Othello: Perverse

In Shakespeare’s day, the word “perverse” had–for the most part–meanings similar to what we have today: “disposed to go against what is reasonable, logical, expected, or required,” “adverse, unfavorable, untimely,” “Contrary to what is morally right or good,” “Contrary to an accepted standard or practice” (“perverse, adj. 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, respectively” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 14 February 2016.).

What does this, exactly, have to do with Othello?

You might think this is another of my concordance entries.

And you’d be wrong.

“Perverse” and its variations are only used 6 times in the Canon, and none in Othello. So, no, this is not a concordance thing.

This is an expectation thing.

Back when I was discussing Hamlet, I wrote about his subversion of tragic expectations. In the Elizabethan revenge tragedy, there was usually a play-within-a-play. Hamlet: check. And there was a vengeful, cleansing, cathartic bloodbath. Hamlet: check. And that bloodbath happened during or immediately after the play-within-a-play. Hamlet: whoops. In Hamlet, “The Mousetrap” occurs midway through the play, and Elizabethan audiences would have been expecting the bloodletting to begin immediately thereafter. Imagine their reaction when Hamlet stood behind the guilty (and now confessed) Claudius, ready to do him in…and he doesn’t. I called it revengus interrruptus.

Here, in Othello, we have a villain. We have a tragic hero who recognizes his downfall. Our expectation is that Othello will get his revenge on Iago, or at least that Iago will be punished.

Othello injures Iago, sure. But when Iago tells Othello, “I bleed, sir, but not killed” (V.ii.288), it’s almost mocking. He’s not dead, and won’t be even after the play’s end (unlike Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus). Worse, this most talkative of villains, this verbal manipulator, refuses to talk, refuses to share why he’s brought all this destruction down upon these people (“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. // From this time forth I never will speak word” [V.ii.303-04]).

If Hamlet was about subversion of expectations, then Othello is about the perversion of those expectations.

Interestingly, the “sexually perverted” definition didn’t come about until the 1890’s (“perverse, adj. 5” OED Online.). More interestingly, for me at least, is another post-Shakespeare definition of “perverse”: “against the weight of evidence or the direction of the judge on a point of law” (“perverse, adj. 4” OED Online.).

Why is this interesting? Ah, that’s for another day, my brethren of the Bard, another day…