Othello: On trial

Yesterday, when I was discussing the perversity of Othello‘s ending (or the perversion of audience expectations by Shakespeare [or what you will]), I mentioned that another (along with the sexual connotation) post-Shakespeare definition of “perverse” was “against the weight of evidence or the direction of the judge on a point of law” (“perverse, adj.; 4” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 14 February 2016.).

I also mentioned that I’d riff upon that on another day. Well, with apologies to Margaret Mitchell, yesterday’s tomorrow is another day.

As I’ve reread Othello in this past month, I have found quite a few references to what we might find in a court trial…

In Act One, Scene One, as Iago excuses himself from Roderigo’s alarming of Brabantio, Iago says, “It seems not meet, nor wholesome to my place, // To be producted–as, if I stay, I shall– // Against the Moor” (I.i.143-45). Here, he’s speaking as if a witness to be produced in court.

Of course, the meat of Act One, Scene Three, is a trial: Brabantio is the accuser in “the action” (I.iii.70), and the Duke promises to bring “the bloody book of law” (I.iii.67) to bear against the defendant if convicted. Othello is under no illusion; he knows “such proceeding I am charged withal” (I.iii.93) is serious enough that the “sentence // [may] Even fall upon [his] life” (I.iii.119-20). When the actual accusation is presented, however, the Duke is quick to state, “To vouch this is no proof // Without more wider and more overt test” (I.iii.106-07). This, in other words, will be a real proceeding requiring real proof for conviction. When Othello closes his argument/testimony, he uses court terms to introduce Desdemona: “Let her witness it” (I.iii.170).

When Othello is asking Iago to voice his concerns–the beginning of what will become the informal hearsay trial of Cassio–Othello says of these as-yet-unvoiced accusations:

 such things in a false disloyal knave
Are tricks of custom, but in a man that’s just,
They’re close dilations working from the heart
That passion cannot rule.
  • III.iii.121-24

Here, “dilations” are emotions that grow suddenly (as if the heart is bursting). And that interpretation can work. However, “dilations” only appears once the Folios come into existence; before that, in the Quartos, we get “denotements” or “token[s], sign[s]” (“denotement, n.” OED Online.). Again, a completely valid reading. And then, as if splitting the difference, the so-called “Globe” text uses “delations,” meaning “accusation” (“delation, n.; 3” OED Online.). I’m inclined to go with this last word choice, especially since Iago seems to take his verbal cues from this, saying that these “uncleanly apprehensions // Keep leets and law days, and in sessions sit // with meditations lawful” (III.iii.139-41). He creates a verbal picture of a court (“leet”) in session that’s ruled by law. Their conversation continues down this legal path, with Othello demanding “the proof” (III.iii.191), then “the ocular proof” (III.iii.360).

After Othello demands the handkerchief–let’s call that Exhibit A–from Desdemona, she uses a (third-person) legal analogy to admit that she has lied, and now stands accused: “But now I find I had suborned the witness, // And he’s indicted falsely” (III.iv.152-53).

The next two scenes begin with near cross-examinations by Othello. Act Four, Scene One, sees him questioning Iago, asking of the possibility of “an unauthorized kiss” (IV.i.2) or one not “legally or duly sanctioned” (“authorized, adj.; 1” OED Online.), and dealing with subjects of ownership and “suit” (IV.i.26).

In the second scene of the fourth act, Othello badgers Emilia about Desdemona’s faithfulness, until Iago’s wife finally must proclaim, “For if she be not honest, chaste, and true // There’s no man happy; the purest of their wives // Is foul as slander” (IV.ii.17-19). The legalistic concept of slander is no coincidence, I’d wager.

When we get to the final scene, there, too, we find legal language. The repeated phrase “It is the cause” (V.i.1 [twice], and 3) is noteworthy. Not only is there a cause-and-effect relationship between her supposed infidelity and his execution of her, but there is also the concept of both “a matter before the court” (“cause, n.; II.8a” OED Online.) and “to be to blame” (“cause, n.; II.9b” OED Online.). Additionally there’s the idea of “cause” being “the case as it concerns” (“cause, n.; II.10a” OED Online.), and this use of “cause” relates not only to its definition but to its near-homophone “case”…which, of course, had a bawdy connotation referring to the female sex organ. This “case” of Desdemona’s is the cause of all these woes.

The legal phrases don’t stop with these opening lines of the scene, though. Othello asks Desdemona of she has committed any “crime” (V.ii.26). When she denies this, he warns, “Take heed of perjury” (V.ii.51). Even in death and in her dying breath, Desdemona proclaims her “guiltless” (V.ii.122) state–not merely her death, but absolving Othello of responsibility as well.

TANGENT: why does she do this? She could easily accuse Othello of the murder he’s committed, yet she doesn’t. She first says “nobody” (V.ii.125) killed her, then takes responsibility herself before asking Emilia to “Commend [her] to [her] kind lord” (V.ii.126). Why? Does she still love the Moor and is trying to protect him? Is this her way to prove to him her innocence? Or is it something more complex than this? By taking responsibility, she might be claiming suicide, for which she will not go to heaven, and the “kind lord” she wants to be commended to is not her husband, but rather God. Fascinating grist for discussion… with no easy answers.


We have all these legal/trial images. But at the end, do we get justice? Certainly not the dramatic justice we’re used to in a tragedy. Villains should be punished (preferably by death), and Iago is still alive. Which brings to mind the first legal(ish) reference…back in the opening scene, when Iago is proclaiming his hate for and his vowed acts against Othello, Iago casts off human justice. Instead, he says, “Heaven is my judge” (I.i.58).

And yet he’s left standing at play’s end. Turks have been drowned, but he’s alive.

Is this what he meant by “divinity of hell!” (II.iii.338)?

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