"Othello" is Shakespeare's most painful yet melodiously poetic play. In the foreground is the theme of ontological emptiness, the feeling of having been passed over or no longer existing in the place where one's identity has been defined and stored up. Having been passed over by his war-god Othello, Iago's sense of injured merit expresses itself not only in a calculating and violent plan for revenge but in a vast insecurity about his own "place." He thus imagines both Othello and Cassio with his wife, while the latter is targeted for termination because, he tells us, "he hath a daily beauty in his life that makes mine ugly." Much is made of Iago's supposed "motiveless malignity" but we are told in the very first scene that his hatred arises from having been passed over in promotion. What makes us wonder is not so much his motive but why it means so much to him. Othello is one of Shakespeare's grandest characters. His initial attributes of nobility and innate goodness, his sense of command and authority and his trusting nature make his fall perhaps the most painful of all dramatic reversals. The noble Moor is an alien in Venice, suspected because of his race, unsteadily accepted into his adopted society due to his capable and proven soldiership, who finds an anchor in his love for Desdemona. When the scheming Iago begins to play upon Othello's doubts, Desdemona's suspected sexual impurity is experienced by him as a complete annihilation of his identity which he had projected unto Desdemona (he even refers to her as "my fair warrior"). When he feels that she is no longer loyal to him his psychic wounding is like that of Iago's - "Othello's occupation's gone!" and "chaos has come again!" Iago and Othello can not be fully understood without reference to each other. They both suffer from the same malady. The following may be one of the central passages in the play:
Had it pleased heaven
To try me with affliction; had they rain'd
All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head.
Steep'd me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some place of my soul
A drop of patience: but, alas, to make me
A fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!
Yet could I bear that too; well, very well:
But there, where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,
Patience, thou young and rose-lipp'd cherubin,--
Ay, there, look grim as hell!
Act IV, Scene II, lines 57 - 74
This projection of identity into others has ramifications for how women are viewed in the play, as well. While Cassio experiences no hesitation in referring to his lover Bianca as a whore (she denies this to Emilia) he later refuses to engage with Iago in any lewd talk concerning Desdemona. He is loyally committed to one of the women (who is chaste) but not the other (who is not), even though the relationship with the latter has caused Iago to exclaim Cassio "a fellow almost damned in a fair wife." Graham Bradshaw argues that Desdemona dies a virgin. I think this likely (she asks Emilia to place her wedding sheets on the bed the night that she dies). When Othello commits suicide, in his famous final soliloquy, he executes himself as an enemy of the state in a startling attempt to re-instate himself into the society which his supposed cuckolding had alienated him from. "Othello" ranks with "Macbeth" as the play containing Shakespeare's greatest poetry. I cannot read it without bringing to mind Paul Robeson's booming voice, mellifluous delivery and his powerful presence. It ranks alongside "King Lear" and "Macbeth" as one of the greatest treasures of dramatic literature.