Misunderstood Shakespeare: “A Foregone Conclusion”

These days, when people talk about a “foregone conclusion” they mean something is a given: it is inevitable, it will happen, it may safely be assumed. As certain as it sounds, it is still a statement of conjecture about an event that is yet to occur.

When Shakespeare had Othello speak those words in Act 3, Scene 3 of the play that bears his name, it had quite the opposite meaning.
In this scene, Iago is manipulating Othello’s thoughts and making him believe that Desdemona has cheated on him. 

Othello says, “But this denotes a foregone conclusion:  Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be a dream.” 

Here, he is speaking of the adultery between Desdemona and Cassio as something that he is certain has already happened. This gives the phrase “foregone conclusion” the opposite meaning to that which it holds today. 

This, and statements such as “I’ll tear her all to pieces” and “O blood, blood, blood!” are evidence that Othello has already made up his mind about the guilt of his wife and former second-in-command. 

The scene ends with Othello swearing his loyalty to Iago and thinking of ways to kill Desdemona. Charming, I know. 

Lesson from ‘Othello’: How not to be a husband. 

My students have obviously learned something from studying Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’. 

A student wrote the following assessments in this week’s essay: 

“Desdemona is Othello’s wife; the least he could do is talk to her, but apparently that’s too much to ask of our protagonist.”

“Othello is a dirtbag husband that took advantage of Desdemona’s love for him.”

Spot on, I say. 

Happy 449th birthday, Mr Shakespeare!

Very few of my friends understand my love of the works of Shakespeare.
They’re not even interested in my explanations. I suspect they prefer to believe that I’m slightly crazy, or that I’m some kind of intellectual snob who talks about Shakespeare because I think it makes me look smart… or something like that.

It seems to me, those friends of mine must have had very poor English teachers at school.
The language is so beautiful. Shakespeare’s works express powerful ideas with clarity and passion. They provoke thought. They inspire discussion and debate. They touch on issues of the heart, the soul, and the human experience in ways that anyone can understand.

The ideas that are the foundations of Shakespeare’s works are still so relevant today. Which of us living in the 21st century do not understand anger, love, jealousy, greed, fear, insecurity, loneliness, or wishing that life were different than the way it is? Which of us cannot learn from seeing someone else handle their situation the wrong way?

When I teach one of Shakespeare’s texts in my classes, the key question I always bring my students to answer is, what does it mean? What message is Shakespeare delivering here? How would the Elizabethan audience understand it? How, and why, is that different than the way we understand it in the 21st century?

Engaging in interpretation of a text like Othello, Macbeth or Henry IV part I is less intimidating than it seems. It doesn’t take a teenager long to work out that Iago is not only jealous but also both manipulative and vindictive. They have an instinctive understanding of the ways in which Hal displeased Harry, but also of the ways in which Harry must have frustrated and discouraged Hal. Young men are quick to work out that any modern girl whose attitude resembles that of Lady Macbeth is, in all likelihood, not the girl for them. 

It’s all about common human experiences and what lessons can be drawn from the actions and misfortunes of others. The art of interpretation is discerning what the lessons are and how they should be understood. This can only be achieved if the text is known well, and thought about, and discussed, and debated, and challenged with different perspectives.
That’s what we do in my classes on Shakespeare.

Happy birthday, Will.

I still love you.