Introduction - Othello, The Moor of Venice

Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005

Othello, The Moor of Venice


Othello differs in several respects from the other three major Shakespearean tragedies with which it is usually ranked. Written seemingly within a year of its performance at court by the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting company) on November 1, 1604, after Hamlet (c. 1599—1601) and before King Lear (1605—1606) and Macbeth (c. 1606—1607), Othello shares with these other plays a fascination with evil in its most virulent and universal aspect. These plays study the devastating effects of ambitious pride, ingratitude, wrath, jealousy, and vengeful hate—the deadly sins of the spirit—with only a passing interest in the political strife to which Shakespeare’s Roman or classical tragedies are generally devoted. Of the four, Othello is the most concentrated upon one particular evil. The action concerns sexual jealousy, and, although human sinfulness is such that jealousy ceaselessly touches on other forms of depravity, the center of interest always returns in Othello to the destruction of a love through jealousy. Othello is a tragic portrait of a marriage. The protagonist is not a king or a prince, as in the tragedies already mentioned, but a general recently married. There are no supernatural visitations, as in Hamlet and Macbeth. Ideas of divine justice, while essential to Othello’s portrayal of a battle between good and evil for the allegiance of the protagonist, are not given the same cosmic sweep as in King Lear, nor do we find here the same broad indictment of humanity. Social order is not seriously shaken by Othello’s tragedy. The fair-minded Duke of Venice remains firmly in control, and his deputy Lodovico oversees a just conclusion on Cyprus.

By the same token, Othello does not offer the remorseless questioning about humanity’s relationship to the cosmos that we find in King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth. The battle of good and evil is, of course, cosmic, but in Othello that battle is realized through a taut narrative of jealousy and murder. Its poetic images are accordingly focused to a large extent on the natural world. One cluster of images is domestic and animal, having to do with goats, monkeys, wolves, baboons, guinea hens, wildcats, spiders, flies, asses, dogs, copulating horses and sheep, serpents and toads; other images, more wide-ranging in scope, include green-eyed monsters, devils, poisons, money purses, tarnished jewels, music untuned, and light extinguished. The story is immediate and direct, retaining the sensational atmosphere of its Italian prose source by Giovanni Baptista Giraldi Cinthio, in his Hecatommithi of 1565 (translated into French in 1584). Events move even more swiftly than in Cinthio’s work, for Shakespeare has compressed the story into two or three nights and days (albeit with an intervening sea journey and with an elastic use of stage time to allow for the maturing of long-term plans, as when we learn that Iago has begged Emilia “a hundred times” to steal Desdemona’s handkerchief, 3.3.308, or that Iago has accused Cassio of making love to Desdemona “A thousand times,” 5.2.219). Othello does not have a fully developed double plot, as in King Lear, or a comparatively large group of characters serving as foils to the protagonist, as in Hamlet. Othello’s cast is small, and the plot is concentrated to an unusual degree on Othello, Desdemona, and Iago. What Othello may lose in breadth it gains in dramatic intensity.

Daringly, Shakespeare opens this tragedy of love, not with a direct and sympathetic portrayal of the lovers themselves, but with a scene of vicious insinuation about their marriage. The images employed by Iago to describe the coupling of Othello and Desdemona are revoltingly animalistic, sodomistic. “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe,” he taunts Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. (Tupping is a word used specifically for the copulating of sheep.) “You’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you”; “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”; “the devil will make a grandsire of you” (1.1.90—3, 113—20). This degraded view reduces the marriage to one of utter carnality, with repeated emphasis on the word “gross”: Desdemona has yielded “to the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” and has made “a gross revolt” against her family and society (lines 129, 137). Iago’s second theme, one that is habitual with him, is money. “What ho, Brabantio! Thieves, thieves, thieves! / Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags” (lines 81—2). The implication is of a sinister bond between thievery in sex and thievery in gold. Sex and money are both commodities to be protected by watchful fathers against libidinous and opportunistic children.

We as audience make plentiful allowance for Iago’s bias in all this, since he has admitted to Roderigo his knavery and resentment of Othello. Even so, the carnal vision of love we confront is calculatedly disturbing, because it seems so equated with a pejorative image of blackness. Othello is unquestionably a black man, referred to disparagingly by his detractors as the “thick-lips,” with a “sooty bosom” (1.1.68; 1.2.71); Elizabethan usage applied the term “Moor” without attempting to distinguish between Arabian and African peoples. From the ugly start of the play, Othello and Desdemona have to prove the worth of their love in the face of preset attitudes against miscegenation. Brabantio takes refuge in the thought that Othello must have bewitched Desdemona. His basic assumption—one to be echoed later by Iago and when Othello’s confidence is undermined by Othello himself—is that miscegenation is unnatural by definition. In confronting and accusing Othello, he repeatedly appeals “to all things of sense” (that is, to common sense) and asks if it is not “gross in sense” (self-evident) that Othello has practiced magic on her, since nothing else could prompt human nature so to leave its natural path. “For nature so preposterously to err, / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, / Sans witchcraft could not” (1.2.65, 73; 1.3.64—6). We as audience can perceive the racial bias in Brabantio’s view and can recognize also in him the type of imperious father who conventionally opposes romantic love. It is sadly ironic that he should now prefer Roderigo as a son-in-law, evidently concluding that any white Venetian would be preferable to the prince of blacks. Still, Brabantio has been hospitable to the Moor and trusting of his daughter. He is a sorrowful rather than ridiculous figure, and the charge he levels at the married pair, however much it is based on a priori assumptions of what is “natural” in human behavior, remains to be answered.

After all, we find ourselves wondering, what did attract Othello and Desdemona to one another? Even though he certainly did not use witchcraft, may Othello not have employed a subtler kind of enchantment in the exotic character of his travels among “the Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (1.3.145—7)? These “passing strange” events fascinate Desdemona, as they do everyone, including the Duke of Venice (“I think this tale would win my daughter too”). Othello has not practiced unfairly on her—“This only is the witchcraft I have used” (lines 162, 171—3). Yet may he not represent for Desdemona a radical novelty, being a man at once less devious and more interesting than the dissolute Venetian swaggerers, such as Roderigo and the “wealthy curlèd darlings of our nation” (1.2.69), who follow her about? Was her deceiving of her father by means of the elopement a protest, an escape from conventionality? Why has she been attracted to a man older than herself? For his part, Othello gives the impression of being inexperienced with women, at least of Desdemona’s rank and complexion, and is both intrigued and flattered by her attentions. “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (1.3.169—70). Desdemona fulfills a place in Othello’s view of himself. Does she also represent status for him in Venetian society, where he has been employed as a military commander but treated nonetheless as something of an alien?

These subtle but impertinent ways of doubting the motivations of Othello and Desdemona, adding to the difficulties that are inherent in an attempt to understand the mysteries of attraction in any relationship, are thrust upon us by the play’s opening and are later crucial to Iago’s strategy of breeding mistrust. Just as importantly, however, these insinuations are refuted by Othello and especially by Desdemona. Whatever others may think, she never gives the slightest indication of regarding her husband as different because he is black and old. In fact, the images of blackness and age are significantly reversed during the play’s early scenes. Othello has already embraced the Christian faith, whereas Iago, a white Italian in a Christian culture, emerges as innately evil from the very start of the play. Othello’s first appearance on stage, when he confronts a party of torch-bearing men coming to arrest him and bids his followers sheathe their swords (1.2.60), is perhaps reminiscent of Christ’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; if so, it suggests a fleeting comparison between Othello and the Christian God whose charity and forbearance he seeks to emulate. Othello’s blackness may be used in part as an emblem of fallen humanity, but so are we all fallen. His age similarly strengthens our impression of his wisdom, restraint, and leadership. Any suggestions of comic sexual infidelity in the marriage of an older man and an attractive young bride are confuted by what we see in Desdemona’s chaste yet sensual regard for the good man she has chosen.

Desdemona is devoted to Othello, admiring, and faithful. We believe her when she says that she does not even know what it means to be unfaithful; the word “whore” is not in her vocabulary. She is defenseless against the charges brought against her because she does not even comprehend them and cannot believe that anyone would imagine such things. Her love, both erotic and chaste, is of that transcendent wholesomeness common to several late Shakespearean heroines, such as Cordelia in King Lear and Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Her “preferring” Othello to her father, like Cordelia’s placing her duty to a husband before that to a father, is not ungrateful but natural and proper. And Othello, however much he may regard Desdemona in terms of his own identity (he calls her “my fair warrior”), does cherish Desdemona as she deserves. “I cannot speak enough of this content,” he exclaims when he rejoins her on Cyprus. “It stops me here; it is too much of joy” (2.1.182, 196—7). The passionate intensity of his love prepares the way for his tragedy; he speaks more truly than he knows in saying, “when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (3.3.99—100). Iago speaks truly also when he observes that Othello “Is of a constant, loving, noble nature” (2.1.290). Othello’s tragedy is not that he is easily duped, but that his strong faith can be destroyed at such terrible cost. Othello never forgets how much he is losing. The threat to his love is not an initial lack of his being happily married, but rather the insidious assumption that Desdemona cannot love him because such a love might be unnatural. The fear of being unlovable exists in Othello’s mind, but the human instrument of this vicious gospel is Iago.

Iago belongs to a select group of villains in Shakespeare who, while plausibly motivated in human terms, also take delight in evil for its own sake: Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, and Edmund in King Lear. They are not, like Macbeth or like Claudius in Hamlet, men driven by ambition to commit crimes they clearly recognize to be wrong. Although Edmund does belatedly try to make amends, these villains are essentially conscienceless, sinister, and amused by their own cunning. They are related to one another by a stage metaphor of personified evil derived from the Vice of the morality play, whose typical role is to win the Mankind figure away from virtue and to corrupt him with worldly enticements. Like that engaging tempter, Shakespeare’s villains in these plays take the audience into their confidence, boast in soliloquy of their cleverness, exult in the triumph of evil, and improvise plans with daring and resourcefulness. They are all superb actors, deceiving virtually every character on stage until late in the action with their protean and hypocritical display. They take pleasure in this “sport” and amaze us by their virtuosity. The role is paradoxically comic in its use of ingenious and resourceful deception—the grim and ironic comedy of vice. We know that we are to condemn morally even while we applaud the skill.

This theatrical tradition of the Vice may best explain a puzzling feature of Iago, noted long ago and memorably phrased by Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “the motive hunting of a motiveless malignity.” To be sure, Iago does offer plausible motives for what he does. Despite his resemblance to the morality Vice, he is no allegorized abstraction but an ensign in the army, a junior field officer who hates being out-ranked by a theoretician or staff officer. As an old-school professional, he also resents that he has not been promoted on the basis of seniority, the “old gradation” (1.1.38). Even his efforts at using influence with Othello have come to naught, and Iago can scarcely be blamed for supposing that Cassio’s friendship with Othello has won him special favor. Thus, Iago has reason to plot against Cassio as well as Othello. Nevertheless a further dimension is needed to explain Iago’s gloating, his utter lack of moral reflection, his concentration on destroying Desdemona (who has not wronged Iago), his absorption in ingenious methods of plotting, his finesse and style. Hatred precedes any plausible motive in Iago and ultimately does not depend on psychological causality. Probably the tradition of the stage Machiavel (another type of gloating villain based on stereotyped attitudes toward the heretical political ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli), as in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, contributes to the portraiture; this tradition was readily assimilated with that of the Vice.

Iago’s machinations yield him both “sport” and “profit” (1.3.387); that is, he enjoys his evildoing, although he is also driven by a motive. This Vice-like behavior in human garb creates a restless sense of a destructive metaphysical reality lying behind his visible exterior. Even his stated motives do not always make sense. When in an outburst of hatred he soliloquizes that “I hate the Moor; / And it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets / He’s done my office,” Iago goes on to concede the unlikelihood of this charge. “I know not if’t be true; / But I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety” (lines 387—91). The charge is so absurd, in fact, that we have to look into Iago himself for the origin of this jealous paranoia. The answer may be partly emblematic: as the embodiment and genius of sexual jealousy, Iago suffers with ironic appropriateness from the evil he preaches, and without external cause. Emilia understands that jealousy is not a rational affliction but a self-induced disease of the mind. Jealous persons, she tells Desdemona, “are not ever jealous for the cause, / But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster / Begot upon itself, born on itself” (3.4.161—3). Iago’s own testimonial bears this out, for his jealousy is at once wholly irrational and agonizingly self-destructive. “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my innards” (2.1.296—8). In light of this nightmare, we can see that even his seemingly plausible resentment of Cassio’s promotion is jealous envy. The “daily beauty” in the very ordinary Cassio’s life makes Iago feel “ugly” by comparison (5.1.19—20), engendering in Iago a profound sense of lack of worth from which he can temporarily find relief only by reducing Othello and others to his own miserable condition. He is adept at provoking self-hatred in others because he suffers from it himself. His declaration to Othello that “I am your own forever” (3.3.495) is, of course, cynical, but it also signals the extent to which Iago has succeeded in wooing Othello away from Desdemona and Cassio into a murderous union between two women-hating men. The Iago who thus dedicates himself as partner in the fulfillment of Othello’s homicidal fantasies is, we learn, capable of fantasizing a bizarre amorous encounter between himself and Cassio (lines 429—41).

Othello comes at last to regard Iago as a “demi-devil” who has tempted Othello to damn himself “beneath all depth in hell”; Lodovico speaks of Iago in the closing lines of the play as a “hellish villain” (5.2.142, 309, 379); and Iago himself boasts that “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (2.3.345—7). Iago thus bears some affinity both to the Vice and the devil, suggesting his relationship both to Othello’s inner temptation and to a preexistent evil force in the universe itself. Conversely, Desdemona is in Emilia’s words an “angel,” purely chaste; “So come my soul to bliss as I speak true” (5.2.134, 259). When Desdemona lands on Cyprus, she is greeted in words that echo the Ave Maria: “Hail to thee, lady! And the grace of heaven … Enwheel thee round” (2.1.87—9). These images introduce metaphorically a conflict of good and evil in which Othello, typical of fallen humanity, has chosen evil and destroyed the good at the prompting of a diabolical counselor. Again we see the heritage of the morality play, especially of the later morality play in which the Mankind figure was sometimes damned rather than saved. Even so, to allegorize Othello is to obscure and misread its clash of human passion. In fact, we see that the impulse to reduce human complexity to simplistic moral absolutes is a fatal weakness in Othello; by insisting on viewing Desdemona as a type or abstraction, he loses sight of her wonderful humanity. The theological issue of salvation or damnation is not relevant in dramatic terms; the play is not a homily on the dangers of jealousy. The metaphysical dimensions of a homiletic tradition are transmuted into human drama. Acknowledging these limitations, we can notwithstanding see a spiritual analogy in Iago’s devil-like method of undoing his victims.

His trick resembles that of the similarly mischief-making Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: an optical illusion by which the blameless heroine is impugned as an adulteress. The concealed Othello must watch Cassio boasting of sexual triumphs and believe he is talking about Desdemona. Like the devil, Iago is given power over people’s frail senses, especially the eyes. He can create illusions to induce Othello to see what Iago wants him to see, as Don John does with Claudio, but Othello’s acceptance of the lie must be his own responsibility, a failure of his corrupted will. Iago practices on Othello with an a priori logic used before on Brabantio and Roderigo, urging the proneness of all mortals to sin and the alleged unnaturalness of a black-white marriage. All women have appetites; Desdemona is a woman; hence, Desdemona has appetites. “The wine she drinks is made of grapes,” he scoffs to Roderigo. “If she had been blessed, she would never have loved the Moor” (2.1.253—5). She is a Venetian, and “In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (3.3.216—17). Therefore, she, too, is a hypocrite; “She did deceive her father” (line 220). Most of all, it stands to reason that she must long for a man of her own race. Iago succeeds in getting Othello to concur: “And yet, how nature erring from itself—” (line 243). This proposition that Nature teaches all persons, including Desdemona, to seek a harmonious matching of “clime, complexion, and degree” strikes a responsive chord in Othello, since he knows that even though he has authority as a general serving his adopted city he is also black and in some senses a foreigner, an alien. “Haply, for I am black / And have not those soft parts of conversation / That chamberers have.” Then, too, he is sensitive that he is older than she, “declined / Into the vale of years” (lines 246, 279—82), “the young affects / In me defunct” (1.3.266—7). And so, if one must conclude from the preceding that Desdemona will seek a lover, the only question is who. “This granted—as it is a most pregnant and unforced position—who stands so eminent in the degree of this fortune as Cassio does?” (2.1.236—9). Once Othello has accepted this syllogistic sequence of proofs, specious not through any lapse in logic but because the axiomatic assumptions about human nature are degraded and do not apply to Desdemona, Othello has arrived at an unshakable conclusion to which all subsequent evidence must be applied. “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,” he commissions Iago (3.3.375). Desdemona’s innocent pleading for Cassio only makes things look worse. Cassio’s reputed muttering while asleep, like the handkerchief seen in his possession or his giddy talk about his mistress Bianca, “speaks against her [Desdemona] with the other proofs” (line 456).

How has Othello fallen so far? His bliss with Desdemona as they are rejoined on Cyprus knows no limit. These two persons represent married love at its very best, erotic and spiritual, she enhancing his manliness, he cherishing her beauty and virtue. His blackness and age are positive images in him, despite earlier insinuations to the contrary. Indeed, we have no reason to suppose that Othello is what we would call “old,” despite his worries about being “declined / Into the vale of years” and having lost the “young affects” of sexual desire; he appears to be middle-aged and vigorous, so much so that Desdemona is attracted to him sexually as well as in other ways. He is a man of public worthiness, of command, of self-assurance. Desdemona is the most domestic of Shakespeare’s tragic heroines, even while she is also representative of so much that is transcendent. Husband and wife are bound happily in one of Shakespeare’s few detailed portraits of serious commitment in marriage. Othello initially has the wisdom to know that Desdemona’s feminine attractiveness ought not to be threatening to him: he need not be jealous because she is beautiful, “free of speech,” and loves dancing and music, since “Where virtue is, these are more virtuous.” Nor does he see any reason at first to fear her “revolt” simply because he is black and older than his wife; “she had eyes, and chose me” (3.3.197—203). Othello’s self-assurance through the love he perceives in Desdemona is the strongest sign of his happiness in marriage.

What then gives way? We look at Iago for one important insight, but ultimately the cause must be in Othello himself. Arthur Kirsch has argued persuasively (in Shakespeare and the Experience of Love, 1981) that Othello’s most grave failing is an insufficient regard for himself. It is in part an inability to counter the effects on him of a culture that regards him as an outsider; he is at last persuaded to see himself with the eyes of Venice, not just of Iago, but of Brabantio (who gladly entertains Othello until he has the presumption to elope with Brabantio’s white daughter) and others. The resulting destruction of self-regard is devastating. Othello’s jealousy stems from a profound suspicion that others cannot love him because he does not deem himself lovable.

Othello has loved Desdemona as an extension of himself, and, in his moments of greatest contentedness, his marriage is sustained by an idealized vision of himself serving as the object of his exalted romantic passion. When he destroys Desdemona, as he realizes with a terrible clarity, Othello destroys himself; the act is a prelude to his actual suicide. Iago’s means of temptation, then, is to persuade Othello to regard himself with the eyes of Venice, to accept the view that Othello is himself alien and that any woman who loves him does so perversely. In Othello’s tainted state of mind, Desdemona’s very sexuality becomes an unbearable threat to him, her warmth and devotion a “proof” of disloyalty. Othello’s most tortured speeches (3.4.57—77, 4.2.49—66) reveal the extent to which he equates the seemingly betraying woman, whom he has so depended on for happiness, with his own mother, who gave Othello’s father a handkerchief and threatened him with loss of her love if he should lose it. Othello has briefly learned and then forgotten the precious art of harmonizing erotic passion and spiritual love, and, as these two great aims of love are driven apart in him, he comes to loathe and fear the sexuality that puts him so much in mind of his physical frailty and dependence on woman. The horror and pity of Othello rests, above all, in the spectacle of a love that was once so whole and noble made filthy by self-hatred. The tragic flaw thus lies in Othello’s maleness, in his fear of betrayal by the innocent woman he loves, and his apparent need to degrade her for the very thing he finds desirable in her—a tendency so common among men that Freud, in the early twentieth century, would declare it to be “the most prevalent form of degradation in erotic life” (in Freud’s Sammlung, volume 4).

The increasing surrender of Othello’s judgment to passion can be measured in three successive trial scenes in the play: the entirely fair trial of Othello himself by the Venetian Senate concerning the elopement, Othello’s trial of Cassio for drinking and rioting (when, ominously, Othello’s “blood begins my safer guides to rule,” 2.3.199), and finally the prejudged sentencing of Desdemona without providing her any opportunity to defend herself. In a corollary decline, Othello falls from the Christian compassion of the opening scenes (he customarily confesses to heaven “the vices of my blood,” 1.3.125) to the pagan savagery of his vengeful and ritualistic execution of his wife. “My heart is turned to stone” (4.1.184—5), he vows, and at the play’s end he grievingly characterizes himself as a “base Indian” who “threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe” (5.2.357—8). Iago knows that he must persuade Othello to sentence and to execute Desdemona himself, for only by active commitment to evil will Othello damn himself. In nothing does Iago so resemble the devil as in his wish to see Othello destroy the innocence and goodness on which his happiness depends.

The fate of some of the lesser characters echoes that of Othello, for Iago’s evil intent is to “enmesh them all” (2.3.356). Cassio, in particular, is, like Othello, an attractive man with a single, vulnerable weakness—in his case, a fleshly appetite for wine and women. For him, alternately idolizing and depreciating women as he does, the gap between spiritual and sensual love remains vast, but he is essentially good-natured and trustworthy. His seemingly genial flaws lead to disaster, because they put him at the mercy of a remorseless enemy. Iago is, with fitting irony, the apostle of absolute self-control: “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners” (1.3.323—4). Thus, Cassio’s tragedy is anything but a straightforward homily on the virtues of temperance. Similarly, Bianca is undone, not through any simple cause-and-effect punishment of her sexual conduct—she is, after all, fond of Cassio and loyal to him, even if he will not marry her—but because Iago is able to turn appearances against her. With his usual appeal to a priori logic, he builds a case that she and Cassio are in cahoots: “I do suspect this trash / To be a party in this injury … This is the fruits of whoring” (5.1.86—7, 118). Roderigo is another of Iago’s victims, a contemptible one, led by the nose because he, too, has surrendered reason to passion. Emilia cannot escape Iago’s evil influence and steals the handkerchief for him, despite knowing its value for Desdemona. Flaws are magnified into disasters by a remorseless evil intelligence. Men and women both must be ceaselessly circumspect; a good reputation is sooner lost than recovered. Emilia is a conventionally decent enough woman—she jests to Desdemona that she would be faithless in marriage only for a very high price—and yet her one small compromise with her conscience contributes to the murder of her mistress. Like Othello, she offers atonement too late, by denouncing her husband in a gesture of defiance toward male authority that says much about the tragic consequences of male mistrust of women. Desdemona is the only person in the play too good to be struck down through some inner flaw, which may explain why Iago is so intent on destroying her along with Othello and Cassio.

As a tragic hero, Othello obtains self-knowledge at a terrible price. He knows finally that what he has destroyed was ineffably good. The discovery is too late for him to make amends, and he dies by his own hand as atonement. The deaths of Othello and Desdemona are, in their separate ways, equally devastating: he is in part the victim of racism, though he nobly refuses to deny his own culpability, and she is the victim of sexism, lapsing sadly into the stereotypical role of passive and silent sufferer that the Venetian world expects of women. Despite the loss, however, Othello’s reaffirmation of faith in Desdemona’s goodness undoes what the devil-like Iago had most hoped to achieve: the separation of Othello from his loving trust in one who is good. In this important sense, Othello’s self-knowledge is cathartic and a compensation for the terrible price he has paid. The very existence of a person as good as Desdemona gives the lie to Iago’s creed that everyone has his or her price. She is the sacrificial victim who must die for Othello’s loss of faith and, by dying, rekindle that faith. (“My life upon her faith!” Othello prophetically affirms, in response to her father’s warning that she may deceive [1.3.297].) She cannot restore him to himself, for self-hatred has done its ugly work, but she is the means by which he understands at last the chimerical and wantonly destructive nature of his jealousy. His greatness appears in his acknowledgment of this truth and in the heroic struggle with which he has confronted an inner darkness we all share.