Wednesday, July 06, 2016

William Shakespeare: Othello (1601-02?)

Othello and Iago

[Image source: . 1901 illustration from a Philadelphia edition of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.]

I wrote about King Lear before.

Spenser's chronicle of Lear, describing the king "Too truely tryde in his extreamest state", could have already been percolating in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote Othello's self-description:

   one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme ...

Both are plays of suffering. In Othello, the titular hero's suffering begins in III.1, after two acts of patient preparation by Iago. The suffering Othello murders his beloved under a misapprehension and then kills himself. Othello is the most painful of Shakespeare's tragedies, A.C. Bradley said (1904), and I agree with him.

It may not be absolutely his "greatest" play but it is without doubt one of his most astonishing achievements. It's unique: no other play is like Othello; and it's perfectly achieved; and it matters.

In Lear the steadily mounting suffering is brought forward to the early part of the play. Shakespeare wanted to see where this pitch of suffering led, if it didn't culminate in suicide. The answer was the cosmic expressionism of the mad scenes. [Bradley's Note R points out that most of Lear's reminiscences of Othello occur in the first two acts.]

Modern editors have increasingly favoured Alfred Hart's 1935 claim that the bad Q1 of Hamlet evinces knowledge of Othello. That would place the composition of Othello in 1601-02, earlier than has often been supposed. This brings Othello interestingly close to Twelfth Night: Orsino and Othello, we see, are both rhetorically-inclined lovers with more than a touch of egotism. And Troilus and Cressida: another play in which idealized love crashes and burns. (What, we can imagine Shakespeare wondering, if Cressida had been innocent all along and Troilus had only thought he'd seen what he saw in the Greek camp?)  [A point already made, I discover, by Sternfeld in his book about music in Shakespearean tragedy.]

By the same token, this earlier date for Othello moves it further away from Lear. Yet the way these two plays begin have profound connections too. In each of them the tragic hero is at the summit of his achievement. And each celebrates his triumph by orchestrating a public scene with a touch of self-dramatizing flamboyance.  (What, we can imagine Shakespeare wondering, if Desdemona had not played her part before the council in quite the way Othello was hoping?)


F.R. Leavis' 1937 attempt to unseat Bradley by emphasizing Othello's faults, which leads him to the absurd remark that Iago is only a device, is not one of his triumphant essays. But it has some very good things in it. Many of those good things were already latent in Bradley, if Leavis had done him the justice to read him seriously, rather than to smear him with "comic solemnity" and the absence of even "moderate intelligence", etc.

What Leavis especially disliked - and you can't blame him for this - is Bradley's assertions that e.g. "both Desdemona and Othello show themselves at their noblest just before death" or  "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 worthwhile, the important, subject of disagreement between them is the validity of this Victorian-inflected conception of heroism.

Leavis pretends that the difference is about literary methodology, i.e. Bradley's supposed tendency to treat Shakespeare's characters as real people, instead of focussing on the "dramatic poem". Actually it's Leavis himself who makes the worst blunder of this sort, by inferring Othello's gross susceptibility to jealousy from the fact (Leavis treats it as a fact in the story) that it takes only 70 lines to convert him from besotted contentment to smouldering jealousy.

The same stricture applies, in part, to one of Leavis' strongest cards, Othello's self-dramatization. For here Leavis doesn't take any account of Othello being, in fact, a drama; I'm not persuaded it's always straightforward to distinguish the way that drama tells stories from unique aspects of the character Othello's personality. And I think Leavis is a little naive - perhaps draws back from Eliot - in seeming to assume that self-dramatization is a distinct and culpable personality trait as opposed to something that nearly all of us do in public. In this area, too, we need to go a bit deeper.



          That you shall surely find him,
Lead to the Sagittary the raised search,
And there will I be with him. So, farewell.

- - -


                   I do beseech you,
Send for the lady to the Sagittary,
And let her speak of me before her father: ...

Discussion in Rodney M. Baine's 1939 note in the Shakespeare Association Bulletin (Vol 14 no 4 (Oct 939), pp. 226-31.  (Among more infantile Shakespeare scholars this is commonly known as the Baine's Note.)

The choice in 1939 came down to two options, really. (The third option, that the Sagittary referred to an area of the Venice Arsenal, had already been demolished when the statue of "Mars the Archer" was shown to post-date Shakespeare's play.)

1. Shakespeare made up a plausible name for an inn. "Sagittary" probably means Centaur, as it does in Troilus and Cressida. There is an inn called the Centaur in the Comedy of Errors. (This is the orthodox view, defended by Baine.)

2. Shakespeare had somehow heard of, remembered or even visited a street in Venice called the Frezzaria, named (apparently in the 15th century) after the arrow-makers whose ateliers clustered there. He or his intermediate source transformed the name into its Latinate equivalent "Sagittary" (proposed by Violet M. Jeffery in 1932).

Calle Frezzeria (Venice)

[Image source: . 2009 photo by "L736E".]

The choice to be made here reflects other decision-choices about Othello. It's a marvellously grounded play, but to what extent is this solidity testament to Shakespeare's visionary imagination, and to what extent is it founded in real knowledge of Venice, Venetians, Moors and Cyprus?

A complexity, maybe, is that the events on which Othello is based took place semi-recently. The Turks had finally succeeded in capturing Cyprus in 1570-73, as all Europe knew.  Giraldi Cinthio's tale "Un Capitano Moro" was in Gli Hecatommithi (1565), and some details may be based on an actual crime, though there's a strong element of folk-tale too. It's in this latter connection that Cinthio appears to moralize over the unwisdom of Disdemona's decision to marry a Moor. In the folk-tale world, xenophobic and conformist, it's always a bad plan to get involved with the Other.


Shakespeare's transformation of his Othello-source has a lot in common with what he did previously in Hamlet and afterwards in Lear.

The principal change he made, from which all else follows, is omitting the Ensign's (Iago's) failed attempt to seduce Disdemona, and accordingly eliminating his motive for taking vengeance, not on the Moor (Othello), but on Disdemona. Those two popular Bradleyan conundrums, the problem of Iago's motives and the problem of Hamlet's delay, each arise from Shakespeare's alterations to his source. In the case of Hamlet this alteration - to make the murder of Hamlet's father a secret rather than an avowed act, thus eliminating the very clear reason for Hamlet's/Amleth's extreme circumspection - ; this may not have been Shakespeare's own doing, it may have already happened in the ur-Hamlet possibly written by Kyd. But in the case of Othello we don't have this extra complexity to contend with.

The alteration of the source in this case is very understandable in practical terms. According to Cinthio, the Ensign's attempt to seduce Disdemona passes unnoticed by her. Nevertheless, the Ensign develops a vengeful hatred against her. It's a story-line that's both difficult to stage and difficult to credit. But Cinthio was driven to it because if Disdemona had known anything about the Ensign's designs on her honour we'd want to know why Disdemona never mentioned it to her husband; which was quite out of the question; it would destroy the Ensign's credibility and, indeed, sign his death-warrant.  In Cinthio, as in Shakespeare, the terrible interest of the plot crucially depends on no-one having the least inkling of the Ensign's/Iago's villainy. But criminals who have clear motives are usually all too guessable. So to get round this difficulty, Cinthio supplied a secret motive, at least cursorily, in the form of the old cliché of disappointed love.

Shakespeare does without this secret motive; he does without any clearly-stated motive at all; which is actually much more credible psychologically. Iago poisons Othello's mind, but his own mind is poisoned already. And Shakespeare makes the target of his inexplicable hatred not Desdemona (whom Iago coldly sacrifices without any indication of rancour) but Othello. At least, mainly. To some extent you could say that he delights in destroying the relationship itself ("Oh, you are well tuned now..."). To some extent he delights in bringing down and almost killing Cassio. If you want a single word to explain Iago you wouldn't go far astray with "envy". But as all medieval preachers knew, envy is the deadly sin that least likes to become aware of itself. And honest, plain-spoken Iago is somewhat less than plain and honest when it comes to facing up to his own motives.

That said, Iago really doesn't appear to have strong personal reasons for killing Desdemona (like everything else in the story, this has been disputed), but he does care very much about destroying Othello. I'm sure everyone agrees that this is a plot-improvement, but it does have one slightly strange consequence. For Othello to be truly destroyed, he needs to discover that he's been duped into murdering his innocent love; but Othello can only make this discovery when Iago is unmasked. So in a way Iago sacrifices his own life to his act of pure evil. (I return to this point later on.)

In both Shakespeare and Cinthio, Desdemona is totally innocent: both morally, and in the sense of being quite unaware of Iago's nature. She cannot protect herself; in fact Iago consciously uses her innocence to condemn her in Othello's mind. In the same way, he destroys Othello by playing on aspects of his personality that are in themselves good and innocent (for example, an unsuspicious nature and a soldier's unhesitating ability to make tough decisions).

Cinthio's is a nasty story but it isn't a tragic story, because the Disdemona who is bludgeoned to death is an unwitting victim. When Shakespeare transforms the story into the destruction of Othello, a destruction that is his own act, a destruction of which he is made conscious, then the story becomes tragedy. Othello is different from Cinthio's Moor. Shakespeare ennobles him, but also makes him solely responsible for killing the woman he loves.

It's an unusual tragedy, however, because it's of the essence that Othello is duped. People being tricked and jumping to wrong conclusions, the audience understanding more than the characters do... these motifs are normally the stuff of comedy, not tragedy. Rymer's condemnation of the play as a "bloody farce" alludes to this feature (leaving aside the less pleasant aspects of Rymer's view). And in a way this extremely dark play does have some interesting connections with Troilus and Cressida, a play, it now appears, that may be close to it in date of composition.

Sidney Poitier refused to play Othello in the 1960s, saying "I cannot go on stage and give the audience a black man who is a dupe". Hugh Quarshie, likewise, argued that the play had racial stereotyping built into both its original design and its subsequent performance history. This is undeniable, and the fascinating history of casting and performing Othello, recounted by Ayanna Thompson in the revised 3rd Arden edition, leads to no simple conclusions.


The glamour of the foreigner

[Image source:]

I was chatting recently to my sister and her partner about their experiences teaching in Japan a few years ago,. (Something they both did for a couple of years, via the  heavily sponsored JET programme. This was before they met each other; when they did, it gave them something to talk about!)

Both testified to the enormous interest, amounting to fascination, that their presence aroused among the rural Japanese. At first this constant gazing, crowding round and longing to touch their hair or compare heights seemed oppressive and even scary.

But as time went by, they got used to it. So used to it, indeed, that when they returned to the UK a funny thing happened. They got culture-shock in reverse. Arriving at a pub or a party, they unconsciously donned a celebrity smile and an aura of "Well HELLO there! Let's get this party STARTED!"  And the off-hand way they were greeted made them feel a little put out. 

I'll accept that it's a bit different if you're a slave or a refugee or oyster-picking for a ganger, but there is a kind of built-in glamour to being a foreigner in a foreign land. You are living life. You are out there. Your experiences are potentially worth writing about for the folks back home. Your brain lives in the present, kept active by the stimuli of new sights and sounds. 

I was thinking about this in connection with Othello.


There's no evidence that Shakespeare ever left England. He had travelled, indeed. From Stratford-upon-Avon to London. In those days, that was quite a long way. 

He had surely seen people from other races. Even in those days, London was a cosmopolitan city. Travellers were starting to have black servants. It's even been suggested that the Dark Lady might have been a woman of colour. Still, the sight of people from other races hadn't yet lost its novelty value. The painters of Shakespeare's time - e.g. Rubens - manifested huge interest in the Africans, Arabs and Asians they came across. Clearly Rubens was not alone. Shakespeare too must have joined the crowd clustering eagerly around these strange phenomena. It must have been just like the Japanese country people surrounding an English (or Irish) teacher. 

All the same, Shakespeare, writing about the Moor Othello in Venice, was mainly working from his own imagination. There was already a tradition of dramas about non-Europeans, from Tamburlaine  to The Battle of Alcazar to Titus Andronicus. In the latter, Aaron is a Moorish foreigner in Rome. Shakespeare himself was the co-creator, along with Peele. Aaron is an out-and-out villain, but here already Shakespeare begins to think about what it means to be a foreigner in service. His imagination told him most of what he needed to know. Aaron was valuable, Aaron was cleverer than his native colleagues, but Aaron was an outsider, he was never secure. 

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1693, Thomas Rymer poured scorn on the notion that a "Blackmoor" could ever end up being a leading general of the Venetian republic, but I'm not convinced that Rymer knew what he was talking about. Cinthio, writing for a sixteenth-century Italian audience, makes his Moor a captain in Venice and says he married a well-born Venetian lady. The story he tells depends upon this being out of the ordinary but certainly not beyond belief.

What Rymer's note testifies to is the dramatic growth in feelings of disgust towards people of colour, as a direct consequence of enslaving them and treating them like beasts. (As everyone now knows, humans tend to demonize those they have wronged, not those who have wronged them.)

In Cinthio's and Shakespeare's day this racism was still in quite an embryonic phase, compared to the visceral feelings evinced later by Rymer and Coleridge and well described by Bradley.

Early theatrical tradition (confirmed by Iago's insults in Othello) seems to have presented Moors as looking more like sub-Saharan Africans than Mediterraneans. Yet Shakespeare very likely had encountered the embassy from Morocco that arrived in London in 1600 and stayed 6 months. Its chief was "Abdul Guahid" (Abd el-Ouahad ben Messaoud), shown in the impressive portrait above. The term "black" had a much wider currency in Shakespeare's day than it did in later, more race-conscious, times: Europeans with dark hair or complexions might also be described as "black".


Perhaps none so colourful as Othello, but Shakespeare would also have known many examples of top professionals, especially military ones, who took service in the pay of a foreign master.

In such service, it was axiomatic that you adopted the religion of your foreign master. Few people yet believed that religion was something for the individual conscience to decide.

That's why Othello appears as a Christian, though an angry Brabantio calls him a heathen.

And Othello is proud of being able to say things that are just what a Venetian would say ("What, are we turned Turk...?").


But Othello is a foreigner. He's a glamorous one. And at the beginning of the play, he's euphoric with the growth of his prestige in a foreign country, his indispensable services to the state, a triumph now topped off by his marriage to the much younger Desdemona, a beauty from the Venetian aristocracy. 

Such inner joy, such self-satisfaction, is something that we envious human beings are extremely sensitive to. It's not the least of reasons why foreigners are often disliked.


The UK has recently had a referendum about this. The question on the ballot-paper, or at least the question that most people chose to answer, was:

Do you want any more foreigners in your neighbourhood? 

__ YES     __NO 

For most people in Britain the answer was, as it always has been, a resounding No. Since we're being given the choice, let's eliminate foreigners. Let them go back where they came from. Life is primarily about our own survival. About preserving the only land we know for us and our children. 

For young, educated, confident, middle-class, high-earning people, the answer was Yes.  They found that they related well to the educated, confident foreigners they met with. These foreigners proved on the whole to be better employees and more like-minded pals; they worked harder, were more intelligent, more aware of the wider world, more switched on, and had more interesting backgrounds. The clever British achievers had aspirations to being foreigners themselves one day. 

Indeed, the clever British achievers felt a lot more comfortable among foreigners than with their own traditional class enemies, those surly curmudgeonly working classes who despise aspirational people, their fakeness and their insincerity.  Anyway, I digress. 


In the opening act of Othello, it's clear that Othello's euphoric foreignness will make enemies. In fact, he's so confident, so high on life, that he doesn't even care all that much what other people think. 

We don't need to see or hear Roderigo and Brabantio to know that surrounding Othello there's going to be a lurking xenophobia. 

Because if foreignness is glamorous, then the non-foreign populace will experience envy. Envy, as always, disguises itself as something else. Hey presto, xenophobia.

Othello is glamorous. We know this because we know that Desdemona falls for him and besides we see him in action, his charisma and authority irresistible in the first two acts. Othello presents himself as an old bloke who has long outgrown any feelings of sexual passion, but we mustn't take that too literally. Certainly he is middle-aged, a man with a lot of history behind him, and significantly older than  Desdemona. But this not-too-serious talk of age is also a way of expressing another feeling: the feeling that he has really "made it" in his career. That the marriage to Desdemona is the crowning glory, his ambitions have all been achieved, he can be an elder statesman. 

What about Iago? Is he xenophobic? He certainly talks like he is, but mainly to manipulate Roderigo and Brabantio. Iago might be too smart to actually fall for this crude racist talk himself. But he is, very definitely, consumed with envy. Of the supremely successful Othello. Also, of the handsome and well-educated Cassio. And he's deeply cynical about Desdemona and all such high-born dames; I believe he genuinely does think that she'll soon tire of her Moorish frolic, and move on to a dashing chap like Cassio.

The one thing that he doesn't imagine is that Desdemona would ever see anything in him, Iago. (The buried plotline of Cinthio's story resonates here.) 

He's right. Actually no-one sees anything in Iago. "Honest" Iago is a tool. Everyone talks to him and everyone relies on him, but no-one cares about him. Go and fetch the luggage, Iago, there's a good fellow. 

So Shakespeare's imagination drove Cinthio's story deeper until it touched on two of the oldest hatreds of them all: the foreigner, and the class beneath you (or above you). Come to think of it, Othello manifests quite a bit of the third ancient hatred too: hatred of women. 

It's depressing to think how vigorous all these hatreds still are today. 


A prescient essay by Umberto Eco on the eternal fascism, or Ur-Fascism, first published in 1995:

(Features 5,6,7 being particularly interesting to me in the present context.)


I want to come back to something I said earlier, that for Othello truly to be destroyed, Iago must be unmasked, and thus Iago in a sense sacrifices his own life to his act of pure evil. 

What I think it's necessary to add is that by this late stage of the play events have outrun Iago's original scheme. In particular, he never originally intended or envisaged that Othello would carry out an honour-killing. (I think Bradley said this too, it's certainly not a new thought.)

This might seem a trivial point to make and it's certainly not something that anyone worries about while watching the play. And there's no doubt that, once it becomes clear to Iago that Othello intends to kill Desdemona, he's willing, as I said before, to coldly sacrifice her. 

However, it has some importance from two points of view. 

The first relates to Iago's own character. What he sets out to do, in the early part of the play, is to make Othello suffer; to "wipe that smug grin off his face", as people who feel like Iago like to put it. He intends to destroy Othello's peace of mind and to wreck his delight in his new marriage, the crowning glory of his career. But Iago seems to imagine that the outcome for Desdemona will simply be an estrangement; Othello will put her aside, making her available once more for potential lovers like Roderigo or Cassio.


The second point to emphasize is that the honour-killing originates exclusively with Othello, the outsider. Though it's Iago who suggests the means and the place. 

What did Shakespeare and his audience think of honour-killing? In our time the predominant view is that it is unvarnished murder combined with the worst kind of domestic abuse. But I don't think it was thought of quite that way in Shakespeare's time. There are other other honour-killings in Shakespeare, actual or potential. Titus Andronicus kills his disobedient son and his maimed and raped daughter, but nothing in that play is morally normative, so it doesn't shed much light on the question. In Hamlet, Hamlet kills his uncle and the threat of killing his mother is palpable, at any rate to her. In Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (acted 1603) - based on an Italian novel - , Frankford considers killing his adulterous wife, and speaks as if he thinks he has the right to do it, though in the event he draws back from this.

Honour-killings in Christian Europe did take place in reality. (Indeed, what were the executions of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, but honour-killings?) But they were rare and archaic in Shakespeare's time and country, more something in books and plays than something actually done. Augustus had  allowed it in the Lex Julia;  killing adulterous wives was also permitted in the Code Napoléon of 1804, leading to relative leniency in the law-courts of France and French colonies. There was a long tradition of honour-killing in Mediterranean Europe, which Shakespeare may have been aware of.  (For example the death, in 1546, of Isabella di Morra.) It was a behaviour associated especially with the nobility. In Lope de Vega's Peribañez (written c. 1604-08) the story is concerned with whether a commoner should have the right to defend his honour (in this case by killing his wife's would-be seducer) -- not an honour-killing (which means killing someone in your own family - overwhelmingly the victims are female), but a somewhat parallel situation. 

I think the reality of drama and its larger-than-life figures, then as now, is that the audience had a slightly different ethic for story-characters than for people in real life. Just as audiences accept or used to accept John Wayne or Clint Eastwood executing summary justice on dozens of people in a way that we'd find deeply problematic outside the frame of a movie. Honour bulks large on the stage. So Shakespeare's audiences might accept, or even expect, a tragic hero who values honour before everything and who might proceed, as Othello does, "to this extremity". Still, the examples of Hamlet and A Woman Killed with Kindness suggest that the potential justice of honour-killing was only accepted, even on stage, in a theoretical way. If you wanted to retain some sympathy for your hero, you made him draw back. 

Anyway, Othello presents a devastating case against honour-killing; though really, I should add that this is not very like a normal honour-killing in the cultural sense, because Othello is acting as a lone agent, he has no family and isn't thinking of family shame. He does, however, borrow some of the supposed sanctity. He uses high-sounding terms about sacrifice, a sacred vow, and "the cause" when it's apparent that it's nothing but a passion for violent revenge that's driving him  (e.g III.3.391, 434).  He's more mad than honour-bound. (It's perhaps rather surprising that he delegates the killing of Cassio to Iago, but this comes from Cinthio. and compare Cymbeline, where Posthumus tries to arrange for his manservant to execute his supposedly unfaithful wife.)

The killing is not beautifully controlled and formal and stately as in Othello's imagination. It's a thoroughly ugly business, with Othello obsessed with his wife as whore. At first he maintains his pose of sad justice:

I would not kill thy unprepared spirit,
No, heaven forfend, I would not kill thy soul.

It isn't what he's said before, and the pose doesn't last.  When Desdemona doesn't prove as accommodating to the role of confessing whore as he wants her to be, his fury returns. 

O perjured woman, thou dost stone my heart
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice. 

In the end he cancels his earlier promise to let her pray. No magnanimity, he has to act now, does the deed in a rage, and not cleanly. He has to strangle her twice. 

But Othello thinks, at least with one part of his clearly disturbed mind, that he's justified. 

O, I were damn'd beneath all depth in hell
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity.

Afterwards he tries several times to explain this, first to Emilia. In her first horror she responds with racism - he "the blacker devil", and this the outcome of Desdemona's "most filthy bargain". Later she merely deflates him, he becomes merely "The Moor" who has "killed my mistress". 

Then, pathetically, he still attempts to speak in terms of the honour-killing to Montano and Gratiano:

"I know this act shows horrible and grim... 'Tis pitiful, but yet Iago knows ..." But this is all swept away by Emilia's revelations. For her Othello is now, most deflating of all, a simpleton. 

O murderous coxcomb, what should such a fool
Do with so good a wife?  (V.2.231-32)


Such is Shakespeare's incomparable cultural status, that a story such as this is, unfortunately, is certain to have given rise to racial and cultural stereotyping, of Moors and black men alike. (The stereotyping occurs when people generalize from the only story about a Moor that they're familiar with.)


Of all Shakespeare plays Othello has one of the best-known, most exciting and most unbearably gripping of stories.You might imagine, then, that commentators and directors would leave that story alone to work its dire magic.

In fact, the opposite has been the case: the more a story is pondered, and the more it's acted, the more we become driven by a restlessness, a longing for some new twist, a longing for the story to change. Who doesn't have their own personal take on Othello?

Harold Bloom thought he saw that Othello and Desdemona didn't get the chance to consummate their marriage, and that this was an important part of the plot, motivating some of Othello's insecurities. This was a most irresponsible abuse of Shakespeare's double time. We're supposed to ignore the double time (as of course we do) when accepting Iago's insinuations as plausible, but to take the same double time with forensic literalness when it comes to supporting Bloom's extra-textual speculations. Othello is supposed to credit the suggestion that his wife has slept with other men at the same time that he knows he hasn't even had time to sleep with her himself. (To my mind, Othello's response to Iago's "Are you fast married", in Act 1 Scene 2, implies that the marriage has already been consummated when the play begins.)



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