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The Battle for Othello’s Soul: How Shakespeare Improved on the Morality Play

Posted by jennine lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012

While Shakespeare’s four great tragedies, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, all explore facets of human evil, it is in Othello that the force of evil is most directly pitted against the presence of good. As opposed to the sprawling casts and layered stories of the other three tragedies, Othello focuses on three main characters, two of whom, Iago and Desdemona, are carrying out a contest of influence over the main character Othello.  In this regard, the play derives some of its structural underpinnings from the Medieval morality play in which typically the “good angel” and the “evil angel” are battling for the soul of the “everyman.”

The morality play is a genre that evolved in the late Medieval period to teach Christian morals through an allegorical story of a sinner’s journey to repentance and redemption. In the anonymous morality play entitled “The Castle of Perseverance,” as well as in Christopher Marlowe’s Renaissance adaptation of that genre “The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus,” the main character’s soul is being directly fought over by the agents of good and evil who appear as representatives of God and the Devil. It is fundamental to this genre that ultimately the main character sees the error of his ways, his soul is redeemed and he is allowed into heaven. He is saved from eternal damnation and God wins in the end.

Clearly, in Othello, Shakespeare is parting from the genre in one important respect–there is no happy ending. While Othello does see the error of his ways, and repents, there is nothing to indicate that when he kills himself he is on his way to heaven. Even more important, in terms of dramatic structure, is the fact that Shakespeare succeeds in making a bona fide drama out of the morality play model by creating an external human conflict that nonetheless embodies the cosmic moral issues. Rather than pitting against each other forces of generic “good” and generic “evil”, Shakespeare creates two individualized characters embodying fundamental human qualities which have a good and evil moral value.

The conflict is launched when the drunken Cassio gets caught up in a brawl and is stripped of his rank by Othello, prompting Desdemona (embodying the forces of good) to plead with Othello to show forgiveness towards Cassio and reconcile with him, both fundamentally Christian acts. Meanwhile, Iago (representing evil) has orchestrated Cassio’s downfall and uses it to lead Othello to believe that Desdemona is betraying him with Cassio, thereby appealling to Othello’s selfishness, pride and aggressive instincts.

To prepare for this contest, the play begins with the ending of another drama. The story of Othello and Desdemona’s courtship, falling in love and elopement could itself be a compelling evening of theater. After a subtle and coded process of revealing their attraction to each other, they have a series of clandestine meetings culminating with sneaking off together under cover of darkness, risking great danger–the wrath of her father, the loss of his position–to sanctify their love in marriage. One could look at this love story as the happy ending version of Romeo and Juliet–the  union of a Venetian and a Moor not being so far off from that between a Montague and Capulet. In this case, the interracial element serves to emphasize the hard-won nature of the love between them, making it that much more tragic to see it undermined and ultimately destroyed.

However, for the purposes of this particular evening of theater the love story has been skipped over. We come in at the happy resolution when the angry father has no choice but to be subdued by the sincerity of his daughter’s love, the transgressive Moor is called upon to save the nation from the Turks and the benevolent Duke blesses the marriage while counseling forgiveness and reconciliation. In fact, as if to emphasize a feeling of resolution, the last speeches in the marriage conflict from both the Duke and the father, Brabantio, are written in rhymed couplets. From this point the focus changes to the matter of confronting the Turks, leading into the next story, and Iago’s speech to the audience ending Act 1 can even be seen as a kind of prologue to what is to come.

The use of the Turkish threat as a dramatic element is purely pragmatic, at first to show Othello’s importance as the only one trusted to protect the state and, second, as a way of getting Othello and Desdemona out of Venice and into the comparative isolation of Cyprus, where they are deprived of counterbalancing positive social influences, such as the levelheaded Duke. Hence, immediately upon arriving in Cyprus, the Turkish threat is dispensed with in a ferocious storm. Once that is taken care of, the cast of the ensuing drama makes their entrance one-by-one. Cassio arrives first, being the least important of the main characters. Then, on the second boat, come Desdemona and Iago, the two cosmic duelists, and Emilia who will ultimately hold the key to unraveling the mystery.  There is then a drumroll-like moment of suspense while it is unknown whether Othello’s ship made it through the tempest. But, in short order, he arrives and the cast is complete. Time for the drama to begin.

 For the whole first half of the play, Othello and Desdemona seem to spend most of their time trying to go to bed together. They are pulled from their marriage bed to defend their elopement. They are prevented from returning to it by preparations to go to Cyprus. When they finally arrive in Cyprus, they go off to bed, but are interrupted again to mediate the brawl between Cassio and Montano. Othello finally emerges to give Iago a letter to send to Venice, presumably informing the senate that the Turkish threat has passed, but also signaling that the intimacies are concluded and it’s back to business for the General. Meanwhile, during Othello’s preoccupation with nuptial matters, Iago has been busily setting up his sabotage. He has already manipulated Cassio to make his plea to Desdemona, with the domino effect of Desdemona extending Cassio’s plea to Othello. Then, he begins his slow corruption of Othello’s faith in Desdemona.

The first scene in which Iago plants the seed of doubt in Othello’s mind falls at the midpoint of the drama. For the next three scenes, roughly the third quarter of the play in length, Iago works assiduously at reinforcing his manipulations. He is helped along when Emilia, as an unknowing accomplice, gives him Desdemona’s handkerchief, and he wastes no time in using that to administer his second dose of psychic poison to Othello, seriously disturbing his peace of mind. Soon after, Desdemona makes her second appeal on Cassio’s behalf, further irritating Othello and prompting him to demand to see the handkerchief. But Iago is not one to let that be enough. Just to make sure, he tells Cassio to approach Desdemona again. Then, in his crowning manipulation, he first tells Othello stories of Cassio bragging about bedding Desdemona in response to which Othello goes into an epileptic fit, as if made unconscious by the depth of his rage. Iago then manages to follow that with an opportunity for Othello to witness Cassio appearing to say lewd things about Desdemona. Othello becomes firmly resolved to kill her and Iago graciously offers to kill Cassio for him as well.

In a plot complication serving to further externalize the story and set it apart from the typical morality play model, Lodovico arrives with a letter calling Othello back to Venice. This forces Iago to pick up the pace in fulfilling his schemes. But this is also the point when Desdemona’s innocence and goodness becomes more of an operative factor in the drama. First, she speaks in Cassio’s favor and, in front of Lodovico, Othello strikes her, betraying his emerging aggression. Then Othello accuses her directly of being a whore and she summons Iago for advice. Iago’s solicitous behavior in this scene turns out to be his undoing when Othello later claims that the accusations against Desdemona came from him, thereby revealing to Emilia Iago’s duplicitousness.

The drama reaches its apotheosis of innocence, goodness and unquestioning love in the scene between Desdemona and Emilia in which Desdemona foresees her own demise and asks to be buried in her wedding sheets. As they talk of marital betrayal, she reveals how naive she is to the ways of the world by insisting that Emilia would never actually do such a thing even though she says she might. (We also get a sense here that Emilia has betrayed Iago in reaction to his betrayal of her, and that she very possibly did so with Othello as Iago suspects in the first scene.)

From this point forth is the unraveling. The first sign of trouble is when Roderigo endeavors to kill Cassio but is instead himself mortally wounded. When Cassio gets the better of Roderigo with relatively little effort, Cassio proves himself a more capable warrior than was previously supposed and the plot gains another complication. Iago then stabs Cassio unseen from behind and runs away. Othello sees Cassio on the ground and, in a typically Shakespearean plot twist, assumes the still living Cassio is dead. He goes off to kill Desdemona.

Curiously, Emilia seems to be the only one, besides Iago, who has any brains. In Act 3, scene 4, when Desdemona wonders at Othello’s strange behavior towards her, Emilia offers the explanation, which turns out to be accurate, that he may be jealous. Later in act 4, scene 2, after Othello has called Desdemona a whore, Emilia, again accurately, deduces that some underhanded villain has contrived the situation for his own advancement. She becomes so worked up in her conviction that Iago self-consciously asks her to lower her voice. And, finally, in act 5, scene 2, it is Emilia who sees the contradiction in Iago’s behavior and exposes him as having manipulated the entire tragedy.

Another externalizing technique is the use of plot devices such as the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief and the numerous letters which provide information critical to the story. The handkerchief is dropped into the story just after the midpoint and proceeds to steadily increase the tension all the way to the end. First, Emilia uses it to get something from Iago, then Iago uses it to further upset Othello, then Othello uses it to test Desdemona, then Othello witnesses Bianca throwing it back at Cassio, then Othello uses it to justify killing Desdemona and finally Emilia uses it to prove Desdemona’s innocence and Iago’s guilt.

The use of letters is planted at the beginning of the story when Othello sends a letter to Venice. The return letter delivered by Lodovico accelerates the plot towards its resolution. Then, in somewhat cheesy fashion, Lodovico produces two more letters solely for the purpose of getting background exposition out. The first reveals that Iago told Roderigo to kill Cassio and the other shows that Cassio was primed with drink and provoked into the fight with Montano.

Consistent with the characteristics of a morality play is the fact that both Desdemona and Iago are comparatively one-dimensional characters. Desdemona embodies innocence, sincerity and selflessness. In being wooed by Othello’s stories, we see how impressionable she is. The sincerity of her love for Othello is strong enough to defy her father. She selflessly advocates for Cassio even when it is clear she risks alienating Othello in the process. Indeed, as she states in her dying scene, her only sin is in loving Othello, from which she never wavers right through to the end when she absolves him of the crime of killing her. In fact, after Othello accuses her of being a whore, she asks Iago if he thinks she is a whore and declares she’s sure she is not, as if she is not completely sure what a whore is.

Iago, on the other hand, is one-dimensionally petty, jealous, ambitious, vindictive and out simply for his own gain. He seems designed to incorporate the collective lower self of all of humankind, the unevolved reptilian brain, which scientists today credit with our “fight or flight” self-preservation instincts. In fact, he is proud of his “me first” philosophy of life, as he makes clear to Roderigo in the first scene of the play. And he has not the slightest compunction or regret at the devastation he wreaks on others in pursuit of his selfish ends.

Therefore, while neither character is posed as a direct agent of God or the Devil, they are each serving dramatic functions in diametrical opposition to the other that carry a positive and negative moral charge. In the morality plays, the main character starts out in a state of iniquity and, through an alternating pull between two positive and negative poles, eventually ends up in a state of grace. Othello, in contrast, begins the drama in a state of grace–having married Desdemona he has achieved love and been accepted into Christian society. In the course of the story, as the good Desdemona and the evil Iago battle over him, he loses his grip on grace and slides into a state of iniquity. In this way, Shakespeare starts from the morality play model (which was the dominant form of drama right up to the Elizabethan era) and modifies and improves on it to create a wholly new and original dramatic structure for his time.