Act Four, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
For today’s post, we’re going to be looking at Othello from two very different angles – contemporary and old school. First, from Polish avant-garde activist, critic, and theoretician, from his book Shakespeare Our Contemporary (I’ll be using this a lot when we get to King Lear – his reading of the play was extraordinarily influential) As the New York Times said in their obituary when he died at the age of 87 in 2002,
“Mr. Kott was one of a handful of theater critics who have changed the perception of masterpieces. His main strong point as a critic lay in his skill at showing ”the way in which the history is part of the drama and the drama is part of the history,” as he put it in a 1985 interview.
In his influential book ”Shakespeare Our Contemporary” (1964, Doubleday), ”Kott sees Shakespeare in the light of our world, or, more pointedly and poignantly, in the light of his world,” Harold Clurman, a director, drama critic and author on theater, wrote in a review of the work in The New York Times Book Review. ”Being a Pole whose country suffered more than any other the holocaust of Nazism and later the oppression of Stalinism, Kott’s vision of our era is infernal.””
“In what setting does Othello’s tragedy unfold? The question sounds absurd. The first act takes place in Venice, the remaining four in Cyprus. Venice and Cyprus had already been depicted by means of an open change; later it seemed that the revolving stage would solve all difficulties. Each scene could now have a new set. In English theaters of the early nineteenth century, Othello was usually set in contemporary middle-class interior. Only later did Othello gradually become an historical costume play. The naturalistic theatre even managed to reproduce St. Mark’s Square on the stage in its entirety. Othello has been identified with nineteenth-century stage design to such an extent that all of Shakespeare’s plays it is the most difficult to visualize on a bare stage. However, Venice and Cyprus in Othello are no more real than the cities and countries in all Shakespeare’s other tragedies and comedies. Cyprus and Venice are no less and no more real than Elsinore, Bohemia, Illyria, the forest of Dunsinane in Macbeth, or the cliffs of Dover from which blind Gloucester wanted to hurl himself into the abyss.
Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.
The action of Othello, like that of all Shakespeare’s other great tragedies, really takes place on the Elizabethan stage which is also the Theatrum Mundi. On that stage, as in Hamlet and King Lear, the world is unhinged, chaos returns, and the very order of nature is threatened.
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!
I’ll not belive’t.
On horror’s head horrors accumulate;
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amaz’d.
Even the firmament is shaken, the balance of heavenly spheres disturbed, as if madness descended on people from the stars:
It is the very error of the moon.
She comes more near the earth than she was wont
And makes men mad.
And then, Desdemona having been murdered, apocalyptic night falls down on Othello’s world:
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that th’affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.
A simultaneous eclipse of the sun and the moon is a vision of the end of the world found in Baroque painting. Night falls down on Othello. Not only a night without sun and moon; as in King Lear and Macbeth, the sky is empty.
Are there no stones in heaven
But what serves for the thunder?
Othello, like King Lear and Macbeth is the tragedy of man under empty heaven. At the close of the play Iago is exposed to tortures. But it is really Othello who, from Act II onwards, is put on the rack. He steps downwards, like Lear, Macbeth, or Gloucester, and like them is brought to the ultimate point. He exhausts fully one of human experiences. As in King Lear and Macbeth, in Othello the plummet has been thrown down to the bottom, darkness has been sounded fully. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of the world can be answered only at the end of the road, at the lowest depths.
G. Wilson Knight was the first to reveal the music of Othello. But he denied Othello universality. In comparison with King Lear and Macbeth, Othello is to him a play that does not achieve the power of symbol and remains enclosed in its literality. For Mr. Knight, Othello is not a cosmic tragedy. [MY NOTE: I see his point.] I prefer Victor Hugo’s view, in spite of his unbearable romantic rhetoric:
Now what is Othello? He is night. An immense fatal figure. Night is amorous of day. Darkness loves the dawn. The African adores the white woman. Desdemona is Othello’s brightness and frenzy! And then how easy to him is jealousy? He is great, he is dignified, he is majestic, he soars above all heads, he has an escort bravery, battle, the braying of trumpets, the banner of war, renown, glory; he is radiant with twenty victories, he is studded with stars, this Othello: but he is black. And thus how soon, when jealous, the hero becomes monster, the black becomes the Negro! How speedily has night beckoned to death!
The above fragment is not devoid of a genuine theatrical vision; it almost seems to fit Sir Laurence Olivier’s latest interpretation of the part of Othello.
Iago near Othello is the precipice near the landslip. ‘This way!’ he ways in a low voice. The snare advises blindness. The being of darkness guides the black. Deceit takes upon itself to give what light may be required by night. Jealousy uses falsehood as the blind man his dog. Iago the traitor, opposed to whiteness and candour, Othello the Negro, what can be more terrible! These ferocities of the darkness act in unison. These two incarnations of the eclipse comprise together, the one roaring, the other sneering, the tragic suffocation of light. Sound this profound thing. Othello is the night, and being night, wishes to kill, what does he take to slay with? Poison? The club? The axe? The knife? No, the pillow. To kill is to lull to sleep. Shakespeare himself perhaps did not take this into account. The creator sometimes, almost unknown to himself, yields to his type, so much is that type a power. And it is thus that Desdemona, spouse of the man Night, dies stifled by the pillow, which has had the first kiss, and which has the last sigh.
Olivier’s Othello enters the stage with the step of a dancer, holding a rose in his mouth. Olivier’s Othello stifles Desdemona among kisses.
Iago always caused the most difficulties for commentators. For the Romantics he was simply the genius of evil. But even Mephistopheles must have his own reasons for acting. Iago hates Othello, just as he hates everybody. Commentators observed long ago that there is something disinterested in his hate. Iago hates first, and only then seems to invent reasons for his hate. Coleridge’s description hits the nail on the head: ‘motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity.’ Thwarted ambition, jealousy of his wife, of Desdemona, of all women and all men: his hate constantly looks for nourishment to feed itself on and is never satisfied. But if hate looks for reasons to justify itself, what are the arguments it uses?
There are two other excellent descriptions of Iago. Carlyle called him ‘an inarticulate poet’; Hazlitt, ‘an amateur of tragedy in real life.’ Iago is not satisfied with devising the tragedy; he wants to play it through distribute all the parts and act in it himself.
Iago is a diabolic stage manager, or, rather – a Machiavellian stage manager. His motives for acting are ambiguous and hidden, his intellectual reasons clear and precise. He formulates them in the early scenes when, for instance, he soliloquizes loudly: ‘Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners.’ (I, 3)
The demonic Iago was an invention of the Romantics. Iago is no demon. Like Richard III, he is a careerist, but on a different scale. He, too, wants to set in motion a real mechanism, make use of genuine passions. He does not want to be cheated. ‘We cannot all be masters, nor all masters/Cannot be truly follow’d.’ (I,1) This is not a demonic statement, but rather one obvious to the point of vulgarity. ‘Preferment goes by letter and affection.’ This is not a demonic statement either. Iago is an empiricist, does not believe in ideologies, and has no illusions: ‘Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving.’ (II, 3)
Of course, Iago is a Machiavellian, but Machiavellianism for him merely means a generalized personal experience. Fools believe in honour and love. In reality there are only egoism and lust. The strong are able to subordinate their passions to ambition. One’s own body can also be an instrument. Hence Iago’s contempt for everything that benumbs a man, from moral precepts to love.
Iago believes in will power. One can make everything of oneself, and of other people. Others, too, are only an instrument. They can be molded like clay. Iago, like Richard III, despises people even more than he hates them.
Says Iago: The world consists of villains and fools; of those who devour and those who are devoured. People are like animals; they copulate and eat each other. The weak do not deserve pity, they are just as abominable, only more stupid than the strong. The world is vile.
Says Othello: The world is beautiful and people are noble. Love and loyalty exist in it.
If we strip Othello of romantic varnish, of everything that is opera and melodrama, the tragedy of jealousy and the tragedy of betrayed confidence become a dispute between Othello and Iago: the dispute on the nature of the world. Is this world good or bad? What are the limits of suffering; what is the ultimate purpose of the few brief moments that pass between birth and death?
Like Richard III, Iago sets in motion the mechanism of vileness, envy, and stupidity, and, like Richard, he will be destroyed. The world, in which Othello can believe in Desdemona’s infidelity, in which treachery is possible, in which Othello murders Desdemona, in which there is no friendship, loyalty, or faith, in which Othello – by agreeing to the murder of Cassio – gives consent to secret assassination, such a world is bad. Iago is an accomplished stage manager.
…..Thou hast set me on the rack.
He has proved that the world consists of fools and villains. He has destroyed all around him, and himself. He goes to torture, in a tragedy devised by himself. He has proved that neither the world nor himself deserves any pity. Richard’s defeat confirms the working of the Grand Mechanism; just as Iago’s failure does. The world is vile. He was right. And the very fact that he was right proved his undoing. This is the first paradox. [MY NOTE: The name of Kott’s essay is “The Two Paradoxes of Othello.”]
In the last scene Iago is silent. Why should he talk? Everything has become clear. The world has fallen; but for Othello; not for him. They will crush his bones, but he can triumph. The torture and death of Iago do not restore justice; they do not serve any purpose, and they happen outside the play, even in the literal sense. But Iago wins not only on the intellectual plane of the tragedy; he wins in its very fabric and texture, in its language.
In Act III Othello crawls at Iago’s feet, foaming at the mouth in a fit. Shakespeare is never afraid of cruelty. Gloucester shall have his eyes torn out, Lear shall go mad. The magnificent, proud, beautiful Othello has to degrade himself physically. Othello’s world, he himself, everything will be dissolved, as if eaten away by acid. (This is how G. Wilson Knight has described it.)
…..O, now for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farwell the plumed troop, and the big wars
That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O ye mortal engines whose rude throats
Th’ immortal Jove’s great clamours counterfeit
Farewell! Othello’s occupation gone!
Othello is endowed by Shakespeare with all the attributes of feudal heroics found in knightly epic and romance. There is enchanting poetry here, but at the same time a decaying set of values. To start with, there is royal blood:
….I fetch my life, and being
From men of royal siege.
Next, there are the heroic stereotypes, inherited from Roman rhetoric:
The tyrant custom, most grave senators,
Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war
My thrice-driven bed of down.
And then, there are the elements of fairy tale, dream, legend. Iago is all reality, everyday life, pure matter. Othello belongs to a different world, the world of the exotic that ranges from the adventures of Ulysses to the expeditions of Renaissance sailors. He talks to Desdemona:
…of the cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders…
With Othello, the bare Elizabethan stage has been filled with the seascape of all oceans.
…..Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont;
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.
The system of values in Othello disintegrates together with the play’s poetry and language. But there is another language, another rhetoric in this tragedy. Iago uses it. In Iago’s semantic sphere there stand out, as word-slogans, word-clues, evocative words – names of things and animals, arousing abhorrence, fear, disgust. Iago talks about glues, baits, nets, poisons, drugs, enemas, pitch and sulphur, plague and pestilence.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
Even more characteristic is the bestiary invoked by Iago. It contains helpless and powerless animals (‘Drown theyself? Drown cats and blind puppies!’ I,3), symbols and allegories of stupidity and ugliness (guinea-hens, baboons), lust and lewdness (‘…as primes goats, as hot as monkeys,/As salt as wolves in pride.’ III, 3)
Othello’s speech is gradually reduced to mumbling. The pathos and poetry of feudal heroics are destroyed in language and in imagery. Mr. Knight has already observed this. Not only shall Othello crawl at Iago’s feet; he shall talk his language. These broken sentences are at the same time one of the earliest inner monologues – in the modern sense of the word – that we find in drama.
Lie with her? lie on her? – we say lie on her when they belie her. – Lie with her! Zounds, that’s fulsome. – Handkerchief – confessions – handkerchief!– To confess, and be hang’d for his labour – first to be hang’d, and then to confess! I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus. – Pish! Noses, ears, and lips? Is’t possible? – Confess? – handkerchief – O devil!
Othello will now rave incessantly about whoring and breeding, fire and sulphur, cords, knives, and poison. He will invoke the same bestiary. Iago spoke of jackdaws looking for prey; Othello will now be haunted by the image of “…the raven o’er the infected house’ (IV, 1). He will take over from Iago all his obsessions, as if he were unable to break away from the images of monkeys and goats, mongrels and lewd bitches.’ “…Exchange me for a goat,’ he says (III, 3). Even while he is ceremoniously receiving Lodovico, he cannot contain himself: ‘You are welcome, sir, to Cyprus. Goats and monkeys!’ (IV, 1)
Caroline Spurgeon in her catalogue of Shakespearean images compared the bestiaries of Othello and King Lear. In both tragedies animals appear in the semantic sphere of suffering and cruelty; suffering that has to be endured, torments that have to be inflicted. In King Lear there are magnificent and fierce beasts of prey: tiger, vulture, boar; in Othello – reptiles and insects. The action of the tragedy takes place in the course of two long nights, at least according to the clock of passions. The internal landscape of Othello, in which the leading characters of the tragedy are more and more deeply submerged, the landscape of their dreams, erotic obsessions, and fears, is the landscape of darkness; of the earth without sun, stars, or moon; a dungeon full of spiders, blindworms, and frogs.
I had rather be a toad
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon
The fountain from the which my current runs
Or else dries up – to be discarded thence,
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in.
The difference between the animal sphere of Othello and King Lear is not only one of degree. The animal symbolism of Othello serves to degrade the human world. Man is an animal. But what sort of animal?
Man – the description of man, in which are contained the kinds almost alike, such as baboon, ape and others which are many.
This is s note by Leonardo, very similar in intention and in choice of comparisons. Man can be described as animal. A bloodthirsty and cowardly, deceitful, and cruel animal. Man, considered as animal, inevitably rouses revulsion.
With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio.
This is the most significant image in the tragedy. Flies and spiders, spiders and flies. Cassio, Roderigo, Othello – are all flies for Iago. Small flies and big flies. The white Desdemona, too, will turn into a black fly. Othello will take over all Iago’s obsessions.
I hope my noble lord esteems me honest.
O, ay! as summer flies are in the shambles,
That quicken even with blowing.
The image of flies will return in King Lear, in a sentence that contains one of man’s ultimate experiences:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.
(Lear, IV, 1)
To whom can a fly appeal? What can justify the suffering of a fly? Does a fly deserve pity? Can a fly ask men for compassion? Can men asks the gods for compassion?
Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound.
(Lear, I, 2)
Those words are spoken by Edmund in King Lear. In the great Shakespearean tragedies we are witness to an earthquake. Both human orders have fallen; the feudal hierarchy of loyalty, as well as the naturalism of Renaissance. The world’s history is just that of spiders and flies.
…’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
Good night, good night. Heaven me such uses send,
Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend!
Othello came to find himself not only in Iago’s semantic sphere, but in ‘a close-shut murderous room’ (Bradley). Othello, like King Lear, is put to the torture and driven to madness.
Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damn’d to-night; for she shall not live. No, my heart is turn’d to stone. I strike it, and it hurts my hand. O, the world hath not a sweeter creature! She might lie by an emperor’s side and command him tasks…Hang her! I do not but say what she is. So delicate with her needle! an admirable musician!…I will chop her into messes!
Othello talks the language of the mad Lear. All kinds of rhetoric have been smashed to pieces. And so have people. Othello, like King Lear, like Macbeth in his last scene, has found himself in the area of the absurd.”
I found this remarkably persuasive. For me, the key passage:
“Says Iago: The world consists of villains and fools; of those who devour and those who are devoured. People are like animals; they copulate and eat each other. The weak do not deserve pity, they are just as abominable, only more stupid than the strong. The world is vile.
Says Othello: The world is beautiful and people are noble. Love and loyalty exist in it.”
What do you all think? Is Kott’s reading supported by the play itself (I tend to think it is), or is he reading into it something that isn’t there based on his own life in cold war Poland?
And to finish today’s post, I’d like to continue from A.C. Bradley:
But before the end there is again a change. The supposed death of Cassio (V. i.) satiates the thirst for vengeance. The Othello who enters the bed-chamber with the words,
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,
is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no murder, but a sacrifice. He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in hate but in honour; in honour, and also in love. His anger has passed; a boundless sorrow has taken its place; and
this sorrow’s heavenly:
It strikes where it doth love.
Even when, at the sight of her apparent obduracy, and at the hearing of words which by a crowning fatality can only reconvince him of her guilt, these feelings give way to others, it is to righteous indignation they give way, not to rage; and, terribly painful as this scene is, there is almost nothing here to diminish the admiration and love which heighten pity. And pity itself vanishes, and love and admiration alone remain, in the majestic dignity and sovereign ascendancy of the close. Chaos has come and gone; and the Othello of the Council-chamber and the quay of Cyprus has returned, or a greater and nobler Othello still. As he speaks those final words in which all the glory and agony of his life — long ago in India and Arabia and Aleppo, and afterwards in Venice, and now in Cyprus — seem to pass before us, like the pictures that flash before the eyes of a drowning man, a triumphant scorn for the fetters of the flesh and the littleness of all the lives that must survive him sweeps our grief away, and when he dies upon a kiss the most painful of all tragedies leaves us for the moment free from pain, and exulting in the power of “love and man’s unconquerable mind.”
32. The words just quoted come from Wordsworth’s sonnet to Toussaint l’Ouverture. Toussaint was a Negro; and there is a question, which, though of little consequence, is not without dramatic interest, whether Shakespeare imagined Othello as a Negro or as a Moor. Now I will not say that Shakespeare imagined him as a Negro and not as a Moor, for that might imply that he distinguished Negroes and Moors precisely as we do; but what appears to me nearly certain is that he imagined Othello as a black man, and not as a light-brown one.
33. In the first place, we must remember that the brown or bronze, to which we are now accustomed in the Othellos of our theatres is a recent innovation. Down to Edmund Kean’s time, so far as is known, Othello was always quite black. This stage-tradition goes back to the Restoration, and it almost settles our question. For it is impossible that the colour of the original Othello should have been forgotten so soon after Shakespeare’s time, and most improbable that it should have been changed from brown to black.
34. If we turn to the play itself, we find many references to Othello’s colour and appearance. Most of these are indecisive; for the word “black” was of course used then where we should speak of a “dark” complexion now; and even the nickname “thick-lips,” appealed to as proof that Othello was a Negro, might have been applied by an enemy to what we call a Moor. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that, if Othello had been light-brown, Brabantio would have taunted him with having a “sooty bosom,” or that (as Mr. Furness observes) he himself would have used the words,
her name, that was as fresh
As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face.
35. These arguments cannot be met by pointing out that Othello was of royal blood, is not called an Ethiopian, is called a Barbary horse, and is said to be going to Mauritania. All this would be of importance if we had reason to believe that Shakespeare shared our ideas, knowledge and terms. Otherwise it proves nothing. And we know that sixteenth-century writers called any dark North-African a Moor, or a black Moor, or a blackamoor. Sir Thomas Elyot, according to Hunter, calls Ethiopians Moors; and the following are the first two illustrations of “Blackamoor” in the Oxford English Dictionary: 1547, “I am a blake More borne in Barbary”; 1548, “Ethiopo, a blake More, or a man of Ethiope.” Thus geographical names can tell us nothing about the question how Shakespeare imagined Othello. He may have known that a Mauritanian is not a Negro nor black, but we cannot assume that he did. He may have known, again, that the Prince of Morocco, who is described in the Merchant of Venice as having, like Othello, the complexion of a devil, was no Negro. But we cannot tell: nor is there any reason why he should not have imagined the Prince as a brown Moor and Othello as a Blackamoor.
36. Titus Andronicus appeared in the Folio among Shakespeare’s works. It is believed by some good critics to be his: hardly anyone doubts that he had a hand in it: it is certain that he knew it, for reminiscences of it are scattered through his plays. Now no one who reads Titus Andronicus with an open mind can doubt that Aaron was, in our sense, black; and he appears to have been a Negro. To mention nothing else, he is twice called “coal-black”; his colour is compared with that of a raven and a swan’s legs; his child is coal-black and thick-lipped; he himself has a “fleece of woolly hair.” Yet he is “Aaron the Moor,” just as Othello is “Othello the Moor.” In the Battle of Alcazar (Dyce’s Peele, p. 421) Muly the Moor is called “the negro”; and Shakespeare himself in a single line uses “negro” and “Moor” of the same person (Merchant of Venice, III. V. 42).
37. The horror of most American critics (Mr. Furness is a bright exception) at the idea of a black Othello is very amusing, and their arguments are highly instructive. But they were anticipated, I regret to say, by Coleridge, and we will hear him. “No doubt Desdemona saw Othello’s visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.” Could any argument be more self-destructive? It actually did appear to Brabantio “something monstrous to conceive” his daughter falling in love with Othello, — so monstrous that he could account for her love only by drugs and foul charms. And the suggestion that such love would argue “disproportionateness” is precisely the suggestion that Iago did make in Desdemona’s case:
Foh! one may smell in such a will most rank,
Foul disproportion, thoughts unnatural.
In fact he spoke of the marriage exactly as a filthy-minded cynic might now speak of the marriage of an English lady to a negro like Toussaint. Thus the argument of Coleridge and others points straight to the conclusion against which they argue.
38. But this is not all. The question whether to Shakespeare Othello was black or brown is not a mere question of isolated fact or historical curiosity; it concerns the character of Desdemona. Coleridge, and still more the American writers, regard her love, in effect, as Brabantio regarded it, and not as Shakespeare conceived it. They are simply blurring this glorious conception when they try to lessen the distance between her and Othello, and to smooth away the obstacle which his “visage” offered to her romantic passion for a hero. Desdemona, the “eternal womanly” in its most lovely and adorable form, simple and innocent as a child, ardent with the courage and idealism of a saint, radiant with that heavenly purity of heart which men worship the more because nature so rarely permits it to themselves, had no theories about universal brotherhood, and no phrases about “one blood in all the nations of the earth” or “barbarian, Scythian, bond and free”; but when her soul came in sight of the noblest soul on earth, she made nothing of the shrinking of her senses, but followed her soul until her senses took part with it, and “loved him with the love which was her doom.” It was not prudent. It even turned out tragically. She met in life with the reward of those who rise too far above our common level; and we continue to allot her the same reward when we consent to forgive her for loving a brown man, but find it monstrous that she should love a black one.
39. There is perhaps a certain excuse for our failure to rise to Shakespeare’s meaning, and to realise 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. It is that when first we hear of her marriage we have not yet seen the Desdemona of the later Acts; and therefore we do not perceive how astonishing this love and boldness must have been in a maiden so quiet and submissive. And when we watch her in her suffering and death we are so penetrated by the sense of her heavenly sweetness and self-surrender that we almost forget that she had shown herself quite as exceptional in the active assertion of her own soul and will. She tends to become to us predominantly pathetic, the sweetest and most pathetic of Shakespeare’s women, as innocent as Miranda and as loving as Viola, yet suffering more deeply than Cordelia or Imogen. And she seems to lack that independence and strength of spirit which Cordelia and Imogen possess, and which in a manner raises them above suffering. She appears passive and defenceless, and can oppose to wrong nothing but the infinite endurance and forgiveness of a love that knows not how to resist or resent. She thus becomes at once the most beautiful example of this love, and the most pathetic heroine in Shakespeare’s world. If her part were acted by an artist equal to Salvini, and with a Salvini for Othello, I doubt if the spectacle of the last two Acts would not be pronounced intolerable.
40. Of course this later impression of Desdemona is perfectly right, but it must be carried back and united with the earlier before we can see what Shakespeare imagined. Evidently, we are to understand, innocence, gentleness, sweetness, lovingness were the salient and, in a sense, the principal traits in Desdemona’s character. She was, as her father supposed her to be,
a maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself.
But suddenly there appeared something quite different — something which could never have appeared, for example, in Ophelia — a love not only full of romance but showing a strange freedom and energy of spirit, and leading to a most unusual boldness of action; and this action was carried through with a confidence and decision worthy of Juliet or Cordelia. Desdemona does not shrink before the Senate; and her language to her father, though deeply respectful, is firm enough to stir in us some sympathy with the old man who could not survive his daughter’s loss. This then, we must understand, was the emergence in Desdemona, as she passed from girlhood to womanhood, of an individuality and strength which, if she had lived would have been gradually fused with her more obvious qualities and have issued in a thousand actions, sweet and good, but surprising to her conventional or timid neighbours. And, indeed, we have already a slight example in her overflowing kindness, her boldness and her ill-fated persistence in pleading Cassio’s cause. But the full ripening of her lovely and noble nature was not to be. In her brief wedded life she appeared again chiefly as the sweet and submissive being of her girlhood; and the strength of her soul, first evoked by love, found scope to show itself only in a love which, when harshly repulsed, blamed only its own pain; when bruised, only gave forth a more exquisite fragrance; and when rewarded with death, summoned its last labouring breath to save its murderer.
41. Many traits in Desdemona’s character have been described with sympathetic insight by Mrs. Jameson, and I will pass them by and add but a few words on the connection between this character and the catastrophe of Othello. Desdemona, as Mrs. Jameson remarks, shows less quickness of intellect and less tendency to reflection than most of Shakespeare’s heroines; but I question whether the critic is right in adding that she shows much of the “unconscious address common in women.” She seems to me deficient in this address, having in its place a frank childlike boldness and persistency, which are full of charm but are unhappily united with a certain want of perception. And these graces and this deficiency appear to be inextricably intertwined, and in the circumstances conspire tragically against her. They, with her innocence, hinder her from understanding Othello’s state of mind, and lead her to the most unlucky acts and words; and unkindness or anger subdues her so completely that she becomes passive and seems to drift helplessly towards the cataract in front.
42. In Desdemona’s incapacity to resist there is also, in addition to her perfect love, something which is very characteristic. She is, in a sense, a child of nature. That deep inward division which leads to clear and conscious oppositions of right and wrong, duty and inclination, justice and injustice, is alien to her beautiful soul. She is not good, kind and true in spite of a temptation to be otherwise, any more than she is charming in spite of a temptation to be otherwise. She seems to know evil only by name, and, her inclinations being good, she acts on inclination. This trait, with its results, may be seen if we compare her, at the crises of the story, with Cordelia. In Desdemona’s place, Cordelia, however frightened at Othello’s anger about the lost handkerchief, would not have denied its loss. Painful experience had produced in her a conscious principle of rectitude and a proud hatred of falseness, which would have made a lie, even one wholly innocent in spirit, impossible to her; and the clear sense of justice and right would have led her, instead, to require an explanation of Othello’s agitation which would have broken Iago’s plot to pieces. In the same way, at the final crisis, no instinctive terror of death would have compelled Cordelia suddenly to relinquish her demand for justice and to plead for life. But these moments are fatal to Desdemona, who acts precisely as if she were guilty; and they are fatal because they ask for something which, it seems to us, could hardly be united with the peculiar beauty of her nature.
43. This beauty is all her own. Something as beautiful may be found in Cordelia, but not the same beauty. Desdemona, confronted with Lear’s foolish but pathetic demand for a profession of love, could have done, I think, what Cordelia could not do — could have refused to compete with her sisters, and yet have made her father feel that she loved him well. And I doubt if Cordelia, “falsely murdered,” would have been capable of those last words of Desdemona — her answer to Emilia’s “O, who hath done this deed?
Nobody: I myself. Farewell.
Commend me to my kind lord. O, farewell!
Were we intended to remember, as we hear this last “falsehood,” that other falsehood, “It is not lost,” and to feel that, alike in the momentary child’s fear and the deathless woman’s love, Desdemona is herself and herself alone?
Our next reading: Othello, Act Five
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning