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There is perhaps no single drama which throws such light on Shakespeare and his method of work as "Othello": it is a long conflict between the artist in him and the man, and, in the struggle, both his artistic ideals and his passionate soul come to clearest view. From it we see that Shakespeare's nature gave itself gradually to jealousy and revenge. The fire of his passion burned more and more fiercely for years; was infinitely hotter in 1604, when "Othello" was written, than it had been when "Julius Caesar" was written in 1600. This proves to me that Shakespeare's connection with Mary Fitton did not come to an end when he first discovered her unfaithfulness. The intimacy continued for a dozen years. In Sonnet 136 he prays her to allow him to be one of her lovers. That she was liberal enough to consent appears clearly from the growth of passion in his plays. It is certain, too, that she went on deceiving him with other lovers, or his jealousy would have waned away, ebbing with fulfilled desire. But his passion increases in intensity from 1597 to 1604, whipped no doubt to ecstasy by continual deception and wild jealousy. Both lust and jealousy swing to madness in "Othello," But Shakespeare was so great an artist that, when he took the story from Cinthio, he tried to realize it without bringing in his own personality: hence a conflict between his art and his passion.

At first sight "Othello" reminds one of a picture by Titian or Veronese; it is a romantic conception; the personages are all in gala dress; the struggle between Iago and the Moor is melodramatic; the whole picture aglow with a superb richness of colour. It is Shakespeare's finest play, his supreme achievement as a playwright. It is impossible to read "Othello" without admiring the art of it. The beginning is so easy: the introduction of the chief characters so measured and impressive that when the action really begins, it develops and increases in speed as by its own weight to the inevitable end; inevitable--for the end in this case is merely the resultant of the shock of these various personalities. But if the action itself is superbly ordered, the painting of character leaves much to be desired, as we shall see. There is one notable difference between "Othello" and those dramas, "Hamlet," "Macbeth," and "Cymbeline," wherein Shakespeare has depicted himself as the protagonist. In the self-revealing dramas not only does Shakespeare give his hero licence to talk, in and out of season, and thus hinder the development of the story, but he also allows him to occupy the whole stage without a competitor. The explanation is obvious enough. Dramatic art is to be congratulated on the fact that now and then Shakespeare left himself for a little out of the play, for then not only does the construction of the play improve, but the play grows in interest through the encounter of evenly-matched antagonists. The first thing we notice in "Othello" is that Iago is at least as important a character as the hero himself. "Hamlet," on the other hand, is almost a lyric; there is no counterpoise to the student-prince.

Now let us get to the play itself. Othello's first appearance in converse with Iago in the second scene of the first act does not seem to me to deserve the praise that has been lavished on it. Though Othello knows that "boasting is (not) an honour," he nevertheless boasts himself of royal blood. We have noticed already Shakespeare's love of good blood, and belief in its wondrous efficacy; it is one of his permanent and most characteristic traits. The passage about royal descent might be left out with advantage; if these three lines are omitted, Othello's pride in his own nature--his "parts and perfect soul"--is far more strongly felt. But such trivial flaws are forgotten when Brabantio enters and swords are drawn.

"Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them."

is excellent in its contemptuous irony. A little later, however, Othello finds an expression which is intensely characteristic of a great man of action:

"Hold your hands,
Both you of my inclining, and the rest; Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it Without a prompter."

This last line and a half is addressed especially to Iago who is bent on provoking a fight, and is, I think, the best piece of character-painting in all "Othello"; the born general knows instinctively the moment to attack just as the trained boxer's hand strikes before he consciously sees the opening. When Othello speaks before the Duke, too, he reveals himself with admirable clearness and truth to nature. His pride is so deep-rooted, his self-respect so great, that he respects all other dignitaries: the Senators are his "very noble and approved good masters." Every word weighed and effectual. Admirable, too, is the expression "round unvarnished tale."

But pride and respect for others' greatness are not qualities peculiar to the man of action; they belong to all men of ability. As soon as Othello begins to tell how he won Desdemona, he falls out of his character. Feeling certain that he has placed his hero before us in strong outlines, Shakespeare lets himself go, and at once we catch him speaking and not Othello. In "antres vast and deserts idle" I hear the poet, and when the verse swings to--

  ".... men whose heads

Do grow beneath their shoulders,"

it is plain that Othello, the lord and lover of realities, has deserted the firm ground of fact. But Shakespeare pulls himself in almost before he has yielded to the charm of his own words, and again Othello speaks:

  "This to hear

Would Desdemona seriously incline, But still the house-affairs would draw her thence,

and so forth.

The temptation, however, was overpowering, and again Shakespeare yields to it:

"And often did beguile her of her tears When I did speak of some distressful stroke That my youth suffered."

It is a characteristic of the man of action that he thinks lightly of reverses; he loves hard buffets as a swimmer high waves, and when he tells his life-story he does not talk of his "distress." This "distressful stroke that my youth suffered" is manifestly pure Shakespeare--tender-hearted Shakespeare, who pitied himself and the distressful strokes his youth suffered very profoundly. The characterization of Othello in the rest of this scene is anything but happy. He talks too much; I miss the short sharp words which would show the man used to command, and not only does he talk too much, but he talks in images like a poet, and exaggerates:

"The tyrant Custom, most grave senators, Hath made the flinty and steel couch of war My thrice-driven bed of down."

Even the matter here is insincere; this is the poet's explanation of the Captain's preference for a hard bed and hard living: "has been accustomed to it," says Shakespeare, not understanding that there are born hunter and soldier natures who absolutely prefer hardships to effeminate luxury. Othello's next speech is just as bad; he talks too much of things particular and private, and the farther he goes, the worse he gets, till we again hear the poet speaking, or rather mouthing:

"No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness My speculative and officed instruments, That my disports corrupt and taint my business, Let housewives make a skillet of my helm, And all indign and base adversities Make head against my estimation."

Again when he says--

"Come, Desdemona: I have but an hour Of love, of worldly matters and direction To spend with thee; we must obey the time,"

I find no sharp impatience to get to work such as Hotspur felt, but a certain reluctance to leave his love--a natural touch which indicates that the poet was thinking of himself and not of his puppet.

The first scene of the second act shows us how Shakespeare, the dramatist, worked. Cassio is plainly Shakespeare the poet; any of his speeches taken at haphazard proves it. When he hears that Iago has arrived he breaks out:

"He has had most favourable and happy speed; Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds, The guttered rocks and congregated sands-- Traitors ensteeped to clog the guiltless keel-- As having sense of beauty, do omit Their mortal natures, letting go safely by The divine Desdemona."

And when Desdemona lands, Cassio's first exclamation is sufficient to establish the fact that he is merely the poet's mask:

  "O, behold,

The riches of the ship is come on shore!"

And just as clearly as Cassio is Shakespeare, the lyric poet, so is Iago, at first, the embodiment of Shakespeare's intelligence. Iago has been described as immoral; he does not seem to me to be immoral, but amoral, as the intellect always is. He says to the women:

"Come on, come on; you're pictures out of doors, Bells in your parlours, wild cats in your kitchens, Saints in your injuries, devils being offended, Players in your housewifery, and housewives in your beds."

Iago sees things as they are, fairly and not maliciously; he is "nothing if not critical," but his criticism has a touch of Shakespeare's erotic mania in it. Think of that "housewives in your beds"! He will not deceive himself, however; in spite of Cassio's admiration of Desdemona Iago does not imagine that Cassio is in love with her; "well kissed," he says, "an excellent courtesy," finding at once the true explanation. [Footnote: At the end of this scene Iago says:

"That Cassio loves her I do well believe it,"

but that is merely one of the many inconsistencies in Shakespeare's drawing of Iago. There are others; at one time he talks of Cassio as a mere book soldier, at another equals him with Cæsar. Had Coleridge noted these contradictions he would have declared them to be a higher perfection than logical unity, and there is something to be said for the argument, though in these instances I think the contradictions are due to Shakespeare's carelessness rather than to his deeper insight.]

But having taken up this intellectual attitude in order to create Iago, Shakespeare tries next to make his puppet concrete and individual by giving him revenge for a soul, but in this he does not succeed, for intellect is not maleficent. At moments Iago lives for us; "drown cats and blind puppies ... put money in your purse"--his brains delight us; but when he pursues Desdemona to her end, we revolt; such malignity is inhuman. Shakespeare was so little inclined to evil, knew so little of hate and revenge that his villain is unreal in his cruelty. Again and again the reader asks himself why Iago is so venomous. He hates Othello

because Othello has passed him over and preferred Cassio; because he
thinks he has had reason to be jealous of Othello, because-----but every
one feels that these are reasons supplied by Shakespeare to explain the
inexplicable; taken all together they are inadequate, and we are apt to
throw them aside with Coleridge as the "motive hunting of motiveless

malignity." But such a thing as "motiveless malignity" is not in nature, Iago's villainy is too cruel, too steadfast to be human; perfect pitiless malignity is as impossible to man as perfect innate goodness.

Though Iago and Othello hold the stage for nine-tenths of the play Shakespeare does not realize them so completely as he realizes Cassio, an altogether subordinate character. The drinking episode of Cassio was not found by Shakespeare in Cinthio, and is, I think, clearly the confession of Shakespeare himself, for though aptly invented to explain Cassio's dismissal it is unduly prolonged, and thus constitutes perhaps the most important fault in the construction of the play. Consider, too, how the moral is applied by Iago to England in especial, with which country neither Iago nor the story has anything whatever to do.

Othello's appearance stilling the riot, his words to Iago and his dismissal of Cassio are alike honest work. The subsequent talk between Cassio and Iago about "reputation" is scarcely more than a repetition of what Falstaff said of "honour."

Coleridge has made a great deal of the notion that Othello was justified in describing himself as "not easily jealous"; but poor Coleridge's perverse ingenuity never led him further astray. The exact contrary must, I think, be admitted; Othello was surely very quick to suspect Desdemona; he remembers Iago's first suspicious phrase, ponders it and asks its meaning; he is as quick as Posthumus was to believe the worst of Imogen, as quick as Richard II. to suspect his friends Bagot and Green of traitorism, and this proneness to suspicion is the soul of jealousy. And Othello is not only quick to suspect but easy to convince--impulsive at once and credulous. His quick wits jump to the conclusion that Iago, "this honest creature!" doubtless

"Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds."

On hinted imputation he is already half persuaded, and persuaded as only a sensualist would be that it is lust which has led Desdemona astray:

"O curse of marriage!
That we can call these delicate creatures ours, And not their appetites."

He is, indeed, so disposed to catch the foul infection that Iago cries:

"Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong As proofs of holy writ."

And well he may, for before he uses the handkerchief or any evidence, on mere suspicion Othello is already racked with doubt, distraught with jealousy, maddened with passion; "his occupation's gone"; he rages against Iago and demands proof, Iago answers:

"I do not like the office;

  But, sith I am entered in this cause so far
       *     *     *     *     *     *
  I will go on."

This is the same paltry reason Richard III. and Macbeth adduced for adding to the number of their crimes, the truth being that Shakespeare could find no reason in his own nature for effective hatred.

Othello gives immediate credence to Iago's dream, thinks it "a shrewd doubt"; he is a "credulous fool," as Iago calls him, and it is only our sense of Iago's devilish cleverness that allows us to excuse Othello's folly. The strawberry-spotted handkerchief is not needed: the magic in its web is so strong that the mere mention of it blows his love away and condemns both Cassio and Desdemona to death. If this Othello is not easily jealous then no man is prone to doubt and quick to turn from love to loathing.

The truth of the matter is that in the beginning of the play Othello is a marionette fairly well shaped and exceedingly picturesque; but as soon as jealousy is touched upon, the mask is thrown aside; Othello, the self-contained captain, disappears, the poet takes his place and at once shows himself to be the aptest subject for the green fever. The emotions then put into Othello's mouth are intensely realized; his jealousy is indeed Shakespeare's own confession, and it would be impossible to find in all literature pages of more sincere and terrible self-revealing. Shakespeare is not more at home in showing us the passion of Romeo and Juliet or the irresolution of Richard II. or the scepticism of Hamlet than in depicting the growth and paroxysms of jealousy; his overpowering sensuality, the sensuality of Romeo and of Orsino, has sounded every note of love's mortal sickness:

"<i>Oth.</i> I had been happy if the general camp, Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

  So I had nothing known.
         *       *       *       *       *
  Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!"

We have here the proof that the jealousy of Othello was Shakespeare's jealousy; it is all compounded of sensuality. But, and this is the immediate point of my argument, the captain, Othello, is not presented to us as a sensualist to whom such a suspicion would be, of course, the nearest thought. On the contrary, Othello is depicted as sober [Footnote: Shakespeare makes Lodovico speak of Othello's "solid virtue"--"the nature whom passion could not shake." Even Iago finds Othello's anger ominous because of its rarity:

"There's matter in't, indeed, if he be angry."]

and solid, slow to anger, and master of himself and his desires; he expressly tells the lords of Venice that he does not wish Desdemona to accompany him:

"To please the palate of my appetite Nor to comply with heat--the young affects, In me defunct--and proper satisfaction."

Shakespeare goes out of his way to put this unnecessary explanation in Othello's mouth; he will not have us think of him as passion's fool, but as passion's master; Othello is not to be even suspicious; he tells Iago:

  "'Tis not to make me jealous

To say--my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company, Is free of speech, sings, plays and dances well; Where virtue is, these are more virtuous: Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt; For she had eyes and chose me."

It was all this, no doubt, that misled Coleridge. He did not realize that this Othello suddenly changes his nature; the sober lord of himself becomes in an instant very quick to suspect, and being jealous, is nothing if not sensual; he can think of no reason for Desdemona's fall but her appetite; the imagination of the sensual act throws him into a fit; it is this picture which gives life to his hate. The conclusion is not to be avoided; as soon as Othello becomes jealous he is transformed by Shakespeare's own passion. For this is the way Shakespeare conceived jealousy and the only way. The jealousy of Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" is precisely the same; Hermione gives her hand to Polixenes, and at once Leontes suspects and hates, and his rage is all of "paddling palms [1] and pinching fingers." The jealousy of Posthumus, too, is of the same kind:

  "Never talk on 't;

She hath been colted by him."

[Footnote 1: Iago's expression, too; cf. "Othello," II. 1, and "Hamlet,"

  1. 4.]

It is the imagining of the sensual act that drives him to incoherence and the verge of madness, as it drove Othello. In all these characters Shakespeare is only recalling the stages of the passion that desolated his life.

The part that imagination usually plays in tormenting the jealous man with obscene pictures is now played by Iago; the first scene of the fourth act is this erotic self-torture put in Iago's mouth. As Othello's passion rises to madness, as the self-analysis becomes more and more intimate and personal, we have Shakespeare's re-lived agony clothing itself in his favourite terms of expression:

"O! it comes o'er my memory, As doth the raven o'er the infected house, Boding to all,--he had my handkerchief."

The interest swings still higher; the scene in which Iago uses Cassio's conceit and laughter to exasperate further the already mad Othello is one of the notable triumphs of dramatic art. But just as the quick growth of his jealousy, and its terrible sensuality, have shown us that Othello is not the self-contained master of his passions that he pretends to be and that Shakespeare wishes us to believe, so this scene, in which the listening Othello rages in savagery, reveals to us an intense femininity of nature. For generally the man concentrates his hatred upon the woman who deceives him, and is only disdainful of his rival, whereas the woman for various reasons gives herself to hatred of her rival, and feels only angry contempt for her lover's traitorism. But Othello--or shall we not say Shakespeare?--discovers in the sincerest ecstasy of this passion as much of the woman's nature as of the man's. After seeing his handkerchief in Bianca's hands he asks:

"How shall I murder him, Iago?"

Manifestly, Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert and his base betrayal. Othello would have Cassio thrown to the dogs, would have him "nine years a-killing"; and though he adds that Desdemona shall "rot and perish and be damned to-night," immediately afterwards we see what an infinite affection for her underlies his anger:

"O, the world hath not a sweeter creature: she might lie by an emperor's side and command him tasks."

And then Shakespeare uses his brains objectively, so to speak, to excuse his persistent tenderness, and at once he reveals himself and proves to us that he is thinking of Mary Fitton, and not of poor Desdemona:

"Hang her! I do but say what she is.--So delicate with her needle!--An admirable musician! O, she will sing the savageness out of a bear.--Of so high and plenteous wit and invention."

Shakespeare himself speaks in this passage. For when has Desdemona shown high and plenteous wit or invention? She is hardly more than a symbol of constancy. It is Mary Fitton who has "wit and invention," and is "an admirable musician."

The feminine tenderness in Shakespeare comes to perfect expression in the next lines; no woman has a more enduring affection:

"<i>Iago</i>. She's the worse for all this.

<i>Oth</i>. O! a thousand, a thousand times. And, then of so gentle a condition!

<i>Iago</i>. Ay, too gentle.

<i>Oth</i>. Nay, that's certain:--but yet the pity of it, Iago!--O, Iago, the pity of it, Iago!"

The tenderness shrills to such exquisite poignancy that it becomes a universal cry, the soul's lament for traitorism: "The pity of it, Iago! O, Iago, the pity of it!" Othello's jealous passion is at its height in the scene with Desdemona when he gives his accusations precise words, and flings money to Emilia as the guilty confidante. And yet even here, where he delights to soil his love, his tenderness reaches its most passionate expression:

"O thou weed,
Who art so lovely fair, and smell'st so sweet, That the sense aches at thee--would thou hadst ne'er been born!"

As soon as jealousy reaches its end, and passes into revenge, Shakespeare tries to get back into Othello the captain again. Othello's first speech in the bedchamber is clear enough in all conscience, but it has been so mangled by unintelligent actors such as Salvini that it cries for explanation. Every one will remember how Salvini and others playing this part stole into the room like murderers, and then bellowed so that they would have waked the dead. And when the foolish mummers were criticised for thus misreading the character, they answered boldly that Othello was a Moor, that his passion was Southern, and I know not what besides. It is clear that Shakespeare's Othello enters the room quietly as a justicer with a duty to perform: he keeps his resolution to the sticking-point by thinking of the offence; he says solemnly:

"It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul--"

and, Englishman-like, finds a moral reason for his intended action:

"Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men."

But the reason fades and the resolution wavers in the passion for her "body and beauty," and the tenderness of the lover comes to hearing again:

"[<i>Kissing her</i>."] O balmy breath, that dost almost persuade Justice to break her sword!--one more, one more.-- Be thus when thou art dead, and I will kill thee, And love thee after.--One more, and this the last. So sweet was ne'er so fatal. I must weep, But they are cruel tears; this sorrow's heavenly; It strikes where it doth love.--She wakes."

So gentle a murderer was never seen save Macbeth, and the "heavenly sorrow" that strikes where it doth love is one of the best examples in literature of the Englishman's capacity for hypocritical self-deception. The subsequent dialogue shows us in Othello the short, plain phrases of immitigable resolution; in this scene Shakespeare comes nearer to realizing strength than anywhere else in all his work. But even here his nature shows itself; Othello has to be misled by Desdemona's weeping, which he takes to be sorrow for Cassio's death, before he can pass to action, and as soon as the murder is accomplished, he regrets:

"O, insupportable! O heavy hour!"

His frank avowal, however, is excellently characteristic of the soldier Othello:

"'Twas I that killed her."

A moment later there is a perfect poetic expression of his love:

"Nay, had she been true If Heaven would make me such another world Of one entire and perfect chrysolite, I'd not have sold her for it."

Then comes a revelation of sensuality and physical fastidiousness so peculiar that by itself it proves much of what I have said of Shakespeare:

"<i>Oth. ... Ay 'twas he that told me first; An honest man he is, and hates the slime That sticks on filthy deeds."

For a breathing-space now before he is convinced of his fatal error, Othello speaks as the soldier, but in spite of the fact that he has fulfilled his revenge, and should be at his sincerest, we have no word of profound self-revealing. But as soon as he realizes his mistake, his regret becomes as passionate as a woman's and magical in expression:

"Cold, cold, my girl!
Even like thy chastity."

Another proof that Shakespeare discards the captain, Othello, in order to give utterance to his own jealousy and love, is to be found in the similarity between this speech of Othello and the corresponding speech of Posthumus in "Cymbeline." As soon as Posthumus is convinced of his mistake, he calls Iachimo "Italian fiend" and himself "most credulous fool," "egregious murderer," and so forth. He asks for "some upright justicer" to punish him as he deserves with "cord or knife or poison," nay, he will have "torturers ingenious." He then praises Imogen as "the temple of virtue," and again shouts curses at himself and finally calls upon his love:

"O Imogen!
My queen, my life, my wife! O Imogen, Imogen, Imogen!"

Othello behaves in precisely the same manner; he calls Iago that "demi-devil," and himself "an honourable murderer"; and Iago calls him a "credulous fool." Othello, too, cries for punishment; instead of "torturers ingenious," he will have "devils" to "whip" him, and "roast him in sulphur." He praises Desdemona as chaste, "ill-starred wench," "my girl," and so forth; then curses himself lustily and ends his lament with the words:

"O Desdemon! dead, Desdemon! dead! O!"

The same changes in mood, the same words even--the likeness is so close that it can only be explained as I have explained it; from beginning to end of "Cymbeline" Posthumus is Shakespeare, and as soon as jealousy, pity, remorse, or any tender emotion seizes Othello he becomes Shakespeare too, and speaks with Shakespeare's voice.

From here on, it is all good work if not great work to Othello's last speech, which merits particular consideration. He begins as the captain, but soon passes into the poet; and then towards the end talks again in quick measure as the man of action. I quote the whole speech, [Footnote: This speech is curiously like the long speech of Richard II. which I have already noticed; at the beginning Shakespeare speaks as a king for a few lines, then naturally as a poet, and at the end pulls himself up and tries to resume the character.] putting into italics the phrases in which the poet betrays himself:

"<i>Oth</i>. Soft you; a word or two, before you go. I have done the State some service, and they know it; No more of that.--<i>I pray you in your letters, When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice; then must you speak <i>Of one that loved not wisely, but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes, Albeit unuséd to the melting mood, Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees Their medicinal gum.</i> Set you down this; And say, besides, that in Aleppo once, When a malignant and a turban'd Turk Beat a Venetian, and traduced the State, I took by the throat the circumcized dog And smote him--thus."

All the memorable words here are the words of the gentle poet revealing his own nature ingenuously. The relief given by tears is exquisitely expressed, but the relief itself is a feminine experience; men usually find that tears humiliate them, and take refuge from their scalding shame in anger. The deathless phrases of the poet's grief must be contrasted with the braggart mouthings of the captain at the end in order to realize how impossible it was for Shakespeare to depict a man of deeds.

In the first two acts Shakespeare has tried to present Othello with some sincerity and truth to the dramatic fiction. But as soon as jealousy touches Othello, he becomes the transparent vessel of Shakespeare's own emotion, and is filled with it as with his heart's blood. All the magical phrases in the play are phrases of jealousy, passion, and pity. The character of the captain in Othello is never deeply realized. It is a brave sketch, but, after all, only the merest sketch when compared with Hamlet or Macbeth. We know what they thought of life and death, and of all things in the world and over it; but what do we know of Othello's thoughts upon the deepest matters that concern man? Did he believe even in his stories to Desdemona?--in the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders? in his magic handkerchief? in what Iago calls his "fantastical lies"? This, I submit, is another important indication that Shakespeare drew Othello, the captain, from the outside; the jealous, tender heart of him is Shakespeare's, but take that away and we scarcely know more of him than the colour of his skin. What interests us in Othello is not his strength, but his weakness, Shakespeare's weakness--his passion and pity, his torture, rage, jealousy and remorse, the successive stages of his soul's Calvary!

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