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"And What Remains is Bestial":
The True Beast in Othello
"What is left when honor is lost?" This maxim from first century BC plays a pivotal role in Shakespeares play Othello. The question serves as a basis for the struggle between Othello and Iago. Both men are engaged in a battle over Othellos honor. Iago is intent on destroying Othellos sense of honor and reducing him to a bestial state. Iago views Othello as a beast masquerading in warriors dress. He wants to return Othello to what he believes to be his natural bestial state, and he realizes that to achieve this goal he must dupe Othello into violating his code of honor. Ironically, as Iago tries to unmask Othellos bestiality, it is the beast within Iago that is exposed.
From the beginning of the play, Iagos view of Othello as a beast is obvious. Iago repeatedly describes Othello in terms of animals. When Iago attempts to incite Brabantios anger, he does so by referring to Othello in vulgar, bestial terms. He says to Brabantio, "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tuping your white ewe" (1.1.89-90). He continues with, "youll have your daughter coverd with a Barbary horse; / youll have your nephews neigh to you; / youll have coursers for cousins and gennets for germans" (1.1.110-114). He even exclaims to Brabantio that "your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs" (1.1.117-118).
Each of these animalistic phrases could be viewed only as Iagos attempt to anger Brabantio if it were not for the fact that Iago also refers to Othello as an animal when he is alone. In his soliloquy at the end of Act 1, Iago says that Othello "will as tenderly be led by thnose / As asses are" (1.3.395-936). He again refers to Othello as an ass in Act 2: "Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me, / For making him egregiously an ass" (2.2.302-303). Whether alone or accompanied, Iagos views on Othello are clear; he sees him as "an erring barbarian" (1.3.350) who can be duped into committing murder.
Iagos reasons for wanting Othello to murder Desdemona are never satisfactorily explained. As Iago himself says, "What you know, you know" (5.2.306). He gives various reasons for wanting to destroy Othello, but none ring completely true. He is disgruntled because of Cassios promotion over him. He suspects Othello of bedding his wife. But why is he determined to have Othello murder Desdemona? His plot seems based on sport rather than reason. Iago truly hates the Moor, but his hate is not grounded in any firm reason. As the play progresses, Iagos motive never fully crystallizes, but his determination to dupe Othello into murder, thereby destroying his sense of honor, grows stronger.
Early in the play Iago realizes that Othellos idea of honor is intertwined with his concept of justice. Othello, more than any other character in the play, is obsessed with justice. Iago recognizes this; he realizes that for Othello to become a beast he has to violate his sense of justice. With this realization, Iago concocts his plan to have Othello murder Desdemona. He is convinced that in wrongfully murdering his wife, Othellos manhood will be destroyed and the beast within will be exposed.
Iago realizes that to destroy Othello he must convince him that murdering Desdemona is justified and then reveal that the act is unpardonable. To accomplish this, Iago provides Othello with what a man with an unwavering sense of justice needs, proof. Othello repeatedly demands proof of Desdemonas crime. He says to Iago in Act 2, scene 3, "No, Iago; / Ill see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove" (2.3.193). He then demands that Iago give him "ocular proof" saying, "Make me to seet; or, at the least, so prove it / That the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on" (3.3.368-370). These lines illustrate that Othello is not a rash and violent man. He would not unjustly incriminate someone without proof. Iago manipulates Desdemona and Cassio into providing this proof.
Once Iago arranges for Desdemona and Cassio to incriminate themselves, thus providing Othello with his needed "proof," he moves to the most important part of his plan. He convinces Othello to murder his wife with his bare hands. Othello himself does not decide to strangle Desdemona; Iago plants the idea in his mind. Othello initially wants to "chop her into messes" (4.1.196). He then decides to poison her: "Get me some poison, Iago--this night" (4.1.200). Iago, however, convinces him to strangle his wife: "do it not with poison; strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated" (4.1.202-203). Othello says in response to Iagos suggestion, "Good, good; the justice of it pleases; very good" (4.1.205).
The justice to which Othello refers is Iagos idea that he "strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated." (4.1.203) Othello is not referring to the act of strangulation, but to death in the bed that Desdemona has contaminated. Yet for Iago, justice lies in Othellos return to bestiality. He convinces Othello that strangulation rather than poison or death by some instrument other than the hands is the right move. Iago wants no man-made instruments to distance Othello from the act. To kill with a knife would be the crime of a man; to kill with the body would be the crime of an animal. He believes that by convincing Othello to strangle his wife that Othello will cease to be a respected warrior and resort to his true self, a raging beast.
The idea of Othello returning to the bestial state through the bare-handed murder of Desdemona is wholly Shakespeares. In the main source for Othello, Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Cinthio, the murder of Desdemona (or Disdemona as she is named in the story) is a stunningly violent act but not a corporeal one. In Gli Hecatommithi, the Iago character beats Disdemona with a stocking filled with sand, and then he and the Moor knock down the ceiling to break her skull. Cinthio makes no mention of the Othello character ever touching his wife. In another probable source for Othello, Certaine Tragicall Discourses of Bandello, the Othello character physically touches his wife but only after "he saluted her with ten or xii estockados (stabs), one in the necke of another in diverse partes of her bodye, revewynge the conflict with no lesse nomber of blowes in her head and armes; and because no parte shoulde escape free from the stroke of his malice, he visyted her white and tender legges, with no lesse rage and furye then the rest" (Bullough 260). In this source, the bare-handed abuse is a secondary rather than the primary method of murder. The Moor strangles his wife to finish the job that his stabbing has not completed.
In contrast, Shakespeares Othello uses strangulation as the only method of murder. By having Othello strangle Desdemona, Shakespeare is highlighting the brutal, animalistic nature of the act. He is showing Othello teetering on the line between man and beast. Iago believes that by convincing Othello to murder Desdemona with his bare hands that he will push Othello to the beast side of that line. Yet there is one major flaw in Iagos plan. For Othello to resort to the bestial state, he would have to murder only for the sake of murder, not for the sake of justice. A beast would not murder with reason, but rather without reason. A bestial murder is an instinctual one, and Othellos murder of Desdemona is not an instinctual act but a thoughtful one.
All Othellos actions throughout the play are based on thoughtful considerations. He is a man who bases his decisions and actions on a sense of fair play. His faith in the justice system is obvious from the first scene in the play when he is unjustly accused of marrying Desdemona against her will. He readily submits to the inquisition of the Dukes council and says in his own defense, "I do beseech you, / Send for the lady to the Sagittary, / And let her speak of me before her father. / If you do find me foul in her report, / The trust, the office, I do hold of you / Not only take away, but let your sentence / Even fall upon my life" (1.3.114-120). Later in the play when Cassio wounds Montano in a drunken stupor, Othello again follows his sense of justice. He does not ignore the incident for the sake of maintaining his relationship with Cassio. He says, "give me to know / How this foul rout began, who set it on; / And he that is approvd in this offence, / Though he had twinnd with me, both at a birth, / Shall lose me" (2.3.201-205). Othello then dismisses Cassio from his position as lieutenant.
Othello is continually guided (and often misguided) by the cause of justice. Just as he refuses to take his friend Cassios side over Montanos once Cassio is proven to be the guilty party, he also refuses to believe that his wife is an adulterer until he has proof. Othello is an honorable man who is duped by Iago into committing a dishonorable act. As he says to the court after Desdemonas death, "An honourable murderer, if you will; / For nought I did in hate, but all in honour" (5.2.298-299). Othello murdered his wife because his code of honor deemed it justified. The pathos inherent in the end of the play stems not only from Othellos murder of an innocent woman, but also from Othellos pain at violating his sense of honor. In Act 5, when Othello asks the question, "But why should honour outlive honesty?" (5.2.247), his genuine confusion about the code of honor that has guided his life is apparent. In murdering Desdemona, he has followed his moral code only to be proven wrong.
Whereas Othello is an honorable man who performs a dishonorable deed, Iago is a dishonorable man who never sullies his hands. Iago believes that by tricking Othello into murdering Desdemona that he is guiltless in the crime. Yet the true guilt for Desdemonas murder does indeed lie with Iago. Iago sees himself as righting the natural order. He sees himself as bringing Othello back to his natural bestial state. Yet who is the true beast in this situation? Othello who performs a bestial act that he has been led to believe is justified or Iago who, at least psychologically, is the true murderer of Desdemona?
The irony of Othello lies in the fact that by trying to expose Othello as a beast, Iago himself becomes a beast. Othello could never return to the bestial state because he never loses his sense of honor. His murder of Desdemona is an act of misguided justice. Yet Iagos part in the murder is more fitting of a beast. Othello murders with a reason; Iago murders without a reason. As the play progresses, the use of animal imagery as character description shifts from Othello to Iago. In Act 5, scene 1, after being stabbed by Iago, Roderigo says, "O damnd Iago! O inhuman dog!" (5.2.288). Later in Act 5, Lodovico describes Iago first as a "viper" (5.2.288) and then as a "Spartan dog" (5.2.365).
The idea of Iago as the true beast can be viewed in two ways. He can be seen as a beast from the beginning of the play or as an evil man who transforms into a beast. Early in the play, Iagos confusion about what separates man and beast is evident. He says to Roderigo, "Ere I would say I would drown myself for the love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon" (1.3.315-316). This line illustrates Iagos belief that to love and to willingly sacrifice for that love is absurd. He would rather live as an animal than be guided by love for another, and indeed he does just that. Iago is guided only by self-love, which is the same as animals who are guided by self-preservation. He lives by the animal credo of survival of the fittest. Yet even if Iago begins the play as a beast, throughout the play he progresses even further into the bestial state.
Initially, Iago is seemingly a man who wants revenge for being passed over for the position as Othellos lieutenant. He cannot understand why Cassio "That never set a squadron in the field, / Nor the division of a battle knows" (1.1.22-23) was chosen over him "of whom his eyes had seen the proof / At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds" (1.1.27-28). He tells Roderigo that he is only following Othello "to serve my turn upon him" (1.1.42). This scene leads to the belief that Iago wants revenge on Othello for making Cassio his lieutenant and him only the ancient. Yet as the play progresses, his motives become less clear.
Throughout the subsequent acts, Iago behaves increasingly more like a beast. He loses his ability (if he ever had it) to think and act justly. He becomes obsessed with destroying Othellos life. He says, "I do hate him as I do hell pains" (1.1.155). Yet, unlike most humans, Iago has no reason for his hate. His hatred of Othello is beast-like, stemming not from rational thought but from animal instinct.
As if in reaction to his pure animal instinct, Iago seems to grasp for a human reason to hate Othello. At the end of Act 1, he says, "I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that twixt my sheets / Has done my office. I know not ift be true; / Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind, / Will do as if for surety" (1.3.379-384). This line illustrates an important difference between Iago and Othello. Whereas Othello demands proof of his wifes adultery before he measures out justice, Iago demands no proof. He is not concerned with justice. The mere idea of Othello bedding Emilia is enough for Iago to plot revenge against Othello. If facts do not provide Iago with a reason for destroying the Moor, then he will simply create fact from fiction.
Iagos belief that Othello has slept with his wife gains even more momentum in Act 2. He says, "For that I do suspect the lustful Moor / Hath lepd into my seat; the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards; / And nothing can nor shall content my soul / Till I am evend with him, wife for wife." (2.1.289-292) Iago, like Othello, is obsessed with serving justice for a crime that never happened. Yet, unlike Othello, Iago has no reason to suspect his wife of adultery. Of these two men, Iago more closely resembles a beast. Othello at least has reason to believe that his murder of Desdemona is justified. Iago, on the other hand, has no justified reason for destroying Othellos life.
Iagos inability to determine right from wrong is another example of his bestiality. He says at the end of Act 2, "And whats he, then that says I play the villain? / When this advice is free I give and honest, / Probal to thinking, and indeed the course / To win the Moor again? . . . How am I, then a villain / To counsel Cassio to this parallel course, / Directly to his good?" (2.3.325-327, 337-338). Iago cannot delineate between good and evil. He considers his destruction of Othellos life justified even though he has no valid motive. In fact, the only valid motive Iago requires is his own sense of pleasure. As he says to Roderigo at the beginning of the play, "If thou canst cuckold him, thou doest thyself a pleasure, me a sport" (1.3.365). Iagos motive of sport is synonymous with an animals motive of pleasure. Animals, like Iago, act solely on the basis of self-gratification.
In this way, Iago more accurately fits the definition of beast. According to The Book of Beasts, a Latin bestiary from the 12th century by Physiologus, "The word beasts should properly be used about lions, leopards, tigers, wolves, foxes, dogs, monkeys and others which rage about with tooth and claw--with the exception of snakes. They are called Beasts because of the violence with which they rage, and are known as wild (ferus) because they are accustomed to freedom by nature and are governed (ferantur) by their own wishes" (7). Iago is synonymous with the snake. He, too, is governed entirely by his own wishes. This animal instinct, combined with his superior intelligence, makes Iago a dangerous cross between man and beast or, as Othello calls him, a "demi-devil" (5.2.303).
Iago also fits Cassios definition of beast. As Cassio says in Act 2, men "with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!" (2.3.284). Cassio is saying that men who act solely on the motive of pleasure are actually not men but beasts. Iago, more than Othello, fits this description. Iago is guided purely by his sense of pleasure; Othello is guided purely by his sense of justice.
Ironically, it is Iagos attempt to return Othello to what he believes is his natural bestial state that cements Iagos bestiality. As Iago becomes increasingly obsessed with destroying Othello, his animal instincts take over whatever human qualities he possesses. When he says at the end of Act 1, "Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the worlds light" (1.3.397), he is referring to Othellos transformation from man to beast. Actually, this line more accurately describes the transformation that Iago undergoes. He changes from revenge-seeking man into pleasure-seeking beast.
In Othello, this theme of man becoming beast is commonly interpreted as a transformation undergone by Othello. Iago is viewed as the catalyst that initiates Othellos return to the bestial state. However, the inverse is actually closer to the truth. Othello is seemingly the catalyst that causes Iagos return to bestiality. Both men play a role in the murder of Desdemona, but Iagos motive is more befitting a beast. Othello kills out of a misguided sense of justice; Iago kills without rationale. With Othello, Shakespeare is answering the question, "What is left when honor is lost?" His answer comes from the mouth of Cassio: "Reputation, reputation, reputation! / O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial" (2.3.254-256).
Bandello, Matteo. "Certaine Tragicall Discourses of Bandello." Trans. Geoffrey Fenton.
Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. Vol. 7.
New York: Columbia UP, 1973.
Cinthio, Giovanni. "Gli Hecatommithi." Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare.
Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. Vol. 7. New York: Columbia UP, 1973.
Physiologus. The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation From a Latin Bestiary of the
Twelfth Century. Ed. T. H. White. London: Jonathan Cape, 1954.
Shakespeare, William. "Othello." The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. London: Collins, 1951.