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Lecture on Othello - Play Construction and the Suffering and Murder of Desdemona

From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley. London: MacMillan and Co., 1919.

There is practically no doubt that Othello was the tragedy written next after Hamlet. Such external evidence as we possess points to this conclusion, and it is confirmed by similarities of style, diction and versification, and also by the fact that ideas and phrases of the earlier play are echoed in the later.1 There is, further (not to speak of one curious point, to be considered when we come to Iago), a certain resemblance in the subjects. The heroes of the two plays are doubtless extremely unlike, so unlike that each could have dealt without much difficulty with the situation which proved fatal to the other; but still each is a man exceptionally noble and trustful, and each endures the shock of a terrible disillusionment. This theme is treated by Shakespeare for the first time in Hamlet, for the second in Hamlet. It recurs with modifications in King Lear, and it probably formed the attraction which drew Shakespeare to refashion in part another writer's tragedy of Timon. These four dramas may so far be grouped together in distinction from the remaining tragedies.

But in point of substance, and, in certain respects, in point of style, the unlikeness of Othello to Hamlet is much greater than the likeness, and the later play belongs decidedly to one group with its successors. We have seen that, like them, it is a tragedy of passion, a description inapplicable to Julius Caesar or Hamlet. And with this change goes another, an enlargement in the stature of the hero. There is in most of the later heroes something colossal, something which reminds us of Michael Angelo's figures. They are not merely exceptional men, they are huge men; as it were, survivors of the heroic age living in a later and smaller world. We do not receive this impression from Romeo or Brutus or Hamlet, nor did it lie in Shakespeare's design to allow more than touches of this trait to Julius Caesar himself; but it is strongly marked in Lear and Coriolanus, and quite distinct in Macbeth and even in Antony. Othello is the first of these men, a being essentially large and grand, towering above his fellows, holding a volume of force which in repose ensures preeminence without an effort, and in commotion reminds us rather of the fury of the elements than of the tumult of common human passion.


What 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.

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.

(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.

(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.2

(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.

(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.

(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;3 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.

(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.4 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 accident5 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,6 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: dysdaimones]--there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides with villainy.7 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.

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?

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.

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.

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,8 and so, presumably, in part concealed.

Here, then, Othello does not appear to be, unless perhaps at one point,9 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.


FOOTNOTE 1: One instance is worth pointing out, because the passage in Othello has, oddly enough, given trouble. Desdemona says of the maid Barbara: 'She was in love, and he she loved proved mad And did forsake her.' Theobald changed 'mad' to 'bad.' Warburton read 'and he she loved forsook her, And she proved mad'! Johnson said 'mad' meant only 'wild, frantic, uncertain.' But what Desdemona says of Barbara is just what Ophelia might have said of herself.

FOOTNOTE 2: The whole force of the passages referred to can be felt only by a reader. The Othello of our stage can never be Shakespeare's Othello, any more than the Cleopatra of our stage can be his Cleopatra.

FOOTNOTE 3: See p. 9

FOOTNOTE 4: Even here, however, there is a great difference; for although the idea of such a power is not suggested by King Lear as it is by Hamlet and Macbeth, it is repeatedly expressed by persons in the drama. Of such references there are very few in Othello. But for somewhat frequent allusions to hell and the devil the view of the characters is almost strictly secular. Desdemona's sweetness and forgivingness are not based on religion, and her only way of accounting for her undeserved suffering is by an appeal to Fortune: 'It is my wretched fortune' (iv. ii. 128). In like manner Othello can only appeal to Fate (v. ii. 264):

but, oh vain boast!
Who can control his fate?

FOOTNOTE 5: Ulrici has good remarks, though he exaggerates, on this point and the element of intrigue.

FOOTNOTE 6: And neither she nor Othello observes what handkerchief it is. Else she would have remembered how she came to lose it, and would have told Othello; and Othello, too, would at once have detected Iago's lie (iii. iii. 438) that he had seen Cassio wipe his beard with the handkerchief 'to-day.' For in fact the handkerchief had been lost not an hour before Iago told that lie (line 288 of the same scene), and it was at that moment in his pocket. He lied therefore most rashly, but with his usual luck.

FOOTNOTE 7: For those who know the end of the story there is a terrible irony in the enthusiasm with which Cassio greets the arrival of Desdemona in Cyprus. Her ship (which is also Iago's) sets out from Venice a week later than the others, but reaches Cyprus on the same day with them:

Tempests themselves, high seas and howling winds,
The gutter'd rocks and congregated sands—
Traitors ensteep'd to clog the guiltless keel—
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures, letting go safely by
The divine Desdemona.

So swiftly does Fate conduct her to her doom.

FOOTNOTE 8: The dead bodies are not carried out at the end, as they must have been if the bed had been on the main stage (for this had no front curtain). The curtains within which the bed stood were drawn together at the words, 'Let it be hid' (v. ii. 365).

FOOTNOTE 9: Against which may be set the scene of the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear.

How to cite this article:

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: MacMillan and Co., 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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