William Shakespeare’s Othello (c. 1603) is a tragedy about truth and righteousness. It is a drama of minor injuries and great injustices, of small self-deceptions and a grand web of lies. The ego is finally compelled to set the world right by its own standards, and truth and righteousness become the victims of self-justification.
Unlike in Hamlet or Macbeth, there are no supernatural apparitions of the dead and no witches in Othello. The only ghosts that haunt the stage are the ones we have all seen and heard in ourselves: suspicion, wrath, jealousy, and naivete. And unlike Romeo and Juliet, Othello and his Desdemona are no star-crossed lovers. There is nothing about their world or their love that makes it inevitable that the husband will murder his innocent wife. Their fault is not in their stars, but in the hearts of Othello and Iago.
This Iago, a low-level officer in an army in which Othello is a general, convinces Othello that his wife is unfaithful to him, that his friend Cassio is betraying him—in short, that the most important pieces of his world have turned against him. Iago masterfully gaslights his virtue-minded victim with a series of illusions, half-truths, and disorienting conflicts.
Iago’s motivations ostensibly lie in the supposedly unjust way in which Othello promoted Cassio to a rank that Iago felt should be his. This minor, offstage injury, coupled with the unfounded suspicion that both Othello and Cassio have made a cuckold of him, affords the justification his hatred requires. Iago’s resentment slow-burns its way through the story until it erupts through Othello’s murderous jealousy.
The insinuations of Iago compel Othello again and again to justify himself and others, to accuse and excuse, until he can no longer tell truth and justice from deception and malice. As a black man who eloped with a white woman, Othello is forced first to justify himself before his father-in-law in a public forum. This external self-justification projects the internal battle for justifications that he is waging and tragically losing throughout the story. He tries to justify Desdemona’s actions. Failing this, he tries to find himself justified in killing her. Finally, he considers it just to smother her in the bed of her alleged infidelity. “The justice of it pleases,” he says.
The single-minded zeal and cunning with which Iago pursues vengeance and destruction have led some to suggest that Shakespeare has created a character of super-human evil. He is certainly a demonstration that self-justifying resentment is not usually proportional to the injury suffered. He is purely devious and diabolical, his whole personality consumed by a single drive to see his enemies suffer, and all in a way that makes him devilishly interesting. He tempts the audience to invest personally in the success of his plot. He draws us in and, through his asides, Iago makes us his co-conspirators.
For her part, Desdemona expresses genuine love for Othello that is chaste, sensual, and without guile. She professes to know nothing of unfaithfulness. But the sickness of Othello’s mind prevents him from seeing such transparent love as anything but a cover for evil: the more earnest, the more dishonest; the more innocent the presentation, the more iniquitous the machination. Through Iago, this insidious suspicion gnaws at Othello, and at the audience. Can her regard for him really be as straightforward and unalloyed as she says?
It is well-known that he who is called the Adversary can drive us to despair by his accusations, by throwing our inadequacies and insecurities in our face. Our insecurities are the underside of the compulsion to justify ourselves before man, before God. It is perhaps less well-understood that, by these same insecurities, we can be made active participants and agents of evil. Because he is forced to justify his marriage to a world that dehumanizes him, Othello might be justifiably insecure. But because, in his insecurity, he trusts without question the misanthropic propaganda of Iago, Othello is twisted into a second antagonist by the end. He is fully invested in the evil he commits, fully possessed by the spirit of murderous revenge, and fully dead to any appeals to innocence or for mercy.
It never occurs to Othello that he and his supposed ally might be motivated by the same kinds of suspicions and jealousies, and so the protagonist is destroyed by misplaced trust in Iago as much as by misdirected suspicion of Desdemona. This suggests a danger about which Christian love cannot afford to be naive. The most serious threat for the soul is not that evil men will catch us unawares and take goods, fame, child, and wife. If this is all that happened to Othello, it would be no tragedy, and hardly an interesting story. But Othello is more than a victim; he becomes the vehicle of Iago’s vengeance. The chief danger of naivete is not that malicious men will destroy us, but that they will make us like them.