When he is looking for thieves. If
When the well-known English dramatist William Shakespeare began writing Othello, he had already been educated in the classics and in literature.
Although his contemporary Ben Jonson said that Shakespeare knew “little Latin and less Greek,” scholars know that Shakespeare knew, at least, about Greek ideas about comedy and tragedy. He was not incredibly educated, but he was aware that his play would comment on ideas about comedy. By looking at a few crucial scenes in the play, this paper will demonstrate that, although most people consider Shakespeare’s Othello a tragedy, it is actually a black comedy. In Act V, Scene I (17-30) lines Iago comments comically on the murder scene he has set up himself. This is the scene: Iago. O murderous slave! O villain! Stabs RODERIGO Rod.
O damn’d Iago! O inhuman dog! Iago. Kill men i’ the dark! Where be these bloody thieves? How silent is this town! Ho! murder! murder! What may you be? are you of good or evil? Lod. As you shall prove us, praise us. Iago.
Signior Lodovico? Lod. He, sir. Iago.
I cry you mercy. Here’s Cassio hurt by villains. Gra. Cassio! Iago. How is it, brother? Cas. My leg is cut in two.
Iago. Marry, heaven forbid, Light, gentlemen; I’ll bind it with my shirt. Iago has the audience and everyone other than Roderigo believe that he is looking for thieves. If you think about it, that is a funny statement.
He has committed a murder, but he pretends that he has not. Further, he pretends that he is looking for the killer and is the only one who cares enough to do so, and cannot believe “how silent” the town is. Even his final gesture, of trying to “bind” the wound with his shirt, is a supremely comic one, perhaps for Shakespeare more than Iago. Iago may be able to stem the flow of blood coming from Cassio’s leg.
But it would be silly for the audience to believe what Iago implicitly asks them to believe, that anyone or anything can stem the tide of destruction that he has already unleashed on the play’s characters, and by implication, in the play’s plot. Earlier in the play, in Act II, Scene I (lines 87-95), a similar event occurs, when Cassio greets Desdemona and speaks about Othello and Iago: Cas. She that I spake of, our great captain’s captain, Left in the conduct of the bold Iago, Whose footing here anticipates our thoughts A se’nnight’s speed. Great Jove, Othello guard, And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath, That he may bless this bay with his tall ship, Make love’s quick pants in Desdemona’s arms, Give renew’d fire to our extincted spirits, And bring all Cyprus comfort! Cassio is a noble gentleman, and his words are meant to carry weight. But he seems unaware that his noble words are entirely unsuitable to the occasion, and especially the person he is describing, Iago. Cassio describes Iago as “bold Iago,” which is unintentionally funny, because it is both true and untrue. It is patently untrue, because Iago is anything but “bold,” or noble.
But Cassio’s comment is also true, because Iago really is bold; he is aggressive and self-serving, though that is really not what Cassio means. The unintended lie in both statements makes Cassio seem a fool, and his comments comical, because they ironically wink at the audience. The audience at Shakespeare’s time also would know the Othello story well, so the rest of speech which describes the innocent, though sexual, love between Othello and Desdemona would ring equally untrue.
This is the love that Iago will destroy, in the following scenes. A later scene confirms our suspicions. In Act III, Scene IV (lines 1-10), Desdemona and the clown have an exchange of words that refers back to the earlier scene. They move through various puns on the word “lie:” Des.
Do you know, sirrah, where Lieutenant Cassio Lies? Clo. I dare not say he lies any where. Des. Why, man? Clo. He is a soldier; and for one to say a soldier lies, is stabbing. Des. Go to; where lodges he? Clo.
To tell you where he lodges is to tell you where I lie. Des. Can anything be made of this? Clo. I know not where he lodges, and for me to devise a lodging, and say he lies here or he lies there, were to lie in mine own throat.
The scene is clearly a funny one, and meant to be. The clown’s presence suggests as much. Desdemona is asking him a direct question, and he is playfully avoiding answering her, by performing tricks with the word “lie,” while actually lying. The scene looks back to Act II, Scene I, where Cassio lies, without meaning to lie. The conversation also looks ahead to the scene we first looked at, Act V, Scene I, in which Iago actually “stabs” the soldier, Roderigo.
The clown plays with Desdemona’s sentiments, while Shakespeare winks at the audience. As in all of Shakespeare’s well-crafted plays, the scene with the clown comments on the other two scenes, and transforms them in the process. By comparing the first and last scene with the scene with the clown, we begin to understand Shakespeare’s comic intent. Ironically, the scene with the clown, which obviously bends the truth, rings more true than the other scenes. It lets us peek into the dramatist’s purpose and his goal.
In the three scenes together, we can catch a glimpse of the crime Iago will perpetrate on Othello. This chain of events helps us see the lies behind Iago’s statements. It also helps us see the tragedy that is the black comedy, Othello.