The Demon Drink

In Act II scene 3 of Othello Cassio, who has just disgraced himself by brawling when drunk, inveighs against wine: “Every inordinate cup is unblest, and the ingredience is a devil.” However Iago — who hates Cassio because he has been promoted above him and because he is a Florentine rather than a Venetian, and who has tempted Cassio into drunkenness precisely to discredit him with the Moor — will hear none of this: “Come, come, good wine is a good familiar creature, if it be well used: exclaim no more against it.” Which man is right?

Their exchange comes towards the end of a scene in which Shakespeare dramatises the process of intoxication in a wonderfully accelerated form. Cassio, who admits to having “very poor and unhappy brains for drinking”, wants to have an early night, but Iago is adamant that Cassio must attend the drinking party Iago has arranged to celebrate Othello’s wedding night:

Well: happiness to their sheets! Come, lieutenant, I have a stoup of wine, and here without are a brace of Cyprus gallants that would fain have a measure to the health of black Othello.

Cassio eventually agrees to take part in Iago’s “night of revels” (“I’ll do’t, but it dislikes me”), and goes off stage to bring in the gallants that Iago has invited. At this point Iago — switching from prose to verse, and left alone on stage — reveals his plan:

If I can fasten but one cup upon him,
With that which he hath drunk tonight
He’ll be as full of quarrel and offence
As my young mistress’ dog. Now my sick
fool, Roderigo,
Whom love hath turned almost the wrong
side out,
To Desdemona hath tonight caroused
Potations pottle-deep, and he’s to watch.
Three else of Cyprus, noble swelling spirits
That hold their honours in a wary distance,
The very elements of this warlike isle,
Have I tonight flustered with flowing cups,
And the watch too. Now ‘mongst this flock
of drunkards
Am I to put our Cassio in some action
That may offend the isle.

Cassio returns with Montano, the governor of Cyprus, and a number of unnamed “gentlemen”.  Immediately Iago, undeterred by Cassio’s queasy concern that “they have given me a rouse already”, launches the drinking party by calling for wine, and singing.  Cassio — already beginning to feel the elation of wine — appreciates Iago’s song  immoderately: “Fore God, an excellent song!”  Iago explains, in lines which one can readily imagine being greatly appreciated in the Elizabethan playhouse, that he learned the song in England, “where indeed they are most potent in potting. Your Dane, your German, and your swag-bellied Hollander — drink, ho! — are nothing to your English.”  Cassio is bemused: “Is your Englishman so exquisite in his drinking?” (One of the subtle ways in which Shakespeare dramatised Cassio’s descent into intoxication was by making him repeat the word “exquisite” three times in little more than 70 lines of this scene.) 

Iago, now in full, feigned, bonhomous flight, praises the Englishman’s capacity to hold his drink in lines which again must have set the playhouse in a roar: “Why, he drinks you with facility your Dane dead drunk; he sweats not to overthrow your Almain; he gives your Hollander a vomit ere the next pottle can be filled.”

Infected by Iago’s pretence of camaraderie, Cassio picks up the mood and pledges a health to Othello, thus for the first time taking the lead in drinking. It marks the turning point from exuberance into confusion, befuddlement, and repetition. Asked by Iago if he would like him to sing again, Cassio’s reply comes from a man whose wits are about to be overcome by the fumes of wine: “No, for I hold him to be unworthy of his place that does…those things. Well, God’s above all, and there be souls must be saved, and there be souls must not be saved.” 

From here it is for Cassio only a small descent to the familiar litany of the truly drunk: “Do not think, gentlemen, I am drunk: this is my ancient, this is my right hand, and this is my left. I am not drunk now: I can stand well enough, and I speak well enough.” Then the scene degenerates swiftly into a brawl, as Cassio fights first with Roderigo, whom he has encountered off-stage, and then Montano, whom Iago has told that Cassio is an habitual drunkard, and who says the one thing calculated to infuriate anyone who has had too much to drink: “Come, come, you’re drunk.”

Shakespeare is good at drinking scenes, and a number of plays are enlivened by drunks on stage — for instance, Henry IV, Tempest, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. But the scene in Othello is not just beautifully observed. The significance of Cassio’s intoxication and of Iago’s entrapment of him is deepened by being played out against the background of Othello’s wedding night. 

Othello has been commanded on his wedding day to head off the Turkish fleet making for Cyprus (in Greek mythology, the island of Aphrodite). “You must away tonight”, orders the Duke peremptorily. Desdemona’s natural expostulation “Tonight, my lord?” is brushed aside by the Duke’s still more emphatic “This night”; and her dismay finds no echo in the alacrity of Othello’s disturbingly-worded compliance: “With all my heart.” 

The result is that when the Venetian forces land in Cyprus Othello and Desdemona’s marriage is still unconsummated. Othello alludes to the fact as he leaves the stage before the drinking bout begins:

Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue:
That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and

Iago’s entrapment of Cassio is a sinister kind of wooing, just as Cassio’s drunkenness is an inferior kind of rapture. The romantic love which is being fulfilled offstage is shadowed and parodied in the drinking bout, which is itself a miniaturised version of Iago’s larger entrapment of Othello.

What is so interesting about the scenes in which that more terrible seduction is carried out by Iago is that, although the emotion which fuels them is hatred rather than love, the dramatic form of those encounters is a reworking of the wooing conversations between suitors which, in the years preceding Othello, Shakespeare has written for his comic heroes and heroines. So those scenes also stand as minatory presences in the wings of romance.

The ambivalence of wine — both Cassio’s devil and Iago’s good familiar creature — allows it to play a role in both the celebrations of love and the parodic rituals of hatred. When Boito was recasting Shakespeare’s play into a libretto, he indulged in some desperate surgery — for instance, cutting the whole of Act I. But he was attuned to this aspect of the play. In Verdi’s Otello, when Jago and Cassio carouse, Cassio sings of the “true bounty of the vine”, and Jago invites him to taste “the draught of Bacchus”, del ditirambo. The Dionysiac, which fuses wine, love, and violence, was abroad in Shakespeare’s Cyprus on Othello’s wedding night. 

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