Biblical Allusion and the Meaning of Othello, Part II

Iago as Tempter

The answer to our first question — whether or not Othello is really great tragedy — has already pointed the way to the answer for the second question — Was Othello a noble Moor or a fool? The two questions, of course, are necessarily related. The fall of a fool would hardly make for tragedy, great or otherwise. At best, it might be considered a morality lesson on the level of McGuffey’s Readers. That is not what Shakespeare is doing, in spite of the dispraise Othello has won from some critics. Other critics regard Othello as the “noble Moor” and find in him evidences of solid character. This debate about Othello’s character has been especially intense in the twentieth century. Jane Adamson sums it up.

“On the one side, it is Othello’s vulnerability that seems most important. Arguing on much the same lines as Coleridge and Bradley, for example, many critics see Othello’s conduct as the natural, and therefore condonable reaction of such a man to extreme pressure; more than anything else, they claim, the play evokes our pity for him as the noble, ‘not easily jealous’ victim of Iago’s hellish cunning. On the other side, it is Othello’s culpability that seems most important. Arguing on much the same lines as Leavis, for example, many see Othello as ‘noble’ in certain limited ways; but more than anything else, they claim, the play judges him (and evokes our judgment of him) as an egotist made brutal by a jealousy that is largely self-generated, a man guilty not only of maltreating and killing his innocent wife, but of not even having the grace, courage or humility to accept his guilt.”1

Take away the symbolic dimension and Biblical allusions, and it becomes more difficult to defend Othello’s “nobility.” As a character, however, there are psychological and social considerations that contribute to Othello placing too much confidence in Iago and being easily deceived. To begin with, he has been “in the tented field” since he was seven years old, and therefore knows little of “normal” life, including marriage and women.

Rude am I in my speech
And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace,
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field;
And little of this great world can I speak
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle ;
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. (1.3.81-89)

That, as a soldier, Othello has developed deep trust for Iago, with whom he has fought in many battles, is most natural. We are given the impression that in the years before the play, they have shared the dangers and horrors of war often. And it was as well-known in Shakespeare’s day as it is in ours, that soldiers’ success depends on their mutual trust and help. Soldiers fight as a team united by bonds of blood.

The psychological and sociological dimensions perhaps offer some perspective, but another Biblical allusion puts the story in a theological framework. Shakespeare’s Othello begins with three lines of Roderigo’s that include a relatively obscure allusion to the book of Proverbs that is powerfully reinforced by the last dialogue of Act 1, Scene 3. Though even a Biblically literate reader may be forgiven for missing it on the first reading, perhaps on a second or third reading, the allusion may become clear. Remarkably, Naseeb Shaheen seems to have missed it entirely. I hope to show, however, that it is both straightforward and significant.

To understand what Shakespeare is doing in the first act, we need to note that it is structured around two dialogues between Iago and Roderigo, in each of which Iago easily leads the rich young fool down the path of destruction.2 Between these two dialogues come the arrest and trial of Othello before the assembled senators, the proof of Othello’s innocence, Desdemona’s defense of Othello, and the commissioning of Othello to Cyprus. Apart from Iago’s interchanges with Roderigo, the play begins as if it were a comedy, with lovers overcoming all obstacles to achieve happy union. The two dark dialogues, however, place all the potential for peace in a context of Satanic conspiracy.

The Biblical allusion which first draws attention to the meaning of the two dialogues occurs in the very first three lines of Othello, in which Roderigo is complaining to Iago.

Tush, never tell me, I take it much unkindly
That thou, Iago, who hast had my purse
As if the strings were thine shouldst know of this. (1.1.1-3)

What follows this enigmatic opening is Iago’s temptation of Roderigo, though, as the above quotation makes clear, the temptation has already begun before the play. This comes to a climax in a second dialogue in Act 1 Scene 3, where Iago repeatedly urges Roderigo to put money in his purse — the keyword.

I have professed me thy friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving with cables of perdurable toughness. I could never better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse. Follow thou these wars; defeat thy favour with an usurped beard. I say, put money in thy purse. It cannot be that Desdemona should long continue her love to the Moor — put money in thy purse — nor he his to her. It was a violent commencement, and thou shalt see an answerable sequestration — put but money in thy purse. These Moors are changeable in their wills — fill thy purse with money. . . . Therefore put money in thy purse. If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it a more delicate way than drowning. Make all the money thou canst. If sanctimony and a frail vow betwixt an erring barbarian and a super-subtle Venetian be not too hard for my wits and all the tribe of hell, thou shalt enjoy her — therefore make money. A pox of drowning thyself! It is clean out of the way. Seek thou rather to be hanged in compassing thy joy than to be drowned and go without her. (1.3.327 ff.)

Clearly Shakespeare wanted us to take note of the word “purse” in the very specific context of a devil — Iago says “my wits and all the tribe of hell” —tempting a foolish young man to join a conspiracy to do evil. The language is shocking: “If thou wilt needs damn thyself, do it in a more delicate way than drowning.” How could such a temptation tempt? Yet, the seduction is brought to a successful conclusion, as we see in the following interchange.

IAGO Go to; farewell. Put money enough in your purse.
RODERIGO I’ll sell all my land. EXIT (1.3.363-64)

Immediately there follows a soliloquy by Iago which begins with these words.

IAGO Thus do I ever make my fool my purse

There are nine uses of the word “purse” in Act 1, eight in Iago’s lines and the one spoken by Roderigo at the beginning of the play. Put together and understood in the light of the conclusion that Iago himself provides for us, they paint a clear picture of an evil man tempting a young rich Venetian to allow him to have free access to the fool’s finances in order to accomplish a wicked goal.

If we re-read the beginning of the play in the light of the second dialogue between Iago and Roderigo, the significance of the much repeated word “purse” becomes clear, for there is a well-known passage in Proverbs (1:10-14) which warns young men not to be tempted into sharing their “purse” with “sinners” who seek to entice them.

My sonne, if sinners doe intise thee,
consent thou not.
If they say, Come with vs,
we will lay waite for blood,
and lie priuilie for the innocent without a cause:
We wil swallow them vp aliue like a graue euen whole,
as those that goe downe into the pit:
We shall finde all precious riches,
and fill our houses with spoyle:
Cast in thy lot among vs:
we will all haue one purse

The quotation above is from the Geneva Bible, apparently Shakespeare’s favorite translation — or at least the one he seems to refer to more often than others.3 What is especially remarkable in terms of Biblical backgrounds for Othello is that this is only use of the word “purse” in the Geneva Bible. Please note the emphasis. The word “purse” is not used in any other place in the Geneva Bible. In the Bishops Bible, the word “purse” is used twice (Prov. 1:14; Mar. 6:8). The Wycliffe translation only uses the word “purse” in Ezra 7:20. The King James Version, too late to be directly relevant, uses the English word “purse” five times (Prov 1:14; Mark 6:8; Luke 10:4; 22:35–36). Thus, in any popular English translation of Shakespeare’s day, the word “purse” is seldom used, but appears in some translations — most importantly for Shakespeare in the Geneva Bible — in a passage that virtually prophesies Iago’s temptation of Roderigo.

For, to reiterate, that is exactly what is happening from the beginning of the First Act. If we failed to note it when we first view or read the play, at least on a second reading, we should realize that when the play begins Iago has already successfully tempted Roderigo to share his purse. That he will also subsequently tempt him to lie in wait for blood and kill the innocent without a cause comes up later in the play. The precious spoil and riches — with damnation — that Iago promises to Roderigo is Desdemona’s body. In the end, the fool, Roderigo, consents without reserve to the enticement and not only shares his purse with Iago, but even joins in the violent adventures Iago proposes, including the attempted murder of the innocent Cassio.

Shakespeare shows us the enticer in action and the fool he has duped. Though in the rest of the story the theme is elaborated more fully, on one level Othello is an enactment of the warning in Proverbs 1:10-14. This makes the play a sermon and gives it the transcendent dimension that a merely domestic tragedy may seem to lack. As in Macbeth, temptation by Satan begins the play and places all of the action in the spiritual dimension. For in the very first act, words like “devil,” “all the tribe of hell,” “damn thyself,” as well as the implicitly blasphemous, “I am not what I am,” are given great weight by the concluding lines.

I have’t. It is engendered. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. (1.3.385-386)

Of course, since Roderigo is something of a buffoon, his temptation is not at all adequate to make the story edifying. To say that fools fall without much pushing hardly makes a sermon. What Shakespeare is doing by beginning the play with the temptation of Roderigo is not primarily about Roderigo. For the soliloquy that follows the second dialogue between Iago and Roderigo is all about the temptation of the noble Othello. In Act 1, then, we have an introduction to the tempter, including the key to his subsequent success with Othello — a man who is not a fool by nature, which the first two Acts make abundantly clear. As we watch the story unfold, we suffer the agonizing disappointment of seeing the noble Moor actually felled by the same means that Iago employed to overcome the fool, Roderigo.4

Iago and the tribe of hell tempt the Christ-like Othello to commit the murder of Desdemona. As Othello succumbs to the temptation, his nobility is gradually ruined. In the end, Iago has killed Othello’s spirit. It is a almost-dead Othello who kills Desdemona and in so doing he finishes the murder of his own soul that Iago initiated.

Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.

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References   [ + ]

1. Jane Adamson, Othello as Tragedy: Some Problems of Judgement and Feeling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 11-12.
2. The first dialogue is in 1.1.1-74. The second dialogue, including Iago’s concluding soliloquy is in 1.3.297-386. References to Othello are to The New Cambridge Shakespeare, Othello, edited by Norman Sanders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 2003 updated edition). Other versions will vary slightly in line count.
3. Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999), pp. 38-48. Though Shaheen denies that the Geneva Bible can be said to be “Shakespeare’s Bible,” he notes that, “Shakespeare’s references are often closer to the Geneva Bible than to any other version.” [Biblical References, p. 39.] The fact that the Geneva Bible was “the most popular version of the day” may be one reason for Shakespeare referring to it rather than other versions.
4. Though Iago’s exact words to Roderigo “I have professed me thy friend” are not repeated, in Act 1 Scene 2 the opening dialogue between Iago and Othello is a repetition of a similar tactic, with Iago offering proof of his love and friendship to Othello.
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