Othello by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jealousy and its evil cousin, envy, are at once as old as the Bible — think Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Joseph sold into Egypt, infighting of Jesus’ disciples, etc. — and yet as present as anything in politics, the media, or our families today. Apparently, these powerful emotions, with all the chaos into which they can hurtle us, were a big deal in Shakespeare’s time as well.

As a quick refresher (I know I needed it) and backdrop to this review, envy is the emotion we feel when someone else has something that we want, or “covet.” Closely related, jealousy is the emotion we feel when we are afraid of losing something that we already have. In Dante Alighieri’s (1265 – 1321) ‘Divine Comedy,’ he identifies seven sins that are responsible for all others. So consequential are these sins that he calls them the seven deadly sins. (There’s actually a word in Latin, “saligia,” that employs the first letter of each of these sins to get the verb, “saligiare,” which means to commit one of the seven deadly sins. Hooray for mnemonics!) Of these, envy, or, “invidia,” is one of the most grave. Only “superbia” (pride) ranks higher in terms of its ability to cause us to fall into greater human error. In Latin, so far as I know, there is no distinction between jealousy and envy — they are two expressions of the same sin, “invidia.”

Interestingly, Shakespeare appears not to have been familiar with Dante despite Chaucer and Milton both being avid readers and admirers of Dante. And this despite Chaucer coming more than two centuries before Shakespeare (Milton came a few decades after). But as we see over and over again throughout world literature, it doesn’t take formal learning to know the human condition. To get it out on paper, to birth an idea, to articulate the deep feelings of the soul, this is another matter. How fortunate we are that there have been Alighieris and Chaucers, Shakespeares and Miltons, to articulate in written word what we are all so familiar with, and perhaps a little confused about, in our troubled hearts. Yes, I know what jealousy is; more importantly, I know what it feels like. And I’ll take one Shakespeare to teach me about it over a hundred Freuds.

Othello is first and foremost a story of jealousy, the “green-ey’d monster,” as the villain Iago puts it, that has the power to overcome our emotionally-reactive and fragile natures, and, if not controlled, destroy us and our families. It is about the imagined but unfounded jealousy of Othello, a successful Moor who serves in high position in the Venetian army, and the real, perhaps more rightfully-founded envy of Iago, his lowly ensign, who resents being passed over for a lieutenantship, and covets Othello’s position and the “happy sheets” of his beautiful and virtuous wife, Desdemona. In Iago’s defense, he claims — whether he actually believes it or not — that Othello had seduced his own wife. This, however, is likely more of a false narrative that Iago convinces himself of to self-deceivingly justify his deceitful actions that “turn [Desdemona’s] virtue into pitch” and weaves “the net that shall enmesh them all.” And so, Iago, like the devil himself, sets out to lie and deceive, to pull the invisible marionette puppet strings of his victims, to whisper doubts into their ears, until they have gone too far.

Shakespeare uses this tragedy to show that jealousy, in all its forms, has the demonic power to sow the seeds of death all around — for those who commit it willfully (Iago), those who commit it unknowingly (Othello), and, most sadly, for those who suffer its effects innocently (Desdemona). Whether its seeds grow up to choke out the good in life like a tangled weed or it suffocates us like a pillow, jealousy eventually overcomes us and, taken to an extreme, has the potential to kill.

Othello is also a story of human insecurities rooted in racism, xenophobia, and the prosperity of others whom we may prejudicially deem unfit or undeserving of a higher station than our own. (The story upon which Shakespeare’s Othello is based comes from the Italian author, Cinthio, who, a generation or so earlier, told a similar story with moralistic undertones to dissuade Europe’s women from marrying foreigners.) Othello further reveals in us the insecurity of our futile attempts at a supposed “ownership” of the hearts of those whom we may suppose that we love, but who, on reflection, cannot be owned any more than they can be forced to love. Desdemona’s father demonstrates this when he compares his daughter to luggage.

Othello is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy — yes, even more tragic than Romeo and Juliet. Without knowing where jealousy / envy ranked in western civilization’s most dangerous vices, at least in the eyes of Dante, Shakespeare intuitively knew where to go digging to find the roots of the worst of all tragedies. But its message is at once tragic and hopeful, for once we understand our emotions, specifically our jealousies, more intelligently (see Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’), we can look up to see where the marionette strings might be attached, to recognize who is whispering the madness into our ears.

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