The Cubist Othello

A noted film critic writes about one of Shakespeare’s best known abusers of power. The play, Yacowar argues, is based upon the collision of multiple perspectives, as was the Cubist art movement hundreds of years later.

A noted film critic writes about one of Shakespeare’s best known abusers of power. The play, Yacowar argues, is based upon the collision of multiple perspectives, as was the Cubist art movement hundreds of years later.

In yet another example of Shakespeare transcending his time,

Othello may be the first major work of Cubism. The 1604 play’s form is based upon the collision of multiple perspectives. The major characters’ judgements are shaped by their perspective. So too is the audience’s.

Shakespeare’s source began dramatically: “There was a Moor in Venice.” In Shakespeare’s day the Moor trailed clouds of Innocence; Venice evokes the civilization, style and guile of the trading centre. Shakespeare’s Othello is a heroic black general defending Venice against the marauding Turks. When he weds the fair Desdemona, he feeds the jealous hatred of the villain, Iago. With brilliant subterfuge Iago persuades Othello that Desdemona has betrayed him with his close friend Cassio. Out of both dashed love and his sense of duty, Othello kills his beloved, then – realizing he’d been duped – himself.

Now for the brilliant trick Shakespeare plays upon us. He presents the action from Iago’s perspective. He shows us the schemes that Iago hides from the other characters. His candid soliloquies and asides force us into his perspective, into his view of his manipulated victim. Watching Othello so helplessly deceived inevitably diminishes him for us. However repellent Iago’s activity, we wear his perspective.

Presenting the truth as varying with perspective makes it Cubist. As Picasso and Braque opened the flat surface to three-dimensional circumnavigation, this drama demonstrates the limitations of a single perspective – here the villain’s – upon the romantic heroes at the centre. It challenges us to preserve our sense of their wholeness, to transcend Iago’s perspective.

This point appears in microcosm when the gormless Cassio and the cynic Iago describe Desdemona. In their differing descriptions of Desdemona, they rather reveal their own character:

Iago: He hath not yet made wanton the night with her; and she is sport for Jove.

Cassio: She is a most exquisite lady.

Iago: And I’ll warrant her full of game.

Cassio: Indeed she is a most fresh and delicate creature.

Iago: What an eye she has! methinks it sounds a parley of provocation.

Cassio: An inviting eye, and yet methinks right modest.

Iago: And when she speaks, ’tis an alarm to love. Cassio: It is indeed perfection.


Earlier, her patting Cassio’s palm “was but courtesy” to Roderigo, but to Iago: “Lechery, by this hand” (II,1,254). By Iago’s hand, indeed. Under Iago’s intense assault, the maddened Othello later reads her “Hot, hot, and moist hand” – usually a sign of “fruitfulness, and liberal heart” – as now impure, demanding “castigation and devout exercise” (III,iv,34-7).

Shakespeare demonstrates the vulnerability of our senses. In the first scene, Brabantio doesn’t recognize Roderigo by his voice (I,1,94) and calls the unseen Iago “profane wretch” for what he has just said, not what he is thought to be (I,i,114). As Act II opens, minor characters are frustrated by their senses:

— What from the cape can you discern at sea?

— Nothing at all…

— Methinks the wind does speak aloud at land,… What shall we hear of this?


The primary emphasis is on visual deception. Actions may appear falsely, as numerous adages remind us: e.g., “…trust not your daughters’ minds By what you see them act” (I,1,170-1). Desdemona’s father, shaken by her marriage, warns: “Look to her, Moor, have a quick eye to see: She has deceiv’d her father, may do thee.” (I,iii,292-3) Brabantio blames his oversight on her deception. Of course, his “quick eye” on Desdemona leaves Othello vulnerable to Iago’s deception, as he turns her every virtuous word and intention against her.

As Iago tells his gull Roderigo in the first scene, “I am not what I am.” (I,i,65) He openly projects a false self to the world. Desdemona has an innocent parallel later: “I am not merry but I do beguile The thing I am by seeming otherwise.” (II,i,122-3) Her momentary play is an innocent echo of Iago’s denial of any essential character. For “I am not what I am” means more than “I am not what I seem.” Iago’s denial is not of appearance but of a fixed, certain being. He posits character as completely fluid — as the collision of different perspectives reveals.

Indeed Iago himself contains another collision of perspectives — his several explanations for why he destroys Othello. Implicit is the “civilized” Venetian’s disrespect for the primitive Moor. Iago variously adds his sense of having been undervalued himself, professional jealousy, sexual insecurity, his own lust for Desdemona, the delight in exercising his pragmatic intelligence. These tumbling excuses so cancel each other out that Coleridge in a note suggested Iago’s “motiveless Malignity” as the drive that underlay all the specified rationales. The dominant motive varied with the moment. Truth is a spectrum, varying with perspective.

Off to war, Othello assigns Desdemona’s conveyance to that Iago: “A man he is of honesty and trust.” (I,iii,284) Then, ominously: “My life upon her faith: Honest Iago.” (I,iii,294) “Honest Iago” and “good Iago” reverberate through the play, however disproved by — our privileged perspective upon — his actions. Indeed, the entire drama redefines that “honest Iago” as that “profane wretch” in Brabantio’s unwitting truth.

At first, our heroic lovers transcend the unreliability of sensory perception. Iago sees Othello as “an old black ram…tupping your white ewe” (I,i,88-9), a “Barbary horse” (I,i,111), and the newlyweds “making the beast with two backs” (I,i,116). Roderigo calls him “the thicklips.” (I,i,66) But Desdemona “saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” (I,iii,252) That is, (i) she sees past his face into his character; and (ii) she perceives him as his own mind conceives himself. So, too, her wish “That heaven had made her such a man” (I,iii,162-3) is more than supply and demand. In Othello Desdemona sees the man she would have desired to be (had she been so relegated). Othello picks this up in his Cyprus greeting: “O my fair warrior!” (II,1,182)

Iago’s strategy is to misrepresent evidence. He is brilliant at innuendo: “Cassio, my lord?…no, sure, I cannot think it, That he would sneak away so guilty-like, Seeing you coming.” (III, iii,39-41) He exploits Roderigo, exposes Cassio’s weaknesses, deploys wife Amelia, and turns Desdemona and Othello’s very virtues against them. After urging Cassio to solicit Desdemona’s support, he makes her arguments seem proof of her infidelity.

If we break free from Iago’s perspective — that is, realize its distorting effect — we get quite a different Othello. This soldier overcame his racial difference to win Desdemona’s, the Duke’s and the army’s favour. One brief, otherwise pointless scene (III,ii) shows Othello efficiently governing. Once persuaded of his wife’s betrayal, he acts not as a vengeful cuckold but as the governor of the isle, committed to maintaining order: “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” (V,ii,6) In the traditional conflict between love and duty, this rationalization is to his credit.

Nor is Othello easily persuaded. Iago provides his demanded “ocular proof.” (III,iii,366) Othello sees Cassio flaunt Desdemona’s prized handkerchief. He hears Cassio’s disdain for Bianca as referring to Desdemona. When Iago ultimately pits Roderigo against Cassio, Othello mishears Roderigo’s dying confession as Cassio’s:

Othello: The voice of Cassio, Iago keeps his word.

Roderigo: O villain that I am!

Othello: Hark, ’tis even so.


Thus later, to Desdemona: “He has confess’d.” (V,ii,69)

For her part, Desdemona dies on a virtuous lie:

Emilia: O, who has done this deed?

Desdemona: Nobody, I myself, farewell.


Her virtues having been presented as sins, here the sin of lying is her virtue. She still sees “Othello’s vision in his mind,” intuiting his delusion of justice. Othello is burned by this grace: “She’s like a liar gone to burning hell, ’Twas I that killed her.” (V,ii,130-1)

Once we free ourselves from Iago’s perspective, we can accept Othello’s final claim: “An honourable murderer, if you will: For nought I did in hate, but all in honour.” (V,ii,295-6). The Moor’s tragedy is the civilized Venetians’ betrayal of honour. When Lodovico earlier regrets “that I am deceiv’d in him” (IV,i, 278), he has not been deceived in Othello but by Iago.

And so say all of us. When we view the drama through Iago’s open scheming, we cannot but stick on Othello’s errors, his misplaced trust and unfounded suspicions. Dumb! Both lovers’ love and valour are distorted through Iago’s jaundiced eye. Shakespeare’s radical point in Othello is our governing control by perspective, its possibilities and its dangers. The Cubists picked up that gauntlet 400 years later. ♦