In his lecture to the Teaching Shakespeare Institute yesterday, Dr. Michael Whitmore described a recent conversation.
“In five minutes or less, explain to me why schools should teach Shakespeare,” someone asked him. In reply, he picked on play that has particular value: Othello. Here’s what he told the guy:
“Othello is a play that shows you what happens when you encounter someone who tells you exactly the lies that you want to hear.”
The more I think about Othello, the more I understand it’s a study of the incredible power of language to accomplish both beautiful and horrible ends. To illustrate the point, here’s a brief recap of the story:
Othello, a Moor, has risen to become the star General of the Venetian Army. He has overcome his “otherness” (he is African and black in a European, white society) and become a very important military and political leader. He falls in love with and secretly marries Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Goaded by Iago, the arch-villain of the play, the senator summons Othello to a special meeting of the senate, which acts as a kangaroo court to try Othello for using witchcraft to steal Desdemona. But Othello acquits himself very well, showing his rhetorical skill. Through his own mastery of this foreign language, Othello persuades the senate of his worthiness of Desdemona. They permit the marriage and send him to Cyprus, which must be defended from an imminent attack by the Turkish Fleet. Desdemona follows him there.
But as soon as Othello arrives in Cyprus, he receives the news that the Turkish Fleet has encountered a storm and sunk. With no threat remaining, Othello and Desdemona should enjoy a honeymoon in Cyprus. But instead, something happens: Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona is unfaithful to him. So much for the honeymoon. Since it’s a tragedy, you can imagine how it all ends.
But how is it possible that the Othello can be destroyed in this way? How does a leader, a war-hero, a statesman become a babbling, suicidal murderer? He listens to Iago. And Iago is a controlling master of human frailty.
Iago knows rhetoric. He recognizes the available means of persuasion in any situation. And in all cases, that available means is an appeal to fear. Iago destroys Othello by telling him “exactly the lies that he wants to hear,” or as I prefer to say, by telling exactly the lies that Othello is predisposed to believe. Iago understands what many people seem to understand today: if you appeal to people’s basest fears and deepest insecurities, you can own them. He easily identifies Othello’s insecurity with Desdemona: Othello fears that she might not love him back because he’s too old, too foreign, and too black. Incidentally, Iago also controls his own wife, his friends, and anyone he wants to use — including Desdemona’s senator father — by preying on their specific, unique, individual fears.
And so in Act III Scene 3, Iago begins to feed Othello’s hungry fears. In the space of about twenty lines of dialog, Othello the hero leader is practically begging Iago to “give thy worst of thoughts the worst of words.” By the end of the scene, Othello demands of Iago, “Give me the ocular proof.” Othello, who even in front of a jury of Venetian senators stood firm and fearless, is instantly reduced to a jealous mass of hatred and self-loathing. He says that Desdemona’s name, once “as fresh as Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face.”
With just a little persuasion, Iago has amplified Othello’s insecurities of his own “begrimed and black” face, and in the process, he believes that Desdemona can only see him in this way, and is therefore unfaithful to him. Soon after, he kneels with Iago, saying,
…I greet thy love
Not with vain thanks but with acceptance bounteous
But how does Iago manage to pull this off? How can Othello greet these fears with “acceptance bounteous”? How can he see himself as “begrimed,” rather than black and beautiful?
For me, the search for these answers is what makes this play so important: People succumb to the Iago effect all the time. Iago’s voice is inside everyone. When a real Iago comes along and adds to that voice — tapping into our fears and insecurities — and tells us “exactly the lies that we want to hear,” then we can be owned. It happens to my students all the time. And to adults, too. Tragically, when the appeal to fear works, we greet our worst fears about ourselves “with acceptance bounteous” and forget all of our redeeming qualities.
Shakespeare created works of unbelievable beauty, and he did it while educating us about love, fear and loathing, and the power of language. In Hamlet, Claudius kills the king by pouring poison in his ears. In Othello, Shakespeare teaches us you don’t need a potion of exotic herbs — Iago murders with only words.
There is plenty of beauty in the language of Othello, but for me — for now — the most compelling reason to remember and teach the play is to be instructed in avoiding the Iago Effect.