Othello: An Alternative Dramatistic Analysis

Henry King, Malmö University, Sweden­­


Kenneth Burke’s reading of Othello in terms of “the disequilibrium of monogamistic love” is both perceptive and puzzling, ignoring the issues of scene (Venice and Cyprus) and downplaying Othello’s racial otherness. This essay situates it within the wider story of his attempts to think about issues of race, and proposes a Burkean reinterpretation of the play emphasizing the agent-scene ratio and the dialectic of merger and division. The play is then related to the politics of its period of composition and the present day.

Kenneth Burke’s interpretation of Othello, discussed in A Grammar of Motives and fully expounded in “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method,” is both perceptive and puzzling. In brief, he argues that the play is a tragedy of possessiveness, in which “mine-own-ness is . . . dramatically split into the three principles of possession, possessor, and estrangement (threat of loss)” (167), represented by Desdemona, Othello, and Iago respectively. This “dramatic split” alludes to his most challenging and characteristic claim, that possessiveness is intrinsically threatened by loss because “La propriété, c’est le vol. Property fears theft because it is theft” (167). Othello’s fears that he has lost (or never truly possessed) Desdemona “arise from within, in the sense that they are integral to the motive he stands for” (166), because having and not-having are dialectical complements; but in the play they are ‘split,’ dramatically embodied in Iago. As a result, Iago can function as the katharma — “that which is thrown away in cleansing; the off-scourings, refuse, of a sacrifice; hence, worthless fellow” (166) — primarily because “in reviling Iago the audience can forget that his transgressions are theirs” (169–70), seeing envy and dispossession as an external threat rather than an internal instability. As the allusion to Proudhon suggests, this has wider political implications. Although the overt topic of the play is “the disequilibrium of monogamistic love” (168), Burke states as a point of method that “[i]f the drama is imitating some tension that has its counterpart in conditions outside the drama, we must inquire into dramatic analysis of this tension, asking ourselves what it might be” (179), and finds this in changes to property ownership: as in British history “[t]here were the enclosure acts, whereby the common lands were made private; here is the analogue, in the realm of human affinity, an act of spiritual enclosure” (169).

Typically insightful though his reading is, one finds, on consideration of what it does not cover, that Burke ignores significant issues that his critical vocabulary is well suited to disentangle. For one thing, Burke never discusses the play’s settings (Venice and Cyprus), a strange omission given his close attention to the significance of scene in plays at the beginning of his Grammar. More controversially, he only briefly discusses Othello’s racial difference. Although he mentions “the social discrimination involved in the Moor’s blackness” (167), he minimizes its significance within the framework of his proprietorial interpretation, arguing that Othello’s social ennoblement through marriage into Venice’s governing class is actually symbolic of “the lover’s sense of himself as a parvenu”: “in contrast with the notion of the play as the story of a black (low-born) man cohabiting with (identified with) the high-born (white) Desdemona,” Burke argues that “we should say rather that the role of Othello as ‘Moor’ draws for its effects on the ‘black man’ in every lover.” (181–82) He thus approaches the kind of reading occasionally proposed — most recently by Joyce Carol Oates, in a controversial tweet — that “‘Othello’ is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a ‘Moor’ could be made — almost — irrelevant.” Burke’s reading may be called salacious if we bear in mind not only the word’s primary meaning but also its root in the verb ‘to leap.’ (As Iago says at II.i.289–90, “I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leap’d into my seat.”) Burke leaps over the obvious political dimension in pursuit of a more recondite erotic interpretation.

To understand this omission within the broader study of Burke and racial politics, it should be noted that the essay first appeared in the summer of 1951. This was a pivotal moment for Burke, not just because he had only the previously year published A Rhetoric of Motives and was now commencing his projected A Symbolic of Motives, but also in his relationship with Ralph Ellison. As Bryan Crable has reconstructed the events, the publication of A Rhetoric caused tension between the two friends, since Burke briefly quotes “[t]he Negro intellectual, Ralph Ellison” when discussing “improvement of social status” as “a kind of transcendence,” especially with regard to Black Americans — a similar issue to that of Othello’s social ennoblement gained by marrying Desdemona. Ellison, however, was unhappy with the reference, feeling that he had been misrepresented. Ellison and Stanley Edgar Hyman planned to visit Burke at home late in 1950 to discuss the matter, but did not manage to do so until August 1951 (Crable 99); while they were in Andover, Burke recorded Ellison reading the “battle royal” scene from Invisible Man, which was published the following year. Given that this was presumably the same period during which Burke wrote the Othello essay, it seems likely that these circumstances were in the back of his mind as he worked; we may therefore take it as an aside (one which Crable ignores) within that discussion. And if, as Crable argues, “we can use Burkean concepts to identify a fundamental fault in Burke’s own perspective” (125), then we can also use his techniques to complement his interpretation of Othello, correcting his devaluation of the play’s racial themes, as I aim to do in what follows.

* * *

In the Othello essay’s third section, on the characters of the play, Burke takes up his pentadic terms and argues that “[f]irst, as regards the rationality of the intrigue, the dramatis personae should be analyzed with reference to what we have elsewhere called the agent-act ratio” (179). This is no doubt a sound procedure for dramatistic analysis generally; but with regard to Othello in particular, even before we reach the list of persons we should be struck by the play’s full title: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Here, the modifying clause orients us squarely along the agent-scene ratio (which Burke totally disregards in the essay) and invites the reader to consider the tensions between these terms in Burkean ways. By “experimentally shifting the accent” (Grammar 46–47), we may look for where in the play the emphasis falls on the agential part — the Moor of Venice — and where on the scenic — the Moor of Venice; we may look at how this points up the paradox of substance in Othello’s identity.

We see these issues addressed early in the play, if not in Burke’s reading of it. In the second section of the essay, he identifies the business of the first act of Shakespearean tragedy as:

Setting the situation, pointing the arrows, with first unmistakable guidance of the audience’s attitude towards the dramatis personae, and with similar setting of expectations as regards plot. Thus we learn of Cassio’s preferment over Iago, of Iago’s vengeful plan to trick Othello. . . . Also we learn of Desdemona as the likely instrument or object of the deception. (170)

“Setting the situation” may include setting the scene, but Burke does not elaborate the specific instance: Venice, whose society and culture form the background against which the action takes place, and (remembering the scene-act ratio) conditions it. Thus we find Iago and Roderigo on their way to the home of Brabantio, whose daughter Othello has just married — an event that does more to set the plot in motion than “Cassio’s preferment over Iago,” yet which Burke ignores in this summary. Desdemona’s marrying Othello is crucial, however, not only for the action it entails, but because of its influence on the agent-scene ratio: although Othello is, as the first act makes clear, a trusted general in the Venetian army, it is by his marriage that he becomes a member of the ruling class. In short, by marrying him, Desdemona makes Othello consubstantial with Venice.

It might be argued that Othello was already identified with Venice through his role as general; but Brabantio’s outraged reaction demonstrates that, in marrying one of the city’s daughters, Othello has crossed a symbolic line, and thereby (in Brabantio’s view) threatens to corrupt the free, Christian nature of the state: “if such actions have their passage free,” he reasons, “Bondslaves and pagans shall our statesmen be” (I.ii.98–9). If Desdemona’s marriage, enabling Othello’s identification with Venice, is the event that begins the story (in the narratological sense of the events told), then the play’s discourse begins with a corresponding dissociation on the part of Brabantio, Roderigo and Iago, all of whom emphasize Othello’s otherness by consistently referring to him as ‘the Moor’ or even more pejorative terms — his actual name is never mentioned in the first scene. Brabantio puts his case in the third scene, believing the bonds of consubstantiality between himself and the Senate to be so strong that “the duke himself, / Or any of my brothers of the state, / Cannot but feel this wrong as ’twere their own” (I.ii.95–7), but is defeated by a double blow: Desdemona’s confirmation of her love, and the Senate’s acceptance of Othello as her legitimate husband. The first act therefore works to establish Othello as the Moor of Venice.

This leads us to a very different understanding of the play from that which Burke advances. His essay describes the play’s theme as “the disequilibrium of monogamistic love”; similarly, in A Grammar of Motives, Burke situates “the ‘identity’ of Othello in the theme of jealousy” (413). But if we follow Burke’s logic, according to which “an identity like the theme of a play is broken down analytically into principles of opposition in which their variants compete and communicate by a neutral ground shared in common” (413), yet identify the play’s theme not with jealousy but with identification itself, then we must conclude that the fundamental opposition is between the dialectical principles of merger and division. Desdemona represents the former, merging Othello’s otherness with her Venetianness. Brabantio drops out of sight after Act One, and Roderigo plays a minor role, leaving Iago as the primary representative of division — as in the pivotal episode of Act Three Scene Three, when he plays upon Othello’s sense of his difference in “clime, complexion and degree” (III.iii.232) until Othello sees himself in the same terms, convinced that Desdemona is not his:

                for I am black,
    And have not those soft parts of conversation 
     That chamberers have, or for I am declin’d
     Into the vale of years[.] (III.iii.265–8)

Othello is, therefore, that “ground shared in common” which Iago and Desdemona contest. This may be read ad litteram: the name ‘Othello’ is neutral, hence the use of punning slurs like “his Moorship” in Act One Scene One; when Desdemona uses the term ‘Moor,’ she notably emphasizes their consubstantiality, as when she called him “my noble Moor” (III.iv.25, emphasis added).

If the action was set in motion by Desdemona drawing the pendulum towards merger, the development of the play is the swing back towards division. Burke takes up the Aristotelian term “peripety” (172), usually translated as “reversal,” and identifies this with the “mounting series of upheavals” (173) in Act Three Scene Three. The completion of this reversal is marked by the tableau of Othello and Iago kneeling together and exchanging vows — an appropriate symbol, Burke argues, “for they are but two parts of a single motive — related not as the halves of a sphere, but each implicit in the other” (196). The same image, however, is susceptible to a different emphasis. Othello’s marriage to Desdemona (and the merger-principle) was the initiatory act; here we see the counter-action, a symbolic inversion of the marriage ceremony — “I am your own forever,” as Iago says (III.iii.480). From this point on, Othello is wedded to the principle of division. This might seem paradoxical — a merger with division — but even here, we see Iago’s motivation of dissociation from Othello at work. Othello famously smothers Desdemona, and the image of him straddling her in her death-throes is often read as inverting the consummation of the marriage. But it is worth remembering (shifting our attention briefly to the agent-agency ratio) that this suggestion actually comes from Iago, who dissuades Othello from his first proposal: “Do it not with poison,” he says; “strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated” (IV.i.182). What makes this significant is the fact that Iago frequently associates poison with words: he encourages Brabantio, on discovering Desdemona’s elopement with Othello, to “poison his delight, / Proclaim him in the streets” (I.i.72–3), and says of his insinuations, “The Moor already changes with my poison” (III.iii.368). Although the symbolic logic (or as Othello puts it, “the justice”) of smothering Desdemona certainly “pleases” the critic as well as the murderous husband, Iago has his own reasons for not wanting Othello to use poison: because Iago is himself, by his own admission, a poisoner. For Othello to use poison would put them on the same level, a form of identification that would undermine Iago’s self-image.

The reversal results in Othello’s murder of Desdemona, which would translate as division vicariously eliminating its opposite principle. With the representative of merger killed, the play would then conclude with division triumphant; but as a dialectician would expect, opposites are not so easily got rid of, and what is destroyed in the flesh returns in a spiritualized form. So, once the truth of his deception has emerged and Othello has punished himself, he throws himself down beside Desdemona on their marital bed, and the chiasmatic structure of his final words — “I kissed thee ere I killed thee; no way but this, / Killing myself, to die upon a kiss” (V.ii.363–4) — indicate a posthumous reconciliation. Not “till death us do part,” but till death us do bind. It is the posthumous, spiritualized nature of this reconciliation that makes Othello, unlike its comic counterpart Much Ado About Nothing, a tragedy.

But I have myself leapt over the dramatic climax of the final scene, Othello’s suicide. The play has been, I have argued, a shifting of emphasis between the Moor of Venice and the Moor of Venice. The dramatic triumph of Othello’s final speech consists in that, having identified himself primarily as a Moor through images of Oriental otherness — the “base Indian” and the “Arabian trees” — he concludes by identifying himself as both “a malignant and a turban’d Turk” and the upholder of Venetian dignity who “smote him — thus” (V.ii.358–61), as if simultaneously stressing both sides of the equation in the play’s title, the Moor of Venice. Rather than transcending the antitheses and producing a stable equilibrium, however, the strain results in a violent implosion.

* * *

If, as I hope, this agential-scenic reading of Othello is persuasive, it is not yet complete. From Act Two onwards the location shifts to Cyprus, and we see no more of Venice. This poses a problem: why the change of scenery? Specifically, what does this contribute to the play with regard to our chosen theme of identity? Burke has nothing to say on this point: although he describes the second scene in Shakespearean tragedy as metaphorically “analogous to the definite pushing-off from shore,” giving the audience the sense that “the bark had suddenly increased its speed” (176), he never discusses the literal journey to Cyprus and its implications. We may first consider this in relation to Othello as the common, contested ground between the opposing forces represented by Desdemona and Iago. If we bear in mind that there must be a “correlation between the quality of country and the quality of its inhabitants” (Grammar 8), we can see that the tragedy must logically take place somewhere other than Venice, because the setting must be contested just as Othello’s identity is. Cyprus is perfect for this, being a Venetian colony closer to North Africa and the Levant, and so in constant danger of being divided from Venice. The fact that, by the time of the play’s composition, Cyprus had been taken by the Ottoman empire should be taken as foreboding for Othello’s fate (as in another way should its punning association with the funereal cypress). And although the Turkish fleet is wrecked by storm, the threat it represents returns, as with the killing of Desdemona, in a spiritualized, internalized form: in place of the outward war of Christian against heathen, the removal of the Turkish threat leaves the stage clear for the war between merger and division within the Venetian society on the island and within Othello himself.

There is another function performed by the Cypriot setting, which leads us towards the issue of the play’s wider implications. We have focused till now on the paradox of substance in Othello’s nature: his identity as “the Moor of Venice” is substantiated by things external to him, including his marriage to Desdemona, his position with the Senate, and the Venetian culture which underlies those. But shifting the scene to Cyprus suggests that Venice itself is equally embroiled in such paradoxes. “Venice,” here, is not just the Italian city-state on the Adriatic: it is an imperial power, and as such is defined by its possessions; it is also defined by its rivalry with the Ottoman empire. Desdemona and Iago symbolize two sides of Venetian culture: the will to assimilate what is external and other, and the contrasting drive to reject it and define oneself by contrast. It may seem ironic that the expansionary motive is represented by a woman hitherto occupied by “the house affairs” (I.iii.146), while a soldier who has fought “At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds, / Christened and heathen” (I.i.26–7) represents the isolationist motive; but even this can be developed with reference to Burke’s reading. Commenting on Othello’s ‘occupation’ speech, Burke argues that “the audience is here told explicitly what the exclusive possession of Desdemona equals for Othello, with what ‘values’ other than herself she is identified” (195). Despite her domestic history, Desdemona represents for him the expansionary motive, “the plumed troop and the big wars / That make ambition virtue” (III.iii.351–2). Instead of remaining a “moth of peace” (I.iii.254), she metamorphoses into a “fair warrior” (II.i.179) to compete with Iago, the foul one. Othello is, therefore, the victim of the struggle between these two impulses, both of them aspects of Venice as a scenic complex of motivations.

Besides its internal coherence, my agential-scenic reinterpretation of Othello ought also to cohere with “conditions outside the drama” specific to its context of composition. I have argued that the fundamental opposition in Othello is between the principles of merger and division, and more specifically the drives to assimilate of the other or reject it. We need not look far for a circumstantial analogue, requiring only a slight widening of the scenic circumference from Britain’s internal politics (the enclosure acts) to its global position. During the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods, contact with non-Christian and non-European ‘others’ was increasingly common and contradictory. On the one hand, otherness was officially rejected, as in the “Privy Council order in 1596 concerned with ‘the great numbers of Negroes and blackamoors’ in the realm” and “a royal proclamation of 1601 authorizing that ‘those kind of people’ should be ‘sent out of the land’” (Pechter 130–31). Yet at the same time there was “a Moorish retinue representing the king of Barbary at Elizabeth’s court during 1600–1601,” and under her rule “the Turks and the English became partners in the highly profitable enterprise of the ‘Levant trade’; in fact, the English were displacing the Venetians as the chief beneficiaries of this trade” (Pechter 134–35). Edward Pechter’s comparison of English and Venetian trade in the Levant indicates that the Venetian society of Othello is a substitute for England, and the play a means for its English audience to work through the tension between engaging with the Muslim kingdoms of the Mediterranean and establishing their difference. It is the same dynamic made familiar by Edward Said and others: on the one hand, the exotic other is desirable, a source of intrinsic fascination and extrinsic enrichment; on the other, it is despised, perceived as a threatening contaminant. This ambivalence is dramatically split into the Desdemona/​Iago pair, allowing the audience to indulge both aspects: the audience is given a chance to indulge their fascination and revulsion vicariously through Desdemona and Iago respectively; to feel vindicated by the spectacle of Othello as threat, killing Desdemona, as well as his atonement through suicide, and to feel pity for him in his symbolic redemption.

It might appear from the fact that, in the play, Desdemona is characterised as good and Iago as evil that I am imposing modern liberal values upon the play, whereby acceptance of the other is always a virtue. Leaving ethics aside, this is not quite what I have in mind regarding Othello’s “topical” element. I have described Desdemona as the representative of assimilation and noted her frequently militant characterization. This should suggest that the motivation she embodies may actually translate, in the world beyond the play, into conquest; her attraction to the exotic world Othello described to her is of a piece with the incipient British empire, and its legacy of violence and exploitation. (“She might lie by an emperor’s side,” Othello laments at IV.i.179–80, “and command him tasks.”) Though the audience is manoeuvred towards sympathizing with Desdemona’s view of Othello, doing so implies cathartically offloading the moral complications of imperialism onto Iago. For contemporary audiences, this should sound a note of moral caution. Although it is easy to identify Iago with our current mouthpieces of racist discourse — one thinks of Donald Trump’s denigration of “shithole countries,” or the tropes of the anti-immigration pro-Brexit campaign in the UK — one should remember that, as Burke argues, his cathartic function is to represent a part of ourselves we would disown.

* * *

How does this reading of Othello reflect on the Burke/​Ellison relationship? On the one hand, Othello’s position as ‘the Moor of Venice’ is very different from that of Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison, as Burke understood it. Although Othello has experienced slavery, as he tells the Senate, he is not an upwardly-mobile member of a large underclass within Venice: he has not recently climbed free of “a basket of crabs,” as Burke quotes Ellison, that would pull him back down, nor does he appear to “feel as ‘conscience’ the judgment of his own class” (Rhetoric 193); Othello is not personally concerned with the amelioration of black people’s class status. As such, Othello may seem quite inapplicable to the debate with Ellison in which Burke was then haltingly engaged. In Burke’s reading, however, the play does deal with a bone of contention between them: the relation between the universal and the particular, especially with regard to racial inequality. Ellison’s resistance to Burke, voiced in a letter of November 1945 and again after the publication of A Rhetoric of Motives, concerned what he saw as Burke’s “preference for an ethic which is ‘universal’ rather than ‘racial’” (qtd. in Crable 63). As Crable explains, “[f]or Ellison, the problem is not the quest for the universal; rather, the problem lies in the attempt to disguise racial bias behind a “universal” ethic, in seeking to “transcend” racial identity by ignoring race-based privilege” (64). Simply put, Ellison understood as Burke did not that a white American faces no bar to transcending her racial identity, as does a Black American continually defined in terms of their colour (e.g., as a “Negro intellectual”) instead of their humanity. This imbalance ramifies in Burke’s reading of Othello. Burke associates Othello’s blackness with a universal sense of personal ennoblement through love; but this ignores the extent to which Othello is beset by Iago and others specifically as a black man. Just when he appears to have transcended his social position, Iago manipulates him back into defining himself in terms of “clime, complexion and degree.” To state it crudely, it is easier for the white critic to identify himself with “the ‘black man’ in every lover” than for the Black person to identify himself with “every [i.e., the universal] lover” — a race-based privilege Burke appears not to see. All this goes to support Crable’s claim that although “Burke credited Ellison with spurring him toward greater racial sensitivity . . . in 1950 this process had not yet been completed” (77).

* * *

This interpretation is not intended to disprove or displace Burke’s. Its purpose is complementary, insofar as it responds to Burke’s acknowledgment that “[t]his essay is not complete” (201) by demonstrating how much more can be said about Othello when starting from a different pentadic ratio. But the complementary shades into the corrective, in that the very brilliance of Burke’s analysis might tempt us to see it as exhaustive. It would be a pity if Burke’s essay were to limit readers’ sense of the play’s polysemous potential, the illimitable complexity of its structure and responsiveness to circumstances. I hope to have shown that by bring Burke’s techniques to bear on what he overlooks, their flexibility and power may be more amply demonstrated. Furthermore, I hope that this has advanced in a small way the discussion of the racial politics of his work, to which Bryan Crable made such an important contribution, by showing that Burke’s vocabulary gives us the resources to analyze texts in such terms even when Burke himself downplays them. If this essay has achieved that much, it will have done the play, and Burke scholarship, some service.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. U of California P, 1969.

 — . “Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method.” The Hudson Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer, 1951), pp. 165–203.

 — . A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. U of California P, 1969

Crable, Bryan. Ralph Ellison and Kenneth Burke: At the Roots of the Racial Divide. U of Virginia P, 2012.

@JoyceCarolOates. ““Othello” is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a “Moor” could be made — almost — irrelevant. (Disagree?)” Twitter 26 Dec. 2017 6:51 a.m., twitter.com/​joycecaroloates/​status/​945668312171798530. Accessed 14 Aug. 2018.

Shakespeare, William. Othello: Authoritative Text, Sources and Contexts, Criticism, edited by Edward Pechter, Norton, 2004.

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