“Othello”: unmissable quotations (part 2)

6. “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial.” (Cassio, Act 2 Scene 3)

This scene is a key turning point of the play as in it Shakespeare presents the characters poised on the brink of chaos. The drunken brawl – which ultimately leads to Cassio’s dismissal from the post of lieutenant – indicates that this disorder is not simply within the characters’ personal lives, but that it might overspill into the military and legal structures which maintain a stable society. In this “war-like isle” on the edge of Europe, this bastion against the threat of invasion, if personal chaos sparks social disorder, then the defences of western power might fall. Thus, Shakespeare explores how the domestic life of a leader might impact negatively on the state itself – a theme which would have been very close to the heart of many Renaissance playgoers.

In this quotation, Cassio laments how his personal flaw has led to disorder within the army, and his own personal downfall. In many ways, this foreshadows Othello’s tragic trajectory, and his final speech in front of the Venetian noblemen. The fact that Shakespeare uses both Cassio and Othello in similar ways provides a different perspective on a question which has troubled critics for years: does Shakespeare present Othello as a man who is brought low by the pressure of external forces (the racism of society), or by internal forces (his own weaknesses, which a Renaissance audience would have seen to stem from his race)? Or, in other words, does Shakespeare’s play challenge or confirm racist stereotypes, creating pathos for a tragic hero who suffers at the hands of a xenophobic villain or presenting Othello’s downfall as inevitable due to his identity? If both Cassio and Othello experience a similar journey in the play, then it suggests that Shakespeare’s interest lies in the conflicts within the human soul, rather than being a play specifically about issues of race. Virginia Vaughan explains that “although Othello’s racial identity is clearly a factor in Shakespeare’s text, when the play was first performed the audience would not have seen it as squarely focussed on race as we do”.

Just as Othello does towards the end of Act 3, in this quotation from Act 2 Scene 3 Cassio lapses from blank verse into prose, a shift which is indicative of the descent into chaos. This is consolidated by the repetition of “reputation” – a word which conveys a belief in one’s social standing, and its connection with honesty, integrity, and morality. Through the use of the exclamation “O”, Shakespeare communicates the heart-wrenching grief Cassio feels at this loss – a grief which is starkly juxtaposed with Iago’s enjoyment of his own dishonesty. It is interesting that Shakespeare links Cassio’s experience of social and emotional chaos with the idea of dehumanisation. This dichotomy is present throughout the play, appearing in the contrast between soul and body, honesty and dishonesty, sexual fidelity and animalistic desire. Whilst these ideas are undeniably abstract and changeable, Cassio’s language is concrete and definite – he has irrevocably “lost” a “part” of his being that cannot be regained, just as Desdemona loses the handkerchief (and the honesty and chastity it symbolises). This reification not only reveals the intensity of Cassio’s feelings, but also the prime importance of one’s social identity in a hierarchical world.

7. “And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (Iago, Act 2 Scene 3)

Following Cassio’s lament, Iago embraces his own malevolent desires, and proceeds with his plan to wreak revenge on those around him. The fact that Iago is going to twist “goodness” into darkness and despair emphasises the sheer devilry of his character, whilst the confidence of the modal verb “shall” conveys his determination and certainty that he will prevail. Similarly, Shakespeare’s use of the verb “make” suggests Iago’s complete control over his actions as he goes about causing havoc with all the precision of a craftsman. Through the image of the net and the mesh, Shakespeare presents Iago as the hunter, and the other characters as his prey, just as elsewhere Iago describes himself as a spider who is going to “ensnare” Cassio in his “web”.

It is notable that these lines come from one of Iago’s soliloquys which – perhaps more than any other Shakespearean speeches – appear to be an act of engaging directly with the audience. Thus, we see that Shakespeare is developing complicity between the audience and the tragic villain, allowing us to be drawn into his web by charismatic wordplay – even if, when we take a step back, we find the meaning of these words repugnant. It may be that Shakespeare is demonstrating that we are all susceptible to the lure of evil – we are just as vulnerable as the pathetic dupe Roderigo and the heroic figure of Othello.

8. “And when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (Othello, Act 3 Scene 3)

If it is clear from the outset of the play that the foundations of Othello’s marriage are precarious, when he pronounces these lines at the play’s midpoint, it seems inevitable that reconciliation between the lovers is becoming increasingly unlikely. The placement of the “not” at the end of the line means that there may initially seem to be some hope for the couple, as Othello’s articulation of “I love thee” might end there and function as an echo of the earlier assertion “I love the gentle Desdemona”. However, because this phrase is bookended by the adverbs “when” and “not” there is a chilling inevitability of doubt and disharmony. The causal link between falling out of love and the resurgence of chaos suggests that the failure of Othello’s marriage is inextricably connected to emotional disintegration – a fragmentation which will impact on the military unit Othello leads and, by extension, on the safety of Cyprus and Venice itself. It is interesting that chaos becomes the subject of the second line, and is therefore placed outside Othello’s control.

9. “I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello.” (Othello, Act 4 Scene 2)

As Othello’s mind descends into chaos, so too does his relationship with Desdemona. In these lines, Shakespeare evokes contemporary stereotypes of Venetian women which Othello uses to bolster his increasing anger towards his wife. In the introduction to The Arden Shakespeare edition of Othello (2016), Ayanna Thompson explains that “Venice also became a symbol of hedonistic excess in the early modern English imagination… Associated with the goddess of love, Venus, Venice fascinated the early modern English because of the city’s more liberal treatment of sexual relations where prostitution was actually regulated by the state and involved thousands of women”. The fact that Shakespeare presents Othello as being constrained by stereotypes himself makes his deployment of this one against Desdemona even more unsettling. Yet it could be argued that this misogynistic comment does not signify a significant shift in the relationship, but that actually the seeds of this belief were already present in Act 1. In the exposition of the play, Othello states “I won [Brabantio’s] daughter” and “to [Iago’s] conveyance I assign my wife”, implying that there has always been a level of objectification and control in the relationship. Therefore, is it possible to suggest that Shakespeare presents Iago as the catalyst in a situation which was already uncertain?

It is also notable that in these lines Othello speaks about himself in the third person. He does this at several points during the play – most notably in Act 5 Scene 2 in which he asks the noblemen to “speak / Of one that loved not wisely, but too well”. Stephen Greenblatt writes about how many characters in the play manipulate narratives about themselves and others in order to gain control of how information is disseminated. So in these lines, Shakespeare presents Othello stepping outside himself to shape the story of his life, casting Desdemona as the deceptive villain who “married with Othello” (Desdemona is the subject of the sentence) and then betrayed him. By casting himself as the victim of this duplicity, Othello rejects any sense of his own responsibility and there is a clear emphasis on his blindness to reality.

10. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word.” (Iago, Act 5 Scene 2)

These enigmatic words are the final lines that Iago speaks in the play. Just as he has previously used words to manipulate, control, and dominate, here he maintains this power by denying an explanation. Hence, critics have spilled much ink debating the reasons which underlie Iago’s actions – with Coleridge arguing in favour of Iago’s “motiveless malignity” (the sheer enjoyment of an evil act), whilst others posit misogyny, racism, revenge, or latent homosexual desire. One explanation of Iago’s actions which is found within the text itself is that the tragic villain has a bitter and deep-seated hatred of goodness, born out of jealousy: Iago says that Cassio “hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly”.

Whilst Iago’s earlier explanations have been fully of richly evocative imagery and sensuous syntax, Shakespeare crafts these final lines to be stark and bare. The brief sentences hide information rather than reveal it, and Iago’s determination is conveyed in the use of definite modal verbs. This display of power is cemented by the imperative “demand” and the laconic repetition of “you know”. It is also notable that Iago’s refusal to speak means that he survives the play – which is unusual for a tragic villain. This failure to vanquish the villain means that all efforts at re-establishing order on Cyprus seem futile. The usual tropes of appointing a new leader (Cassio), lamenting the dead, and finishing with a rhyming couplet are all destabilised by the audience’s knowledge that although Iago has been condemned, he has not been beaten.

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