Shakespeare and Race: Othello's Relationship with Desdemona
From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.
It is at this point that the second of the great problems of the play emerges. The proper understanding of the relations of Othello and Desdemona is equally important with the question of the relations of lago and Othello. The exposition of these two elements of the play is set forth by the dramatist with his usual clearness, and at considerable length, but has nevertheless escaped the notice of the critics, or has been discounted as a factor in the interpretation. But it is high time to learn that whatever Shakespeare put deliberately into his dramas is to be considered in the interpretation.
The meeting of the two search parties, each seeking Othello for a different reason, brings the relations of Othello and Desdemona into prominence. The party of Cassio, with the Senate's hasty summons to Othello, serves to give dramatic importance to Othello's great ability as a commander, and to emphasize his military value to Venice. Brabantio and his troop serve to bring out the private side of Othello's character, hither-to unsuspected. When the two parties meet, Brabantio is in a very quarrelsome mood. The cool words of Othello prevent a clash between the two:
"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."The sudden danger from the Turks at Cyprus has made great dispatch necessary, and the Duke has ordered Othello before him "even on the instant." Brabantio's appeal to the Senate occurring at the same time, Othello appears before the magnificoes in the double capacity of the General of the state entrusted with a great military exploit, and as an eloper with Brabantio's daughter.
(I. ii. 75-6.)
The Moor now finds that his old friend, the Signior Brabantio, formerly his admirer, has unexpectedly become his accuser before the Senate. Formerly honored as a friend and as a great soldier, and gladly admitted to Brabantio's house, Othello discovers that he is now considered an enemy, and execrated as the husband of Brabantio's daughter. For the first time, possibly, Othello becomes aware of the fact that he is not accepted on terms of full and exact equality in all particulars with the Venetians. It is likely, however, that Othello had feared this, and so took Desdemona in marriage without asking her father, evidently satisfied that as a black man he could not obtain Brabantio's consent.
When the matter is brought before the Senate, Brabantio's objections to Othello all have to do with his difference of race and color. He thinks it utterly unnatural for Desdemona to accept him willingly and knowingly. He cannot conceive how his daughter, a fair maid of Venice, could consent to marry a man of Othello's color and nationality, unless in some way out of her senses. So preposterous does it appear to him that he must suppose Othello has charmed her with drugs and magic. He cries out in his desperation:
"She is abus'd, stolen from me, and corruptedHe reiterates his belief that it is "against all rules of nature," and speaks of Othello's supposed magic as "practices of cunning hell." Brabantio, at least, thinks the marriage of Moor and Venetian, of black and white, to be utterly preposterous and unnatural, and doubtless the other Senators shared this conviction. It seems likely that this was also the opinion of the dramatist, for there is abundant evidence that it was always so regarded on the Elizabethan stage. Only the development of the drama will show how far Shakespeare sympathizes with this opinion.
By spells, and medicines, bought of mountebanks;
For nature, so preposterously to err,
(Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense)
Sans witch-craft could not."
(I. iii. 75-9.)
Two deeds upon the part of Othello have now brought him into active collision with other persons, and the two are related to each other. Because of his obligations to Cassio in the matter of his love-making with Desdemona he has appointed him to an important position over lago, thus making an enemy of his faithful officer. He has also stolen away Desdemona from her father, and secretly married her, making an enemy of Brabantio, who had been one of his greatest admirers among the Senate. In both cases there is evidence of his callousness and dullness of mind. Up to this point Othello had been able to carry successfully his exalted responsibility in his adopted state, but in these matters he makes a complete break-down. Not even his superior military training could save him. He could perform well the duties of military life, but now it begins to be evident that he is not fitted for the higher and more exacting arts of peace, and especially of love, in a civilized state. When Othello leaves "the tented fields" for the streets and homes of a refined city he utterly goes to pieces, and whatever sense of honor he may have had speedily gives place to a dangerous caprice. An unsuspected weakness, or deficiency, in his character is thus laid bare, upon which the whole tragedy will later be seen to turn.
This deficiency, it is now important to notice, the play implies is due to his racial character, and comes from the fact that he is a Moor. The half- civilized Othello is but ill adapted for life in civilized and cultured Venice. Some critics endeavor to make out that nothing whatever of the happenings of the play are in any way connected with the fact that Othello is a Moor. They allege he is nothing but a man, though he happens to be a black man. His color, they say, is an entirely indifferent matter in the play, and can be all but ignored in the interpretation. On this assumption, however, the many references to his color and race throughout the play cannot well be explained. This view takes for granted that the dramatist heaps up idle words having no significance, and refuses to believe that there was a meaning in all he wrote. It is not necessary to hold, as Professor Bradley would have us believe, that the dramatist must be credited with clear doctrines of Kulturgeschichte if we are to maintain that he made the problem of Othello at least in part a problem of race. Feelings of racial differences did not have to wait for the Germans of later times to write histories of culture. In Shakespeare's day the discovery of new lands and new peoples must have impressed all thoughtful Europeans with the conception of their own superiority in all the arts and character of civilized life. And the play makes Othello quite as conscious as any one else of his diversity of race, though it is to other causes that he assigns his want of grace and culture.
When charged before the Senate with the abduction of Desdemona, Othello's defence consists of a frank and free admission that he had taken Brabantio's daughter, and an apologetic account of his "whole course of love." He pleads that he is "little blest with the soft phrase of peace," for he has spent all his life in "feats of broils, and battle." (I. iii. 104 ff.) In the course of his apology, his "round unvarnished tale" becomes eloquent with a barbaric sincerity and splendor that almost enlists the sympathy of the Senate. The story of "the battle, sieges, fortune" he had passed is almost as potent with the senators as it had been with Desdemona, who, he says,
"lov'd me for the dangers I had passed,He further says he is ready to abide by the decision of Desdemona, and advises the senate to call her to speak for herself. He considers the marriage to be a matter for themselves alone, and implies that the lady has a right to choose her husband without her father's consent.
And I lov'd her, that she did pity them."
(I. iii. 190-1.)
There are numerous Shakespearean plays which seem to bear out the idea that the dramatist thought it to be the woman's right to choose her own husband, without meeting her father's wishes in the matter. But there are many differences, and these must be given consideration. Shakespeare undoubtedly approves such choice when it means a larger and fuller life. Juliet disobeyed a tyrannical and hateful father to find a larger life and a true spiritual union with Romeo. In the same spirit Imogen refused the coarse and villainous Cloten, to join hands and hearts with the virtuous Posthumus. The lovely Jewess, Jessica, ran away from the miserly Shylock to marry the Christian, Lorenzo, and at the same time accepted the religion of her husband. In all these cases the maidens found their true life with the men of their own choice, and the dramatist gives his verdict in making their love happy and successful, and in bringing out of their marriage a larger good to all.
There are in these and other instances, however, many differences from the case of Othello and Desdemona. It is not so much the wilful disrespect to her father that is the fault of Desdemona, though some critics make a great deal of this, but the fact that in marrying Othello she showed a wilful disregard of her own highest interests. It can scarcely be maintained that the marriage of Othello and Desdemona was a complete spiritual union, for there were too many diverse elements that at the time seemed incompatible and in the end proved entirely irreconcilable. It is true, of course, that as in the case of Juliet the passion of love transformed Desdemona from a meek and blushing maiden into a strong and self-reliant woman. There need be no attempt to deny the reality of the love of these two, and its effect upon their development, but it was not strong enough or natural enough to overcome all its enemies, as a true and natural love like that of Romeo and Juliet can do. Under some conditions it is possible that their love might have outlived their lives and overcome its handicaps, yet it is to miss the art of this drama not to see that the dramatist is here showing its unnaturalness by placing it in the conditions that test it to the uttermost and that reveal its weakness and bring it to defeat.
When Desdemona is brought into court to speak for herself in the matter of the marriage, she declares that she freely and lovingly takes Othello for her husband, and intimates that she is willing to take all the consequences of that act. She affirms her love for the Moor, and her desire to live with him, and requests to be permitted to accompany him to Cyprus. She says she understands fully what she is doing, recognizes Othello as a Moor, but that she accepts him as he is, or, as her words imply, she finds compensation for his color in the quality of his mind, in his honors, and in his courage:
"My heart's subdu'dSeeing her determination and her willingness to abide by her decision, her father accepts what seems inevitable, but leaves them with the needless and cruel mark:
Even to the very quality of my lord;
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honors and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate."
(I. iii. 278-282.)
"Look to her (Moor) if thou hast eyes to see:These words let us see where Desdemona got her wilfulness, and relieve us of the necessity of grieving much over the sorrows of her father in this most unfortunate marriage.
She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee."
(I. iii. 323-4.)
In some recent criticism there has been an attempt to glorify the purity and beauty of the love of Othello and Desdemona, and to place it among the most spiritual of the loves of Shakespeare. Professor Bradley speaks of Desdemona's choice of Othello as rising "too far above our common level," and adds: "There is perhaps a certain excuse for our failure to rise to Shakespeare's meaning, and to realize how extraordinary and splendid a thing it was in a gentle Venetian girl to love Othello, and to assail fortune with such a downright violence and storm as is expected only in a hero." But this is only another instance of that fanciful criticism that makes a new Shakespeare, and yet thinks it is interpreting the old. If Goethe's suggestions for the re-casting of Hamlet in order to express better the meaning have not helped but hindered the understanding of Shakespeare's drama, we should learn the lesson of letting the dramatist have his way. Some of the critics before Professor Bradley have more truly seen the character of the love of Othello and Desdemona. Professor Dowden has observed that "In the love of each there was a romantic element; and romance is not the highest form of the service which imagination renders to love. For romance disguises certain facts, or sees them, as it were, through a luminous mist."1
Snider has noticed that the qualities in Othello that attract Desdemona are "his bravery against external danger," that is, physical rather than mental or moral qualities, and that "no feats of mind, or skill, or cunning are recorded."2 Her love, indeed, seems to be a kind of romantic fascination, a love of the sensuous imagination, what Professor Herford properly calls "a perilous ecstasy of the idealizing brain without secure root in the heart."3 The last mentioned writer shows clear insight when he contrasts the love of Othello and Desdemona with that of Romeo and Juliet, which so "completely possesses and occupies their simple souls, that they present no point of vantage for distintegrating forces."4 Apparently it needs to be said over again that no conflict arose between Romeo and Juliet, but that all their trouble was with a world arrayed against them. But, between Othello and Desdemona, on the other hand, a most distressing conflict arose that almost completely overshadowed the original conflict and ended only in the greatest catastrophe of the drama. Instead of bearing a comparison, the loves of the two plays are in almost every way a contrast.
The marriage of Othello and Desdemona was a union of different races and colors that the sense of the world has never approved. The marriage of black and white seems always to have been repulsive to an Elizabethan, and dramatists before Shakespeare had always presumed that to be the case. Shakespeare no doubt shared this feeling, for in the two plays where no doubts on the matter are possible he follows the usual tradition. Assuming he had a part in writing the play, he has made Aaron, the Moor of Titus Andronicus, not only repulsive but a veritable brute and as cruel as Marlowe's Barabas. And in The Merchant of Venice, about whose authorship there can be no doubt, and which is earlier than Othello, he had previously portrayed a Moor as a suitor for the hand of Portia, and presented him as unsuccessful. When the Prince of Morocco chooses the golden casket, only to find "a carrion death" awaiting him, Portia remarks:
"A gentle riddance: draw the curtains, go.His color is recognized as a natural barrier that makes him a very unwelcome suitor. Even his royalty is not to Portia a sufficient compensation. Othello, too, feeling that some compensation must be offered, pleads before the senate his "royal lineage," apparently wishing them to infer that with this outer advantage he becomes the equal of his wife. Desdemona likewise offers her plea and says she has found the necessary compensation in his "mind" and in his "valiant parts." But this does not appear to any of the other persons of the drama or to the dramatist as sufficient. Marriage makes a demand for absolute equality between the parties, and is likely to prove fatal in those cases where apologies and excuses are necessary.
Let all of his complexion choose me so."
(II. vii. 80-1.)
It has not generally been observed that Shakespeare makes more of this racial difference than did Cinthio, the Italian original. To Cinthio it is almost entirely a matter of a difference of color, which in itself is external though not unimportant. But to Shakespeare, who always reads deeper than others, it is on the surface a matter of color, but at bottom a matter of racial divergence that amounts to an incompatibility of character.
FOOTNOTE 1: Shakspere His Mind and Art, p. 232, 13th edition, 1906.
FOOTNOTE 2: Shakespeare Commentaries: Tragedies, p. 95, St. Louis, U. S. A., 1807.
FOOTNOTE 3: Eversley Shakespeare, Vol. VIII., p. 290.
FOOTNOTE 4: Ibid., p. 290.
Return to The Relationship Between Othello and Iago
How to cite this article:_________
Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/othello/othelloessay2.html >.
Lectures on Othello: Play Construction and the Suffering and Murder of Desdemona
Lectures on Othello: Othello's Jealousy
The Moral Enigma of Shakespeare's Othello
Othello as Tragic Hero
Stage History of Othello
Othello: Plot Summary
Othello: Q & A
Quotes from Othello
How to Pronounce the Names in Othello
Iago Character Introduction
Othello Character Introduction
Desdemona Character Introduction
Iago's Motives: The Relationship Between Othello and Iago
Othello: Essay Topics
Shakespeare's Sources for Othello
The Problem of Time in Othello
Robert Hapgood (essay date 1966)
SOURCE: "The Trials of Othello," in Pacific Coast Studies in Shakespeare, edited by Waldo F. McNeir and Thelma N. Greenfield, 1966, pp. 134-47.
[In the essay below, Hapgood analyzes themes of judgment and justice in Othello, characterizing the play as a tragedy of self-righteousness that "warrants little confidence in human attempts at judiciousness. "]
Leonard F. Dean's collection of essays, A Casebook on Othello, has all too apt a title. For so much has been written about the play's justice theme and so many judgments have been passed upon its hero that recent criticism does read like a legal casebook, in which Othello is tried and judged—in this world and the next.1 In a way, Othello "asks for" such treatment by presuming to judge himself and others; and certainly a judgment of the hero is part of our response to his tragedy. Yet not, I submit, the dominant part. Overre-acting against the Bradleyan Othello, so idealized that his vulnerability to Iago could only be accounted for by colossal simplemindedness2 or by Stoll's convention of the "calumniator credited,"3 recent commentators have presented an Othello so culpably self-deceived that Iago becomes virtually superfluous—"merely ancillary," as Leavis puts it.4 Excessive identification with the hero has been replaced by excessive detachment from him.
One way to moderate this excess would be simply to recall in detail how much less often we are invited in the course of the play to judge than we are to admire, dread, grieve, laugh, marvel, shudder, pity, fear, and so on through a rich variety of responses. But that would take a much longer study than this one. Here I want to make a start by concentrating on a key area, the justice theme itself. Often taken as the occasion for severe judgments on Othello, analysis of it, rightly understood, carries a built-in warning. For if Othello's is in part a tragedy of self-righteousness, as I think it is, that should make us wary of our own self-righteousness. Moreover, the whole world of Othello warrants little confidence in human attempts at judiciousness. In this play, rough justice ensues when disputants confront one another openly and are restrained from violence. But would-be judges not only seem unnecessary to the process but often get in its way. The better we understand Othello, I believe, the slower we will be to judge. In support of this belief, I should like to look closely at the four main "trials" in which Othello figures: of Othello after his elopement with Desdemona, of Cassio after the brawl, of Desdemona, and of Othello at the close of the play.
The most extensive analysis of the justice theme in Othello is Robert Heilman's in Magic in the Web. Again and again, he recurs to the "hearing" in the Duke's court (I.iii), finding in the Duke's administration of justice a standard against which Othello's subsequent perversions of due process may be measured:
The drama may be said to begin with a successful formal court action, to advance by implicitly contrasting this with less adequate court actions that gradually shrink into simulations of the judicial, and to complete the series by a contrast of the quasi-courtly with brute action that supersedes the judicial. Justice: the imitation of justice: the negation of justice.5
I do not believe that the Duke's hearing will bear this stress as the exemplar of "Justice."
In various places, Heilman characterizes the process of justice in the Duke's hearing as formal, organized, institutional. Chiefly because of the Duke's passiveness, the scene does not fully answer this description. I would not, on the other hand, call the hearing "helterskelter" (as does John Draper) or compare the Duke's manner to that of Dogberry!6 The hearing is orderly, and legal traditions doubtless play a part in it (as the incidental legal terms in the episode bear out). Yet it is quite informal—as compared, say, with the impromptu hearing conducted by the Duke at the end of Romeo and Juliet. It is conducted not so much by the judge as by the participants themselves. The judge starts the hearing by asking the accused to testify, but thereafter he can hardly be said to "administer" justice. It is only when Othello suggests it that the Duke says "Fetch Desdemona hither," and even after she arrives, the judge has been so moved by the defendant's testimony that he advises the plaintiff to withdraw his charge. Brabantio must insist that the witness be heard.
Although Heilman does not go so far as to set up the Duke as an ideal judge, he does praise the Duke's poise and general manner of executing justice. To me, even though he presides over several processes in which just decisions are reached, the Duke seems notably injudicious—hasty, easily swayed, openly partisan, and inclined to abdicate his authority.
At our introduction to the Duke, in the brief passage in which the Venetian council is sifting conflicting reports about the movements of the Turkish fleet, the most that can be said for his sagacity is that he accepts a sound judgment when he hears it. He himself opens the scene with the remark that "There is no composition in these news / That gives them credit." It is the Second Senator who must point out that although the reports differ as to the number of ships they "all confirm / A Turkish fleet, and bearing up to Cyprus." As persuasive as the loquacious First Senator is in discounting the later report that a "Turkish preparation makes for Rhodes," his arguments do not warrant the positiveness of the Duke's conclusion: "Nay, in all confidence, he's not for Rhodes," and later "' Tis Certain, then, for Cyprus." These are minor matters, but they suggest that the Duke—as Heilman puts it of Othello—"cannot abide the temporary uncertainty which is essential to wise conclusions: he must have assurance now."
In the "hearing" of Brabantio's charge against Othello, the Duke obstructs at least as much as he advances the course of justice. His first response is to invite his friend the plaintiff to be his own judge:
the bloody book of law
You shall yourself read in the bitter letter
After your own sense, yea, though our proper
Stood in your action.
After he learns, however, that his general-of-the-hour is the accused, he appears to change sides. The part of his response to Brabantio's accusation which Heilman quotes as the Duke's "ruling" sounds admirably judicious: "To vouch this is no proof, / Without more certain and more overt test"; but the rest of his comment—with its concentration of weighted words, "thin," "poor," "modern"—is a good deal less than impartial:
Than these thin habits and poor likelihoods
Of modern seeming do prefer against him.
It might be thought that what seems injudiciousness in the Duke is, in a larger view, tact; that his positiveness about the Turkish fleet, as Stanislavsky has suggested,7 is the kind of assured leadership the crisis requires; that his apparent passivity is in fact a relaxed control, so secure in its authority that it can allow the antagonists, as it were, to settle their own dispute. Yet such a view supposes a degree of wisdom which would preclude the Duke's blunders later in the scene. His "sentence" to Brabantio—"The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief; / He robs himself that spends a bootless grief"—is no comfort to Brabantio and scarcely flattering to Othello. A little later, the Duke's proposed "disposition" of Desdemona "at her father's" is singularly inept, emphatically displeasing all three of the parties involved. His decision, after the pleas of Desdemona and Othello, to let her go to Cyprus—"Be it as you shall privately determine, / Either for her stay or going"—seems sensible enough at the time; later one wishes the Duke had been less ready to leave it to the judgment of a bridegroom whether his marriage would interfere with his military responsibilities. His haste might be attributed to a desire to get on with state business. Yet it is Brabantio in his grief who beseeches him to drop the private problem for "the affairs of the state"; and once the disposition of Desdemona has been arranged, the Duke leaves further problems till the next morning, says good night, and leaves.
The Duke, then, is not the poised administrator of justice that Heilman takes him to be. The key contrast between his conduct in this hearing and that of Othello when he "tries" Desdemona is that the Duke—whether from fairness of mind or mere weakness—is not so secure in his own sense of justice as to give his impulsive prejudgments full sway.
Brabantio provides the same contrast, a contrast that stands out amid the numerous ways in which he resembles Othello. Like Othello, he idealizes Desdemona and—using almost the same words as Othello—is appalled at the thought that such perfection "would err / Against all rules of nature." He, too, thinks that he has been wronged by his friend. He, too, learns of the "crime" from Iago and after some resistance takes over his formulation of it (theft). Almost as sure as Othello of his own capacity to determine what is just, he mixes investigation and condemnation in a way which epitomizes Othello's later methods (I.i.161-174). So strong is he in his own judgment that Gratiano feels that the sight of Desdemona dead would have made him "curse his better angel from his side / And fall to reprobation"—a surmise that comes shortly before Othello's own speech of self-damnation.
For all his rectitude, however, Brabantio does not rely on it as much as Othello does. He brings his case before the proper authorities and makes an open accusation. Brabantio is no model. With no more evidence than his belief that his daughter would never do such a thing voluntarily, he leaps to the conclusion that she has been bewitched. He takes the matter to the Duke, not because he is a law-abiding citizen but because he feels sure his friends will back him up. He does not follow through to confirm the whole truth of Desdemona's wooing. And once he sees the essential truth of Desdemona's true devotion to the Moor, he acknowledges it with a bitterness which prepares us for his subsequent "death of grief." Yet he does in fact, as well as in the Duke's fiction, judge his own case and arrive at a just decision, withdrawing his charge. If one compares him with other Shakespearean characters who judge their own cases—Angelo, Malvolio, Leontes, not to mention Othello—one sees what an achievement this represents. With none of the idealism which inspires Othello's sense of justice, Brabantio, like the Duke, has the willingness to submit his prejudgments to a full and open test of experience that Othello so fatally lacks.
The trial of Cassio presents another instance in which human injudiciousness is corrected by an open hearing. Heilman finds that "in contrast with the Duke's hearing in Venice" there is here a deterioration in the administering of justice, with Othello exhibiting less poise than the Duke. At the other extreme, Samuel Kliger finds in this incident a praiseworthy instance of Othello's "specific judicial capacity" for discriminating between official and personal loyalties.8
If there is a deterioration from the earlier trial, it is in the testimony. Iago tells less than the whole truth, and Cassio and Montano simply won't talk. I myself find little to choose between the Duke and Othello as judges; if anything, Othello seems somewhat the less injudicious. Certainly he is much more actively in charge of the proceeding than was the Duke. And, with Cassio visibly drunk while in charge of the guard, and making no defense for his assault on a ranking official, does Othello after all need further occasion for his verdict? Still there is no denying that he is abrupt and intemperate; and that, as a result, he fails to get at the whole truth: even Iago seems to have assumed that he would inquire into the cause of the quarrel.
His outburst—"My blood begins my safer guides to rule"—ominously exceeds the occasion. It is true that there was considerable difficulty in restoring order at his arrival and that although he has been elaborately courteous to each of the three witnesses, each one has refused to testify. The situation plainly calls for some assertion of authority, of the same sort that Henry IV employs when he tells the rebellious Percies, "My blood hath been too cold and temperate" (1 Henry IV, I.iii.1-9). Yet Othello's threat is so extreme ("if I once stir, / Or do but lift this arm, the best of you / Shall sink in my rebuke") and his estimation of the offense so exaggerated ("'Tis monstrous"), that a real, as well as rhetorical, passion appears to have "collied" his best judgment. His outburst anticipates his later explosions with Iago and Desdemona when they, like these witnesses, seem evasive.
His final disposition of the case seems to me remarkably fair. Kliger feels that Othello "has little choice but to dismiss Cassio from military office." Heilman, while granting that "some disciplinary action against Cassio" was inevitable, feels that Othello's "never more be officer of mine" is excessive: "We can imagine a more intrinsically assured Othello who might himself take part of the blame and discipline Cassio by suspension for a limited time." Puzzlingly, since Kliger quotes all but the last three lines of the passage and Heilman cites it in another connection, both leave out of account Othello's final position, as reported by Emilia to Cassio in the next scene:
all will sure be well.
The general and his wife are talking of it;
And she speaks for you stoutly: the Moor
That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus
And great affinity and that in wholesome
He might not but refuse you, but he protests
he loves you
And needs no other suitor but his likings
To take the safest occasion by the front
To bring you in again.
This is perhaps a second thought, but it amounts to the "suspension for a limited time" which Heilman favors. This revised verdict has resulted, it should be noted, not from a fair-minded review of the case but from considerations of local politics and personal likings.
When, just before he kills her, Othello at long last tells Desdemona, the name of her supposed lover, her response is immediate and insistent: "Send for the man and ask him." She speaks for us, voicing the prime expectation that the preceding "trials" have helped to point up. For their primary function is not to emphasize Othello's injudiciousness, although no one in the play is less judicious than he at this point. Contrary to Heilman and Kliger, neither of the earlier trials embodies an ideal of judiciousness which by implicit contrast would underline Othello's obvious shortcomings here. Instead, they show how open, orderly hearings—even though imperfect—can correct just such gross errors as his.
Why doesn't Othello bring his suspicions to open trial?—a major question, yet one which to my knowledge only G. R. Elliott has given its due. Indeed, he seems to me to make too much of it when he writes: "The chief cause of Othello's downfall is not his jealousy but the fact that he conceals it from all concerned—except his evil other self, Iago—by reason of his pride. That is the main point of this story … "9 Certainly Othello's secretiveness—so striking in one noted for his free and open nature—is an important factor in this story, a necessary condition for the working out of the larger tragedy of trust and mistrust; but that is scarcely its main point. Elliott's preoccupation does, however, lead him to record very alertly the various opportunities which Othello has for expressing his suspicions and to explore searchingly the interventions of "shame, wrath, grief, and pride" which keep him from doing so.10
Especially pride. Over the whole play, Elliott sees Othello moving from right self-esteem at the beginning, to sinful pride (reaching its extreme when he repudiates Desdemona's dying forgiveness), back again to right self-esteem at the end; and he is very discerning about what is pridefully defensive and self-protective in Othello's secretiveness. But he neglects what seems to me Othello's most prideful quality, the trait that the justice theme in the whole play does most to bring out: an excessive assurance of his innate rectitude—both in judging himself and others—that makes open confrontation unnecessary.
This excessive assurance characterizes his self-esteem throughout the play. It is an aspect of his magnificent self-confidence in the opening scenes, first made explicit when he declares: "My parts, my title and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly." At this point, it is proof against Iago's bad counsel of concealment ("Those are the raised father and his friends: / You were best go in"); Othello answers, "Not I; I must be found." Again at the trial, confidence in his self-judgment prompts his advice to the Council that if they find him foul in Desdemona's report:
The trust, the office I do hold of you,
Not only take away, but let your sentence
Even fall upon my life.
And again it makes for openness; he promises: "justly to your grave ears I'll present / How I did thrive in this fair lady's love, / And she in mine."
Its first turn from openness comes at Cassio's hearing, where it contributes to the summariness of Othello's investigation. His confidence in being a "good judge of men" leads him to assume that Iago's honesty and love mince Cassio's guilt and thus to leap in the next line to his verdict. Thereafter, it repeatedly makes him vulnerable to Iago's deceit. Iago's innuendoes have all the more force because Othello is so sure that he knows the ways of a "man that's just":
these stops of thine fright me the more:
For such things in a false disloyal knave
Are tricks of custom, but in a man that's just
They are close delations, working from the
A little later, Iago is able to speak "with franker spirit" and warn "Look to your wife" because Othello has declared his own dispassionate judiciousness, as methodical as a machine:
I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;
And on the proof, there is no more but this,—
Away at once with love or jealousy!
Only momentarily does Othello waver in his assurance:
By the world,
I think my wife be honest and think she is
I think that thou art just and think thou art
I'll have some proof.
He is not used to such waverings and is the more easily gulled by the "proofs" Iago then offers because his habitual certitude makes him long "to be satisfied."
What Hardin Craig has called Othello's passionate rectitude"11 grows stronger as the play proceeds. Just before his fit, he identifies his own "good instincts" with the judgment of nature: "I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus." And in his "It is the cause" soliloquy, again as Craig puts it, he first takes on himself "the justice of god, the acme of tragic madness in both ancient and modern drama" (p. 204):
O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!
… I must weep,
But they are cruel tears. This sorrow's
It strikes where it doth love.
To such self-righteousness, "proof is essentially a process of confirming a prejudgment. And with Othello this perversion of due process is further deranged by passion and Iago's practices, so much so that a number of commentators have thought him concerned merely with self-justification. Heilman, for example, has considerable difficulty in telling the difference between those two wife-killers Iago and Othello. All that Heilman can say for Othello is that he shows "an impulse to formal propriety," makes "an effort at legal good form." This view follows from his analysis of the death scene, especially of the actual killing of Desdemona, where he writes of Othello:
The synthetic role blows up: judge and priest are gone: what is left is the executioner serving the law of his own passion … The tension of his unsuccessful effort to ennoble his conduct is released in the act of violence and pushes him to the necessary haste: he can now depend only on the integrity of passion, he must act when it is quick and full, lest a dilution leave him with no assurance at all [p. 156].
But this is to resist the obvious difference between Othello and Iago: Othello, however deludedly, believes that killing Desdemona is an act of justice whereas Iago knows that killing Emilia is a piece of knavery. And Othello's violence does not betray his "desire to do and be right," as Heilman elsewhere calls it; it only completes this misled drive. Othello rejects Desdemona's final plea to pray because he is now functioning as the lawful executioner. In Othello's eyes there is no "haste" about his act; if anything, he is dilatory: "Being done, there is no pause." In a spirit of righteous indignation (Bradley's term), he inexorably does his duty.
The immense ironies of this "trial" are thus clinched. The least judicious verdicts of the play have been executed by the man who is most sure of his own (very considerable) rectitude. The grossest violations of elementary, practical justice have been committed by the man most devoted to ideal justice. The misjudgments most in need of correction by an open hearing have been formed, tested, and carried out—so sure is this judge of his own judgment—in private.
During the inquest at the end, we are so concerned with Othello's adjudicating that we scarcely notice Lodovico's. But it is worth noting that here is another impromptu hearing, presided over by another imperfect judge. For although Lodovico is a more active magistrate than his duke, largely controlling the questioning, there is tragic disorder in his court: one culprit, who won't talk, is wounded by the other, who later kills himself. Even so, a rough justice results. Given half a chance in an open confrontation, it seems, the truth—in Emilia's words—"'Twill out, 'twill out!"
Is Othello just in the judgments he makes upon himself in this world and the next? The question has received such a diversity of responsible critical answers as to suggest that Shakespeare deliberately did not make the matter clear, perhaps even invited our confusion.12 What is clear is that Othello's confidence is his own power of self-judgment is unimpaired, although he now distinguishes sharply between himself as culprit ("he that was Othello") and himself as judge ("here I am"). Indeed, he is never so presumptuous as at the end. For at his own hearing and Cassio's he was fully within his rights, and in his trial of Desdemona he had the right of dealing private justice that Elizabethans, though ambiguously, accorded wronged husbands.13 But at the end he clearly presumes on the authority of both God and the state, pronouncing his own damnation ("Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur! / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!"), defining his own guilt ("Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak … "), taking his own life.
Our response to this presumption is confused. Certainly, with Honor Matthews, we feel that "Even when he dies … he is still occupying the usurped throne of the only true Judge."14 Yet surely we would think less of him if he did not, as H.S. Wilson puts it, execute "justice upon himself, as he had measured justice to Desdemona."15 These confusions are further compounded by the alternative values suggested by the dead body of Desdemona, eloquently symbolic throughout this last scene. To Wilson, it seems that Shakespeare avoided any judgment concerning Othello's ultimate fate, remembering the text: "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Certainly, the Christian charity that Desdemona pleaded for and tried to practice must be in our minds at the finale. Yet her example is not compelling; we remember the way her all-excusing forgivingness blinded her to Othello's jealousy, the way her ill-timed pleas for mercy confirmed for him her guilt.
All of these confusions, it seems to me, are to Shakespeare's tragic purpose, which transcends doomsday distribution of either justice or mercy. Bradley puts the matter so well, and speaks so prophetically to the current condition of Othello studies, that I should like to quote him at length:
… the ideas of justice and desert are, it seems to me, in all cases—even those of Richard III and of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth—untrue to our imaginative experience. When we are immersed in a tragedy, we feel towards dispositions, actions, and persons such emotions as attraction and repulsion, pity, wonder, fear, horror, perhaps hatred; but we do not judge. This is a point of view which emerges only when, in reading a play, we slip, by our own fault or the dramatist's, from the tragic position, or when, in thinking about the play afterwards, we fall back on our everyday legal and moral notions. But tragedy does not belong, any more than religion belongs, to the sphere of these notions; neither does the imaginative attitude in presence of it. While we are in its world we watch what is, seeing that so it happened and must have happened, feeling that it is piteous, dreadful, awful, mysterious, but neither passing sentence on the agents, nor asking whether the behaviour of the ultimate power towards them is just.
I would feel happier with this statement if it were confined to the final effect of Shakespearian tragedy and if judgment were not altogether excluded but allowed a secondary place in it. Yet the main gist—the denial that judgment has a primary place among our responses to tragedy—seems to me true to the finale of Othello and to the implication of the justice theme throughout. For this theme is self-limiting: if I have understood the various trials of Othello correctly, the need to put him on trial in our own judgments is the last one we should feel inclined to fulfill.
When we finally do, the closer we come to Othello's self-estimate—"An honourable murderer, if you will"—the closer we will be, I suspect, to a just verdict. The trick is to keep both terms of Othello's oxymoron operative and evenly balanced; and that is not easy. He himself, in his various comments at the end, tips the scales now to one side and then to the other: if "fool! fool! fool!" is not stern enough an indictment for the murderer, "dog" is too harsh for the honorable man. But approval and disapproval of his successive judgments are only two, let me insist, among many reactions we are experiencing toward Othello during the finale. We may feel wonder at his poise in the face of such radical self-discovery, and dismay that—partly because of this self-assurance—it is still not complete: he never sees the presumption of his self-righteousness. When Cassio says, "Dear general, I never gave you cause" and Othello replies, "I do believe it, and I ask your pardon"—we must feel the poignance of their reconciliation (especially that Cassio should still call Othello "general"), made all the sharper by its brevity and mixed, perhaps, with a sense of protest that this long avoided confrontation did not take place much earlier. Most of all, of course, we feel the pity of it when Othello realizes and admits that he threw a pearl away, and yet we rejoice at his realization that Desdemona was, after all, a true pearl. Our shock when he produces still another weapon may be followed by a sense of consummation as he dies upon a kiss. And so on, our sense of justice being appealed to, confused, swept aside, returned to, clarified, again swept away—as part of an overwhelming sequence of responses. After Othello's suicide, I can't help feeling, with Nowottny, that "Justice now comes into its own." Yet as if to counter this reaction, Shakespeare brings the theme to the forefront one last time, as Lodovico puts Iago in the custody of Cassio:
To you, lord governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain;
The time, the place, the torture: O, enforce it!
Can we help remembering Othello's self-delegated authority to censure those who, as he believed, had wronged him? Or the Duke's rash offer to let Brabantio read the bloody book of law after his own sense against the thief who stole his daughter? We may feel that Iago deserves whatever torture Cassio may devise for him; but we cannot feel that the chain of human injudiciousness has been broken.
1 Of the studies which give particular attention to the justice theme, Winifred M. T. Nowottny's "Justice and Love in Othello," UTO, XXI (1951-2), 330-344, seems to me decidedly the best. It is reprinted in Dean's collection (1961). A fuller study than she undertakes of "the contention of love and justice" would find, I believe, that it cuts both ways. Not only the values of justice but also those of love are subjected to a searching critique: Desdemona's love is fatally lacking in judgment; the ultimate, loving trust that Othello fails to give Desdemona, he gives—to his disaster—to Iago. Other studies of the justice theme that are not cited in footnotes below include: Georges Bonnard, "Are Othello and Desdemona Innocent or Guilty?" ES, XXX (1949), 175-186; M. D. H. Parker, The Slave of Life (London, 1955), pp. 125-129, 153-158; David Daiches, Literary Essays (London, 1956), pp. 6-10; Brents Stirling, Unity in Shakespearian Tragedy (New York, 1956), pp. 123-135; C. J. Sisson, Shakespeare's Tragic Justice (Scarborough, Ont., 1961), pp. 28-51.
2 A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy (London, 1951), p. 189.
3 E. E. Stoll first formulated this idea in Othello (Minneapolis, 1915), and elaborated upon it in numerous subsequent works.
4 F. R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit (London, 1952), p. 138.
5Magic in the Web (Lexington, Ky., 1956), p. 134.
6 John W. Draper, The "Othello" of Shakespeare's Audience (Paris, 1952), pp. 28-29.
7 Konstantin Alekseev, Stanislavsky Produces Othello, trans. Helen Nowack (London, 1948), p. 50.
8 "Othello: the Man of Judgment," MP, XLVIII (1951), 222.
9Flaming Minister (Durham, N.C., 1953), p. xxvii.
10 Elliott has an eye, too, for the way Cassio's vain restraint from contact with Othello and Desdemona's innocent reticences contribute to the misunderstandings. For key passages, see pp. 95-99, 109, 126, 131, 144, 150, 152, 177, 183, 187, 216, 227. Like any important Shakespearian element, this restraint from "the whole truth" is refracted in many directions. Emilia is very much to blame for keeping quiet about the handkerchief, a fault she rectifies by her recklessly frank revelations at the end. Iago is, of course, from first to last a master of withholding the whole truth. His silence at the end—"From this time forth I never will speak word"—is thus particularly apt.
11An Interpretation of Shakespeare (New York, 1948), p. 206.
12 For instance, in Patterns in Shakespearian Tragedy (London, 1960), pp. 113-114, n., Irving Ribner polls scholarly opinion on the issue of Othello's damnation, finding: three scholars, counting himself, for salvation; four for damnation; one for ambivalence. In her book, Character and Symbol in Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge, 1962), Honor Matthews concludes that "The social-religious thought of his time marked Othello, the unrepentant suicide, inevitably for damnation" (p. 137).
13 See Edward M. Wilson's articles: "Othello—Tragedy of Honour," The Listener, June 5, 1952, pp. 926-927; and "Family Honour in the Plays of Shakespeare's Predecessors and Contemporaries," Essays and Studies, N.S., VI (1953), 19-40.
14 Matthews, p. 136.
15On the Design of Shakespearian Tragedy (Toronto, 1957), p. 60.
Larry S. Champion (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "The Tragic Perspective of Othello," in English Studies, Netherlands, Vol. 54, No. 5, October, 1973, pp. 447-60.
[In the following essay, Champion surveys the action of the play and contends that Shakespeare's central purpose is to depict the corrupting influence of pride, jealousy, and self-importance on Othello's character.]
In adapting to the stage Cinthio's 'Tale of the Moor of Venice' Shakespeare developed his principal roles along familiar lines. Like Richard III, Shakespeare's ensign is possessed of a bold audacity and devilish wit; pre-disposed to evil, he delights in sharing his machinations with the audience. The Moor, like Brutus, is heroic and noble, but naively egotistic; his tunnel-visioned idealism, based ultimately on conceptions of his own magnanimous forthrightness and self-importance, makes him susceptible to the schemes of clear-sighted men of evil intent and blinds him to the bestial side of his own nature which pride bides its time to reveal. Both characters are more powerful delineations than their earlier dramatic counterparts. Although Iago is more totally a single-dimensional creature of calculated self-control than Richard, Shakespeare manipulates him to give the appearance in the early acts of credible and intriguing character development. And Othello, far more so than Brutus, is provoked to the cruel and vicious consequences of pride and is forced more completely—and, to most spectators and critics, more satisfactorily—to experience the full cycle of the tragic wheel of fire.
By its very nature drama is inseparable from the reaction of the audience. As one critic has recently observed, the 'playwright's task is not simply to create an illusion: he must know how to control it too'.1 Otherwise, he continues (quoting Sartre), tragedy becomes for the spectators 'a means not to self-knowledge, but to self-indulgence'.Othello, of course, is conceded to be one of Shakespeare's best plays, though not perhaps his greatest work;2 'its grip upon the emotions of the audience', writes the Arden editor, 'is more relentless and sustained than that of the others'.3 The success is in large measure the result of Shakespeare's structural skill in creating, through the two principals, a perspective of double vision by which to accommodate a plot of mounting tension and of progressively restricted focus. On the one hand, the spectators are forced credibly and sympathetically to experience the protagonist's dilemma while, on the other, their more expansive perception of the values which control the stage-world forces them to sit in judgment on his decisions and anticipate the consequences. This type of perspective Northrop Frye presumes in his assertion that 'a tragic figure is fully tragic only to its spectators: heroes do not suffer except when they become objective to themselves'.4 Specifically, Iago, fully integrated within the narrative, functions as a tragic pointer through whom the spectators observe the forces which create Othello's situation and the values against which he must contend; and Othello is a protagonist with whom, through the devices of internalization, the spectators share fully the private agony of passion and also the insight to which he is led.
Iago, though deprived of even...