Preliminary HSC Othello Analysis: “Give me the Ocular Proof”

Analysis of Shakespeare’s Othello – Act 3 Scene 3

When Othello says “give me the ocular proof” to Iago in act 3 scene 3, he is demanding physical, concrete evidence of Desdemona’s betrayal that is observable. But as we know, he walks away satisfied with something much less. That something is mere hearsay of Cassio wiping his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief, and a story Iago invents of Cassio murmuring about Desdemona in the night.

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When Laurence Fishburne isn’t being Morpheus he is Othello in the 1995 film adaptation of the play. Kenneth Branagh plays Iago.

The characters in act 3 scene 3 of Othello raise some important questions about the way we gain knowledge of another person. The natural compulsion to thoroughly know that other person is endlessly thwarted by the impossibility of knowing them to our satisfaction.

As Millicent Bell points out:

“…because each of us is just one and no more, and the single “beast with two backs” – that frightening visibility with which Iago arouses the rage of Brabantio – is a monster created only in an instant of sensual joy.”

Othello reaches the height of despair when he realises the limitations of his ability to know Desdemona despite the sensual intimacy which created an illusion of unity.

The instruments for knowing the other: seeing, speculating, and hearing, prove to be inadequate for Othello. He can’t see what went on between Desdemona and Cassio and his imagination is driven by an irrational fear stemming from the realisation that he can never know Desdemona to the extent that he wants. Take a look at this extract from act 3 scene 3:

Othello

Villain, be sure to prove my love a whore;

Be sure of it: give me the ocular proof,

Or by the worth of mine eternal soul,

Thou hadst been better born a dog

Than answer my naked wrath!

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Laurence Fishburne as Othello in the 1995 film adaptation by Oliver Parker

Othello demands observable evidence from Iago, but his belief in Desdemona’s betrayal is not sealed by ‘ocular proof’, but by a couple of anecdotes told to him by Iago:

Othello

Give me a living reason she’s disloyal.

Iago

I do not like the office:

But, sith I am enter’d in this cause so far,

Prick’d to’t by foolish honesty and love,

I will go on. I lay with Cassio lately;

And, being troubled with a raging tooth,

I could not sleep.

There are a kind of men so loose of soul,

That in their sleeps will mutter their affairs:

One of this kind is Cassio:

In sleep I heard him say ‘Sweet Desdemona,

Let us be wary, let us hide our loves;’

And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,

Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard,

As if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots

That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg

Over my thigh, and sigh’d, and kliss’d; and then

Cried ‘Cursed fate that gave thee to the Moor!’


 

Iago then tells Othello that he saw Cassio wipe his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief. Othello, convinced of Desdemona’s guilt, swears that he will exact ‘wide revenge and swallow them up’.

Consider the way Othello forms knowledge about Desdemona. How could he have forsaken observable, concrete proof, for what he can only see in his mind’s eye? How does the impossibility of knowing the lover give rise to jealousy?