Conventional Morality drama has a temptation scene in which man is subjected to the Devil’s allurements. The third act of Othello has a scene which corresponds to this. Othello undergoes a struggle during which he must choose between the two forces which vie for his soul, Iago on the one hand and Desdemona on the other.At the end of the scene Othello rejects Desdemona and embraces Iago in a symbolic ritual union, and from thenceforth be sees the world with the eyes of Iago. The tools with which Iago will work already have been prepared for in the first two acts. He will rely upon his own appearance as honest, which Othello has not yet learned to question, and he will work upon the seeming perversion of nature in Othello’s own marriage, appealing to Othello’s ignorance of life and to the fears and uncertainties which accompany his human inability to distinguish between appearance and reality. Iago will arouse in Othello a false sense of the demands of honour and’ reputation, which will reflect the love of mere appearance for which Iago from the first has stood, in the delusion of his wrong moral choice, Othello will live by the code of Iago.
Although the temptation scene has been criticized as incredible, it is quite convincing in its dramatic context. Considered coldly and objectively, Othello’s fall does seem difficult to accept, but the audience does not coldly evaluate ; it is caught up in the emotional intensity of the scene whose total poetic impact conveys’ an imaginative impression of man’s fall. Shakespeare’s artistry infuses the scene with an illusion of reality which is remarkably effective in the theatre. The very speed of the action carries the audience along in Iago’s spell and gives it no opportunity to consider questions of logical probability. Shakespeare has carefully provided in the first two acts certain elements which will make the seduction of Othello plausible. He has stressed his simple trust in Iago, his unfamiliarity with civilized life and particularly with Venetian women, his role as an alien in an ever potentially hostile society. Perhaps most significantly, by a series of events Shakespeare has caused Othello to doubt his own powers of judgment and perception. His marriage to Desdemona has resulted in an accusation of witchcraft from one who has always been his friend. Cassio, the officer he has so carefully chosen, in his drunkenness has caused Othello to question the wisdom of that choice. Othello is now ready to question the goodness of Desdemona in which he had believed as firmly as in the friendship of Brabantio and the soldiership of Cassio.
Iago begins his offensive with a remark about Cassio, just after his departure, in the third scene of the third act, but his initial suggestion has no effect upon Othello. He is, as Shakespeare later tells us ‘not easily jealous’ and he does not begin to succumb until much later in the scene. The presence of Desdemona counteracts the force of Iago’s insinuations, just as the good angel of the Morality drama checks the power of the evil one. It is only after Desdemona has left the scene some eighty-five lines after Iago’s initial onslaught that Othello begins to rise to Iago’s bait. As Desdemona leaves, Othello affirms for the audience the strength of his union with her :
Excellent wretch ! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee ; and when I love thee not
Chaos is come again.
Iago excites Othello’s natural curiosity by his veiled remarks touching the honesty of Cassio, and by the implication that he has secret knowledge which he will not reveal. There is no evidence of jealousy on Othello’s part, however, until Iago himself raises the issue :
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy.
This suggestion Othello at first resists with the memory of Desdemona’s virtue and with a true awareness of his own excellence for which Desdemona married him. Othello’s awareness of how jealousy operates, is in effect a rejection of jealousy, just as the speech is a reaffirmation of those convictions which Iago seeks to undermine. To this point of the scene. Iago has still been unsuccessful. He cannot shake Othello’s faith in himself and in Desdemona. Now he turns to Othello’s ignorance of
they do let God see the pranks Venice
They dare not show their husbands; their best conscience
Is not to leav’t undone, but keep’s unknown.
Here Othello is vulnerable, and for the first time there is thee beginning of belief in Othello’s half-credulous reply : ‘Dost thou say so?’ Once Othello has been prepared to believe that the virtue of Venetian women may be a seeming virtue, Iago can remind him of the seeming treachery of Desdemona to her father
She did deceive her father, marrying you ;
And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,
She lov’d them most.
With the motifs of evil wearing the guise of good and of Desdemona’s apparent defiance of nature, Iago gains his first victory, for Othello is forced to reply ‘And so she did’.
It is Othello who first raises the theme of unnaturalness, which had earlier been pleaded by Brabantio before the Venetian council. Othello is now prepared to look upon Desdemona’s choice of him as unnatural. He is now drawn to the side of Iago. He is ready to entertain the idea that Desdemona may not be what she has appeared to be. He can now accept the vision of Iago as the measure of human affairs :
This fellow’s of exceeding honesty,
And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit,
Of human dealing.
He dwells himself on his blackness and his years which, if love were the mere animal lust which it is to Iago, might furnish reasons for the supposed infidelity of his wife. The symbol of spiritual union has become to him a creature of sensual, appetite.
There are moments at which we see Othello’s soul struggling for renewed mastery over itself. When Desdemona appears again, he rejects the doubts he has entertained :
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself !
I’ll not believe it.
But as she tries to bind his temples, he feels the horns of the cuckold. The poison of Iago has done its work, and when we see Othello again, he is possessed with Iago’s own perversion of reputation. His honour is at stake, and he bids farewell to the soldier’s life which he cannot enjoy while his name is soiled :
I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known. O, now for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind ! farewell content !
Farewell the plum’d troops, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue !
It is no longer the reality of Desdemona’s virtue that he wishes ; he would be happy embracing an evil hidden from him. Othello has set his value upon the false appearance which is the mark of Iago. This concern for reputation is in marked contrast to Othello’s modesty inn the first act. His awareness of his own worth is a source of self-confidence and assurance. He keeps his noble lineage hidden from the world, and he will not promulgate it until boasting becomes the honour which he knows that it never can be.
Although Othello still demands proof, jealousy has so, maddened him and benumbed his reason that he is willing to accept unquestioningly whatever proof Iago has to offer as truth. He accepts without suspicion the shallow and ridiculous lie about Cassio’s dream. Upon this falsehood he renounces love and in its place accepts hatred and revenge. We are Beady for the ritual union of Othello with Iago. The language of Othello assumes a highly formal tone as he calls upon ‘Yond marble heaven’ and he kneels : ‘In the due reverence of a sacred vow/I here engage my words ‘ Iago kneels beside him, revealing again his Satanic origins as he swears not by God, but by the stars and elements. The natural order is reversed as Othello completes his link with evil. To Othello in his tragic delusion Desdemona is the devil and Iago his lieutenant. He is united to a destructive force who now confirms the league between them ‘I am your own forever.’
In spite of the fact that Othello has allowed himself to be ensnared body and soul by the flimsy arguments of Iago, there is awe and solemnity in the culmination of the surrender scene. Othello in his delusion would convert his sinful vengeance into the guise of a lawful justice, his hatred into duty, and he does so by cloaking his action in the appearance of formal ritual. His delusion parallels that of the earlier Brutus in his desire to carve Caesar as a dish fit for the gods, to make a solemn sacrifice out of a brutal murder. From this point onward Othello will see with the vision of Iago, to whom be is united. Truth will appear as falsehood, love and loyalty as lost and betrayal. Always in his delusion Othello will age himself as the instrument of justice executing his duty in a solemn ritual, although his court-room will be a brothel and his act of justice the destruction, of love and truth.