In Shakespeare’s Othello deceit proves to be successful only because the characters live in a world ruled by suspicion. It is quite different from the kind of lightsome misdirection we see in comedic plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Shakepeare’s tragedies deceit functions as a way of priming a larger engine of treachery and malfeasance. This juggernaut of lies flies into the heart of the darkest human traits. Perhaps no single character in all of Shakespeare better typifies this malignancy than Othello’s Ensign Iago. Iago is foremost a man who feels his station aught to be higher than it is.
His jealousy and rampant desire to destroy anyone placed above him signify his poor moral character. However, these same qualities fuel his ingenuity. Iago is the dark inversion of the trickster figure. In this sense, one can draw a parallel with Robin Goodfellow in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both artfully practice deceit and subterfuge. Both operate with ulterior motives. However, we must keep in mind that Robin plays the game of deceit in the name of love whereas Iago is driven by something more sinister—the desire to denigrate.
Interestingly, Iago justifies his practice of deceit by claiming it as a superior power. Consider when he says, “Were I the Moor I would not be Iago/ In following him I follow but myself. / Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,/ But seeming so for my peculiar end” (2101). Iago sees his only recourse as political intrigue. Because that is the only avenue open to him, he views it as his obligation to pursue redress. He is unwilling to accept subordination. As a result of this, he upends any traditional sense of morality in order to perversely celebrate his upcoming campaign of lies.
This is his claim to power, the power of his own will, the power to debase himself morally in his effort to bring discredit and ruin to his commander. The tragic chain of events that leads to the ultimate perversity of the play—a good man killing the woman he loves—is carefully arranged. The lies begin at the periphery of the action and slowly move to the domestic center, contracting, encircling, and ultimately strangling the sincere love between Othello and Desdemona. This attack on domestic security is another central element of the play.
From the outset we learn of Roderigo’s infatuation with Desdemona. It seems harmless at first because we are given some insight into Roderigo’s feckless nature. His desire seems merely a passing fancy of an ineffectual character, yet when it is coupled with Iago’s capacity for invention and ingenuity, suddenly this distant pining becomes far more significant. The circle moves one step closer when Roderigo and Cassio engage in a drunken brawl and Cassio is stripped of his rank. This is where Othello is first touched by the intrigue.
Forced to discipline his lieutenant, Othello is unwittingly tripping into Iago’s trap. Again, the knot constricts when Iago persuades Cassio to visit Desdemona so that he can ask her to influence her husband to allow him to reclaim his rank and honor. This is the first literal crossing of the domestic border. Here, Iago’s machinations have made contact with the most intimate holdings of his rival Othello. This border crossing can also be read as analogous to a military invasion. Iago has led a sneak attack on unprepared forces, taking them utterly by surprise.
The placing of the handkerchief is a further constriction because pains are taken to spread disinformation within the household. From here, all the tightening cords are drawn by those already trapped within Iago’s design. He no longer needs to directly manipulate the action. Treachery’s own momentum is too great to be slowed down, let alone stopped. As a result, domesticity is destroyed from within, having fed unwittingly on the deceit of the world. What is perhaps most disturbing about Iago’s plan and the way it works is that it relies on a masculine fear of being unmanned.
The fear of cuckoldry is more than merely a fear that a wife is unfaithful. It is a fear of being mocked. In the case of a man of great importance like Othello, it is a fear of losing the respect of the entire community. Othello’s own insecurity is dangerous. When he is faced with the evidence suggesting Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, this insecurity makes him monstrous. In this sense, Othello is complicit in the plan that undoes him because he allows his passions to overwhelm his judgment and reason. This suggests that Othello too is practicing in a kind of deceit about himself.
His love for Desdemona is adulterated by his pride and love of his position. Othello lies to Desdemona about his love for her and his role as husband, but he also lies to himself about his own manhood. His identity is far more fragile than he would ever care to admit, and as a result, his lack of self-knowledge leads to his own self-destruction. The awful fallout of his way down is what invests this play with such pathos. The fall of a great man can destroy so much that surrounds him. The deceit of Othello is indeed a terrible thing.
The ramifications of that deceit, however, are far more terrible. Without the prudence and rational distance of a more mature leader, Shakespeare seems to suggest that young men of ability are doomed to be victims of their own immature passions. While Iago may be responsible for the mechanics of the tragic fall, the community itself also bears a great deal of responsibility. The court of public opinion is what Othello fears, the harsh judgment of his peers. It is awful to consider how powerful an influence that is.
To fear what other people think is exactly what makes deception such a powerful tool. Other people’s opinions are important to us. In Othello’s case, other people’s opinions of him are so important that he is willing to destroy the essential parts of himself that made him a great and accomplished leader. Without some sense of perspective or restraint, the public’s idea of what is socially acceptable is nothing more than mob rule. Giving over to such a fickle fate guarantees a future rife with tragedy and regret.
Shakespeare, William. The Norton Shakespeare. New York; Norton. 1997.