As a tragedy, Othello has several distinctive features. For one thing, it is the briefest and most tightly constructed of Shakespearean tragedies. It is the only tragedy in which the hero is not a king or a prince. Moreover, he is not even an Englishman, or a European but a Negro. Although there is a clown in the play, his role is brief and of no importance. Othello is, in fact a concentrated tragedy it is the one tragedy of Shakespeare which is as remarkable for its villain as for its hero. Although all the tragedies of Shakespeare are imbued with intense poetry, Othello is by far the most poetic of them and its hero is the most poetic being created by Shakespeare. Othello alone has some element of the domestic tragedy.
Othello is not only the most masterly of Shakespeare’s ‘tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction, is also unusual. This method, by which the conflict begins late, and advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the catastrophe, ‘is the main cause of the painful tension and oppressive atmosphere. After the conflict has begun, there is very little relief by way of the ridiculous. Henceforward at any rate, Iago’s humour never raises a smile. The clown is a poor one ; we hardly attend to him and quickly forget him. There is no subject more exciting than sexual jealousy, rising to the pitch of passion, and there can hardly be any spectacle at once so engrossing and so painful as that of a great nature suffering the torment of this passion, and driven by it to a crime which is also a hideous blunder. Sexual jealousy brings with it a sense of shame and. humiliation. For this reason it is generally hidden and when it is not hidden it commonly stirs contempt as well as pity. Such jealousy as Othello’s converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man. It doe; this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most idea of human feelings. The spectacle of Othello’s feeling turned into a tortured mixture of longing and loathing leading to a bestial thirst for blood is most painful. And this, with what it leads to, the blow to Desdemona and the scene where she is treated as the inmate of a brothel, a scene far more painful than the murder scene, is another cause of the special effect of this tragedy.
The suffering of Desdemona is the most nearly intolerable spectacle that Shakespeare offers us For one thing, it is mete suffering, that is much worse to witness than suffering that issues in action. Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do nothing whatever. She can retaliate neither in speech nor in articulate feeling. This helplessness issues not because she cannot do so but because her nature is exquisitely sweet and her love for Othello is absolute. This makes the sight of her suffering more exquisitely painful. We watch Desdemona with more unmitigated distress ; her suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures hurt without cause by the being it adores.
Element of Intrigue
The action and catastrophe of Othello depend largely on, intrigue. However, we must not call the play a tragedy of intrigue as distinguished from a tragedy of character. Iago’s plot is Iago’s character in action ; otherwise it would not have succeeded Still, it remains true that an elaborate plot was necessary to elicit the catastrophe ; therefore, Iago’s intrigue occupies a position in the play for which no parallel can be found in other tragedies. Whereas in Othello, the persons inspire the keenest sympathy and antipathy, and life and death depend on the intrigue ; it becomes the source of tension in which pain almost overpowers pleasure. Nowhere else in Shakespeare do we hold our breath in such anxiety and for so long a time, as in the later acts of Othello. One result of the prominence of the element of intrigue is that Othello is less unlike a story of private life than any other of the great tragedies. And this impression is strengthened in further ways. In the other great tragedies the action is placed in-a distant period so that its general significance is perceived through a thin veil which separates the persons from ourselves and out own world : but Othello is a drama of modern life ; when it first appeared it was a drama almost of contemporary life. The characters come close to us, and the application of the drama to ourselves is more immediate than it can be in Hamlet or Lear ; his deed and his death have not that influence on the interests of a nation or an empire which serves to idealise, and to remove fear from our own sphere, the stories of Hamlet and Macbeth, of Coriolanus and Antony. Indeed he is already superseded at Cyprus when his fate is consummated, and as we leave him, no vision rises on us, as in other tragedies, of peace descending on a distracted land.
Sense of Oppression
These various elements produce a feeling of oppression, of confinement to a comparatively narrow world, and of dark fatality. The darkness and fatefulness of Othello can be compared to the pervading atmosphere of King Lear. In King Lear the conflict assumes immense proportions so that the imagination seems, as in Paradise Lost, to traverse spaces wider than the earth. In reading Othello the mind is not thus distended. It is more bound down to the spectacle of noble beings caught in toils from which there is no 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. After the temptation has begun, this influence of accident is incessant and terrible. 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 into fury. All this and much more 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 for these star-crossed mortals and even with a feeling that fate has taken sides with villainy.
Othello, on the surface, appears to be a straightforward play but there is a great deal of disagreement among the critics and much of it is relevant, perceptive debate and not mere argumentation. In fact, Othello has been the subject of lively dispute ever since its own century. Thomas Rymer’s amusing and pugnacious A Short View of Tragedy (1693) gave the play a hostile scene-by-scene analysis, rejoicing in every improbability, and generally seeing it as a compendium of faults. English drama, in the last years of the seventeenth century, stood at an important cross-roads ; the period of silence during the Commonwealth, when the theatres were dosed by law, bad bees long enough to obscure the tradition that flourished from ,the days of Elizabeth to those of Charles I. There was no, particular reason why the English drama should revert to its old ways, and Rymer was for starting again with a truly ‘classical’ theatre that should rival the French. To do this it was necessary to get rid of Shakespeare, whose plays, old-fashioned as they were, continued to fill the theatre and thus keep Elizabethan conventions alive in the minds of audiences. Othello, on Rymer’s own admission, was a great favourite, so he turned all his guns on it, as Tolstoy was later to do, from not dissimilar motives, on King Lear. Of the two pieces of monumental wrong-headedness, one prefers Rymer’s, which is at least amusing and, in its own way, very acute.
To Rymer, the plot-construction of Othello seemed incredible. Some of his objections were to turn up again in an essay by Robert Bridges in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Over and above this, Rymer has also two objections which would not occur to anyone nowadays. These objections stem from his neo-classical position. The first is that the behaviour of Iago and Othello is untrue to life because it is not ‘soldierly’. The second is that the play has no moral. The Renaissance derived most of its critical theories of literature from Aristotle’s Poetics, and there it found the doctrine of generality. ‘The difference between the poet and the historian’, Aristotle tells us, ‘does not lie in the fact that they express themselves in verse or prose… but in the fact that the historian speaks of what has happened, the poet of the thing that can happen’. Some Renaissance critics took over this idea in the clumsy and restrictive form that all soldiers in literature must be soldierly, all kings must be kingly, all women womanly, all senators wise. Hence, to Rymer, Iago is ‘a close, dissembling, false, insinuating rascal, instead of an open-hearted, frank, plain-dealing soldier, a character constantly worn by them for some thousands of years in the world.’ Next, the moral. Rymer wants the four Aristotelian ingredients of ‘Plot, Character, Thought and Expression’ ; he thinks that a lofty play should give the audience some nugget of general wisdom to take home and examine, and the story of Othello seems too idiosyncratic for this. ‘What,’ he demands, ‘can remain with the Audience to carry home with them from this sort of Poetry, for their use and edification ?’ and concludes satirically that it boils down to ‘a warning to good housewives to look well to their linen’.
Dr. Johnson’s Reply
Both these objections were answered with characteristic firmness, by Dr. Johnson. In the great essay which forms the Preface to his. edition of Shakespeare, Johnson vindicated Shakespeare’s truth to ‘nature’ against the narrow conception of ‘nature’ urged by such English writers as Rymer, Jobs Dennis in his An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare, as also by Voltaire :
Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident ; and, if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or king, but be thinks only on men. He knew that Rome, like every other city, bad men of all dispositions ; and wanting a buffoon, be went into the senate house for that which the senate house would certainly have afforded him. He was inclined to show an usurper and a murderer not only odious, but despicable ; he therefore added drunkenness to his other qualities, knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power upon kings. There are the patty cavils of petty minds ; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
As to the other objection of Rymer that Othello has no ‘moral’ and teaches no wisdom, there will probably always be critics who will agree with him. Wilson Knight’s preliminary admission that Othello is a story of intrigue rather than a visionary statement’ is, in its restated way, Rymerian. But here again, Johnson was in no doubt, as we see from Boswell’s account of their conversation about the moral of Othello:
Johnson. In the first place, Sir, we learn from Othello this very useful moral, not to make an unequal match ; in the second place, we learn not to yield too readily to suspicion. The handkerchief is merely a trick, though a very pretty trick but there are no other circumstances of reasonable suspicion, except what is related by Iago of Cassio’s warm expressions concerning Desdemona in his sleep, and that depended entirely upon the assertion of one man.’
On the question of Iago’s motivation, there is once again sharp difference of opinion. On the one band, there are those take it that Iago does not really understand his own motivation, and when he claims to do so, in his soliloquies, be is merely rationalizing. Coleridge’s phrase, ‘the motive bunting of a motiveless malignity’, is much quoted in this camp. Hazlitt, a little later, saw Iago in a similar light, as an aesthete of evil. He, however, denies that Iago is without motivation, for ‘Shakespeare …knew that the love of power, which is another name for the love of mischief, is natural to man. He would have known this….merely from seeing children paddle in the dirt or kill flies for sport.’ To Hazlitt, Iago is ‘an amateur of tragedy in real life ; and instead of employing his invention on imaginary characters or long-forgotten incidents, he takes the bolder and moral desperate course of getting up his plot at home, casts the principal parts among his nearest friends and connections, and rehearses it in downright earnest with steady nerves and unabated resolution.’ On the other band, there are the critics who see logo’s motives rather as be professes to see them himself. To Kenneth Muir, ‘The secret of Iago is not a motiveless malignity, nor evil for evil’s sake, nor a professional envy, but a pathological jealousy of his wife, a suspicion of every man with whom she is acquainted, a jealous love of Desdemona which makes him take a vicarious pleasure in other men’s actual or prospective enjoyment of her at the same time as it arouses his hatred of the successful Moor and, it may even be suggested, a dog-in-the-manger attitude that cannot bear to think of Desdemona happy with any man, and especially with a coloured man, a man he hates.’
One of the most convincing interpretations of Iago is that by William Empson, who is able to attain special insight by going into the history of the word ‘honest’. Armed with this insight, Empson proceeds to interpret the character of Iago, and his function in the play, by means of the reverberations of the word ‘honest’ as he applies it to himself and has it applied to him by others. His essay is in fact a close and sensitive piece of character-analysis, almost Bradleian, though in a very different idiom from Bradley’s ; it shows us an Iago who is certainly wicked and not to be defended, but also human , and credible. Iago’s class-jealousy is alerted by the patronizing overtones in the word ‘honest’ ; he feels, probably quite rightly, that Cassio was important to Othello in a way that he could never be––notably as an intermediary in Othello’s wooing––and this led directly to Cassio’s being promoted over his, Iago’s, bead ; so that Cassio, in addition to being ‘a mathematician’ (i.e. better educated), is also a charmer who is unfairly rewarded for his gentlemanly manners. This same plausibility is the reason why Iago fears Cassio with his nightcap, as well as Othello, and gives him a powerful set of motives for trying to bring the two of them into collision. Empson’s account also offers us an Iago who is ‘honest’ in the sense that, for a surprising amount of the time, he really to uttering his true opinions, and one of the things that irritate him is the, way people always assume, when be comes out with some misanthropic remark, that it is only his sense of fun, whereas really does have roots deep in his destructive emotions.
Attitudes to Desdemona
There seems to be less divergence of opinion about Desdemona. Bradley is unashamedly a worshipper : ‘Desdemona, the “eternal woman” in its most lovely and adorable form, simple and innocent as a mod, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint, radiant with that heavenly purity of heart’ which men worship the moss because nature so rarely permits it to themselves….’ It is true, he admits, that she is not clever ; where an earlier critic, Mrs. Jameson, had credited her with ‘less quickness of intellect less tendency to reflection than most of Shakespeare’s heroines, but believed she made up for it by having ‘the unconscious address common in women’. Bradley says firmly that Desdemona ‘seems deficient in this address, having in its place a childlike boldness and persistency, which are full of charm but are unhappily united with a certain want of perception’ No doubt he considers it part of Desdemona’s innocent childishness that she is inclined to be economical with the truth. Heraud in 1855 had already noted that ‘Her passion was romantic, and there exists fiction in whatever is romantic. She suffers from illusion and loves to be deluded. If she is self-deceived, she ‘likewise deceives others… From timidity of disposition she frequently evades the truth, when attention to its strict letter would raise difficulties.’
The two opposed factions, however, have some points of contact regarding the interpretation of Iago. They agree at least in finding him repulsive. Whether on a large scale or a small scale, he is the villain, the ‘demi-devil’. And yet, it seems, even Iago has had his apologists. As early as 1790, a ‘Gentleman of Exeter’ published an assay called ‘An Apology for the Character and Conduct of Iago’, based on the incontrovertible fact that Iago has a good reputation, as man and soldier, before the story opens, and arguing that if he were really wicked it would surely have been .noticed in his twenty-eight years. In the nineteenth century two critics, the Englishman Heraud and the American Snider, found themselves believing that logo has actually been cuckolded by Othello-which would give him a powerful motive for revenging himself , and thus make his conduct, though still wicked, that of a man and not a mysterious fiend. Several twentieth-century critics have followed these two in finding Iago’s suspicion a reasonable one. John W. Draper, after assembling satisfactory evidence that Elizabethan notions of honour made the cuckold a universally -despised figure and that any man threatened with this fate would understandably seek his revenge, asks : ‘Is logo then so black a villain 7 Is he not a commonplace Renaissance soldier, “honest as
this world goes”, caught in the fell grip of circumstance and attempting along conventional lines to vindicate his honour ? Indeed, if honesty and honour be something of the same, is he not from first to last “honest Iago” ?’
Although it seams incredible that Othello could have, at some earlier stage, made love to Emilia, there remains the fact that Iago think he may well have done so, and think, moreover, that a lot of other people believe he has (‘it is thought abroad that ’twist my sheets/He has done my office’). Whether Iago has any grounds for his suspicion or whether he is just being neurotic, the belief is strong enough to ‘gnaw his inwards’ like ‘a poisonous mineral’, so that in one of his later soliloquies, when he is rejoicing in the torment he is causing Othello, he can revert to the same imagery and say ––
Dangerous conceits are in their natures poisons
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste
But, with a little act upon the blood
Burn like the mines of sulphur.
On this view, his motive would be to make Othello go through’ the same agony as himself. Thus Mario Praz, who sees Iago as ‘incensed by the public report that Othello has cockolded him’, points out that the story of his revenge has ‘parallels in many cases of retaliation instanced by the Italian novelle.’