Heaven and hell


Last Judgement by MichelangeloOthello is enacted against the background of a Christian worldview, and assumes its audience are familiar with the central beliefs, stories and iconography of the church. Students unfamiliar with these concepts should check out Religious / philosophical context > The faith setting of Shakespeare’s plays. In particular, in a play that considers judgement and the ending of human life, there are inevitably frequent references to God, heaven, hell, the devil, damnation and forgiveness. Shakespeare uses his audience’s moral associations with these terms to shape their perception of the characters who use them or are so described.

Divine intercessor

Desdemona first appears in Act 1 Scene 3, where she is associated with the qualities expected of a godly Christian woman, being loyal, obedient and chaste. When Cassio awaits her arrival in Cyprus, he calls her the ‘divine Desdemona’ and in his prayer for her safety uses language commonly associated with the Virgin Mary:
Hail to thee, lady, and the grace of heaven
Before, behind thee, and on every hand
Enwheel thee round! (Act 2 Scene 1)     
Even Roderigo is impressed by Desdemona’s saintliness: ‘She’s full of most blessed condition.’ (Act 2 Scene 1). According to Catholic practice, believers often prayed to Jesus’ mother (due to her perceived compassion and accessibility), for her to intercede on their behalf with her son in heaven. The fact that Desdemona’s compassion makes her intercede for Cassio echoes this idea. 
She is attributed with ‘essential .. excellency’, echoing the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s freedom from original sin due to her own immaculate conception. Two scenes later, Iago refers to Desdemona in terms that Shakespeare’s audience would recognise as the actions typical of a Catholic’s veneration of Mary: ‘contemplation .. graces .. confess .. importune her .. help .. free .. so blessed a disposition’ (Act 2 Scene 3). 

Purity and forgiveness

Desdemona employs godly language and attitudes herself. When she and Emilia suspect Othello has become jealous of her, she exclaims: ‘Heaven keep the monster from Othello’s mind.’ (Act 3 Scene 4). And when he accuses her of being ‘a strumpet’ in Act 4 Scene 2, she proclaims, ‘No, as I am a Christian.’ In the same scene, when Emilia wants to hang the man who has so maligned her mistress, Desdemona speaks very forgivingly of such a betrayer: ‘If any such there be, heaven pardon him.’ 
Her response to death is to depend on the mercy of Christ, confident that she is ‘guiltless’ of the crime Othello suspects. With her dying breath, lying to Emilia in order to spare Othello his deserved punishment, she plays the role of a Christian martyr like Stephen, who asked for his murderers to be forgiven. After she is totally vindicated of any sin, and Othello realises what he has done, he is overpowered by the contrast of his evil act and her innocence: ‘This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, / And fiends will snatch at it.’ (Act 5 Scene 2)

Heavenly justicer

Othello’s love for Desdemona is like a religious devotion and often expressed in terms of heaven and hell. When he says, ‘Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee.’ (Act 3 Scene 3), he is equating the power of his love as being worth the threat of damnation (though he does not mean that such a love would actually damn him - ironically). Iago’s suggestion of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness would be akin to shaking the foundation of religious faith: ‘If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself!’ (Act 3 Scene 4)
Once Othello has been persuaded that his wife is an adulteress, he assumes the good Christian’s response towards duplicity and the wiles of the fallen angel, Lucifer: ‘Damn her!.…the fair devil.’ When he accuses Desdemona herself, he continues this imagery: ‘Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell.’ (Act 4 Scene 2). He refers to her supposed sin by saying that, unlike Peter, Desdemona’s maid, Emilia, is guarding ‘the gate of hell’ (Act 4 Scene 2).
Othello believes he is impelled to act as God’s justice in condemning Desdemona’s supposed sin – for which he must steel himself to ‘look grim as hell.’ (Act 4 Scene 2). When he comes to murder her, he acts with judicial care: ‘Sweet soul, take heed, / Take heed of perjury; .. confess thee freely of thy sin;’. But once Othello is made aware of the truth, he knows it is he who will be condemned to hell, which he envisages with all the awful imagery familiar from doom paintings: ‘Whip me ..Blow me .. roast me in sulphur, .. gulfs of liquid fire!’ (Act 5 Scene 2).  

Fake impressions

Iago uses biblical language and imagery simply for the effect he knows it produces, and as an aid to his ‘virtuous’ persona. He begins in Act 1 Scene 1 with an innocuous appeal to heaven: ‘Heaven is my judge,’ yet stokes Brabantio’s deepest fears by suggesting that ‘the devil [Othello] will make a grandsire of you.’ 
Iago has no qualms in using religious language for profane purposes when he proudly claims that his scheme for revenge originates from evil: ‘Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s night.’ (Act 1 Scene 3). As his plotting continues in Act 2 Scene 3, he is unashamed to mingle the two spheres of good and evil: ‘Divinity of hell.’ With easy hypocrisy, he prays, ‘O grace, O heaven forgive me!’ while later kneeling with Othello in prayer to ‘you ever-burning lights above.’ (Act 3 Scene 3).
Once he is exposed in Act 5 Scene 2, Iago is referred to as ‘wicked’, a ‘damned slave’, a ‘viper’ (the snake being a depiction of Satan), ‘demi-devil’ and a ‘fell’ (associated with terrible evil) and ‘hellish’ villain. He is thus condemned as the epitome of all evil, the devil himself.
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