Othello Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous critique based on his legendary and influential Shakespeare notes and lectures.
Act i. sc. i.
ADMIRABLE is the preparation, so truly and peculiarly Shakspearian, in the introduction of Roderigo, as the dupe on whom Iago shall first exercise his art, and in so doing display his own character. Roderigo, without any fixed principle, but not without the moral notions and sympathies with honour, which his rank and connections 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, abhor me,—
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 con-tempt 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,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.
I think Tyrwhitt’s reading of ‘life’ for ‘wife’—
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife—
the true one, as fitting to Iago’s contempt for whatever did not display power, and that intellectual power. 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 Shakspeare himself, from want of scenes, and the experience that nothing could be made 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 Shakspeare 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 personae 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 Shakspeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.
Ib. Brabantio’s speech:—
This accident is not unlike my dream:—
The old careful senator, being caught careless, transfers his caution to his dreaming power at least.
Ib. Iago’s speech:—
—For their souls,
Another of his fathom they have not,
To lead their business:—
The forced praise of Othello followed by the bitter hatred of him in this speech! And observe how Brabantio’s dream prepares for his recurrence to the notion of philtres, and how both prepare for carrying on the plot of the arraignment of Othello on this ground.
Ib. sc. 2.
Oth. ‘Tis better as it is.
How well these few words impress at the outset the truth of Othello’s own character of himself at the end— ‘that he was not easily wrought!’ His self-government contradistinguishes him throughout from Leontes.
Ib. Othello’s speech:—
—And my demerits
May speak, unbonnetted—
The argument in Theobald’s note, where ‘and bonnetted’ is suggested, goes on the assumption that Shakspeare could not use the same word differently in different places; whereas I should conclude, that as in the passage in Lear the word is employed in its direct meaning, so here it is used metaphorically; and this is confirmed by what has escaped the editors, that it is not ‘I,’ but ‘my demerits’ that may speak unbonnetted,—without the symbol of a petitioning inferior.
Ib. Othello’s speech:—
So please your grace, my ancient;
A man he is of honesty and trust:
To his conveyance I assign my wife.
Compare this with the behaviour of Leontes to his true friend Camillo.
Ib. sc. 3.
Bra. Look to her. Moor; have a quick eye to see;
She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.
Oth. My life upon her faith.
In real life, how do we look back to little speeches as presentimental of, or contrasted with, an affecting event! Even so, Shakspeare, as secure of being read over and over, of becoming a family friend, provides this passage for his readers, and leaves it to them.
Ib. Iago’s speech:—
Virtue? a fig! ’tis in ourselves, that we are thus, or thus,’ &c.
This speech comprises the passionless character of Iago. It is all will in intellect; and therefore he is here a bold partizan of a 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—
I am chang’d. I’ll go sell all my land—
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 only not quite devil,—and yet a char-acter which Shakspeare has attempted and executed, without disgust and without scandal!
Dr. Johnson has remarked that little or nothing is want-ing 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, on the true commonsense 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 certain ends,— these partly arising from the idea of the species itself, but in part, likewise, forced 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 repeatedly is 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 ?
Act ii. sc. i.
Observe in how many ways Othello is made, first, our acquaintance, then our friend, then the object of our anxiety, before the deeper interest is to be approached!
Mont. But, good lieutenant, is your general wiv’d?
Cas. Most fortunately: be hath achiev’d a maid
That paragons description, and wild fame;
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
And, in the essential vesture of creation,
Does bear all excellency.
Here is Cassio’s warm-hearted, yet perfectly disengaged, praise of Desdemona, 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 guileless-hearted 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, aid expresses to a wife. Surely it ought to be considered a very exalted compliment to women, that all the sarcasms on them in Shakspeare are put in the mouths of villains
Des. I am not merry; but I do beguile, &c.
The struggle of courtesy in Desdemona to abstract her attention.
(Iago aside). He takes her by the palm : Ay, well said, whisper; with as little a web as this, will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do, &c.
The importance given to trifles, and made fertile by the villany of the observer.
Ib. Iago’s dialogue with Roderigo:
This is the rehearsal on the dupe of the traitor’s inten-tions on Othello.
Ib. Iago’s soliloquy:
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap’d into my seat.
This thought, originally by Iago’s own confession a mere suspicion, is now ripening, and gnaws his base nature as his own ‘poisonous mineral’ is about to gnaw the noble heart of his general.
Ib. sc. 3. Othello’s speech:
I know, Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio.
Honesty and love! Ay, and who but the reader of the play could think otherwise?
Ib. Iago’s soliloquy:
And what’s he then that says—I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and, indeed, the course
To win the Moor again.
He is not, you see, an absolute fiend; or, at least, he wishes to think himself not so.
Act iii. sc. 3.
Des. Before ?milia here,
I give the warrant of thy place.
The over-zeal of innocence in Desdemona.
Enter Desdemona and ?milia,
Oth. If she be false, O, then, heaven mocks itself!
I’ll not believe it.
Divine! The effect of innocence and the better genius
Act iv. sc. 3.
?mil. Why, the wrong is but a wrong i’ the world ; and having the world for your labour, ’tis a wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right.
Warburton’s note. What any other man, who had learning enough, might have quoted as a playful and witty illustration of his remarks against the Calvinistic thesis, Warburton gravely attributes to Shakspeare as intentional; and this, too, in the mouth of a lady’s woman!
Act v. last scene. Othello’s speech:—
——Of one, whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe, &c.
Theobald’s note from Warburton. Thus it is for no-poets to comment on the greatest of poets! To make Othello say that he, who had killed his wife, was like Herod who killed Mariamne!—O, how many beauties, in this one line, were impenetrable to the ever thought-swarming, but idealess, Warburton! Othello wishes to excuse himself on the score of ignorance, and yet not to excuse himself,—to excuse himself by accusing. This struggle of feeling is finely conveyed in the word ‘base,’ which is applied to the rude Indian, not in his own character, but as the momentary representative of Othello’s ‘Indian’—for I retain the old reading—means American, a savage in general.
Finally, let me repeat that 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 Shakspearian 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?
Extremum hunc —————. There are three powers:—
Wit, which discovers partial likeness hidden in general diversity; subtlety, which discovers the diversity con-cealed in general apparent sameness;—and profundity, which discovers an essential unity under all the semblances of difference.
Give to a subtle man fancy, and he is a wit; to a deep man imagination, and he is a philosopher. Add, again, pleasurable sensibility in the threefold form of sympathy with the interesting in morals, the impressive in form, and the harmonious in sound,—and you have the poet.
But combine all,—wit, subtlety, and fancy, with profundity, imagination, and moral and physical susceptibility of the pleasurable,—and let the object of action be man universal; and we shall have—O, rash prophecy! say, rather, we have—a SHAKSPEARE!