How did Othello fall from grace so spectacularly? At the opening of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello rules Venice as a mighty general and enjoys great honor and prestige amongst her citizens. But at the close of Act V, Othello brutally smothers his own loving wife, falsely believing her to be unfaithful, and then subsequently kills himself over the guilt.
As readers, we are confronted with many questions, of course. How did this happen? How did Othello come to believe such lies about Desdemona? Who has bewitched him? But it is not as though these questions are laid to rest when we leave the theatre or put down our books. The West, despite owing much of its very existence to Christian faith, is anything but hospitable to Christian faith in the 21st-century. How did this happen? Who has bewitched us? The story of Desdemona’s demise is not as disconnected from the scourge of secularism as one might think. Both stories come to head in the naive assumption that perfect neutrality exists. Just as Othello believed the schemes of a professed friend to be simple observations, so too has the West believed that the assumptions of scientific materialism are as obvious as “settled science” and as neutral as the readings of a barometer.
But we now return to Venice, where the ensign Iago fumes with rage and envy. Having just been passed over for promotion to the younger and less experienced Michael Cassio, Iago directs his ire towards Othello, the nobleman and rising star general. But Othello is not like other Venetian generals. He is a black man, a Moor to be exact, and he has just married Desdemona, a senator’s daughter. Seeking revenge, Iago hatches a scheme to get Cassio drunk and subsequently embarrass himself in a brawl while he is supposed to be on duty for the city. After the brawl and its fallout, Iago advises Cassio to talk to Desdemona to get into Othello’s good graces again, perhaps to be reinstated to his post in good standing.
As Iago sets these events in motion, he simultaneously relates to Othello as though he were an unbiased bystander and thereupon begins his manipulation. He ever so subtly starts to insinuate that Desdemona could never actually love an older black man such as Othello. Eventually, he suggests outright that Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio. Although he is resistant to Iago’s lies at first, Othello’s trust in Desdemona begins to crumble. Iago’s machinations continue. Tensions rise. We read on and from Acts 3 scene 2 until the play’s violent conclusion, we see Iago’s scheme unfold with a dreadful sort of precision and orchestration. We feel anger toward Othello and pity for Desdemona, whose love for Othello never wavered despite the accuser’s claims to the contrary.
Who, then, is to blame for this cataclysm? We’ll get to Othello but first, our investigation must address Iago. When we read Othello with Scriptural eyes, as good students of Calvin, what do we see?
What we see in Iago is one who is quite evidently of the seed of the serpent. To be more specific, we see a man who, like Satan, has been standing in and spewing out lies with an eye toward death (John 8.44). Iago desired to see Othello’s career hampered, his reputation soiled, and his marriage torn asunder. He came to desire Othello’s demise more than he ever desired a promotion.
Iago lied about Desdemona’s having an affair outright. But he does more than that. To get the substantial lie about Cassio’s actions to land, Iago must first successfully lie about Desdemona and Cassio’s character. With passive-aggressive mastery, he plants such doubts in Othello’s mind with loaded questions like “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady [Desdemona], know of your love” and back-handed compliments such as “Men should be what they seem...I think Cassio’s an honest man.”
But it’s not just Desdemona and Cassio’s character which Iago seeks to undermine. Earlier in Act I, Iago leans into the racial prejudices of the day when he informs Desdemona’s father of her marriage to Othello, saying, “An old black ram is topping your white ewe.” In effect, Iago is a conniving race-baiter par excellence. He seizes upon the weaknesses and stereotypes of the day and uses them as noxious fumes to deceive and take advantage of Othello. His behavior resembles that of Haman as he rants to King Ahasuerus in an almost Mein Kampf-style fever pitch about the Jews in Esther 3. In more contemporary terms, he is David Duke and Al Sharpton. He is Richard Spencer and Ibram X. Kendi.
What is most important in understanding Iago is that he makes Desdemona and Cassio out to be no different than the rest of the aristocrats of Venice, every bit as racist as the rest of them. In seeking to ultimately undermine Othello’s trust in his wife’s vows, Iago first undermines Othello’s trust in her character, just like what Satan does to Eve’s trust in God’s character. For the lie that Adam and Eve would not die upon disobedience to land in Eve’s mind, Satan first had to undermine God’s character. As Sinclair Ferguson notes, “Thus the lie was an assault on both God’s generosity and his integrity. Neither his character nor his words were to be trusted.” This is who Iago is. He assaults Desdemona and Cassio’s integrity. Neither Cassio and Desdemona’s character nor their words were to be trusted according to Iago. He is like his father, the devil, a weaver of lies and a roaring lion seeking to sift Othello like wheat.
And this, he sadly succeeds in doing. The tragedy with Othello, as one contributor for City Journal writes, is that Iago succeeds in “transforming the seemingly exemplary general into what his bigotry says a Moor should be.” Othello is not initially but eventually becomes the very thing that the racist stereotypes tell him he must be, namely an “old black ram topping a white ewe.”
Ensnared in Iago’s half-truths and innuendos, Othello lives in a false world instead of the true one. By failing to question Iago and his motives, Othello instead questions Desdemona and Cassio and their motives. To use the phrase of the revolutionary, Friedrich Engels, we could say that Othello falls into a state of “false consciousness” because of the counsel of Iago. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, Othello allowed what Van Til called a “false ideal of knowledge” to become ultimate and authoritative in his interpretation of reality. Othello’s downfall lay in his failure to see Iago’s bias against him. He exchanged the truth of Desdemona’s love for the lie of Iago’s “neutral” observations. He failed to take into account that, though Desdemona’s talking to Cassio could be interpreted nefariously, it did not have to be.
Othello failed to understand that Iago’s claims were a “spin” on reality. According to philosopher Charles Taylor, a “spin” is a “an overconfident ‘picture’ within which we can’t imagine it being otherwise, and thus smugly dismiss those who disagree.” To put it another way, a spin is an interpretation of a set of facts dishonestly spoken of as though they were simply “the facts.” Van Til, again, is helpful in debunking the idea of the existence of that which is “simply the facts.” He writes, “The human mind as the knowing subject makes its contribution to the knowledge it obtains.” Elsewhere he writes that “The modern scientist, pretending to be merely a describer of facts, is in reality a maker of facts. He makes the facts as he describes.”
Taylor and Van Til’s aim here (and Shakespeare’s as well), is simply to question the idea of “brute facts.” Because of the fundamentally and pervasively religious nature of man, everything that a man says and does, even his reporting of “facts,” will be influenced by the object of his ultimate worship and allegiance. If a man has pledged allegiance to Jesus Christ, his telling of the facts will tend towards the advance of God’s kingdom of goodness, truth, and beauty. But if a man has pledged his allegiance to Satan, as Iago figuratively has, his telling of the “facts” will always be skewed in the direction of suspicion, misunderstanding and death. And this is relevant to Othello because he believed Iago’s interpretation of the facts to be nothing but the “brute facts.” Had Othello considered the fact that Iago had axe to grind, things may have been different. Had Othello known that Iago had a role in getting Cassio drunk in the first place, he would have thought twice before believing anything Iago was telling him. If Othello had been more epistemologically self-conscious, he might have behaved more in line with the last Adam than with the first, crushing the serpent rather than joining him. This is Othello. He is King Ahasuerus deceived by Haman. Ultimately, he is Adam in the garden. He is Edmund Pevensie believing the Witch’s lies about his brother and two sisters.
Where is the West in this story now? Have we questioned the allegedly “settled science” about human origin and evolution enough, like Othello should have questioned Iago? Have we questioned the prevailing notions of the sexual and identity revolution enough, both inside and outside the church? How often might we naively assume that we make decisions based simply on “data” and not through a certain interpretive lens? Let us submit to Jesus Christ and seek to understand all things through the lens of His Word in order that He may “reinstate true knowledge” in us all.