Theatre of Passion: Othello and The Two Noble Kinsmen

Passion and Politics in Othello

by Andrew James Johnston

Shakespeare’s plays betray an almost Bourdieuian awareness of the political nature of society and the social nature of politics as well as of the differences in individual habitus this entails. The characters’ emotions and, especially, their passions, are thus always linked to the rapidly shifting power structures of the plays, on the one hand, and the socio-psychological make-up the figures are shown to be equipped with, on the other. Often, much of the tension derives from a hiatus between an individual character’s socially conditioned expectations and the requirements of a particular political situation. While it is indisputable that the language of hierarchy and degree, established order and traditional legitimacy features prominently in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – and is, as E. M. W. Tillyard would have us believe, strongly reinforced by contemporary concepts of nature and the universe – Shakespeare, nevertheless, repeatedly stages political communities which, without being even remotely democratic, do present forms of political association markedly different from the feudal courts that dominate the political landscapes of so many of his plays. The Roman tragedies such as Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and, to a certain extent, Anthony and Cleopatra, provide ample proof of this tendency, as does Othello. Shakespeare’s Venice is as republican as his Rome and the dramatist stresses the fact by turning Venetian councillors into Senators (They were mere magnificoes in the Merchant of Venice)[1]. The imperial city and the maritime signory thus demand a type of character who is not a simple courtier or vassal – though, admittedly, neither role deserves the epithet simple – but a statesman, that is the term Brabanzio uses when referring to himself and his fellow-councillors. And, indeed, the term state denoting that abstract and yet very concrete political entity reverberates throughout the play.

Yet for all its republicanism, Venice remains a singularly aristocratic society as Brabanzio makes clear in the same line in which he refers to statesmen. Though the Duke of Venice, as Shakespeare calls the Doge, possesses none of the monarchical absolutism so confidently exercised by Theseus of Athens, for instance, his title in and of itself may render ambiguous the republicanism of the city, if not for modern audiences, then perhaps for the play’s eponymous hero. As Mark Matheson has pointed out, Othello tends to speak of the signory as though it were his feudal liege lord:[2] “My services which I have done the signory”[3] (1.2.18).

But the language of feudal relationships jars grammatically with that of the state, as becomes especially visible at the end in the final act: “I have done the state some service and they know’t” (5.2.235). Time and again the Moor seeks to overcome the barriers of his ethnic and racial otherness by invoking values typical of the chivalric world of the Middle Ages: martial prowess, loyal service and royal descent:

I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege (1.2.21–2)

Yet none of these values particularly impresses the signory whose representatives treat him like the mercenary he is.

Duke:     Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you
Against the general enemy Ottoman. (1.3.48–9)

If they are quick to forgive him his secret wooing of Desdemona, they are equally quick to recall him and substitute him with another foreigner, the Florentine Cassio, when the Turkish danger appears to have sufficiently diminished (4.1.227–29). The state’s dealings with its servant reflect the complex and distrustful relationships between the Serenissima and the commanders of its armies during the Renaissance. One of the most famous and least trusted, Bartolomeo Colleoni (1400–75), was kept under a form of strict supervision verging on luxurious imprisonment whenever his military talents were not needed. It seems, therefore, as though Othello, by transferring not only his political but also his emotional allegiance to the signory, were getting his cultural bearings wrong. Similarly, Othello takes Cyprus – that colonial outpost and grim garrison town[4] – for something akin to a feudal fief. (In this Desdemona seems, however, to out-do him, since it is she who insists on accompanying her husband to Cyprus after he has already decreed that she is to stay home.)

Othello’s bombast and rhetorical excess have been read as linguistic signs of his social insecurity,[5] and though I find that interpretation persuasive, I feel that it fails to capture either the specifically histrionic aspect of Othello’s speeches or the particular political culture they express. Much as Othello’s words bespeak a desire to establish a verbal equality with the ruling class of Venice so do they imply an act of self-fashioning, but an act of self-fashioning decidedly more fundamental and performative than the mere projection of an image or a simple means of self-advertisement. What Othello does through his language is to enact the role of a feudal fossil. His words, his deeds and even his emotions serve the purpose of creating a self that must needs be in conflict with the mercantile and rational mentalities of the men he serves. His hyper-sensitivity, his generosity, his excessive jealousy and, finally, the violence of his passion are all meant to substantiate the nostalgic concept of self so at odds with the Venetian world that surrounds him. As Othello says to Desdemona: “The hearts of old gave hands, / But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts” (3.4.44–45). A term like “new heraldry” must sound oxymoronic to those who consider it their duty to uphold the ancient and venerable forms of chivalry.

Othello’s all-too-apparent need to affirm his traditionalistic identity may also help to explain his curious detachment right before murdering Desdemona that Michael Neill has drawn our attention to[6]:

This sorrow’s heavenly
It strikes where it doth love (5.2.21–2)

This distance from one’s own emotions resembles that of an actor distancing himself from his role and it seems only appropriate that this detachment comes when Othello’s final attempt to validate his self-created identity culminates in the destruction of Desdemona and then of himself. Likewise, the hero’s relationship to Iago follows a pattern prescribed by this role. In order to be that larger-than-life representative of an older, finer age Othello must fall victim to manipulation and betrayal, and it is Iago, himself continually deploying the language of vassalage when talking to Othello, who is only too happy to oblige. There is an unacknowledged collusion between the two actors, a collusion rendered all the more suspicious since Iago exhibits an uncanny distance from his own roles that permits him to see through not only his own disguises but also those of his master, whose rhetorical excess he criticizes: “[…] bombast circumstance / Horribly stuffed with epithets of war,” (1.1.13–4).

When Iago’s seduction of his master reaches its climax, the arch-trickster kneels before Othello, who is kneeling, too, and appropriates and mixes the language of love and the gestures of vassalage. This homoerotic parody of a wedding also contains elements of a feudal ceremony of investiture and homage, the religious elements of which are reminiscent of the rituals of the medieval chivalric orders as is Othello’s mixture of Christian and martial verbiage.

Witness you ever-burning lights above,
You elements that clip us round about,
Witness that here Iago doth give up
The execution of his wit, hands, heart
To wronged Othello’s service. Let him command,
And to obey shall be in me remorse,
What bloody business ever.

They rise (3.4.66–72)

A distant, feudal past is cast in the mould of specific emotions – emotions simultaneously signifying that past – which, I need hardly say, is no more than a nostalgic other to the play’s present. To love and to feel is then to live or relive that past. To feel excessively, to plunge into passion, is to substantiate the culture of that past in an inimical present. Yet the logic of this retrograde utopianism necessarily leads into self-destruction, a self-destruction that hinges on betrayal. Iago assumes, therefore, the role of an all-powerful stage manager and director, since he is purveyor both of the passion that gives access to the feudal identity Othello craves and of the treachery underpinning that passion’s tragic out-datedness. But even as Iago plays his role with unsurpassed perfection he permits the audience to glimpse the element of collaboration inherent in his role. And, this, I would argue, constitutes his most subtle and devastating act of betrayal, namely the manner in which he lays bare the self-engrossed, nostalgic histrionics of Othello’s supposedly overmastering passion. Iago’s ultimate triumph lies in his deconstruction of Othello’s master narrative of the decline of feudal culture.


[1] Mark Matheson, “Venetian Culture and the Politics of Othello”, Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995), p. 124.

[2] Ibid., p. 127.

[3] William Shakespeare, The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, ed. by S. Greenblatt. Tragedies (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

[4] Michael Neill, “Changing Places in ‘Othello’”, Shakespeare Survey 37 (1987), p. 115.

[5] Lynne Magnusson, “‘Voice Potential’: Language and Symbolic Capital in Othello”, Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997), pp. 95–6.

[6] Neill, p. 128.


Shakespeare’s Othello ist eine Analyse nostalgischer Identitätskonstruktion. Othello, der Söldner im Dienst einer merkantilen Republik, inszeniert sein Selbstbild auf der Basis eines mittelalterlich inspirierten, feudalen Diskurses. Anachronistisch entwirft er sich als persönlicher Vasall des venezianischen Staates, dessen institutionelle Abstraktheit das Stück durch die Wiederholung des Begriffs state unterstreicht. Othello’s Leidenschaft, wie auch sein mörderisches Scheitern sind in diesem Diskurs angelegt: Seine Rolle des edlen Ritters in einer modernen Welt erfordert geradezu den Konflikt, der zu seinem Untergang führt. Iago durchschaut die Konstruiertheit von Othellos Selbstbild und übernimmt die Verräterrolle, deren Othello um der Bestätigung seiner Identität willen bedarf. Doch der Verrat Iagos geht tiefer, denn er legt bloß, wie sehr es sich bei Othellos scheinbar wahrhaftiger Leidenschaft um das Produkt einer nostalgischen Selbstinszenierung handelt.