Order and chaos/disintegration
The threat of chaos
Othello opens in a world of tumult:
- An anticipated promotion (Iago’s) has been overturned
- The path of love (Roderigo’s) is not running smoothly
- The peace of night is shouted down
- A family (Brabantio’s) has been broken apart and a home violated
- An ‘unnatural’ inter-racial marriage has suddenly taken place
- The Venetian state is facing the threat of attack from a longstanding rival empire (the Ottoman Turks).
There is disruption on the streets of Venice, with weapons ready to be drawn at a moment’s notice, whilst an urgent council of war is planning how to protect a vulnerable Venetian colony from a heathen aggressor. Everyone is on the alert.
In the midst of this, Othello appears to be in control and the agent of order as he refuses to be drawn into Iago’s ferment or Brabantio’s accusations. He represents the values of a civilised society.
The world of order
Society depends on right relationships of trust, respect, co-operation, shared goals and love in its widest sense. Like all civilised societies, Venice was a world of orderliness. It was ruled by a duke, who, together with his council of distinguished advisors, made wise and responsible decisions for the good of all. Order was upheld because everyone knew their place and did not question their place in that order.
Although Othello could have been seen as an interloper due to his Moorish origin, he was accepted as a leader of authority because of his distinguished army record and upright character. Given the clear hierarchy of command in the Venetian army, Othello also had an obvious right to appoint whomever he chose as his lieutenant, valuing Cassio for his loyalty, discretion and superior education. However, the decision enraged Iago, who believed he should have had the promotion because of his proven experience in the field. His envy of Cassio quickly turned into a determination to wreak revenge on both Othello and his new lieutenant.
The tumult of the sea storm at the opening of Act 2 is an appropriate symbol
of the upheaval that is about to affect Othello’s emotions and social contracts. The elements themselves appear to be turning on each other. Although Othello, his lieutenant and his wife all emerge unscathed from their dangerous sea voyages, soon the ‘foul and violent tempest’ really will damage or overwhelm them to the point of death.
It is Iago’s undermining of the accepted order of society which sets in train the sequence of events which ends in the chaos of destroyed lives and threatens the very fabric of society. Had he succeeded in killing Cassio, who had just been appointed the new governor of Cyprus, society would have been left without a leader. As it is, Roderigo’s life is ended, Othello’s legacy has been cut off (Desdemona’s uncle being the only family Othello has to succeed him), and his marriage (and his wife) destroyed and even Iago’s own wife is caught in the crossfire. A once ordered and peaceful world becomes a world of three murders, two attempted murders and one suicide.
Lodovico has the heavy duty of reporting the tragedy to ‘the state,’ because it is the whole of society which will feel the consequences of such terrible events. The fracturing of the Venetian state which the Turkish invading army could not do by force has been achieved through the corruption of personal virtue, by one man’s bitter desire for revenge and another’s naivety and gullibility. Truly, ‘chaos is come.’
Women in an ordered world
Desdemona was a noble’s daughter and should have been married to a man of her father’s choosing. Brabantio was clearly unhappy at her autonomy, partly because Othello was black, but mainly because she had gone behind his back and married in secret. We learn later that the grief he felt at his daughter’s actions actually led to his death. Her elopement with Othello was a clear breach of society’s expectations and threatened the accepted order of things.
Although Desdemona ‘healed the breach’ by conforming to the dutiful honour wives were meant to have for husbands, Iago does not let Othello forget that she had gone against society’s unwritten rules. She quickly becomes a loving wife, whose only wish is her husband’s happiness and well-being:
The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow. (Act 2 Scene 1)
and does not appreciate the cracking of the trust that undermines her petition to Othello regarding Cassio. As she tries to repair the ‘splintered’ friendship between her husband and his lieutenant, Othello interprets her pleas as proof of adultery. Ironically, Desdemona’s fate is sealed because of her willingness to submit to her husband’s authority according to that culture. But the guilt for her death lies squarely with Othello, who preferred to listen to his subordinate’s lies rather than the voice of his life partner.
It seems part of the natural order of things that Emilia, Iago’s wife, should be maidservant to the wife of Iago’s boss. But it is she who overturns the wives’ rule of obedience and submission by resisting Iago’s orders to remain silent about the handkerchief. Her revelations expose Iago and seal his fate. Ironically, we could have wished she had been disobedient earlier by not giving the handkerchief to Iago in the first place. But the times are all out of joint and society’s orderliness has been fatally undermined by the motives and actions of individuals within it. The play shows that a world that is out of order will inevitably result in tragedy.
Othello’s previous soldierly coping mechanisms have been thrown in turmoil by his new love for Desdemona. Yet marriage to her also represents order and stability after years of living by the skin of his teeth. As he sums up:
Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee, and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again. (Act 3 Scene 3)
The irony of these words becomes clear when, by the end of the scene, Othello is convinced that his wife has committed adultery with Cassio several times. His world breaks apart:
- Instead of repose, there is turmoil: ‘Farewell the tranquil mind; farewell content!’ (Act 3 Scene 3)
- His steadfast love is usurped: ‘Yield up, O love! thy crown and hearted throne / To tyrannous hate (Act 3 Scene 3).
Othello is shown to be emotionally and physically damaged by Iago’s subtle attack:
- In Act 4 Scene 1 he falls into some kind of fit, overwhelmed by his imaginings
- He laments to his ensign ‘my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand.’
- Later Othello weeps, ‘the pity of it, Iago! O! Iago, the pity of it, Iago!’
- In the final scene the great military commander is physically overpowered: ‘I am not valiant neither, / But every puny whipster gets my sword.’
The great survivor of war since the age of seven ultimately loses his sense of who he is, his hope of any new horizon, his chance for love. Such is his disintegration that he judges, ‘ ’tis happiness to die.’ His last chance at regaining some control over his life is by choosing to end it.
Ottoman Empire, or Turkish Empire, 1299 - 1923.
a pagan; or more generally an uncultured or uncivilised person.
Something which represents something else through an association of ideas.