Othello the tragic exile

Othello the tragic exile

Christopher Murray

Othello comes as a surprise in the Shakespearean canon, being to some degree a realistic domestic tragedy, of the kind popular in late Elizabethan England, such as Arden of Faversham, of which Shakespeare is sometimes deemed the author. Such plays were based on real and gory events, the details published in pamphlets. In turn, although it is a poetic play, Othello is based on similar material, taken from an Italian story in prose about a Moor driven to murder his wife in jealousy.

In some ways, it is useful to take note of what James Joyce thought of Othello. Jealousy is a topic which fascinated him, because he himself was victim to it when during his return to Dublin in 1912 a false friend insinuated he had been Nora’s lover. The famous letters chronicling Joyce’s terrible jealousy, published in 1975, make for painful reading. Joyce then set about using the experience for his only play, Exiles, submitted to the Abbey in 1916 but rejected as unsuitable. In his notes he described Exiles as ‘three cat and mouse acts’, that is, a play of intrigue and mystery, which could superficially sum up Othello also. But it was Joyce’s view that ‘[a]s a contribution to the study of jealousy Shakespeare’s Othello is incomplete.’ It is true that jealousy, engineered by Iago rather than springing easily from Othello (‘one not easily jealous, but being wrought, / Perplex’d in the extreme’) is just the engine of destruction.

Exactly what motivates Iago remains a mystery; his own private confessions are contradictory. The delight he takes in destroying the lives of others points to psychopathy. Iago is evil personified. In On Evil (2010), Terry Eagleton is inclined to discount evil in favour of ‘wickedness’; for example ‘terrorism is wicked rather than evil’. Yet he includes Iago in his study. He downgrades Iago’s power in order to upgrade Othello’s weakness. Here Eagleton slips into the trap set by F.R. Leavis before him, who argued for Othello’s blinding and destructive egotism as against the ‘noble Othello’ of traditional criticism. But Shakespeare believed in evil, definable as the violation of another’s bodily or mental integrity by the deliberate and callous infliction of suffering. Like the witches in Macbeth, Iago juggles with appearances in order to cause madness and delusion. He is always masked, always acting. Like Macbeth himself, Othello also unthinkingly collaborates with this power, this seeming truth, out of the insecurity his status as outsider and exile brings. The other innocents, Cassio and Desdemona, are easier victims of Iago’s skill in manipulation. But all three have ‘a daily beauty’ in their lives which makes Iago, as he says himself, ‘ugly’. He envies them their innocence, as Milton’s Satan envies Adam and Eve, spied on in a paradise inevitably to be lost. The tragedy, ‘the pity of it’, lies in such inevitability, given the existence of evil.

Joyce can envisage a seducer but not the Iago principle in the world. Joyce focuses on doubt as the unsolvable problem introduced by jealousy in marriage. At the end of Exiles Richard Rowan, a modified self-portrait, complains of the deep ‘wound of doubt’ in his soul which can never be removed. He can never be absolutely sure of his wife’s innocence. He must live with it. Not so Othello, who declares ‘I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt prove; / And on the proof, there is no more but this, / Away at once with love or jealousy.’ His confidence in logic is ill-placed. Iago is standing before him, his cue being to smile inwardly. This exile will prove easy meat. No, the root problem is not jealousy. It is the frailty of love itself, which is based on faith and trust, transcultural and transnational and far beyond scientific proof.

Christopher Murray is a retired lecturer in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin, and is author of The Theatre of Brian Friel: Tradition and Modernity (Bloomsbury, 2014).

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