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Giuseppe Verdi

Otello

What Fires the Intensity of Otello?

Temete, signor, la gelosia!

In the Second Act, Iago begins counseling Cassio on how to regain favor with Otello. He tells Cassio to converse with Desdemona about his re-instatement. "Desdemona is really the leader of our leader." When Cassio, at Iago's direction, goes to wait for Desdemona, he unwittingly becomes a part to Iago's infamy.

Alone, Iago reveals to us his real motivation:

I believe in a cruel God, who has created me
in his image and whom, in hate, I name…
I am evil, because I am a man…
Yes, This is my Creed!
I believe with a firm heart,
…that whatever evil I think or do
was decreed for me by fate.
…And I believe man to be the sport of an unjust fate.
After all this mockery comes Death.
And then? Death is nothingness.
Heaven is an old wives tale.
(Frank 1991, 25.)

This sums up Iago's true motivation:

"I am evil because I am a man."

Racism, Cassio's appointment, hatred, these are the triggers for Iago, not his motivations. He has been practicing for this moment for years and now it is time to reap the rewards of his investments. Quietly goading, sometimes pushing - but not too hard - he has honed his talents into sharp instruments of destruction. He has practiced control over his body, expressions, emotions, actions and thoughts. He is evil incarnate and takes perverse pride and pleasure in acting upon his urges. He need not fear hell or purgatory, nor any of the other religious punishments, for once he is dead - nothingness. Iago is the real protagonist in this opera. He is responsible for bringing out the best and worst in those around him. Tito Gobbi, whose interpretation of Iago was much heralded and acclaimed even after his career was over, said of Iago:

…Because of Iago, everyone's behavior becomes more credible, even inevitable. The supreme challenge to the interpreter of Iago is to convey his full wickedness to the audience while concealing it from everyone except Emilia on stage…The words and music supply you with most of the character development. (Gobbi 1984, 146 - 56.)

Iago watches Cassio and Desdemona. It almost appears as if he is willing the action to occur. "There she is…Cassio…This is your moment…Alert yourself…Desdemona comes your way." Iago realizes he needs Otello and asks Satan to assist him and send Otello his way. It almost appears as if Iago has some assistance from Satan as Otello enters the room. Iago says, as if not having seen Otello, "I like it not." Otello asks Iago to repeat what he said. Iago replies, "Nothing, just an idle thought." Cassio has left at Otello's appearance. Otello notices this and asks if it was Cassio with his wife. Iago replies, "No. That man left like one with a guilty conscience when he saw you." Thus it begins. The seed has been planted and awaits germination.

Iago begins to comment, but stops, obviously pained. Otello encourages him to speak. Iago asks, "In the first days of your love, did Cassio know Desdemona?" Otello answers yes and wonders at the question. Iago states that his thoughts reflect vague fear not malice. Remember, Iago is still honest Iago at the point. Time seems to stand still for Otello as he asks questions only to be put off by Iago. Remember, Iago is trying to appear to be alerting a close friend of impending doom.

Iago then asks if Otello took Cassio into his confidences when courting Desdemona. Otello responds that, "Cassio would often act as a go between, shuffling gifts or tokens between the two." Iago takes note of this. Otello then questions him of Cassio's honesty. Iago begins imitating Otello's questions until Otello's curiosity and anger become aroused. Otello, feeling that the charade has gone on long enough, orders Iago to admit his true feelings to him. Iago still holds out. Otello then demands that Iago, "Spew forth from your throat your worst thoughts in your worst words!"

Iago responds, "Had you my very soul in your hands, you should not know it." Otello let's out a cry of anguish. Iago, dropping all hints of subtlety, quietly and slowly tells Otello to, "Beware, my Lord of jealousy!" He compares jealousy to a Hydra, prophesying Otello's end: "…blind, it poisons itself with venom, its breast ripped by an open wound." Not one word has been mentioned directly concerning Desdemona's unfaithfulness, yet the image has been painted vividly in Otello's mind of Desdemona's "affair" with Cassio. With skillful bantering, Iago has brought germination to the seed he planted not so long ago.

Otello explodes and proclaims that he must have proof. "Suspicion profits nothing." After he receives proof, "Love and jealousy will be dispensed with together." The manner in which Otello delivers this line leaves no doubt as to the seriousness of the promise. At this point, Iago has to be congratulating himself over his genius and the ease of the task. He tells Otello that since it is in the open, he feels free to reveal what is really on his mind.

Heard approaching are the Cypriot and Albanian Sailors, women and children praising Desdemona. Iago realizes that he must tread carefully with Otello, or he will lose him. The work he has done thus far could be halted and subsequently lost. As the crowd enters the garden, Iago tells Otello:

I speak not yet of proof, but, generous Otello,
be on guard…often honest and noble natures
do not suspect deceit: be on your guard.
Observe Desdemona's words, a single one
can restore faith; can confirm suspicion.
(Frank 1991, 29-30.)

The music is in direct contrast to what has passed thus far. Otello is taken by the scene declaring, "If she be false, then heaven mocks itself!" Iago is also momentarily swept up in the scene as he declares, "Beauty and love united in sweet harmony!" He then vows to destroy that harmony.

Desdemona comes to Otello and they embrace. She tells Otello, "I bring a petition from one who suffers under your displeasure." "Who is that?" asks Otello. Otello has momentarily forgotten the suspicions as he basks in the embrace of Desdemona. He tries to push the thoughts of her supposed infidelity from his mind. Desdemona replies, "Cassio." Otello asks if it were Cassio she was talking to earlier. Desdemona responds yes and adds, "His remorse seems genuine enough to warrant a pardon." Otello tells her, "Not at this time." He has come out of his trance at the mention of Cassio's pardon. At this point, I have often wanted to shout, "No Desdemona!! Don't do it!!" However, she persists, only to be rebuked once more. She asks if something is bothering Otello and he replies, "My head hurts." She begins to bind his head, when he grasps the handkerchief and throws it to the ground exclaiming that he does not need it. Once more, we must turn to Shakespeare for a little background on the handkerchief. Othello is telling Desdemona:

That handkerchief
Did an Egyptian to my mother give.
She was a charmer, (1) and could almost read
The thoughts of people. She told her, while she kept it
'Twould make her amiable (2) and subdue my father
Entirely to her love; but if she lost it
Or made a gift of it, my father's eye
Should hold her loathed, and his spirits should hunt
After new fancies. She, dying, gave it me,
And bid me, when my fate would have me wived,
To give it her. I did so; and take heed on't;
Make it a darling like your precious eye.
To lose't or give't away were such perdition
As nothing else could match.
…There's magic in the web (3) of it.
A sibyl that had numbered in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury (4) sewed the work;
The worms were hallowed that did breed the silk,
And it was dyed in the mummy (5) which the skillful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.
(Othello, III, iv, 55-74.)

Whether Iago is privy to this information or not, we are not sure. He observes the cloth on the ground and realizes it is a gift. He thinks, "I must procure that handkerchief at any price to further my work." Emilia picks the handkerchief up as Otello orders Desdemona away from him. Desdemona has no idea at what progressed before her entry. She has no reason to suspect any evil underfoot. She asks for forgiveness for upsetting him. Otello then begins a soliloquy, pondering the reason for her dalliances. Could it be his age? His color? His heart is broken and he has lost the one thing that sustained him through the long battle. Desdemona, still trying to comfort Otello declares, "I am your handmaiden, humble and submissive." She only wants to ease his pain. Iago and Emilia quietly argue over the handkerchief. Iago once again gives us insight into the dark abyss of his soul. He asks for the handkerchief only to be refused for Emilia knows he is plotting. He orders her, threatens her and calls her his unfaithful slave. Iago ends up wrenching it from her by force. Both comment in an aside:

Iago
I have them already
in my power, and now
to further this plot.
Iago is working!
Emilia
Cruel and cowardly
clutches have won.
God keep us
always save from peril!
(Frank 1991, 37.)

Desdemona asks a last time to be forgiven for angering him and is ordered to leave him alone. Iago warns Emilia to remain silent. Desdemona and Emilia leave and Iago feigns leaving also, but remains at the door. Otello, unbelieving his suspicion, says, "Desdemona false!" Iago, admiring the handkerchief and hiding it in his clothing says, "With this cloth, I will give Otello the proof of the sin. It must be hidden in Cassio's lodging." Otello is engrossed in his thoughts and he momentarily forgets Iago. He mulls over his suspicions working himself into a jealous rage. Iago stands back and quietly observes Otello. "My poison begins to work. Suffer and Roar!" Iago allows Otello to rant on a little and then totally off-handed tells him not to think of it any longer.

At this, Otello explodes, ordering Iago away from him. He declares that Iago has destroyed his life. He wonders if he ever had a premonition of her affair. He bids a fond farewell to his peace of mind, his troops, his victories, the thrill of battle and his glory. Iago observing this, tries to calm him. Otello angrily stalks Iago demanding visible proof. He grasps Iago and throws him to the floor choking him. Iago frees himself resigning his commission. He declares, "I want the world to be my witness that honesty if not safe." He turns as if to leave.

Otello regains his composure and asks him to remain, suggesting perhaps he is honest. Iago ironically observes, "It would be better if I were a swindler." Otello starts working into another fit of rage questioning Desdemona and Iago's credibility. He demands proof. Iago tells Otello to calm himself and asks, "What proof do you wish? To see them embracing?" Iago adds that it would be a difficult task to complete. However, he feels the following tale will surely lead to certainty of proof. He tells one of evening observing Cassio during a dream. The story is of course concocted by Iago. He realizes that to be effective, he has to strike at Otello's very soul. He tells Otello that Cassio said during the dream:

"Sweet Desdemona! We must hide our love.
Let us be wary! I am drowning in heavenly ecstasy…"

[The dream seemed to become more intense and passionate as Cassio seemed to kiss someone.]

"I curse the fate that gave you to the Moor!"
(Frank 1991, 42.)

Otello comments, "O monstrous guilt!" Iago counters that it was just a dream. "A dream that reveals a fact." Otello retorts. Iago says that it can shed light on other evidence. He asks if Otello has seen a handkerchief with flowers and is finer than gauze in Desdemona's hand. Otello answers it was the handkerchief he first gave to her a pledge of his love. Iago says that he saw it in Cassio's hand just yesterday. Otello thinking back, probably remembers having Cassio take this to Desdemona and it increases his anger a thousand fold!

"Ha! God grant him a thousand lives!
One is a poor prey to my fury.
Iago, I have a heart of ice.
Away from me piteous illusions!
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven! See, 'tis gone.
The Hydra entwines me in its snaky coils.
Oh blood! BLOOD! BLOOD!!

(Frank 1991, 42.)

The music, which had been calm, explodes. Otello kneels and swears vengeance by his hand. He starts to rise when Iago joins him on his knees also. He tells Otello, "I solemnly dedicate heart, hand and soul, if he will also arm his will for the bloody work!" Together, they both swear vengeance.

So where do we stand? Otello has had his world split open by a suggestion he had until now never entertained. "Desdemona, an adulterer!?!" The one thing that kept him going while he was in battle. The one person he thought he could trust. Because of Otello's past experiences, it was probably difficult for him to trust anyone, let alone marry her. What is meant by past experiences is due to his being enslaved as a child, he quickly learned self-reliance and was exposed to the darker side of humanity. Also the fight for him to be recognized and the difficulty of ascending through the ranks adds to this exposure. Racism was alive and well in Otello's age. Dark-skinned people were looked upon as savages to be totally controlled. Feared because of their supposed powers in Black magic, they were shunned and looked down upon.

One must also keep in mind that Otello is used to living in the military. In society, the rules were different. Soldiers always play by the rules - socialites do not. Even when Otello had "arrived" as Governor, he still found that people sometimes only tolerated his position, or pretended to. They plotted to dishonor him, but that was to be expected. Desdemona was the one person Otello thought he could count on. The one person whose honesty was unquestionable. But now? It was gone. If Iago had threatened Otello with a sword or other physical harm, Otello would surely have emerged victorious. However, to come at him in this manner, and to do it in such a subtle way, was another matter altogether. Otello had to wonder if these thoughts had always been lurking in the unconscious part of his mind. This was the only way for Iago to attack Otello and leave him totally vulnerable and defenseless.

Desdemona is totally in the dark about the true reasons behind Otello's anger. She is unsure on where to proceed. She knows something is bothering Otello, but has not connected Cassio with the resurgences in Otello's anger, at the mere mention of his name. Iago is gloating at the success of his work thus far. He is not sure how to get Otello to see the handkerchief in Cassio's hand, but given time, he will come up with a plan.

To: After proof (Otello has his supreme laws),
love and jealousy together shall be resolved!

Footnotes

  1. Charmer - magician.
  2. Amiable - desirable.
  3. Web - weaving.
  4. Prophetic fury - seized by the spirit and able to prophesy.
  5. Mummy - liquid drained from embalmed bodies.
  6. \

Copyright © 1996, Stephen L. Parker.

Trumpet