The Role of Accident
Of all the tragedies of Shakespeare, Othello stands out prominently as the one in which the role of chance and accident is the largest. However, the larger occurrence of chance and accident in this play does not mean that the significance of these in Othello is also greater than in other tragedies of Shakespeare. The chances in this tragedy are pointed out by Bradley, though he seems to overemphasize their importance:
In reading Othello the mind … if more bound down to the spectacle of noble beings caught in the toils from which there is escape ; while the prominence of the intrigue diminishes the sense of the dependence of the catastrophe on character, and the part played by accident in this catastrophe accentuates the feeling of fate… The skill of Iago was extraordinary, but so was his good fortune. Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which anyone but Othello would have asked, would have destroyed Iago’s plot and ended his life. In their stead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at the moment most favourable to him, Cassio blunders into the presence of Othello only to find him in a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when she is wanted to complete Othello’s deception and incense his anger to fury. All this and much spore seems to us quite natural, so potent is the art of the dramatist ; but it confounds us with a feeling …[that] there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides with villainy.
Not all that Bradley mentions can be legitimately regarded as chance or accident. Moreover, the three events which are accidents, viz. the dropping of Desdemona’s handkerchief at the moment which suits Iago, Cassio’s coming upon the suspicious Othello when he is in a swoon, and Bianca’s arrival at just the right moment for Iago, do not constitute a pattern running through the play––such as there is in Romeo and Juliet––but happen so close together as almost to constitute a single event, a single stroke of “the devil’s luck” for Iago, and we may prefer to call them coincidences, signifying a deliberate contrivance of the plot at this point. It cannot be granted that the absence of “a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips” constitute “accidents” in the , above sense. This is to confuse the events of the play which are critically relevant, with possible events in real life, which are not. The unintentional ambiguity in Bradley’s statement is concealed in the inclusion of both sorts of happening under the designation of “accident”.
There is a large element of contrivance on Iago’s part in the vents which are, or seem to be, accidents. For example, Brabantio is summoned, in the beginning, to learn of Desdemona’s deception, of him, and thus to embarrass Othello with his outcry and provide a principal ground of Othello’s later distrust of her with his
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see :
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Othello is summoned to learn of Cassio’s lapse from his office of trust on the watch, and hence develops, by Iago’s skilful prompting, the whole situation of Desdemona’s pleas for Cassio’s reinstatement and Iago’s counter-insinuations that Cassio is Desdemona’s lover. As for most of the business of the handkerchief, Desdemona drops it by accident and Emilia picks it up and offers it to Iago ; but from then on, Iago guides the ensuing events. He leaves the handkerchief in Cassio’s chamber, uses it as evidence with which to convince Othello, and supplies the construction Othello places upon the subsequent history of the handkerchief, which is what really signifies. Thus, Iago is quite capable of beguiling Othello to construe any circumstance which may occur as confirmation of his suspicions. What matters tragically is not the circumstance but the fact that Iago can make Othello see the circumstance through his eyes, through his suggestion. Othello, in his passion, has no power of independent judgment regarding the “evidence” Iago offers him.
It is difficult to agree with Bradley that these accidents lessen our sense of the importance of ‘character’ in the tragedy. The accidents do not absolve Othello of responsibility. No such sentimentality could have occurred to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who never tire of affirming that the human reason can and should control the passions and the will. Rather, what we see is the horrible infectious power of evil, how the deliberate malice of, Iago infects Othello, corrupts his reason, renders him “passion’s slave”, so that without understanding what he is doing, he commits a tragic wrong. He is fully responsible for the wrong he does, as he himself most justly recognizes in the end, but the remorse he feels for the wrong he committed destroys him ; that is why he is fully tragic.
The main reason why it must be maintained that the role of accidents in Othello is far less important than it seems, is that they are not blows of fate but situations painstakingly manipulated and exploited by a human agent––Iago. The plots of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Othello are all of the dramatist’s contriving, and all of them contain “accidents”, or “coincidences” in the sense of arbitrary or unexpected turns in the development of the action. There is, however, an essential difference within this group of three ; in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet no one is able to comprehend or turn to his advantage the developing pattern of events, not Friar Laurence or the young lovers or the parents in their blindness ; not Claudius or Polonius, or, least of all, Hamlet ; but in Othello, Iago––up to the catastrophic turning-point––plans most of the events, calculates the motives and responses of his victims, and profits with diabolical cleverness from the chances which do occur and which he makes serve his purposes. Thus the tragic effect of Othello turns upon the inevitability inherent in the malice of Iago and the character of Othello which Iago knows so well how to, influence.
What gives the play a tragic outcome is primarily the working of character, and not chances, accidents or coincidence. Desdemona is a Venetian and Venice was notorious for its women of loose character. Othello is a man of sudden resolves and vehement feelings. He is, unfortunately, deeply and unreflectingly impressed with Iago’s ‘honesty’. Othello has not known Desdemona long ; he has little knowledge of women in any case ; his military life had left him little time for cultivating their society or, studying them, before he met Desdemona ; and there was a bitter modesty in the man, who thought it quite possible that, for all his greatness and his romantic past, a young girl like Desdemona might hold him but a passing fancy. Obviously, he was no student of human, character, as we see from his faith in Iago. Run principally, he was a man in the grip of jealousy, subject to uncontainable passion, passion that blinded him, made him fall down in a trance, be utterly unlike his normal self. That such a man should become the victim of the malice and demonic artistry of Iago––this is, the era is circumstance of the play. And it is not presented to us as an accident. Iago spends much of his time, in his soliloquies, trying to explain to us how and why it all happened ; and if he protests somewhat too much, we have no difficulty in believing in the possibility of his villainy, because it is so completely persuasive throughout. It is this element of credibility which minimises the role of chance.
Chance and Intrigue
To a certain extent, the predominence of chance in Othello is a corollary of the fact that it is in many respects a tragedy of intrigue. The critic Ulrici rightly points out that chance is only objective caprice, the caprice of fate ; both of them correspond with one another because their internal nature is the same. He is right also in his view that although chance cannot be excluded from tragedy as it is an essential element of human life, it has a right to be a principal force in the dramatic development only in comedy. However he is wrong in his implication that chance plays more than its legitimate part in Othello :
In Othello the catastrophe is first introduced and occasioned by chance. Othello, ‘the noble nature whom passion could not shake,’ who in fact is vulnerable only in the one point, in his love for Desdemona, is first plunged into the heat of passion .by Iago’s villainy and by the play of chance which favours it, and is thus thrown out of the centre of his existence and brought to ruin. The first accident is the circumstance of Desdemona’s losing her handkerchief, which is as much accident as carelessness, the second is that Emilia finds the handkerchief ; the third, that Cassio gives it to Bianca to have the embroidery copied ; the fourth, that Othello sees it in Cassio’s hand ; the fifth, that Bianca happens to be at hand to help in deceiving Othello by Cassio’s conduct in conversation with Iago ; it is all these accidents which help to convince Othello of Desdemona’s infidelity, and which thus effect the complete ruin of his character. They are, therefore, preeminently the levers of the action.
This conclusion is obviously erratic The basis of the tragedy is not these accidents but Othello’s peculiar situation and character and his subconscious awareness of having contracted a marriage which might at least appear to be against reason and nature. In Shakespeare’s play, the seed of suspicion is sown by the caution that Brabantio gives to Othello, namely to beware of Desdemona because she who has deceived her father, may deceive her husband also. Iago’s schemes and chances like the dropping of the handkerchief, would have been powerless to have any effect if this underlying misgiving had not been there in Othello’s mind. Similarly, Ulrici’s contention that Othello shows that human virtue is not able to hold its own against blind chance and common intrigue, and that this tends to take the pathos of the play into the hideous and the horrible, is also a result of misreading. The end of this tragedy only vindicates human worth and dignity in the justice that Othello bravely administers to himself.