“Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies…not even excepting King Lear, Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible.”

Introduction to Othello

By Dennis Abrams

BoxOffice-OthelloWhile it might not have the cosmic or philosophical heft and resonance of Hamlet or King Lear, Shakespeare’s second great tragedy, Othello, is often felt to be his most gripping – and tormenting – play.  The story of a soldier propelled into a murderous fury by his wife’s apparent infidelity first appeared in a sensationalist Italian novella found in Giraldi Cinthio’s Hecatommithi (1555), (the source material for his previous play, Measure for Measure as well), but it was Shakespeare’s genius that transformed this seemingly small-scale domestic drama into a veritable maelstrom of turbulent emotion, with one of the most heart-stopping of his dramatic finales.  Othello also is, perhaps most pertinently to us in 2013, a play about race:  its hero is a black man in a society governed by whites, and from its first days on the stage it has forced audiences to confront the complex ethnic issues that it presents.  Othello is a hero, not a devil – Shakespeare’s contemporaries would probably have assumed the reverse – and ends the play as an isolated and tragic figure.  The calculating killer of an innocent white girl, he could easily have been the lurid villain of racist stereotype, (think Shylock perhaps), but instead, he become another victim.  (Again, depending on your reading, think Shylock.)

For we in the audience (and as readers) see what Othello does not – we see the demonic nature of the play’s real villain, the white Italian Iago, who, unbeknownst to everyone else on stage, directs every moment of the play’s action.  It is impossible, I think, not to have a strong response to Othello, and throughout the play’s history there are countless stories of audience members screaming or fainting – even begging the cast not to go through with it because the events are simply too painful to watch.  The tragedy of Othello draws us in like no other, and for that reason, it ranks as one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements – one that I guarantee you’ll respond to as well.

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From Garber:

othello_orson_welles_movie_poster_grand_prix_cannes_1952_william_shakespeare“Modern scholars sometimes tend to think of race, class, and gender as distinctively contemporary modes of analysis, categories that reflect our own concerns, identities, and anxieties. But the plays of Shakespeare, produced in a period now often described as ‘early modern England,’ are themselves strikingly ‘modern’ in this as in other respects. To an extraordinary degree, Shakespeare’s plays, from Titus Andronicus to The Tempest, exhibit and record tensions around and within these categories. And never more than in Othello.

Race, class, and gender become crisis points when they categorize something, or someone, as different, and also as out of place: out of place, of course, from the point of view of traditional society. A black man marries a white woman, and is chosen by the nation to lead it in time of peril. A soldier, ambitious for preferment, sees his place given to another – given, in fact, to a courtly educated snob who believes in rank, believes that ‘the lieutenant is to be saved before the ancient.’ A woman asserts herself, making her own choice in marriage against her father’s will, speaking out in public on civic matters, than daring to contradict her husband’s view and offering him advice. These are all signs of transgression, calling boundaries into question. Anxiety, tension, hatred, and desire develop in part out of this sense of destabilization and displacement, out of the divisions and comparisons that are produced by categories like race, class, and gender. And never more so than in Othello.

Shakespeare’s time – like ours – was one of great historical changes and social anomalies. There were black men and women living in London, some of whom owned property, paid taxes, and went to church, but the slave trade between the West Indies and Africa had already begun. Women of all social ranks claimed the right to education, to financial and other modes of independence – even the right to wear pants in public. Nascent capitalism and the growth of towns and cities had begun to threaten the hereditary aristocrats and landowners with a vision of a different society. Othello is not reducible to a political tract, but its richness records and responds to a world in crisis, a crisis figured in part through emergent categories like race, class, gender – and sexuality.

Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra, and King LearOthello provides us with a geographical shift in the middle of the play, the movement from a civilized place to a wild one, from a locale of order and law to a place of passion and confusion. And as in the case with the central dramatic action in Measure for Measure, this play, too, offers us a glimpse of what happens when extremes of reason that deny passion are confronted with extremes of passion that deny reason or logic. The two geographical poles here are Venice and Cypress: city and wilderness, civilization and anarchy, order and disorder.

Venice appears to be the place of urbanity and civilization, Cyprus the borderland where anything can happen, a place of wildness, passion, and rebellion. The name Cyprus comes from one of the names of the goddess Venus: Kypris – the lady of Cyprus, for whom that island was supposedly named. And the story of Venus (in Greek, Aphrodite) underlies the plot of Othello. Venus had a husband, the lame blacksmith god Vulcan (in Greek, Hephaistos) and she also had a lover, the war god Mars (Ares). Vulcan, the artist, the artisan, the blacksmith, jealous of her love affair with a soldier-hero, created a subtle net of gold mesh, and one day when Venus and Mars were together Vulcan sprang his trap, caught the lovers in his net, and held them up to be ridiculed by all the other gods. Othello as a play is a kind of dramatic reworking of this tale of Mars, Venus, and Vulcan – a tale that would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. Iago is the Vulcan figure, a tortured looker-on; Othello himself the war hero, in this case – significantly – not the adulterous lover but the husband. Yet Iago contrives to expose and ridicule the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, as Vulcan exposed and ridiculed Mars and Venus. We might notice, for example, that in the play Iago is frequently associated with images of nets and snares (one Renaissance term for snares is ‘toils’). Othello, arriving at Cyprus, greets his wife Desdemona as ‘my fair warrior,’ and Venus was thought to be not only the beautiful goddess of love but also a protectress of sailors and a war goddess – a conception of her that seems to have derived from Cyprus itself. In short, the apparent opposites, Venice and Cyprus, are also deeply implicated in each other.

Venice and Cyprus. Venice and Venus. Law and passion. Or, perhaps, Venice – which contains within itself a concealed, suppressed version of Cyprus – or Venus.  Venice is Cyprus. Cyprus is Venice masked – not so much its opposite as its hidden self.

From A.C. Bradley:

1311254-William_Shakespeare_OthelloWhat is the peculiarity of Othello? What is the distinctive impression that it leaves? Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, I would answer, not even excepting King Lear, Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader’s heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation. Evil is displayed before him, not indeed with the profusion found in King Lear, but forming, as it were, the soul of a single character, and united with an intellectual superiority so great that he watches its advance fascinated and appalled. He sees it, in itself almost irresistible, aided at every step by fortunate accidents and the innocent mistakes of its victims. He seems to breathe an atmosphere as fateful as that of King Lear, but more confined and oppressive, the darkness not of night but of a close-shut murderous room. His imagination is excited to intense activity, but it is the activity of concentration rather than dilation.

4. I will not dwell now on aspects of the play which modify this impression, and I reserve for later discussion one of its principal sources, the character of Iago. But if we glance at some of its other sources, we shall find at the same time certain distinguishing characteristics of Othello.

5. (1) One of these has been already mentioned in our discussion of Shakespeare’s technique. Othello is not only the most masterly of the tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction is unusual. And this method, by which the conflict begins late, and advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the catastrophe, is a main cause of the painful tension just described. To this may be added that, 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; I believe most readers of Shakespeare, if asked whether there is a clown in Othello, would answer No.

6. (2) In the second place, 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. Such a passion as ambition, however terrible its results, is not itself ignoble; if we separate it in thought from the conditions which make it guilty, it does not appear despicable; it is not a kind of suffering, its nature is active; and therefore we can watch its course without shrinking. But jealousy, and especially sexual jealousy, brings with it a sense of shame and humiliation. For this reason it is generally hidden; if we perceive it we ourselves are ashamed and turn our eyes away; and when it is not hidden it commonly stirs contempt as well as pity. Nor is this all. Such jealousy as Othello’s converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most ideal of human feelings. What spectacle can be more painful than that of this feeling turned into a tortured mixture of longing and loathing, the “golden purity” of passion split by poison into fragments, the animal in man forcing itself into his consciousness in naked grossness, and he writhing before it but powerless to deny it entrance, gasping inarticulate images of pollution, and finding relief only in a bestial thirst for blood? This is what we have to witness in one who was indeed “great of heart” and no less pure and tender than he was great. 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.

7. (3) The mere mention of these scenes will remind us painfully of a third cause; and perhaps it is the most potent of all. I mean the suffering of Desdemona. This is, unless I mistake, the most nearly intolerable spectacle that Shakespeare offers us. For one thing, it is mere suffering; and, ceteris paribus, that is much worse to witness than suffering that issues in action. Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not even in silent feeling. And the chief reason of her helplessness only makes the sight of her suffering more exquisitely painful. She is helpless because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute. I would not challenge Mr. Swinburne’s statement that we pity Othello even more than Desdemona; but we watch Desdemona with more unmitigated distress. We are never wholly uninfluenced by the feeling that Othello is a man contending with another man; but Desdemona’s suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores.

8. (4) Turning from the hero and heroine to the third principal character, we observe (what has often been pointed out) that the action and catastrophe of Othello depend largely on intrigue. We must not say more than this. 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; and it is built on his knowledge of Othello’s character, and could not otherwise have succeeded. Still it remains true that an elaborate plot was necessary to elicit the catastrophe; for Othello was no Leontes, and his was the last nature to engender such jealousy from itself. Accordingly Iago’s intrigue occupies a position in the drama for which no parallel can be found in the other tragedies; the only approach, and that a distant one, being the intrigue of Edmund in the secondary plot of King Lear. Now in any novel or play, even if the persons rouse little interest and are never in serious danger, a skilfully-worked intrigue will excite eager attention and suspense. And where, as in Othello, the persons inspire the keenest sympathy and antipathy, and life and death depend on the intrigue, it becomes the source of a 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.

9. (5) 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 our own world. But Othello is a drama of modern life; when it first appeared it was a drama almost of contemporary life, for the date of the Turkish attack on Cyprus is 1570. The characters come close to us, and the application of the drama to ourselves (if the phrase may be pardoned) is more immediate than it can be in Hamlet or Lear. Besides this, their fortunes affect us as those of private individuals more than is possible in any of the later tragedies with the exception of Timon. I have not forgotten the Senate, nor Othello’s position, nor his service to the State; but 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 far 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.

10. (6) The peculiarities so far considered combine with others to produce those feelings of oppression, of confinement to a comparatively narrow world, and of dark fatality, which haunt us in reading Othello. In Macbeth the fate which works itself out alike in the external conflict and in the hero’s soul, is obviously hostile to evil; and the imagination is dilated both by the consciousness of its presence and by the appearance of supernatural agencies. These, as we have seen, produce in Hamlet a somewhat similar effect, which is increased by the hero’s acceptance of the accidents as a providential shaping of his end. King Lear is undoubtedly the tragedy which comes nearest to Othello in the impression of darkness and fatefulness, and in the absence of direct indications of any guiding power. But in King Lear, apart from other differences to be considered later, the conflict assumes proportions so vast 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. This influence of accident is keenly felt in King Lear only once, and at the very end of the play. In Othello, after the temptation has begun, it 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, such as we experience in the Oedipus Tyrannus, that for these star-crossed mortals — both [Greek characters] — there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides with villainy. It is not surprising, therefore, that Othello should affect us as Hamlet and Macbeth never do, and as King Lear does only in slighter measure. On the contrary, it is marvellous that, before the tragedy is over, Shakespeare should have succeeded in toning down this impression into harmony with others more solemn and serene.

11. But has he wholly succeeded? Or is there a justification for the fact — a fact it certainly is — that some readers, while acknowledging, of course, the immense power of Othello, and even admitting that it is dramatically perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest triumph, still regard it with a certain, distaste, or, at any rate, hardly allow it a place in their minds beside Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth.

12. The distaste to which I refer is due chiefly to two causes. First, to many readers in our time, men as well as women, the subject of sexual jealousy, treated with Elizabethan fulness and frankness, is not merely painful but so repulsive that not even the intense tragic emotions which the story generates can overcome this repulsion. But while it is easy to understand a dislike of Othello thus caused, it does not seem necessary to discuss it, for it may fairly be called personal or subjective. It would become more than this, and would amount to a criticism of the play, only if those who feel it maintained that the fulness and frankness which are disagreeable to them are also needless from a dramatic point of view, or betray a design of appealing to unpoetic feelings in the audience. But I do not think that this is maintained, or that such a view would be plausible.

13. To some readers, again, parts of Othello appear shocking or even horrible. They think — if I may formulate their objection — that in these parts Shakespeare has sinned against the canons of art, by representing on the stage a violence or brutality the effect of which is unnecessarily painful and rather sensational than tragic. The passages which thus give offence are probably those already referred to, — that where Othello strikes Desdemona (IV. i. 251), that where he affects to treat her as an inmate of a house of ill-fame (IV. ii.), and finally the scene of her death.

14. The issues thus raised ought not to be ignored or impatiently dismissed, but they cannot be decided, it seems to me, by argument. All we can profitably do is to consider narrowly our experience, and to ask ourselves this question: If we feel these objections, do we feel them when we are reading the play with all our force, or only when we are reading it in a half-hearted manner? For, however matters may stand in the former case, in the latter case evidently the fault is ours and not Shakespeare’s. And if we try the question thus, I believe we shall find that on the whole the fault is ours. The first, and least important, of the three passages — that of the blow — seems to me the most doubtful. I confess that, do what I will, I cannot reconcile myself with it. It seems certain that the blow is by no means a tap on the shoulder with a roll of paper, as some actors, feeling the repulsiveness of the passage, have made it. It must occur, too, on the open stage. And there is not, I think, a sufficiently overwhelming tragic feeling in the passage to make it bearable. But in the other two scenes the case is different. There, it seems to me, if we fully imagine the inward tragedy in the souls of the persons as we read, the more obvious and almost physical sensations of pain or horror do not appear in their own likeness, and only serve to intensify the tragic feelings in which they are absorbed. Whether this would be so in the murder-scene if Desdemona had to be imagined as dragged about the open stage (as in some modern performances) may be doubtful; but there is absolutely no warrant in the text for imagining this, and it is also quite clear that the bed where she is stifled was within the curtains, and so presumably, in part, concealed.

15. Here, then, Othello does not appear to be, unless perhaps at one point, open to criticism, though it has more passages than the other three tragedies where, if imagination is not fully exerted, it is shocked or else sensationally excited. If nevertheless we feel it to occupy a place in our minds a little lower than the other three (and I believe this feeling, though not general, is not rare), the reason lies not here but in another characteristic, to which I have already referred, — the comparative confinement of the imaginative atmosphere. Othello has not equally with the other three the power of dilating the imagination by vague suggestions of huge universal powers working in the world of individual fate and passion. It is, in a sense, less “symbolic.” We seem to be aware in it of a certain limitation, a partial suppression of that element in Shakespeare’s mind which unites him with the mystical poets and with the great musicians and philosophers. In one or two of his plays, notably in Troilus and Cressida, we are almost painfully conscious of this suppression; we feel an intense intellectual activity, but at the same time a certain coldness and hardness, as though some power in his soul, at once the highest and the sweetest, were for a time in abeyance. In other plays, notably in the Tempest, we are constantly aware of the presence of this power; and in such cases we seem to be peculiarly near to Shakespeare himself. Now this is so in Hamlet and King Lear, and, in a slighter degree, in Macbeth; but it is much less so in Othello. I do not mean that in Othello the suppression is marked, or that, as in Troilus and Cressida, it strikes us as due to some unpleasant mood; it seems rather to follow simply from the design of a play on a contemporary and wholly mundane subject. Still it makes a difference of the kind I have attempted to indicate, and it leaves an impression that in Othello we are not in contact with the whole of Shakespeare. And it is perhaps significant in this respect that the hero himself strikes us as having, probably, less of the poet’s personality in him than many characters far inferior both as dramatic creations and as men.

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And from Harold Bloom:

3627559611_597268eceb_zThe character of Iago…belongs to a class of characters common to Shakespeare, and at the same time peculiar to him – namely, that of great intellectual activity accompanied with a total want of moral principle, and therefore displaying itself at the constant expense of others, and seeking to confound the practical distinctions of right and wrong, by referring them to some overstrained standard of speculative refinement. – Some persons, more nice than wise, have thought the whole of the character of Iago unnatural. Shakespeare, who was quite as good a philosopher as he was a poet, thought otherwise. He knew that the love of power, which is another name for the love of mischief, was natural to man. He would know this as well or better than if it had been demonstrated to him by a logical diagram, merely from seeing children paddle in the dirt, or kill flies for sport. We might ask those who think the character of Iago not natural, why they go to see it performed, but from the interest it excites, the sharper edge which it sets on their curiosity and imagination? Why do we go to see tragedies in general? Why do we always read the accounts in the newspapers of dreadful fires and shocking murders, but for the same reason? Why do so many persons frequent executions and trials, or why do the lower classes almost universally take delight in barbarous sports and cruelty to animals, but because there is a natural tendency in the mind to strong excitement, a desire to have its faculties roused and stimulated to the utmost? Whenever this principle is not under the restraint of humanity, or the sense of moral obligation, there are no excesses to which it will not of itself give rise, without the assistance of any other motive, either of passion or self-interest. Iago is only an extreme instance of the kind, that is, of diseased intellectual activity, with an almost perfect indifference to moral good or evil, or rather with a preference of the latter, because it falls more in with his favourite propensity, gives greater zest to his thoughts, and scope to his actions. – Be it observed, too (for the sake of those who are for squaring all human actions by the maxims of Rochefoucault), that he is quite or nearly as indifferent to his fate as to that of others; that he runs all risks for a trifling and doubtful advantage; and is himself the dupe and victim of his ruling passion – an incorrigible love of mischief – an insatiable craving after action of the most difficult and dangerous kind. Our ‘Ancient’ is a philosopher, who fancies that a lie that kills has more point in it than an alliteration or an antithesis; who thinks a fatal experiment on the peace of a family a better thing than watching the palpitations in the heart of a flea in an air-pump; who plots the ruin of his friends as an exercise for his understanding, and stabs men in the dark to prevent ennui

— William Hazlitt

Since it is Othello’s tragedy, even if it is Iago’s play (not even Hamlet or Edmund seem to compose so much of their dramas), we need to restore some of Othello’s initial dignity and glory. A bad modern tradition of criticism that goes from T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis through current New Historicism has divested the hero of his splendor, in effect, doing Iago’s work so that, in Othello’s words, ‘Othello’s occupation gone.’ Since 1919 or so, generals have lost esteem among the elite, though not always among the groundlings. Shakespeare himself subjected chivalric valor to the superb comic critique of Falstaff, who did not leave intact very much of the nostalgia of military prowess. But Falstaff, although he still inhabited a corner of Hamlet’s consciousness, is absent from Othello.

The clown scarcely comes on stage in Othello, though the Fool in Lear, the drunken porter at the gate in Macbeth, and the fig-and-asp seller in Antony and Cleopatra maintain the persistence of tragicomedy in Shakespeare after Hamlet. Only Othello and Coriolanus exclude all laughter, as if to protect two great captains from the Falstaffian perspective. When Othello, doubtless the fastest sword in his profession, wants to stop a street fight, he need only utter the one massive and menacingly monosyllabic line ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.’

To see Othello in his unfallen splendor, within the play, becomes a little difficult, because he so readily seems to become Iago’s dupe. Shakespeare, as before in Henry IV, Part One, and directly after in King Lear, gives us the responsibility of foregrounding by inference. As the play opens, Iago assures his gull, Roderigo, that he hates Othello, and he states the only true reason for his hatred, which is what Milton’s Satan calls ‘a Sense of Injured Merit.’ Satan (as Milton did not wish to know) is the legitimate son of Iago, begot by Shakespeare upon Milton’s Muse. Iago, long Othello’s ‘ancient’ (his ensign, or flag officer, the third-in-command), ahs been passed over for promotion, and Cassio has become Othello’s lieutenant. No reason is given for Othello’s decision; his regard for ‘honest Iago,’ bluff veteran of Othello’s ‘big wars,’ remains undiminished. Indeed, Iago’s position as flag officer, vowed to die rather than let Othello’s colors be captured in battle, testifies both to Othello’s trust and to Iago’s former devotion. Paradoxically, that quasi-religious worship of the war god Othello by his true believer Iago can be inferred as the cause of Iago’s having been passed over. Iago, as Harold Goddard finely remarked, is always at war; he is a moral pyromaniac setting fire to all of reality. Othello, the skilled professional who maintains the purity of arms by sharply dividing the camp of war from that of peace, would have seen in his brave and zealous ancient someone who could not replace him were he to be killed or wounded. Iago cannot stop fighting, and so cannot be preferred to Cassio, who is relatively inexperienced (a kind of staff officer) but who is courteous and diplomatic and knows the limits of war.

Sound as Othello’s military judgment clearly was, he did not know Iago, a very free artist of himself. The catastrophe that foregrounds Shakespeare’s play is what I would want to call the Fall of Iago, which sets the paradigm for Satan’s Fall in Milton. Milton’s God, like Othello, pragmatically demotes his most ardent devotee, and the wounded Satan rebels. Unable to bring down the Supreme Being, Satan ruins Adam and Eve instead, but the subtler Iago can do far better, because his only God is Othello himself, whose fall becomes the evidently sickening loss of being at rejection, with consequences including what may be sexual impotence, and what certainly is a sense of nullity, of no longer being what one was.  Iago is Shakespeare’s largest study in ontotheological absence, a sense of the void that follows on from Hamlet’s, and that directly precedes Edmund’s more restricted but even more affectless excursion into the uncanniness of nihilism. Othello was everything to Iago, because war was everything; passed over, Iago is nothing, and in warring against Othello, his war is against ontology.

Tragic drama is not necessarily metaphysical, but Iago, who says he is nothing if not critical, also is nothing if not metaphysical. His grand boast ‘I am not what I am’ deliberately repeals St. Paul’s ‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’ With Iago, Shakespeare is enabled to return to the Machiavel, yet now not to another Aaron the Moor or Richard III, both versions of Barabas, Jew of Malta, but to a character light-years beyond Marlowe. The self-delight of Barabas, Aaron, and Richard III in their own villainy is childlike compared with Iago’s augmenting pride in his achievement as psychologist, dramatist, and aesthete (the first modern one) as he contemplates the total ruin of the war god Othello, reduced to murderous incoherence. Iago’s accomplishment in revenge tragedy far surpasses Hamlet’s revision of The Murder of Gonzago into The Mousetrap. Contemplate Iago’s achievement: his unaided genius has limned this night piece, and it was his best. He will die under torture, silently, but he will have left a mutilated reality as his reality.”

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More introductory material to come in my next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.

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4 Responses to “Of all Shakespeare’s tragedies…not even excepting King Lear, Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible.”

  1. GGG says:

    I can’t help thinking of the women in these three plays: Ophelia, Isabella, Desdemona. The theme of innocence–of the body or of the spirit–seems to recur with these three women. All are trapped in one way or another, by the men around them, like rabbits in a snare.

    If Isabella had succumbed to Angelo’s demands, it would have been “death” for her socially and spiritually. For the non-prostitues in the play, sex outside marriage only becomes accepted (eventually) for Juliet because she is bonded to Claudio, and accepted (although repulsive) for Mariana because she should be married to Angelo. We find it comic that Isabella finds her “death” to be much worse than Claudio’s death, and that she assumes that he will agree. In looking back on the play, while thinking about Othello, there could have been an alternate tragic version where Isabella agrees to Angelo’s demands, and then is killed by Claudio because the family could not stand the stain on its honor–even though he is very grateful his life was saved!

    This is the reality of the trap that Isabella confronted, and in looking back I found a thread of almost denigrating Isabella’s dilemma because of her hysterical nature. It’s true that she is willing to offer up anyone–Claudio, Mariana–to save herself, but as Othello shows, she has some reason for her desperation. A woman’s reputation was all she had.

    • GGG: While I see your point, I kind of have to disagree. Isabella puts her “honor” her “virtue” over and above the life of her brother. And I’m fairly certain (although I could be wrong) that Shakespeare meant for Isabella’s devotion to her virginity to seem, at least a little bit, absurd. Anyone else have thoughts on this?

  2. GGG says:

    Agreeing to disagree–it was a “problem” play for me in that I have been thinking about it for a few days since we finished. Will start thinking about Othello now…..

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