Study Guide

Othello

by William Shakespeare

Othello Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Overview

A. C. Bradley
[Bradley presents an overview of Othello, in an attempt to discover what makes this the "most painfully exciting and the most terrible" of Shakespeare's tragedies. He highlights aspects of the play which reinforce its emotional impact: the rapid acceleration of the plot, the intensity of Othello's jealousy, the passive suffering of Desdemona, and the luck and skill involved in Iago's intrigue. According to Bradley, these features combine to produce feelings of "confinement" and "dark fatality" that suggest that the characters cannot escape their destinies. He then discusses three scenes—Othello's striking of Desdemona in IV. i, Othello's treatment of Desdemona as a whore in IV. ii, and her death in V. ii—and maintains that the emotional intensity of these scenes also greatly contributes to the unique, painful quality of Othello. He concludes by noting that the play is less symbolic and more limited in scope than Shakespeare's other tragedies, and as a result, we are left with the "impression that in Othello we are not in contact with the whole of Shakespeare.]

What is the peculiarity of Othello? What is the distinctive impression that it leaves? Of all Shakespeare's tragedies, I would answer, not even excepting King Lear, Othello is the most painfully exciting and the most terrible. From the moment when the temptation of the hero begins, the reader's heart and mind are held in a vice, experiencing the extremes of pity and fear, sympathy and repulsion, sickening hope and dreadful expectation. Evil is displayed before him, not indeed with the profusion found in King Lear, but forming, as it were, the soul of a single character, and united with an intellectual superiority so great that he watches its advance fascinated and appalled. He sees it, in itself almost irresistible, aided at every step by fortunate accidents and the innocent mistakes of its victims. He seems to breathe an atmosphere as fateful as that of King Lear, but more confined and oppressive, the darkness not of night but of a close-shut murderous room. His imagination is excited to intense activity, but it is the activity of concentration rather than dilation. (pp. 176-77)

Othello is not only the most masterly of the tragedies in point of construction, but its method of construction is unusual. And this method, by which the conflict begins late, and advances without appreciable pause and with accelerating speed to the catastrophe, is a main cause of the painful tension just described. To this may be added that, after the conflict has begun, there is very little relief by way of the ridiculous. Henceforward at any rate Iago's humour never raises a smile. The clown is a poor one; we hardly attend to him and quickly forget him; I believe most readers of Shakespeare, if asked whether there is a clown in Othello, would answer No.

In the second place, 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. Such a passion as ambition, however terrible its results, is not itself ignoble; if we separate it in thought from the conditions which make it guilly, it does not appear despicable; it is not a kind of suffering, its nature is active; and therefore we can watch its course without shrinking. But jealousy, and especially sexual jealousy, brings with it a sense of shame and humiliation. For this reason it is generally hidden; if we perceive it we ourselves are ashamed and turn our eyes away; and when it is not hidden it commonly stirs contempt as well as pity. Nor is this all. Such jealousy as Othello's converts human nature into chaos, and liberates the beast in man; and it does this in relation to one of the most intense and also the most ideal of human feelings. What spectacle can be more painful than that of this feeling turned into a tortured mixture of longing and loathing, the 'golden purity' of passion split by poison into fragments, the animal in man forcing itself into his consciousness in naked grossness, and he writhing before it but powerless to deny it entrance, gasping inarticulate images of pollution, and finding relief only in a bestial thirst for blood? This is what we have to witness in one who was indeed 'great of heart' [V. ii. 361] and no less pure and tender than he was great. And this, with what it leads to, the blow to Desdemona, and the scene where she is treated as the inmate of a brothel, a scene far more painful than the murder scene, is another cause of the special effect of this tragedy.

The mere mention of these scenes will remind us painfully of a third cause; and perhaps it is the most potent of all. I mean the suffering of Desdemona. This is, unless I mistake, the most nearly intolerable spectacle that Shakespeare offers us. For one thing, it is mere suffering; and, ceteris paribus [other things being equal], that is much worse to witness than suffering that issues in action. 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. [Algernon Charles] Swinburne's statement [in his Study of Shakespeare] 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.

Turning from the hero and heroine to the third principal character, we observe (what has often been pointed out) that the action and catastrophe of Othello depend largely on intrigue. We must not say more than this. We must not call the play a tragedy of intrigue as distinguished from a tragedy of character. Iago's plot is Iago's character in action; and it is built on his knowledge of Othello's character, and could not otherwise have succeeded. Still it remains true that an elaborate plot was necessary to elicit the catastrophe; for Othello was no Leontes [in The Winter's Tale], and his was the last nature to engender such jealousy from itself. Accordingly Iago's intrigue occupies a position in the drama for which no parallel can be found in the other tragedies; the only approach, and that a distant one, being the intrigue of Edmund in the secondary plot of King Lear. Now in any novel or play, even if the persons rouse little interest and are never in serious danger, a skilfully worked...

(The entire section is 2841 words.)

Jealousy

D. R. Godfrey
[Godfrey examines the portrayal of jealousy in Othello, determining that it is the cause of evil in the play. The critic exposes the jealousy presented by several characters: Othello, Roderigo, Bianca, and Iago. He compares their irrational behavior to that of Leontes, the jealous husband of Hermoine in The Winter's Tale, and asserts that each displays a form of sexual jealousy. Iago, however, exhibits "an all-encompassing jealousy directed not only against sexual love but against love itself in all its manifestations." As a result, envious hatred takes possession of his soul, motivates his actions, and turns him into "the most completely villainous character in all literature."]

To proclaim Shakespeare's Othello as a tragedy of jealousy is but to echo the opinion of every critic who ever wrote about it. The jealousy not only of Othello, but of such lesser figures as Roderigo and even Bianca is surely self-evident enough to be taken for granted. And yet, though the jealousy of Othello in particular is invariably mentioned and assumed, it cannot be said that any over-riding importance has on the whole been attributed to it. While Othello may deliver judgement on himself as one,

… not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme;
[V. ii. 345-46]

critical opinion has hardly gone beyond admitting that jealousy itself has been a contributing factor, of far less importance, for example, than the diabolical "evidence" manufactured by Iago. Until we are left with the conclusion, or at least implication, that had Othello not been jealous, the tragedy would still have occurred. This taking for granted or even belittling of the factor of jealousy in Othello, is the more surprising in that Shakespeare through Iago and Emilia has taken pains to identify for our benefit the special nature of jealousy, and to call particular attention to the element of irrationality that accompanies it. Jealousy, warns Iago, in order to awaken it in Othello,

… is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
That meat it feeds on.
[III. iii. 166-67]

And the same essence of irrationality is later confirmed by Emilia when, in response to Desdemona's pathetically rational "Alas the day! I never gave him cause" [III. iv. 158], she bluntly retorts:

But jealous souls will not be answer'd so;
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they are jealous: 'tis a monster,
Begot upon itself, born on itself.
[III. iv. 159-62]

The coincidence of view is remarkable, and presumably intentional, and clearly reflects more than the individual judgement of Emilia or Iago. Moreover the truth of the judgement is demonstrated again and again throughout the play wherever jealousy is manifest. The jealous person, whether Othello, Roderigo, Bianca or, as we shall attempt to show, Iago himself, is revealed as one who, from the moment that jealousy strikes, divorces himself or herself from rationality. Jealousy, once awakened, becomes self-perpetuating, seff-intensifying, and where no justifying evidence for it exists, the jealous person under the impulse of an extraordinary perversity will continue to manufacture it, inventing causes, converting airy trifles into "confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ," [III. iii. 323-24]. Any attempt, in other words, to interpret jealousy rationally, to look for logic in the mental processes of a jealous person, will be unavailing. For we will be dealing invariably and in at least some measure with a monster, a form of possession, an insanity. (pp. 207-08)

[In his Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradley argues] that until Iago leaves him alone to the insinuating thoughts he has planted in him [III. iii. 257] Othello is not jealous at all. However, Othello's immediately ensuing soliloquy clearly indicates how deeply his faith in Desdemona has already been undermined, and though at the sight of her he rallies,

If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself,
I'll not believe it,
[III. iii. 278-79]

recovery is momentary, and when he reappears only minutes later, Iago does not need his "Ha, ha, false to me" [III. iii. 333] to recognize the symptoms of a consuming jealousy that all the drowsy syrups of the world can never alleviate. Othello may appear to be resisting insinuation, to recover from the shock of Iago's "Ha, ha, I like not that" [III. iii. 35], and the sight of Cassio stealing away "so guilty-like" [III. iii. 39], but it is soon evident enough that he has not recovered, that the possibility of Desdemona's infidelity has already invaded his mind. And … as with Leontes [in The Winter's Tale], the passage from initial doubt to the madness of absolute certainty, is incredibly rapid. The action of the whole "Temptation Scene" [III. iii], as it is sometimes called, is continuous, perhaps some twenty-five minutes of stage time, and by the end of it Othello is a man utterly possessed, calling out for blood and vengeance, authorizing Iago to murder Cassio, and resolving "In the due reverence of a sacred vow" [III. iii. 461], himself to do the same for Desdemona:

Damn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!
Come, go with me apart, I will withdraw
To furnish me with some swift means of death.
For the fair devil.
[III. iii. 476-79]

Already present meanwhile in the initial reactions of Othello is of course that most encompassing of all the characteristics of the jealous man, a consuming irrationality. The presence of Iago with his diabolical insinuations tends somewhat to mask the insanity of Othello, to present him as a man reacting logically in the face of accumulating evidence, indeed of proof. By the end of the Temptation Scene, however, there is still no more than the slenderest of evidence, a handkerchief that Iago may have seen Cassio wipe his beard with, and Cassio's alleged, and, as Iago himself admits, inconclusive dream. Leontes, only after a considerable interval of time and after sending to the Oracle for confirmation puts Hermione on trial for her life. Othello, however, with nothing but Iago's word to go on, and without even seeking to confront either Desdemona or Cassio, passes sentence of death. Later, it is true, circumstantial evidences multiply: Desdemona's tactless pleading for Cassio, Iago's statement of Cassio's confession, Bianca's returning of the handkerchief to Cassio before Othello's eyes; but it is strangely apparent that Othello's conviction of Desdemona's guilt is confirmed rather than established by such "evidences". In the exchanges between Iago and Othello at the beginning of Act IV it is revealed that the handkerchief had become so incidental to his conviction that he had actually forgotten it [IV. i. 10-22]. In the same way, when at length confrontation comes between himself and Emilia and subsequently with Desdemona, it is apparent that no rational enquiry, no seeking out of evidence is to be undertaken. Emilia's indignant denials are met with:

She says enough, yet she's a simple bawd
That cannot say as much.
[IV. ii. 20-1]

And Desdemona, assigned the horrible role of a whore in a brothel, is not to be rationally interrogated but rhetorically denounced, on the assumption, of which there is not the slightest sign, that she is fully aware of her guilt. Perhaps in no other scene is the impregnable insanity of Othello so fully evident.

Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidences are certainly there and must be allowed to provide in some measure a logical justification for Othello's "case" against Desdemona. Against that case however must always be set one unanswerable factor the effect of which is to demolish it utterly, the factor of time. With Desdemona dead, Othello can proclaim calmly and positively,

'Tis pitiful, but yet Iago knows
That she with Cassio hath the act of shame
A thousand times committed.
[V. ii. 210-12]

Whereas it is obvious to anyone not wholly bereft of reason that the time for one single act of infidelity, let alone a rhetorical thousand, has simply not existed. "What place, what time, what form, what likelihood?" [IV. ii. 138] demands the practical Emilia, and of course the questions are unanswerable.

This very problem of the time factor in Othello has been greatly debated. Since Othello and Desdemona left Venice immediately after their marriage, and since Cassio and Desdemona were on different ships, and since but one night had passed on Cyprus, a night that Othello and Desdemona had spent together, when indeed could the thousand adulteries have occurred? And how could the sheer impossibility of Desdemona's multiple infidelities never have presented itself to Othello's mind? Various familiar explanations have been attempted: that the text as it has come down to us is incomplete and that the indication of an interval of time after the arrival on Cyprus has been lost: that Shakespeare in effect is playing a trick on his audience on the valid assumption that they will not notice the time discrepancy anyway: that Shakespeare deliberately adopted a double time scheme, involving a background of "long time" against a foreground of "short time", the latter to accommodate the inconsistencies in Iago's plot against Othello, and his need to bring it to a speedy conclusion.

The respective merits of these various explanations have been copiously debated. Common to all of them is the reluctance of critics to assume that Iago, a supremely clever man, would ever have allowed his whole plot to depend on Othello's unlikely failure to realise the obvious, namely that the infidelities of which Desdemona stands accused could not have happened because there had been no time for them. Iago, it is argued, would never have taken such a risk; and so we, as well as Othello, are being required to assume that in some way or other time for a thousand shameful acts had in fact existed. I would suggest, however, that we cannot so assume, and are indeed not being asked to do so. For Iago knew, and we should realise, that by the time he felt it safe to proceed from hints and insinuations to firm accusations of infidelity, Othello would no longer be himself, but a quite different person possessed by the eclipsing madness of jealousy.Certainly we must agree that there are two time schemes in Othello, a long and a short, but equally each must be seen to operate within its own distinct world: on the one hand the long time world of everyday normality, on the other a short time, indeed a timeless universe, in which jealousy, divorced from reality, through distortion, falsification and sheer invention creates a nightmare reality of its own.

It may still be argued, of course that the degree of Othello's irrationality manifest in his blindness to the time factor, is excessive, unrealistic, and that Iago for all his insight and daring would not have taken so great a risk. We must assume however that Shakespeare as always, knew what he was doing and presenting, and that art, the art of the theatre in particular, must concern itself with the archetypal, the universal, with that which is necessarily larger, more extreme than in life. And surely we must take into account that elsewhere in Othello, in the case of Bianca, the refusal of the jealous person to be bound by the rationality of time is once again drawn to our attention. Bianca, whose jealousy over Cassio motivates her every word and action, reproaches him on her first appearance with an alleged seven days and nights of neglect:

What, keep a week away? seven days and nights?
Eightscore eight hours, and lovers' absent hours,
More tedious than the dial, eightscore times?
[III. iv. 173-75]

The time here could hardly be more specifically stated, and yet, if we do not postulate the impossibility of an interval of almost a week between scenes three and four of Act III, the alleged duration of Cassio's neglect cannot be accepted. Act II begins with Cassias arrival on Cyprus, and from this point to the moment of his encounter with Bianca the action on stage is continuous, and no...

(The entire section is 5129 words.)

Race

Ruth Cowhig
[Cowhig provides background on blacks in England during Shakespeare's time, stressing the use of racial stereotypes in the dramas of the period. Observing that black people were typically depicted as stock villains, she suggests that Shakespeare's presentation of the noble, dignified Othello as the hero of a tragedy must have been startling to Elizabethan audiences. Cowhig also examines how several characters in the play, especially lago, are racially prejudiced. lago's racism is the source of his hatred of Othello, she claims, and he plays on the prejudices of other characters to turn them against the Moor. Importantly, Cowhig emphasizes that, although Shakespeare...

(The entire section is 3398 words.)

Time

Harley Granville-Barker
[Granville-Barker examines the dramatic structure of Othello and explicates the relation between Shakespeare's manipulation of time and the theme of sexual jealousy. He maintains that time in Act I passes naturally so that the audience can become familiar with the characters. Act II, however, introduces contractions and ambiguities of time that are sustained until Act V, scene ii, when "natural" time resumes, presenting a comprehensive view of the ruined Moor. The critic contends that the precipitous action is both dramatically convincing, since it hurries the audience along, and consistent with the recklessness of Iago and the pathological sexual jealousy that flaws the character of...

(The entire section is 3610 words.)

Othello

Albert Gerard
[Gerard examines Othello's personality, discovering cracks in the "facade" of the generous, confident self-disciplined husband and general. The critic argues that Othello believes that his marriage to Desdemona will transform his life from one of primitive "chaos" to one of civilization and contentment. This naive dream shatters, however, with his increasing jealousy and his growing awareness that his new-found happiness is an illusion. Gerard thus regards Othello's development as a change from innocence to self-awareness and recognition that he has been looking outside—to Desdemona and Venetian society—rather than inside himself for his sense of identity. For...

(The entire section is 4531 words.)

Iago

A. C. Bradley
[Bradley closely investigates Iago's character by examining his soliloquies. Finding that the motives of hatred and ambition inadequately account for Iago's actions, Bradley stresses the importance of the character's sense of superiority and his self-interest in determining his behavior. Iago's ego, wounded by the denial of promotion, demands satisfaction, and his schemes and manipulations allow him to reestablish his sense of power and dominance over others. Bradley also finds that Iago is motivated by a love of excitement and by his perception of himself as an artist. He derives great pleasure from the successful execution of his complex and dangerous intrigues. The critic...

(The entire section is 9742 words.)

Desdemona

S. N. Garner
[Garner elucidates Desdemona's character, maintaining that Shakespeare carefully balanced the other characters' accounts of her as goddess or whore to present a complex portrait. Othello's sensual view is countered by Brabantio's idealized concept in Act I and Roderigo and Cassio's romanticized vision is opposed by Iago's coarse innuendo in Act II. Garner then points out that Desdemona's liveliness and assertiveness are confirmed by her marriage to Othello and that these positive traits become a fatal liability. Finally, the critic ends with a discussion of Desdemona's powerlessness in the face of her husband's accusations, which leads to...

(The entire section is 6505 words.)