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CRITICAL OPINIONS ON OTHELLO.
“The beauties of this play impress themselves so strongly upon the attention of the reader, that they can draw po aid from critical illustration. The fiery openness of Othello, magnanimous, artless, and credulous, boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection, inflexible in his resolution, and obdurate in his revenge ; the cool malignity of Iago, silent in his resentment, subtle in his designs, and studious at once of his interest and his vengeance; the soft simplicity of Desdemona, confident of merit, and conscious of innocence, her artless perseverance in her suit, and her slowness to suspect that she can be suspected, are such proofs of Shakespeare's skill in human nature, as, I suppose, it is vain to seek in any modern writer. The gradual progress which Iago makes in the Moor's conviction, and the circumstances which he employs to inflame him, are so artfully natural, that, though it will perhaps not be said of him as he says of himself, that he is a mun not easily jealous, yet we cannot but pity him, when at last we find him perplexed in the extreme.
“There is always danger, lest wickedness, conjoined with abilities, should steal upon esteem, though it misses of approbation ; but the character of Iago is so conducted, that he is, from the first scene to the last, hated and despised. Even the inferior characters of this play would be very conspicuous in any other piece, not only for their justness, but their strength. Cassio is brave, benevolent, and honest, ruined only by his want of stubbornness to resist an insidious invitation. Roderigo's suspicious credulity, and impatient submission to the cheats which he sees practised upon him, and which by persuasion he suffers to be repeated, exhibit a strong picture of a weak mind betrayed by unlawful desires to a false friend ; and the virtue of Æmilia is such as we often find worn loosely, but not cast off, easy to commit small crimes, but quickened and alarmed at atrocious villanies.
“The scenes from the beginning to the end are busy, varied by happy interchanges, and regularly promoting the progression of the story; and the narrative in the end, though it tells but what is known already, yet is necessary to produce the death of Othello.
“ Had the scene opened in Cyprus, and the preceding incidents been occasionally related, there had been little wanting to a drama of the most exact and scrupulous regularity.”—JOHNSON.
“ If 'Romeo and Juliet' shines with the colours of the dawn of morning, but a dawn whose purple clouds already announce the thunder of a sultry day, 'Othello' is, on the other hand, a strongly shaded picture : we might call it a tragical Rembrandt. What a fortunate mistake that the Moor (under which name, in the original novel, a baptized Saracen of the Northern coast of Africa was unquestionably meant), has been made by Shakspeare in every respect a negro! We recognize in Othello the wild nature of that glowing zone which generates the most deadly poisons, tamed only in appearance by the desire of fame, by foreign laws of honour, and by nobler and milder manners. His jealousy is not the jealousy of the heart, which is compatible with the tenderest feeling and adoration of the beloved object; it is of that sensual kind which, in burning climes, has given birth to the disgraceful confinement of women and many other unnatural usages. A drop of this poison flows in his veins, and sets his whole blood in the wildest ferment. The Moor seems noble, frank, confiding, grateful for the love shown him; and he is all this, and, moreover, a hero who spurns at danger, a worthy leader of an army, a faithful servant of the State ; but the mere physical force of passion puts to flight in one moment all his acquired and mere habitual virtues, and gives the upper hand to the savage over the moral man. This tyranny of the blood over the will betrays itself even in the expression of his desire of revenge upon Cassio. In his repentance, a genuine tenderness for his murdered wife, and in the presence of the damning evidence of his deed, the painful feeling of annihilated honour at last bursts forth ; and in the midst of these painful emotions, he assails himself with the rage wherewith a despot punishes a runaway slave. He suffers as a double man; at once in the higher and the lower sphere into which his being was divided. While the Moor bears the nightly colour of suspicion and deceit only on his visage, Iago is black within. He haunts Othello like his evil genius, and with his light (and therefore the more dangerous) insinuations, he leaves him no rest; it is as if by means of an unfortunate affinity, founded however in nature, this influence was by necessity more powerful over him than the voice of his good angel Desdemona. A more artful villain than this Iago was never portrayed ; he spreads his nets with a skill which nothing can escape. The repugnance inspired by his aims becomes tolerable from the attention of the spectators being directed to his means : these furnish endless employment to the understanding. Cool, discontented, and morose, arrogant where he dares be so, but humble and insinuating when it suits his purposes, he is a complete master in the art of dissimulation ; accessible only to selfish emotions, he is thoroughly skilled in rousing the passions of others, and of availing himself of every opening which they give him: he is as excellent an observer of men as any one can be who is unacquainted with higher motives of action from his own experience; there is always some truth in his malicious observations on them. He does not merely pretend an obdurate incredulity as to the virtue of women, he actually entertains it; and this, too, falls in with his whole way of thinking, and makes him the more fit for the execution of his purpose. As in everything he sees merely the hateful side, he dissolves in the rudest manner the charm which the imagination casts over the relation between the two sexes: he does so for the purpose of revolting Othello's senses, whose heart otherwise might easily have convinced him of Desdemona's innocence. This must serve as an excuse for the numerous expressions in the speeches of Iago from which modesty shrinks. If Shakspeare had written in our days he would not perhaps have dared to hazard them; and yet this must certainly have greatly injured the truth of his picture. Desdemona is a sacrifice without blemish. She is not, it is true, a high ideal representation of sweetness and enthusiastic passion like Juliet; full of simplicity, softness, and humility, and so innocent, that she can hardly form to herself an idea of the possibility of infidelity, she seems calculated to make the most yielding and tenderest of wives. The female propensity wholly to resign itself to a foreign destiny has led her into the only fault of her life, that of marrying without her father's consent. Her choice seems wrong; and yet she has been gained to Othello by that which induces the female to honour in man her protector and guide,-admiration of his determined heroism, and compassion for the sufferings which he had undergone. With great art it is so contrived that from the very circumstance that the possibility of a suspicion of her own purity of motive never once enters her mind, she is the less reserved in her solicitations for Cassio, and thereby does but heighten more and more the jealousy of Othello. To throw out still more clearly the angelic purity of Desdemona, Shakspeare has in Emilia associated with her a companion of doubtful virtue. From the sinful levity of this woman, it is also conceivable that she should not confess the abstraction of the handkerchief when Othello violently demands it back : this would otherwise be the circumstance in the whole piece the most difficult to justify. Cassio is portrayed exactly as he ought to be to excite suspicion without actual guilt,-amiable and nobly disposed, but easily seduced. The public events of the first two acts show us Othello in his most glorious aspect, as the support of Venice and the terror of the Turks; they serve to withdraw the story from the mere domestic circle, just as this is done in “Romeo and Juliet' by the dissensions between the houses of Montague and Capulet. No eloquence is capable of painting the overwhelming force of the catastrophe in ‘Othello,'--the pressure of feelings which measure out in a moment the abysses of eternity.”—SCHLEGEL.
“ Admirable is the preparation, so truly and peculiarly Shakesperian, in the introduction of Roderigo, as the dupe on whom Iago shall first exercise his art, and in doing so display his own character. Roderigo, without any fixed principle, but not without the moral notions and sympathies with honour which his rank and connexions had hung upon him, is already well fitted and predisposed for the purpose ; for very want of character and strength of passion, like wind loudest in an empty
house, constitute his character. The first three lines happily state the nature and foundation of the friendship between him and Iago,—the purse,--as also the contrast of Roderigo's intemperance of mind with Iago's coolness, the coolness of a preconceiving experimenter. The mere language of protestation
* If ever I did dream of such a matter,
which falling in with the associative link, determines Roderigo's continuation of complaint,
• Thou told'st me, thou didst hold him in thy hate,'
elicits at length a true feeling of Iago's mind, the dread of contempt habitual to those who encourage in themselves, and have their keenest pleasure in, the expression of contempt for others. Observe Iago’s high self-opinion, and the moral, that a wicked man will employ real feelings, as well as assume those most alien from his own, as instruments of his purposes :
and by the faith of man
In what follows, let the reader feel how by and through the glass of two passions, disappointed vanity and envy, the very vices of which he is complaining are made to act upon him as if they were so many excellences, and the more appropriately because cunning is always admired and wished for by minds conscious of inward weakness : but they act only by half, like music on an inattentive auditor, swelling the thoughts which prevent him from listening to it.
• Rod. What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe
If he can carry't thus!'
Roderigo turns off to Othello; and here comes one, if not the only, seeming justification of our blackamoor or negro Othello. Even if we supposed this an uninterrupted tradition of the theatre, and that Shakespear himself, from want of scenes, and the experience that nothing could be too marked for the senses of his audience, had practically sanctioned it, would this prove aught concerning his own intention as a poet for all ages ? Can we imagine him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth-at a time too when negroes were not known except as slaves ? As for Iago’s language to Brabantio, it implies merely that Othello was a Moor, that is, black. Though I think the rivalry of Roderigo sufficient to account for his wilful confusion of Moor and negro, yet, even if compelled to give this up, I should think it only adapted for the acting of the day, and should complain of an enormity built on a single word, in direct contradiction to Iago's · Barbary Horse.' Besides, if we could in good earnest believe Shakespear ignorant of the distinction, still why should we adopt one disagreeable possibility instead of a ten times greater and more pleasing probability? It is a common error to mistake the epithets applied by the dramatis persona to each other as truly descriptive of what the audience ought to see or know. No doubt Desdemona saw Othello's visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance in Desdemona, which Shakespear does not appear to have in the least contemplated.
“ Iago's speech—'Virtue ? a fig ! 'tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus,' &c.-comprises the passionless character of Iago. It is all will in intellect; and therefore he is here a bold partisan of the truth, but yet of a truth converted into a falsehood by the absence of all the necessary modifications caused by the frail nature of man. And then comes the last sentiment—'Our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts, whereof I take this, that you call—love, to be a sect or scion !' Here is the true Iagoism of alas ! how many! Note Iago's pride of mastery in the repetition of 'Go, make money !' to his anticipated dupe, even stronger than his love of lucre : and when Roderigo is completely won, when the effect has been fully produced, the repetition of triumph-Go to; farewell ; put money enough in your purse !' The remainder-Iago's soliloquy—the motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity-how awful it is! Yea, whilst he is still allowed to bear the divine image, it is too fiendish for his own steady view, for the lonely gaze of a being next to devil, and not quite devil,and yet a character which Shakespear has attempted and executed, without disgust and without scandal !
“ Dr. Johnson has remarked that little or nothing is wanting to render the Othello'a regular tragedy, but to have opened the play with the arrival of Othello in Cyprus, and to have thrown the preceding act into the form of narration. Here then is the place to determine whether such a change would or would not be an improvement: nay (to throw down the glove with a full challenge), whether the tragedy would or not by such an arrangement become more regular—that is, more consonant with the rules dictated by universal reason, or the true common-sense of mankind, in its application to the particular case. For in all acts of judgment, it can never be too often recollected, and scarcely too often repeated, that rules are means to ends, and, consequently, that the end must be determined and understood before it can be known what the rules are or ought to be. Now, from a certain species of drama, proposing to itself the accomplishment of certaiu ends—these partly arising from the idea of the species itself, but in part, likewise, foroed upon the dramatist by accidental circumstances beyond his power to remove or control three rules have been abstracted ;- in other words, the means most conducive to the attainment of the proposed ends have been generalized, and prescribed under the names of the three unities—the unity of time, the unity of place, and the unity of action, which last would, perhaps, have been as appropriately, as well as more intelligibly, entitled the unity of interest. With this last the present question has no immediate concern: in fact, its conjunction with the former two is a mere delusion of words. It is not properly a rule, but in itself the great end, not only of the drama, but of the epic poem, the lyric ode, of all poetry, down to the candle-flame cone of an epigram, nay, of poesy in general, as the proper generic term inclusive of all the fine arts as its species. But of the unities of time and place, which alone are entitled to the name of rules, the history of their origin will be their best criterion. You might take the Greek chorus to a place, but you could not bring a place to them without as palpable an equivoque as bringing Birnam Wood to Macbeth at Dunsinane. It was the same, though in a less degree, with regard to the unity of time :the positive fact, not for a moment removed from the senses, the presence, I mean, of the same identical chorus, was a continued measure of time; and although the imagination may supersede perception, yet it must be granted to be an imperfection, however easily tolerated, to place the two in broad contradiction to each other. In truth, it is a mere accident of terms; for the Trilogy of the Greek theatre was a drama in three acts, and notwithstanding this, what strange contrivances as to place there are in the Aristophanic Frogs. Besides, if the law of mere actual perception is once violated, as it is repeatedly even in the Greek tragedies, why is it more difficult to imagine three hours to be three years than to be a whole day and night?
“Observe in how many ways Othello is made, first our acquaintance, then our friend, then the object of our anxiety, before the duper is to be approached! And Cassio's warm-hearted, yet perfectly disengaged, praise of Desdemona 'that paragons description and wild fame,' and sympathy with the 'most fortunately' wived Othello ;-—and yet Cassio is an enthusiastic admirer, almost a worshipper, of Desdemona. O, that detestable code, that excellence cannot be loved in any form that is female, but it must needs be selfish! Observe Othello's 'honest' and Cassio's 'bold' Iago, and Cassio's full guilelesshearted wishes for the safety and love-raptures of Othello and 'the divine Desdemona.' And also note the exquisite circumstance of Cassio's kissing Iago's wife, as if it ought to be impossible that the dullest auditor should not feel Cassio's religious love of Desdemona's purity. Iago's answers are the sneers which a proud bad intellect feels towards women, and expresses to a wife. Surely it ought to be considered a very exalted compliment to women, that all the sarcasms on them in Shakespear are put in the mouths of villains.
“Finally, Othello does not kill Desdemona in jealousy, but in a conviction forced upon him by the almost superhuman art of Iago, such a conviction as any man would and must have entertained who had believed Iago's honesty as Othello did. We, the audience, know that Iago is a villain from the beginning : but in considering the essence of the Shakesperian Othello, we must perseveringly place ourselves in his situation, and under his circumstances. Then we shall immediately feel the fundamental difference between the solemn agony of the noble Moor, and the wretched fishing jealousies of Leontes, and the morbid suspiciousness of Leonatus, who is in other respects a fine character. Othello had no life but in Desdemona :-the belief that she, his angel, had fallen from the heaven of her native innocence, wrought a civil war in his heart. She is his counterpart ; and like him, is almost sanctified in our eyes by her absolute unsuspiciousness, and holy entireness of love. As the curtain drops, which do we pity the most ?”—COLERIDGE