W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase ‘double consciousness’ to name the anxious self-doubt that is commonly suffered by those for whom social success or acceptance is barred by hostile race prejudices. “The facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate,” wrote Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk. Does this diagnosis apply to the hero of Shakespeare’s Othello? Might it help account for Othello’s tragic susceptibility to Iago’s deceit?
In the play’s opening scene, we hear Othello denigrated, behind his back, on account of his foreign birth and exotic appearance (I.i.63; I.i.87). Iago contemns him for being black; Roderigo derides him as “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere.” (1.1.134-5). This talk sets us on edge, and so we may well surmise that such bias must figure as a factor in Othello’s eventual fall. But there’s little real reason to think so. Du Bois wasn’t thinking of sixteenth-century Venice (nor seventeenth-century England), and the syndrome he descried is nowhere to be found in this play of Shakespeare’s. Othello is immune to self-doubt. He is indifferent to social acceptance or approval. He is a man of extraordinary self-assurance, convinced of his merit and proud of his parentage. Socially-conditioned self-doubt is no factor in his tragedy. What makes him susceptible to Iago’s manipulation is not this, but a doubt over whether his new marriage might be unworthy of him – a stain on his native nobility.
There is only one time in the play that Othello is faced with what seem to be hostile prejudices on account of his race or his origin. That is when he is forced to contend with the wild accusations from his new father-in-law, Brabantio, who claims that his daughter Desdemona could not have agreed to marry “such a thing” as Othello unless she were drugged or bewitched (I.ii.71). It isn’t entirely clear if Brabantio’s words are expressive of racial animus, or whether such animus is shared by others among the Venetian elite. But supposing that this is the case – the question then is, how is Othello affected by it? If Brabantio’s attitude toward Othello can be seen as indicative of a prejudice pervasive in Venice, then Othello’s response must be seen as indicative of his resilience in such an environment. His composure is perfect; whatever offense or insults are intended, he shows no sign of taking umbrage or affront. The only reason he deigns to respond to Brabantio’s wild accusations at all is that they are made in front of the Duke and the Senate, who are about to commission him to lead the Venetian campaign against the Turks. He shows every confidence that his words will be credited.
Othello couldn’t care less what Brabantio thinks. After all, he’s just run off with the man’s daughter without having bothered to notify him in advance, let alone ask for his blessing. On first hearing of Brabantio’s wrath, he’s unfazed and dismissive. His words at the time make it clear how little he depends on Venice’s favor to nourish his self-esteem. There’s no sign that he’d care to assimilate socially to the people whose state he serves, or pattern his life or his manners on theirs. There’s nothing shameful to him in his origins; just the contrary: “I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (I.ii.22-3). His sense of his native nobility is closely connected with his sense of the heroic qualities manifested through his career as a free-booting soldier of fortune. If it weren’t for his love for Desdemona, he wouldn’t care in the least to be hitched to her narrow, circumscribed people. ”But that I love the gentle Desdemona,” he says, “I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.” (I.ii.26-28). Venice was known as an opulent mercantile power, owing its wealth to its control on Mediterranean shipping; “the sea’s worth” thus stands for all of the ease and prosperity enjoyed by Venetian society. Othello’s not interested.
There is one other time, later on in the play, when Othello might be thought to suffer self-doubt on account of others’ perceptions of him as a racially-different foreigner. It occurs right after Iago first plants the seed of suspicion concerning Desdemona’s fidelity. Iago casually speculates that even if Desdemona had cared for Othello initially, her affections were sure to revert in due course to men of “her own clime, complexion, and degree” (III.iii.241). Othello then cuts the discussion short, and Iago leaves him to ponder what he’s been told. “Haply for I am black,” Othello wonders aloud,
And have not those soft parts of conversation.
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years — yet that’s not much —
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. (III.iii.304-9)
Notice how he swerves, mid-sentence, never completing the thought. That might be because the thought is too painful for him to bear. But it’s far likelier that the idea has no purchase on him; it’s as if he can’t fully make sense of it, or its ramifications don’t interest him. In concluding that Desdemona is gone, what he means is not that she’s left him – he knows very well that she hasn’t – but that she’s rotten, ruined. Nothing he says for the rest of the play shows him pained at having been spurned by his wife, or resentful at her having preferred a man with advantages that he lacks. From this point forward – until the play’s very end, when he learns at last of Iago’s deception – he is consumed with the thought that Desdemona has been indiscriminate with her favors – and that she is therefore worthless – a “cunning whore” (IV.ii.91).
If Othello is so sure of himself, why then does he so quickly credit Iago’s insinuations concerning his wife’s infidelity? It may seem tempting to take this fact alone as the evidence that beneath his seeming self-confidence lies a stratum of nagging self-doubt. That would be to underestimate Iago’s cunning, and the deviousness of his lies. Iago’s malign stroke of genius is to finger Othello’s lieutenant Cassio as Desdemona’s supposed paramour. This is not because Othello envies the poise of his polished lieutenant (although Iago certainly does). Cassio had played the part of the intermediary in Othello’s and Desdemona’s courtship (III.iii.71, 100). Iago professes surprise upon hearing of this, when the topic comes up, but he’s presumably known of it all along; it’s part of his scheme to remind Othello at this when planting his fabrications. Othello and Desdemona may have had little chance to speak to each other directly when he was a guest at her father’s house; perhaps they were seldom or never alone together. For whatever reason, they had relied on the help of the ever-solicitous Cassio to serve as their go-between. What this means is that Othello not only had been dependent on Cassio to relay his feelings to Desdemona, but had also depended on Cassio’s attestations of her love for him. By suggesting that there had been something illicit between Desdemona and Cassio, Iago effectively undermines Othello’s confidence in the truth of all that had passed between himself and his bride before they were married. In that same stroke, he loses his confidence in the storybook quality of their romance. That he is a marvelous hero he never doubts; he merely suspects that he might have been duped into a marriage unworthy of his nobility. “Why did I marry?” he finds himself wondering, helplessly disoriented (III.iii.245).
The presence of Cassio in the play points to a further reason for Othello’s susceptibility. Cassio is Othello’s opposite: unpracticed in war, at ease with “the soft parts of conversation” – the consummate ladies’ man. Othello has never aspired to any of that. He sees himself as a marvelous hero, but only a hero of daring adventures – at the head of army, or alone. He has apparently never before played the part of a lover, nor greatly cared to do so. If he had ever pined for love, that was long in the past – by his own admission, the “young affects” of erotic ardor are in him “defunct” (I.ii.265-6) Ever since boyhood, his “dearest action” has been in “the tented field / And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.” (1.iii.88).
Othello has the great fortune of winning the love of a woman who reveres him for the very qualities that he most prizes in himself, and who requires of him no change in his habits or manners. “My heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord,” Desdemona avers, “And to his honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” (I.3.251-4). He had reason to trust that this marriage would do nothing to hinder or hamper his way of life. And yet, even on the very night on his wedding, he betrays a certain uneasiness with the marital state, over whether it might constitute a distraction from “the serious and great business of war” (I.iii.268). The sign of this is the vehemence with which he insists – without even having been asked – that having Desdemona with him in Cyprus would not interfere with his duties:
No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instrument
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation. (I.iii.269-75)
In these lines he pledges never to let his intelligence and professional judgment (his “speculative and officed instrument”) be dimmed or impaired by Cupid’s darts; he swears to surrender his helmet for use as a housewife’s skillet should this ever come to pass. For a man who claims to find perfect bliss in the company of his bride, it’s an astonishing pledge – all the more so in being entirely unsolicited. Why need he fear Cupid’s darts, if he’s happily married? It’s as if he believes that thing he must protect his intelligence from is the very condition of being in love – as if to be in the thrall of a lover’s vexations would fatally compromise his martial vocation.
These words prove prophetic. The mere taste of jealousy – an anxiety foreign to him – is enough to leave Othello feeling not only deprived of his mental tranquility, but also bereft of his soldierly occupation (III.iii.369). He finds this intolerable, an affront to his dignity. He refuses to be jealous – and chooses to loathe his wife, so as to spare himself of having the occasion to be. “Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy / To follow still the changes of the moon with fresh suspicions?” he asks Iago, rhetorically. “No: to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved” (III.iii.180-2). He would sooner persuade himself of Desdemona’s worthlessness than to suffer the least anxiety over the quality of their love. “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven: ’Tis gone!” (III.iii.448-9).