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The Devil Inside: Shakespeare's Medievalism

-- William Shakespeare

Though timeless in themes and unforgettable in style and execution, the plays of William Shakespeare aren’t entirely to his credit. But while it’s true that he liked to draw inspiration from previously existing tales and texts, and often modeled his plays after Roman tragedies, there's no denying the fact that he put a decidedly secular stamp on whatever source/structure he appropriated. Nowhere is his creative licensing more true to worldly form than in his tragedy, Othello: The Moor of Venice. Tapping the Medieval morality play a la Everyman and Mankind, Shakespeare drops notions of envy, jealousy, and mercy into a 17th Century Italian Navy. Unlike the Medieval tradition, however, Shakespeare offers no moral resolution for his characters. What he does do is put a chilling new spin on dramatic conventions by making his protagonist amoral, his hero too passionate for his own good, and the act of forgiveness...a perilous game. In doing so, the playwright presents complex, intemperate, and deadly versions of Medieval concepts that transcend the divine by showing us that in the real world…some things never change.
            In his article, The Theatre of the World: A Study in Medieval Dramatic Formscholar Martin Stevens writes, “[Medieval] plays tended to define themselves by the identity of their protagonist. If the central character was Christ, the play was a Corpus Christi cycle; if a saint, a saint or miracle play; if “mankind”, a morality playSignificantly, the forces of good always won out in the end and the protagonist, therefore, could not be essentially evil.” (237) William Shakespeare, a Renaissance man, played things out differently. Iago, general Othello’s trusted ensign and arguably the play’s chief protagonist is a far cry from what most would deem good. Some might even call him a force of evil, a gaslighter, a black magician. More aptly, he is envy personified, and it is by way of his nefarious machinations that the plot advances and honorable lives come undone.
            Embracing the secular versus the divine of the Medieval tradition, Shakespeare doesn’t couch his concepts in religious rhetoric. The language of Othello is devoid of proselytizing and is instead rife with false accusations and murderous innuendo; a bitter rendering of life in the ruthless world of European power -- a setting Shakespeare seemed enamored with. By way of Iago’s powers of suggestion, audiences get to savor an act of premeditated first-degree fuckery when the crafty villain (whose name ironically evokes a Spanish patron saint) deploys subtle psychological warfare in order to achieve his ultimate end: the total destruction of another man’s life. Driven by secret fears of inferiority and low self-esteem, Iago accomplishes his objective with ease. His wrath being a byproduct of the nasty little vice he conceals…his envy. But not just envy. Shakespeare digs deeper in his characterizations by showing us the destructive power of envy intertwined with bloodthirsty ambition, an inflated sense of self and a proclivity for sadistic pleasures. In this form, Iago’s envy is a three dimensional many-a-pernicious thing.

            Lurking beneath Iago’s envy is a complementary evil: his incorrigible lack of empathy, respect, or authentic concern for others. Heavy in his chest hangs a darker shade of heart, one which throbs to a tempest’s beat anytime he's challenged, rejected, criticized or denied. But rather than draw the life of this dark soul back to the mores of religious ideology, Shakespeare merely reveals the inner musings of his criminal mind, presenting Iago as a cunning sociopath determined to achieve his ends no matter what the cost to others. The Bard was clearly fascinated by the ruthless side of our human nature as is evident in his malevolent portrait of crafty Iago. And if there’s one inarguable through line between Shakespeare and the Roman tradition a la Thyestes, it’s the notion of revenge at all costsan ideal Iago embodies with coldblooded totality. In this context, Shakespeare doesn’t tell us how people should be. Rather, how they can be and often, in the real world, are. He implores us to embark on our own exploration of the hows and whys of human ways in 2.3 when Montano asks Iago:

            Perhaps he [Othello] sees it not, or his good nature
            Prizes the virtue that appears in Cassio
            And looks not on his evil. Is this not true? (2.3.127-131)

But is Iago (or anyone for that matter) truly evil? The tragedy of Othello does nothing if not beg this timeless & disturbing question. 

      Iago’s reprehensible scheme could easily be deemed evil in its conception & execution. But more appropriately, more deeply I believe it all reveals: someone of great ambition, savvy and guile who’s become the puppet of their own base nature, having lost connection to the feminine within eons ago. Consequently, Iago sees life through a cracked lens, skewed as it is in the direction of his desires above & beyond all. But just below the surface, he's a thin-skinned insecure man driven by a disproportionate sense of entitlement & rage. Linking this idea back to Christianity, Iago can be likened to the Biblical Lucifer whose arrogance begat his downfall. Our villain's ire is aroused whenever he perceives his position, his authority, his will, he himself has been demeaned. In these instances, he morphs into a monster, albeit, a subtle Ripper. When passed up for promotion by Othello in favor of the younger, less experienced Michael Cassio, he's consumed by a fury his fragile ego can barely stave off. But rather than reveal his contempt, Iago obscures it in the guise of a sinister sincerity that becomes his secret weapon:

            Touch me not so near
            I had rather have this tongue cut from my mouth
            Than it should do offense to Michael Cassio. (2.3.210-212)

The problem with crafty Iago is that he likes to talk out of both sides of his mouth, and because he's trusted by Othello, he becomes the worst kind of enemy: the one you mistook as a friend. This fleshed out version of the Medieval tradition reveals Shakespeare’s prodigious understanding of human nature as well as his remarkable ability to manipulate language that it may do his bidding. Staying true to Mankind’s Titivillus, Iago…speaking in several candid asides…is forthcoming with us, the audience, whom he makes his passive accomplice:

            The Moor is of a free and open nature
            That thinks men honest that but seem to be so;
            And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose
            As asses are. (1.3.399-402)

Iago is a master manipulator who appears shameless as he pulls dark wool over everyone’s eyes. From a Structuralist perspective, he's an abstract concept assuming a human form; the kind of guy you might live next door to, or work for, or god forbid...sleep beside. Barely able to believe what we’re seeing, we watch as he unscrupulously exploits Othello’s trusting nature. And in the process we discover Othello’s secret affliction, of which clever Iago appears keenly aware, “I see, sir, you are eaten up with passion.” (3.3.391) 

            While Iago is plagued with envy (among other tragic things), Othello, on the other hand, is infected ("eaten up") with a different strain of vice ("passion"): jealousy. Where envy covets what another has, jealousy fears you'll take what's mine. In particular, sexual jealousy -- that most despicable of human vices -- which, according to A.C. Bradley in his essay, “ ‘The Most Painfully Exciting and the most Terrible’ of Shakespeare’s Tragedies” evokes both shame and disgust in one who recognizes it in themselves. “But jealousy,” he writes, “and especially sexual jealousy, brings with it a sense of shame and humiliation. For this reason it is generally hidden; if we perceive it we ourselves are ashamed and turn our eyes away; and when it is not hidden it commonly stirs contempt as well as pity.” (236) But not just sexual jealousy. Sexual jealousy intertwined with a deep fear of not being good enough, topped off with tremendous presence and heart. The general seems halfheartedly aware of the frailty that undermines the structure of his life:

            Now, by heaven
            My blood begins my safer guides to rule
            And passion, having my best judgment collied
            Assays to lead the way. (2.3.194-197)

In fact, if it weren’t for Othello’s outrageous jealousy in connection to his wife’s affections, Iago’s intrigues would have no host upon which to attach and systematically destroy. Therefore, the two vices work symbiotically in the tragedy.

            But unlike his Medieval counterpart, Othello (the play’s Mankind character) isn’t offered any moral explanation in the end as to how his life was so absolutely destroyed; how noble order spiraled into chaos. In Mankind, the character of Mercy explains to Mankind the dangers of his folly, “To trust overmuch in a prince is not expedient.” (846) Shakespeare knew this, too. But rather than tell us…he shows us. He shows us that malignant passions lurk in the human heart…that noble men can be easily lead astray by the force of their intemperate desires…that people may not always be what they seem…and that the innocent often die for no good reason.

         Countering the effects of the men’s vices, Shakespeare gives us the virtuous Desdemona: portrait of innocence and matrimonial fidelity. Mercy personified. Even after her husband has accused her of cheating with Cassio (as a result of Iago’s intrigues), Desdemona remains steadfast in her devotion to her husband. She tells Iago in 4.2:

            Comfort forswear me! Unkindness may do much;

            And his unkindness may defeat my life,

            But never taint my love. (4.2.157-158)

If that isn’t the essence of mercy, what is? Except Shakespeare’s version exposes a disparaging and often overlooked aspect of the virtue. Mercy, in the Medieval model, represents a divine ideal that guides Mankind along the path of redemption. In Othelloconversely, Shakespeare reveals the dark underbelly of the virtue. Mercy, according to Shakespeare, is what ultimately brings Desdemona’s demise. But not just mercy. Mercy entangled with a deep passionate love for her husband, topped off with the belief that a woman stands by her man regardless of what form his abuse might assume. The doomed bride tells Iago in 4.2:

            Alas, Iago,

            What shall I do to win my lord again?

            Good friend, go to him; for by this light of heaven,

            I know not how I lost him. Here I kneel. (4.2.149-151)

So absolute is her devotion (even in light of potential danger) that Feminist critics likely recoil at the obsequious degree to which she submits to her irrational husband. On some level, Othello’s faithful wife seems aware that her compassion might bring her collapse but appears to accept it with dutiful resignation. Foreshadowing her imminent death, she tells Emilia in 4.3, “If I do die before thee, prithee shroud me / In one those same sheets.” (4.3.23-24) She’s referring to her wedding sheets, drawing a parallel between matrimony and eternal sleep

            Shakespeare’s method is simple. Guided by the Medieval structure, the Bard of Avon creates unforgettable characters whose breakdowns, sacrifices, and devilish ways never cease to amaze and delight. Iago’s devastating powers of suggestion and innate awareness of the chinks in Othello’s nature make him a formidable foe. A fact that he, too, seems aware of when in 4.1 he tells Cassio (with an irony only the spellbound audience could fully comprehend), “I am a very villain else.” (4.1.127) Very, very. 

            Through Iago, Othello, and Desdemona, Shakespeare presents us with human renditions of vices and virtues underscoring their often bitter, unforeseen sides. In his tragic portrayal of Desdemona, for example, audiences are left to wonder: can a virtue, taken too far, become a vice? Shakespeare shows us, too, that some stories end tragically for the evil and innocent alike. When Othello’s passion overtakes him to the point that he murders the thing he allegedly loves the most, we’re left to ponder how on earth such a great man could've ever allowed such an awful thing to happen? And we continue to find ourselves with more questions than answers... 

Welcome to the real world.

*Grade received: B



            Everyman and Mankind: An Arden Early Modern Drama Edition. Edited by

Douglas Bruster and Eric Rasmussen. Arden Early Modern Drama, London, 2009.

            Othello: A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by Edward Pechter. W.W. Norton and

Company, New York, London, 2004.

            Stevens, Martin. “The Theater of the World: A Study in Medieval Dramatic

Form.” The Chaucer Review, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Spring, 1973), pp. 234-249.

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