Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Intercession, Detraction, and Just Judgment in Othello

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

Intercession, Detraction, and Just Judgment in Othello

Article excerpt

   Cassio:                             O, 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)

Iago, the "Blessed Virgin," and Intercession

The Virgin Mary's best-known and most controversial attribute during the Reformation is arguably her reputed power to intercede for mercy with her son Christ the judge and Christ the redeemer "now and at the hour of our death." Luther's central tenet of sola fide, sola gratia, salvation by faith or grace alone, minimized the importance of intercession of all kinds as part of its downplaying of merit, works, in the process of salvation. But mediation itself was also problematic, since the reformers thought the individual worshiper had access to Christ's mercy without the intervention of a priest or a saint. John Donne speaks to this controversy both when he calls the "Marianists" rather "idolaters of the blessed Virgin Mary, then worshipers of Christ" and when he complains of "the semi-gods [and] sesqui-gods of the Romane church," especially "any that must be more then God, and receive appeals from God, and reverse the decrees of God, which they make the office of the Virgin Mary" This idea of Marian intercession not only relegated Christ to the roles of just judge and severe justicer instead of chief and only mediator, merciful intercessor with the Old Testament God of Judgment for the remission of sins. Because it gave Mary a sacramental and an eschatological role virtually coequal with Christ's, it also encouraged Marian idolatry. Such fears help explain the official suppression of Marian imagery and praise during Shakespeare's time, and therefore its paradoxical prominence through the resultant controversy. …

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