Kermode, finding it awkward to compliment Desdemona on her politically correct act and belief, feels more comfortable in praising her for her “just [= superior] understanding of his virtue,” while failing to observe that her “understanding of his virtue” is no different from that of anyone else in the play.

Othello’s Fragile Understanding    

I stated above that the marriage “is founded also, and most importantly, upon his understanding of her virtue, and this proves to be fragile. Iago is able to destroy the marriage by undoing that fragile understanding.” Following his confrontation with Brabantio before the Duke, Othello expresses great confidence in Desdemona’s virtue: “My life upon her faith” (I.iii.294). His understanding of her virtue, that is, his confidence that she is chaste and has a generally good character, is however fragile right from the start. Its fragility is the reason that it can so easily be undone and turned into its opposite: the conviction that she is a whore. Its fragility, as Iago well knows, stems from the fact that Othello, despite all that he may say and however eager he may be to make Desdemona his wife, is to some extent disenchanted with her behavior in marrying him, for he views it as unnatural. It is precisely because his union with Desdemona appears to his disenchanted worldly eye perverse or absurd that Iago can destroy it.

In opposing the marriage, Brabantio argues that Desdemona has erred because Othello has used witchcraft on her:

She is abus’d, stol’n from me, and corrupted
By spells and medicines bought of mountebanks;
For nature so prepost’rously to err
(Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense)
Sans witchcraft could not. (I.iii.60–64)

A maiden never bold;
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blush’d at herself; and she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on!
It is a judgment main’d, and most imperfect,
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell,
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood,
Or with some dram (conjur’d to this effect)
He wrought upon her. (I.iii.94–106)

Othello with Desdemona’s help refutes Brabantio’s specific argument that she has erred because he used witchcraft on her, but he does not refute his more general thesis that she has erred, that is, that her behavior in marrying him is “against all rules of nature.” He does not need to refute this thesis, for no one objects to the marriage on the basis of it. Othello could not refute it, however, for it is obviously true, as Othello himself well knows. Unfortunately for him, Iago knows that he knows that it is true.

Later, when Iago wishes to undermine Othello’s understanding of Desdemona’s virtue, he has merely to allude to this general thesis by repeating some of what Brabantio had previously said:

   Iago. She did deceive her father, marrying you,
And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,
She lov’d them most.
   Oth.                     And so she did.
   Iago.                                 Why, go to, then.
She that so young could give out such a seeming
To seel her father’s eyes up close as oak,
He thought ’twas witchcraft—but I am much to blame;
I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you. (III.iii.206–8)

“She did deceive her father” recalls Brabantio’s “She has deceiv’d her father” (I.iii.293); “fear your looks” recalls Brabantio’s “what she fear’d to look on” (I.iii.98) and “to fear, not delight” (I.ii.71). “He thought ’twas witchcraft” recalls Brabantio’s “Sans witchcraft could not” (I.iii.64). It is not Iago, however, who is the first here to use the word “nature” (thrice used by Brabantio: I.iii.62, 96,101) and to reiterate Brabantio’s general thesis about Desdemona’s behavior. It is rather Othello, and his phrasing explicitly recalls that of Brabantio:

   Oth. And, yet, how nature erring from itself—
   Iago. Ay, there’s the point; as (to be bold with you)
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh, one may smell in such, a will most rank,
Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.
But (pardon me) I do not in position
Distinctly speak of her, though I may fear
Her will, recoiling to her better judgment,
May fall to match you with her country forms
And happily repent. (III.iii.227–38)

Othello’s phrase “how nature erring from itself” recalls Brabantio’s “For nature so prepost’rously to err” (I.iii.62). Iago immediately interrupts Othello, but does so only to continue his train of thought. He reminds him of what is the centerpiece of Brabantio’s thesis, that Desdemona’s rejection of “many proposed matches” is unnatural. Iago here is drawing on Brabantio’s argument from his initial confrontation with Othello:

Whether a maid so tender, fair, and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunn’d
The wealthy curled [darlings] of our nation,
Would ever have, t’ incur a general mock,
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight! (I.ii.66–71)

As Iago says, “we see in all things nature tends” to have like mate with like. Since Desdemona chose not to mate with someone like herself, Iago is able to attribute to her “Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.” Moral arguments based on nature, however, always involve a degree of selectivity or exaggeration. Promiscuity and crossbreeding also occur in nature, and are sometimes essential to the survival of a species. Nature in any case provides no moral examples for us to follow.[16] All sorts of things occur in nature and what is statistically most common in it is not the exclusively moral, or it would be immoral to cook meat before eating it. However, what is most common in the behavior of a species is generally what is most healthy for it — what, in some sense, is most natural for it. It is an obvious fact that members of human ethnic groups tend to feel that members of their group should mate with each other.

This feeling is common, natural, and healthy—healthy for the obvious reason that ethnic groups cannot survive without it. The politically correct condemn this feeling as an immoral prejudice or as racism. But this is illogical if not accompanied by a concomitant condemnation of efforts to maintain “ethnic diversity,” something which the politically correct nevertheless say they wish to promote. In practice, of course, they condemn this feeling only when manifested by members of White ethnic groups and the White race, and it is only these groups and this race to whose survival they are ultimately opposed.[17] Hence Kermode feels free to condemn the feelings and behavior of the healthy White father Brabantio and to equate his “worldly view” with that of the perverse, sadistic psychopath Iago.

Othello however is not politically correct. He never condemns Brabantio’s feelings or behavior, for he knows that they are quite natural. With the help of some prompting from Iago in III.iii, he virtually repeats Brabantio’s general thesis about Desdemona’s behavior and shows that he agrees with it.[18] He and Brabantio see eye to eye about her behavior, and they are both disenchanted with it, although to different degrees and on different levels of consciousness. Brabantio’s conscious and extreme disenchantment will lead to his death from a broken heart; Othello’s subconscious and mild disenchantment will not stop him from wanting to marry Desdemona, but it does undermine to some extent his confidence in her virtue, despite his asseverations to the contrary. Iago is well aware of Othello’s subconscious disenchantment with Desdemona’s behavior. For his plot to succeed, he needs only to bring it to consciousness.

This he does in III.iii; Desdemona’s murder follows not long thereafter. Hence, Kermode’s statement about the “disenchanted worldly eye” needs to be revised as follows in order to be true: it is precisely because such a union must appear to Othello’s disenchanted worldly eye perverse or absurd that Iago can destroy it.[19]

The absurdity of Kermode’s condemnation of Brabantio and the degree to which it is prompted by political correctness can be seen if one imagines a modern play in which a Black father, who later dies from a broken heart, opposes because of racial prejudice the marriage of his daughter to a White man who later, under the influence of a Black psychopath, kills the daughter in a fit of jealousy. Would any critic think of equating the “disenchanted worldly view” of the Black father with that of the Black psychopath merely because he opposed this disastrous marriage[20] and in so doing disparaged a race not his own? Of course not. Belief in the superiority of one’s race or ethnic group is perfectly natural and healthy, and is hardly to be equated with sadistic psychopathy. This belief leads to conflict between races and ethnic groups, but that is the price they must pay for their existence. A race or ethnic group which abandons this sense of superiority and fails to discourage its members from breeding with nonmembers is destined to disappear.

Update

Kermode’s politically correct essay was published almost forty years ago. That the play continues today to be grossly misinterpreted for politically correct purposes should be obvious from the following:

To some members of society Othello was, and for some readers it remains, a cautionary tragedy about the consequences of interracial marriage—and hence a moral paradigm for any nation that might choose to define itself through ethnic purity. To others the tragedy of the play is a social one that dramatizes the failure of society to accommodate itself to interracial marriage—and hence helps to define a nation that might value ethnic integration. In either case, everyone agrees that the play, its hero and heroine violently killed, is a tragedy. Being a tragedy, Othello helps to define the nation that produced it as well as those nations that have accepted and absorbed it. Part of the reason for the nearly universal appeal of the play is that it constitutes a progressive discussion of the nature of the Nation. At the moment he commits suicide, Othello most compellingly asserts his right to membership in his adopted nation. But just as he claims his right on grounds of service and desert, so it is denied him. Thus, a tragedy of self-deception continues beyond death. While Othello sees his own death as a passport to the nation, at his death his would-be comrades and compatriots begin the process of erasing him from their culture. They re-estrange him.[21]

This interpretation is valid only if a Shakespearean text is the equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot in which one is entitled to see whatever one wants. It conflicts with the fact that the real implications of Othello about “the nature of the Nation” (as brought out by the preceding discussion) are hardly “progressive,” that murder-suicide does not provide one the right to membership in anything, especially the nation of the person murdered, and that it is difficult to see how Othello is “re-estranged” at the end of the play by his “would-be comrades” when the final statement about him made by one of them is not only complimentary but sympathetic: “This did I fear, but thought he had no weapon, / For he was great of heart” (V.ii.360–61). One propounds an interpretation as far-fetched as this only because one wishes to summon Shakespeare’s support for an attack on the fundamental idea of what a nation is: an ethnic group linked by blood inhabiting an ancestral homeland. The idea that Othello is in any way mistreated by the Whites in the play after murdering one of them will pass muster only with those who habitually see every occasion in which Blacks misbehave while mixing with Whites as an opportunity to blame Whites for their failure to tolerate Blacks, no matter how much they misbehave. Shakespeare’s play provides no support for such a nasty habit.


Shakespeare’s text is cited herein from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1974).

[1] See the first chapter of Othello’s Disenchanted Eye: “Loss of Reputation and Honor in Shakespeare’s Othello.” Both chapters of that book are incorporated into my ebook: A Christian Pattern in Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello, also available at Lulu.

[2] The Riverside Shakespeare, 1200. On Kermode’s reputation, cf. the following from Wikipedia: “A few months before Kermode’s death the scholar James Shapiro described him as ‘the best living reader of Shakespeare anywhere, hands down.’” Wikipedia cites “An Interview with James Shapiro,” published in The Literateur, as the original source for the quotation.

[3] Kermode does not explicitly say that Othello’s views are similar to Desdemona’s and that Othello looks past appearances, etc., in the way that Desdemona does, but he implies this in asserting that the marriage is “a triumph over appearances” and that Othello’s “diction” is a way of “emphasizing these simple themes.”

[4] Kermode does not use the term “prejudice,” but prejudice is implied in his phrase “conventionally thought.” The “disenchanted worldly eye” is the eye that has been corrupted by convention and prejudice.

[5] Robin H. Wells, Shakespeare on Masculinity (Port Chester, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 112–13, especially n. 18.

[6] Cf. David Schalkwyk, Shakespeare, Love and Service (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 256: Iago has an “unimaginable and unspeakable capacity to remain completely detached from the usual engagements, commitments, and responses of human intercourse, while playing the games they require to the full.”

[7] That Iago’s charges against Othello are mere rationalizations has often been noted; cf. Marcus Nordlund, Shakespeare and the Nature of Love: Literature, Culture, Evolution (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007), 174. Nordlund’s book refutes much of the recent politically correct commentary on Othello.

[8] Cf. Nordlund, 178: “We must also remember that the three men that utter some sort of disparaging remarks about Othello’s race—Brabantio, Roderigo, and Iago—all have large axes to grind. No other character in Shakespeare’s play ever discusses Othello’s race or color in derogatory terms.”

[9] Brabantio may well think that a Black should not be allowed to marry a White, but he does not oppose the marriage on that basis; obviously he does not because the others would not agree that this is a just basis for opposing the marriage.

[10] Cf. Cassio’s and Montano’s discussion of the marriage in II.i.43–82. Neither raises any objections it, and Cassio, without any sign of disapproval from Montano, explicitly prays for Othello to survive the storm so that he can “make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms” (80).

[11] “Tribe” in the play need not denote a group of savages; cf. Iago’s statement: “Good [God], the souls of all my tribe defend / From jealousy” (III.iii.175–76). On the other hand, cf. “all the tribe of hell” (I.iii.357).

[12] Brabantio at first believes that Othello has used witchcraft, but after Othello’s “tale” and Desdemona’s confirmation of it, he in effect drops the charge. Neither he nor anyone else in the play, apart from Iago, makes any other charges against Othello or expresses any doubt about his generally good character; and, as has already been noted, Iago’s charges against Othello are mere rationalizations. Cf. Nordlund, 174.

[13] In II.iii.346–48 Iago implies that Desdemona is like a god for Othello: “That she may make, unmake, do what she list, / Even as her appetite shall play the god / With his weak function.” But he is exaggerating somewhat. If I am right about the nature of his plot (see the first chapter), he knows that there is something which Othello adores even more than Desdemona: honor. Anthony Gilbert, “Othello, the Baroque, and Religious Mentalities,” Early Modern Literary Studies, 7 no. 2 (September, 2001), 3.1–21  (http://purl.oclc.org/emls/07-2/gilboth.htm) argues that Iago is giving his honest opinion here since he is speaking when alone, but if I am right about the nature of his plot, he knows that there is something which Othello loves even more than Desdemona: honor.

[14] See Peter G. Platt, Shakespeare and the Culture of Paradox (Abingdon, Oxon, U.K.: Ashgate, 2009), 93: Desdemona “desperately hold(s) onto an image of her husband as she initially interpreted him— a ‘kind lord.’”

[15] Desdemona stands up for herself quite well when face to face with Othello; her submissive collapse comes only after his exit at IV.ii.94. On Emilia’s courage, cf. Schalkwyk, 259–60: “Precisely because Emilia’s attitude towards her obligations of service and loyalty is pragmatic and expedient, her acts of defiance and disobedience towards her male masters, Othello and Iago, and her loyalty to her mistress in Act 5, Scene 3, are especially powerful and compelling.”

[16] For a discussion of the role of nature as a moral guide in Othello, see Andy Mousley, “Emptying the Human: Othello” in his Re-Humanising Shakespeare: Literary Humanism, Wisdom and Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 46–59.

[17] Cf. Joel Ignatiev, Harvard Magazine (September–October 2002): “The goal of abolishing the White race is on its face so desirable that some may find it hard to believe that it could incur any opposition other than from committed White supremacists” http://harvardmagazine.com/2002/09/abolish-the-White-race.html; and Susan Sontag, Partisan Review (Winter 1967), 57: “Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al. don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The White race is the cancer of human history.”

[18] Thus Othello turns out to be a foul racist like Iago and Brabantio; cf. Theresa D. Kemp, Women in the Age of Shakespeare (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010), 88: “The ugly misogyny and foul racism spun by Iago in the opening scene of Othello are taken up by Brabanzio—and finally, with lethal consequences, by Othello.”

[19] Wells (Shakespeare on Masculinity, 101–2) holds that Othello is a misogynist: “It is the same misogynist view of women’s moral frailty, or something very like it, that allows Othello to persuade himself that Desdemona’s death is necessary in order to prevent her from corrupting more men.” I think Othello is just rationalizing about the need to kill Desdemona.

[20] Cf. B. J. Sokol, Shakespeare, Law, and Marriage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 116: “A runaway marriage following a highly charged romantic experience of an idealised other, be it in extreme youth as is Romeo and Juliet’s, or not as is Othello and Desdemona’s, is dramatised as producing disastrous misunderstanding (the child couple’s mistakes are error, the older couple’s are obtuseness). Surely there is some suggestion in this that those who betray or ignore the collective knowledge of marriage embodied in the views of communities and families, and ignore the guidance of laws, customs, and traditions, place themselves in positions of considerable danger.” That the play shows the marriage to be disastrous is a fact lost on some; cf. Laurie Maguire, Studying Shakespeare (Chichester, U.K..: Wiley, 2008), 36: “The play approves Desdemona’s choice of the Black Othello as husband by showing us the inadequacies of the White Venetian alternatives.” One wonders how it shows these inadequacies.

[21] Derek Cohen, Searching Shakespeare: Studies in Culture and Authority (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 5–6.

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