Of eyes and old age: a stimulus for Othello
A question that is often asked by students relates to the relative ages of the protagonists in Othello and, therefore, to issues that are thrown up by Othello being seen as aged and beginning to lose his faculties.
That Othello has been a great warrior is not in doubt. Quotations can be found from the earliest pages of the play to support this view, even in 1.1 where Brabantio and Roderigo have difficulty calling him by name or even thinking of him as human. However, we may feel that time has not been kind to the Moor. Even he is aware of his failing libido – his youthful appetites now being “defunct” (1.3.261ff) – and he is “declined/Into the Vale of Years” (3.3269/70). So this is the man who has won the young Desdemona.
She is easier to age if we follow the precedent of the time seen in Juliet and others. She should be somewhere around 16 years old. She is young enough to warrant a hue and cry when she is missing, but old enough to indulge in banter with Iago (2.1 10ff) and to have surprised Othello in Act three with her sexuality: “O curse of marriage/ That we can call these delicate creatures ours/ And not their appetites” (3.3272-4). Indeed Iago’s plot in 2.1 can only work if Roderigo can believe that she might “love” Cassio and him, her. This should suggest that she is far from a completely pre-pubescent young girl.
So this young girl has fallen in love with a man many years older than herself. She has loved his story telling, not his appearance and we may share the credulity of Iago’s dupes when we are told that her eyes may wander. These eyes are interesting and the image is often used throughout the play (and not only because much takes place at night or in a daylight fogged by storm). Against the apparently microscopic vision of Iago-the –voyeur, we must set Othello’s weakness. Shakespeare seems to present Othello’s “moral blindness” (as seen in his inability to “note” or “read” the intentions of Iago and others), as paralleled by his genuinely failing eyesight.
Time and again Othello seems to need to rely on others to see for him: as early as 1.1 28ff Othello is asking “But look, what lights come yond?” and requiring Iago to see for him. This may not imply a huge failing, but the roles continue in this mode into act three where Othello allows himself to be duped by Iago. In the handkerchief deception, again Othello’s eyesight seems to fail him -3.3.37, 3.3 438, 4.1.171 – and he fails to recognise the handkerchief as his own. Iago is in such a position of physical power that his deception can hardly fail to work.
What this weakness suggests is a failing that Iago seizes upon: “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see” (1.3.293) and the echo in 3.3.200, “Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio”. We also notice that Othello is driven by a need for ocular proof in his dealings with Iago (3.3.363f) which only adds to the idea that he is all too aware of this frailty. It adds to the pathos of Othello if the once all conquering General is now seen to be sufficiently weak that his position is undermined by his relatively old age.
His age – certainly closer to Brabantio than to Desdemona – is interesting. Iago is very clear about his age: 1.3.313 makes him clearly 28 years old, and sits between the two lovers. We can assume Roderigo to be a similar age and Cassio younger. The generations are clearly split and this may help Iago’s scheming. We should not be fooled by the term “ancient” into thinking of Iago as old. This is an honorific title – albeit a menial one – and implies great trust being placed in the holder.
A final comment for this piece links the failing eyesight to Othello’s use of his sense of smell towards the end of the play. In 4.2 68ff, Othello describes Desdemona (believing her to be a whore) as a weed that “smell’st so sweet/that the sense aches at thee”, immediately pointing out that Heaven “stops its nose at it” before, in 5.2.15ff referring to Desdemona’s sleeping body in the same manner – “I smell thee on the tree…Once more, once more- at which point he “inhales the balmy breath” before kissing her as a prelude to murder.
It is in keeping with ideas explored in King Lear that Shakespeare should explore the idea of physical blindness with mental/moral blindness. Here, Othello has not lost his sight but lives (possibly) in a fog of half images. His inability to see through Iago’s scheming can lead him to comment on his “subdued” eyes (5.2.346) both in the sense of being overcome by grief, but also in the sense discussed above.