Understanding self-conscious men: reading ‘Othello’ and ‘Cymbeline’

Before we get down and nerdy to literary business, here’s a synopsis of this post:

We will be looking at two of Shakespeare’s most iconic soliloquies to show why, according to the Bard, self-conscious men can be such dangerous creatures.

These soliloquies are taken from Othello (1603-1604) and Cymbeline (1610), delivered by self-conscious male protagonists at the apex of their self-consciousness, which eventually results in varying degrees of tragedy for both. 

To read the full text of both plays, click here (Othello) and here (Cymbeline).

Othello and Cymbeline in a nutshell 

A few lines about the two plays before we dive into specifics.

Othello concerns the tragic fate of a Moorish general, whose interracial marriage to a Venetian aristocrat ends in violent, lethal misunderstanding for reasons at once personal (the Moor’s self-pitying tendencies), interpersonal (the evil manipulation of Othello’s ensign, Iago) and social (prevalent Venetian biases towards ‘outsiders’ and racial ‘others’). 

‘Othello and Desdemona’ by Alexandre Marie Colin

Cymbeline, on the other hand, is more of a generically hybrid play, as it contains elements typical of Shakespearean tragedies, comedies and histories, but doesn’t quite neatly fit into any one of these categories. Despite being titled after the Celtic British King Cunobeline, the play’s narrative isn’t so much focused on the elderly King himself as it is about the relationship between the King’s daughter, Imogen, and the family’s adopted son, Posthumus Leonatus. 

‘Posthumus and Imogen’ by John Faed

Between Othello and Cymbeline, the former is arguably more ‘popular’ among students today, especially in a postcolonial world where racial equality – or at least the awareness of it – is hardwired into the DNA of most English Literature courses. 

That said, I personally find Cymbeline to be an exceptionally engaging read, one that is in turns hilarious and heart wrenching, but always human enough to resonate and never too opaque to comprehend. I don’t know why some study guides think it’s the “most difficult Shakespearean play to study” (trust me, there are way harder ones), and I wish more English students and teachers would give it a shot. It’s fun (well, as far as studying Willy Shakes goes). 

Anyway, preambles aside – and no dramatic pun intended – let’s take a look at why Shakespeare thinks excessive self-consciousness is a fast-track ticket to self-sabotage, and what you can do to avoid these people (or becoming these people).

Othello, Act V, Scene 2 – I Love You No Moor 

OTHELLO

It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–
It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again.
It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree.

[Kissing her]

Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword! One more, one more.
Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after. One more, and this the last:
So sweet was ne’er so fatal. I must weep,
But they are cruel tears: this sorrow’s heavenly;
It strikes where it doth love. She wakes.

This soliloquy opens up the final scene of the play, where Othello observes Desdemona in slumber and prepares to murder her for her alleged unfaithfulness with Cassio, the young soldier. 

Pregnant with dramatic irony, this moment should have even the most unengaged audience member on the edge of their seat, with the slightly more engaged ones frothing indignation at their mouths. Don’t kill her, dude, she didn’t do it! But alack, misjudgements corrected in time doth not a great tragedy make. 

The bigger, more interesting question to consider, is what – apart from jealousy and anger – really motivates Othello to kill his wife? 

Perhaps a clue lies in the abundance of imagery relating to lightness and whiteness. If the “cause” of Desdemona’s crime is the sin of betrayal and adultery, then why is his lexical palette here not one of darkness – the shade that would seem most naturally paired with notions of crime and sin? Why, instead, does he emphasise “that whiter skin of hers than snow” and thrice repeat the injunction “put out the light”? 

Could it be, then, that Othello is jumping to conclusions about his wife’s ‘infidelity’ not because he knows it to be a verified truth, but because he’s fundamentally self-conscious about his anomalous identity as a black, Moorish outsider in white Venetian society, an awareness which Desdemona’s white, fair skin only serves to painfully remind him of? 

While it’d be hard to argue that Othello’s love for Desdemona isn’t genuine, perhaps his love – true as it may be – ultimately just doesn’t hold as much sway as that inner demon called self-consciousness in moments of critical decision-making. 

So, next time we lash out at someone we love, maybe it’s worth considering if we’re doing it because they have truly let us down, or if it has more to do with our own insecurities…

Cymbeline, Act II, Scene 5 – Must We Men be in bondage to all Wo-Men? 

POSTHUMUS LEONATUS

Is there no way for men to be but women
Must be half-workers? We are all bastards;
And that most venerable man which I
Did call my father, was I know not where
When I was stamp’d; some coiner with his tools
Made me a counterfeit: yet my mother seem’d
The Dian of that time so doth my wife
The nonpareil of this. O, vengeance, vengeance!
Me of my lawful pleasure she restrain’d
And pray’d me oft forbearance; did it with
A pudency so rosy the sweet view on’t
Might well have warm’d old Saturn; that I thought her
As chaste as unsunn’d snow. O, all the devils!
This yellow Iachimo, in an hour,–wast not?–
Or less,–at first?–perchance he spoke not, but,
Like a full-acorn’d boar, a German one,
Cried ‘O!’ and mounted; found no opposition
But what he look’d for should oppose and she
Should from encounter guard. Could I find out
The woman’s part in me! For there’s no motion
That tends to vice in man, but I affirm
It is the woman’s part: be it lying, note it,
The woman’s; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers;
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows,
Why, hers, in part or all; but rather, all;
For even to vice
They are not constant but are changing still
One vice, but of a minute old, for one
Not half so old as that. I’ll write against them,
Detest them, curse them: yet ’tis greater skill
In a true hate, to pray they have their will:
The very devils cannot plague them better.

Posthumus is an odd one.

As an orphan brought up in a royal family, his upbringing is arguably both a blessing and a curse. Despite having given him shelter and protection, Cymbeline disapproves of Posthumus’ love for Imogen, since the King’s primary concern is with extending the royal bloodline, which Posthumus’ non-aristocratic status cannot help achieve. 

In this sense, Posthumus is a victim of predetermination, and he is made acutely aware of his ‘unworthiness’ by the King’s wrath, the Queen’s taunts, and his step brother-in-law, Cloten’s, contempt. Anyone who has an ingrained sense of ‘not being good enough’ is usually a walking time bomb of self-pity, which is guaranteed to go off with the right trigger. 

This soliloquy comes after the scheming Iachimo convinces Posthumus that his wife “hath played the strumpet in his bed” (read: cheated on him), albeit on grounds so flimsy that even Philario, Posthumus’ friend, cautions against hot-headed judgment and remarks that Iachimo’s ‘evidence’ “is not strong enough to be believed”. 

Why, then, is Posthumus so quick to buy into the narrative of his wife’s deceit, despite his original belief in Imogen’s loyal character? 

A possible answer may lie in the beginning of this soliloquy, where Posthumus, somewhat strangely, comments not on the issue at hand (i.e. Imogen’s alleged disloyalty), but recounts on his own background as an abandoned child: 

Is there no way for men to be but women
Must be half-workers? We are all bastards;
And that most venerable man which I
Did call my father, was I know not where
When I was stamped; some coiner with his tools
Made me a counterfeit: yet my mother seemed
The Dian of that time so doth my wife
The nonpareil of this. O, vengeance, vengeance!

[…]

With one anguished, sweeping generalisation, he suggests that all men are born of illegitimate origins, because all “women/Must be half-workers” – the term “half-workers” implying that they have one foot in their husband’s door, and the other foot in a secret lover’s abode.

He proceeds to narrow the focus of his lament by recalling the inferior conditions of his birth, namely that the absence of his parents rendered him an orphan (“my father, was I know not where/When I was stamped”). 

The numismatic imagery that Shakespeare uses here reinforces Posthumus’ self-denigrating comparison of himself to a “counterfeit” coin – a fate which is “stamped” and as such, irrevocable. His self-consciousness is laid bare at this moment, as he implies himself to be someone who dons the façade of ‘value’ as the princess’ husband, and yet contains no actual value as a once-abandoned orphan and a now-cuckolded spouse. 

Indeed, this is perhaps why it is his self-conscious ramble, rather than any concrete description of Imogen’s supposed wrongdoing, which culminates in the ominous apostrophe of “O, vengeance, vengeance!”, and in his rash pursuit of Imogen’s murder.  


For all the Freudian grimness of my analysis, I must say that both plays are, in fact, very engaging reads. Don’t worry too much about not understanding every Early Modern archaism. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to understand every word or be able to identify sophisticated devices in order to appreciate the humanism of Shakespeare and enjoy his works. 

In any case, feel free to message me here if you have any questions, or if I can help you with deciphering any of Shakespeare’s works.

 

Photo credit: Getty Images

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