The Nature of Secrets

Date: Nov 23, 2018


Goerg Simmel’s work “The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies” will be used in this essay to help in answering the question ‘what is the nature of secrets?’ in regard to passages from William Shakespeare’s Othello. To begin with, the prerequisite for all human relationships is to know something about one other. Relationships between people differ in intensity and shading depending on how much one individual discloses about himself through what he says and does. In this respect, it seems impossible to have complete knowledge about another person as one cannot communicate their feelings and thoughts unless they reveal them. In Othello, characters relate on the basis of secrets and lies, which inspires and propels the entire plot in this Shakespeare’s play. Iogo is an ensign to Othello - a respected general of the armies of Venice. He plays with information with the aim of destroying Othello, which in consequence destroys everyone involved including him. This essay will discuss sociological aspects of a secret in relation to four topics on confidence, power, ritual and discretion.

Simmel’s Thoughts on Secrecy

Georg Simmel is among the founders of sociological perspectives on social individuality and fragmentation. His essay “The sociology of secrecy and of secret societies” helps in understanding of secrets and lies, and how they are exploited in social interactions in groups and between individuals in William Shakespeare’s Othello. A secret is described by Simmel as a means for an individual or individuals to control information, and deliberately hide it from another person or persons while they are trying to disclose what is being concealed (p. 470). The person hiding some information is limiting what is supposed to be mutual knowledge known to the other, since according to Simmel (p. 422), social relationships are based on the presumption that an individual holds the power to retain the knowledge about the self. During social interaction, it is important for individuals to know the information that other parties involved know as a prerequisite for interaction. Knowledge about others that is sought exists in between full knowledge, which is impossible to attain, and complete ignorance. When there is a lack of information about another person , that person may compensate by giving information on what is imagined to be true. Social interactions therefore happen as reciprocal process, but human beings are very effective in either revealing themselves or concealing themselves. Simmel also says that human beings in their anxiety tend to believe a fellow human being. This is what happens with Othello, Rodriguez and Cassio on whose anxiety Iogo plays as he gives them false information.

Georg Simmel’s sociological perspectives are discussed in the essay in four topics which will help in understanding the connection between secrets and social controls when analyzing William Shakespeare’s Othello.


Confidence is described by Simmel as the foundation of a secret action when an individual has some interests in a relationship, so that the bulk of knowledge they have on the subject gives them self-assurance (p. 450). In order to gain such confidence in a relationship, one has to have objective knowledge about the associates. If in full possession of knowledge, the need to trust is done away with. On the contrary, complete absence of knowledge brings distrust (p. 450). Whichever the case, the quantity of knowing and not knowing must combine so as to make practical decisions with confidence, which typically depends on a historic period, interests and an individual .

Simmel’s perspective on confidence can be well demonstrated by Iogo’s confidence in Othello. Iogo is very confident of his skills as a soldier as he has been an ensign of the general, which gives him high self-esteem. To illustrate, “I know my price; I am worth no worse a place” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 5). These are words he says to his co-conspirator Roderigo as he complains that despite his being the general’s ensign and his experience as a soldier in war at Rhodes, Cyprus and other places, his has been overseen for promotion and Othello has chosen an inexperienced soldier Michael Cassio as his lieutenant instead of him. Iogo’s character is also illustrative of Simmel’s view of confidence when he says that “demand me nothing: what you know, you know” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 132). It is clear that Iogo takes much self-assurance from the knowledge he has of the interactions in the group and from assuming that he is the only individual having this knowledge. Interestingly, Iogo vows not to disclose anything. At this point though Emilia, his wife accuses him of manipulating information in order to accuse Desdemona and Cassio of an affair. At the same time, Iogo thinks his secrets are safe because Roderigo is dead. However, this is not the case as letters bearing this conspiracy are eventually found in Roderigo’s pocket.

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Othello also demonstrates confidence as he uses the knowledge he possesses about his wife’s alleged infidelity (no matter that it is false) to boost his self-assurance and make a decision to kill her. He says to his wife “for to deny each article with oath cannot remove nor choke the strong conception; that I do groan withal; thou art to die” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 112). He is talking about the handkerchief he gave to his wife which he saw in the hands of Cassio. That the handkerchief was planted by Iogo in Cassio’s chambers, he is not privy to.

The foregoing example reinforces the earlier proposition by Simmel that what is known and unknown combines to make a practical decision (p. 450). In addition, Simmel states that human beings make their most serious decisions based on a complex system of conceptions with most of them presuming confidence that they have not been deceived (p. 446). This is why, even after Emilia insists that Desdemona is innocent, Othello is still confident of the information “It is pitiful; but yet Iogo knows, that she with Cassio has the act of shame, a thousand times committed; Cassio confessed it” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 126). This is because he trusts that Iogo would not lie because the distortion of such information would have devastating consequences.


At the heart of secret societies according to Simmel, lies the power which is wielded by those heading the group over the lower levels that are expected to obey without question (p. 494). The unquestioning obedience and holding of power are motivated by the need to guard the secret. If this center of power is constantly invisible or loses control of the adherents, the tension rises. These internal conflicts plague the minds of individuals leading to the risk of betrayal. In order to guard against this betrayal, the power is centralized, strict hierarchies are maintained, and submissiveness of members is demanded. This is sometimes achieved by inspiring a hidden figure of authority which Simmel says is “a power nowhere to be seen, but for that reason everywhere expected” (p. 494). This centralization of power and secrecy results in dissolving members’ obedience and lack of individualism, and therefore irresponsibility. This is illustrated by the character of Othello thatis depicted powerful, respected and self-controlled yet quite biasedwhen he falls in love with his wife and starts doubting over simple things such as his wife’s love. He says „Ay, let her rot and perish, and be damned tonight, for she shall not live!”, and then,”I will chop her into messes! Cuckold me!” (Shapespeare 2005, p. 92-93). Here, Iogo is persistently goading Othello while they talk about whether it is a crime for a lady to be naked with another man. He then introduces the topic of a token handkerchief telling his general that if he gave it to his wife, it is up to her what to do with it. So she may act as she pleases, even if it means giving it to another man. The motive here is to make Othello think about his wife’s missing handkerchief while insinuating about her unfaithfulness. He finally says that Desdemona has slept with Cassio sowing seeds of conflict in the relationship. The self assured and controlled general goes into a frenzy because of jealousy and his loss of control is further seen when he strikes his wife. This person seems to be a contrast to the man who in Act III calmed brawling soldiers and gently led his wife away (Shakespeare 2005, p. 201).

The issue of authority, power and obedience within secret societies, as stated by Simmel (p. 494), can be well identified in the letter that arrives from Venice with Lodovio bearing a command that he should return to Venice and leave Cassio in charge of Cyprus Unquestioning obedience is also shown by Desdemona who despite being hit by her husband shows respect and submission” I will not stay and offend you” she goes and Lodovico says, „truly, an obedient lady” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 135).


According to Simmel, the organization of secret societies is built upon fixed ranks and positions which form hierarchies and are built to aid influence over the group (p. 479). In addition to hierarchies, ritual structures are built which in essence separate these groups from the open societies as they are secret themselves. The ritual structures also unite them with the body of purpose (p. 480). These rituals are strictly observed and keeping them secret is the most profound thing as they are revealing and fatal, and seen a betrayal of the society and its actions and purposes. The function of this is that though these actions and purposes, and rituals are wholly intricate forms that can be seen by all, they are self-contained to form an all-round unit - a unique and self contained body founded on protecting the secrecy (p. 481). Each person in this unit supports each other to create harmony. This is seen in religious and military organizations where individuals are characterized by fixation of a certain behavior and having various energies and interests that are seen from a particular point of view to correlate with the unity of the group or organization. Individuals combine and align with each other to move to a higher level, which means being committed to shared obligations. All this is different from what can be seen in an open society where a common purpose may be traced(p. 481).

This is what can be associated with the picture of Othello and Desdemona lying dead on their bed. Othello is a military man and a Christian and Lodovico says of him “Spartan dog, more fell than anguish, hunger, or sea, look at the tragic loading of this bed: this is thy work. The object poisons sight” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 134). A ritual of a secret society is implied here. It can be seen from two points. Firstly, the circumstances of death of both Othello and Desdemona are a ritual. Desdemona categorically declares her submission to Othello after their marriage saying „so much I challenge that I may profess due to the moor my lord” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 15). By this she was married to him and could not allow another man near her without disgracing him. This is why when Othello accuses her of infidelity she says ”no, as I am a Christian: if to preserve this vessel for my lord, from any other foul unlawful touch” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 134). Still, Othello kills her. When he learns the accusations were false, he kills himself because he feels obliged to do this for his mistake. To illustrate, ”I kissed thee ere I Killed thee: no way but this; killing myself, to die upon a kiss.” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 133 ).

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The second way to look at the implication of ritual in secret societies is demonstrated by the words of Ludovico about Iogo who has betrayed others with lies and manipulation and even killed ” to you the governor , remains the censure of this hellish villain, the time, the place, the torture: enforce it!”(Shakespeare 2005, p. 134). This means that, Iogo will be punished according to the lay out rules which are at the discretion of the governor as the head of the group.


In human society various relationships exist. Acquaintance relationship is characterized by more discretion and secretiveness; it differs from the relationship between intimate people which include friendships and marriage. The former relationships are also characterized by definite restricted interests, but in friendships and marriage, essentially, there is an extension of the people concerned (Simmel 1906, p. 457). In friendships, total intimacy is not involved, but intimacy is rather based on subjectiveness of personalities as well as on common things, such as intellectual pursuits, shared experiences and religion among others. In a modern man, as Simmel (p. 458) says, the ideal friendship differs from that in ancient tradition where unconditional spiritual confidence was a norm and sharing of material possessions was not possible, probably, due to assumed difficulties in achieving equal understanding among individualized personalities. This is the reason why friendships incline towards differentiated friendships where one reveals only one part of his/her personality at a time and with one person, and another with yet another person. This calls for a degree of intrusion and reserve within a friendship. This makes discretion the most important aspect of relations (Simmel 1906, p. 468). It means that friends mutually desist from intruding into the feelings and interests of the other that are not included in the relationship they share. The result of not observing this significantly troubles the shared understanding they have; therefore, the right to question is restricted to the right of secrecy (Simmel 1906, p. 468). Discretion is critically analyzed in Othello in Act I, scene 1 of Othello (Shakespeare 2005, p. 8-12). Roderigo and Iogo are passing by Brabantio’s house talking about Othello and pouring out their hatred for him: the former because Othello won his woman’s heart and the latter because he passed him over for promotion. They want to create trouble for Othello and decide that his secret marriage to Desdemona, Brabantio’s daughter, is good a chance. Iogo says “call up her father, rouse him: make after him, poison his delight” (Shakespeare 2005, p. 8). Iogo disobeys discretion among friends when he talks about Othello’s secret marriage with Roderigo and eventually with Desdemona’s father who is yet to be told. They also fail to obey discretion when they inquire whether every member of Brabantio’s family is within since that was none of their business.


This essay has discussed the nature of secrets on the basis of George Simmel’s work The Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies. It has used the examples from William Shakespeare’s play Othello to illustrate the theory. The paper has examined the nature of secrets and lies in human relationships and its relation to the control of information or knowledge which is either hidden or subject to attempts of being disclosed. Secrets and lies are the two things that propel and inspire the entire plot of Othello as the main characters try to respond to them. Simmel looks at secrecy and secret societies from various sociological perspectives. Confidence is a state where subjects have sufficient knowledge about each other to be able to relate to an interest. Power, on the other hand, is the center that holds individuals in a secret society in check, while rituals are structures and things that set secret these societies apart. Finally, discretion is what holds relationships in balance. The paper has demonstrated how this theory applies to the actions of Othello’s characters.

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