Sunday, December 5, 2010

Critical Commentary on “Othello”

Not only the first scene, but the whole of Act I is devoted to exposition. This is necessary for the foundation of character and situation on which the action is to be built. Its three scenes take place in Venice, and introduce all the main characters, except Cassio and Emilia. Though the Act is expository, it is full of excitement, with its torch-lit street scenes, the brutal awakening of Brabantio with ‘dire ‘Yell’, and the charge before the senate. The first scene begins with the villain, and with the heavy threat to the hero’s happiness that his character and philosophy imply. It is alive with malice and grudge ; and Iago’s language alone is enough to persuade us that we must not expect objective accounts of men and matters from him, and to prejudice us in favour of the absent Othello.
Roderigo is the only person in whose presence he does not wear a moral disguise ; and Iago’., remarks to him present as much of his public face as he is ever prepared to show, and, from this point of view, are almost as important as his soliloquies. The fooling of Roderigo is extremely easy work for Iago ; he is too pliable. Besides, Iago gulls him for money, and this is probably the least egocentric of his motives.
Othello’s Appearance
The reader first meets Othello in this scene. Othello creates an impression of being dignified and sure of himself. We learn that he is of royal descent, and, according to himself, held in high esteem by the government of Venice. His speech is full and rounded, yet of a moving simplicity. His command of himself and of the situation is beautifully seen in ‘Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them’––a line which Bradley called ‘one of Shakespeare’s miracles’. Anyone less like a probable victim for Iago could scarcely be imagined. This is Othello as he was before Iago played upon him.
Iago’s Disguise
By now Iago has put on his moral disguise of bluff, honest, uncomplicated loyalty. After his self-revelations in the first scene, this is nauseating, though his chameleon coloration gives great scope to any actor, who must show in the first two scenes of the play Iago as he is to Roderigo, and Iago as he is to Othello and the world. As Iago to Roderigo is almost the real Iago, but not quite, a nice shade of discrimination has to be made, and something held in reserve. The full depths of Iago are not plumbed in the first scene.
This scene provides the background which is necessary to complete the exposition of the play. It gives the romantic, and, at the same time, charmingly domestic background of Othello’s marriage, and brings out his and Desdemona’s characters, as they are before they are played upon by Iago. It also provides the ominous shadows cast by Brabantio, which Iago is to make use of later, though, without him, they would disappear. It reveals the Signiory’s complete confidence in Othello ; and it concludes with the first sinister sketch of Iago’s plot, more deadly in its private nature than any of his public professions of hatred to Roderigo.
Difference of Tome
There is a sudden difference of tone and atmosphere in some parts of this scene. The Preoccupation of the Signiory with State affairs is such that Brabantio’s complaint is pushed aside, at least given second place. We may note the flatness of the verse dealing with state affairs. Its business-like quality is in sharp contrast with that of the Brabantio-Desdemona-Othello matters. Similarly, the Duke’s consolatory lines to Brabantio have an air of superficiality, which Brabantio bitterly resents.
Iago and Roderigo
At the end of this scene, Iago and Roderigo are left alone. There is some amusement created by Roderigo’s question to Iago, as to what he thinks he is going to do now. Iago’s answer is matter-of-fact : “Why, go to bed and sleep,” but Roderigo declares that he will straightaway go and drown himself. Iago thinks that drowning is a fate meant only for cats and blind puppies. His advice to him is to bestir himself, even though he may die in his attempt to win Desdemona’s love. Iago looks down upon Roderigo’s infatuation and discounts his view of its not being in his ‘virtue’ to amend himself. Iago retorts
                Virtue ! a fig ! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to which our wills are gardeners ... we have reason to cool our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted lusts ; whereof I take this, that you call love, to be a set or scion.
Now Setting
The scene now shifts to Cyprus, which is to be the setting of the actual tragedy. It is appropriate that the scene is heralded by a storm, which Shakespeare did not find in his source. Whether Ibis is symbolic of the later course of, events on the island, as those critics think who regard all storms In Shakespeare as symbolic, or whether it has a narrower dramatic purpose, is a matter of individual choice. It certainly provides a succession of arrivals, mounting in suspense : first, Cassio, who has lost his General ‘on a dangerous sea’ ; then Desdemona and Iago ; then, finally, the hero himself, and the splendid reunion of the lovers. It is the last moment where they know ‘content so absolute’, and is vital for, an understanding of what might have been their lot without Iago. The rim of waiting for Othello is beguiled by Iago’s display of one of his public faces. The ‘touch of roughness’ in his public appearances is of course designed by him to show that be is too blunt to be subtle ; but below this a real ‘innate brutality’ ; and perhaps the ‘sea jokes are a symptom of pathological obsession’. Anyway, the interchange between him and Desdemona and other characters is intended to be a display of ‘honesty’: to present the cynical but limited and honest Iago. It is very important that the social side of Iago should be seen : the audience might otherwise wonder why this coarse fellow is so universally liked.
Other Significance
The significance of the scene goes beyond this. So far, except briefly in the conversation with Roderigo, we have only seen the public face of Iago, but before the scene ends, we see his private dace also. In the soliloquy which concludes the scene, we see something in sharp contrast with Iago’s assumed character. Here Iago invents or discovers a motive or two more for his villainy. The scene gives a chance for a Cassio-Desdemona relationship to be shown, which, while it does not actually support, could support Iago’s plot. Cassio is inordinately courtly, but this very openess shows his feeling as innocent and idealistic.
Iago’s Plot
The short scene merely serves as an indication that time will pass before the next scene. The proclamation is made at five in the afternoon. The next scene opens just before 10 p.m. It is one of the most careful indications of ‘short’ time in the play. In the third scene Iago’s plot is first put into action. It is consummately managed and brilliantly acted. It is impossible to find fault with Iago in any of his roles, from that of the boon companion singing tavern songs to the grieved friend, reluctantly reporting the events of the night to Othello, or acting as the counsellor to the disgraced Cassio, and the consoler of Roderigo. A peculiar beauty of the plot is Iago’s apparent honesty of speech and action, and the extreme economy he employs in several purposes. The scene ends with a soliloquy expounding the ‘divinity of hell’, and showing that the plot and some of its means are now clear to Iago.
Brief Scenes
The first scene is a brief one, and half of it is taken up by the poor obscenity and other puns of the clown ; but it is important as beginning Cassio’s importuning of Desdemona for his pardon and the second stage of Iago’s plot. We gather from it that not only Desdemona and Emilia, but Othello himself, are desirous of rehabilitating Cassio at the first opportunity. Inept as the Clown is, he helps to make up a feeling of ordinariness, or the usual, in the life of Othello and Desdemona, lacking until now. The morning greetings with music, particularly on the morning of a marriage, were customary. They give poor Cassio some cover for his pathetic attempt to regain favour ; but it is promptly stopped by Othello, either because of the quality of the music, or because he suspects its purpose. The second scene is probably the shortest in Shakespeare. It serves the purpose of indicating the passage of time, and of showing Othello in his job. It also draws Othello away, so that Cassio has a chance to intercede with Desdemona, and be found sneaking away in so guilty a fashion in the next scene. It seems from the previous scene that Iago might have arranged this ; but it is more probably one of those likely chances on which he relies, since there is no indication in the scene itself that he has done anything.
Shocking Transformation
The four consecutive short scenes now give place to a scene of considerable length, which is, moreover, the most important in the play from the point of view of plot. It is mainly a long study in temptation and damnation ; but it covers perhaps the widest range of feeling ‘in Shakespeare, from happiness, innocence, and trust to torment and revenge. It begins with Desdemona’s well-meaning assurances to Cassio, and ends with Othello’s determination­––
                To furnish me with some swift means of death
For the fair devil.
This shocking transformation could not be tolerated by either audience or reader without the most careful plan of progression, that is, mainly, the subtle movements of Iago from suggestion to statement.
Six-fold Division
The scene is capable of being looked upon as a succession of six sub-scenes. The first of these can be identified as that between Desdemona and Cassio, the openness and innocence of whom are ironically enough, the wished-for opportunity for Iago. Desdemona’s frankness and. Cassio’s natural diffidence are, psychologically sound to the audience who are in the know ; but they can be interpreted otherwise by a malicious mind. Iago strikes the first blow––or, rather, begins on the merest tap––with his ‘Ha ! I like not that’, though Othello scarcely notices it at the time. The second sub-division of the scene brings out Desdemona’s innocence. We also see that although she is frank and warm­hearted, she is tactless in pleading with Othello for Cassio. Othello dismisses her courteously but with some impatience. His mind is apparently full of military matters, as the previous scene indicates, but he forgot both these and Iago, in rapt meditation on his love (‘Excellent wretch !’).
Third Section
In the third section of the scene, we see that Iago, having miscalculated, has to start again, when he breaks in on Othello’s reverie with ‘My noble lord’. This sub-scene stretches to Desdemona’s re entry. It begins with an insinuation so smooth that it is scarcely perceptible, and words so harmless and hesitant that Iago could withdraw at any sign of danger. By line 167, he has managed to introduce the infuriating word ‘cuckold’ but still only as a part of a generalisation, so that its application at this point is to be made by Othello, not himself. During this episode, every circumstance capable of a malicious interpretation is used to shake Othello : the fading away of Cassio at their approach ; his part in Othello’s wooing ; and, after some generalizing remarks (in which Iago specializes, and to which Othello, by virtue of character, is particularly susceptible) on ‘good name’, and the sophistication of Venetian women, he makes specific links with Othello’s own situation, by reference to Desdemona’s deception of her own father, and the sinister nature of her choice of black man. The real devilry of the episode is Iago’s simulation of the honest friend and the reluctant witness.
Remaining Sections
In the fourth section we see how the sight of Desdemona revives, but in a modified form Othello’s faith in her. All intuition speaks for her. It is at this point, through a kindly wifely act of Desdemona, that the handkerchief is lost. In the fifth episode, Iago takes the handkerchief from Emilia, who, at this point, seems to be completely dominated by him. It seems that Iago had foreseen the possible use it could be put to, for he had wooed his wife ‘a hundred times’ to steal it. It is to be noted that Emilia neither knows nor cares why. In the last and sixth episode Othello returns out of control. This means that Iago can be bold. His language is now brutal, and he brings in two pictures, one of Cassio’s dream, the other of Cassio’s ‘wiping his beard’ with the handkerchief. These seem conclusive with Othello and he ends with the command to kill Cassio and the intention to kill Desdemona.
Iago’s Insinuations
Othello is here seen to be progressively ‘infected’ with Iago’s malignant attitudes. Iago knows at the outset that his victim, once confused, is lost, and so his primary aim is to involve him in uncertainty. For Othello, once placed in doubt, is quite incapable of suspending judgement ; suspense affects his self-confidence, and this contrasts with the capacity for quick and firm decision upon which he prides himself. He demands an immediate resolution, which can, in practice, be nothing but an acceptance of Iago’s insinuations. He protests against the presence of the very weaknesses that are undoing him. To convert his confidence into suspicion, Iago recalls the persistent misgivings that have from the first surrounded this marriage, ‘She did deceive her father, marrying you’, and stresses the inequality of ‘clime, complexion, and degree’ in a way at once calculated to hurt Othello’s pride and to emphasize his ignorance, as a foreigner and a man of alien race, of Desdemona’s true motives. Above all, he insinuates that her apparent purity of purpose may conceal a sensual corruption of the will. Iago’s conception of love as so much corrupt ‘appetite’ is to take possession of him, exploiting unsuspected facets of his nature, demoralizing him and destroying his integrity. Iago has begun to act upon Othello by throwing doubt upon the purity of his own thoughts. The Moor believes that men ‘should be what they seem’; his whole life has been founded on the assumption that our motives are few and our spiritual needs simple, our actions completely and unequivocally under our control. Iago implies that the assumption is dubious, that not only the motives of others, but even our town are open to obscure and scarcely apprehended reservations. This is a typically sophisticated ‘Venetian’ conclusion, and one which perfectly fits Iago’s purpose. It is because his ‘philosophy’ enables him, to establish contact with the lower, unconsidered elements of hips victim’s emotional’ being that he is able to destroy Othello’s simplicity and to reduce him to a mass of contradictions and uncontrolled impulses. The grossness of physical contacts makes him visualize the sin by which Desdemona is offending his self-esteem­
Othello’s Reaction
Othello’s being is anchored upon his faith in his love. From, the point ‘Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,’ Iago leads him on with a sneer that works like poison on his fantasy. Here, besides rousing still further the sensual elements in his imagination, Iago touches Othello at the most vulnerable point ; he offends him intimately in his personal respect. The reaction is a characteristic mixture of pathetic bewilderment and defiant self-esteem. Conscious of racial difference and aware of a mortifying social inferiority, he thrusts aside the doubt only to fall at once into further uncertainty of a more concrete and mortifying kind and comes to conclusion ‘I am abused ; and my relief/Must be to loathe her’ in which misery and offended self-respect compete for precedence. Iago’s very boldness has won his point. He must have been very sure of the Moor’s blindness to work upon him with so gross a caricature. He has roused not Othello’s indignation, but his outraged self-esteem and has brought to the surface the destructive forces of his neglected animal instincts.
Desdemona’s Innocence
The scene further emphasizes Desdemona’s innocence as well as a certain degree of lack of practical wisdom. She is as yet unaware of the change in her husband, and is still busy in her innocent plans for rehabilitating Cassio. The handkerchief now becomes magical, sewn in ‘prophetic fury’ from silk of hallowed worms, and linked with lost or preserved love. It is thus a powerful symbol for Othello and a frightening loss for Desdemona. Her brave white lie, joined with her persistence for Cassio, makes the scene so dangerous, for her and maddening for Othello––the one ignorant, the other corrupted––that the passage between them reaches great heights of dramatic intensity, where only the audience knows all and aches at the incomprehensions and risks. Emilia must not be blamed too much for denying knowledge of the handkerchief. She is not yet aware of the issues involved, and, in a sense, expects Othello’s behaviour from her worldly knowledge of men––
                They cat us hungerly, and when they are full,
                They belch us.
The scene shows that, from Othello’s point of view. His suspicion would seem to be justified. His account of the handkerchief fits his and Desdemona’s circumstances, as he supposes them to be so exactly that it sounds like an invention on the spur of the moment, ––possibly to frighten her into confessing, He has not previously talked of its magical quality, or of his attachment to it but merely mentioned that it was his first gift to Desdemona. In Act I he rejects notions of magic ; and one can only suppose that his present account is a romantic version of what his first gift to his love means. If this is not so, then Othello has retained more superstition from his past than he is commonly supposed to have done. It has been suggested that Othello produces this account here ‘to cover up the real reason for his disproportionate passion over such a trifle.’
Iago and Othello
Othello now seems to have become a mere tool in Iago’s hands and he shows more and more boldness in handling him. His sufferings can be measured in intensity by his failing in a fit, and his fury by his striking Desdemona in public. It is now safe for Iago to produce a fake confession of Cassio’s. As usual his luck holds with the arrival of Bianca and the handkerchief, which provides the ‘ocular proof’ Othello had demanded. The opening of the scene shows Iago in a role most likely to bemuse and infuriate Othello, namely that of the man who knows the Venetian sophisticated world, to which Othello believes Desdemona belongs, .and accepts its sexual pranks with cynical matter-of-factness. Othello’s ‘unbookish jealousy’––the thought of this repulsive unknown world he has married into––infuriates him.
Desdemona’s Plight
We only see and, not hear, Iago’s impudent ‘interview’ with Cassio. The most painful moment (perhaps in the whole of Shakespeare) is the striking of Desdemona. Lodovico, a kinsman of Brabantio and therefore’ of Desdemona, brings back for a moment the pre-Cyprus world, the Venetian world of Othello’s honour and Desdemona’s girlhood. ‘This Lodovico is a proper man’, says Desdemona later ; not because she regrets her choice but because of the happy past and a revival of courteous conduct. He gives occasion for the blow because of the mandate be brings, which, while it elevates Cassio, also allows Desdemona’s innocent pleasure, which Othello misconstrues. Lodovico has a small part to play, but shows humanity and feeling in the unknown situation where he finds himself. He speaks like a gentleman, and is shocked by what he sees and bears. Iago pours poison into his ears also. Lodovico is prepared to think that Othello is disturbed by his recall, but Iago insinuates, in his creeping way, otherwise.
The ‘Brothel Scene’
The usual title given to this scene as ‘the brothel scene’ underlines its significance. The scene is brutal, like Othello’s striking at Desdemona in the previous scene, but is more extended in brutality. The brutality is less direct in not being physical but psychological ; but its pain lies in the incomprehension of Desdemona as to what it is about, her near-ignorance of the very terms in which Othello accuses her. Othello is never less sympathetic to the reader ; yet he weeps––and the world of disorder in which he now lives is movingly portrayed. Bewilderment is the key of this scene two sensitive people in love, but at odds, neither giving the other the information on which understanding could be made. Othello is so poisoned that he can scarcely attend to what she says ; she is so bewildered that she can only say something as weak, as ‘I hope my noble lord esteems me honest’ ; but she is still spirited, and rejects as much as she understands of his charge
Height of Iago’s Action
We now see Emilia begin to emerge as a sympathetic character. She lays many shrewd blows upon the unknown villain, enough to provoke Iago. Some stage representations give him a moment of remorse in his gestures, but this is unwarranted by the text. The moment therefore is ironic ; Desdemona’s appeal is made to one who is egoistic and hard like flint. The final passage of this scene belongs only outwardly to it. Roderigo is now dangerous, and Iago lays plans to dispose of him and/or Cassio at once. The height of action for Iago is now reached, and all depends on how it goes.
Desdemona’s Sorrow
There is very little action in this scene, in fact, it comes like a pause in the action, whose main business is to show Desdemona’s innocence and sorrow. A critic observes about it–– “A scene of ordered calm ; of action of every sort, and of violence and distress of speech, we have had plenty. This prepares us, in its stillness, and in the gentle melancholy of the song, for the worse violence and the horror to come, and is ... a setting against which no shade of Desdemona’s quiet beauty can be lost.’
Moving Pathos
The scene is full of intense pathos. The song that Desdemona’s unhappiness recalls to her comes from her childhood ; it is an old pathetic ballad of a deserted girl. It ends with a cynical jeer from the betrayer that women are as loose as men. This is outside Desdemona’s experience ; hence her ensuing dialogue with Emilia, who confirms in wordly experience the last stanza of the ballad. Emilia sees the marriage bond as a contract, whose breaking by the husband (which she seems to take for granted) justifies similar action by the wife. We see Emilia as a worldly person here for the last time : her purpose as foil to Desdemona is finished, and she joins her in kindred spirit in the last act. Bradley has pointed out Shakespeare’s fondness for introducting a now emotion, usually of pathos, at this stage of a tragedy : it is a constant constructional device with him. King Lear Act IV : Scene VII, and Hamlet Act IV Scene V, are famous examples, and Macbeth Act IV : Scene II a miniature instance of this. Bradley maintains that pathos of a beautiful and, moving kind reaches its height in this scene, and is only surpassed by the greatness of the moment when Lear wakes up to find Cordelia bending over him.
Rapid Action
This scene is quick-moving and we have action right at the start, for the very second line of the scene reads : “Wear thy good rapier bare, and put it home’ is the second line. Iago’s plot now reaches its climax. His ‘puppets are turning dangerous’. He hops that one victim, Roderigo, will kill the other, Cassio, or, at the best, that they will kill each other ; but he resolves to finish off either survivor. It does not seem to have occurred to him that both might live, but it is a very dark night and his plan goes wrong Cassio is not even injured, and Roderigo only wounded. At this point Iago is swift in action ; he improvises brilliantly, gains further credit’ for honesty and valour, wounds Cassio, ‘kills’ Roderigo, and smears Bianca, both because he is vicious, and because she may later serve his purpose.
Initial Failures
At first there are some unexpected snags in the execution of Iago’s plan. Whether because of haste or became his nerve is shaken by the plot going awry, he makes a bad job of both his attempted assassinations. Roderigo revives for a moment to ‘throw light on the conspiracy (though the papers in his pocket do this almost sufficiently), and Cassio is borne in to testify both his love for Othello and his innocence (‘Dear General, I never gave you cause’). But all this fails to bait the smooth progress of his main plot. Othello, deceived as ever, hurries away to execute his own justice ; and all ,that this scene may be said to do, sprit from its intrinsic excitement, is to provide sad material in the last scene for the revelation of Iago’s villainy and Othello’s blindness.
Moving Climax
This scene provides an intensely moving climax to the great tragedy. It also possesses gripping’ theatrical qualities Only a few minutes earlier. Othello bad hurried away with savage words to murder Desdemona. He speaks very differently, though not lest inexorably, when he next enters. The scene, as a critic points out, falls into three parts : the first, that of Desdemona’s murder, pathetic and terrible ; the second, the gallant disclaim of Iago’s villainy by Emilia, and her death ; the third, Othello’s despairing: agony and his determination on suicide. The handkerchief comes in again twice, once as clinching evidence for Othello of Desdemona’s guilt and of her lies, which turn his heart to stone ; and then immediately afterwards the simple truth about the magic handkerchief is revealed by Emilia. Desdemona, frightened but courageous, must both feel momentary relief and think she is dealing with a madman when she finds that the handkerchief is the ‘matter’ she asks him about. The reader or spectator most ask himself at this poignant moment why her simple solution–– ‘Send for the man and ask him’-is not followed ; but we are in the tragic world where the obvious is not perceived, and a fatal course must be followed.
Spiritual Devastation
It is the deathbed episode which dominates this scene, although it takes place in the background of the stage, until Lodovico commands it to be hidden : ‘the object poisons sight’. A critic comments on the more or less passive role taken by Othello after the murder : ‘It eddies about him ; but he has lost all purpose, and even the attack on Iago is half-hearted ... So the bulk of the scene is given to a survey of the spiritual devastation that has been wrought in him.’ But not a pang of this is withheld ; sand a vindictive but truly tragic .satisfaction is given by Emilia’s exposure of his horrible mistake and Iago’s guilt. She speaks too late ; but she speaks splendidly. Structurally, the scene ends, in a sense, where it began. Othello’s first ‘justice’ is on Desdemona ; his last, on himself, so that false and true justice respectively begin and end the scene. Each justice is accompanied by a hiss of love, the first reluctant, the second penitent, as if the scene were an expanded ballad, or, at least, of poetic construction.

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