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March 06, 2003
Put Out the Light: Othello and Angel
by M’lyn the Cursed

“Othello and favorite couple.”

When students of literature view a loving couple consisting of a black man and a white woman, many see the relationship as analogous to Shakespeare's tragic lovers Othello and Desdemona. While this comparison may apply to the characters of Gunn and Fred in Angel, much more can be said of the two couples than the similarity in races. In fact, more can also be said about other characters in both Othello and Angel.

Writers of Angel constructed a relationship between Gunn and Fred in last year's third season, and thus have had plenty of time to maneuver their relationship into a position that mirrors Shakespeare's tragedy of the deceived Moor. Similarities are not accidental on the set of Angel; most fans have heard how ardently series creator Joss Whedon reveres the Bard of Avon. Therefore, it is with utter confidence that one may speculate on the many connections between Othello and Angel.

Joss Whedon and his team of writers apparently aligned quite a few stars before writing the episode of “Soulless”: all of the major characters of Othello and Angel relate to others through character traits, actions, and physical outcomes. In several cases, and in terms of these aspects, a single character corresponds with more than one opposing character.

One must understand the characters of Othello and Angel in order to easily analyze them. It is for this reason that the most major characters and their relationships are listed below.

The characters of Othello include:
- Othello, a general of Venice
- Desdemona, Othello’s new bride, the daughter of the senator Brabantio
- Iago, Othello's “ancient;” i.e., an aide
- Cassio, Othello's lieutenant
- Roderigo, a soldier under Othello, a companion to Iago
- Emilia, Iago's wife

Angel, of course, includes:
- Gunn
- Fred
- Wesley
- Angelus (the episode “Soulless” is the primary source for this discussion; Angel with a soul does not apply)
- Lilah
- Cordelia
- Conner

Othello opens with Iago and Roderigo meeting on a dark street in Venice. Iago immediately tells his associate that he views the respected general Othello with resentment. This is due to Othello’s preference of a Florentine named Cassio for his lieutenant.

“Eats you up inside, doesn't it?” Angelus mocks Wesley in “Soulless.” “Seeing all those idiots flock around him [Angel], calling him a champion. Anyone ever call you a champion?” Angelus is the ultimate foe: even when he is caged, his words are just as deadly as his fangs. Wesley, floundering, answers, “I do my part.” Unconvinced, Angelus replies, “Right.” Angelus’ lack of belief in Wesley’s conviction, coupled with Angelus’ additional remarks on Wesley’s poor relationship with his unloving father, shows Wesley’s resemblance to Iago. Wesley shares Iago’s inferiority complex and need for attention. Further support lies in Wesley’s initial appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; he was a young, inexperienced Watcher, eager to please his superiors and careful to follow the rules. In the Angel episode “Spin the Bottle,” Wesley believes he is back at the Watchers Academy, and declares with pride that he is “head boy.” Gunn then mocks him for this unpopular trait. Over the course of the five seasons Wesley has been on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, he saw that his passive behavior wasn’t getting him anywhere. He then turned to achieving goals purely for his own success, such as kidnapping Conner as an infant in “Sleep Tight,” a third season episode of Angel.

While Wesley resembles Iago in ego, he also shares traits of Roderigo: a weak-willed, ultimately innocent man complicit in the evil villain’s plot. Furthermore, Roderigo was commanded by Brabantio to stop wooing Desdemona: “In honest plainness thou hast heard me say / My daughter is not for thee.” Wesley is intent upon wooing Fred, even though he knows he should not do so. Fred says, “There’s nothing wrong with it,” referring to Wesley’s feelings for her, and Wesley replies, “Yes, there is,” and kisses her. When Gunn walks in on them a moment later and confronts both Fred and Wesley, Gunn tells Wesley, “I'm telling you. Stay away from her.” This is not the first time Gunn, like Brabantio, has warned Wesley away from Fred as Desdemona. In “Spin the Bottle,” Gunn and Wesley have a confrontation, during which Gunn says, “I'm gonna say this once. You move on Fred and I will put you down hard.”

Iago, knowing of Roderigo's love for Desdemona, prompts the man to awaken her father and coax him to look for his daughter. Just as Iago already knew, she is not in her room, because she has married the Moor. Iago and Roderigo, much like Angelus, act as the neutral third party caught in a messy emotional matter, but Iago purposefully has Roderigo enlighten Brabantio to cause trouble. Indeed, upon hearing Gunn and Wesley argue over their supposed claim on Fred, Angelus laughs and says, “That was fast.”

Feeling enraged and betrayed, Brabantio storms out of his home with Iago and Roderigo to find Othello. But before he can confront the general, all are summoned to the chambers of the Duke. Due to an ongoing war, Othello’s “crime” is forgiven, largely due to Desdemona’s interference. Othello is then asked to depart to the island of Cyprus. He takes with him his soldiers and Desdemona. Brabantio reluctantly lets Desdemona leave Venice with her husband, but warns Othello, “Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: / She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee.” With Fred, Gunn does have eyes to see her treachery. Oddly, Gunn, the lover, again resembles Brabantio, the father, in this way: both Fred and Desdemona are deceitful to their loved ones. Fred kisses another man, and Desdemona marries without her father’s consent.

The group on Angel is caught up in its personal problems, and, as Angelus says, they “can't find the world to save it.” Here is where Gunn so obviously resembles Othello. Gunn is one of the group's most respected fighters, and he is caught in personal problems with the woman he loves.

Once in Cyprus, Iago begins unfolding his plan to destroy Othello. He asks Roderigo to attack and wound Cassio. Before Roderigo’s attack, Iago persuades Cassio to get drunk. After Roderigo’s attack, when Cassio is wounded and Othello rushes to his side, the facts that Cassio was both found drunk and engaged in a brawl offend the general. Cassio's title of lieutenant is removed, which was Iago's original goal.

Iago does not stop here, however. Because of the supposed injustices committed against him, Iago decides to kill Othello and ruin Cassio. Becoming an example of the old adage “Keep your loved ones close, and your enemies closer,” Iago endears himself to Othello. Iago becomes his best friend and confidant, and eventually wins Cassio's former title of lieutenant while becoming renowned as “honest Iago.”

This description of Iago is in itself an interesting concurrence with Cordelia’s statement in “Soulless” that Angelus “lies with the truth”—by being honest.

Gradually, through innocent questions and comments, Iago implants the suggestion that Cassio and Desdemona were having an affair. Confronted with fabricated evidence—Iago claiming that Cassio spoke in his sleep of kissing Desdemona, for one—Othello becomes insanely jealous.

Here Angelus represents Iago, clarifying in Gunn's mind what he had suspected for months: that Wesley was moving in on Fred, and that she wasn't resisting him. This is where Angelus’ own comparison to Othello enters the plot: “Othello and Desdemona. My favorite couple. Oh wait. Desdemona wasn't in love with the other guy. So much for stand by your man.” Also, just as Angelus grabs Fred's neck in “Soulless,” so does Iago become the deadly threat in Desdemona's life. This is illustrated particularly well with Iago’s line about Desdemona, “And by how much she strives to do [Cassio] good, / She shall undo her credit with the Moor. / So will I turn her virtue into pitch; / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all.” Furthermore, Desdemona’s attempt to make things right between Cassio and Othello is the tool Iago uses against the group. In “Supersymmetry,” Fred made an attempt to accept Wesley back to the group by asking him to help her kill her mentor, Professor Seidel, who sent her to a hell dimension for five years. It was this act of reaccepting Wesley that ensnared Fred in the love triangle with her, Wesley, and Gunn.

Irrational with implanted jealousy, and after hearing that Desdemona was unfaithful to him, Othello asks Desdemona for the handkerchief he gave her. This request is a test of her faithfulness for him, because Iago tells Othello that Cassio had been seen with it. The handkerchief is a symbol of womanhood, of the trust Othello bestowed on Desdemona, and of their love: “Make it a darling like your precious eye; / To lose't or give't away were such perdition / As nothing else could match.” But she did lose the handkerchief, and her handmaid Emilia found it and gave it over to her deceitful husband, Iago, without knowing his intentions. When Desdemona cannot produce the handkerchief on demand, Othello comes to the conclusion that his wife has betrayed him.

Furthermore, Iago arranges a meeting with Cassio during which they speak of a prostitute Cassio knows, Bianca. Othello, overhearing the conversation, has been led to believe that the subject is not Bianca but Desdemona. Hearing Cassio speak of a woman in a casual, disrespectful, and sexual manner, Othello is further deceived by the ever-”honest” Iago.

Whereas Cassio had a relationship with Bianca while supposedly loving Desdemona, Wesley had a relationship with Lilah while yearning for Fred. Bianca is given the handkerchief by Cassio, and later throws it back at him while saying, “I was a fine fool to take it.” Her meaning is, in short, that she doesn’t want what belongs to another woman. Lilah, as astute as Bianca, notices Wesley’s infatuation as far back as “Supersymmetry”. Lilah also believes that she is only being used, but instead seduces Wesley in a schoolgirl’s outfit rather than letting him go. In this small way, Wesley can again be compared to Cassio, and Lilah to Bianca.

Encouraged by Iago and faced with what he perceived to be his wife’s infidelities, Othello returns to his chambers and smothers Desdemona, despite her pleas. Emilia demands to be allowed entrance to the room, and reveals the plot that Iago had created and carried out. Iago also enters the scene to stab his wife, after killing Roderigo for Cassio's wounding. Several more characters enter at Emilia's cry of “murder!” in time to see Othello unsuccessfully wound Iago, beg forgiveness for Desdemona's murder, then kill himself in grief and guilt.

After walking in on Wesley kissing Fred, and with tension already running high in the group, little more provocation is needed to incite Gunn to violence. Here the similarities diverge again. Othello attacks two people, Desdemona and Iago, succeeding in only killing Desdemona. Gunn attacks Wesley, the man he sees as responsible, instead of Fred. But Gunn does inadvertently hit Fred in the fight, despite her Desdemona-like pleas for him to stop fighting. Cordelia also says, “You're doing exactly what Angelus wants,” which rings true for Othello complying with Iago's evil plot. “And his unbookish jealousy must construe / Poor Cassio's smiles, gestures, and light behavior / Quite in the wrong,” Iago says. Angelus thus resembles Iago in their identical purpose, in that both Angelus and Iago build up the situation to make Wesley (and Desdemona) look bad. Furthermore, earlier in the episode, Gunn attacks and cannot kill Angelus, again mirroring the inept stab in Othello: “I look down towards his feet;--but that's a fable.-- / If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee.”

The fun isn't over yet—there are many other minor elements of Othello that strike a harmonious chord with Angel.

For instance, beds feature a role in another similarity between Othello and Angel. Characters occasionally speak of going to bed in Othello, and the phrase suggests returning to a place of safety and solace. But Desdemona is killed on her bed, and Angelus similarly defiled Fred's bedroom by revealing, “I hear you at night. In your room with Gunn. The things you say. I'm lying there, listening, hands under the covers. Can't help myself, it's so...gripping.”

Nearly all of Othello takes place at night, and it is of course a tragedy. In Angel, the villain called the Beast has enacted a spell that covers the sun, and everything now takes place in darkness. Tragedy happens in the absence of the light of day. To support this, after giving birth to his plan, Iago mutters to himself the following: “…hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.”

Similarities abound between Angelus and Iago. Iago is unusually frank and lewd when speaking of and to women. Only a matter of minutes into the first scene, Iago shouts to Brabantio that “an old black ram / Is tupping [his] white ewe.” Angelus is just as sordid and explicit, with such phrases as “bend [Fred] over the kitchen counter,” implying graphic sex between Wesley and Fred.

The most noticeable aspect of the text of Othello is the beautiful abundance of black and white imagery. One line is especially memorable: “Yet I'll not shed her blood; / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / And smooth as monumental alabaster.” “Soulless” is just as monochromatic in imagery, especially with Angelus’ line, “Bet he loves to rub that shiny bald head against her soft, milky skin.”

Furthermore, one of the most famous lines of the last scene of Othello is his decision, “Put out the light, then put out the light.” He says this to himself while bending over and kissing a sleeping Desdemona. In preparing to kill her, he puts out the candle in their bedroom, hiding his actions in darkness out of shame. One can easily compare this sentiment to the Beast’s action of literally putting out the light—the sun. As part of the group’s internal problems resulting indirectly from the Beast’s actions, Gunn puts out the light of his love for Fred.

Finally, as mentioned, the handkerchief is a representation of trust and love. Desdemona loses Othello’s handkerchief. Gunn loses Fred’s trust, and she loses both her trust and love for him. Her change in heart is not simply due to a brilliant girl’s interest in a brilliant man (Wesley). Gunn kills Professor Seidel for Fred in “Supersymmetry,” although Fred’s intention had been that she be the one to kill her professor, with Wesley’s help. When Gunn did it for her, the gravity of the act wedged itself into their relationship and became a point of discomfort. Angelus is perceptive enough to notice this anxiety, and worms information out of Gunn in “Calvary” (the episode that follows “Soulless”).

ANGELUS: Not like we didn't see it [Gunn and Fred’s breakup] coming. Especially after what happened to her old professor. [Off Gunn’s look of surprise] C'mon, even Angel's not that stupid. The way things changed between you two. The furtive looks. All that guilt. Mm! Nothing like your first murder. Don't worry, I won't tell what our little girl did.
GUNN: She didn't—
ANGELUS: Yeah! It was you. Stepping up, being the man.

Just as Desdemona was punished for losing something between her and Othello, so were both Fred and Gunn “punished” for losing love and trust.

Many fans have occasionally praised Wesley for “making a move” on Fred and especially have criticized Gunn for being irrational. In respect to this, Othello’s final speech must be brought to light.

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know't.--
No more of that.--I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu'd eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides,--that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him--thus.

With this, Othello stabs himself, lays himself out next to his murdered wife, kisses her one last time, and dies.

Gunn loved not wisely, but too well. This does not mean that he was “unwise” in the usual sense, but that his love wasn’t always rational. He became possessive over her when he felt Wesley encroaching on an already unsteady relationship. He is not a jealous man, as Desdemona and Emilia discuss about Othello, but circumstances led him to be. In addition to this, Gunn loves somewhat blindly, especially after “Supersymmetry.” He seems to want to ignore the murder of Fred’s professor and move on with loving Fred as he had before, but the murder changes everything and he is unwise to think otherwise. Loving “too well” introduces the idea that an unhealthy love can be a love that is too strong. Gunn confesses that he had “never felt so much for anyone” moments before breaking up with Fred, much as Othello was his most tender before smothering Desdemona.

So what of the similarities between Othello and Desdemona, and Gunn and Fred? To simply state that both couples are multiracial is an obvious point, and one does not require an essay to make it clear. Therefore, one must examine Angelus’ taunts to Gunn in “Calvary”: “Wow. Do a chick a favor, you'd think she'd be grateful, Mm-mm. She still goes for the broody smart guy, all mysterious and tortured. Yeah. I guess when you think about it, for the first time in your life, you just weren't dark enough.” Here again Gunn attacks Angelus, but cannot destroy him. The primary question in response to this is the following: what if Angelus isn’t just being rude, but is speaking the truth? Furthermore, it is obvious that Angelus is talking not about Gunn’s skin color, but his personality. Again, Angelus is known to “lie with the truth.” To make the comparison between Othello and Gunn complete, Gunn must end his relationship with the woman he loves. According to Angelus, because Fred went to Wesley rather than Gunn to kill Professor Seidel, Fred doesn’t consider Gunn “dark” enough for her. Yet this is contradictory to Othello: Othello was dark enough for Desdemona, but he killed her anyway. This is a fascinating contradiction between the two stories. Fred wanted Wesley’s darkness, but even when Gunn stepped up to the challenge of the murder, Gunn’s action still wasn’t adequate for Fred’s trust. In fact, it was the action that made Fred lose her faith and love in Gunn. Thus, Gunn was never adequate for Fred and could never make himself adequate, as he shows in “Calvary”: “I would do anything for you, but it’s not enough, is it?” This shows that they are ill-fated lovers, never destined to be together in the first place.

Connections in plot and word may prove adequate to those inspecting the similarities between Othello and Angel. Both stories include the ceaseless deception and machinations of an evil man (or evil men). Both show the black man having enough of the treachery and ending what relationship he has with the white woman. The surrounding players may change names frequently, but the same roles are played in both circumstances. Yet the most important point of all is simply this: that Gunn and Fred equal Othello and Desdemona because of their destructive love for one another. This, above all, is the most important part of the Othello/Angel link: the doomed love.

Author’s note: My utmost thanks are given to Emily and Kristina for their exceptional editorial talents. I am indebted to them both for their insightful and concise commentary, which made this essay much more successful than I could have made it alone.

The weather in M'lyn's neck of the gloom is usually cloudy and rainy. This is largely because she lives in Seattle. But the outside environment doesn't matter too much, because most of this 20-year-old's time is spent in college classrooms, in front of the tv, or behind a computer updating her Spike Keepers & Guardians site, writing fic, or making fan art. After becoming one of the Buffy initiated in early '98, she looks forward to more great Joss Whedon work and her own dreams of a career in graphic and web design. You can contact M'lyn on

Latest Comments

Was the fact that Fred felt that Gunn wasn't adequate for her, a sign that she was a poor judge of character? I've always thought so. She has always thought the world of both Angel and Wesley - yet, she has never been able to fact their darkness, let alone Gunn's. Does this mean that Fred wanted the ideal in her men, but not the reality?

Posted by: Rosie on July 8, 2004 03:32 PM

Wonderful article. I loved the line from Angelus that gave this train of thought life, and I had many of the same sorts of thoughts (Angelus as Iago within the group, jealousy, doomed love, lying with the truth, ect), but you really went in depth and brought wonderful detail to the parrallels between the two that I would never have seen without a serious rereading of Othello. Thanks tons for a really interesting and well-thought out article!

Posted by: Aerrin on March 11, 2003 11:09 AM

"I'd respectfully disagree that "Gunn was never adequate for Fred" - rather, that her attitude change towards [Gunn] is the result of her disappointment in a man she always believed too noble, too decent to kill a human (though, even within the Jossverse, I have never been happy with the concept that it's fine to kill one kind of sentient being bent on malice and not another). In my reading, Fred is reeling from the shock of seeing her hero knocked off his pedestal - he *is* capable of the kind of violence that she has always thought him too good for; her assessment of Wesley as the man to help her in her plan is because she sees him with clear eyes, not because she needs a romantic partner who is "darker" than Gunn."

Yes, that's pretty much my reading as well. The whole 'Gunn isn't dark enough for Fred, but Wesley is' thing obviously springs from Angelus' comment, but as Cordy said, 'he lies with the truth'.

After Fred was rescued from Pyalea (spelling?), she fell pretty hard for Angel right off the bat. Fred doesn't like 'dark' men, she likes the light... champions, heroes. She thought Gunn was one, now she knows he isn't quite that. Murder is murder, after all, even if you 'do it for love'.

So, in Fred's new perception, if everyone is corrupt, if there are no heroes ('cept for Angel, who isn't interested and who can't 'do the deed' anyway), why not go for the guy who's your intellectual equal and whom you have an attraction for?, i.e. Wes.

Its a confusing, turbulent situation, and the writers really should spend more time with it, because its very interesting as well.

Posted by: lee on March 8, 2003 11:28 PM

Angelus as Iago is so spot on :)

I'd respectfully disagree that "Gunn was never adequate for Fred" - rather, that her attitude change towards him is the result of her disappointment in a man she always believed too noble, too decent to kill a human (though, even within the Jossverse, I have never been happy with the concept that it's fine to kill one kind of sentient being bent on malice and not another). In my reading, Fred is reeling from the shock of seeing her hero knocked off his pedestal - he *is* capable of the kind of violence that she has always thought him too good for; her assessment of Wesley as the man to help her in her plan is because she sees him with clear eyes, not because she needs a romantic partner who is "darker" than Gunn.

Further, Gunn may not have realised that Fred had intended to kill the professor - he sees her as a woman capable of dealing with demons, but not a deliberate killer of humans. By stepping in to save her from crossing the line, he falls over it, never seeing just how willing she was to take that step. Neither has "loved wisely, but too well", their faith in each other's goodness having blinded them to each other's faults and plain humanity.

I know of no evidence for this, but I have always supposed this to be Fred and Gunn's first real, full-on adult romance . It certainly lacks the maturity of a healthy long-term relationship, being plagued with insecurities and lack of communication. Fred's attraction to Wesley was always obvious; at a time when she is emotionally vulnerable, in a relationship in which insecurities and communications difficulties abound, her failure to immediately resist the advances of a man to whom she has always been emotionally and intellectually close is not necessarily an indication that she requires a man of dark character, but of her own confusion. Add to that the fact that Wesley did not seek to "save" her, but understood her impulse to vengeance and became her accomplice in it - to be desired by someone who sees the darkness in her soul would be very attractive.

I have just realised that I could go on about this forever, so I shall spare you all, and say "thank you" and g'bye :)

Posted by: Kaz on March 8, 2003 11:09 PM

Hello everyone,

Thank you all for the great comments. I may have to respectfully disagree with some of you, but the fact that my article got you talking is enough to make me insanely pleased. I appreciate your feedback, whether positive or negative.

I do acknowledge that Joss is, as Gatito puts it, "a true student of the Bard." Writing about Soulless in particular is not meant to infer that no other episodes nodded at Shakespeare; just that I found Angelus' reference delicious and a great starting point.

Posted by: M'lyn on March 8, 2003 08:13 PM
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