Introduction to Othello
By Dennis Abrams
To continue with our introduction to Othello, I’d like to start with more from Harold Bloom:
“Auden, in one of his most puzzling critical essays [I’ll get to it later in our reading], found in Iago the apotheosis of the practical joker, which I find explicable only by realizing that Auden’s Iago was Verdi’s (that is, Boito’s), just as Auden’s Falstaff was operatic, rather than dramatic. One should not try to restrict Iago’s genius, he is a great artist, and no joker. Milton’s Satan is a failed theologian and a great poet, while Iago shines equally as nihilistic death-of-God theologue and as advanced dramatic poet. Shakespeare endowed only Hamlet, Falstaff, and Rosalind with more wit and intellect than he gave to Iago and Edmund, while in aesthetic sensibility, only Hamlet overgoes Iago. Grant Iago his Ahab-like obsession – Othello is the Moby Dick who must be harpooned – and Iago’s salient quality rather outrageously is his freedom. A great improviser, he works with gusto and mastery of timing, adjusting his plot to openings as they present themselves. If I were a director of Othello, I would instruct my Iago to manifest an ever-growing wonder and confidence in the diabolic art. Unlike Barabas and his progeny, Iago is an inventor, an experimenter always willing to try modes heretofore never known. Auden, in a more inspired moment, saw Iago as a scientist rather than a practical joker. Satan, exploring the untracked Abyss in Paradise Lost, is truly in Iago’s spirit. Who before Iago, in literature or in life, perfected the arts of disinformation, disorientation, and derangement? All these combine in Iago’s grand program of uncreation, as Othello is returned to original chaos, to the Tohu and Bohu from which we came.
Even a brief glance at Shakespeare’s source in Cinthio reveals the extent to which Iago is essentially Shakespeare’s radical invention, rather than an adaptation of the wicked Ensign in the original story. Cinthio’s Ensign falls passionately in love with Desdemona, but wins no favor with her, since she loves the Moor. The unnamed Ensign decides that this failure is due to Desdemona’s love for an unnamed Captain (Shakespeare’s Cassio), and so he determines to remove this supposed rival, by inducing jealousy in the Moor and then plotting with him to murder both Desdemona and the Captain. In Cinthio’s version, the Ensign beats Desdemona to death, while the Moor watches approvingly. It is only afterward, when the Moor repents and desperately misses his wife, that he dismisses the Ensign, who thus is first moved to hatred against his general. Shakespeare transmuted the entire story by giving it, and Iago, a different starting point, the foreground in which Iago has been passed over for promotion. The ontological shock of that rejection is Shakespeare’s original invention and is the trauma that creates Iago, no mere wicked Ensign but rather a genius of evil who has engendered himself from a great Fall.
Milton’s Satan owes so much to Iago that we can be tempted to read the Christian Fall of Adam into Othello’s catastrophe, and to find Lucifer’s decline into Satan a clue to Iago’s inception. But though Shakespeare’s Moor has been baptized, Othello is no more a Christian drama than Hamlet was a doctrinal tragedy of guilt, sin, and pride. Iago playfully invokes a ‘Divinity of Hell,’ and yet he is no mere diabolist. He is War Everlasting (as Goddard sensed) and inspires in me the same uncanny awe and fright that Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden arouses each time I reread Blood Meridian, Or, The Evening Redness in the West (1985). [MY NOTE: A book which is, in my opinion, very much in the running for the title of The Great American Novel.] The Judge, though based on a historical filibuster who massacred and scalped Indians in the post-Civil War Southwest and in Mexico, is War Incarnate. A reading of his formidable pronunciamentos provides a theology-in-little of Iago’s enterprise, and betrays perhaps a touch of Iago’s influence upon Blood Meridian, an American descendant of the Shakespeare-intoxicated Melville and Faulkner. ‘War, says the Judge, ‘is the truest form of diviniation…War is god,’ because war is the supreme game of will against will. Iago is the genius of will reborn from war’s slighting of the will. To have been passed over for Cassio is to have one’s will reduced to nullity, and the self’s sense of power violated. Victory for the will therefore demands a restoration of power, and power for Iago can only be war’s power: to maim, to kill, to humiliate, to destroy the godlike in another, the war god who betrayed his worship and his trust. Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden is Iago come again when he proclaims war as the game that defines us:
Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the moon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes.
In Iago, what was the religion of war, when he worshiped Othello as its god, ahs now become the game of war, to be played everywhere except upon the battlefield. The death of belief becomes the birth of invention, and the passed-over officer becomes the poet of street brawls, stabbings in the dark, disinformation, and above all else, the uncreation of Othello., the sparagamos of the great captain-general so that he can be returned to the original abyss, the chaos that Iago equates with the Moor’s African origins. This is not Othello’s view of his heritage (or Shakesepare’s) but Iago’s interpretation wins, or almost wins, since I will argue that Othello’s much maligned suicide speech is something very close to a recovery of dignity and coherence, though not of lost greatness. Iago, forever beyond Othello’s understanding, is not beyond ours, because we are more like Iago than we resemble Othello; Iago’s views on war, on the will, and on the aesthetics of revenge inaugurate our own pragmatics of understanding the human.
We cannot arrive at a just estimate of Othello if we undervalue Iago, who would be formidable enough to undo most of us if he emerged out his play into our lives. Othello is a great soul hopelessly outclassed in intellect and drive by Iago. Hamlet, as A.C. Bradley once observed, would have disposed of Iago very readily. In a speech or two, Hamlet would discern Iago for what he was, and then would drive Iago to suicide by lightning parody and mockery. Falstaff and Rosalind would do much the same, Falstaff boisterously and Rosalind gently. Only humor could defend against Iago, which is why Shakespeare excludes all comedy from Othello, except for Iago’s saturnine hilarity. Even there, a difference emerges; Barabas and his Shakespearean imitators share their triumphalism with the audience, whereas Iago, at the top of his form, seems to be sending us postcards from the volcano, as remote from us as he is from all his victims. ‘You come next,’ something in him implies, and we wince before him. ‘With all his poetic gifts, he has no poetic weakness,’ Swinburne said of Iago. The prophet of Resentment, Iago presages Smerdyakov, Svidrigailov, and Satvrogin in Dostoevsky, and all the ascetics of the spirit deplored by Nietzsche.
Yet he is so much more than that; among all literary villains, he is by merit raises to a bad eminence that seems unsurpassable. His only near-rival, Edmund, partly repents while dying, in a gesture more enigmatic than Iago’s final selection of silence. Great gifts of intellect and art alone could not bring Iago to his heroic villainy; he has a negative grace beyond cognition and perceptiveness. The public sphere gave Marlow his Guise in The Massacre at Paris, but the Guise is a mere imp of evil when juxtaposed to Iago. The Devil himself – in Milton, Marlowe, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Melville, or any other writer – cannot compete with Iago, whose American descendants range from Hawthorne’s Chillingsworth and Melville’s Claggart through Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger on to Nathaniel West’s Shrike and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden. Modern literature has not surpassed Iago, he remains the perfect Devil of the West, superb as psychologist, playwright, dramatic, critic, and negative theologian. Shaw, jealous of Shakespeare, argued that ‘the character defies all consistency,’ being at once ‘a coarse blackguard’ and also refined and subtle. Few have agreed with Shaw, and those who questions Iago’s persuasiveness tend also to find Othello a flawed representation. A.C. Bradley, an admirable critic always, named Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra as Shakespeare’s ‘most wonderful’ characters. If I could add Rosalind and Macbeth to make a sixfold wonder, then I would agree with Bradley, for these are Shakespeare’s grandest inventions, and all of them take human nature to some of its limits, without violating those limits. Falstaff’s wit, Hamlet’s ambivalent yet charismatic intensity, Cleopatra’s nobility of spirit find their rivals in Macbeth’s proleptic imagination, Rosalind’s control of all perspectives, and Iago’s genius for improvisation. Neither merely coarse nor merely subtle, Iago constantly re-creates his own personality and character. ‘I am not what I am.’ Those who question how a twenty-eight-year-old professional soldier could harbor so sublimely negative a genius might just as soon question how the thirty-nine-year-old professional actor, Shakespeare, could imagine so convincingly a ‘demi-devil’ (as Othello finally terms Iago). We think that Shakespeare abandoned acting just before he composed Othello…Is there some link between giving up the player’s part and the invention of Iago? [When Shakespeare wrote] Measure for Measure…the enigmatic Duke Vincentio, as I have observed, seemed to have some Iago-like qualities, and may also relate to Shakespeare’s release from the burden of performance. Clearly a versatile and competent actor, but never a leading one, Shakespeare perhaps celebrates a new sense of the actor’s energies in the improvisations of Vincentio and Iago.
Bradley, in exalting Falstaff, Hamlet, Iago, and Cleopatra, may have been responding to the highly conscious theatricalism that is fused into their roles. Witty in himself, Falstaff provokes wit in others through his performances. Hamlet, analytical tragedian, discourses with everyone he encounters, driving them to self-revelation. Cleopatra is always on stage – living, loving, and dying – and whether she ceases to perform, when alone or with Antony, we will never know, because Shakespeare never shows them alone together, save once, and that is very brief. Perhaps Iago, before the Fall of his rejection by Othello, had not yet discovered his own dramatic genius, it seems the largest pragmatic consequence of his Fall, once his sense of reality has passed through an initial trauma. When we first hear him, at the start of the play, he already indulges his actor’s freedom:
O, sir, content you!
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be master, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time much like his master’s ass,
For nought but provender, and, when he’s old, cashiered.
Whip me such honest knaves! Others there are
Who, trimmed in forms and visages of duty,
Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves
And, throwing but shows of service on their lords,
Do well thrive by then, and, when they have lined their coats,
Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul
And such a one do I profess myself.
Only the actor, Iago assures us, possesses ‘some soul’; the rest of us wear our hearts upon our sleeves. Yet this is only the start of a player’s career; at this early point, Iago is merely out for mischief, rousing up Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, and conjuring up street brawls. He knows that he is exploring a new vocation, but he has little sense as yet of his own genius. Shakespeare, while Iago gathers force, centers instead upon giving us a view of Othello’s precarious greatness, and of Desdemona’s surpassing human worth. Before turning to the Moor and his bride, I wish further to foreground Iago, who requires quite as much inferential labor as do Hamlet and Falstaff.
Richard III and Edmund have fathers; Shakespeare gives us no antecedents for Iago. We can surmise the ancient’s previous relationship to his superb captain. What can we infer of his marriage to Emilia? There is Iago’s curious mistake in his first mention of Cassio: ‘A fellow almost damned in a fair wife.’ This seems not to be Shakespeare’s error but a token of Iago’s obsessive concern with marriage as a damnation, since Bianca is plainly Cassio’s whore and not his wife. Emilia, no better than she should be, will the ironic instrument that undoes Iago’s triumphalism, at the cost of her life. As to the relationship between this singular couple, Shakespeare allows us some pungent hints. Early in the play, Iago tells us what neither he nor we believe, not because of any shared regard for Emilia but because Othello is too grand for this:
And it is thought abroad that ‘twist my sheets
He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true,
But I for mere suspicion in that kind
Will do as if for surety.
Later, Iago parenthetically expresses the same ‘mere suspicion’ of Cassio: ‘For I fear Cassio will be my night-cap too.’ We can surmise that Iago, perhaps made impotent by his fury at being passed over for promotion, is ready to suspect Emilia with every male in the play, while not particularly caring one way or the other. Emilia, confronting Desdemona after Othello’s initial rage of jealousy against his blameless wife, sums up her own marriage also:
‘Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we are all but food.
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us.
[III. iv. 104-7]
That is the erotic vision of Troilus and Cressida, carried over into a greater realm, but not a less rancid one, because the world of Othello belongs to Iago. It is not persuasive to say that Othello is a normal man and Iago abnormal; Iago is the genius of his time and place, and is all will. His passion for destruction is the only creative passion in the play. Such a judgment is necessarily very somber, but then this is surely Shakespeare’s most painful play. King Lear and Macbeth are even darker, but theirs is the darkness of the negative sublime. The only sublimity in Othello is Iago’s. Shakespeare’s conception of him was so definitive that the revisions made between the Quarto’s text and the Folio’s enlarge and sharpen our sense primarily of Emilia, and secondly of Othello and Desdemona, but hardly touch Iago. Shakespeare rightly felt no need to revise Iago, already the perfection of malign will and genius for hatred. There can be no question concerning Iago’s primacy in the play: he speaks eight soliloquies, Othello only three.
Edmund outthinks and so outplots everyone else in King Lear, and yet is destroyed by the recalcitrant endurance of Edgar, who develops from credulous victim into inexorable revenger. Iago, even more totally the master of his play, is at last undone by Emilia, whom Shakespeare revised into a figure of intrepid outrage, willing to die for the sake of the murdered Desdemona’s good name. Shakespeare had something of a tragic obsession with the idea of a good name living on after his protagonist’s deaths. Hamlet, despite saying that no man can know anything of whatever he leaves behind him, nevertheless exhorts Horatio to survive so as to defend what might become of his prince’s wounded name. We will hear Othello trying to recuperate some shred of reputation in his suicidal final speech, upon which critical agreement no longer seems at all possible. If the Funeral Elegy for Will Peter indeed was Shakespeare’s (I think this probable), then the poet-dramatist in 1612, four years before his own death at fifty-two, was much preoccupied with his own evidently blemished name.”
And finally, a bit from Jan Kott’s Shakespeare our Contemporary:
“There is much in Othello that we find revolting, in particular those elements that until recently were most highly values. ‘Not his greatest work, but his best play,’ writes the commentator and latest editor of Othello, and adds: ‘in the narrow sense of ‘theater’ probably much his best.’ Perhaps, but for what kind of theatre?
Thomas Rymer, whose taste was classical, in the French sense of the word, wrote towards the close of the seventeenth century:
The moral, sure, of this Fable is very instructive. First, This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality, how, without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors. Secondly, This may be a warning to all good Wives that they may look well to their Linnen. Thirdly, This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical…But the tragical part is, plainly noe other, than a Bloody Farce, without salt or savour.
Ducis, whose adaption of Othello was produced in Paris in 1792, must have taken a similar view of the tragedy. It was the first year of the Republic, but Ducis thought that Shakespeare, in spite of the Revolution, was still too violent and cruel for the French taste. In contrast with the English tradition, he substituted an Arab for a Negro. [MY NOTE: We’ll discuss this in much greater detail as we progress – just how black WAS Othello?] His Othello had a yellow complexion, in order – as he put it – not to frighten the eyes of women. Desdemona did not lose her handkerchief, for a handkerchief was part of ladies’ lingerie and the word could not possibly be even uttered on the stage. Desdemonas of the Convent nationale were allowed to lose only their diadems. Othello did not strangle Desdemona; that would be too vulgar. Ducis substituted the dagger for the pillow. But there was still the ending to deal with: revolutionary audiences did not fancy bloody scenes. At the point when Othello raised his arm to deal Desdemona a mortal blow, the Venetian envoy rushed into the bedchamber, shouting: ‘Barbare, que fals-tu?’ Ducis provided two endings for the play, a happy one and an unhappy one.
Othello was produced again in France in 1829 in Alfred de Vigny’s translation. Moor of Venice paved the way to his Hernani. From then on Othello turns out to be Shakespeare’s most ‘nineteenth-century play.’ Not only was it the most romantic of the plays, Othello fitted all nineteenth-century theatres: it was a play, an opera, a melodrama. Othello had local colour, portrayed great characters and passions, was an historical, psychological, realistic play. It was indeed ‘Shakespeare’s best stage play.’
In his Diary of a Journey in England, Karol Sienkiewicz made the following entry, dated 28th August, 1820:
I went to the theater to see Othello. It is one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies, and Kean is at his best in it…In the fifth act there is a terrible scene. The curtain rises on the second scene and in the background a bed is to be seen and on it Desdemona is asleep, everything in the proper order: she wears a nightcap and lies covered with a quilt. There is a curtain over the bed and beside it a little stool, a night table; they even said that a chamber pot could be seen under the bed. Othello enters holding a lamp; he puts it down on the dressing table. Desdemona is still asleep. Othello also holds a naked sword,. He comes to kill Desdemona, having endured heavy torments of jealousy…
A tragedy of jealousy fit perfectly in the framework of English domestic drama where, according to a tradition inherited from the nineteenth century, the middle-class Desdemona wore a nightcap; but it was also in keeping with romantic melodrama in which the protagonist used to be presented as a primitive and passionate Negro, or as a noble and dignified descendant of Arab kings in turn. Othello, thus conceived was a ready-made ‘oriental’ opera, waiting for its composer. Verdi composed it in 1887, and it is surely not by chance that Othello is perhaps the only really successful opera adapted from one of Shakespeare’s plays.
As a matter of fact, there was not much difference in those days between an operatic and a dramatic production of Othello. In the second act of the opera a chorus of Cypriots sang in honour of Desdemona; act three ended with a finale in which the whole ensemble, ballet included, took part. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Othello was the best suited for a grand display: the opera-combined-with-ballet about a jealous man of the Orient gradually turned into an historical spectacle, in which Venice was represented ‘like the real thing.’
These tendencies found their fullest expression in the Russian theatre. The tragedy of jealousy there became a tragedy of betrayed confidence, in which Othello fell victim not only to Iago’s intrigues, but to the envy of the doge and the entire Venetian senate. To portray this one had to represent Venice and Cyprus. Social and historical background became more important than the protagonists of the tragedy. Stanislavsky produced Othello for the first time as a young man, but it was his mise en scene production sent in 1930 from Nice to the Moscow Arts Theatre that has been remembered in theatre history. A description of the production was also published.
Stanislavsky turned the orchestra pit into a canal for gondolas. In the first scene, they appeared twice: Roderigo and Iago arrived in a gondola; than Barbantio with members of his household set out in a gondola in search of Othello. Stanislavsky advised that the gondolier’s oar be made of metal and its paddle end filled with water, so that when it was raised it could give a characteristic splash. In act two he introduced the silent figures of Turkish Cypriots, who waited anxiously for the arrival of ships and then dispersed in panic on realizing that it was the Venetian fleet that was coming. In commentaries designed for actors Stanislavsky described in detail Roderigo’s unsuccessful courtship of Desdemona and her meetings with Othello, on Sunday mornings, when she was returning from church in her gondola. He even knew what flowers Othello threw into her gondola and how Roderigo’s unsuccessful serenade in front of Desdemona’s house ended. In fact, he knew everything about Desdemona and Othello, from their births to the moment the tragedy began.
Then, after the opera, came the novel: Verdi’s Othello was followed by Dumas’ Othello. However, it was Othello seen as a novel that suddenly revealed how arbitrary, vague, and contradictory the story was. Shakespearean scholars had known this for a long time. Granville-Barker and Stoll had observed the parallel running of Shakespeare’s double time in this particular play. Only for Othello does the night of jealousy last from midnight to dawn. Iago, Roderigo, and Desdemona need weeks for the action to be accomplished. Weeks are required for Desdemona to have the physical possibility of infidelity, or for a ship to reach Venice from Cyprus with the news of victory and arrive back in Cyprus with the nomination of a new governor. [MORE ON THIS LATER]
Stanislavsky brought to their final conclusions the tendency, prevalent in all European theatres since the nineties, toward realistic Shakespearean productions in historically ‘authentic’ costumes. The theatre of yesterday always repeats interpretations dating from the day before yesterday. The tragedy of jealousy and the tragedy of betrayed confidence, the operatic Othello and the Othello out of an historical romance still exert their influence on us today.”
Ready to start? I know I am.
Our next reading: Othello, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.