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Making Sense of
The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice

Joe Estes


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“If the [beam] of our lives had not one scale of reason to poise another of sensuality, the blood and baseness of our natures would conduct us to most preposterous conclusions.”
—Iago (I.iii.326-29)

Upon the beam, or balance, of which Iago speaks, a single word exists in the English language that, in the proper context, carries equal weight, even to the point of reigning supreme, on either side of the spectrum: senseThe Oxford English Dictionary attributes over thirty definitions to the word, no less than seven of which are appended by lines from Shakespeare’s Othello; from the purely cerebral sense of the word, meaning reason or wit, mental perception or appreciation, to the completely physical faculties of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch—the sense of the word from which sensuality takes its very root.  I cannot easily discuss the multitude of nuanced meanings and various usages of a word without repeatedly using the phrase, in the sense, or in this sense, and sadly the word that I will always be referring to is, sense.  When I specifically refer to the word, I will try to indicate so in italics, and when I do not, I will not.  Hopefully this will make sense, in the sense that the word, sense can refer to “discourse that has a satisfactory and intelligible meaning” (OED 979).
    In The Tragedy of Othello, Shakespeare uses the word sense seventeen times, in ten different scenes, while employing fifteen distinct meanings of the word.  The ways in which the word sense and its different, and often times muddled, meanings are woven into the text are essential to the development of the characters, the unfolding of plot, and to the realization of the play’s larger themes.  The balance that Iago refers to, “the beam of our lives,” is the story of all mankind: the “green place” over the city, or Jekyll over Hyde.  As Iago’s admonition in I.iii. portends, the smallest tipping of the scale can lead to disastrous consequences.  The sense in which sense is used naturally devolves across the play, from the capital to the corporeal, and at times Iago himself can be seen with his finger on the button, confounding the issue with ambiguous use, using the very elasticity of the word to nudge people toward their destruction.  In the end, the word loses almost all meaning—or simply encompasses too much.
    Othello opens on the streets of Venice, a center of commerce, and a place of Law.  The first utterance of the word sense is made by Roderigo, and it trumpets what Venice, and the opening atmosphere of the play is all about: “Do not believe / That, from the sense of all civility, / I thus would play and trifle with your reverence” (I.i.130-33).  Here, to paraphrase the OED, sense refers to, “the recognition of (duty, virtue, etc.) incumbent upon one.”  Almost from the first, the highest and most cerebral order of the word sense is summoned.  In Venice, conflicts are met with appeals to common sense and order.  Even the most incensing of situations, for example, the “corruption” of one’s daughter, would never come to fisticuffs; rather, the matter is taken to the courts so that a measured discourse can take place.
    In Venice, things like rumor, superstition, witchcraft, and young love are all tried in the court of common sense, even on the street in the dark of night.  Brabantio begins with an appeal to it, “For I’ll refer me to all things of sense” (I.ii.64).  And again, when it would seem he comes close to calling on faculties of physical perception, “Judge me the world, if ‘tis not gross in sense” (I.ii.72), the interpreters have this to mean “obvious to perception,” and “synonymous with palpable to thinking in line 76.”  Here, in Venice, you might say, perception itself seems to be a faculty not of the body, but of the mind.  In Venice, we talk of mental perceptions and understanding, not of seeing and smelling and tasting.  This is further evidenced in the next use of the word sense (and the next and the next).
    Thirty lines later, the word is used again, this time in the council-chamber.  In Act One, Scene Three, in the span of the first seventy lines, the word sense is used not once or twice, but three times—all of them employing one of the more cerebral meanings that the OED has to offer.  The Duke, in reference to some discrepant reports he has heard about the Turkish fleet, says, “I do not so secure me in the error / But the main article I do approve / In fearful sense” (10-12).  Here, the word sense shows its first signs of being something that could be dangerous.  Had the Duke heard one scary report about the Turkish fleet, and said, “it fills me with a fearful sense,” the implications would be different.  But here, sense is shown to operate outside the laws of reason, regardless of what the facts or realities are.  The OED offers this definition: “A more or less vague perception or impression of (an outward object) as present or imagined”(978).  In choosing a line break here, Shakespeare isolates this phrase, In fearful sense, perhaps drawing attention to “fearful sense” as a player in this tragedy.
    The word is quickly used two more times in Scene Three, both with somewhat dark implications.  Brabantio says, “For nature so preposterously to err / (Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense) / Sans witchcraft could not” (I.iii.62-64).  The interpreters have sense here to mean reason.  Depending on how we understand witchcraft, we know that Othello used none; therefore a world is hinted at in this line that does not necessarily operate in deference to reason.  Further emphasizing the Duke’s earlier cryptic utterance, In fearful sense, is the next use of the word: “You shall yourself read the bitter letter [of the bloody book of law] / After your own sense” (I.iii.67-68).  The interpreters suggest that sense in this case means interpretation.  But the OED offers another, similar yet slightly more appropriate definition: “in a (specified) sense: with a particular aim or purpose” (979), that is: in a Polish sense, or a feminist sense, or your own sense.  By this point, the nature of sense is already coming under question; whether it’s in one’s control, or out, whether it’s arbitrary, or objective, whether it’s of the body, or of the mind.
    Iago comes straight to the point at the end of the first Act with his “Our bodies are our gardens” speech.  While he seems here to assert that the mind dominates the body, he is shown, here and elsewhere, to understand the precarious balance that sense presents.  He uses different meanings of sense when it suits him, giving the same weight and import to each as he proceeds from “fool” to “fool,” “helping them” understand what it means to be a man.  Meanwhile, he sails through the tempest, both figuratively and literally, impervious to the calamity that befalls all men who would lean too heavily to one side or the other, as he gives equally little import to sense in either sense of the word.
    As Iago literally sails through the tempest between Venice and Cyprus, Shakespeare may be offering commentary on what he feels is the one true, immutable sense, the sense of beauty: “Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds, / […]As having sense of beauty, do omit / Their mortal natures, letting go safely by / The divine Desdemona” (II.i. 68-73). Sense here referring to “a capacity for perception and appreciation of (art, beauty, etc.) (OED 978).
    The next two usages of the word sense are found in Act II, Scene iii; both are in the part of Iago, this time in Cyprus, and are spoken to Cassio and Montano.  Here, Iago turns sense on its head, using it in two completely polarized ways in the same scene.  He yells, “Have you forgotten all place of sense and duty?” (II.iii.67). Here sense refers to decorum, reason and right behavior.  On the next page, he says to Cassio, “I had thought you had received some bodily wound; there is more sense in that than in reputation” (266-268).  Sense now is referring to pain or physical sensation.  Yet the wording here again is ambiguous, and given what we know about Iago, given his “Our bodies are our gardens” speech, it seems unlikely that he would openly say, “look to thy body for real meaning.”  Though he does say this to Cassio, as he needs Cassio to keep it together for his plot to work; he seems to be saying something slightly more thoughtful to us: that there is more reason, or sense, in a bodily wound than there is in reputation.  Iago seems troubled by this, above all else—if troubled you could say he was—that he was looked over or that “Preferment goes by letter and affection, / And not by old gradation” (I.i.36-37)…if sense has given over to sense, then what’s a poor man to do?
    Othello finally uses the word in the third act of the play.  When he does, it is apparent that the balancing act, weighing the high senses against the low, is too much for him to bear.  It is a game, perhaps, that he has not had to play before.  In the opening act of the play, he states, “And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broils and battle” (I.iii.86-87).  Now, when he uses the word for the first time, three, or four, or five meanings are heaped upon it: “What sense had I in her stolen hours of lust?” (III.iii.338). He continues, “I saw’t not, thought it not; it harmed not me. / I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and / merry” (339-40).  Applying the word liberally, one could restate the preceding line this way: “I sensed’t not, sensed it not, it sensed not me. / I was in good sense, good sense, in good sense.”  Othello was betrayed by sense in every sense of the word. He may even misuse the word here, suggesting, “What sense had I in her stolen hours of lust,” meaning what reason, or cause had I; what role did I play?  And the answer: “Farewell tranquil mind! Farewell content!” (348). Othello leaps for the side of the beam on which he thinks he may find footing, “Give me the ocular proof (360),” while Iago leaps upon his weakness.
    In the same scene, Iago asks, “Are you a man? Have you a soul? Or sense?” (374). By this time, in Iago’s mouth, sense means everything, and nothing.  He has so confused the issue, that here sense can mean the ability to feel pain, the ability to see, and smell, and hear, the ability to reason or infer; it can mean the ability to intuit or interpret.  It can refer to emotional understanding, and sensitivity.  It can mean the ability to recognize and appreciate beauty, honor, duty, truth; or even to recognize the bad intentions and characteristics of others, as in, “Iago…that hast such noble sense of thy friend’s wrong!” (V.i.32). Indeed he does, and how he prays upon it.        
    Desdemona uses the word sense, somewhat ambiguously, two times.  The first use in, “For let our finger ache, and it endures / Our other healthful members even to a sense / Of pain.” (III.iv.146-48), highlights how the intrinsically physical sense of pain can be illusory.  She explicitly states that there is no sense in sense.  And later, when she says, “…Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense / Delighted them [in] any other form” (IV.ii.154-55), can we possibly know what sense means anymore?
    When Emelia specifically refers to bodily senses at the end of the fourth act, saying, “Let husbands know / Their wives have sense like them” (IV.iii.93-94), we take her to mean seeing, smelling, tasting, as she in fact goes on to enumerate.  But her speech is about imperfection, about tempers flaring, about wants and desires, and stubbornness.  To say in the middle of it, that “Their wives have sense like them,” is to implicate sense in all of it.  It is to put sense at the center—of man’s life, man’s imperfection, man’s struggle.  In the next scene, Iago says, “I have rubbed this young quat almost to the sense” (V.i.11).  Sense here, means the quick, and it was never more appropriately used.
    In the final scene of the play, Othello says, “For in my sense, ‘tis happiness to die” (V.ii.290).  Here the interpreters say that by in my sense, he means, to one who feels as I do.  In The Oxford English Dictionary, this line is used to illustrate one of the thirty definitions: “in one’s opinion, according to one’s judgment (OED 978).  It is fitting that there is a difference of opinion as to what is meant by sense here.  Othello is a man undone by sense.  He is a man who fell out of sense.  He was tricked by one sense, and goaded on by others.  He played the balancing act, tried to stand on one side of the beam, and then the other, and found that neither side of sense offered adequate footing; for there is no sense in sense, in any sense of the word.  But perhaps this one time, when Othello says it in the last scene, maybe it does finally make sense.








Works Cited
“Sense.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
 Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor
of VeniceThe Riverside Shakespeare.  Ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al.  Boston: Houghton, 1997.  1251-1296.