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Shakespeare Othello culture of suspicion

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

Much ado about a handkerchief

‘So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief!’ (Rymer, 1693, p. 135). Many studies of Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello begin with the seventeenth century critic Thomas Rymer’s incredulity over Desdemona’s handkerchief having a pivotal role in her tragic murder. Nevertheless, through ‘so remote a trifle’, Shakespeare raises fundamental questions over our knowledge of others, and the problems of distinguishing authentic evidence and testimony from false. The tragedy’s concerns with problems of knowing are highly relevant to our contemporary insecurities and pursuit of suspicion from counterterrorism to child protection.

‘I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt prove’, Othello demands of his officer Iago (III.iii.190).

Othello insists on seeing clear evidence, ‘Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore!/ Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof’ (III.iii.359-60).

When Desdemona loses the handkerchief, Iago is able to exploit how Othello sees the handkerchief as symbolising Desdemona’s fidelity. In Othello’s words, ‘to lose’t or give’t away were such perdition/As nothing else could match’ (III.iv.67-68).  Desdemona’s handkerchief is at the core of Iago’s dodgy dossier, which Iago creates for Othello against Desdemona. As Iago observes, ‘Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong /As proofs of holy writ’ (III.iii). The handkerchief may be a ‘trifle’, but comes to serve as proof of her infidelity (III.iii).

Honest Iago

Behind Iago’s dodgy handkerchief dossier is the character of Iago. Iago has commonly been analysed as the personification of evil. But what is his evil? Iago’s wife Emilia says of those who are jealous:

They are not ever jealous for the cause,

But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself. (III.iv.156-8)

In essence, Iago personifies radical suspicion. Iago’s suspicious nature shapes all his thoughts and relations. Iago presumes a universal human baseness. Iago sees himself as honest for being free of idealism and laying bare the baseness he assumes lies at the core of humanity.

Handkerchief – confession – handkerchief

Iago incrementally destroys Othello’s confidence in their love. He begins with hints, and half-formed conjectures, as if holding back concerns. Thus Iago stings Othello into asking for his worst suspicions. Othello’s security shaken, Iago moves on to bolder insinuations – ‘I’ll speak not yet of proof’ (III.iii.194), goading Othello to demand proofs. He goes on to contrives evidence through manipulating language, for example, playing with and conflating the meanings of ‘lie’ – to tell falsehoods and to be in bed with someone (III.iii, Bell, 2002, p. 132). Cleverly too, at each stage, Iago appears to pull back from the suspicions he raises, confounding Othello with doubts, and strengthening fears that Iago is holding back worse knowledge. ‘This honest creature doubtless/Sees and knows, more, much more, than he unfolds’ (III.iii.240-1). Iago’s disingenuous warnings against jealousy, and injunctions against suspicion, act precisely to incite Othello’s jealousy and suspicion. Simultaneously, he taunts Othello with vivid word pictures. So Othello becomes tormented with hallucinations of Desdemona deceiving him with, ‘the general camp/ Pioneers and all’ (III.iii).

Crucially, Iago seizes on Othello’s anxieties in his relationship with Desdemona, over their differences of age, race and culture. So while Iago reduces Othello and Desdemona’s relationship to the animal, he simultaneously declares their union unnatural. Thus Iago suggests Desdemona’s rejection of a Venetian husband and her choice of Othello is against nature:

Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree,
Whereto we see in all things nature tends—
Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion thoughts unnatural. (III.iii.227-231).

Iago invokes his superior knowledge against Othello’s unfamiliarity with Venetian culture, and develops a form of cultural profiling:

I know our country’s disposition well:

In Venice they do let God see the pranks

They dare not show their husbands….(III.iii.205-212).

Iago suggests that Othello needs to know Venetian culture to know Desdemona, and knowing its culture, he must doubt her fidelity. So instead of trusting his own relationship, Iago tells Othello to look at Desdemona and himself through a distorted cultural lens. Alternatively Iago also suggests her rejection of her father and Venetian culture for Othello is suspect. Characteristically, Iago conflates one act with the propensity towards another:

She did deceive her father, marrying you;

And when she seem’d to shake and fear your looks,

She lov’d them most (III.iii. 10-11).

Whichever way the so-called evidence is read, Iago draws out the gravest interpretation. Iago leaps onto slithers of facts, sews seeds of suspicion and fabricates them into evidence. His simple ‘Ha!’ becomes an ingredient to stir a cauldron of doubt. Iago induces Othello to leap from not seeing something to assuming something he cannot see must exist, and becoming distraught about unknown knowns and unknowns. ‘I saw’t not, thought it not, it harm’d not me’, Othello agonises (III.iii). While under Iago’s tutelage, Othello is taught to doubt his own sight of Desdemona and ask, ‘Was this fair paper, this most goodly book / Made to write ‘whore’ upon’ (IV.ii.72-3). But Othello has already been induced to conclude, Desdemona is ‘now begrimed and black/ As mine own face’ (III.iii.384-5). Thus we see how Iago succeeds in making Othello internalise the sense of racial, cultural and moral disgust that Iago suggests Desdemona should feel, and thus corrupts Othello’s vision of Desdemona and himself.

Iago argues the handkerchief ‘speaks against her with the other proofs’ (III.iii), as if there are other proofs. But there are no other proofs and the handkerchief itself is not proof. So when Desdemona dissembles over her loss of the handkerchief, Othello takes her fear over his rage as evidence of her guilt (III.iv). In turn Othello conflates his officer Cassio’s accidental possession of handkerchief as confession of adultery, ‘Handkerchief – confession – handkerchief’ (IV.i)! Thus Iago turns conjecture into statements of fact in Othello’s mind.

Culture of suspicion and war on terror

The critic Rymer argues that the play Othello, ‘may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealously be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical’ (Rymer, 1693, p. 89). Othello’s ocular proof in the handkerchief proved fallible. But our post-enlightenment times also struggle with problems of suspicions and proofs, despite our mathematical models and electronic surveillance technology. Indeed Iago’s reduction of everything to the animal or biological has certain parallels with modern behaviouralism or neuroscience.

There has been much on dodgy dossiers in the war on terror. At their heart is a culture of suspicion whereby the absence of evidence merely proves the super-subtly of the suspect. Iago’s outlook of radical scepticism is destroyer of all ideals and relationships. Just as Iago’s radical suspicions are personally and socially destructive, they are also shown to be politically damaging. Thus Shakespeare’s tragedy highlights the dangers of counterterrorism driven by radical suspicion. So while Rymer writing three hundred years ago suggests that society has moved away from magic, and only accepts scientific proofs, a culture of radical suspicion, like Iago, may transform its suspicions into scientific-like proofs. Just as the lack of evidence was used by Iago to demonstrate how super-subtle Desdemona was in deceiving Othello, so the very lack of evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) became evidence of Saddam Hussein’s dangerous secret weapons programme.

However, radical suspicion is not confined to the war on terror, but spans the spectrum of social problems and is questioning our most fundamental social relations. The encroachment on our freedoms under the war on terror are not exceptional, but follow the logical consequence of broader cultural anxieties. Nor are dodgy dossiers just confined to the war on terror, but other policy areas, from policing football matches to child protection cases.

Expanding risk governance treats all individuals as potentially vulnerable to potentially becoming a victim or perpetrator. The routine requirement of Criminal Record Bureau checks, now called Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, whose figures now run into millions, indicate how contemporary policy follows Iago’s degraded worldview that every relationship should be viewed through the lens of suspicion. Accordingly Scotland is appointing a Named Person to monitor the well-being of every child in Scotland such is the official presumption of mistrust of parents.

Honest Iago constructs a dodgy dossier against Desdemona where mere suppositions become treated as if they are firm proofs. Shakespeare’s tragedy explores how radical suspicion corrodes trust, destroys lives and jeopardises society’s security. Equally the contemporary culture of radical suspicion is personally and socially destructive, and conducive to irrational responses and miscarriages of justice. Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello highlights the responsibility for thinking for ourselves, and the dangers of not exercising proper judgement. Critically, Othello murders Dedesmona, because he abandons moral responsibility to think and judge for himself, and has come to rely on Iago’s suspiciously contrived proofs. Iago’s zealous pursuit readily distort the truth. Against such suspicion, Iago’s wife Emila argues too much importance has been placed on ‘such a trifle’ as the handkerchief (V.ii). Iago orders Emilia to silence over the matter ‘Go to, charm your tongue’. However Emilia refuses, ‘I will not charm my tongue; I am bound to speak’ (V.ii.186-7). And so Iago murders Emilia, and murders truth. Against Iago’s denial of human morality, dignity and sympathy, Emilia stands for the moral courage to judge justly and aright ‘as I speak true; / So speaking as I think, I die’ (V.ii).

Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

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