"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 29, 2011

Othello–Who was Responsible?


I have been re-reading A.C. Bradley’s book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and his lectures on Othello:


Bradley agrees most of us that Iago was a cunning, highly intelligent, perceptive, and "evil" character; but that the character of Othello was such that once the idea was planted, it took quick and easy hold.  In other words, it was at least both the conniving of Iago and the character of Othello that caused the downfall; and perhaps of the two it was perhaps the latter that was more important. Bradley does admit, however, that it took cunning to perceive the cracks in Othello's character ("one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme", ), and the power of the play is the progressive and inevitable destruction of Othello only made possible by Iago. 

He also suggests that Desdemona, as reticent, obedient, innocently trusting, and weak as any of Shakespeare's women was as important in Othello's downfall.  She didn't see the tragedy coming, loved and trusted even more simply and purely than Othello.

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.

Bradley makes a particular point of talking of fortune, which plays an important role in the success of Iago's plot.  Had any one thing (and Bradley quotes many chance happenings - i.e. had Othello not come in at just the moment when Cassio and Desdemona were in "intimate conversation", etc.) not happened (or happened) the plot would have been derailed, suggesting that the tragedy was less in the plotting than in the character. 

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, 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 characters] — there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides with villainy

Bradley suggests:

1. Othello, although the complete soldier/statesman we talked about, was also a poet and a romantic; and thus his love for Desdemona, coming at a later stage in his life was perhaps overly-romantic, leading to illusion or lack of the usual acuity he had on the battlefield.  This is an interesting take, for I had assumed that because Othello was the consummate soldier/statesman, he should have known better.

2. "His tragedy lies in this — that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable."

3. "He comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy. For there is no love, not that of Romeo in his youth, more steeped in imagination than Othello's."  And it is this imagination - this perhaps over-idealized love - which leaves him open to deception and jealousy.

4. "The sources of danger in this character are revealed but too clearly by the story. In the first place, Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect. On this side he is the very opposite of Hamlet, with whom, however, he shares a great openness and trustfulness of nature. In addition, he has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women."

5. "...For all his dignity and massive calm (and he has greater dignity than any other of Shakespeare's men), he is by nature full of the most vehement passion."

6. "Othello's nature is all of one piece. His trust, where he trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible to him. He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously. If stirred to indignation, as "in Aleppo once," he answers with one lightning stroke. Love, if he loves, must be to him the heaven where either he must live or bear no life. If such a passion as jealousy seizes him, it will swell into a well-nigh incontrollable flood. He will press for immediate conviction or immediate relief. Convinced, he will act with the authority of a judge and the swiftness of a man in mortal pain. Undeceived, he will do like execution on himself. "

7. "Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had lived with a wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his bosom-friend. Nor is there any ground in Othello's character for supposing that, if he had been such a man, he would have felt and acted as he does in the play. But he was newly married; in the circumstances he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage; and further he was conscious of being under the spell of a feeling which can give glory to the truth but can also give it to a dream. "

Now, with all this having been said, Bradley of course acknowledges the perverse genius of Iago:

Othello, we have seen, was trustful, and thorough in his trust. He put entire confidence in the honesty of Iago, who had not only been his companion in arms, but, as he believed, had just proved his faithfulness in the matter of the marriage. This confidence was misplaced, and we happen to know it; but it was no sign of stupidity in Othello. For his opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him: and that opinion was that Iago was before all things "honest," his very faults being those of excess in honesty. This being so, even if Othello had not been trustful and simple, it would have been quite unnatural in him to be unmoved by the warnings of so honest a friend, warnings offered with extreme reluctance and manifestly from a sense of a friend's duty. Any husband would have been troubled by them." 

Iago knew his reputation and used it to his ultimately successful ends.

However, here is where I have trouble: Iago's success is due to: 1) his own reputation; 2) chance and fortuitousness; 3) Desdemona's innocence and reticence; 4) Othello's character. Therefore, we have to give less "credit" to the brilliance, ingenuity, and cunning of Iago than these other factors.

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