UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

Without Lawe and Civilite: Race, Power, and Imaginative Discourse in Shakespeare’s Othello

Without Lawe and Civilite: Race, Power, and Imaginative Discourse in Shakespeare’s Othello

Naima Karczman

The tragedy in Shakespeare’s Othello is one that arises out of initial resistance to, and eventual collapse into, a hyperspecific kind of discursive hegemony. Iago, the master rhetorician, is the successful agent of this collapse because of his ability to exploit the already present anxieties of his dual audience, which consists both in the metaphorical audience within the play’s field of reference, and the literal audience outside of it. This anxiety is simultaneously generative of and produced by the operations of stereotypical discourse (as conceived of by anthropologist Homi Bhabha), themselves already a very present reality in Elizabethan England. We find examples of Iago-like rhetoric in early European travel literature by George Best and Leo Africanus, as well as in proclamations issued by Elizabeth I herself. The mimetic form, in the case of Othello, serves to reflect the power of said discourse back onto audiences who are themselves necessarily complicit in the construction of Othello-as-black savage. Iago is neither Machiavellian symbol nor psychopathic villain, but rather, a storyteller whose strategy is admittedly Machiavellian, but who is ultimately reliant on hegemonic narrative to enforce the selfsame systems of which Iago himself is also victim.

AS THE MOST COMPLEX, IF NOT the only, racial tragedy of its time and place, Othello is unique in Shakespeare’s body of work. Othello’s engagement with hegemony, taking place before the concept even existed as such, runs parallel to England’s first ventures into colonialism, alongside a racial anxiety that was just beginning to pervade Western culture. What makes Othello compelling, however, is not simply the presence of racial tragedy itself, but the fact that the events of said tragedy are co-authored by one of its characters and ultimate victims. Iago, infamous villain and rhetorician, is crucial to the political dynamics of the text, which are in turn crucial to the depth of its tragedy. Iago functions at the center of a paradox; he is simultaneously intense-ly human and distinctly systemic, gener-ative of tragedy and victim to it, brilliant in speech and inscrutable in motivation. In order to identify the power in these contradictions, this paper will attempt to come to an understanding of Iago that places him analogous to and rep-resentative of hegemonic discourse itself. However, because historical and social context is vitally important to any examination of racial discourse, it is important to note that Iago’s employ-ment of what might be now called hege-mony should not be examined solely in contemporary terms. Instead, we must understand Iago’s rhetorical function via close analysis of Othello’s cultural con-text, source texts, and internal struc-ture, or field of reference. Iago can therefore be under-stood as intimately tied to hegemonic discourse only inso-far as that discourse is symbiotically analyzed alongside an investigation of Othello in terms of his attempt—and ultimate failure—to achieve self-charac-terization outside of Iago’s pervasive influence. Finally, this dual analysis will necessarily give rise to an implicit study of tragedy itself—what is it, in other words, that makes the events of Othello simultaneously inevitable and gut-wrenchingly tragic? This paper will argue, in addition to its claims regarding Othello and Iago, that Othello’s predict-ability makes it all the more tragic, and that this tragedy is the tragedy of the stereotype itself.


The fact of disobedience was this. When Noe at the commandement of God had made & entred the Arke, & the fludgates of Heauen were open-ed, so that the whole face of the earth, euery trée & Mountaine was couered with abundāce of water, he straitely commanded his sonnes & their wiues, they should with reuer-ence & feare behold the iustice and mighty power of God, & that during the time of the floud, while they re-mained in the Arke, they should vse cōtinēcie, & absteine frō carnall cop-ulation with their wiues: & many other preceptes he gaue vnto thē, & admonitions, touching the iustice of God, in reuenging sinne, & his mer-cie in deliuering thēm, who nothing deserued it. Which good instructions & exhortatiōs notwith-stāding, his wicked sonne Cham dis-obeyed, and being persuaded that the first child borne after the floud (by right & law of nature) should in-herit & poss-esse all the dominion of the earth, he, contrarie to his fathers comm-andement, while they were yet in the Arke, vsed cōmpany with his wife, & craftily went about, there-by to disinherit the ofspring of his other two bréethren, for the which wicked and detestable fact, as an example for contempte of Almightie God, and disobedience of parents, God would a sonne shuld be borne, whose name was Chus, who not only it selfe, but all his posteritie after him, should be so blacke & loth-some, that it might remaine a spect-acle of disobedience to all the World. And of this blacke & cursed Chus came al these blacke Moores which are in Africa. (Best 30)


So goes the story of the Moors accor-ding to British travel writer George Best. His documentation of his voyages in Africa, suggestively titled A True Disc-ourse of the Late Voyages of Discovery, is indeed composed primarily of allegor-ical discourse, through which he attempts an ethnographic depiction of the populations of Africa. The version of the African presented in Best’s work was not an uncommon image for 16th cen-tury Europeans. Similar accounts of Afri-can savagery and sin appear in works like The Decades of the Newe Worlde, translated and published in London in 1555, and in a collection titled The His-tory and Description of Africa, published in English in 1600 by John Pory, but originally penned by a Moorish convert to Christianity named Leo Africanus. From 1596 to 1601, Elizabeth I issued a series of procla-mations calling for the deportation of African Moors, one of which claimed, “most of them are infidels, having no understanding of Christ or his Gospel” (Bartels 305). Shakespeare’s Othello, written in 1604, was to enter a cultural climate in which the Moor was a figure partly of fascin-ation, partly of fear. We see, in its work-ings, exploration of a just barely pre-colonial anxiety, a circumscription of the Other and his fascinating alterity. Othello is at once an answer and count-erpoint to writings like Best’s and an exploration of it. More specifically, Shakespeare’s tragedy taps into the nature of stereotypical and hegemonic discourse in order to illustrate the deep-ly tragic nature of the stock narrative. The play is centrally concerned with the Moorishness of its title character, so much so that even in a twentieth cen-tury context, it has inspired shock in audiences who are privy to its tragedy. Elise Marks points to this phenomenon as one that arises from the experience of perceived savagery. She notes that  “… Othello’s satisfaction for many white audiences is generated along the border between the “savage” and the “civilized,” where what is normally rep-ressed or forbidden, assigned to the category of the Other, can be reclaimed and savored…” (108). The play is master-ful in exploiting both the voyeuristic curiosity and racial anxieties of its aud-ience, phenomena that are largely root-ed in concepts of taboo sexuality and interracial marriage.

The opening scenes, in fact, invoke the potentiality of a situation about which Best himself warns his audience:


I my selfe haue séene an Ethiopian as blacke as a cole broughte into Englande, who taking a faire Englishe woman to Wife, begatte a Sonne in all respectes as blacke as the Father was, al∣though England were his natiue Countrey, & an English wom-an his Mother: whereby it séemeth this blacknesse procéedeth rather of some naturall infection of that man, whiche was so strong, that neyther the nature of the Clime, neyther the good complexion of the Mother concurring, coulde any thing alter, and therefore we can not impute it to the nature of the Clime. (Best 29)


A Shakespearean audience, in seeing Othello, would be confronted immediat-ely with a world where it is, initially, possible for a black man to wed a white woman, thus introducing into Venetian society potential “sonne(s) in all respect-es as blacke as the Father was.” The major concern of the play is precisely this kind of boundary crossing—and its consequences. Othello’s tragedy is couched in a dual identity that proves to be ultimately irreconcilable: Othello: The Moor of Venice. His Moorishness, while not initially in conflict with his ties to Venetian nationalism, is inherently open to interrogation and definition by cultu-rally dominant rhetoric; as the play goes on, we are forced to watch its title char-acter fall prey to consumption by the discursively narrative trope of black savagery.

Iago, one of Shakespeare’s more infamous villains and a figure who is characterized by critics as everything from psychopath to Machiavellian sym-bol, is the primary agent of this consum-ption. Aided by a zeal that borders on depravity, Iago’s successful manipula-tion continually foreshadows our arrival at the final, shocking tragedy in which Othello murders his wife in her own bed. At least as centrally important as the discussion of racial alterity in Othello —and inextricably linked to it—is Iago and his motivation, or lack thereof. What I will seek to demonstrate here is that Iago falls neatly into neither of the aforementioned categories presented by various criticism. As Fred West points out, to cast Iago as a solely allegorical or symbolic figure is to do an injustice to the intense humanity of his character-ization. To reduce him to a depraved madman with psychopathic tendencies and no capacity for self-reflection, how-ever, is likewise insufficient, particularly in light of the frequent moves the play itself makes in connecting him to some-thing distinctly superhuman (we might think here of Othello’s allusion to Iago’s potentially cloven feet in Act V.ii). In order to reconcile this human-super-human binary, we must develop a framework in which Iago operates, much like the discourse cited in our opening pages, as both reciprocally generative of a system of power and victimized by that system. His appli-cation of an admittedly Machiavellian strategy, in conjunction with the difficu-lty in identifying his motive, lends an air of inevitability to the events of the play. The true tragedy experienced by the reader (or viewer) of Othello lies in wat-ching its initially resistant or subversive status collapse into what might now be considered a stock narrative as events move horrifyingly towards Iago’s desir-ed conclusion. Othello is a play in which the mimetic form serves to highlight both Iago’s rhetoric and the rhetoric of the dominant culture, bringing to light discursive narratives in the popular imagination and humanizing the subj-ects of said discourse so devastatingly as to reveal the true power of the writers and enforcers of cultural narra-tive. To test the veracity of this claim, we must establish two things: firstly, the cultural presence of the stereotyped African savage into which Othello falls so neatly and, secondly, an understand-ing of hegemony as a fundamentally Iago-like phenomenon. In other words, we must recognize the story and its teller in terms of both the broader dis-cursive object and the more specific mimetic one.

Before we broaden our analysis to account for Iago’s resemblance to a hegemonic system, however, we might spend some time considering the struct-ure of the play, and the way our central characters operate within it. Othello, the protagonist and tragic hero, seems the logical place to begin. In the opening scenes, the audience is presented imm-ediately with two competing accounts of Othello’s identity. In a move that makes clear Iago’s discursive power over both the audience and the characters of the play, Shakespeare grants him the prov-erbial first word on his Moorish captain. Iago’s convoluted speeches, despite their attempts at successful defamation, do as much to characterize speaker as they do subject:


I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.

But he, as loving of his own pride and purposes,

Evades them with a bombast circum-stance

Horribly stuffed with epithets of war

… By debitor and creditor. This counter-caster

He, in good time, must his lieutenant be

And I, God bless the mark, his Moor-ship’s ancient! (Othello i.i.10 – 33)


We are here presented with Othello’s foremost identifying characteristics according to Iago: prideful ambition, overblown rhetoric, and, finally, the unalterable fact of his Moorishness. Iago’s play on the then-commonly used phrase ‘his worship’ invokes a widely accepted irony in anyone of Moorish blood attaining the status that Othello has, presumably by virtue of his aptit-ude for warfare. Of course, as critics like Ken Jacobsen point out, Iago’s speeches are fundamentally reflexive and hypo-critical. In framing Othello’s supposed faults solely in the context of his own experience, Iago creates a scaffold, the bounds of which render his assessment necessarily subjective. His apparent lack of awareness of his own hypocrisy fur-thers this impression; his criticism of Othello’s pride immediately follows a declaration of his own, and the efficacy of his rhetoric demonstrates an apti-tude for speech and military strategy that is a twisted parallel of Othello’s.

Said rhetoric, as the scene un-folds, quickly populates the already-racialized characterization of Othello with increasingly vitriolic description of his blackness. Othello becomes “the thicklips,” “an old black ram,” “a Barbary horse,” “The Moor,” “A lascivious Moor,” “an extravagant and wheeling stranger,” and “The Moor” once again before he is himself even physically present onstage. Notably, he is not referred to by name even once for the duration of Roderigo and Iago’s interaction with Brabantio. This suggests, firstly, an attempted effacement of his humanity and identity by Iago, and secondly, that a Moorish presence in Venice was rare enough that there could be only one referent for these various labels. Said labels are, of course, used both by Roderigo and Iago, but there is a noticeable difference in their employment. Roderigo, preocc-upied with presenting his case as court-eously as is possible given his decidedly uncourteous project, couches his racial-ized aspersions in other characterizat-ions. The “stranger” is also “extravagant and wheeling,” and “The Moor” is also “lascivious.” Iago, by contrast, has desig-ned his speech to be as inflammatory as possible, and so combines many of his references to Othello with sexual innu-endo: “an old black ram/Is tupping your white ewe!” (i.i.88) Unlike Roderigo, Iago does not feel the need to provide descr-iption immediately alongside racial met-aphors. He recognizes the nouns them-selves for what they are: signifiers that have already implicitly acquired all of the meaning contained in Roderigo’s superfluous adjectives. “Barbary horse,” for example, is a phrase that is more than sufficient to conjure up connota-tions of lasciviousness and savagery; by Leo Africanus’s account, Barbary horses were horses traded by African tribes-man for slaves and other livestock. The word ‘Barbary’ is derived from the word ‘barbarian,’ which in turn comes from the French ‘barbarie’ or the Latin ‘bar-baria.’ The term is etymologically linked to what early Greek civilizations percei-ved the language of foreigners to sound like: uncivilized gibberish. The Othello presented to us by Iago, then, is the stereotyped Othello, a version that hinges on both his blackness[1] in and of itself and Iago’s employment of it as evidence of his flawed character. Already, we see that Iago is drawing on established cultural norms to enforce his agenda, and doing so with the know-ledge that said norms are ever-present in the imagination of his audience—both the audience of the Elizabethan stage and the immediate audience of Brabantio and Roderigo.

In the scene that immediately follows this one, Othello enters, granted with the opportunity to assert his own identity. The contrast is striking. What we are presented with by Othello him-self is rhetoric designed for statecraft. Its careful meter and diplomatic tone speak to a character who is every bit the military dignitary:


Let him do his spite;

My services, which I have done the signi-ory,

Shall out-tongue his complaints. ‘Tis yet to know—

Which, when I know that boasting is an honour,

I shall promulgate – I fetch my life and being

From men of royal siege, and my de-merits

May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune

As this that I have reached. For know, Iago,

But that I love the gentle Desdemona

I would not my unhoused free condition

Put into circumscription and confine

For the sea’s worth. (i.ii.17 – 28)


We see here, a dual resistance to the identity ascribed by Iago and to Vene-tian social order. Othello’s speech is confident, articulate, even elevated. He is sure of his own worth, having earned it in battle. He has, despite his black-ness, been granted social status by the Venetian nobility, and his language conforms to the occasionally varied iambic pentameter that Shakespeare so famously reserves for his higher-class characters. Said variation is employed artfully; the spondee at line nineteen meshes beautifully with the phrase “out-tongue,” and the one at line twenty-eight serves to lend the conclu-sion of his speech its desired weight. In his rhetoric and his bearing, we see an Othello that is entirely separate from the bestial Other that Iago has called to mind in the scene prior.

This resistance to—or perhaps contradiction of—identification with a stereotyped Other functions alongside a symbiotic resistance to social and legal constructs. His taboo marriage to Des-demona is a challenge simultaneously to the authority of her father and to the implicit bounds of racial order. Nor is he wholly unaware of the consequences of his actions. At line twenty-four, he says, “I would not my unhoused free condi-tion/Put into circumscription and con-fine/For the sea’s worth.” The metaphor here consists, of course, in the sugges-tion that marriage is a prison for any free man. The invocation of the words “free condition,” however, suggest to audiences just how tenuous Othello’s freedom really is. Further, while the following line recognizes the somewhat lighthearted cliché of marriage-as-prison, the use of the word “circum-scription” is striking in its resonance with racial boundary crossing. The Oxford English Dictionary defines cir-cumscription as “the action of circum-scribing, or fact of being circumscribed; the marking out of limits (of territory, etc.); bounding, limitation, restriction, restraint; the having well-defined limits” (OED). Othello has, in his very existence, already expanded the demarcated “bounding” of racial subjugation in colo-nial Europe. Brabantio would likely not have agreed to the marriage of Othello and Desdemona even had he known about it. To keep it a secret may well have been the only way such a union could take place at all—and yet, the potential consequences are twice as devastating because of the dual-taboo of the action. Othello may be voluntarily sacrificing the freedom of singlehood, but he is also risking involuntary sacri-fice of his very existence as a free man. The word “circumscription” is, in fact, very-near prophetic in its employment: Othello’s undoing will be, in part, a result of his failure to distinguish bet-ween the militaristic political world that is familiar to him and the domestic world of his marriage. He will, eventual-ly, find himself prisoner of Iago’s impos-ed narrative, “bounded” in the stereo-type that he seems, at first, to transc-end.

We have thus far established Othello’s resistance to social order. It is further the case, however, that the play itself presents a similarly subversive initial construction. For evidence of this, we might turn to Scene III, in which, for the first time, “the Moor” appears along-side the word “valiant” (i.iii.48). Here as well as in Othello’s speech, we see a world in which nobility is accorded to those who prove themselves on the battlefield, and in which valiance is enough to overtake Iago’s favorite Moorish implicitures. This shift in conv-ersational tone signifies entry into one of the many contexts presented to Othello’s audience. Spatially, discur-sively, and atmospherically, Scene III is a sharp contrast to what we have thus far witnessed in the streets of Venice. In the Duke’s conference room, concerns of state are paramount. The domestic sphere in which Othello’s presence is so disruptive has given way to the political sphere to which it is vital. This spatial structure is another fascinating inver-sion of expectations: the relatively open space of the Venetian streets at night is the setting for the private, “domestic” concerns of marriage, and it is a seques-tered, and, in many productions, candle-lit room in which politics and warfare are discussed. Michael Neill provides us with an account that might help us understand what it means for some-thing to be hidden in Othello. To dip very briefly into his analysis:


…the bed was so intensely identified with the anxieties about race and sex stirred up by the play that it needed, as far as possible, to be removed from the public gaze. Yet the effect of such era-sure was only to give freer play to the fantasy it was designed to check, so that the violent chiaroscuro of Macready’s blackened face thrust between the virgin-white curtains was experienced as a shocking sado-erotic climax. It was, of course, a stage picture that significantly repeated an off-stage action twice ima-gined in the first half of the play, when Othello, first in Venice (1.2) and then in Cyprus (2.3), is unceremoniously roused from his nuptial bed. (Neill 390)


Here, Neill is referring specifically to the artistic depictions of Desdemona’s mur-der that the play inspired. More broadly, however, Neill makes a convincing case for the potential ramifications of “era-sure” on “fantasy.” If part of Iago’s project is to exploit that which is un-knowable, hidden, and marginal, it must also necessarily be to invert—or revert —the public/private spatial dynamics of the first scene so that Othello and Des-demona’s marriage falls once again into a space that is cloistered and shadow-ed. The play accomplishes precisely such a reversion in its transport from Venice to Cyprus, a move that displaces both the marriage and Iago from their original context, granting Iago the spa-tial structure he needs to relegate what he perceives to be a per-version to the curtained darkness of the marriage bed.

In these initial scenes, however, the Duke’s room remains apart from Iago’s influence. Here, the Moor of Ven-ice is truly of Venice, and Brabantio’s accusations are “no proof/Without more certain and more overt test” (i.iii.108-9). It is small wonder that Iago, who oper-ates on the margins of what is believ-able, and whose only proofs are exploit-ations of Brabantio-like anxiety, holds little power here. Against Brabantio’s claims of witchcraft and spells, (which, it should be noted, call to mind simultan-eously notions of primordial savagery and, alongside his soldiers, torches, and threats, the feeling of a witch hunt) Othello leverages his account of a love story:


But still the house affairs would draw her thence,

Which ever as she could with haste dis-patch

She’d come again, and with a greedy ear

Devour upon my discourse; which I, obs-erving,

Took once a pliant hour and found good means

To draw from her a prayer of earnest heart

That I would all my pilgrimage dilate

… She loved me for the dangers I had passed

And I loved her that she did pity them.

This only is the witchcraft I have used:



IAGO, Attendants.


Here comes the lady, let her witness it. (Othello i.iii.147)


Here, we are presented with a proposed narrative made up of Brabantio’s vaguely racialized claims of witchcraft, and Othello’s subsequent rejection of said narrative. This structure resonates with the aforementioned scenes, in which Othello’s self-characterization is set up as an implicit response to Iago’s stereotyped version. Significant now, however, is that we are able to see how the existing social order responds to these two presentations of truth, and the undeniable boundary crossing with which Othello is engaged. The Duke’s response is significant: “I think this tale would win my daughter too” (i.iii.172). Indeed, Othello has already won, per-haps not the Duke’s daughter, but cer-tainly his favor. When Desdemona corroborates Othello’s account of what has happened, Brabantio cedes reluct-antly to a situation that he cannot change, and the Duke chooses not to leverage any kind of sentencing, sugg-esting rather lamely that once some-thing unfortunate has happened, it is best to let it lie. The council then turns immediately to matters of war and statecraft. All that is necessary for this transgressive marriage to be accepted is the demonstration that there was no witchcraft involved. Othello’s indiscre-tion, so dramatically shocking to Braba-ntio in the context of his own home is, while still troubling, far less problematic in the context of a political space in which impending war is the central con-cern. Brabantio recognizes this, conclu-ding his somewhat calmer final speech with, “I humbly beseech you, proceed to th’affairs of state” (i.iii.221).

Desdemona is, of course, engag-ed in transgressions that are parallel, if not analogous, to Othello’s. She too has, by marrying a black man behind her father’s back, violated the rules govern-ing her societal place as woman, virgin, and daughter. The fact that she is able to go unpunished, and further, permit-ted to follow her husband to war, is additional evidence of the play’s initially resistant framework. A parallel might here be drawn between the racial boun-dary crossing of the play’s title character and the gendered transgressions of his wife. Just as Othello’s initially successful resistance will prove his undoing, so too will Desdemona’s initial transcendence of her expected passivity serve Iago as he co-opts the trope of the untrust-worthy woman to turn her husband against her. This is a dynamic that is foreshadowed by Brabantio’s ominous warning: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see/She has deceived her father, and may thee” (i.iii.290). For the mom-ent, however, Desdemona’s transgress-ions, like Othello’s do not have imme-diate ramifications. The opening scenes of the play present a situation in which social and domestic boundaries can be crossed without significant conseque-nce. This subversive structure is made possible by various kinds of inversions, which are, in turn, made possible by the political climate of Shakespeare’s Venice; the inversion of traditional hier-archy that allows Othello to attain an almost-noble social status is made possible by his military prowess, and the spatial inversion of the domestic/ political binary is made necessary by war. Simply put, Othello’s initial structure is one in which nationalist war takes precedence over racial warfare.

Othello’s commitment to and belief in this precedence is of vital imp-ortance in considering the trajectory of his collapse. The perhaps excessively long monologue that he uses to defend his marriage is notable for several rea-sons, chief among them his conflation of love and war. We are beginning to see, in all of Othello’s self-characteri-zations, that he attaches much of his identity to his military exploits and knowledge of statecraft. He perceives himself—and he is likely correct—as having overcome great obstacles in order to literally fight his way to a place in Venetian society. The status afforded to him by this dynamic extends to his marriage to Desdemona, who falls in love with him, by her account and his, because of the story he tells. This brings us to the second important feature of his speech, and a central concern of the play: the physical, material power of discursive narrative. Speech is action-able in Othello; Brabantio’s belief in Iago’s inflammatory narrative has “oppr-essed” him, Desdemona has “devoured up [Othello’s] discourse” and married him, and when she “professes” her duty to Othello, she is enacting her marriage to him (i.iii.151). So long as Othello re-mains the dominant and more convin-cing storyteller, as he has been so far, he holds the power. Given, however, that the success of his narrative is entirely dependent on the existence of militaristic circumstance, this power is a tenuous one. To summarize briefly: at the end of the first act, we have an Othello whose central characteristics are an affinity for war and statecraft, a certain dignified pride derived from the narrative of his own lived experience and the status granted to him by Vene-tian nobility, and a love for Desdemona. We also have a reductive Othello, const-ructed by Iago in terms of a racially primitive framework dependent not on highly specified circumstance, but on culturally embedded implication and allusion.

The play’s tragedy is catalyzed by its movement from Venice to Cyprus. Act II immediately establishes destabili-zation on a few levels: the spatial shift removes the presence of the Venetian politicians, the boundary between the domestic and political is further loosen-ed by Desdemona’s presence in an army camp, Othello’s arrival is delayed, and, most importantly, the Turks that they have been sent to fight are destr-oyed by a storm. The sudden absence of war constitutes the removal of Othello’s central motivation, and one of his central characteristics. His delayed arrival at Cyprus opens, briefly, a narra-tive gap that Iago is quick to exploit and Desdemona is quick to notice: “O, but I fear…” she says to Cassio, “how lost you company?” (ii.i.91) She is right to worry. Othello’s absence here is of functional and metaphorical importance. In the simultaneous absence of battle and fighter, what is left on the shore of Cyprus is a purely social interpersonal dynamic, one that Iago is more than adept at manipulating. All it takes is a brief encounter between Desdemona and Cassio for Iago to recognize his opportunity: “With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio” (ii.i.168).

Othello’s physical absence here is also metaphorically resonant in terms of the proverbial blank slate that is crea-ted and exploited when a culture of difference is denied the opportunity to assert itself. As Mary Baine Campbell suggests:


‘Filling up the blanks,’ as Ralegh puts it, would be a major European pastime, both aesthetic and epistemo-logical, for a long time to come. In the colonial/ geographical context, this sometimes involves making a blank first… Real or unreal, an island is a good place (a topos) for imagining the expansion or unfettered dominion of the self. (Campbell 37)


Campbell is speaking here of French travel writing from the mid-sixteenth century, most of which precedes or aligns with Shakespeare’s work. Her theoretical, metaphorical, and physical islands manifest themselves as spaces for European travellers and ethnogra-phers to project either the imagined or, as Bhabha might call them, the “already known.” Africa was, for Best and other travel writers, one such island, construc-ted largely out of a European imaginary designed for the pleasure taken in eth-nographic exoticization, and later used as partial justification for the slave trade. Campbell points out that “Sixtee-nth-century travel accounts such as these bear the mark of ‘discoveries’ not only personal and scientific but fully, globally, political. They constitute at once the origins of the modern science of ethnology and the textual justification of several governments’ policies of colo-nial appropriation” (26). While England was not nearly the colonial power that France was in the mid-to-late sixteenth century, the seeds of its potential were already present both discursively and materially. Alongside the travel litera-ture penned by Best and Pory—and the decrees written by Queen Elizabeth I condemning the African—came the first English slaving expedition, carried out by Sir John Hawkins and invested in by Elizabeth I in 1573. While it would not be correct, then, to characterize England as a “dominant” culture at the time of Shakespeare’s writing, it is more than possible to see Iago working within and analogous to a cultural context that is, at the very least, generative of notions of domination and pre-colonialism. In conjunction with the removal of the war that is the anchor for his identity, Othello’s absence in Act II, Scene I cre-ates a space for Iago to construct what Homi Bhabha might call an articulation, a version of the Other crafted in the privation of any claim to an “original.” The gap that is opened allows Iago to step forward and successfully position himself as the fabricator of such an articulation.

As Iago’s plot begins to resurface, we arrive again at the necessity of iden-tifying precisely what kind of “web” he is weaving. Audiences are likely familiar with the tragedy that unfolds from this point. Iago convinces Othello that Des-demona is engaged in an affair with Cassio. Othello, driven mad by Iago’s constant insinuations, murders her in her own bed and, once the truth is revealed to him, proceeds to kill him-self. This story has, as its author, Iago. As many critics have noted, Iago is a rhetorician with a strong aptitude for emotional manipulation via language. Neill touches briefly on the idea that Iago’s manipulation is exploitative of an audience’s imaginative faculty, the de-sire to fill in what is off-stage, a different kind of blank slate: “in Othello the real imaginative focus of the action is always the hidden marriage-bed… This disquie-tingly absent presence creates the mar-gin within which Iago can operate as a uniquely deceitful version of the nuntius, whose vivid imaginary descriptions taint the vision of the audience even as they colonize the minds of Brabantio and Othello” (396). What is not present, in other words, is open to narrative inter-pretation. Just as Othello’s absence at the beginning of Act II constitutes a narrative gap and an easily exploited blank canvas, so too does almost every off-stage action that Iago chooses to describe. He skirts the edges of the play’s boundaries, searching for what is unknown so that he can, if not fabricate stories, pull them from already-existing narrative threads. His power as a mas-ter storyteller is widely observed. Ken Jacobsen, for example, argues convin-cingly that Iago is “Shakespeare’s most accomplished rhetorician,” and further, that he demonstrates both the potential success of a Machiavellian strategy and its inevitable failure.

Jacobsen’s argument, however, also presents a problem for our under-standing of Othello as a play that will eventually collapse into pre-determined tropes:


Iago, as the prophet of this new creed, demonstrates its efficacy by succeeding along the same lines as the political and military innovators catalogued by Mach-iavelli in The Prince and The Discourses, skillfully deploying rhetorical and mili-tary strategy, two disciplines essential to the agent who would wrest control of the world from Fortuna. Iago’s ascen-dancy, however, proves unstable and brief, undermined by the very forces he has unleashed and sought to master. Yet neither his fall nor the ostensible restoration of civil and military order at the end of the play is ultimately reassu-ring, for Iago’s demonstration of the delegitimization of the social order, the frailty of love, and the ubiquity of war stands unrefuted. (Jacobsen 501)


In order to justify the claims of this paper, it might be necessary to compli-cate Jacobsen’s. It is certainly true that Iago is a master of rhetoric, and that he uses rhetorical and military strategy to achieve his own ends. His success in creating tragedy, however, doesn’t dem-onstrate the “delegitimization of the social order.” Rather, it reveals his pre-occupation with reinforcing a different kind of social order, one that demands racial and gender based hierarchies. Iago is fighting against what he per-ceives to be a distortion of these hier-archies, and the sexual innuendo that is so ubiquitous in his language suggests that he thinks of Othello and Desde-mona’s marriage not only as transgress-ion, but also as perversion. Motivated in part by this racialized sentiment and in part by his resentment for a system that has trapped him in a lower class than his perceived worth, Iago casts himself as generative of the system in which he is already imprisoned, characterized by racial, social, and hierarchical bound-aries that cannot and should not be transcended. As we have demonstrated previously, the play’s initial construction is the one that is supportive of precisely such transcendence; it is Othello’s marriage to Desdemona that constitu-tes the delegitimization of the social order. The “restoration of civil and mili-tary order” lies not in Iago’s eventual defeat and imprisonment, but in the bedroom scene itself. Fulfillment of a stock narrative in which the African savage murders the lily-white virgin[2] is, in itself, conventional civil order of the sort that Iago seeks to bring about. As we have demonstrated, there is ample precedent for the existence of the Afri-can savage in the popular European imagination. If we return briefly to the cited works by Best and others, it becomes evident that these texts are populated by adjectives not unlike those that Iago chooses to employ in his opening monologue. In Best’s work, we find descriptors such as: “needie,” “covetous,” “proud and high-minded,” “addicted unto wrath,” “excedynge fierce and cruell,” etc. Similarly, in the orders dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I, there is an underlying conviction that the Moorish population in England was responsible for a kind of social decay, and that English Christians would be far better off associating with their own countrymen than “infidels.” We see, in both of these historical examples, echoes not only of Iago’s initial descript-tion of Othello, but also of the character that he seeks to create for him. As Elise Marks suggests, “Othello’s assimilation-ist efforts to claim a selfhood within the Venetian community leads, for him, to a fatal hybridity: he ends, as Ania Loomba and others have discussed, as the Vene-tian instrument for slaying the foreign infidel within himself” (101).

How then, might it be possible to recognize Iago as simultaneously a Machiavellian strategist whose desire is to breed chaos, and an enforcer of soc-ietal norms whose desire is to restore hegemonic order? To begin, it is imp-ortant to develop an understanding of the way hegemony itself operates. We have said that Iago is both generative of and victim to various political struct-ures. This is, of course, not to say that Iago himself is the system in question, merely that behaves like one. In order to better appreciate the ways in which this holds true, we might borrow some grounding from anthropologist Homi Bhabha:


An important feature of colonial dis-course is its dependence on the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness. Fixity, as the sign of cultur-al/historical/racial difference in the dis-course of colonialism, is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy, and daemonic repetition. Likewise the stereotype, which is its major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always ‘in place’, already known, and something that must be anxiously repeated… as if the essential duplicity of the Asiatic or the bestial sexual license of the African that needs no proof, can never really, in discourse, be proved. (Bhabha 66)


The critically noted difficulty in identi-fying Iago’s motive—or identifying Iago at all—mirrors the paradoxical construc-tion that Bhabha identifies at the heart of colonial and pre-colonial discourse. In Iago’s case, however, it may be necess-ary to amend Bhabha’s language; he attains material power via exploitation of that which cannot be proved and yet, exists because it needs no proof. Iago’s main discursive strategy is this anxious repetition of the stereotype, and his unwavering belief in said stereotype also accounts for at least part of his motivation. One way, then, to reconcile Jacobsen’s claims with the ones suggest-ed by theories of stereotyped hegemo-ny would be to say that Iago is making operative the paradox central to the notion of fixity. Hugh Grady asserts, in a book titled Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf, that Western modernity consists pre-cisely in the Machiavellian logic of Jacob-sen’s Iago[3]. To be more precise, hege-mony is, in both the modern world and Shakespearean England, violent chaos purporting to be ordered. Thus, Iago can be both Machiavellian and conservative. This reading would allow the final action of Othello to be understood as, simulta-neously, Machiavellian disruption and reification of an order that is at the same time Machiavellian in nature. Just as we must understand Iago as more complex than merely a psychopathic character, we must understand his bloodbath as more complex than a mere tragedy. It is, instead, a represent-ation of the brutal disorder at the heart of established social order, and a dem-onstration of the consequences of devi-ation from the complex web of cultural boundaries.

To weave this framework into observations regarding Iago’s imagina-tive capacity, we might characterize the hegemonic project—and, by extension, Iago’s project—as a fundamentally narrative, perhaps even mimetic, one. As Michel Taussig suggests, “Once the mimetic has sprung into being, a terri-fically ambiguous power is established; there is born the power to represent the world, yet that same power is a power to falsify, mask, and pose. The two powers are inseparable” (Taussig 42). He further asserts that “… by definition world history cannot be thought of out-side the mimetic faculty itself” (70). Clearly, no mimetic object exists in a cultural vacuum, but it is reflexively true that culture is shaped by mimesis itself. The stereotype is, in itself a mimetic object, an imitation, but as Bhabha points out in his discussion of articu-lation, it is a mimetic object that has been manipulated and reified such that it denies the original. The African that is presented to us in works like Decades of the Newe Worlde has attained a status entirely independent from claims to any original form, which endows it with the permanence of something that needs no proof. This concept dimensionalizes the notion of Iago-as-writer. He attains the power to “falsify, mask, and pose” not by crafting new mimetic objects, but by pulling together narrative threads reliant on, firstly, the permanent mim-etic form that is the stereotype and secondly, the already existing narrative that is social hierarchy. This dynamic extends to Othello, but also to Desde-mona. The unfaithful wife is a convin-cing trope to employ because Desde-mona has already stepped outside the bounds of “proper womanhood,” both by betraying her father and by marrying outside of her race. If she has already crossed these boundaries, she must be capable of crossing others, and so moral transgressions are conflated with socio-hierarchical ones. Iago is an agent of the conflation, but as in all of his manipulative successes, he is not creat-ing new categories so much as exploit-ing the ones already present in the coll-ective cultural subconscious. His agenda is, disturbingly, to “correct” the play, to punish those who have stepped outside of hegemonic construction and enforce their marginalization. Of course, in doing so, he is dooming himself to entrapment in the very system he is en-forcing. Much like the lower-class white people of today’s society might harbor racist sentiment as a way of denying their own social status, Iago seeks to prove that even if he must be an Ancient, he will not be Ancient to a Moor.[4]

Othello’s final monologue before he kills Desdemona might provide us with a final case study for assessing Iago’s narrative project. Othello too has relied on mimetic narrative to craft his own identity. He is, perhaps, even more explicit in doing so than Iago in his fre-quent allusions to the “story” of his life, the dramatization of which prompted Desdemona to fall in love with him. Grady points out that Othello’s self-creation is decidedly heroic and roman-ticized, reminiscent, even, of the self-same travel literature that Iago draws from. There is a way in which Othello’s construction of self is comprised merely of more positive iterations of similar stereotypes. His heartbreaking mono-logue, uttered over Desdemona’s sleep-ing form, maintains both of these identi-ties, evoking both the kind of savagery that Iago hopes for and the nobility that is inherent to his character:


O balmy breath, that dost almost per-suade

Justice to break her sword! Once more, once more:

Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee

And love thee after. Once more, and that’s the last.

He [smells, then] kisses her

So sweet was n’er so fatal. I must weep,

But they are cruel tears. This sorrow’s heavenly,

It strikes where it doth love. She wakes. (v.ii.16)


Othello has, after all of Iago’s goading, maintained his rhetorical power, his poetic and evocative speeches. There are perhaps more caesuras here than elsewhere in the play, but even those serve only to enhance the painful beauty of this passage. It is his actions, not his speech, that conform to Iago’s insinuating influence. The very duality of this final Othello, the disparity between form and content in his words, the broader disparity between word and action, and the oscillation between (and occasional conflation of) deep tender-ness and unspeakable violence, all of it speaks to a character at least as depen-dent on warring narrative constructions as Iago is. When the story that emerges triumphant is that of the stock narra-tive, the audience is forced to watch as the “terrifically ambiguous power” of mimetic representation is brought to life onstage (Taussig). When Othello finally kills Desdemona, the tragedy is felt so deeply, in part, because it seems so avoidable, a conclusion contingent on so many of Iago’s tiny successes and belief in so many lies. And yet, we—a modern audience, but perhaps even an Elizabethan one—are also forced to recognize this story’s inevitability, its permanence. As we have said, Iago is not creating anew but rather, exploiting what is already there. What is already there is not the primordial savage loca-ted at the heart of every black man, but the narrative at the heart of all discou-rse, the terrifying success of a system outside of which people are unable to identify themselves or each other.

What has hopefully been demon-strated here is that Othello is a mimesis of discourse, one that tests hegemonic systems and the narratives that guide them against the humanity that can be accessed via mimetic verisimilitude. We truly feel the play, its tragedy, its shock, and its horror. The horror we feel, how-ever, is not horror at the unknowable; it is the horror of what is known, but never acknowledged, established, but largely unseen. Much like one of Barthes’s mythologies, stereotyped narrative is self-denying and self-effa-cing. It establishes itself as permanent by emptying itself of proof and denying its own discursive content. Iago’s failure to recognize or interrogate the self he is reflexively conjuring in characterizing Othello mirrors the failure of a stereo-

type to recognize itself for what it is. Shakespeare’s genius is evident in the

incredible power of his mimetic project. Othello is a play that engages with its own power. It further extends that interrogation beyond the bounds of the object itself, giving rise to iterations of performance that all, by their very nature, interact with the racial discourse that is their subject. Whether it is through Olivier’s black-faced and heavily accented primitive or Trevor Nunn’s pompous dignitary[5], questions of assim-ilation, of otherness, of narrative imposition, are put before an audience. Whether or not any such audience is cognizant of the complicity of its own imagination, they will, because of the play’s masterfully interrogative constru-ction, necessarily be part of the con-versation. Othello is a play that is steeped in, subject to, and suspicious of racial discourse, and its reverberations demand to be felt. ■


Works Cited

Bartels, Emily C. “Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 46, no. 2, 2006, pp. 305–322.

Barthes, Roland and Annette Lavers. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

Best, George. A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discouerie. London, 1578. Print.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Brantlinger, Patrick. “Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent”. Critical Inquiry 12.1 (1985): 166–203. Web.

Butcher, Philip. “Othello’s Racial Identity”. Shakespeare Quarterly 3.3 (1952): 243–247. Web.

Comensoli, Viviana. “Identifying Othello: Race and the Colonial (non)subject”. Early Theatre 7.2 (2004): 90–96. Web.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: The New Press: Distributed by W.W. Norton &, 1995. Print.

Eden, Richard and Peter Martir. The Decades of the Newe Worlde. London, 1555. Print.

Grady, Hugh. Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996. Print.

Jacobsen, Ken. “Iago’s Art of War: The “Machiavellian Moment” in Othello”. Modern Philology 106.3 (2009): 497–529. Web.

Marks, Elise. ““Othello/Me”: Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-crossing with “Othello”“. Comparative Drama 35.1 (2001): 101–123. Web.

McCloskey, John C. “The Motivation of Iago”. College English 3.1 (1941): 25–30. Web.

Neill, Michael. “Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, and the Hideous in Othello”. Shakespeare Quarterly 40.4 (1989): 383–412. Web.

Taussig, Michael T. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

West, Fred. “Iago the Psychopath”. South Atlantic Bulletin 43.2 (1978): 27–35. Web.

[1] There is considerable debate over whether Othello is a black Moor or an Arab one. For the purpose of this paper, I am drawing on Philip Butcher’s observations, which suggest that while there was inherent ambiguity in the word “Moor,” Othello makes repeated references to the North African blood of its title character.

[2] Whether or not Desdemona is a virgin at this point is, again, the subject of some de-bate. My reference to her virginity is, here, largely symbolic of her characteristic and actionable innocence; she has not, despite Iago’s claims to the contrary, slept with Cassio.

[3] Grady characterizes Iago as an agent of the instrumental reason conceived of by theor-ists Horkheimer and Adorno.

[4] Derrick Bell’s work on interest convergence highlights the complicated relationship of lower class white populations to the black populations that they have difficulty viewing as analogously oppressed.

[5] Marks notes, interestingly, that audiences and critics tend to respond more

passionately to Othellos played in blackface than those played by black actors. She attributes this to a collective European desire to claim the primitive within oneself, the thrilling pleasure that arises from co-opting an Othered racial identity.