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The Moral Enigma of Shakespeare's Othello

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.

Few of the plays of Shakespeare have from the first excited more intense interest among both theatre-goers and readers than the sad story of Othello and his life in Venice. The nature of the Moor's difficulties and the deep pathos of his catastrophe have brought the play closer to the lives and bosoms of men than any other of the great tragedies. The general excellence of the character of Othello, the noble Moor, and of Desdemona, the fair maid of Venice, together with the distressing nature of their marital conflict have made Othello the most heart-rending and the most moving of all the tragedies of Shakespeare. Many persons who can observe with comparative calmness the awful conflict of aged father and ungrateful, ambitious daughters in King Lear are almost overcome by the appalling sadness of Othello's mistrust and murder of his young and beautiful wife. The passion of Othello seems more titanic, and the conflict more vital and elemental than that of King Lear. The ruin of filial relationships seems less a tragedy than the overthrow and failure of the marital relationship, and the fate that befalls Desdemona even less deserved than that which befalls Cordelia. Professor Bradley has truly said, "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."1

While all have been impressed by the deep and absorbing passion of the play, it has not always been for the same reason. Shocked as all have been by the awful catastrophe, the real nature of the conflict and of the outcome has been variously interpreted. The very intensity of the passion has doubtless confused our notions, and sympathy and horror have often taken the place of careful study and clear thinking. Admiration for the "noble Moor," compassion for the "divine Desdemona," and scorn for the intriguing Iago, have misguided our judgments, have obscured the story of the play and the very words that should reveal the true character and actual deeds of the persons. In some cases both artistic sensibility and moral judgment have been paralyzed, until Othello has become a perfect hero, Desdemona a spotless saint, and poor lago a fiend incarnate. Instead of appreciating the play as it is written, and perceiving the informing thought of the dramatist, this emotional criticism has made the injurer noble, his chief victim a saint, the injured a devil, and Shakespeare foolish.

Othello has doubtless been very difficult of interpretation. More than half a century ago the Edinburgh Review (1850) expressed only the truth when it said that "all critics of name have been perplexed by the moral enigma which lies under this tragic tale." Since these words were written the opinion has become all but universal that it is the moral aspects of the play that have made it difficult to understand. The passing years, moreover, have forced the conviction upon many students that as the enigma of this play, and of many others, is "moral," so the true interpretation must likewise be "moral." The solution of a play that is a "moral enigma" must come if it comes at all from a solution of the moral aspects of the play, which can be reached only by a due consideration of all the moral relations of the various persons of the drama. And while it must be admitted that no expositions thus far have proven entirely satisfactory, the many earnest attempts to unravel the "moral enigma" mark the only successes up to the present time that criticism has made with this most fascinating drama.

There is no external source from which we can learn Shakespeare's dramatic purpose, and we can only infer it as we see it unfolded in his plays. Like all the dramatists up to his time he let his plays speak for themselves, and unlike many later dramatists he left no word of comment or explanation. The dedications of Jonson, and the prefaces of Dryden and others have served to disclose their dramatic purposes and even to interpret their dramas. But Shakespeare has left us no dedications and no prefaces. If he has revealed anywhere his conception of the function of the drama it is in Hamlet's directions to the players, and these do not help us in the interpretation of any particular play. Whether Shakespeare shared the opinion of most other English dramatists and critics of his time that the drama should not only please but profit the audience we cannot know directly. Three centuries of study have not yet made clear his attitude toward the principle of "poetic justice," as the moral aspects of the drama came later to be called. To this day the discussion has gone on, and many students are inclined to think that in Othello and other plays he has ignored this principle altogether. 2

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when criticism was almost entirely didactic, it was all but unanimously agreed that Shakespeare paid no attention to moral subjects or to ethical forces. The burden of the critics from Rymer to Johnson was that Shakespeare had violated all our fundamental notions of "poetic justice," or in other words had paid no attention whatsoever to moral considerations. In his discussion of this subject Rymer chose Othello, as Professor Alden has recently said, "to show the extreme results of neglecting this principle, on the part of the more or less barbarous Elizabethans. What unnatural crime had Desdemona committed to bring such judgment upon her?" Rymer's own words are very strong:

"What instruction can be made out of this catastrophe? . . . How can it work, unless to delude our senses, disorder our thought, addle our brain, pervert our affections, corrupt our appetite, and fill our head with vanity, confusion, tintamarre, and jingle-jangle?"3 The same opinion was still held in the time of Dr. Johnson, nearly a century later. In the preface to his edition of Shakespeare Johnson says: "His first defect is that ... he sacrifices virtue to convenience, is so much more careful to please than to instruct, hat he seems to write without any moral purpose . . . he makes no just distribution of good and evil, nor is always careful to show in the virtuous a disapprobation of the wicked. . . ."
These critics are in substantial agreement with all other English criticism, whether applied directly to Shakespeare or not, in their demand that the drama should not violate our fundamental moral notions. The history of the principle of "poetic justice" in English criticism shows that English thought has always applied itself to the more ethical phases of the drama, but we shall find that the classical and formal conceptions of the principle held in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were hopelessly inadequate for the living and romantic Elizabethan drama. The criticism as well as the drama of that period falls far short of dealing adequately with large and living conceptions, and when they attempted to interpret Shakespeare their limitations became very apparent. The classical period was utterly unable to deal with any dramatist at once so large and so vital as Shakespeare.

In the nineteenth century there arose a generation of romantic critics who knew not the classicists of the ages of Rymer and Johnson. These equally with the earlier critics demanded that Shakespeare should square himself with our moral conceptions, but they had outlived the formalism of their predecessors and had learned to look in other places for Shakespeare's "poetic justice." Actuated with the stubborn notion that his moral conceptions were not to be found in explicit utterance, or in didactic phrase, they began to look for an implicit morality in the construction and conduct of the narratives of the plays, and in so doing opened up the most fruitful of all eras of Shakespeare study.

The first, of this long line of able critics was Coleridge, with whom as a recent writer has said, "Rational appreciation may be said to begin in England." It was a vast step forward in criticism when this great man, poet and critic in one, laid aside the idea that Shakespeare was in need either of revision or criticism, and inaugurated the modern attempt at interpretation. Though succeeding ages have found plenty of reason for dissenting from many of his opinions we have never really departed from his method of interpretation.

In his study of Othello, as of other plays, Coleridge made a diligent search for the dramatic motive, and tried to find out the underlying reason for the catastrophe that had puzzled earlier critics. Instead of trying to show defects in Shakespeare's notions of poetic justice, he attempted to find the reason if not the justification for the catastrophe. Carefully surveying the play, he reached the conviction that in Othello Shakespeare was portraying a man whose misfortunes were due to the intrigue of another, and were not intended by the dramatist to appear as retribution for any of his own misdeeds. In Iago and his evil mind Coleridge found the sole cause of Othello's tragic end. To Iago's "motiveless malignity"3 must be ascribed, he says, the entire catastrophe. This man is "a being next to devil, and only not quite devil."4 It is his evil and jealous mind that works all the harm done to Othello and his wife.

From this it is clear at any rate that Coleridge saw the importance of a right understanding of the relations of Othello and Iago for a proper comprehension and interpretation of the play. It will appear, however, as we proceed that Coleridge overlooked some of the most important factors in the relations of these two, and that he had not shaken off entirely the eighteenth century habit of trying to form our own opinion of Shakespeare's characters, instead of ascertaining the dramatist's opinion. It is of course permissible for any one to differ from the dramatist about any of his characters, but it is not permissible to substitute this opinion for the dramatist's, and then on this basis charge the dramatist with being inartistic or with a violation of our moral principles. Even less satisfactory, however, is Coleridge's treatment of the relations of Othello and Desdemona, a proper understanding of which is all but as important as that of Othello and Iago. This also will call for the most careful study. But, though Coleridge's treatment of these two topics has not settled the interpretation of the play, it can be freely maintained that the method he adopted is the only hopeful method for the interpretation of the drama.

Continue to Part 2: Othello as Tragic Hero


FOOTNOTE 1: Shakespearean Tragedy, pp. 177-8. London, 2nd edition, 1905.

FOOTNOTE 2: Of. Professor R. M. Alden, The Decline of Poetic Justice, Atlantic Monthly, February, 1910, pp. 260-7.

FOOTNOTE 3: Johnson, Shakespeare and His Critics, p. 18 ; Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1909.

FOOTNOTE 4: Lectures on Shakespeare (Bonn's Library), p. 388.

How to cite this article:

Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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