Sunday, December 16, 2007

Counterfeit Tenderness: A Biblical View of Othello's love for Desdemona

*[note] This is a paper written for my English 102 class (Shakespeare orientated class). For those who are not familiar with the story of Othello, it is one of Shakespeare's tragedy plays; a story of jealousy and revenge. In this essay I attempt to examine Othello's characteristics to the Biblical view of love, as well as humanity as a whole.

Counterfeit Tenderness: A Biblical View of Othello’s love for Desdemona

Upon careful examination of the biblical concept of true love, it is evident that the authenticity of true love is absent in Othello’s character and seemingly demonstrates counterfeit tenderness towards Desdemona, namely, Othello exhibits a jealous, selfish and angry spirit instead of a benevolent, self-giving, and joyful spirit. I will contend that Desdemona, Othello’s so-called love, was not given access to his mind, therefore, was not actually loved in the heart; for there is no dichotomy between the mind and the heart in matters of love. It is also my intention to contrast certain attributes that Othello manifested concerning his actions and motives to Desdemona, as to whether they conflict with a biblical worldview, in hopes to persuade one to reconsider their understanding of love in light of the biblical perspective. Also, it seems relevant to the era in which Shakespeare lived in and as well as any time period of human history.

It is essential that I begin with a brief description of the biblical concept of love because it will be the ground upon I will analyze Othello’s love and affections for Desdemona, as well as humanity.
Although it is a claim of absolute exclusivity, and certainly offensive to many, I would argue that everyone holds to an exclusive claim of what love really looks like. Therefore, I feel justified in holding to the Biblical claim of love, whether it is accepted or rejected, so long as I am convinced of it in my conscience that it is logical and truthful.

According to Christian orthodoxy, love is first and foremost rooted in the Triune God, apart from Him there is no love, for God is the fountain from which all true love flows from. And the ultimate revelation of God’s love and glory is only found in Jesus Christ alone. Love is not merely God’s emotional expression, but He Himself is known to be love, it is in His divine nature. He is not merely loving because of He performs acts of love, but, because He is love, therefore He performs acts of love. It is then self-evident that any form of love that does not rest upon Him is not true love, but mere deceit, whether intentional or unintentional.
Therefore, when exercising an examination of genuine love, we must primary consider it in its relation to God. Jonathan Edwards, the great American Puritan and Reformed theologian, so eloquently described love, in accordance to God and man, in this manner:

When God is loved aright, he is loved for his excellency, and the beauty of his nature, especially the holiness of his nature; and it is from the same motive that the saints are loved—for holiness’ sake. And all things that are loved with a truly holy love, are loved from the same respect to God. Love to God is the foundation of gracious love to men; and men are loved either because they are in some respect like God, in the possession of his nature and spiritual image, or because of the relation they stand in to him as his children or creatures––as those who are blessed of him, or to whom his mercy is offered, or in some other way from regard to him. (5-6)

One of the clearest passages, to understand what true love is, is found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church in the thirteenth chapter; which has been known to Christians as the “love chapter” in Holy Scriptures. I will certainly not exegetically expound on its entire context, but here, one will find that the Bible’s summation, as to what love truly looks like, is diametrically opposed to the world’s understanding of love and is contrary to Othello’s temperament concerning Desdemona.

A common misunderstanding is that people often assign a dichotomy between the mind and the heart when dealing with love, but this is an altogether foreign ideology in the Scriptures. Rather, this misconception is birthed from the deceitful scheming of man. It is solely based upon faulty traditions rather than a firm exegesis of the Scriptures. Even many Christians, along with the world, have become enchanted with the idea that doctrinal truths separate us and love is what brings us together, but this idea is radically false and deceitful because they, the mind and the heart, are always found in the outworking of real love.

Nowhere do we see the mind and the heart being divorced when engaged with true charity, or love. It is clear that where one finds true meaning of love in Scripture, there is always an impregnation of both mind and heart. We can assuredly detect this concept within the context of 1 Corinthians 13. In verses 4-6, the Apostle Paul describes this idea vividly in this way, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” He gives a list of what love is and is not with varies actions that derive from the heart; to envy, to boast, to be arrogant, to be rude, to be insistent on its own way, to be irritable, to be resentful, and to rejoice are all affections are all consistent with the overflow of the heart, but notice the latter part of verse 6, “…rejoices with the truth.” this is a prime example of what it means to love with ones’ mind and heart.

The reality of truth must first be perceived by the mind because the mind is the channel to the heart which expresses acts of love; all true acts of commitments to love must ultimately be born out of delight in the truth. John Piper, Evangelical Pastor and Theologian, renders love similarly, saying, “Love is not a bare choice or mere act. It involves the affections. It does not just do the truth. Nor does it just choose the right. It rejoices in the way of truth…we must ‘love kindness!’” (114-115).

Acts of love alone do not satisfy the qualifications of genuine love and affections. They must ultimately be grounded with acceptance and rejoicing in the truth. This is what is meant in verse 3 in 1 Corinthians. There is a way in which a person can give everything—even ones’ own life—yet, profits nothing without love. How can this be? Only if these acts of love were to deviate from the truth and do not revel in the truth can they not profit anything, they would not be even worthy to be associated with genuine love. I emphasize this point so strongly because it will further clarify my examination of Othello’s alleged love for Desdemona.

Given the prior summation of genuine love, I will now proceed to analyze Othello’s character and motives, and compare them to the biblical account. A task, I believe, worthy of consideration because of the relevant connection it brings to the table in life’s engagement with charity.

In light of the biblical view of love, it is clear that Othello was not in a state of genuine love but was in a state of rage and jealousy in and through his utterly corrupted knowledge.
In his essay, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, William Hazlitt, an acclaimed Shakespearian scholar, observes, “The third act of Othello is his master-piece, not of knowledge or passion separately, but of the two combined, of the knowledge of character with the expression of passion, of consummate art in the keeping up of appearances with the profound workings of nature, and the convulsive movements of uncontrollable agony, of the power of inflicting torture and of suffering it. Not only is the tumult of passion heaved up from the very bottom of the soul, but every the slightest undulation of feeling is seen on the surface, as it arises from the impulses of imagination or the different probabilities maliciously suggested by Iago”(Hazlitt).

Regardless of the fact that he perceived it in a secular approach, Hazlitt’s assessment of Othello’s condition is thoroughly accurate. It is astounding to observe, that he adheres to the reality that the motives of the mind, as to whether they receive the truth, are ultimately involved upon the condition of the heart, and its acts of love or even hate. Despite the lack of knowledge of Othello’s assent with the Christian truth, regarding love, it would remain relevant to examine his adherence to general truth, in this instance; the deception was received in his heart rather than the truth, which resulted in tragedy and bloodshed.

Hazlitt is absolutely veracious in raising Iago’s impact upon Othello’s mind. Iago, throughout the play, manipulates Othello’s understanding, even to the extent of his murderous revenged on Desdemona. This—Iago’s manipulation— brings to surface all his hatred towards her and Cassio; which originated in his mind, and eventually manifested itself in his actions. I want to suggest that Othello was motivated by his own evil desires, rather than genuine tenderness. Despite Iago’s cruel manipulations, his motives coupled with corrupted knowledge—motives filled with jealousy, anger, and selfishness— were ultimately the final determinant for his malicious actions.
In Amanda Mabillard’s “Othello Analysis,” an argument that she strongly propagates is Othello’s accountability for his wrongdoing; although there is some ground for shifting the blame upon Iago, Othello remains blameworthy for the consequences. Mabillard also upholds a well-argued indictment on Othello’s motives for the murder of Desdemona.

I refer to Hazlitt and Mabillard, two non-Christian scholars, to demonstrate that there is yet validity in the Christian claim of the mind and the heart being intertwined in the marriage of genuine love in the world, although the claim would remain valid despite the lack of affirmation. I find that this idea is stunningly tenable with the bible’s account of love, in analyzing Othello’s character, despite the apparent differences in theology or lack thereof.

In revisiting the Scriptures analysis of true charity, we find that Othello’s jealousy and anger cannot be justified, despite his ignorance of the truth throughout the play, because it was compelled from his selfishness, rather than his love for Desdemona. It pleased Othello to assume that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, in retrospect; it was he who was to be unfaithful. It is a recurring theme throughout the play, his love for unrighteousness consistently brought for false accusations. Perhaps it was due to his military cultivation that he persistently sought for violence, but in any regards, it is still blatantly evil. Although, for a season in the play, Othello seemed rather tender-hearted towards Desdemona but in the test of genuine love, his counterfeit affections finally surface.

“Love never ends,” declare the Scriptures. This is a message of cataclysm, not merely for Othello, but for the all of humanity. Othello surely failed to live up to love’s expectation. True love is ongoing, despite life’s pressures to stir up wickedness in one’s soul. Everyone, in some form of another, has dealt with the extremity of the temptations of sin; in fact, it is a habitual affair common to humanity, not merely Othello. And all, if they are to observe love, are obliged to overcome and conquer every temptation.

Yet, all are under the indictment of the two greatest commands in the Scriptures: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Subjected to these commands, we all stand condemned, for we have greatly failed to uphold them. They ought to strike terror in the hearts of men, like a helpless rodent in the presence of a deadly serpent.

What are we to attain in reflecting upon Othello’s association with the biblical view of love? Is this not a hopeless task because of love’s demand of perfection? Yet, there is great gain in the effort to understand what love truly looks like in Scripture. Pondering the true meaning of love and conforming to it, transforms our relationships. This was true in Shakespeare’s era and still abides true today; for fruits of love do not change.

Throughout history, the fruits of love have been and will continue to be of the sweetest taste known to the human soul, therefore to exercise our minds to search within ourselves (namely, the heart), as to whether we are in fact loving, is one of the greatest duty that man is obligated to perform. This exercise is not merely an individual exercise, although it must start with individuals. It escalates from individuals to family to friendships to society and indeed to the rest of humanity.

Examining ourselves in the principle of love is primarily an edifying exercise because it serves to bring us to ponder love’s correlation between God and ourselves. The biblical understanding of love is, undoubtedly, dreadful to the human soul, for its pinnacle reaches heights too wonderful; its depth is bottomless. Love’s demand is much too great. To conquer it with feeble minds and hearts, inclined to a sinful disposition, is inconceivable. Upon the examination of our failure to truly love, ought to give us a sense of our need for a great savior and our utter helplessness. Yet, there is great hope for those who are unable to fulfill love’s demands.

The God of love sent his only Son, despite man’s ruin, to satisfy all the requirements of love for those who would receive Him; to bring us to God, who is love. This is the glorious Christian Gospel, good news profoundly rooted in God’s beautiful grace, manifested in the Cross of Christ. Jesus Christ upheld all of love’s demands and the consequences of sin, in order that we may receive the pardon for our offenses towards God. John Stott renders it in this manner, “Moved by the perfection of his holy love, God in Christ substituted himself for us sinners. That is the heart of the cross of Christ.” (165).

His love is the redemption of our unloveliness. Therefore, let the sinner consider this gracious love before them, rather than their own alleged piety, for this is the love of God that ultimately reconstruct s us to His very own image; an image of perfect love.

As I imagine a world immersed in the biblical understanding of love, thoughts of overwhelming sweetness consume me; with beauty and glory abounding in all things. This, in fact, is the picture given in the Scriptures concerning heaven. Perhaps the greatest contemplations of heaven I have ever read, outside of the Scriptures, is in Jonathan Edwards’ memoirs: “Heaven appeared exceedingly delightful, as a world of love; and that all happiness consisted in living in pure, humble heavenly, divine love.” (xiv). This is undoubtedly in accordance with the Bible’s account of heaven, a place where divine love is finally consummated in its fullness, for the God who is love will everlastingly commune with His creation, in everlasting love without the hindrance of sin. All the brokenness and ruin of this sin-sick world is gloriously mended in heaven, the dwelling place of love.
Works Cited

Edwards, Jonathan. Charity and its Fruits. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1969.

---. The Works of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 1). Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.

Hazlitt, William. Character of Shakespeare’s Plays. London: C. H. Reynell, 1817. 18 Nov. 2007

Mabillard, Amanda. "Othello Analysis." Shakespeare Online. 19 Mar. 2000. 19 Nov. 2007 <>

Piper, John. Desiring God. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2003.

Stott, John. The Cross of Christ (20th Anniversary edition). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001.