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Othello as Tragic Hero

From Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear by Alexander W. Crawford. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916.

In the matter of Othello and Iago, it cannot fairly be maintained that Iago was the sole cause of the calamities that befell Othello. In general it must be said that there is no Shakespearean tragedy in which the responsibility for the deed of the hero and the subsequent tragedy can be shifted from him to another person of the play. Shakespeare no doubt did not have the conception of the influence of social forces that some modern dramatists display, for that is a conception belonging to the nineteenth century. Professor Stoll may be correct when he says that "In no case does Shakespeare represent men as overwhelmed by anything so vague and neutral as social forces," but he is surely incorrect when he adds, "or as devoured by their own passions alone."1

It is this very conception of the consuming and destructive power of passion that marks the superiority of Shakespeare's conceptions over that of his contemporaries. This "fatalism of overmastering passion," as it has been called by Professor Corson,2 is the distinguishing feature of Shakespeare's conception of man's relation to the world, and marks the culmination of the Elizabethan drama, and its superiority to the classical drama where men are overcome by external fate. In the case of Othello, as ,of all the other tragedies, it is the passion of the hero that is the mainspring of all the action of the play that finally and certainly destroys the hero. There are two or three types of such passion in Shakespeare, according to their moral character, but all alike give rise to the action of the play and lead the hero to his fate.

Beginning, then, with this passion, it is the art of Shakespeare to place his characters under those conditions that will show the true nature of their passion and develop it to its fullness and to its fated end. It is one of Shakespeare's supreme excellences that he realized that "every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lusts and enticed," and that every man's condemnation comes from the development of his own passions.

It was under the sway of this conception that Shakespeare brought Othello into his fatal conflict with Iago, for this drew from him all the hidden passion of his nature. To make Iago the sole cause of the tragedy that befell Othello is to seek outside the human heart for the causes of human failure. The wonder is that Coleridge, philosopher and genius that he was, could content himself with an explanation that does such violence to a true moral psychology. But Coleridge may have had a personal interest in laying the blame outside the soul of the one who is overcome by weakness or by fate. Othello, like all of Shakespeare's plays, is a drama of character, not a drama of intrigue. But only a very careful study of the leading topics of the play will make this clear.

The attempt to solve the moral difficulties of Othello has never been given up entirely, though quite recently two distinguished critics have taken "the moralists" to task, and have appeared to think that the chief excellence of the drama is in its "moral enigma." Professor (Sir) Walter Raleigh has made a vigorous attack, and says that "The moralists have been eager to lay the blame of these events on Othello, or Desdemona, or both; but the whole meaning of the play would vanish if they were successful." Professor Bradley, in a somewhat similar strain, rejects all the more obvious interpretations of the play, because, as he says, they "reduce Shakespeare to common-place." Both alike refuse to give credence to any view that does not make Shakespeare subtle and far-fetched and mystical. They seem ready to reject alike what is common-place and common-sense.

The names of these two eminent critics have carried more weight in some quarters than their theories have deserved, and some students have been too willing to give up the search for a true moral interpretation of the plays. Others, however, dissatisfied with this complete moral scepticism of Shakespeare, and with this substitution of the critic's fancy for the poet's vision, have made attempts to find a larger moral meaning for the plays, and have tried to assign some kind of large spiritual principles in place of the plain moral principles it was thought necessary to abandon. The suggestion has been made that in cases like that of Desdemona there is only an apparent defeat and nemesis, but that in reality there is a much higher spiritual vindication, and that the close of the play marks a complete spiritual triumph in which the human spirit remains "essentially unconquered." Professor Alden, as the latest spokesman of this view, says, "If the love of Desdemona had perished in the face of injustice and falsehood, then we should have had indeed a chaos of spiritual wreckage, a poetical injustice for which no mere beauty of form could easily atone. But on the contrary there remains in each case, amid the very crash and vanishing of all earthly hope, a spirit that transcends common humanity as far as its suffering has transcended common experience, proving anew through poetry that the world of the senses is 'inferior to the soul.'"3

This, as criticism, seems somewhat better, for it grants our inexorable conviction that Shakespeare is after all a moral dramatist, and tries to square himself with our moral principles. But, unfortunately, this kind of criticism makes a demand of us that no generation of theatre-goers or readers has ever been able to meet. To picture Othello and Desdemona as in the end not failing but actually triumphing, as Professor Alden finds himself obliged to maintain, is to think of them as in the same class as the suffering Job, and as Romeo and Juliet. He says, "If the individual experience often seems to be at odds with everything but itself; if Job suffer for no reason such as can be stated in general terms; if Juliet and Romeo are the victims of the animosities of their parents ... ; if Desdemona dies because her pitiful life has found a number of malignantly potent trifles looming so big for the moment as to shut from view any source of active justice . . ."

This, however, it is impossible to admit. The writer of "Job" explicitly declares that Job was a righteous man, and that his misfortunes were entirely due to the malignity of the evil one. Neither were his misfortunes of the nature of moral catastrophes, as were those of Othello and Desdemona. In Shakespeare, as in the Bible, the misfortunes that are objective in their source are never moral in character. Romeo and Juliet were undoubtedly "the victims of the animosities of their parents," or in other words were the victims of social conditions for which they were personally in no way responsible. About their misfortunes, however, there is not the slightest suggestion of retribution, and as Carlyle long ago observed, their apparent defeat is really a moral victory. But it is very different with Othello and Desdemona, for there is an element of retribution in their misfortunes. The play explicitly depicts them as the authors of all the elements of their social conditions that give rise to their conflicts and subsequent misfortunes.

It should be remembered that Othello was not a son of Venice, but a foreigner, and moreover a foreigner of a different race and color, with all that means of divergence of mind and character. Moreover, there was no conflict between Romeo and Juliet, for their love was perfect, but the conflict was between their united and unwavering love and the hostility of their families. In the case of Othello and Desdemona |he conflict becomes acute and finally fatal between husband and wife, and from this the play takes its character of a hapless mismarriage.

All these unsuccessful attempts to understand the drama come from long-continued but erroneous habits of interpretation. The plays have been treated as if they were historical documents and not works of poetic imagination. Historical documents have to be evaluated by the student, and often parts are judged to be unauthentic and hence of little or no value. But literary products cannot be treated in this manner, for every word of a great poet has been elaborated with turious care and is of value to the whole, and cannot be ignored.

Some critics who regret that we have no external comments of Shakespeare upon his plays persistently ignore the numerous comments the dramatist has made within the plays. It must be claimed that Shakespeare's dramatic methods are not subtle and elusive, but pre-eminently artistic and open. They are indeed so artistic that they have concealed his art, and unfortunately have also concealed his mind from us. We have steadfastly overlooked even his most obvious attempts to make his meaning clear, and have missed all his own comments, which are the best keys to his plays. We have, moreover, explained away his own very plain words, we have ignored his conduct of the plot of the dramas, and have refused to accept as part of his plan the very issues of the plays themselves that he has elaborated with such unequalled skill. No wonder if we have begun to think perhaps after all the plays have no meaning to be discovered.

Let us begin, then, our study of this play by observing very carefully whatever comment Shakespeare has made upon it. In the very title, Othello, the Moor of Venice, we have the dramatist's comment that the play is to be the story of a certain Moor, Othello, who had abandoned his native land and had taken up his residence and life in the Italian city of Venice. In doing this Othello had left his native Africa, or Spain,4 and undertook to live his life in Venice.

The Moors of both Africa and Spain were looked upon by Englishmen and other Europeans as barbaric or semi-barbaric, while the Venetians were looked upon as the most civilized and cultured people of Europe.5 The change took Othello among another race of another color, one that Shakespeare and most of his countrymen of whatever time considered a much superior race. Now if Shakespeare had any aptness in giving titles to his plays, and did not add mere idle words, the play must be considered "primarily a study of a noble barbarian who had become a Christian . . . but who retains beneath the surface the savage passions of his Moorish blood . . . and that the last three Acts depict the outburst of these original feelings through the thin crust of Venetian culture."6 This is Professor Bradley's statement of the view which has been held, but which he scouts as impossible.

His chief argument against it, however, is that it is not like Shakespeare, adding that "To me it appears hopelessly un-Shakespearean." Ever since Schlegel's time, however, this has been the generally accepted interpretation of the play, though of course there has been disagreement about details. But this recent imaginative criticism has given us a new Othello, a new Hamlet, and verily a new Shakespeare; and instead of the vision and the faculty divine of the great dramatist we have the fancies of the critics. This criticism has succeeded in little, however, but in convincing itself that Shakespeare is mystical and modern, that he wrote with a very vague notion of what he was doing, and that frequently in his haphazard manner he misnamed his plays. It is now time for criticism to reach the conviction that Shakespeare wrote with a very clear notion of what he was aiming at, and not by mere intuition or chance. Only if we take this attitude is it possible at this day to discern the true thought and intent of his dramas.

The entire drama is Othello's story, though from the outset Iago takes the initiative, and seems to be the protagonist. The situation, however, has been created by Othello in every particular, and from this springs all the action or rather the reaction of Iago. By his action, previous to the opening of the play, Othello furnished the motive for lago, from which springs all his intrigue. It is only under the clever manipulation of Iago that Othello is put on the defence, from which he does not escape until near the close of the play. The real conflict of the play, then, is between Othello, with whom is joined Desdemona, on the one hand, and Iago, his ancient, on the other. From the outset, Othello is struggling with a situation which he inaugurated before the opening, of the play, and which grows more complex as the movement develops.


FOOTNOTE 1: Cf. Criminals in Shakespeare and in Science, by E. E. Stoll, in Modern Philology, Vol. X, p. 59.

FOOTNOTE 2: Of. Corson, Introduction to Shakespeare, Preface.

FOOTNOTE 3: Alden, op. tit., Atlantic Monthly, February, 1910, p. 267.

FOOTNOTE 4: "Shakespeare, in IV. ii. 257, seems to point to Mauritania as the native country of Othello, who is hence to be regarded as a Moor in the proper sense of the word, a native of the northern coast of Africa, toward the west. . . . Moor, however, it may be observed, was used by English writers very extensively, and all the dark races seem, by some writers, to be regarded as comprehended under it." Hunter, New Illustrations of Shakespeare, II, p. 280. Quoted by Furness, the Variorum Othello, p. 390. In all probability Shakespeare thought of Othello as from Spain, which for long had been inhabited by and under the domination of the Moors. After his sword had been taken from him in the last act, Othello says:

"I have another weapon in this chamber,
It is a sword of Spain, the ice brook's temper:"
(V. ii. 314-5.)
In Love's Labour's Lost Shakespeare makes the king speak "of many a knight: from tawny Spain" (I. i. 184-5). Here he is evidently thinking of the '"tawny Moor." Of. Coleridge, Lectures on Shakespeare (Bohn's Library), pp. 477 and 529.

FOOTNOTE 5: Hunter's remarks about Venice in his comments upon The Merchant of Venice apply equally well to this play: "In perusing this play we should keep constantly in mind the ideas which prevailed in England in the time of Shakespeare of the magnificence of Venice. Now, the name calls up ideas only of glory departed 'Her long life hath reached its final day;' but in the age of the poet Venice was gazed on with admiration by the people of every country, and by none with more devotion than those of England." Quoted by Furness in the Variorum Merchant of Venice, p. 3.

FOOTNOTE 6: Shakespearean Tragedy, p.p. 186-7.

How to cite this article:

Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2009. (date when you accessed the information) < >.


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