The Theme of Proof and Judgment in Othello

An annotated list of relevant passages.

Trying to prove to Roderigo that he hates Othello, Iago tells the story of how he was passed over for promotion. He says that Cassio, who got the position that Iago wanted, knows only what he has learned in books, but that "I, of whom his [Othello's] eyes had seen the proof / At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds / Christian and heathen, must be be-lee'd and calm'd / By debitor and creditor" (1.1.28-31). In other words, Othello has seen Iago prove himself as a soldier, but didn't promote him; as a result, Iago is at the mercy of people to whom he owes money. Iago concludes by asking Roderigo to judge for himself whether or not he has good reason to hate Othello: "Now, sir, be judge yourself, / Whether I in any just term am affined [bound] / To love the Moor" (1.1.38-40). Iago hates Othello because Othello made up his mind without taking into account what he had seen with his own eyes. Later in the play Iago will use his powers of manipulation to make Othello do that same thing again; under Iago's influence Othello will see his beautiful, loving wife and decide, despite the evidence of his eyes, that she is a whore. [Scene Summary]

When Brabantio and his posse come to arrest Othello for stealing Desdemona, Brabantio accuses Othello of using magic on his daughter. To Brabantio's way of thinking, that's the only thing that makes sense. She was innocent, happy, and so opposed to marriage that she "shunned / The wealthy curled darlings of our nation" (1.2.68). Brabantio is a little scornful of the "darlings," but to him it seems natural that Desdemona would be attracted to them. But it's unnatural, says Brabantio to Othello, for Desdemona to run from her home "to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou -- to fear, not to delight" (1.2.70-71). Therefore it's obvious to anyone in the world, plain to see, that Othello has used magic and drugs that cloud the mind. In Brabantio's words: "Judge me the world, if 'tis not gross in sense / That thou hast practised on her with foul charms, / Abused her delicate youth with drugs or minerals / That weaken motion" (1.2.72-75). [Scene Summary]

Before the Venetian Senate, Brabantio makes his case against Othello on the grounds of common sense. He says, "It is a judgment maim'd and most imperfect / That will confess perfection so could err / Against all rules of nature" (1.3.99-101). Desdemona was "perfection," and anyone with good judgment could see that running away with the black Othello was something that perfection wouldn't do; it would be against "all rules of nature." Only someone with a "judgment maim'd and most imperfect" would think otherwise. Therefore, Brabantio concludes, Othello must have used magic and drugs on Desdemona.

The Duke, however, is clearly skeptical. He says to Brabantio, To vouch this, is no proof, / Without more wider and more overt test / Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods / Of modern seeming do prefer against him" (1.3.106-109). In other words, just making the charge doesn't prove the charge; so far the only "proof" that Brabantio has is "modern seeming," current assumptions and prejudices. The Duke won't buy the assumption that Desdemona could not have possibly fallen in love with a black man.

As it turns out, the testimony of Othello and Desdemona persuades everyone, even Brabantio, that Desdemona married Othello of her own free will. [Scene Summary]

After Othello breaks up the fight between Cassio and Montano, he asks both men what happened, and doesn't get a clear answer from either. This leads him to say, "Now, by heaven, / My blood begins my safer guides to rule; / And passion, having my best judgment collied [darkened, obscured] / Assays [tries] to lead the way" (2.3.204-207). He is aware that his growing anger could interfere with his judgment, but he controls himself. Later in the play, when he judges Desdemona in his mind, he will tell himself that he is not making his judgment on the basis of emotion, but he will be wrong. [Scene Summary]

When Iago succeeds in planting the seeds of jealousy in Othello, Othello declares that he knows better than to be jealous, saying, "No, Iago; / I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove; / And on the proof, there is no more but this,-- / Away at once with love or jealousy!" (3.3.189-192). To "doubt" means to suspect, and despite what he says, Othello already has strong suspicions, not from seeing anything, but just from listening to Iago.

Later in the scene, Iago comments on how well he's doing in his campaign to poison Othello's judgment. Alone for a moment, Iago tells us that he's going to drop the handkerchief in Cassio's lodging where Cassio will be sure to find it. Iago knows that the fact that Cassio has the handkerchief won't be any kind of real proof that Cassio is having an affair with Desdemona, but he is pretty sure that it will be proof enough for Othello, because "Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ" (3.3.322-324)

Not long after this, Othello's agony of jealousy turns into anger against Iago, and he exclaims, "Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore" (3.3.359). He then threatens Iago, saying, "Be sure of it; give me the ocular [visual] proof: / Or by the worth of man's eternal soul, / Thou hadst been better have been born a dog / Than answer my waked wrath!" (3.3.360-363). And he demands that the charge be proven beyond a reasonable doubt: "Make me to see't; or, at the least, so prove it, / That the probation bear no hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on; or woe upon thy life!" (3.3.364-366). Despite all of this, Iago persuades Othello that he doesn't really want to "see't," and that "If imputation and strong circumstances, / Which lead directly to the door of truth, / Will give you satisfaction, you may have't" (3.3.407-409). In other words, circumstantial evidence is as good as the visual evidence that Othello has demanded. Once he has gotten Othello to accept this idea, Iago then proceeds to deliver his circumstantial evidence -- a tale about a dream that Cassio had about Desdemona, and the assertion that Cassio wiped his beard with Desdemona's handkerchief. These two "proofs" -- both lies -- convince Othello and he vows revenge against Desdemona. [Scene Summary]

Othello, having already vowed to kill Desdemona, still wants proof that she is guilty, so he sets a trap for her by asking her for a handkerchief. When she offers him one that is not the special one that he gave her, he accuses her of losing it. When she says that it's not lost, he demands proof, saying, "Fetch't, let me see't" (3.4.85). Because she doesn't know where the handkerchief is, she refuses, and tries to turn the conversation to Cassio, which only further enrages Othello. [Scene Summary]

In the first scene of Act Four Iago "proves" his accusations. First he tortures Othello with the idea that it would be extremely difficult to prove anything. He asks if it's possible she was just "naked with her friend in bed / An hour or more, not meaning any harm?" (4.1.3-4). He goes on to say that Cassio has said some things that show his guilt, but "No more than he'll unswear" (4.1.31). When Othello asks what Cassio has said, Iago only answers "Lie--"; he lets Othello fill in the blank, which he does by asking, "With her?" Cruelly casual, Iago answers, "With her, on her; what you will" (4.1.34). These lying hints make Othello's head spin:
Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when they belie her. Lie with her! that's fulsome. -- Handkerchief -- confessions -- handkerchief! -- To confess, and be hanged for his labour; -- first, to be hanged, and then to confess. -- I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. -- Is't possible? -- Confess -- handkerchief! -- O devil!
Falls in a trance   (4.1.35-43)
To lie with (have sex with) someone is not the same thing as to belie (tell a lie about) someone, but the two get mixed up in Othello's mind. The handkerchief is a kind of proof, but not a confession. If he could get a confession from Cassio, he would hang him, but it would be more satisfying to hang him first, and then get the confession. Othello's passionate irrationality makes him tremble, but he believes that "Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction." He believes that he couldn't possibly feel so terrible without a good reason; in our cliché, "where there's smoke, there must be fire." But the smoke is all in Othello's mind, and it is words which make him shake. He gets worse and sees in his mind's eye "Noses, ears, and lips" (Whose? His? Hers? Theirs?), then returns to confession and the handkerchief. Finally he is completely overwhelmed and "Falls in a trance."

After this, Iago tells Othello to hide himself and listen while he talks to Cassio about Desdemona. Othello does so, and Iago tells us his plan: he will ask Cassio about Bianca, Cassio's prostitute girlfriend, and because Bianca is so crazy in love with him, Cassio will laugh. Othello will think that Cassio is laughing about his relationship with Desdemona, and "As he [Cassio] shall smile, Othello shall go mad" (4.1.100)

Iago's plan works more than perfectly. Not only does Cassio laugh, but Bianca shows up with the Desdemona's handkerchief. Now Othello thinks he has proof of Desdemona's adultery, and he plans the time, place, and method of killing her. [Scene Summary]

In the final scene of the play Othello acts as Desdemona's judge and executioner. As the scene opens he is trying to convince himself that he is a fair judge, saying, "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,-- / Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!-- / It is the cause (5.2.1-3). He means that he is going to kill Desdemona because of "the cause," the crime that she has committed, a crime so horrible that he can't say its name even to the stars. Thus he sees himself as an agent of justice, and denies to himself that he is killing her for himself, because he is jealous, because his sense of honor has been wounded.

When Desdemona awakes Othello accuses her of having an affair with Cassio and says "That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee / Thou gavest to Cassio" (5.2.48-49). This is Othello's last chance to prove to himself that he's in the right, that he knows the truth, but the evidence of the handkerchief does not make her confess. She denies everything and continues to deny it, even when he warns her against perjury. To him, her denial is an attack on his honor. He says, "O perjured woman! thou dost stone my heart, / And makest me call what I intend to do / A murder, which I thought a sacrifice: / I saw the handkerchief!" (5.2.63-66). He wants to believe that he is about to kill his love as a sacrifice to the cause of justice, but she won't confess that she deserves to be sacrificed. If she's innocent, he's a murderer, so she must be lying.

Desperately, Desdemona says that Cassio must have found the handkerchief and asks Othello to send for him so that he can tell the truth. Othello answers that Cassio has already told the truth, that he has used Desdemona unlawfully. Desdemona says that Cassio won't say that, and Othello counters, "No, his mouth is stopp'd; / Honest Iago hath ta'en order for't" (5.2.71-72). Desdemona is terrified; her one possible witness is dead, and his death makes her understand that Othello is dead serious about killing her too. She weeps. Desdemona's weeping only further enrages Othello. Once again he misinterprets what he sees before his eyes. He thinks that she is weeping for Cassio, and that her weeping for him proves her guilt. He says, "Out, strumpet! weep'st thou for him to my face?" (5.2.77). Then he kills her, despite her repeated pleas for mercy.

Later in the scene, after Emilia has revealed the truth about Iago and the handkerchief, Lodovico shows Othello letters found on Roderigo. These letters, which confirm Iago's guilt, are genuine evidence, not inferences or assumptions. Othello then asks about the one piece of evidence that he saw -- the handkerchief. Cassio says that he found it, and Iago has just now confessed that he dropped the handkerchief where he was sure that Cassio would find it. At this, Othello accepts the bitter truth about himself: "O fool! fool! fool!" (5.2.323). [Scene Summary]