Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community: An Interpretation of Othello

"Cosmopolitan Man and the Political Community: An Interpretation of Othello," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (March 1960), pp. 130-157.


Shakespeare’s explicit treatment of the possibility of an interracial, inter-faith society is given its most detailed development in his two Venetian plays, two plays which may well be thought the profoundest recorded analysis of the relation of Jew and Christian, of white man and black man. Whether Shakespeare’s apparent pessimism is the final word on this subject we need not here pronounce. Certainly no further apology is needed to introduce an attempt to comprehend, in human and political terms, the grounds for that pessimism.

The Earl of Shaftesbury, in the most penetrating criticism of Othello that I have read, asserts that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona is a mis- match, a monstrous union founded on the lying pretentious of a charlatan and the unhealthy imagination of a misguided young girl. For him the tragedy is not the consequence of lago’s vile machinations but the natural fruit of seeds that are sown in the characters of the heroes and in their relationship. The simple, citizen’s moral of the story is, according to Shaftesbury, that such marriages between foreigners who have nothing in common other than their desire for novelty are to be avoided and condemned. Only the sick taste of one not satisfied at home could have led Desdemona to her choice; only a moral education that did not move the phantasy and the sympathy of the girl could account for her blind search for the incredible and the exotic. And Shaftesbury, echoing the moral taste of the pre-romantic critics, sees the denouement as the just punishment of faulty beings. However narrow this understanding of the play may be, it raises in a clear and honest fashion the fundamental question: what is the character of the relationship between Desdemona and Othello? The interpretation of Othello has tended to neglect the question and has con- centrated on the psychological development of the jealousy. But this jealousy has no meaning except in relation to the kind of man who suffers it and the reasons why he is particularly susceptible to it. We are presented with the picture of a couple who have married in an unusual way but who are nonethe- less very much in love and who are led to disaster through the external actions of a hostile world. We are asked to believe that a paragon of strength and confidence is transformed into a furious beast driven by suspicion only because he has been tempted by a devil. It is not enough to say that such is the nature of jealousy: we can easily imagine many men, exposed to the same temptations, who would never have succumbed to them. Even the most superficial reader is struck by the slightness of the proofs which convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity. Is not Othello ripe for the doubt which comes to afflict him? Are we to believe that the jealousy which erupts so unexpectedly is not the fruit of a soil long prepared and cultivated, albeit unconsciously? Does not Shakespeare always incorporate in the life of each of his tragic heroes precisely those ele- ments which make him the aptest vehicle for the emergence of that phenomenon which he, above all others, exhibits?