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Protestant epistemology and Othello's consciousness.

FROM among Shakespeare's canon, Othello stands out as one of the fullest in terms of theological references, particularly in terms of Protestant/Catholic dualities. Given the superabundance of such imagery, it seems clear that Shakespeare's tragedy is inviting meditation upon these topics. To what, however, all these references ultimately tend has been grist for the critical mill in a significant amount of scholarship, including relatively recent work. One general reading argues that the play represents a Protestant critique of Catholicism. Some typical developments of this approach include interpreting Desdemona as a problematic Marian mediatrix, Iago as a cunning Jesuit manipulator, and Othello as a dupe of Catholic superstitious mysticism and semi-Pelagianism. (1) Another major point of critical inquiry into the play, given of course that its plot is driven by a tragic error in judgment, has centered upon epistemological questions. Much of this literature, while drawing upon a variety of conceptual systems, has examined the tragedy as enacting the problem of literalism, of mistaking narratives or imaginative constructs for the objective realities which they only signify. (2) Clearly, the episternological and the theological are both thematically central to the play. Moreover, epistemology is one of the points of division between Protestant and Catholic understandings. In this study, therefore, I would like to attempt a reading that includes these critical points of connection. More specifically, I will argue that Othello's truth-seeking approach, which parallels in key respects a distinctively Protestant epistemology, contributes to his deception and consequent tragedy. Shakespeare's tragic representation may, therefore, be read partly as a cautionary tale for a particular cast of mind.

As a starting point, we might turn to the famous Luther/Erasmus debate regarding freedom of the will. Relevant for our purposes is, rather than Luther's conclusion, his mode of arrival. To Erasmus's protestations for the reasonableness of free will, Luther attacks with reductio ad absurdum, pointing out contradictions in Erasmus's ostensibly sophistical distinctions. (3) In addition, he insists that the Scriptural texts simply deny the idea, as desirable as it may be. Luther's methodology, therefore, is rigorous in its rationalistic and empirical skepticism. His emphasis, of course made famous in the slogan of sola Scriptura, is to deny human beings the right to add anything to the strict data of the sacred text. The tool of human logic is valuable chiefly for its deconstructive power to chop down false myths, including the myth of human freedom. By its nature, of course, logic cannot construct new data; such an act, at least traditionally understood, lies in the domain of the imagination rather than reason. This empirical approach therefore sharply limits imaginative activity, which must be constrained on account of its tendency to construct idols of erroneous doctrines, products of the corrupted human mind rather than of divine revelation.

The obvious objection, which Luther acknowledges, is the appearance of a monstrous, unjust God who punishes hapless creatures without rhyme or reason. In explanation, Luther declares:

If His justice were such as could be adjudged just by human reckoning, it clearly would not be Divine; it would in no way differ from human justice. But inasmuch as He is the one true God, wholly incomprehensible and inaccessible to man's understanding, it is reasonable, indeed inevitable, that His justice also should be incomprehensible. (Dillenberger 200) (4)

Luther's portrait of God, therefore, perforce concludes with a mystical embracing of mystery. Yet his assertion of divine paradox is not the traditional via negativa, which denies the capacity for divine representation in general. He very much affirms the representation of Scripture, especially where the sacred text is literal rather than narrative. (5) Luther's mysticism, in his own words, is "reasonable." Like a post-Enlightenment scientist, he eagerly accepts all available data but maintains a careful discipline regarding flights of fancy. The apparent conclusion reached by his method, that God condemns sinners who have no freedom to obey Him, simply represents the limits of the available information and of the capacity of the human mind. Rather than speculating in the vein of, for example, Luis de Molina's notion of "middle knowledge," he simply insists upon the paradox which highlights human finitude.

In a certain respect, therefore, one can see that Luther's rigorous literalism, ironically enough, renders him more mystical than the aforementioned Jesuit, whose imaginative sojourns construct possibilities more amenable to reason. His system also places a particular burden upon the believer, who must assent to a justice invisible to the mind. Logic cannot break the Gordian knot, and the imagination is discouraged, for the purposes of doctrinal purity, from creating new possibilities outside of the system. The particular spirit created by Luther's method manifests itself in a variety of respects in later Protestant thought and culture. (6) We might offer the Lutheran epistemology outlined above the oxymoronic title of "empirical mysticism." (7) The self-imposed limitations of this approach necessitate a more "mystical" faith, in the sense of an especially radical acceptance of paradox, of the impossibility of human intelligibility in both rational and imaginative modes.

Othello's first crisis in the play is Brabantio's accusation, instigated of course by Iago, that he has used "witchcraft" (1.3.66) (8) in winning Desdemona's favor. The old senator's argument is that Othello's romantic success must be a literally magical act, a transgression of the laws of nature. No less dramatic explanation for the virtuous Desdemona's choice of the black Moor will suffice, as he declares, "For nature so preposterously to err, / Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, / Sans witchcraft could not" (1.3.64-66). Shortly thereafter, he reiterates the claim:

   It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
   That will confess perfection so could err
   Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
   To find out practices of cunning hell
   Why this should be. (1.3.101-05)

Othello, in self-defense, eloquently recounts his wooing by autobiographical storytelling and concludes ironically, "This only is the witchcraft I have used" (1.3.171). This explanation successfully debunks Brabantio's protestations of the supernatural. The duke indicates his satisfaction, and Brabantio, appearing to concede that particular argument, alters strategy to a direct appeal to filial piety from Desdemona: "Do you perceive in all this noble company /Where most you owe obedience?" (1.3.181-82). The opening major tension of the play, therefore, depicts Othello being forced into a rationalistically deconstructive mode, to convert a mystical, and therefore damning, account of facts into an empirically explicable, and therefore acceptable, account. Othello's ironic admission of using "magic," however, even understood strictly in the figurative sense, emphasizes the ever existing mystery of his or any act of human persuasion, especially including courtship. The truth of the matter is that there is magic in Othello's movement of Desdemona, a point to which his account also testifies. (9) Yet the political logic of the situation has compelled him to validate her love for him in what are, relatively speaking, rational terms. To avoid being painted with a dubious mysticism, he must offer external, material evidence in his defense of her affection's actual and legitimate existence.

At stake, of course, is what will underlie the true crisis of the play: the nature of, or explanation for, Desdemona's love, as Othello perceives it. Tzachi Zamir has insightfully commented upon a key discrepancy between Othello's and Desdemona's accounts of the wooing process. As he points out, Othello's interpretation of her interest in the "dangers" he has "passed" (1.3.169) conflicts with Desdemona's report of having seen "Othello's visage in his mind" (1.3.255). (10) Othello's distinctive version parallels the rhetorical demands of his situation, in that his account emphasizes visible validation for her love. Desdemona's more nebulous version, which stresses admiration for his intrinsic merit, de-emphasizes proof by merits externally perceived. (11) The discrepancy suggests a cast of mind in Othello, a tendency which happily also fits the exigencies of the practical situation, towards explaining mystery via more tangible categories of apprehension. "My life upon her faith!" (1.3.297) Othello declares as his parting response to Brabantio's dire predictions of future treachery. (12) Brabantio's threat places a seed in Othello's susceptible mind, a seed that Iago can later water. The more subtle activity, however, is the pressure of what amounts to an inquest, at which Othello is compelled to explain the source of Desdemona's love in terms of publicly digestible data. The seeming paradox of her love for him, the apparent contradiction highlighted by Brabantio, cannot, in a Lutheran sense, be simply asserted as is. The community requires of him rationalization, a process that Othello's account of the wooing suggests may be natural to his insecurities in any case.

Iago's next victory over Othello, a more unambiguous triumph, is his wine-aided strategy by which Cassio, embroiled in a brawl with Montano, ends up being cashiered by the general. Upon Montano's protestation of self-defense, Othello declares,

   Now, by heaven,
   My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
   And passion, having my best judgment collied,
   Essays to lead the way. (2.3.198-201)

This self-reflective statement, which reveals the Moor's mature, responsible concern regarding his capacity to judge adequately, also invites meditation upon the general problem of human judgment. The particulars of the situation militate against an adequate accounting of the scene's nuances; Iago chooses his occasion well. Having been drawn from his bedchamber, arguably during his marriage's intended consummation night, Othello would be remarkable indeed to manage the situation with a perfectly masterful patience. The combination of fatigue and frustration limits his capacity to conceive of possibilities whose apprehension will require imaginative effort. No doubt bearing these exigencies in mind, Iago calculatingly provokes the general by vague, unconvincing appeals to mitigating circumstances on Cassio's behalf:

   But men are men; the best sometimes forget.
   Though Cassio did some little wrong to him,
   As men in rage strike those that wish them best,
   Yet surely Cassio, I believe, received
   From him that fled some strange indignity,
   Which patience could not pass. (2.3.235-39)

The reverse psychology, of course, completely succeeds, as Othello obligingly interprets the statement as pure loyalism and therefore evidence in the opposite direction: "I know, Iago, / Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter, / Making it light to Cassio" (2.3.240-42).

One irony of the scene is that Iago's theatrical presentation for Othello is mostly true, unlike later occasions during which he will employ fundamental misrepresentations. Cassio was brawling, is very much in the wrong, and arguably deserves the severity of the sentence imposed. From a strictly external point of view, one cannot necessarily fault Othello. Given the available information, and especially considering the aforementioned practical context, his sentence upon the forlorn lieutenant was at least reasonable. Yet we as the privileged audience know that, nevertheless, Iago has effected a meaningful deception, even with the truth he has created. Othello cannot know that Cassio's guilt should be perceived in a larger context, that, ironically, extenuating circumstances other than those offered by Iago actually do exist. The underlying issue, however, is the nature of the general's faith in his lieutenant, a problem that of course foreshadows the problem of his faith in his wife, the play's true crisis point. Cassio has been judged worthy of his high rank by a general of unquestioned competence, and Iago's earlier detracting remarks, which center upon Cassio's supposed lack of experience, are hardly damning from the audience's perspective. Outside of the admittedly serious present misconduct, Othello has no basis even of the vaguest sort for his dramatic pronouncement: "Cassio, I love thee, / But nevermore be officer of mine" (2.3.242-43). Desdemona's sudden and unexpected arrival on the scene provokes another telling remark: "Look if my gentle love be not raised up. / I'll make thee an example" (2.3.244-45).

The complex of associations operating at this moment, a moment so critical for Cassio's well-being, have not received, in my view, sufficient critical attention. Othello's juxtaposition of personal love with the absoluteness of the dismissal rhetorically functions to assert his duty to the larger community over and against any personal favoritism. Desdemona's arrival, however, which appears to surprise Othello, complicates the matter, as the general then invokes her appearance as emblematic of making Cassio an "example." The intent behind the sentence's harshness is double-edged. The notion of Cassio as example speaks to a desire to protect the larger community, a community to which the general acknowledges more commitment than to his personal friendship with the lieutenant. Cassio's punishment, even if not strictly deserved on its intrinsic merits, will presumably have this salutary political function. Yet that the idea of such moral exemplification is caused by the surprising appearance of a disturbed wife, chiefly a personal affair, complicates the verdict's ostensible politically oriented impartiality. On the other hand, there is no reason to regard Othello's rhetorically directed statement to Cassio as disingenuous. That genuine affection existed between the two men seems only likely, and is also consistent with readings of the play which detect underlying homoerotic jealousy from Iago. (13) The decision immediately to relinquish all faith in Cassio's professional competence is presumably a genuinely painful moment for the general.

To return to the aforementioned problem of faith: the rapidity and totality of Cassio's discharging bears examination in the context of Othello's personal love for his lieutenant. Othello's trial regarding his "magical" wooing, as it enacts the dialectical problem of private versus public affiliations, also represents the problem of the stability of relationships. In order to ensure the stability of both his marriage and his position as general, Othello was required to produce valid documentation of that which is beyond documentation. How can anyone other than Desdemona be privy to the movements of her soul? Such knowledge is achievable only by faith in the other's sincerity, and the Venetian duke's faith in Othello was strong enough to withstand the minor ripples of disturbance. The existing faith in any relationship, however, is always a necessary grounding when inevitable tribulations arise. One cannot periodically renounce and then reinstate confidence in a friend according to the daily vacillations of experience: we would not call such a relationship a true friendship. Faith will ground the connection until, hopefully, the difficulty can be cleared away. But faith, by its very definition, trusts without seeing absolute evidence for doing so, albeit perhaps awaiting expectantly for such evidence. (14)

The issue, for my purpose here, is not whether Othello's stern decision was ultimately justified. In my mind, the matter is arguable. The pertinent point, I suggest, is how Iago's insincere protestations for charity on Cassio's behalf must be affecting the general's mind. Iago's claim that there must be extenuating circumstances exonerating the lieutenant really amounts to an appeal to the general on behalf of his faith in Cassio's basic goodness, a goodness that Iago himself genuinely testifies to later on in the play. (15) It would not be, after all, entirely unreasonable for the general to have inquired into the details of the brawl, in an effort to grasp the event's more subtle nuances. Yet Iago's careful arrangement of the scene, with the aforementioned practical constraints working upon Othello, secures for him the desired impatience with the appeal. The facts, as it were, speak for themselves. The general is not interested, at the moment, in the imaginative effort necessary for such charity. This scene therefore reinforces the same tendency enforced by the trial scene, during which the mysterious, or inexplicable, process of wooing was rendered on those grounds unacceptable. During his appearance before the Senate, Othello was required, in a sense, to resolve with reason the paradox of a love pairing that seemed impossible to racist eyes. Faith in Othello's reliability was insufficient grounding simply to accept the paradox. The present paradox, a good officer caught in a compromising position, now also, Othello decides, requires an absolute resolution.

Iago's appeal to Cassio's presently unseen good side, therefore, is powerfully strategic beyond the obvious issue of reverse psychology. By managing to persuade, or coerce, Othello into this refusal, Iago is actually offering a pointed instruction regarding relationality in general. As was the case before the Venetian nobility, good faith persists only insofar as evidence is presented for its validity, a process that of course belies the very concept of faith. Othello had provided the requisite evidence, and Cassio offers none. Iago brilliantly places the general in a position in which he explicitly rejects the value of an imaginative leap of faith on another's behalf. I have argued that such an imaginative thrust, offering Cassio a slight degree of benefit of the doubt in the midst of a troubling mystery, would not be entirely unreasonable. (16) But this issue is still beside the point. Even if Othello's harshness truly represents the only plausible decision to be made, Iago's ironic appeal seems as calculated for the future as much as for the present. To have Othello consider good faith in the face of disquieting mystery, only to reject such a course as unacceptable, is both confirmation of an existing tendency and preparation for even more emphatic negations against future targets.

The critical tradition has amply noted Othello's tendency toward idealism, a trait which causes him to perceive the world according to extremes. (17) For such personalities, ambiguity is especially untenable. Iago clearly plays upon this tension via his method of casting vague suspicion in lieu of direct accusation: "Look to your wife; observe her well with Cassio. / Wear your eyes thus, not jealous nor secure" (3.3.211-12). The fallacy is, of course, a classic case of false neutrality, tendentiousness posing as objectivity. Yet the sequence leading up to and preparing for the above quotation is thematic alongside Iago's strategy during the night-brawl. The exchanges between the two men amount to a battle over direct access to Iago's heart. Upon the Moor's demand to "show" his "thought" (3.3.128) directly, Iago protests, "My lord, you know I love you" (3.3.129, my emphasis). Othello's reply is actually self-contradictory. "I think thou dost" (3.3.130, my emphasis), he declares, a response which is followed immediately upon by a claim to "know" that Iago is "full of love and honesty" (3.3.131). If it is a matter of knowledge that his officer is filled with love and honesty, on what logical basis can Othello qualify Iago's statement with the more ambiguous verb "think"? After all, Iago has expressed his sincerity to the general; the only possibilities are extraordinary deception or genuine faithfulness. (18) He cannot be filled with these qualities in a general way, speaking as he is, and simultaneously not truly devoted to Othello.

The false dichotomy also parallels Lutheran paradox. How could this man of "exceeding honesty" (3.3.274) somehow not truly love him? How could a loving God damn helpless creatures who lack the power to choose Him? Can Othello, along Lutheran lines, trust Iago without seeing him? Ought he to do so? Othello insists on entering into Iago's mind: "Thou dost conspire against thy friend, Iago, / If thou but think'st him wronged and mak'st his ear/A stranger to thy thoughts" (3.3.155-57). Upon further resistance, he insists: "By heaven, I'll know thy thoughts" (3.3.175). Iago's suggestive reply is, as has been pointed out, distinctively Protestant: "You cannot, if my heart were in your hand, / Nor shall not, whilst 'tis in my custody" (3.3.176-77). (19) The Puritan-like insistence that the conscience lies sacrosanct from such forceful intrusions also recalls his earlier claim that Othello ought to offer Cassio, a good officer after all, the benefit of the doubt. As in the earlier case, moreover, Iago's intent is to reveal to the general the apparent impossibility of resting in mystery. Iago will, so it will appear, reveal his true, hidden thoughts to Othello, and in so doing gain the Moor's absolute loyalty: "I am bound to thee forever" (3.3.228). This supposed binding only takes place after Iago has, to the general's satisfaction, offered the requisite evidence of his loving, the proof being the ostensible frankness of his recorded observations.

Othello receives Iago's cautions in just the spirit which the villain desires him to. He proclaims for himself a strictly rationalistic approach to his newly ambiguous marital relationship:

   Think'st thou I'd make a life of jealousy,
   To follow still the changes of the moon
   With fresh suspicions? No! To be once in doubt
   Is once to be resolved. Exchange me for a goat
   When I shall turn the business of my soul
   To such exsufflicate and blown surmises
   Matching thy inference. 'Tis not to make me jealous
   To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
   Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well;
   Where virtue is, these are more virtuous.
   Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw
   The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
   For she had eyes and chose me. No, Iago,
   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! (3.3.191-206)

Iago's aforementioned injunction to be "not jealous nor secure" (3.3.212), which closely follows upon this speech, reflects Othello's insistence that he can remain open-minded, committed to following the evidence without prior prejudices. Such an assumption, as our postmodern world knows only too well, belies the reality of the intricate human equation, that the knower's subjectivity is an ineradicable phenomenon. The postmodern approach to the problem, to be at least self-conscious of one's ineluctable biases, serves to temper the overweening claims of absolutism. Othello's idealism persuades him, on the contrary, that his perceptions can achieve an absolute perspective, and that his actions can achieve the justification of certainty under the auspices of his proto-Enlightenment rationalism. (20) More to the point, however, is that this supposedly pure objectivity is claimed in the context of the most pressing imaginable personal concern. To inhabit a state of detachment from all emotions of love or jealousy, for any sane man in his situation, would literally be a superhuman achievement.

Othello's extreme self-deception is, therefore, fundamentally based upon erroneous epistemology. He claims a mode of truth-seeking which is impossible by the very nature of his humanity. His position, untenable as it is, is nevertheless somewhat understandable in light of the events leading up to this declaration. Both before the Venetian nobility and in his judgment upon Cassio, the verdict followed upon a rigid adherence to tangible evidence, over and against an imaginative movement to resolve the ambiguity. In both cases, the larger context made such a movement at least arguably rational; Othello and Cassio had both established themselves sufficiently so as to warrant possible benefit of the doubt. In the present case, Desdemona has also provided grounds for such imaginative charity. In addition, Iago's apparent capitulation, as he seems to let the Moor know his heart, also sanctions the general justice of empirical demands. Othello's declaration, therefore, simply states explicitly how it seems justice in the world of the play has hitherto operated.

In a certain respect, Othello's avowed program follows a Lutheran hermeneutic. He will not invent imaginative alternatives to the appearance of the external evidence. He will, rather, adhere to the truth just as he finds it, a process detached from the supposed corruptions of the distorting human will. For Luther, however, the impossibility of humanly derived clarity necessitates, rather than detached skepticism, a radical leap of faith into paradox. True Christianity, for him, negates comforting imaginative explanations, even while accepting the wonders of the unseen mystery. This epistemology places an oft-discussed burden upon the individual, a burden characteristic of Protestant Christianity. What the medieval church offered, via its elaborate and, from the Protestant point of view, superstitious apparatuses, was a comfort to those for whom such a radical leap seemed formidable. Othello, up to this juncture in the play, notwithstanding his avowal of faith in Desdemona, has shown no propensity for the requirements necessary for such a leap. Even his interpretation of Desdemona's love of him, as we saw, was rooted in the "dangers" (1.3.169) he had endured, in opposition to his wife's less external version.

Othello's claim to an objectivity impossible to anyone is, therefore, perhaps especially impossible for one of his particular temperament. The problem lies not in his idealism per se, but in its content: an empirical attitude toward relationships, yet without the capacity for the leap such an approach may at times demand. The problem is not that Othello follows a program of unimaginative detachment, but that he lacks the power for such detachment, even prior to any necessary leap. Upon further suggestive hints by Iago, Othello muses, "Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless / Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds" (3.3.258-59). This statement, in direct violation of his avowed objectivity, represents the activity of a desperate imagination which constructs possibilities beyond the direct evidence. The temptations for speculation upon limited knowledge are irresistible, after all, as the Moor later declares, "I swear 'tis better to be much abused / Than but to know 't a little" (3.3.352-53). The agony to which Othello refers leads him to put upon Iago his famous demand for "ocular proof" (3.3.376), which he follows up by insisting, "Make me to see't, or at the least so prove it / That the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on, or woe upon thy life!" (3.3.379-82).

Othello's state of mind at this juncture places a burden upon Iago, but a burden that the villain is more than up to shouldering. Iago responds to Othello's demand for "ocular proof" with reasoned arguments of his own: "How satisfied, my lord? / Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on? Behold her topped?" (3.3.410-12). The statement, as is its intention to do, puts Othello into extreme agony by its suggestive imagery. Upon the Moor's anguished exclamations, Iago offers a brilliant piece of persuasion:

   It were a tedious difficulty, I think,
   To bring them to that prospect. Damn them then,
   If ever mortal eyes do see them bolster
   More than their own. What then? How then?
   What shall I say? Where's satisfaction?
   It is impossible you should see this,
   Were they as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys,
   As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross
   As ignorance made drunk. But yet, I say,
   If imputation and strong circumstances
   Which lead directly to the door of truth
   Will give you satisfaction, you might have't. (3.3.413-24)

Othello, as his earlier cry of "Death and damnation!" (3.3.412) testifies, assuredly has no desire to behold such horrors. Such being the case, Iago can confidently surmise that his argument for a lower standard of proof will be well received as a welcome alternative to the supposedly impossible standard. To put the matter another way, Othello's acceptance of Iago's plausible case is just as much motivated by pressing emotional anguish as by intellectual assent to reason. The tone of Iago's argument, which wraps itself in the guise of objective rationality, actually belies its main persuasive power, which lies in its carefully directed strike at Othello's emotions. The Moor's immediate response, "Give me a living reason she's disloyal" (3.3.425), although it sounds like resistance, also implies a willingness to cooperate with Iago's suggested principles. This important stage of Iago's deception mirrors Othello's earlier confusion, during which he imagined for himself an absurdly detached objectivity. Given his incapacity to understand his own human subjectivity, he cannot realize at this moment that his acquiescence to Iago's program is a manipulation of his emotional needs rather than the appeal to reasonableness which it, on the surface, resembles.

Iago's argument also recalls his earlier resistance to Othello's demand to know his thoughts. In both cases, the ancient assures his general that the type of certainty he seeks is an impossibility. In the present case, moreover, the appeal is once again to the supposed reality of human nature, this time in terms of its capacity for social discretion. Parallel with Luther's argument, which also bases itself upon the limitations of human nature, Iago plausibly contends that belief without proof is the only reasonable course. Given the ineluctable limitations of available data, one must assert the unknown as a matter of faith. Contrary to the Lutheran approach, however, Iago does not demand that Othello embrace an apparent paradox. As with his apparent opening up of his heart, he will now offer circumstantial evidences in support of his claims, such as the handkerchief and the joking with Cassio that is supposedly over Desdemona. Othello has shown no tendency so far to rest in what Keats calls negative capability. He is ever irritably reaching after fact and reason, and Iago knows that he must satisfy this craving for the empirical. Othello could not accept love as a matter of faith, and, consistently enough, will not self-consciously accept hatred on faith either.

Protestant suspicion of the imagination also seems relevant to Iago's machinations in this scene. Iago has transformed Othello's imagination into a vault of horrors; he can now only create pictures of infidelity. Given that such is the case, he is naturally all the more inclined to follow, as he imagines that he is, a strictly logical adherence to the facts as they arise. In the moment, of course, Othello's imagination is the deceptive force Protestantism suspects it to be. Yet earlier in the play, he also failed to imagine possibilities that were true. By contaminating Othello's mind, Iago manages to secure control of the Moor's imagination by reinforcing an existing tendency. (21) The danger for Iago is that Othello might creatively locate possibilities outside of his devices. In a certain respect, therefore, Iago's implanted epistemology for Othello becomes a diabolical parody of a Lutheran modus operandi. The purity of doctrine, safeguarded by a careful moderating of the mind's speculative tendencies, becomes equated with the truth of honest Iago's representations. The language used between the two men is, as many commentators have noted, distinctly religious. It is in ritual fashion that Othello assures Iago of his total deconversion from Desdemona: "Look here, Iago, / All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven" (3.3.460), before pronouncing an absolutely direct course made "in the due reverence of a sacred vow" (3.347). Iago follows suit, as he orders the "ever burning lights above" (3.3.479) to "witness that here Iago doth give up / The execution of his wit, hands, heart, / To wronged Othello's service" (3.3.481-83). Othello, under the heady experience of this spiritual zeal, is obviously committed to Iago's anti-gospel. The fact that intense agony is now associated with imaginative effort is yet a further safeguard against any straying from orthodoxy.

By this stage of the play, Othello's need for certainty represents a kind of fundamentalism which, too painfully aware of its unstable foundations, frantically asserts a self-blinding to the realities of ambiguity. (22) He simply cannot know the state of his wife's loyalty, but he must believe that he knows. The possibility of asserting belief, while simultaneously acknowledging objective uncertainty, is untenable to his temperament. (23) While he must have faith, that faith must also appear to him as clear and incontrovertible knowledge. In one particularly disquieting scene, this internal dynamic manifests itself in his thunderous rebukes against Desdemona. "Let me see your eyes," (4.2.27), and "Look in my face" (4.2.27), he orders her. This attempt to read into his wife's soul via her face recalls his earlier exhortation to Iago to reveal his inner thoughts. While Iago appeared to reveal his heart with reluctance, Desdemona simply answers all questions as she knows how to. Upon Othello's demand to reveal her true identity, she replies, "Your wife, my lord, your true and loyal wife" (4.2.35-36). Othello responds,

   Come, swear it, damn thyself,
   Lest, being like one of heaven, the devils themselves
   Should tear to seize thee. Therefore be doubled damned:
   Swear thou art honest. (4.2.37-40)

The horrific command reflects the unease in the general's mind, the need for some external evidence of her evil. His imaginative picture is quite telling. What if the spiritual powers themselves were deceived by the contrast between appearance and reality? Suspecting that he is so deceived, he demands unequivocal satisfaction. Having subscribed to a religion which declares his wife demonic, he now hopes for a sign to verify the validity of his newfound faith. The problem, however, is that his logic is circular. Desdemona's false swearing, which would prove her guilt, is false only if that guilt exists in the first place. His desperate need for empirical validity cannot be satisfied, as Iago had pointed out to him earlier. The only way to see into another's heart is to choose to trust, to make the leap of faith that Luther exhorts of the believer. He has already chosen to trust his ancient's self-representation over his wife's; all of his assents to Iago's supposedly rational arguments are essentially expressions of a prior faith which is beyond the confines of rational disputation. Othello does not know, and paradoxically cannot know by the nature of his fundamentalism, how religiously grounded are his apparent certainties. As a necessary matter of course, he still has faith, the only alteration being that the object of that faith has shifted from Desdemona to Iago. The subtlety of Iago's contrivance is to color that faith with the apparent objectivity of rationalism.

Upon the unmasking of Iago, Othello offers a most telling observation: "I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable. / If that thou be'est a devil, I cannot kill thee" (5.2.294-95). The Moor's initial instinct is consistent with his methodology throughout the course of the play. Now confronted with the mystery of an extraordinary evil, he instantly seeks to penetrate that mystery empirically. His externalized interpretation of the demonic, which he quickly dismisses as "fable," reflects a Protestant/Catholic dialectic on the subject in Early Modern England. (24) The Protestant approach to demonology, which de-emphasized the external, sensational, and ceremonial, in favor of the strictly internal, understood demonic activity primarily as a question of correct thought rather than of degree of devotion. Reformers recognized that many Catholics, while sincere enough, were mired in the temptations of ritual, an apparatus attractive to the fleshly nature. The battle against the powers of darkness therefore became a war primarily over clarity of mind against deception, rather than the more externalized battles depicted by the popular imagination. (25) This attitude also reflects Luther's insistence upon faith, rather than works, as the foundation of true Christian practice. The believer's struggle becomes internalized into a question of adequate belief rather than of adequate action. (26) Luther's emphasis upon paradox clarifies that such belief is no mean task, albeit a necessary consequence of human finitude. From a Protestant point of view, therefore, Othello's initial search for cloven hooves entirely misses the point. The locus of the problem is internal to him, the deceptions that the tempter enacted in his own soul. His thirst for concrete evidence, from a Lutheran point of view, is yet another case of his inability to accept on faith an unseen reality.

Othello's will is not equipped to make imaginative sense of Iago's evil. Dismissing the search for a visible sign of the demonic, a kind of anti-sacrament, as a quest for a "fable," he quickly resorts to an immediate attempt at revenge. To be fair to the Moor, the interpretive tradition has struggled mightily in its own right to comprehend that mystery. Yet the play highlights his incapacity to construct any possibilities whatever. His address to Cassio reflects a half-hearted clinging to the "fable": "Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he has thus ensnared my soul and body?" (5.2.309-10). His epithet for Iago is, of course, no explanation at all, as he well knows. As Stanley Cavell argues, his imagination is of stone at the play's end (482). Iago's refusal to offer any illumination inverts and clarifies the reality of his earlier apparent divulging of his heart. It turns out that his earlier protestation regarding his heart's impenetrability was correct all along. Moreover, the letters produced on the spot by Lodovico, while they confirm Iago's guilt, offer no real accounting for it. The spectacle of proferred evidence recalls Othello's trial before the Senate regarding his romantic life. (27) In the earlier scene, the Moor was asked to prove a matter that lies beyond proof. In the present scene, the evidence ironically only heightens the mystery, since it cannot peer into Iago's heart. Othello's famous closing speech, in which he presents an apology for his life, also offers no attempt to penetrate the aforementioned mystery.

As was mentioned earlier, some readers of the play argue that Othello's externalist tendencies cause him, in semi-Pelagian fashion, to deny the free gift of grace, represented by Desdemona's love. (28) One might, however, also argue that the play critiques the rigid controls placed upon the imagination by the Protestant sensibility. Perhaps some personalities, Othello being one of them, will be endangered by the austerity of this vision. For another way of approaching the issue, we might consider the longstanding problem of Providence in the play. As Robert Hunter has argued, providential activity seems absent from the play (127-58). Yet throughout Othello, the protagonist has failed to locate, via the extension of his imagination, a genuine good. The very point, perhaps, is that the seemingly invisible Providence must be seen to be enjoyed. Luther could insist that Othello needed to embrace the paradox, whereas Molina might allow that Othello needed to give his imagination free rein to resolve the contradiction. Hunter's argument that the play represents a fundamentally Pelagian universe serves to highlight the paradox confronting the Moor throughout the dramatic action. In the absence of empirically acceptable grounds for affirming Providential action, we can quite plausibly deny its existence. The play itself therefore becomes a kind of trial of the viewer's faith, obscuring the potential reality of Providence from his or her skeptical eyes. Shakespeare therefore pushes us along the same journey required of Othello; our interpretive responses will be determined, as was the case with the Moor, by our own casts of mind. Moreover, Shakespeare may be revealing to what extent relationships, both at the human and divine levels, require imaginative activity for their sustenance.

Works Cited

Altman, Joel B. The Improbability of Othello: Rhetorical Anthropology and Shakespearean Selfhood. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010.

Bevington, David., ed. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 6'hed. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009.

Cavell, Stanley. The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Dillenberger, John, ed. Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. New York: Anchor Books, 1962.

Grady, Hugh. "Iago and the Dialectic of Enlightenment: Reason, Will, and Desire in Othello." Criticism 37 (1995): 537-58.

Hassel, Jr., R. Chris. "Intercession, Detraction, and Just Judgment in Othello." Comparative Drama 35.1 (2001): 43-67.

Hunt, Maurice. Shakespeare's Religious Allusiveness. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2004.

Hunter, Robert. Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 1976.

Johnstone, Nathan. "The Protestant Devil: The Experience of Temptation in Early Modern England." Journal of British Studies 43.2 (2004): 173-205.

Knapp, James A. "'Ocular Proof': Archival Revelations and Aesthetic Response." Poetics Today 24.4 (2005): 693-727.

Matz, Robert. "Slander, Renaissance Discourses of Sodomy, and Othello." ELH 66.2 (1999): 261-76.

McKim, Donald K., ed. Calvin's Institutes: Abridged Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Stempel, Daniel. "The Silence of Iago." PMLA 84.2 (1969): 252-63.

Stockholder, Katherine. "Egregiously an Ass: Chance and Accident in Othello." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 13.2 (1973): 256-72.

Watson, Robert N. "Othello as Reformation Tragedy." The Company of Shakespeare: Essays on English Renaissance Literature in Honor of G. Blakemore Evans. Ed. Thomas Moisan and Douglas Bruster. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UE 2002. 65-96. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 113. Detroit: Gale, 2008.

Zamir, Tzachi, "On Being Too Deeply Loved," Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the Histor3, of Ideas 2.2 (2004): 1-25.


(1) For arguments pursuing this line, see Hassel, Jr., Stempel, and Watson. For differing readings, also see Hunt (97-125) and Hunter (127-58). Hunt argues that the play, while representing an apparently strictly predestinarian universe, ends up provoking (whether or not intentionally by Shakespeare) a critique of that same theology. Hunter, by contrast, contends that the play offers a strictly Pelagian cosmos, as any hints of divine agency are subsumed by the human action.

(2) For some recent epistemologically oriented readings, see Altman, Cavell (481-96), Grady, Knapp, and Zamir. Altman contextualizes the practical problem of knowing within the framework of Renaissance rhetoric; his account helpfully contrasts the modern post-Enlightenment assumptions with those of Shakespeare's context. Cavell argues that Othello's imagination, overcome by the unbearable complexities of humanity, responds by objectifying humanity and itself transforming to "stone" (482). My own case, while utilizing a different conceptual system, agrees that the key to Othello's tragedy lies in his failure to imagine salubriously. Grady, drawing upon post-structuralist theory, argues that Iago enacts a radical de-centering of human will that ironically creates a more sinister sort of oppression via its preference for pure instrumentality over and against valued ends. Knapp utilizes phenomenological categories to demonstrate a naive conflating between objecthood and narrative in Othello's consciousness. My reading, although it draws upon more traditional theological categories, is parallel in arguing for a failure in the title character to understand his own mediating activity within a supposedly objective framework. Zamir's article also parallels my case, in its account of how Othello misreads the love of others out of his need to inhabit an "instrumental" role in society. I argue that a similar sort of relational literalism, which I compare with theological fundamentalism, helps to effect mistakes leading to the tragedy.

(3) One example of Luther's exasperation with a purportedly sophistical distinction is Erasmus's attempt to safeguard some kind of free will by the use of the term "effective." "What," Luther demands, "is ineffective power but (in plain language) no power?" (Dillenberger 187).

(4) Calvin, in concord with Luther's approach, takes the same line on the problem of the justice of divine election: "For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this he might fill us with wonder.... Let this, therefore, first of all be before our eyes: to see any other knowledge of predestination than what the Word of God discloses is not less insane than if one should purpose to walk in a pathless waste, or to see in darkness" (McKim 112). As with Luther, the limitations of truth-seeking, limitations which are imposed by piety, create a mystery to be adored.

(5) He rates, for example, the Epistles above the Gospels, and John above the Synoptics. Words rather than deeds are salutary: "If I were ever compelled to make a choice, and had to dispense with either the works or the preaching of Christ, l would rather do without the works than the preaching; for the works are of no avail to me, whereas His words give life, as He himself declared" (Dillenberger 187). Literary or theatrical representations, which require the interplay of imagination for interpretation, are problematic due to the unreliability of the corrupted human mind.

(6) Protestant fundamentalism, for example, has been noted to be closely tied in its epistemology to the Enlightenment. Contemporary literalist creationism, in its suspicions of the scientific community, represents the paradox well. In its strict adherence to the rationalistic and empirical approaches, this method ironically leads to a kind of fideism, radically breaking from mainstream science's undesirable findings while accepting that science's philosophical presuppositions.

(7) I am using the term "empirical" in a broader sense than would apply in a post-Enlightenment context, in which received data is limited to phenomena of the natural world. The Protestant emphasis on, for instance, the supernatural inspiration of the Holy Spirit upon the reader of Scripture, would, in my use of the term, count as valid, externally derived data, and therefore "empirical" in that respect. From the Protestant point of view, the critical point is to distinguish the voice of God from the vain imaginings of the mind. Perhaps the clearest contrast would be with the non-Christian Romantic artist, who locates truth via the grandeur of his own imaginative constructions. The error of this approach, from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy, is particularly denounced by the Protestant sensibility.

(8) All quotations from the play are taken from David Bevington's 2009 anthology.

(9) Othello's tales to Desdemona, which include wonders such as the Anthropophagi, are in a fantastic vein, and he remembers Desdemona's mystified exclamations regarding her own emotional response: "'twas strange, 'twas passing strange" (1.3.161).

(10) Zamir argues, persuasively in my view, that Othello's misreading reflects an intrinsic psychological need for instrumentality, as a means of validating his purpose as both husband and general.

(11) Watson, who reads the play as an implied critique of Catholic theology, points to this moment as evidence of Othello's erroneous merit-based ruminations. One could, however, also read the scene as parallel with a Calvinistic concern with signs of election. Othello's position is, after all, justified in his mind; yet he needs the surrounding community to see evidence of that existing reality.

(12) The religious character of this statement, as well as of Desdemona's claim to have consecrated her soul to him (1.3.257), inevitably invites imaginative connections with the mystery of faith.

(13) For an analysis of the possible homoerotic interplay between Iago and Othello, see Matz.

(14) The supernatural virtue of Faith is, of course, in the background, especially for the relatively more Christian original audience. According to Thomas Aquinas, the first supernatural virtue of Faith is prior to the second supernatural virtue of Hope, in the sense that a conscious decision to accept the divine promise is necessary for Hope in any such promise to exist. Upon reaching beatitude, Faith is replaced by direct experience, obviating the need for the virtue which is necessary for earthly existence. This theological account of Faith in relation to God seems to be intuitively derived from the experience of faith on the level of human relationships.

(15) Iago forthrightly acknowledges later on that his motive to kill Cassio is partly rooted in a basic envy of superiority, a superiority which seems to include virtue: "If Cassio do remain, / He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly" (5.1.18-20).

(16) Luther's emphasis that reason demands an acceptance of paradox would be parallel.

(17) For an insightful analysis of the consequences of Othello's unyielding idealism, see Stockholder.

(18) As commentators have noted, the scene also echoes Christ's repeated queries to St. Peter and is reminiscent of C. S. Lewis's (sophistical, in my view) trilemma, claiming that Christ can be adequately explained only as lunatic, liar, or deity. It seems, however, that the dilemma with Iago is real. He cannot simultaneously be loving and honest.

(19) For how Iago's lines here relate to the Puritan insistence on autonomy of conscience, see Watson.

(20) Knapp argues similarly that Othello erroneously collapses the distinction between the object known and the narrative-constructing act of knowing.

(21) Cavell argues that Iago is able to transform Othello's unstable imagination into an image of his own making (481-96).

(22) Luther's insistence on the importance of certainty comes out clearly in his dispute with Erasmus regarding freedom of the will. While he emphasizes strict limits to theological understanding, he also proclaims the critical need to assert as absolutely certain what is known. As he declares to Erasmus, "Take away assertions, and you take away Christianity" (Dillenberger 168). Shortly thereafter, he declares that "uncertainty is the most miserable thing in the world" (Dillenberger 170). This approach to doctrine, as it clashes with an Erasmian acceptance of relative ambiguity, is a critical influence on Protestant attitudes to speculative interpretation.

(23) One is reminded of Dostoevsky's critique of the Russian Nihilists, who, in his view, actually asserted another faith under the guise of supposed rational certainty, the fundamental human need for faith being ineradicable. This same critique has been applied, of course, to many ideological creations of Enlightenment formation.

(24) For a fuller treatment of this dynamic, see Johnstone.

(25) This internalizing tendency is one aspect of how Protestantism paves the way for more rationalistic approaches to Christianity more generally. The demons will, in the more liberal strands, eventually become purely metaphorical, ways of understanding mental processes rather than objectively existing external agents.

(26) Othello's closing claim that he loved "'not wisely but too well" (5.2.354), a comment that has offended many readers, is at least partially valid. Lack of devotion in the Moor, as a Reformer would posit of a sincere Romanist, was not the issue, since his transferred attachment to Iago was more than sufficiently fervent. His problem was precisely one of correct belief, of directing that intense devotion to the incorrect object. In that respect, greater degree of devotion only increases the sin. Luther teaches that good works done with a faulty sense of their soteriological efficacy turns those works directly into damnable sins (Dillenberger 79).

(27) Cavell discusses how legal imagery pervades both at the play's opening and ending, where Othello imagines himself in an inquisitorial role in relation to Desdemona (495-96).

(28) See note 1 for summaries of some of these readings.
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Author:Avery, Joshua
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
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Date:Jun 22, 2013
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