Theatre of Passion: Othello and The Two Noble Kinsmen

Impossible Passions – Shakespeare and Parker: Othello[1]

by Sylvia Mieszkowski

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice[2] may itself be called “a passion”[3], since it is definitely “a literary composition marked by strong emotion”. “Suffering”, “affection”, and “affliction”, given as synonyms for “passion” by the OED, are, moreover, being produced and displayed by most of the play’s characters. “Painful disorder” is being staged in its social dimension – both political and domestic – as well as on the level of subjective identity – that is in its physical and its psychological components. Othello’s jealousy, the predominant, yet far from only passion of the drama, is, as “an emotion” or “a mental state”, well described as “a violent attack of disease” or, indeed, dis-ease. Moreover, Othello is certainly “affected or acted upon [by] the external agency” of Iago, whose manipulation causes first “a fit or outburst of anger or rage”, then the eruption of “strong, barely controllable emotion” and finally brings about the smothering of Desdemona as the prototypical “crime of passion”.

The racist discourse[4] of the Early Modern Period seems to pre-determine the black man as passion’s typical prey, since his blackness[5], heavily charged with prejudice, was commonly associated with sensuality, irrationality and violence.[6] Following this logic, Othello – until far into the twentieth century[7] – appears as the man on stage/screen who is, qua race, most likely to be “eaten up with passion”[8]. Yet, within the religious discourse of the time, the so-called ‘passions of the mind’ were also considered “expressions of [...] the imperfection in man’s nature that both caused the Fall and constituted his state forever after it”[9] and thus understood as a universal characteristic or integral part of the human condition. Elizabethan notions of ‘blackness’ and of ‘passion’, it seems, are not only partly projected into one another, but also organised within themselves by a similar structure, namely a minority/totality-division: While the racist discourse stresses the difference of the ‘primitive’, inferior and wicked minority who is ‘black’/thought especially prone to giving in to their passions, Christian eschatology emphasises that all human beings are “black in their sinfulness, but become white in their knowledge of the Lord [...]”[10]/marked by their passions, but may hope to control them through the right faith.

Traces of both of these discursive traditions, the minorising and the universalising, can be found in Shakespeare’s text. Thus, it is not only Othello whose state and conduct may be described by the vocabulary of passion. Roderigo for example has a passion in the sense of “a strong sexual feeling” for Desdemona. She, as the “person who is the object of such feeling”, thereby is his passion, while she at the same time also freely voices her own passion for Othello. Although displaying less verbal passion in “emotional speech” than the tragic hero, the character pursuing his “aim or object with strong enthusiasm”, the one who performs not only masterly, but also most passionately on the keyboard of patriarchal ideology, however, is yet another white man. My paper shall thus concentrate on the representation of seemingly dispassionate Iago’s passion.

In a first step, I would like to demonstrate that the world opened up by Shakespeare’s text and Oliver Parker’s visualisation[11] of it is a paradigmatic ‘world between men’. Borrowing my vocabulary from queer studies theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, I would like to show that the concept she names ‘homosocial continuum’ determines how a patriarchal society deals out positions to every major character in the play. My second step will be to show how relationships of male friendship, mentorship, military entitlement, and rivalry are being triangulated by Shakespeare’s text and Parker’s film. Thirdly, I would like to focus on one of the several triangles defined by the relationship of male-male rivalry and show how Iago manages to manipulate it by smuggling himself into an already established structure. In conclusion to my argument, I shall attempt to demonstrate that Iago’s success as well as his final failure are both being determined by the unspoken rules of patriarchal society. While the passionate wish for Cassio’s position in relation to Othello is still compatible with the ideological structures of patriarchy, Iago’s desire for Desdemona’s position disrupts them in a way that must result in failure, death, and self-destruction.

In her influential book Between Men Eve Sedgwick demonstrates, by way of literary analysis, the circulation of an affective energy which she terms ‘male homosocial desire’. By creating this seemingly oxymoronic neologism she tries to suggest that – contrary to an ideology promoted to stabilize patriarchy – there is no fixed boundary between the accepted “social bonds between persons of the same sex”[12] and the repressed, denied and condemned erotic or sexual relations between men. Patriarchy’s ideology or – to borrow Andreas Mahler’s term – its “meaning with an interest”[13] insists on the categorical as well as essential differentiation of non-sexualised homosocial bonds on one hand and homosexual bonds on the other. In contrast to this, Sedgwick stresses “the potential unbrokenness of a continuum”[14]. According to her, the boundary between “men promoting the interests of men” and “men loving men”[15] is fluent. It is exactly this scandalous proximity between the two that brings about patriarchy’s command that affective relations between men may not be expressed directly, since – if it were otherwise – this could threaten the stability of the prescribed categorical difference. Instead, Sedgwick argues by turning the screw of René Girard’s theory of triangulation, these affective – or even passionate – relations have to take an indirect route. In other words, they have to take a detour and express themselves through heterosexual relationships. Paradigmatic for this movement is the structure of male erotic rivalry: The homosocial desire between male X and male Y that may not be directly expressed is re-directed towards the common-to-both object of erotic desire, female Z. Ironically, this has the effect of an indirect sexualisation of the homosocial relationship, since “the bond that links the two rivals is as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved”[16].

The main forms of male homosocial bonding named by Sedgwick, all feature in Shakespeare’s Othello. Indeed, they might be called the key structures of passion in the play. ‘Male friendship’ might seem an exception to this since it does not exist in Othello beyond its idea or ideal. It is, however, decidedly present, although it remains but a gap, or a promise that is never fulfilled by the text. There is a double reason why ‘male friendship’ is not able to fully materialise in Othello: Either there is no social equality between the potential partners – as in the relationship between Cassio and his general – with the consequence that in times of crisis, friendship has to give way before other social obligations, as is the case when Othello has to degrade Cassio for the sake of military order. Or, when there is no disturbing hierarchy – as in the relationship between Cassio and Iago – the friendship displayed is dishonest from at least one side. Despite its virtuality, the concept of ‘male friendship’ features prominently in Othello. Without it, none of Iago’s manipulations could ever work. Always hinted at, often attributed, evoked or promised, ‘male friendship’ might never be attained, but it certainly functions throughout as a site of collective phantasma, and thus enables the plot – in its double meaning – to unfold.

‘Mentorship’, the second of Sedgwick’s categories, could be given as a label to two male-male relationships in the play. While Brabantio’s mentoring position towards Othello is only hinted at by Shakespeare’s text in Othello’s story of his wooing, Parker’s film actually stages a flash-back scene that shows Brabantio who – just as much as his daughter – “with a greedy ear/devour[s] up [Othello’s] discourse”[17]. Before Desdemona herself seems to be interested in Othello, her father is shown to be. One could argue that she can only cultivate an (erotic) interest in the “internalized outsider [who] becomes the symbol of the repressed desire of Venetian society”[18], because her father keeps inviting him, shows continued interest in his biography and ‘loves’[19] him. The other, more prominent relationship between a mentor and a protegé is the one between Othello and Cassio. This is, of course, also a relationship of entitlement – Sedgwick’s third category of ‘male homosocial bonding’ – since Othello, who himself has been made general, i.e. entitled, by the Serenissima, in his turn makes Cassio his lieutenant.

The fourth type of male bonding, ‘rivalry’, again comes in a double version. Othello and Roderigo, on the one hand, used to be rivals for Desdemona’s hand before the play’s point of attack. Although neither would have been acceptable to Brabantio, Othello triumphs over the rejected Roderigo by winning Desdemona’a heart. Iago and Cassio, on the other hand, are competing for Othello’s favour and trust which are signified by the lieutenantry that is first given to one and then to the other.

I would now like to discuss some examples of triangulation based on these forms of male bonding. Three of them are, in accordance with Sedgwick’s model, indeed triangulated over the ‘female’ position: ‘Mentorship triangulated’ can be illustrated between Cassio, Othello and Desdemona. The positions in this triangle may be rotated, so this particular structure comes in three variations in the play, placing either Cassio, or Othello, or Desdemona in the top vertex. Variation one, in which Cassio acting as messenger between Othello and his bride, as confidant to both and ‘good spirit’ of their love, again takes place before the play’s point of attack.[20] The trust Othello puts in Cassio concerning these private matters is repaid by the Florentine’s loyalty, and thus Othello wins the wife he, without the assistance of a third, might not have been able to gain.

From the moment of Cassio’s degradation – the moment in which Othello’s mentorship is suspended – variation two of this triangle becomes visible: Desdemona, now taking Cassio’s former post as go-between, tries – with less success than her predecessor in this position – to reconcile Othello to his disgraced protégé.

Variation three is beautifully displayed by Parker’s film in a sequence at the beginning, which I shall from now on refer to as ‘the wedding-scene’. It is the moment when the very first words in the film – which are also the opening lines of Shakespeare’s text – are being exchanged between Iago and Roderigo. The two are placed outside the chapel’s window, watching the ceremony.[21] As the camera zooms in on Othello in front of the altar, the priest has just declared him Desdemona’s husband. He is standing between Desdemona on his left, and Cassio, apparently his best man, on his right. Having put the wedding ring on his bride’s finger he kisses her and thereby accepts her as his lawful wife. Then he turns to Cassio to hand him a dagger – sign of his future rank under Othello’s command – and they embrace in joy and mutual congratulation. Thus, Parker’s film visually parallelises two bonds – one heterosexual and the other homosocial – interconnecting them temporally. The erotic bond between husband and wife (the ring symbolises the union, the kiss is a sign of its bodily investment) and the military bond between general and lieutenant (the dagger symbolises the loyalty, the embrace lays open its corporeal dimension in battle) are staged at the same time. This moment visually exhibits both Desdemona and Cassio as objects of Othello’s desire, or, the other way round, Othello as object of both of their desires, and is marked as particularly significant by the simultaneous entry of the spoken Shakespearean text.

The second triangle I would like to comment on, structurally represents Othello’s social ‘entitlement’ and is characterised by its implicit hierarchy. Within Venetian society, black Othello, the foreigner, the mercenary, is initially socially inferior to the white noblewoman and senator’s daughter Desdemona. Both of them are, in their turn, subjects to the State of Venice, and thus ‘subjected’ to the Duke as its representative. Since he is the incarnation of the Law of the Father’s absolute sovereignty within the symbolic order of patriarchy, the Duke’s sentence even outweighs the word of the actual father figure, Brabantio. By officially accepting the union Brabantio had attempted to contest, the State entitles Othello to a higher social status, since patriarchy grants and guarantees the husband’s superiority over his wife.

‘Rivalry’, the fourth of Sedgwick’s categories which has already been briefly commented on, materialises in two triangles. The first one, a classical example of heterosexual erotic rivalry, represents Roderigo in competition with Othello for Desdemona’s hand[22] and – that is at least what Iago makes Roderigo believe – for her sexual possession during the play. The second one links Iago and Cassio over the shared rivalry for Othello’s favour. It differs from the other triangulations discussed up to this point, since all three corners are occupied by men. Whether either of the positions attributed to him – one as heterosexual rival, one as homosocial object of desire – are clear to Othello, is of little consequence. What becomes clear, however, is that through his intrigue, Iago manages to interlock the two: the triangles characterised by the positions of R-O-D (erotic rivalry) and of I-C-O (military rivalry) are combined to form the new triangle I-D-O, which reveals, I would like to argue, Iago’s secret, yet passionate desire.

Iago uses Roderigo’s wish to substitute Othello as Desdemona’s lover in order to bring about and stabilize his own double substitution of Cassio as Othello’s lieutenant and confidant.[23] But not only does he successfully substitute Cassio’s position in relation to Othello, he also, in a second step, rivals Desdemona’s. The drama and the film offer various moments to support this thesis, since Iago and Desdemona are shown to have a few crucial points in common. To begin with, they both act as mediators: when the inebriated Cassio loses his self-control and, in consequence, his lieutenantry and his reputation, Desdemona acts as mediator between him and Othello. In correspondence to this, Iago acts as mediator between her and her husband – just as, by the way, Cassio used to do during the wooing – when Desdemona loses Othello’s trust and esteem. The fact that Iago’s mediation in a crisis he has himself deliberately brought about is false, is of no consequence for the structural parallel. Secondly, Iago manœuvers himself into the position of an erotic stand-in for Desdemona in Othello’s fantasy, when he makes up the story of Cassio’s taking him for Desdemona in his sleep:

Iago:      [...] I lay with Cassio lately
And being troubled by a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will
mutter their affairs – one of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves.’
And then sir, would he grip and wring my hand,
Cry, ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips, lay his leg o’er my thigh,
And sigh, and kiss, and then cry ‘Cursed fate
That gave thee to the Moor!’[24]

Rather than enjoying Desdemona, as David Pollard argues with regard to this scene, Iago here enjoys Desdemona’s position. Rather than only producing “a curious mixture of projection and identification with Cassio”[25], as diagnosed by Pollard, Iago manages to impersonate both objects of Othello’s desire and aims at simultaneously occupying both of their positions. This, if only in fantasy, is the first time that the triangular structure of desire (C-O-D) collapses and gives way to the ‘scandal’ of an imagined dyad of Othello and Iago, who has incorporated both Cassio and Desdemona.

The third moment of identification between Iago and Desdemona lies in their both being silenced. In the film, Othello tries to stop Iago’s poisonous discourse by drowning him. In the end, of course, he smothers Desdemona with a pillow, while Iago, moreover, ultimately silences himself in an act of imaginary self-suffocation:

Iago:     Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.[26]

The most successful and significant substitution of Desdemona by Iago, or in other words, the climax of identification between the two lies in the fact that both are ‘married’ to Othello. Parker’s filmic staging[27] supports the interpretation of Act 3, Scene 3 as ‘the other wedding-scene’ in which Iago returns Othello’s earlier ‘oath’:

Iago:      I humbly do beseech you of your pardon
For too much loving you.

Othello: I am bound to thee for ever. [28]


Othello kneels

Iago kneels

Iago:     [...] 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.

Othello:  I greet thy love [...]
Now art thou my lieutenant

Iago:      I am your own for ever.[29]

Iago’s substitution of Cassio is made explicit: “Now art though my lieutenant.” In contrast, his substitution of Desdemona is implicit. In the film, Iago’s double triumph – of supplanting both Cassio and Desdemona – is visualised by turning the dyad of Othello and Iago, from the mere imagination into an actual image: While the two men, alone on the citadel’s rooftop, exchange these words – pledges of love and loyalty “for ever” – they both, following Shakespeare’s stage direction, kneel. In addition to this, Parker has them both cut and, at the very moment of Othello’s “I greet thy love”, press their bleeding palms against each other to mingle their blood, and embrace. The parallels to the wedding ceremony are obvious: the extreme emotional involvement, the swearing of oaths until death, the embrace – which has already been introduced as the male-male version of the male-female kiss in the first wedding-scene –, this symbolic exchange of body fluids, which not only has clearly erotic, but, especially in times of AIDS, also undeniably homosexual overtones, and the signature of authenticity. While the camera shows Laurence Fishburne’s back, the viewer can see Kenneth Branagh’s face during the embrace. For once, his Iago does not coolly meet the viewers look in the visual equivalent to the verbal ‘aside’ on stage, but – having attempted this routine for a split-second and abandoned it – his eyes close and his face passionately distorts into a mix of agony and pleasure of absolute intimacy.

In this scene, Parker’s Iago has finally arrived where he longed to be from the first moment we see him watching the first wedding scene: in Othello’s arms. But not only does he, for a moment, supplant Cassio as well as Desdemona, he also manages to collapse the triangular structure which is imposed by patriarchal ideology in order to prevent the boundary between homosociality and homosexuality from dissolving. In contrast to the wedding scene, there is no third party present in this ‘other wedding scene’. The dyadic fantasy is coming true for a moment, Iago has truly become a ‘lieu-tenant’, not only in the usual[30], but in the literal meaning of the word: he is keeping/holding/occupying the place (of Cassio and Desdemona) – the satisfaction of his passion seems possible. His failing effort to get Cassio killed by Roderigo and his successful attempt to erase Desdemona through Othello might be read as ultimately futile exertions to stabilise this position.

Just as we are unable to pinpoint ‘the one’ reason or motivating passion that would explain Iago’s behaviour, we are also unable to limit him to one passion or position. Iago plays all the roles offered to him by the spectrum of homosociality: the man who (seemingly) promotes the interest of other men, the male friend, the protegé, the mentor, the rival. And it is precisely by playing these roles that he is able to manipulate the other figures caught in the same structure. But apart from playing these ‘acceptable’ roles, he also tries to assume the one position of the continuum that patriarchal ideology has to deny him. Parker’s last image of Iago shows him trying again, but failing to occupy Desdemona’s position permanently, that is in death and – this time – in bed.[31] I am referring here to one of the last images of the film: the marital bed as a veritable tableau mort. Othello, having wounded Iago and then stabbed himself – with the dagger he gave to Cassio in the wedding scene and received back from him in order to be able to commit suicide – lies and dies next to Desdemona. Emilia has already been lain at her other side. The bleeding Iago half climbs, half crawls onto the bed as well, trying to lie next to Othello. Indeed, as Pollard puts it, “[t]hroughout the play, Iago has ached to enter Desdemona’s bedroom. In the end he succeeds and there receives from Othello the phallic wound [...] which completes the identification [with Desdemona].”[32] Although I agree in two crucial points – firstly, Iago’s desire to enter Desdemona’s bedroom or even bed, and, secondly, the identification of Iago and Desdemona – I differ from Pollard when it comes to the conclusion. In the context of his sadomasochistic reading of Othello this ending might appear as a success for Iago. In the context of my interpretation, it is an ultimate failure to occupy the very position that patriarchal ideology does not grant a man to occupy permanently in relation to another man. Parker’s tableau mort supports this, both through its colour-coding and its positioning. Iago and Desdemona are, in opposition to Othello’s black garments, both clad in white, which signals their identification. But in contrast to Desdemona’s spotless nightdress, which signifies her innocence, Iago’s white shirt is soiled with blood that signals his guilt. The identification is exhibited as a broken one. It is as if by stabbing Iago, and thereby spilling his blood, Othello denies or undoes the bond that was sealed by the commingling of blood in the ‘other wedding scene’. The boundary that had been momentarily dissolved between two male bodies, is reinstated again, by one male body wounding the other. The choreography of these bodies offers further support. Although Iago manages to haul himself onto the marital bed, and although he lies in the same axis as Desdemona, i.e. to Othello’s right, he fails to actually lie by his side. This position is already occupied by Desdemona’s dead body, and all that remains for Iago is to collapse onto her feet.


[1] I would like to thank Torsten Graff for his contributions in the planning phase of this paper.

[2] All quotations are taken from the 3rd edition of the Arden Shakespeare: William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. E. A. J. Honnigman (Walton-on-Thames: Arden, 1999).

[3] This and all otherwise unmarked quotations are taken from the entry for ‘passion’ in the OED.

[4] Cf. Virginia Mason Vaughan, “Racial discourse: black and white”, in Othello. A contextual history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 51–70.

[5] Cf. Diann L. Baecker, “Tracing the History of a Metaphor: All is Not Black and White in Othello” in: Comitatus 30 (1999), 113–129.

[6] Cf. Maristella de Panizza Lorch, “Honest Iago and the Lusty Moor: the Humanistic Drama of Honestas/ Voluptas in a Shakespearean Context”, in J.R. Mulryne/Margaret Shewring eds., Theatre of the English and Italian Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), p. 204–220.

[7] For an enlightening analysis of the interplay of race and Othellonian passion displayed by white and black actors on stage cf. Elise Marks, “‘Othello/me’: Racial Drag and the Pleasures of Boundary-Crossing with Othello” in: Comparative Drama 35.1 (2001), 101–123.

[8] Oth 3.3.394.

[9] Arthur Kirsch, The Passions of Shakespeare’s Tragic Heroes (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1990), p. 2.

[10] Ibid., p. 54.

[11] Oliver Parker, Othello (USA 1995). When this text was being presented as a talk at the Shakespeare-Tage 2003 in Bochum three short filmclips were shown which can not be fully represented here. However, there will be precise indications of the scenes used.

[12] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men. English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 21992), p. 1.

[13] Andreas Mahler, “Das ideologische Profil”, in Ina Schabert ed., Shakespeare-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 2000), p. 299–223, 299. My translation of the German original which reads: “In allgemeinster Form ist Ideologie interessierter Sinn.”

[14] Sedgwick, p.1.

[15] Ibid., p. 4.

[16] Ibid., p. 21.

[17] Oth 1.3.150–151.

[18] Robert Samuels, “Homophobia and the Cycle of Prejudices in Othello”, Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 2.1 (1997), 23–39, 29. For a psychoanalytic reading of “Othello’s desire for Desdemona as a displacement of the desire between Othello and Brabantio”, see p. 30f.

[19] Oth 1.3.129–134.

[20] It is explicitly mentioned however: Oth 3.3.94–100.

[21] For readers interested in looking at the film-scene: the temporal signature is 0:02:36–0:03:30.

[22] Oth 1.1.95–97.

[23] Iago’s wish for Cassio’s position is made explicit early on in the play: Iago: “[...] Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now, / To get his place, and to plume up my will / In double knavery.” Oth 1.3.391–392

[24] Oth 3.3.416–428.

[25] David Pollard, “Iago’s Wound” in: Virginia Mason Vaughan/Kent Cartwright eds., Othello. New Perspectives (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991), p. 89–96, 93.

[26] Oth 5.2.300–301.

[27] For readers interested in looking at the film-scene: the temporal signature is 1:11:22–1:13:35.

[28] Oth 3.3.215–217.

[29] Oth 3.3.465–482.

[30] “Celui qui est directement sous l’ordre du chef et le remplace eventuellement.” Paul Robert, Le Petit Robert. Dictionnaire Alphabétique et Analogique de la Langue Française, A. Rey/J. Rey-Debove, eds. (Paris: Le Robert, 1984).

[31] For readers interested in looking at the film-scene: the temporal signature is 1:52:34–1:53:05.

[32] Pollard, p. 94.


Das fiktive Universum in Shakespeares Othello und Oliver Parkers Verfilmung von 1995 wird vor dem Hintergrund der Theorie des homosozialen Kontinuums von Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick als ‚world between men‘ beschrieben. Die Analyse verschiedener Formen des male bonding und der Triangulierung über die Position der Frau bilden die Basis der These, daß Iagos passioniertes Begehren sich auf genau jene Position richtet, die ihm von der patriarchalischen Ideologie verweigert werden muß, damit die für sie entscheidende kategoriale Differenz zwischen ‚homosozial‘ und ‚homosexuell‘ aufrecht erhalten werden kann. Obwohl es Iago gelingt, sowohl Cassio als auch Desdemona zeitweise erfolgreich zu verdrängen, erlaubt es die ideologische Unterfütterung des Textes nicht, daß er sich auf der Position Desdemonas dauerhaft etabliert.