Misunderstanding in Othello

Othello is a tragedy that proceeds from misunderstandings and miscommunication. Many of these errors are bound up with Iago's deception, but Michael Donkor looks at other, additional causes in the play.

We might think of a night at the theatre as a deeply uplifting experience because of drama’s ability to communicate; because of playwrights’ abilities to express ‘finer feelings’ with a precision we mere mortals can only dream of. But with their misplaced letters and cunning disguises Shakespeare’s plays are so often marked by a lack of straightforward communication. Othello is a powerful example of this, where the text’s tragedy essentially springs from acts of misunderstanding.

Our attention when exploring the idea of miscommunication in the text rightly rests on Iago and his deceptions. Posing leading questions and withholding information, Iago manipulates Othello’s latent insecurities about his new marriage to Desdemona, enabling Iago to shape how his ‘credulous’ master (4.1.43) construes ‘light behaviours’ (4.1.102). Even though Iago uses arachnid imagery to describe his own plotting, Iago’s whisperings in fact transform Othello into a spider. Othello feverishly spins a ‘web’ from self-loathing and faulty logic, a ‘web’ with a design so mesmerising and terrible in its potential significance that it diverts Othello from his previous, unshakeable belief in Desdemona, his ‘Excellent wretch’ (3.3.90). So, in his efforts to distort comprehension, Iago changes individuals and their perceptions of one another: as a result of Iago’s tireless work, Cassio’s stainless ‘reputation’ (2.3.194) for professionalism becomes ‘begrim’d’ (3.3.387) in Othello’s eyes, and Roderigo is ‘led’ to believe that Desdemona’s feelings for Othello are only fleeting fancies. But Iago’s ambitions extend beyond this. In his quest to obscure, Iago alters the meaning of objects as well as people – principally, of course, Desdemona’s handkerchief.

Photograph of Conrad Nelson as Iago in Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2009

Photograph of Conrad Nelson as Iago in Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, 2009

Conrad Nelson as Iago with the precious handkerchief, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s production of Othello, 2009.

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The handkerchief

Ironically, some of our first encounters with the handkerchief involve ideas of truth and pure intention. In Act 3, Scene 3, when Desdemona accidentally drops this precious ‘trifle’ (3.3.322) and it is discovered by Emilia, Emilia makes a ‘note to self’ to have its pattern reproduced to ‘please’ her husband (3.3.299). This episode is later imitated when, having ‘found’ the abandoned ‘napkin’, Cassio has such a liking for it that he demands Bianca replicate it for him (3.4.179). Indeed, thinking more about this connection between the handkerchief and the theme of faithful duplication, this ‘token’ (3.3.293) is an heirloom, handed down from Othello’s mother to her son. In giving Desdemona this delicate prize, Othello hopes it will mystically bind him with his wife in the same way that it did his mother and father. Iago’s attitude towards the handkerchief couldn’t be more contrasting. His approach is to manipulate and change the ‘napkin’s’ meaning entirely.

Italian handkerchief

Italian handkerchief

Fine linen handkerchief, made c. 1600, with a delicate web of stitches embroidered in the spaces at the corners.

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Copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum

Audiences might detect within the handkerchief’s composition an inherent ambiguity, one which Iago plays with and exploits to achieve his own ends. On the one hand, this ‘little’ (3.3.287) piece of white cloth is spun from ‘hallowed’ silk that emblematises both the unblemished quality of the couple’s affections and Desdemona’s sexual purity (3.4.73). Exacerbating this, Othello informs us that this token’s fabric consists, in part, of mummified virgins’ hearts (3.4.75). But this bloodiness, along with its ‘spotted’ pattern of ‘red’ strawberries equally implies the loss of virginity. This blood represents the beginning of greater sexual experience and the potential dangers of those experiences. It is this second set of associations, with their implication of possible promiscuity, which Iago’s accusations draw on. This is perhaps most pertinent when Iago describes Cassio’s lascivious use of the napkin to wipe his beard at dinner, continuing the link between culinary and sexual consumption. Rather than serving as a memento of the couple’s innocent first encounters, Iago encourages Othello to repurpose the handkerchief as an accessory to adultery.

The Venetian ‘state of mind’

But most fascinatingly, the play asserts that these misreadings occur not just as result of the individual action, but also because of social forces. The text makes us wonder if there is something particular about the ‘world’ of Shakespeare’s Venice and the Venetian ‘state of mind’ which makes the play’s catalogue of misunderstandings inevitable.

Discussion of Venice and London in Florio's Italian language manual

Discussion of Venice and London in Italian-English language manual

In John Florio’s Firste Fruites (1578), conversation turns to Venice and its reputation as a ‘sumptuous’ place full of ‘fayre women’ and ‘good things’.

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A number of early 17th-century travelogues like Moryson’s An Itinerary (1617) revel in their stereotyping of southern Europeans as hot headed and impulsive. It’s worth considering how Othello seems to characterise Venice similarly, as an immensely sensationalist society – and perhaps such sensationalism adds to the characters’ difficulty in acquiring unequivocal knowledge. Desdemona’s flirtatious ‘devour[ing] up [of Othello’s] discourse’ and her ‘serious incl[ing]’ (1.3.146–50) towards his autobiographical stories are reflective of Shakespeare’s Venice at large; a society eager for the most colourful version of events and with no pressing concern for the truth of the tales it is told. This Venetian appetite for the scandalous as opposed to more nuanced thought is also present in the immediacy with which Brabantio believes the speculations about how his daughter’s union with Othello started. Chiming with the habits of his state, Brabantio leaps on the most outlandish of possible explanations for his daughter’s ‘disobedience’: witchcraft and violent coercion. In keeping with this, when Othello is questioned about how his relationship with Desdemona began, the difference between him and the surrounding noblemen is more rhetorical than racial: Othello declares that, for his testimony, he will a ‘round unvarnish’d tale deliver’ (1.3.90). Here Othello’s dignified and deliberate language strikingly resonates with diplomat Joannes Leo’s casting of ‘the African’ as ‘most honest’ and ‘high minded’. It is a counterpoint to the Venetian desire for salacious statements, a desire he is repeatedly confronted with.

Leo Africanus's Geographical History of Africa

Leo Africanus's Geographical History of Africa

In his Geographical Historie of Africa (1600), John Leo Africanus describes Africans as ‘most honest’ and ‘high minded’, but also ‘subject to jealousie’.

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As well as the supposed nature of the Venetian character and its impact on the text’s treatment of miscomprehension, the immediate political context of the play’s action is relevant too. Othello’s conflicted conscience and Desdemona’s fight to convince her beloved of her fidelity are microcosms for the play’s international conflict – the war with ‘general enemy Ottoman’ (1.3.49).

Description of the Battle of Lepanto in Knolles's History of the Turks

Description of the Battle of Lepanto in Knolles's History of the Turks

The Ottoman Sultan Selim II who captured the island of Cyprus, from Richard Knolles’ Generall Historie of the Turkes, 1603.

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Given that it passes so quickly, we might justifiably overlook the importance of the storm that opens Act 2. But the dialogue’s focus on confusion here is telling. In this scene, Montano is desperate to find out what can be ‘discern[ed]’ at sea; his initial speech is dominated by a series of questions that emphasise his ignorance. The ‘gentlemen’ nearby, seemingly Montano’s only source of information, describe to him visions of ‘monstrous’ chaos, ‘wind-shak’d surges’ and ‘enchafed’ flood (2.1.13, 17). Such description, the frenetic tone and the fact that the feared foe ends up defeated by nature rather than by human design underline the chaos of war; where one minute, the foe is advancing terrifyingly; the next, the enemy is surprisingly pushed back. In such an atmosphere of unpredictable change, on an island defined as ‘warlike’ (2.1.43), misunderstanding between characters seems unavoidable. To extend the aquatic imagery, Othello is a play about ‘fish out of water’, not only with regards to Othello’s blackness amongst his white peers, but also in its investigation of what happens to military personnel when they are away from the frontline. In trying to establish the ‘honesty’ of his ensign and the conduct of his wife, audiences might feel that Othello transplants the rapid, impulsive decision-making of the battlefield to the ‘domestic’ sphere where we might hope for more measured meditation.

Lift-the-flap picture of a gondola in the friendship album of Erckenprecht Koler

Lift-the-flap picture of a gondola in the Friendship Album of Erckenprecht Koler

Romantic scene on a gondola, with a paper flap to preserve the couple’s privacy; from the friendship album of Erckenprecht Koler, 1588.

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But perhaps the most moving of these socially and politically generated misunderstandings is the lack of sympathy between genders in the text. Contemporary friendship albums, like those of Walens and Koler, offer glimpses into lively Venetian court life. In many instances, pages in the texts delight with vignettes of amorous exchanges between men and women. However, when the beautifully crafted images of Walens’ work focus on masquerading and masks, they seem to touch on a particularly pertinent idea within the play with regards to the relationship between Venice’s men and women. Othello frequently implies that Venetian men have an insufficient grasp of the ‘true’ character of their womenfolk; men cannot see women for who they ‘really’ are. This is a society in which attractive women are dangerously and hyperbolically misconceived of as statues made from ‘monumental alabaster’ (5.1.5). This is a world where, despite female characters often expressing themselves with startling sharpness, they are seen as duplicitous ‘pictures out a’ doors’ (2.1.109). Emilia rails against this. In Act 4, Scene 3, she makes a rallying cry to:

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them; they see, and smell,
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. (4.3.93–96)

These are words of frustration at not being properly listened to or understood. In this compelling speech Emilia articulates herself in some of the wittiest and most acerbic poetry in the text.

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

Friendship album of Moyses Walens

A masked troupe of travelling players, from the friendship album of Moyses Walens, 1605–15.

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Here, Emilia’s function as the ‘straight-talking’ working woman seeking to cut through patriarchal misreadings makes her, to my mind, one of the text’s most memorable figures. It gives her death a real poignancy too. In the most powerful performances of this scene, such as Ayesha Dharker’s recent offering with the RSC, Emilia’s cry before her death that ‘Twill out! twill out!’ (4.2.219) is ear-splittingly loud and fills the auditorium. As it should. Because the vigour of her voice and the force of these exclamations come from her recognition that her struggle is not just against the tendency for concealment and obscurity within her husband or Othello. She is shouting against a whole society’s desire to complicate what should be made plain.

  • Michael Donkor
  • Michael Donkor is a writer and is currently working on his first novel Hold. He also teaches English Literature at St Francis Xavier College in London.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.

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