Thinking about Othello allegorically, the tragedy may be seen as a vivid depiction of the hero’s crisis of faith (in himself; in Desdemona and all the goodness that she embodies; in the order of the cosmos). If we think of Othello as a basically decent—but proud and credulous—person who does not know himself very deeply, we can view his ‘temptation’ and seduction by the evil-minded Iago as a kind of test of his faith. If his faith in Desdemona and in his own powers of inner balance can be so rapidly and so thoroughly dissolved by Iago’s lies and insinuations, then such faith must not have been very deep or resilient in the first place. Iago knows exactly how to kindle and inflame precisely those fears and suspicions that ‘undo’ Othello. Obviously, Othello was not adequately defended or inoculated against these particular suspicions and fears—so he was easily infected by them and reduced to a state of murderous outrage against his chaste and guiltless wife.
If we allow the ‘divine’ Desdemona to symbolize (or embody) the hero’s transcendent or higher, spiritual potentials—while Iago embodies the principal obstacles standing in the way of Othello’s moral-psychological-spiritual maturation—we see the basic problem of the play. As in the medieval morality plays, we see a contest for the soul of the pilgrim. On one side is the animalic-diabolical Iago and, on the other, the angelic-spiritual Desdemona.
Out of compassion, we are told, Desdemona was first drawn to Othello—after hearing of his trials and ordeals (upon the emblematic and actual ‘battlefield’ of life). He is the heroic ego; she is the nurturing and compassionate soul. In the elopement of the two, a kind of trial commences. Because of various factors (his skin color, his foreign-ness, his age, his status as a mercenary, etc.), the marriage starts off less auspiciously and securely than sanctioned marriages between more outwardly well-matched partners. But an even greater and ultimately more important gap exists between this confident, warrior-ego and this gentle, delicate soul.
What is required in order for such a marriage to ‘take’? From a psychological standpoint, the heroic, outer-directed ego and the reflective, inner-directed soul occupy fundamentally different centers of gravity. The telos or aim of the marriage, of course, is to construct a strong and reliable bridge between these two very different centers of gravity, with their very different priorities, capacities, strengths, blind spots, etc.
When viewed psychologically and symbolically in this way, we are in a better position to pry our attention away from the fascinating personalities (and their emotionally-gripping drama) and view the play’s action schematically and impersonally. Of course, in ‘depersonalizing’ Othello in this way we lose much of the dramatic color and the richness of the poetry in the play. We cool it down—‘put it on ice’—and step back from the allurements with which this tragedy is jam-packed. In this allegorizing move—in shelving all the passion, intrigue, drama, and other elements of fascination—we are like anatomists removing all the flesh, muscle, and viscera of a freshly slain mammal and inspecting the skeletal structure in its ‘bare-boned’ state. In thus stripping away all those ‘particular’ features that distinguish one individual from the next—and getting down to the nearly featureless structural scheme buried beneath the flesh—we are able to view the play in a manner that is both purer and colder than before. There are many readers who strongly resist such a move—precisely because all that matters to them is thereby cut and peeled away. (Northrop Frye, incidentally, is not one of these resisters!) Such resistances are understandable. Once the skin, the blood, the heart, the lungs, the genitals, etc., have been surgically removed, we are closer to ‘death’ in a once-living organism than ever. One must be inwardly prepared to fruitfully confront such skeletons. One must first have hardened himself to a perspective that is, in a sense, beyond life…beyond drama…and beyond ‘taking sides’ with one organ, or character, or motivating factor over another. To descend to this bare-boned, schematic level of Othello or any work of serious literature is to enter ‘the neutral zone.’ Because it is beyond the heartbeat and breathing, fearing and desiring, it looks and feels like ‘death in the midst of life.’ Time is gone—and only timeless structure remains, something akin to mathematical elements. Thus, all formerly opposed or rivaling forces now merge in silent unity and stillness.
Let’s ask, “What would transcendence look like—assuming that Othello’s self-concerned, battle-ready ego could be truly wedded and assimilated to the gentle, compassionate soul of Desdemona?” Shakespeare has provided us with hints that, in certain respects, Desdemona is ‘too good for this world.’ Her chastity, her childlike purity and innocence, and her marked difference from the worldly-wise Emilia certainly can be read as personal weaknesses and immaturity. But these same qualities are also marks of her essential lack of any base or lascivious contamination. She is ‘all heart,’ from one angle, but she also possesses an almost superhuman faith (in Othello’s underlying goodness) that is unshakable. Certainly, from a worldly or commonsensical standpoint, Desdemona seems foolish to be so utterly unmindful of the danger she’s in after Othello becomes possessed by jealousy, publicly striking and slandering her. But from the absolute and eternally present standpoint of the all-pervading spirit, she cannot behave other than she does, lest she betray her very essence. Her love is unwavering precisely because it flows forth from a source that lies deep below the vicissitudes of ordinary human experience and conditionality. And when—in her momentary resurrection, after being strangled—she announces to Emilia that she herself is responsible for her own death and then bids Emilia to commend her to her ‘kind’ lord, what are we to make of this? Is she simply trying to exculpate Othello in order to save him from arrest and imprisonment for his murderous deed? And why does she call him her ‘kind’ lord? Is she daft—or is she pushing irony to ridiculous extremes?
If we interpret this perplexing scene allegorically or in spiritually symbolic terms, the sense is quite clear—but if we try to make sense of it in the ordinary terms of ego psychology, it remains deeply bewildering. The return to (or the full realization of) the spirit is simultaneously the diminishment or displacement of the individual ego (as center of consciousness). From the perspective of the absolute and inviolate spirit, birth is death and death is a return to eternal life, since ‘individuating’ into a ‘Desdemona,’ an ‘Othello,’ or an ‘Iago’ is a kind of sundering of the essential and timeless unity of the source from whence we come. ‘Desdemona,’ in her merciful ‘lie’ takes upon herself the sin of separation and shattered faith (in the transcendent source), and provides Othello’s ‘better self’ (her ‘kind’ lord) an opportunity to recover and to redeem itself. It is as if her selflessness is saying ‘Forgive him for he knows not what he does.’ Iago’s muted or baffling motivation underscores his allegorical (as distinct from his recognizably human) role as a catalyst and crucial detonator of the crisis that leads to the meltdown of Othello’s ego and its eventual restoration in a more enlightened (but not perfected) state. Thus, the play is a comedy from the spiritual perspective (as perhaps all plays ultimately must be) but a tragedy from the worldly-bodily perspective. Thus, tragedy and comedy cancel each other out from the archetypal perspective.
The archetypal scheme, therefore, includes all three ‘elements,’ if you like—Desdemona, Othello, and Iago—in a timeless, impersonal unity (or less than entirely holy Trinity, 3 in 1). Because timeless, the archetype is static (like a seed or an unawakened gene is static), but potentially dynamic or dramatic. To actualize this potentiality into human drama, the archetype must be incarnated, as it were, in time and by means of differentiated personalities. Each of these personalities contains or embodies a crucial piece of the whole—a puzzle that comes alive only under the proper conditions. Before the play actually begins, these conditions have already been established and they have ignited the dramatic process that culminates in the heaped-up carcasses on the bed in the final scene. Like the active formation of a crystal structure in a super-saturated solution, the plot seems to unfold with the necessity and inevitability of a chemical process.
Approaching the plot and the characters from this archetypal or schematic perspective allows us to peek into the invisible or unconscious factors that are always secretly steering the characters and events towards an outcome that not even Iago—the most conscious character of all—can accurately foresee. It also affords us a chance to glimpse the occult or hidden interdependence of all the various persons and events in the unfoldment of the equivocally tragic and comedic action. This is the authentically transcendent perspective precisely because it is a view of the whole from the neutral center—the eye of the hurricane, so to speak. It is a perspective that takes no side for or against any individual player, current, or position because it perceives the indispensable necessity of all the players of all the actions and all the consequences of those actions. It sees into and through the blindness and partiality that are inherent in ego-consciousness—or the ‘creative-destructive’ illusion of separate selfhood.
Thus, the price of admission into such a genuinely disinterested and utterly impersonal perspective is the momentary suspension of all stubborn moral, aesthetic, or temperamental prejudices. All attachments—to self, other, outcomes—must be dissolved in the transfiguring withdrawal from temporality into changeless, thoughtless, boundless eternity. How far away such a point of imperturbable peace necessarily sounds to most ears! And yet, there is perhaps nothing closer—nothing more immediately present—than this ‘elusive’ source and foundation of all that is, has been or will be.
The direct intuition—or insight—concerning the self-canceling nature of all mental, affective, and material forms is possible only from the archetypal standpoint—the perspective of pure potentiality, before differentiation has ensued in ‘space-time.’ One can certainly bring the memory or concept of this directly experienced insight back into the arena of ordinary mental perception, but it will only be a carcass or vacated skin of the original experience beyond the opposites.
One of the difficult and painful lessons to be drawn from this penetrating insight (that can only be born beyond the pairs of opposites) is that all the opposites come into manifestation interdependently. What does this mean? It simply means that you cannot have one side of a polarity without its opposite. No good without evil. No pleasure without pain. No beauty without ugliness. No being without non-being. No order without chaos. And any time one side is pressed or emphasized to an excessive degree, its opposite will be provoked to an equal extent as a compensation. A stern law indeed!
How may we establish a meaningful link between Jung’s brand of psychological heroism (which is, at the same time, wisely modest towards those super-human ‘Gods,’ spirituality and sexuality) and Othello’s failure to display truly heroic faith (in something greater than his own personal ‘honor’) when he is put to the test? In the Seven Sermons Jung specifically warns against our identifying ourselves with either of these two contrasted Gods—symbolized by the white bird and the serpent—since this leads to ‘victimization’ by them. What is urged, instead, is a conscious dialogue with them. A dia-logue involves a relationship between two distinct parties—and not a merger or coalescing of identities.
From a psychological standpoint, Othello’s egoic coherence and integrity are easily dissolved by the acid of Iago’s corrosive insinuations—and where there is no buffering, interposing ego, there can be no morally responsible or even prudent response to the psychic challenges and threats one is exposed to. It would be difficult to deny that Othello is ‘possessed’ by this ‘green-eyed monster,’ jealousy—and, being possessed, he is utterly defenseless against this monster’s dark power. The commanding general is hastily reduced to the thoroughly obedient soldier who is ready—without question or remorse—to do the bidding of his evil master. But who is that master? Is it Iago? Iago is merely the precision-instrument who unlocks the monster hidden with Othello’s breast—within all of our breasts. But once this evil genie is out of the bottle, it is no trifling matter to get it back in. Only after its ‘dark’ will is discharged by its blind servant, Othello—discharged in the snuffing out of its ‘light’ nemesis, the celestial Desdemona—only then, in the wake of this eruption of volcanic violence, is the defeated hero given a fleeing opportunity to acknowledge what has been accomplished because of his failure to guard his mind and will from this monster from the depths.
But what about Desdemona? Was she also ‘possessed’—and thereby rendered helpless—albeit by a very different type of super-human spirit? If Othello became merged, psychically, with the serpent of (repressed and menacing) sexuality, is it possible that the chaste and innocent Desdemona became psychically merged with the white bird of spirituality? Can her statement, during her brief ‘resurrection,’ that she was responsible for her own death, be understood in terms of her ‘possession’ by a spirit that is ‘too good for this world’ and, therefore, soars high above its swamps and marshlands? Emilia, who pays the ultimate price for defending her mistress’ honor, turned against both the ‘dolt,’ Othello and the dastard, Iago—her husband—in courageous protest against the madness and deceit that led to Desdemona’s cruel murder. But what we find when we step back—into the archetypal perspective—is that the serpent and bird, sexuality and spirituality, Othello-Iago, and Desdemona-Emilia, cancel each other out. These humans, as Jung would have observed, are the victims of forces they neither understand nor control. And their victimization is the result of their respective identifications with (which is synonymous with ‘possession by’) the archetypal serpent and bird. As their votaries, Othello and Desdemona are naturally drawn to each other—since serpent and bird complement and counter-balance each other—as well as cancel each other out. Opposites attract, to be sure, for they answer some lack or deficiency in one another, but they are just as capable of destroying as benefitting one another. It is easy enough to see how oppositely-disposed persons—despite a natural attraction they might feel for each other—are highly susceptible to mutual misunderstanding and mis-interpretation of one another. After all, they are led by different lights and may be thought, almost, to speak and think in incommensurable languages. And yet—as with poisonous chlorine gas and caustic sodium combining to form salutary salt—if they embark upon a proportionate and measured marriage, their mutual transformation and union can amount to something greater than the sum of the parts. Pacing; ripeness, and readiness of the marrying couple; and suitable conditions for the protection and nurturing of the bond—these were scarcely present in the furtive and infelicitous elopement of Othello and Desdemona. Instead of a bond, this coupling rapidly degenerated into a form of bondage for both—imprisonment and death—and almost certainly without even being consummated!
Surely Shakespeare would not have wanted his playgoers and readers to get bogged down in myopic and contentious fault-finding—in attempting to place the lion’s share of the blame for the grisly finale upon one or another individual character—when all were necessary, as they were, to bring it off. A far more interesting search would be for the transpersonal factors that were at play in and through these characters. To what extent were each of them pawns and helpless servants of unconscious forces or stances over which they exercised little or no control or voice? Does such recognition make the play any less tragic in its overall effect?
What do the Dionysian and the purely spiritual have in common—from the standpoint of the separate, or individual, ego? Both pose the threat of dissolution of the ego—or principium individuationis. Ultimately, the fact that this experience of dissolution—of merger with the common, shared body of all flesh or with the unitary, absolute spirit informing and grounding all consciousness—comes from above (spirit) or below (instinct) makes little difference insofar as both involve the annihilation of the ego. Both experiences entail a kind of death or obliteration of the separate person, which is—when viewed from another angle—a momentous transcendence of the ego. Iago and Desdemona may be seen as symbolic of these two very different threats posed to Othello’s heroic, outer-directed ego. Othello’s final speech is a bid to recover his lost dignity (like Brutus after having been ‘taken in’ by Cassius) in a ‘Roman-pagan’ manner before killing himself. What does not happen is the shattering and supplanting of his ego by a humbler attitude in the wake of the foolish murder of his own spiritual potential (personified by Desdemona). Thus, at one level the tragedy points to the absence of authentic spiritual transcendence form the pagan, or pre-Christian perspective—the perspective which is represented, at its height, by the heroic ego.