Vengeance, Complicity, and Criminal Law in Othello

Richard H. McAdams

Criminal law offers an interesting frame for examining Othello, while the play offers a challenging thought experiment for law. First, the play shows the virtue of a legal process 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 and which would have vindicated her. Second, Othello brilliantly illustrates some perpetually vexing problems in the doctrine of complicity. The character of Iago demonstrates 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 two puzzling choices Iago makes. Iago avoids being present at the scene of Desdemona’s killing and dissuades Othello from using poison to kill her in order to preserve his status as an accessory, rather than a principal, which allows him to avoid criminal liability for her death under a variety of scenarios. Iago’s brilliant deviousness allows him to manipulate law as well as people.