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The Problem of Time in Othello

An excerpt from A. C. Bradley's Lectures on Othello

The Duration of Action in Othello

The quite unusual difficulties regarding this subject have led to much discussion, a synopsis of which may be found in Furness's Variorum edition, pp. 358-72. Without detailing the facts I will briefly set out the main difficulty, which is that, according to one set of indications (which I will call A), Desdemona was murdered within a day or two of her arrival in Cyprus, while, according to another set (which I will call B), some time elapsed between her arrival and the catastrophe. Let us take A first, and run through the play.

(A) Act I opens on the night of Othello's marriage. On that night he is despatched to Cyprus, leaving Desdemona to follow him.

In Act II, sc. i, there arrive at Cyprus, first, in one ship, Cassio; then, in another, Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia; then, in another, Othello (Othello, Cassio, and Desdemona being in three different ships, it does not matter, for our purpose, how long the voyage lasted). On the night following these arrivals in Cyprus the marriage is consummated (II. iii. 9), Cassio is cashiered, and, on Iago's advice, he resolves to ask Desdemona's intercession 'betimes in the morning' (II. iii. 335).

In Act III, Sc. iii. (the Temptation scene), he does so: Desdemona does intercede: Iago begins to poison Othello's mind: the handkerchief is lost, found by Emilia, and given to Iago: he determines to leave it in Cassio's room, and, renewing his attack on Othello, asserts that he has seen the handkerchief in Cassio's hand: Othello bids him kill Cassio within three days, and resolves to kill Desdemona himself. All this occurs in one unbroken scene, and evidently on the day after the arrival in Cyprus (see III. i. 33).

In the scene (iv.) following the Temptation scene Desdemona sends to bid Cassio come, as she has interceded for him: Othello enters, tests her about the handkerchief, and departs in anger: Cassio, arriving, is told of the change in Othello, and, being left solus, is accosted by Bianca, whom he requests to copy the work on the handkerchief which he has just found in his room (ll. 188 f.). All this is naturally taken to happen in the later part of the day on which the events of III, i.-iii. took place, i.e. the day after the arrival in Cyprus: but I shall return to this point.

In IV. i. Iago tells Othello that Cassio has confessed, and, placing Othello where he can watch, he proceeds on Cassio's entrance to rally him about Bianca; and Othello, not being near enough to hear what is said, believes that Cassio is laughing at his conquest of Desdemona. Cassio here says that Bianca haunts him and 'was here even now'; and Bianca herself, coming in, reproaches him about the handkerchief 'you gave me even now.' There is therefore no appreciable time between III. iv. and IV, i. In this same scene Bianca bids Cassio come to supper to-night; and Lodovico, arriving, is asked to sup with Othello to-night. In IV. ii. Iago persuades Roderigo to kill Cassio that night as he comes from Bianca's. In IV. iii. Lodovico, after supper, takes his leave, and Othello bids Desdemona go to bed on the instant and dismiss her attendant.

In Act V, that night, the attempted assassination of Cassio, and the murder of Desdemona, take place.

From all this, then, it seems clear that the time between the arrival in Cyprus and the catastrophe is certainly not more than a few days, and most probably only about a day and a half: or, to put it otherwise, that most probably Othello kills his wife about twenty-four hours after the consummation of their marriage!

The only possible place, it will be seen, where time can elapse is between III. iii. and III. iv. And here Mr. Fleay would imagine a gap of at least a week. The reader will find that this supposition involves the following results, (a) Desdemona has allowed at least a week to elapse without telling Cassio that she has interceded for him. (b) Othello, after being convinced of her guilt, after resolving to kill her, and after ordering Iago to kill Cassio within three days, has allowed at least a week to elapse without even questioning her about the handkerchief, and has so behaved during all this time that she is totally unconscious of any change in his feelings. (c) Desdemona, who reserves the handkerchief evermore about her to kiss and talk to (III. iii. 295), has lost it for at least a week before she is conscious of the loss. (d) Iago has waited at least a week to leave the handkerchief in Cassio's chamber; for Cassio has evidently only just found it, and wants the work on it copied before the owner makes inquiries for it. These are all gross absurdities. It is certain that only a short time, most probable that not even a night, elapses between III. iii. and III. iv.

(B) Now this idea that Othello killed his wife, probably within twenty-four hours, certainly within a few days, of the consummation of his marriage, contradicts the impression produced by the play on all uncritical readers and spectators. It is also in flat contradiction with a large number of time-indications in the play itself. It is needless to mention more than a few. (a) Bianca complains that Cassio has kept away from her for a week (III. iv. 173). Cassio and the rest have therefore been more than a week in Cyprus, and, we should naturally infer, considerably more. (b) The ground on which Iago builds throughout is the probability of Desdemona's having got tired of the Moor; she is accused of having repeatedly committed adultery with Cassio (e.g. V. ii. 210); these facts and a great many others, such as Othello's language in iii. iii. 338 ff., are utterly absurd on the supposition that he murders his wife within a day or two of the night when he consummated his marriage. (c) Iago's account of Cassio's dream implies (and indeed states) that he had been sleeping with Cassio 'lately,' i.e. after arriving at Cyprus: yet, according to A, he had only spent one night in Cyprus, and we are expressly told that Cassio never went to bed on that night. Iago doubtless was a liar, but Othello was not an absolute idiot.


Thus (1) one set of time-indications clearly shows that Othello murdered his wife within a few days, probably a day and a half, of his arrival in Cyprus and the consummation of his marriage; (2) another set of time-indications implies quite as clearly that some little time must have elapsed, probably a few weeks; and this last is certainly the impression of a reader who has not closely examined the play.

It is impossible to escape this result. The suggestion that the imputed intrigue of Cassio and Desdemona took place at Venice before the marriage, not at Cyprus after it, is quite futile. There is no positive evidence whatever for it; if the reader will merely refer to the difficulties mentioned under B above, he will see that it leaves almost all of them absolutely untouched; and Iago's accusation is uniformly one of adultery.

How then is this extraordinary contradiction to be explained? It can hardly be one of the casual inconsistencies, due to forgetfulness, which are found in Shakespeare's other tragedies; for the scheme of time indicated under A seems deliberate and self-consistent, and the scheme indicated under B seems, if less deliberate, equally self-consistent. This does not look as if a single scheme had been so vaguely imagined that inconsistencies arose in working it out; it points to some other source of contradiction.

'Christopher North,' who dealt very fully with the question, elaborated a doctrine of Double Time, Short and Long. To do justice to this theory in a few words is impossible, but its essence is the notion that Shakespeare, consciously or unconsciously, wanted to produce on the spectator (for he did not aim at readers) two impressions. He wanted the spectator to feel a passionate and vehement haste in the action; but he also wanted him to feel that the action was fairly probable. Consciously or unconsciously he used Short Time (the scheme of A) for the first purpose, and Long Time (the scheme of B) for the second. The spectator is affected in the required manner by both, though without distinctly noticing the indications of the two schemes.

The notion underlying this theory is probably true, but the theory itself can hardly stand. Passing minor matters by, I would ask the reader to consider the following remarks. (a) If, as seems to be maintained, the spectator does not notice the indications of 'Short Time' at all, how can they possibly affect him? The passion, vehemence and haste of Othello affect him, because he perceives them; but if he does not perceive the hints which show the duration of the action from the arrival in Cyprus to the murder, these hints have simply no existence for him and are perfectly useless. The theory, therefore, does not explain the existence of 'Short Time.' (b) It is not the case that 'Short Time' is wanted only to produce an impression of vehemence and haste, and 'Long Time' for probability. The 'Short Time' is equally wanted for probability: for it is grossly improbable that Iago's intrigue should not break down if Othello spends a week or weeks between the successful temptation and his execution of justice. (c) And this brings me to the most important point, which appears to have escaped notice. The place where 'Long Time' is wanted is not within Iago's intrigue. 'Long Time' is required simply and solely because the intrigue and its circumstances presuppose a marriage consummated, and an adultery possible, for (let us say) some weeks. But, granted that lapse between the marriage and the temptation, there is no reason whatever why more than a few days or even one day should elapse between this temptation and the murder. The whole trouble arises because the temptation begins on the morning after the consummated marriage. Let some three weeks elapse between the first night at Cyprus and the temptation; let the brawl which ends in the disgrace of Cassio occur not on that night but three weeks later; or again let it occur that night, but let three weeks elapse before the intercession of Desdemona and the temptation of Iago begin. All will then be clear. Cassio has time to make acquaintance with Bianca, and to neglect her: the Senate has time to hear of the perdition of the Turkish fleet and to recall Othello: the accusations of Iago cease to be ridiculous; and the headlong speed of the action after the temptation has begun is quite in place. Now, too, there is no reason why we should not be affected by the hints of time ('to-day,' 'to-night,' 'even now'), which we do perceive (though we do not calculate them out). And, lastly, this supposition corresponds with our natural impression, which is that the temptation and what follows it take place some little while after the marriage, but occupy, themselves, a very short time.

Now, of course, the supposition just described is no fact. As the play stands, it is quite certain that there is no space of three weeks, or anything like it, either between the arrival in Cyprus and the brawl, or between the brawl and the temptation. And I draw attention to the supposition chiefly to show that quite a small change would remove the difficulties, and to insist that there is nothing wrong at all in regard to the time from the temptation onward. How to account for the existing contradictions I do not at all profess to know, and I will merely mention two possibilities.

Possibly, as Mr. Daniel observes, the play has been tampered with. We have no text earlier than 1622, six years after Shakespeare's death. It may be suggested, then, that in the play, as Shakespeare wrote it, there was a gap of some weeks between the arrival in Cyprus and Cassio's brawl, or (less probably) between the brawl and the temptation. Perhaps there was a scene indicating the lapse of time. Perhaps it was dull, or the play was a little too long, or devotees of the unity of time made sport of a second breach of that unity coming just after the breach caused by the voyage. Perhaps accordingly the owners of the play altered, or hired a dramatist to alter, the arrangement at this point, and this was unwittingly done in such a way as to produce the contradictions we are engaged on. There is nothing intrinsically unlikely in this idea; and certainly, I think, the amount of such corruption of Shakespeare's texts by the players is usually rather underrated than otherwise. But I cannot say I see any signs of foreign alteration in the text, though it is somewhat odd that Roderigo, who makes no complaint on the day of the arrival in Cyprus when he is being persuaded to draw Cassio into a quarrel that night, should, directly after the quarrel (II. iii. 370), complain that he is making no advance in his pursuit of Desdemona, and should speak as though he had been in Cyprus long enough to have spent nearly all the money he brought from Venice.

Or, possibly, Shakespeare's original plan was to allow some time to elapse after the arrival at Cyprus, but when he reached the point he found it troublesome to indicate this lapse in an interesting way, and convenient to produce Cassio's fall by means of the rejoicings on the night of the arrival, and then almost necessary to let the request for intercession, and the temptation, follow on the next day. And perhaps he said to himself, No one in the theatre will notice that all this makes an impossible position: and I can make all safe by using language that implies that Othello has after all been married for some time. If so, probably he was right. I do not think anyone does notice the impossibilities either in the theatre or in a casual reading of the play.

Either of these suppositions is possible: neither is, to me, probable. The first seems the less unlikely. If the second is true, Shakespeare did in Othello what he seems to do in no other play. I can believe that he may have done so; but I find it very hard to believe that he produced this impossible situation without knowing it. It is one thing to read a drama or see it, quite another to construct and compose it, and he appears to have imagined the action in Othello with even more than his usual intensity.

The above excerpt is from A. C. Bradley's famous lectures on Shakespearean Tragedy.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy


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