Inarticulate Passion: Love's Dysfunction in Othello


Wayne Narey

 The primary aim of Shakespeare’s Othello centers upon, I believe, the protagonist's inability to consummate his marriage, a union that both figuratively and literally represents an articulation of speech and action, whereas through his union with Desdemona an erotic desire should transform all things physical into a more spiritual realm of confident, expressive love.  But from the first moments of Shakespeare's play to the final scene, sexual union becomes anticipated, delayed, and then ultimately blasphemed into a grotesque parody of love’s consummate action.  Expectations of the ecstatic, while continually piqued, are not fulfilled until that fateful moment when, in a most ironic, unexpected way, Desdemona's bridal bed achieves a different sort of passion, suggesting the aberration of love in the violent act of rape.  Whereas the play speaks of eros, erotic passion is left surprisingly inarticulate; that is, love finds no means for expression, has no voice, and thus never achieves fulfillment.  Thus, in parallel fashion, the actions of Othello provide an equitable mirror of his failure to realize a change from physical desire into a nobler spiritual expression.

The promise of eros teasingly appears in Iago's lewd insinuations at the beginning of the play, as he coarsely informs Desdemona's father of the pair's elopement: "an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe" (1.1.88-89; here and throughout, The Arden Shakespeare ed., quarto text).  No imagination can fail to grasp the "otherness" of Iago's inference of the older black warrior as he embraces the young, white nobleman's daughter.  But Iago's animalistic image, which suggests the unabashed urgency of passion, is premature, which establishes a dichotomy between the promised and the fulfilled.  Not until the final scene of the play does the forbidden seem to offer realization, when the audience, like voyeurs peering into their neighbor's window, sees the bedroom of the Moor and his sleeping bride.  The moment, Michael Neill observes, exposes "the private scene of the bed to a shockingly public gaze."1  The image appeals to our seamier curiosities about embracing and loving the forbidden.  Thus, as an audience, our fascinations for the erotic and exotic, that which we wonder privately about but fear to utter aloud,  become blended into a single voyeuristic act.  However, between the promise of eros and the surrender to thanatos, passion gradually assumes a changed form: love becomes passive and dysfunctional, ironically giving way to repressed violence.  By the play's end, the ecstatic union of love and sexuality is no longer possible, but exists only in an aberrant mockery of what was anticipated, as violence defines passion's role and actively assumes its voice. 

The absence of passion's voice, and therefore vehicle for Othello's love, lies at the heart of the tragedy, with his exotic blackness within a white society merely heightening an inability to vocalize his needs and grievances.  The play, I suggest, is less one of alienation and differences--the black Othello in a marriage to a "super subtle Venetian"--than a play where unarticulated passion and erotic dysfunction convey a basic theme of tragedy: waste, impotent visions, and things ended too soon.  While the play Othello repeatedly anticipates the erotic, in reality the play purposely frustrates, denying our expectations.  But principally, Othello's increasing inarticulateness in the play, symbolized by his failure to consummate his marriage, informs the tragedy as it truncates reason, sexual union, and ultimately life.  In Othello's several frustrating metamorphoses, from "gentle lord" to repressed sadist, sexuality directly relates to his martial and reasoning abilities: feeling and doing are one; passion and articulation remain inseparable.

The lover's words, particularly in poetic drama, are found in his gestures and acts of wooing; yet Othello's "action" in expressing his love for Desdemona is never realized, which establishes a deliberate opacity between what is and what appears to be.  This reality/appearance dichotomy is physicalized by Othello's blackness, the color of the devil on English folk stages and perhaps in some miracle plays.  Lucifer, according to the biblical paraphrase The Genesis and Exodus (c.1250), took flight after the war in heaven and set his seat on the north side of heaven between heaven and hell becoming, as a result, a black drake.  Yet when the characters speak, it is Iago, in this perverted Edenesque trinity, that an Elizabethan audience would recognize as a devil or Vice figure, despite his expressions of friendship, loyalty, and goodness--as Othello makes clear when, at the end of the tragedy, he realizes what Iago had done to him: "I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable" (5.2.286).

The connection between articulation and action was of course a basic tenet of Renaissance rhetoric, and the orator and Elizabethan stage actor shared many similarities. Thomas Wilson's Arte of Rhetorique echoed Quintilian's advice that the orator moved his audience through true emotions, artfully controlled (Institutio Oratoria 11.3.61-623).  In Thomas Wright's Passions of the Minde (1604), a scientific reason was given for the necessity of "truth": passion is active, moving physically from the heart, to outward gestures, to its reception by an audience; the believability of the action is determined by the expressiveness and truthfulness of the emotion4.  Actions, therefore, reveal the force and intent of truthful passions, persuading us of the sincerity of the orator who uses them.

 In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare plays upon this idea of the orator needing a proper action to be persuasive.  Action is the vehicle of this early tragedy.  After Titus cuts off his hand to appease the Emperor (3.1), he loses more than his ability to fight, grotesquely emphasized when he plays upon the word "hand" for the final two acts of the play: "what violent hands can she lay on her life" (3.2.25), "O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands" (3.2.29), "thou shalt have justice at his hands" (4.3.104), and "I'll be at hand, sir; see you do it bravely" (4.3.108).  The image suggests that Titus has no voice, as certainly as his ravished daughter Lavinia, whose tongue has been cut out, because he lacks a hand to give gesture to his words even as she lacks a voice.  He is stage mute, having neither speech nor demonstrable emotions.  Speaking to his brother Marcus, Titus says: "Thy niece and I, poor creatures, want our hands / And cannot passionate our ten-fold grief / With folded arms" (3.2.5-7). 

In like manner, the character Othello is equally inarticulate, having no voice, no commensurate action to express his emotions.  For Iago, saying and doing are contradictory; his passions are false, and thus actions come easily to him.  Like Titus, Othello is left stage mute, reduced to an impotent lover, warrior, and cuckold in progressive, measurable stages.  The insidiousness of Time, as in several of Shakespeare's earlier plays, becomes the agent of fate--in this instance, more specifically, the agent of dysfunction.  Whereas several weeks pass in the course of the play, the "feel" is one of concentrated--though interrupted--moments, admitting no opportunity for the couple to have shared their bed.  At the end of Act 1, Desdemona announces publicly her love and duty for Othello, but the impending war with the Turks interrupts their marriage night: "Come Desdemona, I have but an hour / Of love, of worldly matters, and direction / To spend with thee; we must obey the time" (1.3.298-300).  In Act 2, at least a se'nnight--seven days--later, their love has yet to be consummated: "come my dear love, / The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue, / The profit's yet to come 'twixt me and you" (2.3.8-10).  Another thirty-three hours passes from this point to the end of the play, yet repeated interruptions prevent their union.  In passion denied, Othello's jealousy achieves its own ardor; or, as Shakespeare expressed it in Macbeth, it is a "torture of the mind to lie / In restless ecstasy" (3.2.21-22; Arden ed.)

  With each postponement of passion's consummation, Othello progressively loses his ability to speak, to reason, to act.  After their elopement and in anticipation of their marriage bed, we see the Moor as articulate lover, politic statesman, and confident warrior.  As the bridegroom Othello meets Desdemona's angry father Brabantio and his party in the street, he prevents bloodshed with straightforward calm: "Keep up you bright swords, for the dew will rust 'em; / Good signior, you shall more command with years / Than with your weapons" (1.2.58-61).  The lack of an action is notable, particularly in one skilled as a soldier.  Desdemona's love, it would seem, has tempered one form of passion and substituted another, though Othello is not blind to the differences: "Hold your hands, / Both you of my inclining and the rest: / Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it, / Without a prompter" (81-84).  However, by play's end even Othello's martial skills are suspect: when confronted by Montano and Gratiano after Desdemona's murder, the warrior Othello manages to lose his sword twice, symbolically suggesting his reduction to impotent cuckold in a French farce. 

 At the play's beginning, Othello's gifts for articulate speech equal his military prowess, which symbolize confident manhood.  When faced with Brabantio's charge that witchcraft was used to steal his naive daughter's love, Othello reveals the passive, yet effectively terse nature of his wooing:

 . . .  still the house-affairs would draw her thence,
And ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She'ld come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse...

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                                                    I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears,
When I did speak of some distressed stroke
That my youth suffer'd: my story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
                                                                         (1.3.147-50; 155-59)

His summation of their courtship and love exquisitely reflects the lover’s eloquence by means of its honest brevity: "She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd, / And I lov'd her that she did pity them.  / This only is the witchcraft I have us'd" (167-170).  It remains noteworthy, however, to suggest that such articulate expression appears in the absence of Desdemona; their “togetherness“ on stage never achieves the eloquence of Othello’s appraisal of their love, which is to say that even as their speech never consummates their love, so their actions fail as well, until the play’s end, when the Moor’s intentions lean toward thanatos, not eros.

Yet, as Iago's evil machinations take shape and the Moor begins to doubt his wife's fidelity, Othello progressively loses his ability to speak coherently and thus, as he fears, his ability to reason: "Excellent wretch, perdition catch my soul, / But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again" (3.3.91-93).  To insure that disorder and uncertainty come to Othello, Iago treats him like a confused and disordered child, telling the Moor no direct lies but inferring the worst through stealth and innuendo.  In a telling reminder of Satan's gifts for half-truths and distortion rather than deliberate lies, Iago's temptation of Othello demonstrates that the Moor, like God's first creatures, is not far from the essential miracle of creation, when order was imposed upon Chaos. 

 For his purposes, Iago taints first Othello's imagination, then co-opts his speech.  Like John of the Cross, Othello undergoes a dark night of the soul--but his meditations are perpetually disturbed before he can achieve the ecstatic moment.  In his first soliloquy, which does not occur until Act 3 (3.3.246), Othello asks himself "Why did I marry?" only to have Iago reappear and interrupt him after two lines, thus suggesting the degree of his profane insinuation into Othello's private thoughts.  

 For Othello, even private meditation can no longer be satisfactorily articulated, leaving him reliant upon what others say and do.  When he demands an action that will prove his love a whore, "ocular proof" of Desdemona's adultery, Iago manages to steal a handkerchief, a love token given her by the Moor, and put it in the hands of her alleged lover, the unsuspecting Michael Cassio.  The object, a small white scarf with embroidered strawberries, is said to possess magical powers: "'Tis true, there's magic in the web of it... / The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk, / And it was dyed in mummy, which the skilful / Conserve of maidens' hearts" (3.4.73).  The man who used a lover's articulation to woo his bride has now descended into superstition in order to bolster his romantic ineptitude. 

 More than one critic has noted the handkerchief's erotic appeal, suggesting its symbolic association with the blood stained sheets of the marriage night.5  Equally valid, however, is the scarf's representation of binding love, which Desdemona attempts but fails to tie about the head of the distempered Othello in order to relieve his headache.  With its symbolic investment of unrealized passion and his inability to secure his marriage, the missing love token sets off a chain of ideas within Othello that robs him of coherent speech.  Iago purposely uses the handkerchief to best advantage, claiming that Cassio would deny how he came by it and merely "lie":

 Oth.  With her?

 Iago.           With her, on her, what you will.

 Oth.  Lie with her, lie on her? ..Handkerchief--confessions--handkerchief! ...It is
         not words that  shake me thus.  Pish! Noses,
         ears and lips.  Is't possible?--Confess?--Handkerchief?--O devil!

       After a tortured free association of ideas, Othello finally loses all coherence, collapsing in a seizure at the feet of the triumphant Iago, who says above the debased body of his general, "Work on, / My medicine, work" (4.1.34-45).  Through the duplicity of Iago, whose subterfuge throughout the play takes aim at stealing Othello's voice, and thus his ability to consummate his marriage, Othello's articulated passion has degenerated into the wild, syntactically chaotic world of voiceless unconsciousness.  His otherness becomes further differentiated, casting him in a light of the uncivilized parvenu who has no rights within the articulate, subtle society of the ruling class.

Iago's thievery of Othello's voice achieves a focused measure of horror through two biblical allusions, which convey the depth and promise of Othello's passion, juxtaposing the potential spirituality of love against the physically unfulfilled and profane desires of others.  When in Act 1 he boldly announces his retribution and villainy against Othello, he tells his confederate Roderigo:  

For when my outward action does demonstrate
The native act, and figure of my heart,
In complement extern, `tis not long after,
but I will wear my heart upon my sleeve,
For doves to peck at.

 Iago adds an important coda to this pronouncement: "I am not what I am" (1.1.61-65; see Exodus 3: 14), thereby perverting Yahweh's assertion to Moses as to whom it was the prophet spoke: "And God answered Moses, I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3:14; Geneva Bible).  By mocking Yahweh's statement, Iago casts Othello into the role of another prophet, a second Moses who felt inadequate to the task set before him by God because he was, as the book of Exodus says, "slow of speech, and of a slow tongue" (4:10).  A second religious allusion suggests Iago's gifts for sullying passion, as Othello, pushed to his emotional knees by Iago's refusal to say more on Desdemona's involvement with Cassio, urges him to tell him the painful truth: "if thou dost love me, / Show me thy thought" (3.3.119-20).  Iago's response, "My lord, you know I love you" (121)--ironically reminiscent of Peter's avowal to Christ prior to the betrayal (John 21:15-17)--suggests not sexual ecstasy, but a passion of tears, agony, and violence.  By appropriating two biblical statements, one from each covenant, Iago thus takes on himself the role of Alpha and Omega, establishing his authority as the archetypal inverter of truth.

Having fed Othello's mind with the very evils he says to ignore, Iago prepares the Moor to accept Desdemona's duplicity as a more sordid aspect of love, one in which sadism has its place: "She did deceive her father, marrying you; / And when she seem'd to shake and fear your looks, / She lov'd them most" (3.3.210-12).  Moreover, Iago's observation gives a perverted credence to Othello's murder of his wife as an act of ecstatic sacrifice--her trembling and fear before her death unites death and eros much as Iago suggested: 

       Des.  And yet I fear you, for you are fatal then,
                When your eyes roll so: why I should fear, I know not,
                Since guiltiness I know not, but yet I feel I fear.

       Oth.  Think on thy sins.

       Des.                                They are loves I bear you.

       While Iago's evil schemes have great effect upon Othello, it should be noted, he is less successful with Desdemona.  The dock scene of Act 2, in which Desdemona, Iago, his wife Emilia, and Cassio await Othello's ship, portrays a woman who is far more substantive than her father had suggested by his description of her: "A maiden never bold of spirit, / So still and quiet, that her motion / Blush'd at her self" (1.3.94-96).  Iago's banter with the group, characteristically suggestive and offensive, reveals his cruelty and contempt for women--as indicated by his remark to his wife before the company: "You rise to play, and go to bed to work" (115).  Although Desdemona fails to show embarrassment at Iago's lewd behavior, her rebuke is subtle yet pointed: "O most lame and impotent conclusion: do not learn of him, Emilia, though he be thy husband" (161-62).6

Despite the vulnerability and anxiety suggested in her "willow" song, Desdemona remains articulate from first to last.  When Othello has degenerated into speechless sadism, striking her publicly, she responds simply, "I have not deserv'd this" (4.1.236).  Awaiting her groom, she sleeps upon her bridal sheets, an action she hopes will appeal to Othello's lost affection, resulting in the consummation of their vows;7 yet Desdemona is unaware of his perverted justification for her death, which will ironically bring their union full circle: "strumpet, I come; / Forth of my heart those charms, thine eyes, are blotted, / Thy bed, lust-stain'd, shall with lust's blood be spotted" (5.1.34-36). 

In preparation for the moment, Othello's observations above the sleeping body of his bride indicate the finality of his action--"I know not where is that Promethean heat / That can thy light relume" (12-13)--as well as his regrets at not having consummated his marriage: "when I have pluck'd the rose, / I cannot give it vital growth again, / It must needs wither" (13-15).  Suggestive of the virgin's deflowering and loss of maidenhead, the rose is a familiar symbol of virginity, reminiscent of such medieval works as the French Romance of the Rose (ca. 13th century) and Chaucer's translation Romaunt of the Rose (ca. 1370).  Each of Othello's pronouncements, the extinction of Desdemona's life and the deflowering of her virginity, allude to acts not yet performed, as he steals himself for the intended murder. 

 The scene of Desdemona's murder, which Furness, the editor of the Variorum edition of the play (1886), called the "unutterable agony," began with the ambiguity of a passion unexplained: "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul, / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars: / It is the cause" (5.2.1-3).  Othello fails to provide the referent for the ambiguous "it."  Yet he clearly indicates for the audience that, whatever his justification, a bloody, graphic enactment of murder will not take place: "yet I'll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth, as monumental alabaster" (3-5).  A similar technique for maintaining decorum within dramatic illusion occurs in Hamlet, when, as he approaches Gertrude's chamber, Hamlet says "let not ever / The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom; / Let me be cruel, not unnatural. / I will speak daggers to her, but use none" (3.2.384-87).

  Shakespeare puts his audience at ease with regard to realistic violence perpetrated against a woman.  Thus Desdemona's death was undoubtedly a stylized depiction of murder; and, more importantly, the manner of the enactment further suggests the ironic physical fulfillment of sexual ecstasy, promised in the play for the first four acts but never realized, not even in the last.  Far from being a violent scene, Desdemona's death horribly mimics the embraces and union of lovemaking.  As she awakens and pleads for her life--"Kill me to-morrow, let me live to-night...But half an hour, but while I say one prayer!"--Othello is his most articulate in the horrible denial: "'Tis too late" (81, 83-84).  Unable to give voice to his own behavior, he quickly prevents Desdemona from speaking as well.  Passion finally takes physical form,8 underscored by Desdemona's lingering pleas that could easily suggest sexual ecstasy, "O Lord, Lord, Lord!", as contrasted to the clamoring of Emilia from within: "My lord, my lord! what, ho, my lord, my lord! (83-84).  Their antiphonal cries seem to juxtapose violence and eroticism, even as they both respond to Othello's murderous act, which has, of course, substituted for his consummation and union with his wife.

Just as the double time scheme of Othello suggests that the feel of events supersedes actuality, so too Shakespeare indicates that the response to passion is the tenor of the work, with the play's imagery offering an illicit beauty, as suggested in lines such as "The bawdy wind, that kisses all it meets" (4.2.80).  Thus Shakespeare frames his tragedy in two extremes that both repulse and excite: the pornographic image that Iago uses in Act 1 to enrage a virgin's father--"your daughter, and the Moor, are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.115-16)--and the suggestion in Act 5 of an eternal ménage à trois, with the bodies of Othello, Desdemona, and her companion Emilia laid upon the bed.  Between these two extremes, Othello progressively loses coherency and erotic articulation, substituting one form of passion for another as he degenerates into the chaos he feared.

As the play ends, the final emblematic union of those three bodies portrays yet another imagistic irony: in this orgy of death, Othello has once again failed to attain that pleasured privacy with his bride.  With his final words: "I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee, no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss" (359-60), the play finalizes the unattainable, with Othello falling upon the bed in a statement of dysfunction, within a tragedy of erotic frustration.



1.  "Unproper Beds: Race, Adultery, And The Hideous In Othello (Shakespeare Quarterly 40, Winter 1989: 411.

2This association is reflected in many plays of the period as well as in other treatises: Abraham Fraunce's Arcadian Rhetoric (1588), Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors (1612), Thomas Wilson's The Passions of the Mind (1604) and The Passions of the Mind in General (1621), A Refutation of the Apology for Actors, by I. G. (1615), Richard Edwards' Damon and Pithias (1571; Prologue), Thomas Dekker's If This Be Not A Good Play, the Devil Is In It (1612; Prologue), Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1590?; see below), Richard III (1591?; 3.5), Troilus and Cressida (1602; 1.3). 

3.  See Jane Donawerth, Shakespeare And The Sixteenth-Centruy Study Of Language, U of Illinois P, 1984: 85.

4.  Donawerth 85; and see Thomas Wright's Passions of the Minde, sigs. M7v-M8r.

5.   See Karen Newman, "`And wash the Ethiop white': femininity and the monstrous in Othello," in Shakespeare Reproduced: the text in history and ideology, Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, eds., Methuen, 1987:141-62; and Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed," in Othello: Critical Essays, Susan Snyder, ed., Garland, 1988: 251-74. 

6.  The O.E.D. offers George Sandys Travels 7 in 1615 as the first use of "impotent" as a sexual dysfunction, but that intimation is very possible here.

7.  Michael Neill points out that it was an aristocratic fashion in the early seventeenth century to be buried in the sheets from the wedding night (401; and see Clare Gittings, Death, Burial and the Individual in Early Modern England, Croom Helm, 1984: 111-12).

8Once Othello has announced his purpose to Desdemona, the anticipation of what soon follows makes the scene extremely moving, as the audience identifies with the injustice, attendant emotions of the helpless Desdemona, and ironic fulfillment of its own voyeuristic expectations.  Yet stylization, that is, the apparently decorous embrace of the pair, replaces violence; therefore pathos--not fear--is of primary importance.  A performance of Othello by the King's Men at Oxford in 1610 indicates that distinction in a letter commenting on the play by one of its spectators:

Desdemona, although greatly successful throughout, moved us especially when at last, lying on her bed, killed by her husband, she implored the pity of the spectators in her death with the face alone.  (Quoted and translated by Geoffrey Tillotson in "Othello and The Alchemist at Oxford," TLS 20 July 1933: 494.)






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