Theatre of Passion: Othello and The Two Noble Kinsmen

Othello's Apprenticeship in the Theatre of Passion

by Daniella Jancsó

It is my argument that Othello, Shakespeare’s paradigmatically Aristotelian tragedy revolves around Platonic ideas and ideals. The play presents the development from a belief in absolute love and knowledge to an experience of the relativity of both love and knowledge as Othello’s theory of absolutes is put to the test in Iago’s theatre.

The identification of “the whole being” with one passion is what most characterizes the heroes in Shakespeare’s tragedies.[1] To Bradley’s well-known critical opinion it may be added that this total identification applies not only to Shakespeare’s heroes, but also to his villains. And a later reformulation of the Bradleyan view claiming that “Shakespeare’s conception of tragedy plainly and constantly concerns the man who is passion’s slave”[2] suggests that this identification is not necessarily voluntary, and may entail the loss of freedom.

In Othello, the characters affected are conscious of this loss[3], and they either welcome it (like Othello and Desdemona) or are plagued by it (like Bianca and Roderigo), or simply acknowledge it (like Iago). Either way, passion (at least that of the protagonists) provokes an urge to explain, to reach an understanding of their state of mind, and the desire to explain desire is felt by the characters affected and the audience alike. (Just to note in passing: the need to explain can be accounted for both in terms of Renaissance theories of the ‘passions of the mind’ and modern psychology; accordingly, the explanations may compensate for the loss of freedom, their function is to restore a mental balance, a peace of mind.)

That Iago embarks on a quest that Coleridge famously termed the “motive-hunting of motiveless malignity”, trying to identify (I think not only for the audience, but also for himself) the source of his passionate hatred, is a critical commonplace. What is often overlooked is that this quest for knowledge is also pursued by Othello and Desdemona, who are putting forward various explanations for their passionate love. Othello identifies Desdemona’s pity (that is, her compassion) as the spark of his passion for her. In turn, her love for him, he explains, was aroused by his deeds and accomplishments. Desdemona construes their story differently, and locates the source of her passion in the undefined “rites for which [she] love[s] him” (1.3.258).

That Iago’s explanations for his hatred are unsatisfactory is indicated by the sheer amount of scholarly (and unscholarly) response they generated. There seems to be a gap between the motives given and his ‘actual’ motive(s), Iago’s explanations (it is felt) cannot account for the intensity of his passion. It is this gap that sends critics, performers and audiences alike on an endless quest for Iago’s ‘real’ motives.

What about the rationalization of passion on the part of Othello and Desdemona? Is it any more satisfactory? Critics and audiences accept it more readily than Iago’s account, and their only concern (if any) seems to be the discrepancy between his and her story, not the realness of motives. The characters in the play, however, find it hard to swallow the lovers’ explanations for their passion. For Brabantio (and perhaps not only for him), Desdemona’s behaviour is beyond comprehension unless it is to be accounted for by supernatural powers: he cannot bring himself to believe the ‘natural’ motives given. Within the world of the play, it is his disbelief that points to the existence of a gap between a given explanation and the real motive, between a Platonic shadow of an explanation and the ‘ideal’ explanation. Brabantio is the first victim to be swallowed up by this gap (which we may term epistemological), but not the only one. Exploiting the epistemological gap, Iago can send Othello on a passionate quest for knowledge about Desdemona’s real motives, real self, Platonic essence. The potential of the epistemological gap (and thus Iago’s power) is unlimited because absolute knowledge is by definition unreachable, the essence unknowable, and thus the quest for knowledge interminable, endless. There exists always something else beyond what we already know, there remains always something to be discovered: “Nay, yet there is more in this” (3.3.133), as Othello says. The Hamletian dread of the life to come (the dreams to come) is transformed into an Othellonian dread of the knowledge to come.

At the start, however, Othello is still a man of ‘absolutes’: he believes that his knowledge of Desdemona is absolute (“My life upon her faith.”, 1.3.295), and he believes that his love for her is absolute (“My soul hath her content so absolute / That not another comfort like to this / Succeeds in unknown fate”, 2.1.189). He cannot imagine that either his happiness or knowledge could increase. Like Lear, Othello thinks he is at his journey’s end and ‘knows not’ that he is only at the beginning. Yet his sense of completeness is challenged by Desdemona’s immediate response as she invites him to enter a world of relativity: “The heavens forbid / But that our loves and comforts should increase / Even as our days do grow” (2.1.191–93). Her suggestion that there is even more love beyond their love runs against his theory of the absolute. Desdemona will shake Othello’s belief in absolute love, and having thus prepared the ground for her enemy, Iago can shake Othello’s belief in absolute knowledge.

Desdemona disproves Othello’s theory of absolute love behind the scenes, and thus we have only indirect evidence of this (at this stage still) pleasurable process. In all likelihood it is the passionate consummation of the marriage in Act 2 Scene 3 that proves her right. Othello’s oft quoted remark – “Excellent wretch! perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not / Chaos is come again” (3.3.90–93) – can be read as evidence for the increase of the intensity of his love: his passion, till then the organizing principle on a personal level, is now ascribed cosmic dimensions. The expansion of the scope of Othello’s language is indicative of the expansion of the scope of his experience: what he could not imagine before – the increase of his love – has now happened.

In contrast to his theory of absolute love, Othello’s theory of absolute knowledge is confuted openly, the painful process of the increase of his knowledge is staged in its entirety. Iago, a witness to Othello’s public declaration (“My life upon her faith.”, 1.3.295) deeply despises the theoretical – just think of his vehement objections to Cassio’s promotion. Iago is a practical man through and through, and he puts Othello’s theory of absolute knowledge to the test. He wants to prove that knowledge is relative. For this he requires an experimental arena, and so he transforms the epistemological gap into a theatrical space. In this theatrical space he arranges an investigative set-up with invented crime and criminals; Othello is first assigned the role of the spectator, but later acts himself as the investigator. His task is not to find the criminals – he ‘knows’ them right from the start –, but to fill in the epistemological gap he has become aware of. Thus, Iago’s answer to Othello’s theory is the theatre: the etymological relationship between theatre (literally a place for seeing) and theory (originally meaning spectacle), both words stemming from the Greek theastai (to see, to behold) is dramatised in the play as the development from sight to insight is acted out.

Following Aristotle, ancient and Renaissance doctrine presumed the primacy of sight among the senses, particularly its efficacy in provoking intense emotional responses.[4] It is significant for Shakespeare’s play that sight, the most highly developed sense, is closely associated with imagination; as Aristotle remarks in his De Anima, “the name for imagination (phantasia) is taken from light (phaos), because without light it is not possible to see”[5]. Aristotle goes on to add that “[t]o the thinking soul images serve as sense-perceptions (aisthemata)”[6] or, in other words, a strong imagination begets the event itself. Quintilian (whom Shakespeare most certainly read) notes that intense visiones “naturally nourish the more violent passions, those belonging to the rhetorical category of pathos, namely anger, loathing, fear, hatred, grief and pity”[7]. And for the majority of Renaissance and classical moral philosophers the passions of the mind comprehended the whole spectrum of human emotions, including the realm of imagination.[8]

In the light of these doctrines it is not surprising that for Othello knowledge may come in the form of visions. It was Desdemona who activated Othello’s imagination, and it is now Iago who nourishes it with his sickly diet. As a consequence, Othello’s sickened imagination begets sickening events. This also marks an epistemological turn in the play: at the beginning, what was ‘real’ (Othello’s adventurous life story) worked as if it were imagined, arousing Desdemona’s imagination and passion. In turn, after her passion activates Othello’s imagination (and at the same time domesticates his life), what is imagined works as if it were real. Othello wants to put an end to the endless (and for him unbearable) process of discovery by killing both the object of his imagination and his imagination itself: “Put out the light, and then put out the light!” (5.2.7).

As the lights go out Othello’s imagination comes to a halt. With his desperate act he seeks to force knowledge and love to an end, he wants to close the epistemological gap. Yet his words immediately following the murder – “Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon, and th’ affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration” (5.2.97–99) – point in the opposite direction. With Desdemona dead, the gap explodes into a chasm, a gaping void: chaos (also meaning chasm, or void) is come again, and its return is also reinforced by the etymological relationship between the words yawn and chaos.[9]

Though Othello’s imagination is at rest, the process of discovery does not come to a halt with Desdemona’s death. As the epistemological gap is filled by an alternative chain of events, Othello learns what the audience knew all along. He learns (paradoxically or Platonically) what he knew at the start: Desdemona was faithful. His relative knowledge is now identical with the knowledge he thought was absolute: this is his journey’s end.

Othello begins to see in the darkness, after he put out the light: he exchanges sight for insight. In that he is reminiscent of the hero of another paradigmatically Aristotelian tragedy, namely King Oedipus. And like Oedipus at the end of his passionate quest for knowledge, it is himself that Othello finally finds. He was the one who ‘committed the crime’, it is he whom Desdemona slept with. That all along it was himself he was jealous of is Othello’s final insight.[10] And this ‘doubleness’ (Othello as his own doppelgänger) is enhanced by his suicide speech in which he is both the executioner and the criminal, upholder of ‘civilized’ justice and ‘barbaric’ Turk.


[1] Cf. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London: Macmillan, 1905), p. 20.

[2] A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns (New York: Theatre Art Books, 1961), p. 263.

[3] Cf. Othello’s “For know, Iago, / But that I love the gentle Desdemona / I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumspiction and confine / For the sea’s worth” (1.2.24–28) and Desdemona’s “My heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord” (1.3.251–252). All quotations of the play are taken from the Arden edition of Othello, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann (1997).

[4] Cf. Joseph R. Roach, The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (Newark etc.: University of Delaware Press etc., 1985), p. 47.

[5] D. W. Hamlyn, ed., Aristotle’s De Anima(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 56.

[6] Hamlyn, p. 63.

[7] Roach, p. 25.

[8] Cf. Arthur Kirsch, The Passions of Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 1.

[9] Cf. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, vol. I-II (Amsterdam, London, New York: Elsevier Publishing Company, 1966).

[10] Cf. I. Geher, Shakespeare (Budapest: Corvina, 1998), pp. 209-229.


Die These des Papers ist, daß Othello, Shakespeares paradigmatisch aristotelianische Tragödie, sich um platonische Ideen und Idealen dreht. In Platons Hierarchie der Ideen gibt es ein nicht zu überbrückendes „ontological gap“ zwischen den Abbildungen einer Idee und der Idee selbst. Analog kann man ein "epistemological gap" postulieren, das zwischen Wissen und der platonischen Idee eines absoluten Wissens zu situieren ist. Am Anfang glaubt Othello fest an die Absolutheit seiner Liebe (zu Desdemona) und sein Wissen (über Desdemona): eine Steigerung ist für ihn unvorstellbar. Desdemona führt ihn jedoch in eine Welt der Relativität, da sie eine Steigerung der Liebe für möglich, sogar für wünschenswert hält. Sie erschüttert Othellos Glauben an die Absolutheit seiner Liebe, oder anders ausgedrückt, sie macht Othello die Existenz eines „epistemological gap“ bewußt. Dadurch ebnet sie (unbewußt) den Boden für Iago, der Othellos Glauben an die Absolutheit seines Wissens erschüttern will. Um sein Vorhaben zu verwirklichen, schafft Iago einen experimentellen Raum: er transformiert das „epistemological gap“ in einen "Theaterraum". Dort inszeniert er Desdemonas Ehebruch und stellt dadurch den Glauben Othellos auf die Probe.