In the play, The Tragedy of Othello, Shakespeare really tests our conception as to what love is, and where it can or can’t exist. Judging from the relationship between Desdemona and Othello, the play seems to say that marriage based on an innocent romantic love or profane love is bound to fail. Shakespeare is pessimistic about the existence and survival of a true type of love. There is a common thread of betrayal and deceit among his female characters, especially. Othello and Desdemona, as portrayed in the play, are the two greatest innocents there ever were. The two appear to love one another romantically at first, but this romantic love becomes more of a profane love, or more likely was truly a profane love all along. This comes to pass because there is no foundation for a relationship here. There is no trust, no communication, and no understanding. Othello has spent most of his life in battle, which makes him good at some things– namely, battle. Othello says “Rude am I in my speech,/ and little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace;/ for since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,/ Till now some nine moons wasted, they have us’d/ Their dearest action in the tented field;/ And little of this great world can I speak/ More than pertains to feats of broils and battle” (1113). Desdemona is little more that a girl, inexperienced in the ways of the world. She is taken in by Othello’s war stories. Desdemona takes one look at the hunk of burning love that is Othello, his virility and manliness, and she is swept off her feet. But is this a true love? She speaks so fondly of him, yet hardly knows him. As she defends her newly born love for Othello, Desdemona says (among other things), “My downright violence, and storm of fortunes,/ May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdu’d/ Even to the very quality of my lord./ I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/ And to his honors and his valiant parts/ Did I my soul and fortune consecrate.” (1118). I can say from experience that in the “Magic Time”, the first part of the relationship, some things are said that maybe affected by Love’s blindness. Put these two together, and you have the equivalent of a couple of kids playing doctor. The two big clumsy babies “fumbling towards ecstasy” might have actually made it if they were free from outside forces.
The Abnormal and Unusual in Othello
The Abnormal and Unusual in Othello
In how many Shakespearean tragedies is there a noble hero will falls into an epileptic seizure – as we find in Othello? Let us consider some of the more abnormal occurrences in the drama.
In Act 4 the evil Iago works up Othello into a frenzy regarding the missing kerchief. The resultant illogical, senseless raving by the general is a prelude to an epileptic seizure or entranced state:
Lie with her? lie on her? – We say lie on her when they belie her. – Lie with her! Zounds, that’s fulsome. – Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief! – To confess, and be hanged for his labor – first to be hanged, and then to confess! I tremble at it. [. . .] (4.1)
Cassio enters right after the general has fallen into the epileptic trance. Iago explains to him:
IAGO. My lord is fall’n into an epilepsy.
This is his second fit; he had one yesterday.
CASSIO. Rub him about the temples.
IAGO. No, forbear.
The lethargy must have his quiet course.
If not, he foams at mouth, and by and by
Breaks out to savage madness. Look, he stirs.
Do you withdraw yourself a little while.
He will recover straight. (4.1)
Epilepsy on the part of the protagonist is unusual and physically abnormal. But the more serious abnormalities in the play are psychological. Iago is generally recognized as the one character possessing and operating by abnormal psychology. But Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes tells of the time when the hero himself approached “madness”:
Othello himself cries:
thou hast set me on the rack.
I swear ‘t is better to be much abus’d
Than but to know a little.
And then we find him torturing himself with the thoughts of Cassio’s kisses on Desdemona’s lips, and he reiterates the property idea in his talk of being robbed.
From this time on, Othello has become the slave of passion. As he cries farewell to the tranquil mind, to content, to war and his occupation, as he demands that Iago prove his love a whore, as he threatens Iago and begs for proof at the same time, he is finally led almost to the verge of madness [. . .] . (165)
Fortunately the protagonist regains his equilibrium, and when he does kill, it is for the noble reason of cleansing the world of a “strumpet.