Intercession, Detraction, and Just Judgment in Othello


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Cassio: 0, behold!

The riches of the ship is come on shore!

You men of Cyprus, let her have your knees.

Hail to thee, lady! and the grace of heaven,

Before, behind thee, and on every hand,

Enwheel thee round!1

Peter Milward calls Cassio' s speech welcoming Desdemona to Cyprus a "remarkable" echoing of Gabriel's greeting of Mary at the Annunciation. Robert Hunter responds to it, "Ave Desdemona gratia plenae. "2 If Cassio's extraordinary salutation and praise of Desdemona were the only Marian allusion in the play, we would probably write it off as the courtly extravagance of one of the "curled darlings" of Venice.3 The play is packed, however, with references to Desdemona's likenesses and dissimilarities to the Virgin of religious art, the mystery plays, and associated Reformation controversy. Iago casts Desdemona in the controversial Marian role of intercessor, then imputes the intensity of her intercession for Cassio to her fallen sexuality. Even when he challenges Desdemona's "blessed condition" it is often with sexual words that are packed with theological implications about the Virgin mother of Christ.4 Mystery plays like the "Troubles of Joseph" and the "Trial of Mary and Joseph" may also inform Shakespeare's representation of Desdemona's detraction and defense and Othello's consideration of her imputed guilt, especially in Iago's likenesses to Mary's "backbiters" or detractors and in Othello's dissimilarities to a Joseph who also thinks himself abused by a younger wife. Othello's grotesque misjudgment, first of Desdemona, then of himself, also evokes in its persistent considerations of Desdemona's virtues and faults both the central merit-grace issue of the Reformation and the plays and paintings of just judgment, especially their mutual emphasis on intercession and "psychostasis," the verbal and/or visual weighing of merit and demerit. Even when Othello attempts to respond to Iago's poison which "turns her virtue into pitch," he unconsciously weighs Desdemona's imagined demerits against her known merits by using many of the religious lyrics' traditional images of Marian praise. I hope to show that this complex system of analogy and allusion informs Othello with a psychological and a theological depth that has too often eluded its post-enlightenment audience.5


1 Othello, 2.1.83-87, from The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969); subsequently cited parenthetically.

2 Peter Milward, Biblical Influences in Shakespeare's Great Tragedies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 62; Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1976), 138.

3 Othello, 1.2.68

4 Othello, 2.1.246

5 Craig Harbison, The Last Judgment in Sixteenth Century Europe (New York: Garland, 1976), 9, 56-59, tells us that many secular Last Judgment paintings are being produced for town halls in Europe during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Othello, 2.3.343.

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