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(Shakespeare for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 35,756 words.)