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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: In the final moments of the play, Lodovico stands amid the dead bodies and delivers a chilling speech to Iago.

Skip to 0 minutes and 18 seconds SPEAKER 1: All that’s spoke is marred.

Skip to 0 minutes and 24 seconds O Spartan dog, more fell then anguish, hunger, or the sea. Look on the tragic loading of this bed. This is thy work!

Skip to 0 minutes and 34 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: The language of tragedy cannot get any more explicit than this– “the tragic loading of this bed,” but if tragedy is a linear movement towards destruction and death, we can start looking for clues about inevitability early on in the plot, and these come in abundance from both Othello and Iago. For much of the first half of the play, Iago is the only character who speaks directly to the audience.

Skip to 1 minute and 23 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: What?

Skip to 1 minute and 29 seconds What?

Skip to 1 minute and 33 seconds And? what’s he then that says I play the villain when this advice is free I give and honest? It was fun to discover how the audience were implicit in Iago’s master plan, how quite literally the audience are sitting there, watching him, listening to him, and not doing anything. And him going, what? What are you going to do? Are you going to stop me? Because I’ve told you what I’m going to do. I said it right from the get go. You were there. I told you. Don’t start calling me the bad guy. You a lot more than anybody know what I’ve been through, so don’t judge me, but I am going to destroy him, and you’re going to love watching it.

Skip to 2 minutes and 29 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: Much critical ink has been spilled over Iago, and descriptions of him range from Coleridge’s man of motiveless malignancy to WH Auden’s description of him as the joker in the pack.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: On the one hand, he’s this very astute, urbane, witty, smart, and insightful confidant, but on the other hand, he’s a totally insecure, unhinged, love struck, love sick, delusional teenager, which is quite a shock within the text to discover how suddenly just because Cassio happens to, in his own Cassio way, kiss his wife’s hand, they must be having an affair. That’s it. They’re having an affair, and actually, come to think of it, I’m sure she’s having something with Othello. I’m pretty sure that that’s going on, and so when you peel away those layers, this is not an individual who is well.

Skip to 3 minutes and 36 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: In this version of Othello, Iago certainly is not well. He fidgets and has unusual ticks. He’s unable to make physical contact without being in some way repulsed. He wipes his hands often, and he certainly cannot look at, let alone engage with his own wife. Iago seems to suffer like a tragic figure.

Skip to 4 minutes and 19 seconds Perhaps Iago’s tragedy is that he is perpetually overlooked– first, by a Othello for the role of Lieutenant, next allegedly by his wife, and ultimately by the play, which denies him the starring role. It is, after all, called Othello, and Iago. Nevertheless, from the very start, Iago informs the audience that he will avenge himself on Othello, so his part in the tragedy is not unexpected. So let’s return to Othello. Think back to our introduction to tragedy and you’ll remember that a character with pride is a recipe for disaster. One of the first things we hear Othello say in the play is “I must be found. My parts, my title, and my perfect soul shall manifest me rightly.”

Skip to 5 minutes and 22 seconds Here is a man who cares about justice and honour. He must answer for stealing Desdemona, but he believes that he has a perfect soul, and this is too much like tempting fate within a tragedy. Here we have another clue about something that might potentially go wrong with Othello. His natural disposition is to be free and unhoused, so not tied to a home. He doesn’t talk about marriage as something liberating an enjoyable. Rather it’s confining and something that puts his natural desires into circumscription. In other words, although he loves Desdemona, Othello is fighting his soldier’s instinct, something he’s had since the age of seven, just to be with her.

Skip to 6 minutes and 19 seconds I like to think of it as a relationship that makes each of them complete. Outside the relationship, they’re not whole. It’s almost, if you’d like, the ideal platonic relationship. These are people who, once they’re together, they are almost perfect as a unit.

Skip to 6 minutes and 44 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: There’s that word perfect again. Othello seems to be obsessed by being and having everything just so– a perfect soul, a perfect career, a perfect wife– and in tragedy, of course, perfection never lasts, and this is something that Brabanzio forewarns Othello about during the trial scene. Brabanzio says, “look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see. She has deceived her father and may thee. This clearly sticks in Othello’s mind, because one of the first things he demands when he suspects Desdemona of infidelity is ocular proof. His eyes need to witness evidence, just as Brabanzio warns him.

Skip to 7 minutes and 35 seconds So Brabanzio’s statement is a kind of tragic warning, a cautionary disclaimer, and Othello’s response brings in the tragic inevitability, because he says “my life upon her faith.” Othello literally attaches his life to Desdemona’s fidelity, to her obedience and loyalty to him, and this makes Othello vulnerable. So Shakespeare has set up a couple of stumbling blocks in the space of two scenes, and this is excellent use of dramatic irony. Not only does Othello have a deceitful ensign, which the audience knows about, but he also has a marriage that’s about to be tested.

Skip to 8 minutes and 25 seconds HUGH QUARSHIE: And for me, the biggest challenge is to try to believe that a man as cosmopolitan, as astute, as experienced, as intelligent as he appears to be in the first half of the play should in the space of a single scene be persuaded that his wife is being unfaithful and then decide not simply to divorce her and send her in shame back to her father in Venice, but to murder her.

Skip to 8 minutes and 56 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: Othello may be astute and sophisticated, but Shakespeare leaves important clues in the text that reveal his less sympathetic nature. The bed chamber gives us a clue. As Othello stands over the sleeping Desdemona, he considers her beauty and her pale skin, and he says, “be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee and love thee after.” By killing his wife, Othello believes that he is transforming from a whore into a piece of monumental alabaster. He will love her once he has rid her of life.

Skip to 9 minutes and 41 seconds What makes Othello tragic in the audience’s eyes is the fact that we know that he is deceived in what he believes is fact– that Iago is honest and that Desdemona is false. Of course, we know that the reverse is actually the truth, and Othello can only learn this truth when it is too late– after he has murdered his wife. And this is also known as anagnorisis, a life changing moment of self awareness. The tragedy is that what was once avoidable has now become irrevocable.

Skip to 10 minutes and 25 seconds LUCIAN MSAMATI: Cold. Cold, my girl, even like thy chastity.

Skip to 10 minutes and 34 seconds Cursed. Cursed slave!

Skip to 10 minutes and 40 seconds Oh, Desdemona, dead.

Skip to 10 minutes and 47 seconds DR ANJNA CHOUHAN: For the audience, it may not come as a surprise that the protagonist loses his job, his identity, his wife, and his own life, but the suffering, fear, pity, revulsion, excitement, hope, and expectation are all very much alive throughout the course of the tragedy in its clues, in its language, and in its sentiments.

All that’s spoke is marr’d

In this video Anjna focuses on the language of tragedy, considering how the language throughout the play leads to the ending looking particularly at Iago.

As you watch consider:

  • How Shakespeare uses language and clues in the text to foreshadow the ending of the play.

  • How inevitable the downfall of Othello is and what motivates his character.

Having watched the video, share your thoughts on the following questions in the Comments

  • What motivates Iago to communicate with the audience throughout the play and to what extent do we see him as a tragic figure?

  • How does Shakespeare prepare the audience for Othello’s downfall?

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This video is from the free online course:

Othello: In Performance

University of Birmingham