From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley. London: MacMillan and Co., 1919.
The character of Othello is comparatively simple, but, as I have dwelt on the prominence of intrigue and accident in the play, it is desirable to show how essentially the success of Iago's plot is connected with
this character. Othello's description of himself as
one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme,
is perfectly just. 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.
Let me first set aside a mistaken view. I do not mean the ridiculous
notion that Othello was jealous by temperament, but the idea, which has
some little plausibility, that the play is primarily a study of a noble
barbarian, who has become a Christian and has imbibed some of the
civilisation of his employers, but who retains beneath the surface the
savage passions of his Moorish blood and also the suspiciousness
regarding female chastity common among Oriental peoples, and that the
last three Acts depict the outburst of these original feelings through
the thin crust of Venetian culture. It would take too long to discuss
this idea, and it would perhaps be useless to do so, for all
arguments against it must end in an appeal to the reader's understanding
of Shakespeare. If he thinks it is like Shakespeare to look at things in
this manner; that he had a historical mind and occupied himself with
problems of 'Culturgeschichte'; that he laboured to make his Romans
perfectly Roman, to give a correct view of the Britons in the days of
Lear or Cymbeline, to portray in Hamlet a stage of the moral
consciousness not yet reached by the people around him, the reader will
also think this interpretation of Othello probable. To me it appears
hopelessly un-Shakespearean. I could as easily believe that Chaucer
meant the Wife of Bath for a study of the peculiarities of
Somersetshire. I do not mean that Othello's race is a matter of no
account. It has, as we shall presently see, its importance in the play.
It makes a difference to our idea of him; it makes a difference to the
action and catastrophe. But in regard to the essentials of his character
it is not important; and if anyone had told Shakespeare that no
Englishman would have acted like the Moor, and had congratulated him on
the accuracy of his racial psychology, I am sure he would have laughed.
Othello is, in one sense of the word, by far the most romantic figure
among Shakespeare's heroes; and he is so partly from the strange life of
war and adventure which he has lived from childhood. He does not belong
to our world, and he seems to enter it we know not whence--almost as if
from wonderland. There is something mysterious in his descent from men
of royal siege; in his wanderings in vast deserts and among marvellous
peoples; in his tales of magic handkerchiefs and prophetic Sibyls; in
the sudden vague glimpses we get of numberless battles and sieges in
which he has played the hero and has borne a charmed life; even in
chance references to his baptism, his being sold to slavery, his sojourn
And he is not merely a romantic figure; his own nature is romantic. He
has not, indeed, the meditative or speculative imagination of Hamlet;
but in the strictest sense of the word he is more poetic than Hamlet.
Indeed, if one recalls Othello's most famous speeches--those that begin,
'Her father loved me,' 'O now for ever,' 'Never, Iago,' 'Had it pleased
Heaven,' 'It is the cause,' 'Behold, I have a weapon,' 'Soft you, a word
or two before you go'--and if one places side by side with these
speeches an equal number by any other hero, one will not doubt that
Othello is the greatest poet of them all. There is the same poetry in
his casual phrases--like 'These nine moons wasted,' 'Keep up your bright
swords, for the dew will rust them,' 'You chaste stars,' 'It is a sword
of Spain, the ice-brook's temper,' 'It is the very error of the
moon'--and in those brief expressions of intense feeling which ever
since have been taken as the absolute expression, like
If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate,
If she be false, O then Heaven mocks itself.
I'll not believe it;
No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand,
But yet the pity of it, Iago! O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!
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.
And this imagination, we feel, has accompanied his whole life. He has
watched with a poet's eye the Arabian trees dropping their med'cinable
gum, and the Indian throwing away his chance-found pearl; and has gazed
in a fascinated dream at the Pontic sea rushing, never to return, to the
Propontic and the Hellespont; and has felt as no other man ever felt
(for he speaks of it as none other ever did) the poetry of the pride,
pomp, and circumstance of glorious war.
So he comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the
sun where he was born; but no longer young, and now grave,
self-controlled, steeled by the experience of countless perils,
hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in
speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth,
proud of his services to the state, unawed by dignitaries and unelated
by honours, secure, it would seem, against all dangers from without and
all rebellion from within. And 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.
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
In the second place, 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. Shakespeare emphasises his
self-control, not only by the wonderful pictures of the First Act, but
by references to the past. Lodovico, amazed at his violence, exclaims:
Is this the noble Moor whom our full Senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?
Iago, who has here no motive for lying, asks:
Can he be angry? I have seen the cannon
When it hath blown his ranks into the air,
And, like the devil, from his very arm
Puffed his own brother--and can he be angry?1
This, and other aspects of his character, are best exhibited by a single
line--one of Shakespeare's miracles--the words by which Othello silences
in a moment the night-brawl between his attendants and those of
Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.
And the same self-control is strikingly shown where Othello endeavours
to elicit some explanation of the fight between Cassio and Montano.
Here, however, there occur ominous words, which make us feel how
necessary was this self-control, and make us admire it the more:
Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule,
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way.
We remember these words later, when the sun of reason is 'collied,'
blackened and blotted out in total eclipse.
Lastly, 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.
This character is so noble, Othello's feelings and actions follow so
inevitably from it and from the forces brought to bear on it, and his
sufferings are so heart-rending, that he stirs, I believe, in most
readers a passion of mingled love and pity which they feel for no other
hero in Shakespeare, and to which not even Mr. Swinburne can do more
than justice. Yet there are some critics and not a few readers who
cherish a grudge against him. They do not merely think that in the later
stages of his temptation he showed a certain obtuseness, and that, to
speak pedantically, he acted with unjustifiable precipitance and
violence; no one, I suppose, denies that. But, even when they admit that
he was not of a jealous temper, they consider that he _was_ 'easily
jealous'; they seem to think that it was inexcusable in him to feel any
suspicion of his wife at all; and they blame him for never suspecting
Iago or asking him for evidence. I refer to this attitude of mind
chiefly in order to draw attention to certain points in the story. It
comes partly from mere inattention (for Othello did suspect Iago and did
ask him for evidence); partly from a misconstruction of the text which
makes Othello appear jealous long before he really is so;2 and partly
from failure to realise certain essential facts. I will begin with
(1) 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.3Any husband would have been troubled by them.
(2) 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.
(3) This consciousness in any imaginative man is enough, in such
circumstances, to destroy his confidence in his powers of perception. In
Othello's case, after a long and most artful preparation, there now
comes, to reinforce its effect, the suggestions that he is not an
Italian, not even a European; that he is totally ignorant of the
thoughts and the customary morality of Venetian women;4 that he had
himself seen in Desdemona's deception of her father how perfect an
actress she could be. As he listens in horror, for a moment at least the
past is revealed to him in a new and dreadful light, and the ground
seems to sink under his feet. These suggestions are followed by a
tentative but hideous and humiliating insinuation of what his honest and
much-experienced friend fears may be the true explanation of Desdemona's
rejection of acceptable suitors, and of her strange, and naturally
temporary, preference for a black man. Here Iago goes too far. He sees
something in Othello's face that frightens him, and he breaks off. Nor
does this idea take any hold of Othello's mind. But it is not surprising
that his utter powerlessness to repel it on the ground of knowledge of
his wife, or even of that instinctive interpretation of character which
is possible between persons of the same race, should complete his
misery, so that he feels he can bear no more, and abruptly dismisses his
friend (III. iii. 238).
Now I repeat that any man situated as Othello was would have been
disturbed by Iago's communications, and I add that many men would have
been made wildly jealous. But up to this point, where Iago is dismissed,
Othello, I must maintain, does not show jealousy. His confidence is
shaken, he is confused and deeply troubled, he feels even horror; but he
is not yet jealous in the proper sense of that word. In his soliloquy
(III. iii. 258 ff.) the beginning of this passion may be traced; but it
is only after an interval of solitude, when he has had time to dwell on
the idea presented to him, and especially after statements of fact, not
mere general grounds of suspicion, are offered, that the passion lays
hold of him. Even then, however, and indeed to the very end, he is quite
unlike the essentially jealous man, quite unlike Leontes. No doubt the
thought of another man's possessing the woman he loves is intolerable to
him; no doubt the sense of insult and the impulse of revenge are at
times most violent; and these are the feelings of jealousy proper. But
these are not the chief or the deepest source of Othello's suffering. It
is the wreck of his faith and his love. It is the feeling,
If she be false, oh then Heaven mocks itself;
O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!
But there where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up--to be discarded thence....
You will find nothing like this in Leontes.
Up to this point, it appears to me, there is not a syllable to be said
against Othello. But the play is a tragedy, and from this point we may
abandon the ungrateful and undramatic task of awarding praise and blame.
When Othello, after a brief interval, re-enters (III. iii. 330), we see
at once that the poison has been at work and 'burns like the mines of
Look where he comes! Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.
He is 'on the rack,' in an agony so unbearable that he cannot endure the
sight of Iago. Anticipating the probability that Iago has spared him the
whole truth, he feels that in that case his life is over and his
'occupation gone' with all its glories. But he has not abandoned hope.
The bare possibility that his friend is deliberately deceiving
him--though such a deception would be a thing so monstrously wicked that
he can hardly conceive it credible--is a kind of hope. He furiously
demands proof, ocular proof. And when he is compelled to see that he is
demanding an impossibility he still demands evidence. He forces it from
the unwilling witness, and hears the maddening tale of Cassio's dream.
It is enough. And if it were not enough, has he not sometimes seen a
handkerchief spotted with strawberries in his wife's hand? Yes, it was
his first gift to her.
I know not that; but such a handkerchief--
I am sure it was your wife's--did I to-day
See Cassio wipe his beard with.
'If it be that,' he answers--but what need to test the fact? The
'madness of revenge' is in his blood, and hesitation is a thing he never
knew. He passes judgment, and controls himself only to make his sentence
a solemn vow.
The Othello of the Fourth Act is Othello in his fall. His fall is never
complete, but he is much changed. Towards the close of the
Temptation-scene he becomes at times most terrible, but his grandeur
remains almost undiminished. Even in the following scene (III. iv.),
where he goes to test Desdemona in the matter of the handkerchief, and
receives a fatal confirmation of her guilt, our sympathy with him is
hardly touched by any feeling of humiliation. But in the Fourth Act
'Chaos has come.' A slight interval of time may be admitted here. It is
but slight; for it was necessary for Iago to hurry on, and terribly
dangerous to leave a chance for a meeting of Cassio with Othello; and
his insight into Othello's nature taught him that his plan was to
deliver blow on blow, and never to allow his victim to recover from the
confusion of the first shock. Still there is a slight interval; and when
Othello reappears we see at a glance that he is a changed man. He is
physically exhausted, and his mind is dazed. He sees everything
blurred through a mist of blood and tears. He has actually forgotten the
incident of the handkerchief, and has to be reminded of it. When Iago,
perceiving that he can now risk almost any lie, tells him that Cassio
has confessed his guilt, Othello, the hero who has seemed to us only
second to Coriolanus in physical power, trembles all over; he mutters
disjointed words; a blackness suddenly intervenes between his eyes and
the world; he takes it for the shuddering testimony of nature to the
horror he has just heard, and he falls senseless to the ground.
When he recovers it is to watch Cassio, as he imagines, laughing over
his shame. It is an imposition so gross, and should have been one so
perilous, that Iago would never have ventured it before. But he is safe
now. The sight only adds to the confusion of intellect the madness of
rage; and a ravenous thirst for revenge, contending with motions of
infinite longing and regret, conquers them. The delay till night-fall is
torture to him. His self-control has wholly deserted him, and he strikes
his wife in the presence of the Venetian envoy. He is so lost to all
sense of reality that he never asks himself what will follow the deaths
of Cassio and his wife. An ineradicable instinct of justice, rather than
any last quiver of hope, leads him to question Emilia; but nothing could
convince him now, and there follows the dreadful scene of accusation;
and then, to allow us the relief of burning hatred and burning tears,
the interview of Desdemona with Iago, and that last talk of hers with
Emilia, and her last song.
But before the end there is again a change. The supposed death of Cassio
(V. i.) satiates the thirst for vengeance. The Othello who enters the
bed-chamber with the words,
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,
is not the man of the Fourth Act. The deed he is bound to do is no
murder, but a sacrifice. He is to save Desdemona from herself, not in
hate but in honour; in honour, and also in love. His anger has passed; a
boundless sorrow has taken its place; and
this sorrow's heavenly:
It strikes where it doth love.
Even when, at the sight of her apparent obduracy, and at the hearing of
words which by a crowning fatality can only reconvince him of her guilt,
these feelings give way to others, it is to righteous indignation they
give way, not to rage; and, terribly painful as this scene is, there is
almost nothing here to diminish the admiration and love which heighten
pity. And pity itself vanishes, 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 most painful of
all tragedies leaves us for the moment free from pain, and exulting in
the power of 'love and man's unconquerable mind.'
FOOTNOTE 1: For the actor, then, to represent him as violently angry when he cashiers Cassio is an utter mistake.
FOOTNOTE 2: I cannot deal fully with this point in the lecture. See Note L.
FOOTNOTE 3: It is important to observe that, in his attempt to arrive at the facts about Cassio's drunken misdemeanour, Othello had just had an example of Iago's unwillingness to tell the whole truth where it must injure a friend. No wonder he feels in the Temptation-scene that 'this honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.'
FOOTNOTE 4: To represent that Venetian women do not regard adultery so seriously as Othello does, and again that Othello would be wise to accept the situation like an Italian husband, is one of Iago's most artful and most maddening devices.
How to cite this article:
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: MacMillan and Co., 1919. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/othello/othellobradley2.html >.