Passion and self-control


The controlled commander

At first, Othello appears to have full self-control:
  • When Brabantio’s men come to arrest him with swords and the scene is full of anger and passion, Othello calmly diffuses the situation:
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust ’em.
Good signor, you shall more command with years
Than with your weapons. (Act 1 Scene 2)    
thereby thwarting Iago’s hope that he should defend himself aggressively
  • He continues to reply calmly to Brabantio’s wild accusations and single-handedly prevents a brawl starting
  • During the Duke’s council meeting, with all the panic and hurried discussions about the Turkish threat, he remains the rock-like figure who inspires calm and orderliness
  • Even when required to explain his elopement with Desdemona, he speaks to the company in a steady, measured voice which commands respect. After Othello’s convincing defence of his actions, even the Duke is heard to say, ‘I think this tale would win my daughter, too.’
  • Othello successfully brings his brawling soldiers back under control after Iago has inflamed the situation in Act 2 Scene 3
  • When Othello has to discipline Cassio, he again speaks calmly and without passion: ‘Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be officer of mine.’ And this is when he has been summoned from his wedding night and would have every right to be angry. 
On each of these occasions Othello proves himself to be secure and dignified, and easily rises above the machinations of his lieutenant to destabilise his position. However, we do not see him with such self-control again until his very last speech in Act 5 Scene 2.

Othello in torment

In Act 3 Scene 3, Othello expresses a fervent love for his new wife:
Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee, and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.     
This display of passion is welcome in a new husband and demonstrates how falling in love with Desdemona has brought stability and calmness to what has thus far been an active, rootless lifestyle. It also shows Othello’s capacity for deep feelings – so when this deep river is diverted towards suspicion and fury, it is with tremendous force. 
Iago sows the seeds of suspicion and jealousy in his mind and although he first claims that he is moved, ‘Not a jot, not a jot,’ he soon becomes convinced that Desdemona has betrayed him:
Avaunt, be gone. Thou hast set me on the rack.
I swear ’tis better to be much abused
Than but to know’t a little.     
We soon see how tormented he has become: ‘Death and damnation! O!’ .. ‘O monstrous, monstrous!’ .. ’I’ll tear her all to pieces.’ In response to Desdemona’s (supposed) adultery, Othello actively throws off the restraint of self-control and invites darker passions to master him:
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven:
’Tis gone.
Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell.
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! .. 
 .. Damn her, lewd minx! O damn her!     
The upheaval in Othello’s soul grows, even though he tries to contain it for a time when he questions Desdemona about the handkerchief he gave her. However, his anger erupts spectacularly in Act 4 Scene 1, when he hits her in front of the Venetian nobles with furious accusations:
O devil, devil!
If that the earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!     

An uneven journey

Othello cannot easily let go of his love for Desdemona – much of his dialogue is about the switches of feeling as love briefly outweighs mistrust, as hope fights against despair. When finally Othello becomes resolved on his course of action, ironically he regains his composure (for a while), appearing calm just before he kills his wife in Act 5 Scene 2. He has rationalised his need to kill her ‘else she’ll betray more men’ and he proceeds to smother her only after having offered Desdemona time to repent and having explained the evidence which motivates him. The thought of her treachery provokes fury, but it is ‘cold’ until Emilia starts to challenge his actions. Then the hot passion of betrayal erupts once more, through language such as ‘foul’ and ‘whore’. 
Once Emilia proves Iago to be a liar, Othello’s hot anger provokes him to kill Iago in revenge. His self-condemnation is even more fierce:
O cursed, cursed slave! Whip me ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight.
Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Desdemona! Dead! 
Oh! Oh! Oh!     
With his fury now turned against himself, Othello realises that actually he is impotent in the face of the catastrophic events he has caused. There is a sense therefore of resignation. His last speech is spoken with remarkable self-control, but his desperate self-loathing becomes evident as he commits suicide.


The avenger who dissembles

Unlike his general, Iago tightly controls his emotions, dissembling his true motivation before almost everyone. When he appears ‘passionate’ it is usually for effect, in order to rouse passion in others. Thus, while telling Roderigo of his grievances, he exclaims angrily:
He in good time must his lieutenant be,
And I – God bless the mark! – his Moorship’s ensign. (Act 1 Scene 1)     
His resentment is genuine, but the purpose of voicing it here is to appear the fellow ‘victim’ with Roderigo, stirring the foolish officer to act so that they can proceed together in vengeance against Othello. Whenever direct action is required however, Iago is rarely involved.
Occasionally Iago’s true bitterness is revealed:
I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office. (Act 1 Scene 3)     
This new idea that Othello had gone to bed with Iago’s wife, Emilia, seems barely credible, but it does account for his implacable hatred towards Othello. He admits in Act 2 Scene 3:
the thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards;
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am evened with him, wife for wife -      
In the same speech, he even appears to suspect Cassio of the same crime: ‘For I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too.’ These feelings are revealed in soliloquy but never revealed to those who trust ‘honest Iago.’

Working to a plan

In fact Iago cunningly plots his revenge on Othello, and remains outwardly calm unless he needs to act a role in supposed empathy with his colleagues. Thus:
  • He is lascivious about Desdemona, in order to entice Cassio to declare sexual attraction for her
  • He is urgent and panicky about Brabantio’s anger, and later the soldiers’ brawl, so as to lure Othello into aggressive retribution
  • He passionately vows vengeance to support Othello’s intention of being an agent of holy justice. 
Throughout the play he has to think on his feet and is remarkably quick to see how new situations can be used to further his ends, such as Emilia’s unexpected entrance after Cassio has been stabbed. Everything is still under control.

Exposure and self-mastery

Only as he is exposed by his wife in the play’s denouement does Iago lose his composure, ordering her to be quiet with increasing desperation and then trying to stab her into silence. The vehemence of his subsequent language towards Emilia (‘Villainous whore’, ‘Filth, thou liest!’) shocks colleagues who have never observed Iago in this light. Temporarily Iago triumphs again, mortally wounding his wife and escaping Othello’s anger by running away.
When Iago is re-captured and the game is clearly up, he maintains a perverse kind of self-control in the face of his overwhelming guilt by refusing to say anything. The audience is left to wonder if, as Gratiano clearly hopes, ‘Torments will ope [his] lips.’
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