Tracing Deformity in Shakespeare 2.0: Othello

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This series focuses on the deformities found in some of Shakespeare’s plays and we examine the possibility that Shakespeare makes these deformities ambiguous in order to complicate what it actually means to be deformed. The deformities we discuss in this series range from physical and mental deformities to deformities of language. It is recommended that readers have read or have a grasp of the specific play before reading this analytical series. Direct quotes of the text come from the Second Edition of The Norton Shakespeare, unless otherwise noted.

1a. n. The quality or condition of being marred or disfigured in appearance; disfigurement; unsightliness, ugliness.
4a. figurative. Moral disfigurement, ugliness, or crookedness.
5. Misused for deformity, n., difference or diversity of form; want of uniformity or conformity.



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In Othello, Shakespeare creates a powerful drama of a marriage that begins with fascination (between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona), with elopement and intense mutual devotion that ends precipitately with jealous rage and violent deaths. He sets this story in the romantic world of the Mediterranean, moving the action from Venice to the island of Cyprus and giving it an even more exotic coloring with stories of Othello’s African past. Shakespeare builds so many differences into his hero and heroine—differences of race, age, and cultural background—that one should not, perhaps, be surprised that the marriage ends disastrously. But most people who see or read the play feel that the love that the play presents between Othello and Desdemona is so strong that it would have overcome all these differences were it not for the words and actions of Othello’s standard-bearer, Iago, who hates Othello and sets out to destroy him by destroying his love for Desdemona. As Othello succumbs to Iago’s insinuations that Desdemona is unfaithful, fascination—which dominates the early acts of the play—turns to horror, especially for the audience. We are confronted by spectacles of a generous and trusting Othello in the grip of Iago’s schemes; of an innocent Desdemona, who has given herself up entirely to her love for Othello only to be subjected to his horrifying verbal and physical assaults, the outcome of Othello’s mistaken convictions about her faithlessness. —GOODREADS


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In Othello, Shakespeare further complicates what it means to be deformed and works with the malleability of its definition. 

…a character’s abnormal body at birth points forward to his villainous behavior in life, an allegory of evil offset by a comic vitality and irony, speaking as the stigmatic does directly to the audience about both his marked body and evil actions… The problem with the case of Othello is that his story looks nothing like this: it is Iago, not Othello, who fills the role of a Richard [III], even though it is Othello, not Iago, whose body is stigmatized. —JEFFREY R. WILSON – HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Othello is a black male in late sixteenth century Venice—during wars between Venice and Turkey.

From the perspective of the play, it would initially seem that it is Othello who is born ‘deformed’ because of his darker complexion—he is called a MoorHowever, those with this interpretation are quickly persuaded otherwise because he marries Desdemona, a white, prominent woman in Venice. Othello’s darker complexion is not a deformity—just one that the people of Venice in the late sixteenth century had not seen a lot of yet. Because Othello has a “difference or diversity of form” from the people of Venice in the late sixteenth century, he is incorrectly considered ‘deformed’ (cited above, 5). However, the truly deformed character in the play is Iago.


Iago’s appearance in Othello, with his villainous inner-form, discredits any thought that Othello is Shakespeare’s comment on deformity. Iago plans to trick Othello into thinking that his wife, Desdemona, is unfaithful. Iago hatches a plan to use Cassio as a pawn to help him make Othello jealous.

Shakespeare did not have to use the system he previously reserved for his stigmatics to shape the story of Iago, yet Shakespeare chose to do so in the context of another character who does bear a stigmatized body, an exchange so surprising and bracing that it must be significant and pointed. In the end, Shakespeare’s point seems to be that those like Othello whose bodies have been stigmatized still have the potential to fashion a course for their lives outside the figure of stigma, while those like Iago whose bodies are normal can still attain the heights of villainy Shakespeare previously reserved for his stigmatized characters. —JEFFREY R. WILSON – HARVARD UNIVERSITY

What is most interesting and villainousor deformedis Iago’s seeming lack of motivation for his plan. Iago claims he is upset with Othello for passing him over for  a Lieutenant position, but later states that he believes Othello is sleeping with his wife, Emilia—which is not true. While Iago may not express his true motivation onstage, neither of these reasons seem reasonable as a catalyst for his extreme hatred of Othello and plan for Othello’s demise.

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  Othello & Iago                                                                 FINEARTAMERICA

Iago describes his “monstrous” plan and how it cannot be stopped now that it has hatched:

I ha’t. It is engendered. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.
The Norton Shakespeare, 1.3.385-386

Iago describes how, whatever he has to do, the world will know that Othello is an evil man—which is not necessarily true until the end of the play after Othello has been manipulated by Iago. By using the word “hell,” Iago alludes to his inner devil—or how he is the incarnate devil. Here, Iago plans to use his inner deformity in order to bring a horrible fate to Othello and those he loves. 

When Othello realizes he has been tricked by Iago into thinking that his loyal wife, Desdemona, was unfaithful to him, he looks down at Iago’s feet: 

I look down towards his feet, but that’s a fable.
(To Iago) If thou beest a devil I cannot kill thee.
(He wounds Iago).

The Norton Shakespeare, 5.2.292-293

Because the devil has hoofed feet, Othello interprets Iago’s feet as the devil’s—and, therefore, Iago as the incarnate devil. Here, like Richard III—where any physical malformation Richard III has implies a greater inner deformity of his mind—Iago has an external marker for his inner deformity in Othello’s eyes.

Othello says he cannot kill Iago because the devil cannot be killed—Othello sees Iago as an embodiment of the devil. Even if Iago is not physically malformed, Othello sees him that way. 

And, again like Richard [III], Iago is a witty interlocutor with the audience, articulating his villainy with a wicked vitality, leading us to an unsettling intimacy with the evil man. And, once more like Richard [III], Iago ends up punished at the end of the play by the representative of good, Gratiano, planning to torture him as Richmond slaughtered Richard. —JEFFREY R. WILSON – HARVARD UNIVERSITY

At the end of the play, Iago is taken to be tortured for his crimes, but does not die onstage. This ending could allude to Shakespeare’s possible intention of showing Iago as the devil—and therefore, deformed—because Iago does not die. Does this mean Iago cannot be killed, like the devil? As a result, this ending could leave the reader or viewer wondering if Othello was right about Iago being the incarnate devil.

Through Iago’s character in Othello, Shakespeare further complicates the definition of ‘deformity’ and shows how mental deformities can sometimes be worse than physical ones. 


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