Theatre of Passion: Othello and The Two Noble Kinsmen

'Make passionate my sense of hearing': Teaching and Learning in Othello

by Angela Stock

Othello – the tragedy “[o]f one that lov’d not wisely but too well” (5.2.344)[1] is the dramatised unravelling of Renaissance ideologies of personhood, of self-fashioning. It shows a man who is striving to make himself, and it shows how he is unmade by a malevolent external influence. Iago’s destruction of Othello’s integrity, I would suggest, can be read and understood as a sort of inverted schooling, or a perverted process of socialisation – perverted, because it unleashes precisely those forces of passion that education properly sought to bridle.

The Renaissance humanists’ optimistic views on man’s perfectibility influenced their views on the importance of education. The humanist teacher hoped to realise and shape the natural potential for virtue that every child was proclaimed to have. Without art – call it ‘discipline’ or ‘schooling’ – nature would be wild, shapeless and incoherent. But in the young child it is not inherently wicked or sinful (except in the remoter sense of Original Sin). Roger Ascham demands in The Schoolmaster (1570) that “to the goodness of nature be joined the wisdom of the teacher”. Erasmus of Rotterdam’s educational work was based on the conviction, stated in De pueris instituendis (1529), that homines non nascuntur sed finguntur – men are not born but made.[2] The child’s character was seen as a soft but hardening substance (Erasmus uses the image of clay) that is moulded and fashioned by its environment, for better or worse. The more susceptible the pupil, the more benevolent the teaching ought to be. Erasmus thus implicitly acknowledges that the child can be moulded into an inadequate or even harmful shape by bad or wicked teachers. ‘Fingere’ can imply double-dealing or deceit, pretence or lies: men, we might also say, are not born, but shaped through manipulation by the art of the teacher who works on and with the pupil’s natural gifts.

In the term finguntur we also hear the root of the word ‘fiction’. This is a hint at the close relation between public rhetoric (which aimed to engage the emotions of an audience of citizens to incite them to opportune action) and private tutoring (which aimed to engage the imagination and the mind of a pupil in order to incite him to virtuous action). So while the well-taught student could be thought of as a ‘fiction’ of his teacher in the sense that his teacher created him and made him, it was also often observed that students could very effectively be taught by way of fictions, or rather by way of stories: narratives illustrate a course of action and are thus a much better guide than precepts, advice, or commonplaces. (Children will almost invaribly do as their parents do, not as their parents say.) Teaching – call it making or manipulating – by narrative is certainly prominent in Othello.

The first and immediately impressive instance in the play is the re-presentation before Father and Senate of Othello’s wooing of Desdemona. Brabantio at once produces ‘common knowledge’ (‘popular prejudice’ by any other name) to explain what perplexes him: “’tis probable and palpable to thinking” that this foreigner, this “thing”, has used magic to persuade his daughter (1.3.76 and 71). In fact, however, if Othello deliberately and consciously set about winning Desdemona at all, he did it in the best rhetorical manner, by vivid and colourful narrative. Othello makes passionate Desdemona’s sense of hearing by telling her (teaching her?) of the warrior’s vita activa. He specifies that she became very interested by the bits and pieces he related, and then asked for a full and complete narration. This full story of his life – presumably properly structured, with a beginning, a middle and end, with climaxes and catastrophes and denouements – has on his audience/pupil exactly the effect desired by teachers who told stories of the lives of classical heroes: it makes Desdemona want to imitate him, to model herself on him. “She wished that heaven had made her such a man” (1.3.162-3). Unable to emulate her hero, she does the next best – and the only possible – thing: she decides to marry him. “My heart’s subdu’d / Even to the very quality of my lord” (1.3.250-1): she strives to become one with him - in nature at least, if not in action.

Now, ideally, the e-ducator brings forth the youngster’s inherent capacity for virtuous action, and the pupil acquires virtus – the will and the capacity to be of use to the commonweal, from which will result honour and good reputation for the individual. Government of self and of others was the objective, not the contemplation of transcendental Truth. Reasonable conduct, refined behaviour were to be achieved; not simply the suppression of irrational impulses and passions, but the harnessing of one’s vital powers to the interests of the state. Apart from self-control and rationality, the principal acquirements of the nobleman in public office were communicative skills – that is, the ability to speak well, to persuade others, and in turn to decode their speech and behaviour in order to be able to rule them.

Iago destroys in Othello both the capacity to govern himself and others and the capacity to communicate. He reduces him to an incoherent wreck, anti-social as well as a-social, isolated in his fantasies and his tortured mutterings. He becomes a spectacle and an affront to his society – to the very men who used to esteem him for his contributions to the state’s welfare, and who used to succumb to his eloquence – and he ceases absolutely to communicate properly with his wife, whom he wooed by telling her stories of his life. Othello himself analyses his downfall as the result of a malevolent outside influence: he was “one not easily jealous, but being wrought, / Perplexed in the extreme” (5.2.345-6). Here it is again, the image of a malleable substance worked upon, fashioned into an allegory of Jealousy.

A stranger in Venetian society, Othello has relied on being taught by Venetians and on imitating their behaviour. At the end of the play he claims that he has been badly taught, and that he was corrupted by one who had the ‘art’ to distort him. The striking thing is that at the beginning of the play, Othello possesses many of the virtues of the Renaissance nobleman, the responsible soldier and the self-effacing citizen. And yet at the same time he also, paradoxically, seems to possess the innocence of unformed youth.

When we first meet him – but for the detail of the colour of his skin and his non-Christian upbringing – Othello is a fine example of the Renaissance ‘governor’. He is no theorist, like Cassio, but has gained his experience out there in the world, developing from an apprentice warrior into a seasoned, skilled, respected general. Experience shaped by principle maketh the leader of men. Neither his military skills nor his principled character seem to be the result of a formal education, certainly not of a European Christian education, although it is unclear whether he acquired his principles in Venice or before. His public behaviour is beyond question refined and calmly self-assured, and he knows how to bridle his will and his impulses of passion by applying reason. After the noise and bustle of the first scene, Othello’s voice rings with quiet authority: “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” (1.2.80-3). Confident of his deserts and his social standing, he is ready like a good citizen to obey the regulations of official authority: “Wither will you that I go / To answer this your charge?” (1.2.83-4). This appears again later on when he quells the drunken brawl. Not only is he determined to keep order within the citadel, but he also feels very much responsible for the civilians’ welfare: “in a town of war / Yet wild, the people’s hearts brimful of fear, / To manage private and domestic quarrel?” (2.3.213-5). He is a complete Governor indeed – it is not that he does not have passions, it is that he is determined and able to harness them to reason: “passion, having my best judgement collied [darkened], / Assays to lead the way. ‘Zounds, if I stir …” (2.3.206-7, italics added). That is a controlled threat. And even later: “I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove” (3.3.190). These are sound precepts, guidelines to a good life.

So although in one sense, Othello seems to personify the perfect Renaissance officer and gentleman (stressing the ideal of self-fashioning in that he was 'not to the manner born'), in another sense, he is yet uneducated, unguided, unshaped. For all his experience and his apparent strength of character, Iago recognises in Othello an innocence that resembles the blank sheet of the child’s mind that must be inscribed by the art of the teacher: “The Moor is of a free and open nature [and] will as tenderly be led by th’nose / As asses are” (1.3.399-401). The lever for Iago’s scheme to destroy Othello by making him jealous is precisely Othello’s childlike state of malleability. Other tragic protagonists are tempted by their desires (Faustus desires knowledge, Macbeth the Scottish crown, Marc Antony Egypt), or they have a very evident fault (Hamlet’s posturing, Lear’s emotional ruthlessness). In contrast, Othello’s vulnerability results from a combination of a very high degree of self-management and an extreme susceptibility to suggestion – which is not entirely different from the fundamental eagerness to learn that was attributed to human nature by Renaissance educators.

Because teaching is much more than just the passing on of knowledge, it should be attuned to the pupil’s aptitude and interests, hence the importance of individual teaching. The humanist educators agreed that it was vital to recognise the child’s inborn talents and specific potential in order to shape him most efficiently and effectively. The project of teaching a pupil was very much like the project of persuading an audience; rhetoric was both the means and the content of education. The teacher/orator had to find not only the images and phrases that most fittingly expressed his subject, he also had to take into consideration the predilections and prejudices of his pupil/audience. To stick with the image of ‘moulding’ a pupil: what stuff is the pupil made of? How is this stuff best worked upon?

The challenge that Iago poses to himself is to see whether he can persuade Othello – “the nature / Whom passion could not shake” – from his “solid virtue” (4.1.265-6). (This, by the way, a poignant variation on the dozens of Jacobean plays in which paranoid men set out to test a woman’s virtue.) This challenge is necessarily both a rhetorical and a psychological feat requiring an intense and detailed focus on his pupil/victim, and can therefore also be describes as a kind of inverted teaching – a kind of tutorial from hell.

In advanced moral education, teachers applied more sophisticated methods than rote-learning, not the least of which were irony and the mannerist knack of leaving a gap or working a twist into the picture, which the beholder had to fill or disentangle. The Praise of Folly (1511) was, of course, a prime example of this kind of (ironic) self-effacement of the teacher: the best, most effective teacher is he who does not seem to be teaching at all, but who manages to make the student believe that his efforts are all his own initiative. Iago is not consciously modelling himself on the examples of Socrates or Erasmus, but he adopts the same technique. Successful instruction was further supposed to combine three essential elements: nature, training, and practice:

By Nature I mean partly innate capacity for being trained, partly native bent towards excellence. By Training, I mean the skilled application of instruction and guidance. By Practice, the free exercise on our own part of that activity which has been implanted by Nature and is furthered by Training.[3]

This is how Iago proceeds. Othello has learnt to keep his own passions in firm check, but this means that the precarious balance of reason and desire is already familiar to him when Iago starts insinuating that Desdemona’s “will” may recoil from “her better judgement” (3.3.236) and fix itself on Cassio. Othello has, as it were, a predisposition to engage with reflections on the force of passion. By foregrounding his and their common cultural background, Iago installs himself as an authority on Venetian women that gives credit to his ‘instruction’ on their wanton behaviour: “I know our country disposition well: / In Venice they do let God see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (3.3.201-3). Iago ‘trains’ Othello to read Desdemona’s behaviour against the misogynist prejudices that he presents to Othello as valuable cultural knowledge. Thus instructed and ‘trained’ to see betrayal and wantonness in Desdemona’s every word and action, Iago leaves Othello to get on with it and ‘practice’. In Act 3, Scene 3, when he first begins to home in on Othello, Iago is practically breathing down his neck, carefully timing his exits and his entrances so that Othello feels that he is developing his own train of thought, yet never letting him off the hook. After the one-to-one tutorial in the schoolroom comes the carefully stage-managed contact with the outside world – as when the children of the family are allowed downstairs into the drawing room for half an hour when there are only friends and relatives present, in order to practice their curtsies and conversational skills. Act 4, Scene 1, in which Iago positions Othello to watch the encounter between himself, Bianca and Cassio, is equivalent to this. He leaves Othello alone in his corner, but afterwards alerts him to salient details (“Did you perceive how he laugh’d at his vice?” “And did you see the handkerchief?”, 171 and 173), guides his interpretation (“Cuckold me!” – “O, ’tis foul in her!”, 200-1), and his further action (“Do it not with poison; strangle her in her bed”, 207).

After this scene, Othello has completed his course of instruction and can now reproduce the violent commonplaces on woman’s fickleness without prompting and does not waver from his idée fixe any more. Even when we think that Desdemona may be getting through to him after all and denies the charge of infidelity, he turns from her again with acid sarcasm: “I cry you mercy then. / I took you for that cunning whore of Venice / That married with Othello” (4.2.88-90).

After verbal practice comes the conscientious application of acquired principles in everyday life. The result of humanist education – virtuous action in the public sphere – is realised in an inverted, a perverted form as irrational, obsessive action in the private bedroom, as the murder of an innocent woman. Iago has demonstrated to the audience how to unravel the Renaissance ideals about personhood and self-fashioning by disintegrating the mind of a Renaissance nobleman – albeit a black one.


[1]  All quotations from the play are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. Tobin (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

[2]  See G. H. Bantock, Studies in the History of Educational Theory, vol. 1, Artifice and Nature, 1350-1765 (London: George Allen & Unwin), 1980), p. 37 et passim chap. 1: “‘A Chattering Flock’: The Humanist Experience”, pp. 11-52.

[3] Erasmus of Rotterdam, Desiderius, De Ratione Studii, in Literary and Educational Writings, ed. Craig R. Thompson, 2 vols., vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978).


Iagos Zersetzung von Othellos persönlicher Integrität und seiner Wahrnehmungs- und Urteilsfähigkeit entspringt nicht dem ‚Genie des Bösen‘, von dem Iago geleitet scheint, sondern kann in zeitgenössische humanistische Theorien des Lehrens und Lernens eingeordnet werden. Iago setzt in Othello einen invertierten Prozeß der Sozialisation in Gang, dessen Ziele nicht die Selbstbeherrschung und die Förderung des Gemeinwohls sind, sondern die Überwältigung des ‚Schülers‘ durch seine kindlich-naturhaften Impulse und die niederen Vorurteile, die ihm sein ‚Lehrer‘ einpflanzt.