Tag Archives: Othello

“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because….”

Poor Othello. I have spent it-seems-like-a-lifetime trying to persuade students that Othello has no “tragic flaw,” and is not jealous until Iago has worked on him for more than three acts of the play. But they have read it—OTHELLO”S TRAGIC FLAW IS JEALOUSY—first in Cliff’s Notes and now in Spark Notes, and such impersonal voices of authority are stronger than mine.

I see Othello as a tragedy of innocence. Othello was no more suited to the intrigues of Venetian life than Desdemona, albeit for different reasons. Iago is the jealous one; but since Iago is also a very good student of psychology (even before it existed as a discipline), he knows how to create jealousy, and can work Othello into a virtuous murderous rage by way of it.

Othello has refused to believe ill of Desdemona without ocular proof. Iago has, conveniently enough, come by the handkerchief Othello gave Desdemona during their courtship, a handkerchief that had been given to his mother. The handkerchief is maneuvered into the hands of Cassio, someone Desdemona and Othello have both trusted and respected and Othello has promoted. Othello has quarreled with Cassio over some drunken behavior, and Desdemona has undertaken to get Cassio back into Othello’s good graces. But her advocacy irritates her husband, and when he sees that handkerchief in Cassio’s hand (and on the way into Cassio’s mistress’s hand) after many insinuations by Iago, he is indeed ready to believe that Desdemona has been unfaithful.

The rest is tragic.

My student was trying to describe the handkerchief ploy. What he wrote is correct, but oh how awkward. This was a sentence ill begun and faithfully carried through to its disastrous end:

“Othello felt like she was cheating on him because he found a handkerchief in one of his friend’s hands that belonged to him.”

Can you sort it out? Perhaps “because he found his own handkerchief in the hands of one of his friends” would save it. But what got onto the paper seems to suggest that Othello has a collection of hands. Several of those hands belonged to his friend, but now they belong to him: it’s his very own hand collection. But one day he has evidently gone in to gaze upon his collection and, lo and behold, one of those hands has a handkerchief in it! Certainly his wife must be cheating on him! Has she been sneaking into the room, I wonder, and putting handkerchiefs into hands that don’t belong to her? That’s not playing fair…

Isn’t that how the modifiers have to play out? “That belonged to him” has to modify “hands,” doesn’t it? It’s an adjective clause, and as such has to modify the noun that immediately precedes the relative pronoun. That is “hands.” And the handkerchief is in one of those hands. The hands belong to his friend (note the singular possessive). Othello has a strange notion of friendship, expressing his fondness by removing his friend’s hands and taking possession of them.

The image is grotesque and hilarious. WHY didn’t my student start over when he saw that the sentence was getting out of, um, hand? I’m afraid he just carried on because he didn’t really know that the sentence was grotesque or unmanageable. How could he not have known, though?

Ah well. My dear father had as a driving mantra “Never turn around.” If he missed a turn, or got lost, he pushed forward until he found an intersection that promised a chance to change direction. He did know, though, that he had missed the turning, or that he was lost. He found a way to correct the error, no matter how circuitous the correction. We had some interesting trips.

My student, I’m afraid, had no idea he was lost: he drove on because he thought he was on the right road. And by gum, he was! But the road is so rough that it must have been under construction. I wish he had looked for a detour.


“He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp of his wrist…”

How, oh how, to express the magnificence and power of Othello before Iago undermined it all and brought him low? Obviously one must marshal all the strong images at one’s command.

Or not quite at one’s command.

The sentence begins forcefully enough: “He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp…” And then Othello loses a lot of majesty when he wraps that wrist of his around the island. Even as figurative language this is bizarre.

But she goes on:

“He had the island of Cyprus in the tight grasp of his wrist that clenched with strength and fortitude.”

So the wrist is not merely wrapped; it’s clenched. Now, fists can clench; and muscles can clench—a tightening that, in the hand, produces a clenched fist and in the face a clenched jaw. But can wrists actually clench, even if the muscles in the wrist are clenched? Clench: “to clinch [meaning, in one sense, ‘to hold fast or firmly’].” “Clinch” is a transitive verb, which means you have to clinch something, just as in this usage the wrist would have to clench something. “Clench” can also mean “to hold fast, clutch.” Again, the clencher needs an object. And it can mean “to set or hold tightly,” as clenched teeth: the clencher clenched.

Well, of course the verb has an object—or. more correctly, at least something to clench—way back there before the prepositions and relative pronouns: the island of Cyprus. The clenching is what makes the grasp.

But what held the island of Cyprus—what clenched, or clenched on, it? That wrist. I think there are limits to how far closed a wrist can actually bend, but the island of Cyprus is pretty big. On the other hand (sorry!), I doubt someone could securely hold the whole island just by wrapping his wrist around part of it: a rock, for instance, or a sapling.

Even if the wrist is clenching “with strength and fortitude,” it has its limits.

This sentence is definitely one place where less would be more. “The island of Cyprus was firmly in his control.” Why not?

I wept to myself, “She can’t stop!”

Quietly I ran lines through many words and changed one: “He had the island of Cyprus in his grasp.” And in the margin I wrote “overwritten.” She never asked me what I meant. I hope she knew, because this kind of overwrought prose will never impress her readers as she so clearly wants to impress them.

The basic picture is just wrong, comically wrong. Embellish it as she will, it will just make them laugh.

“King Lear remorses…”

First of all, Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare. You changed my life!

And now…

One of Shakespeare’s most far-reaching contributions to the English-speaking world was the vigorous stretching of the language. At least as far as written English goes, we can attribute to him numerous coinages and repurposings (although we cannot blame him for the verb “to repurpose”!) that enlarged the lexicon and made it more supple. Working with nuanced ideas by way of fresh images within the constraints of iambic pentameter is bound to stimulate verbal creativity. We can’t know how many of the words he introduced or used in new ways were already current in the spoken language, but the level of sophistication in his usage suggests that he was the prime mover at least most of the time.

So, to celebrate, I offer a verbal repurposing by one of my students.

It lacks true Shakespearean felicity, at least on the surface. Maybe beneath the surface, though?

“Remorse” is, as almost all of us know, a noun. It is not a verb. It comes from Latin via Middle French and then Middle English, and at base it means “the act of biting again.” Webster’s says when we use it we mean “a gnawing distress arising from a sense of guilt for past wrongs.”

It’s certainly true that Lear eventually does feel remorse: for valuing the wrong daughters at their word; for abnegating his humanity before abdicating his throne; for being stupid. His “remorse” seems particularly apt when we recall that he himself expressed his disappointment in his daughters as a kind of biting: “sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” he styled it, “to have a thankless child.” Two thankless children = two bites. Regan bites; Goneril bites again. King Lear has remorse.

For my student, though, Lear’s guilt is not a thing but a process: King Lear remorses. But in that structure, considering the word’s origins, wouldn’t we have to interpret the statement to mean that LEAR bites again? He doesn’t experience a thing, a re-biting; he bites.

This is not how my student used it; she wrote that he remorses over how badly things have turned out.

But if we do a little speculating, we might be able to make things come out right, after all:

Perhaps like Othello, Lear bites his own “nether lip.” Othello does it in anger (and possibly in frustration and anguish), and in fact the same phrase is used by other, later, writers to denote the same act and motive. (I have always liked this gesture, so suggestive of self-devouring—and Prof. Steve Cohen of Central Connecticut State University demonstrates with great clarity and persuasion the presence of a substantial pattern of images of devouring in Othello, in an article the draft of which he was kind enough to share with me a couple of months ago.) If Lear follows suit as he fumes over the consequences of his folly, we might very well say that he “remorses”!

Unorthodox use of language, but on Shakespeare’s birthday, who am I to complain about that?

“The Tragedy of Othello and the Whore of Venice…”

Another lost Shakespeare play?

This is an interesting title. The first thing it reveals is that the student never actually set eyes on the play. Back in my own student days, I confess, I didn’t read every word of every assignment, and on several occasions I went into class with a book that looked read only because I had carefully thumbed the pages, dog-eared a few, and broken the spine before rushing to class. But—and I don’t say this with any particular pride, it’s just a fact—I always knew the title of the assigned piece. The student writing on Othello here has more in common with his schoolmate who wrote a critical paper on The Twelfth Knight than he has with the sometimes-under-prepared me.

So, chalk it up to trying to write a paper based on things heard (or mis-heard) in class.

Now, as to that whore. As you may or may not remember, depending on what you majored in and how long ago it was, the full title of the play we refer to as Othello is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.

“Moor” may be an unfamiliar term to modern students; those who read a little Brontë in high school may think of the landscape feature even if, like Emily Dickinson, they never actually saw one of those moors. Unless they’ve studied medieval European history they may not have a clear idea of the Moors, those dark-skinned Arabs who conquered parts of Europe and terrified everybody with their fierce battle skills, horsemanship, non-latinate language, ornately wailing music, and exotic architecture (Spain, anyone?). Othello, the Moor of Venice, is referred to as one of them, not a landscape feature. But, because when we hear an unfamiliar word we are likely to “hear” instead a word in our own vocabulary that sounds like it, I assume that the word “moor” in any sense was new to this student…

And so he heard “whore.” Now, not all of us pronounce “whore” to sound like, or rhyme with, “Moor,” but some of us do: “Whoo-uh,” in Brooklynese, for example, and “whoor” possibly among those too fastidious or virtuous to speak the word “whore.” So “Whore” gets into the title of the play.

Music groups today aren’t so fond of putting “and the” in their names, but in My Day it was a commonplace: Little Anthony and the Imperials, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Bill Haley and the Comets, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Booker T. and the MGs, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Sly and the Family Stone, Country Joe and the Fish (I know my point was made long before I ended this list, but I thought you and I deserved a little trip down Memory Lane…). In grad school we made up fantasy ones: Diggory Venn and the Reddle Men stands out as one of the best, with Juno and the Paycocks and Leda and the Swans coming up close behind. If my student had any tendency toward comfort with this pattern, he might have added that “and,” making the subject of Shakespeare’s play a rock ‘n’ roll group (or at least duo).

The Whore of Venice might also have gotten in there by way of the Whore of Babylon, if my student had been hearing any anti-Catholic propaganda or studying the Book of Revelation.

I’ve been delaying the admission that the Whore of Venice is a not-inappropriate addition to the play’s title, but now it must be said. Desdemona, a young Lady of Venice, is a pure and faithful and loving wife to Othello for the brief days that she is his wife, and Othello holds fast to his belief in her until Iago manages a little dumb-show that persuades him otherwise; but Iago has been insinuating throughout the play that Desdemona is not, cannot be, faithful to “the Moor,” and when Othello kills her he has been persuaded that he is removing a whore from the world lest she “betray more men.” The play is not a tragedy for Desdemona in the sense that we use the term “tragedy” in literature, but she certainly suffers and she certainly dies. I like that my student sticks her into the title along with Othello, although he doesn’t do so very respectfully.

But I don’t like that he has the temerity to write about a play he hasn’t read, and his error in the title makes pretty plain that he hasn’t. Poor lad: if only he had been content to refer to the play as Othello, as most people do, I might never have known.