Vengeance, Complicity and Criminal Law in Othello
SHAKESPEARE AND THE LAW: A CONVERSATION AMONG DISCIPLINES AND PROFESSIONS, Martha Nussbaum, Richard Streier, eds., University of Chicago Press, 2012
30 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2011 Last revised: 19 Jul 2019
Criminal law offers an interesting frame for examining Othello, while the play offers an interesting thought experiment for law. First, the play shows the virtue of legal processes by the tragedy its absence produces. In Act V, Othello refuses to accord Desdemona the very procedures that vindicated him of a false charge in Act I. Second, Othello brilliantly illustrates some perpetually vexing problems in the doctrine of complicity. Through Iago, the play vividly shows that an encourager of crime can be more responsible for its occurrence – more monstrous – than the one he encourages. Third, I use English law of the late 16th century to explain certain puzzling choices Iago makes. Iago avoids being present at the scene of Desdemona’s killing and dissuades Othello from using poison in order to preserve his status as an accessory, which allows him to avoid criminal liability for Desdemona’s death under a variety of scenarios. Iago’s brilliant deviousness allows him to manipulate law as well as people.
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