As a tragedy Othello possesses the questionable distinction of having been ruthlessly criticised by one earlier critic, namely, Rymer, and two celebrated modern critics, namely T. S. Eliot and F. R: Leavis.While there is no dearth of enthusiastic, and even rapturous appreciation of Othello, the fact remains that there is still a school of thought, a minority school, no doubt, which considers the objections of Rymer to be valid, and the adverse criticism of Eliot and Leavis to be justified. On the positive side, we have a host of critics but one name which cannot escape mention is that of Dr. Johnson, not only because of his stature as a critic, but even more so because he largely meets Rymer’s strictures on their own, viz. neo-classical ground. Among the modern favourable critics, the most celebrated is Bradley.
Rymer’s primary interest was not critical but social and polemical-he wanted to attack and discredit the English stage, and for this purpose singled out some well-known plays in order to subject them to a mercilessly destructive criticism. Rymer has thus a vested interest in his argument : be is not out to explore with an open mind and reach a just and appropriate conclusion. His polemics may become more understandable if we remember that he was a lawyer by profession who took to the study of drama as a hobby. In his discussion of Othello, he gives a scene-by-scene hostile analysis of the play, exultingly bringing out and elaborating every improbability, and leading to the general conclusion that Othello is a veritable compendium of shortcomings, Rymer was not lacking in sharpness of wit and intelligence, but it was his chosen task to rehabilitate the English stage on the lines, of “classical” French drama, and to do so it was of the utmost necessity that Shakespeare” should first be debunked and made to clear the way for neoclassical French playwrights. In a way, Rymer’s attack is an oblique compliment to Othello : he concedes that it was the popular favourite among Shakespeare’s tragedies.
Rymer’s first objection is that the plot of Othello is incredible. And as a neo-classicist, he finds the behaviour of both Iago and Othello to be untrue to life because it is not typical of the soldier class to which they belong. Rymer is also critical of the alleged lack of moral in the play––unless, he sneers, it be that women should be careful about their: linen. Thus Rymer’s first objection is that the play violates the classical doctrine of generality, and he cannot brook the fact that Iago is “a close, dissembing, false, insinuating rascal, instead of an open-hearted, frank, plain-dealing soldier, a character constantly worn by them for some thousands of years in the world.” Rymer finds Othello lacking the loftiness which is requisite in a tragedy. He asserts that there is nothing for the audience to carry home with them from this play for their use and edification.
Some excerpts from A Short View of Tragedy would help to bring in the actual flavour of Rymer’s fare. After reproducing a dialogue between Othello and Iago where the perplexed and near-crazed Moor stalks incoherently of being naked a-bed and not meaning harm, Rymer comments :
At this gross rate of trifling, our General and his Ancient march on most heroically, till the jealous booby has his brains turn’d, and falls in a trance. Would any imagine this to be the language of Venetians, of soldiers and mighty captains ? no Bartholomew droll could subsist upon such trash.
Rymer finds Shakespeare’s handling of the major incidents in the plot to be contrarious. He argues
Iago had some pretence to be discontent with Othello and Cassio : And what passed hitherto was the operation of revenge. Desdemona had never done him harm, always kind to him and to his wife, was his country-woman, a dame of quality : for him to abet . her murder shows nothing of a soldier, nothing of a man, nothing of Nature in it……Iago could desire no better than to set Cassio and Othello, his two enemies, by the ears together, so he might have been revenged on them both at once : And chusing for his own share the murder of Desdemona, he had the opportunity to play booty, and save the poor harmless- wretch. But the poet must do everything by contraries, to surprise the audience still with something horrible and prodigious beyond any human imagination.
The Incident of the Handkerchief
Rymer not only ridicules Shakespeare’s management of the incident of the handkerchief but has his own view about how the handkerchief should have been employed :
Desdemona dropped her handkerchief, and missed it that very day after her marriage ; it might have been rumpled up with her wedding sheets : and this night that she lay in her wedding sheets, the Fairey Napkin (whilst Othello was stifling her) might have started up to disarm his fury and stop his ungracious mouth. Then might she (in a trance for fear) have lain as dead ; then might he touched with remorse, have honestly cut his own throat, by the good leave and, with the applause of the spectators : who might thereupon have gone home with a quiet mind, admiring the beauty of Providence, fairly and truly represented on the theatre.
Rymer’s verdict on this great tragedy is a very harsh one. He first castigates the author for not providing some obvious moral lesson for the spectators : “What can remain with the audience to carry home with them for this sort of poetry for their use and edification? How can it work, unless (instead of settling the mind and purging our passions) to delude our senses, disorder our thoughts, addle our brain, pervert our affections, hair our imaginations, corrupt our appetite, and fill our head with vanity, confusion, tintamarre, and jingle-jangle, beyond what all the parish-clerks of London with their Old Testament farces and interludes, in Richard the Second’s time, could ever pretend to ? Our only opts for the good of -their souls can be that these people go to the playhouse as they go to Church, to sit ‘still, look on one another, make_ no reflection, nor mind the play more than they would a sermon.” Upon this follows Rymer’s astounding verdict ‘There is in this play some burlesque, some humour and ramble of comical wit, some show and some mimicry to divert the spectators ; but the tragical part is none other than a bloody farce, without salt or saviour.”
Samuel Johnson, himself a neo-classicist, effectively counters Rymer’s criticism in the Preface to this edition of Shakespeare’s plays. This is how Johnson disposes of the criticism that Shakespeare’s characterisation violates the canons of generality :
Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident and, if he preserves the essential character, is not very careful of distinctions superinduced and adventitious. His story requires Romans or kings, but he thinks only on men ... These are the petty cavils of petty minds ; a poet overlooks the casual distinction of country and condition, as a painter, satisfied with the figure, neglects the drapery.
On the alleged lack of a moral in the play (a charge conceded by many other critics) Johnson once again comes to the defence of Shakespeare. His argument is recorded in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and occurs in reply to a question of his biographer. Johnson replies :
‘In the first place, Sir, we learn from Othello this very useful moral, not to make an unequal match ; in the second place, we learn not to yield too readily to suspicion. The handkerchief is merely a trick, though a very pretty trick ; but there are no other circumstances of reasonable suspicion, except what is related by Iago of Cassio’s warm expressions concerning Desdemona in his sleep ; and that depended entirely upon the assertion of one man. No, Sir, I think Othello has more: moral than almost any play.’
T. S. Mot’s View
T. S. Eliot was perhaps the first great modern critic to pass a hostile judgment on Othello. His criticism relates mainly to the, character of Othello himself. Where Swinburne looked upon Othello as the noblest man of man’s making, Eliot viewed him as ‘cheering himself up’ in his last speech, and applied to his attitude the expressive word ‘Bovarysme’. This view is best countered by Nevill Coghill who establishes that Eliot’s view of Othello is such as no actor could have effectively portrayed on the stage, and therefore could hardly have been the one intended by Shakespeare. On Eliot’s side we have Heilman who regards Othello as the least heroic of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. The adverse criticism of the play is further elaborated by F. R. Leavis, while the best appreciation perhaps still continues to be that of Bradley. The two critical stances are opposed in every detail. Bradley locates they complexity of play within the personality of Iago, since he is inclined to look upon Othello as entirely blameless, and he therefore devotes considerable space to exploration of Iago’s mind. Leavis is critical of this approach, regarding it as no better than a waste time to study the inner reaches of Iago’s mind. In his view Iago is sufficiently convincing as a person, but he is subordinate and merely ancillary––not much more than a necessary piece of dramatic mechanism. He believes that Othello’s tragedy is precipitated principally by Othello’s own shortcomings––his egoism, his merely sensual love of Desdemona and his lack of any real knowledge of the woman he loves. According to Leavis Othello’s habits of thought and speech, while they served him well enough in a life of martial adventure, would never have fitted him for the reciprocity of marriage, so that the very relationship of Othello and Desdemona has tragedy inherent in it and the moment of crisis shows gaping weaknesses in Othello : “The self-idealisation is shown as blindness and the nobility as here no longer something real, but the disguise of an obtuse and a brutal egoism.”
The strongest refutation of the view of Leavis, as of Eliot, is our experience in the theatre. There we are certain that we are seeing the overthrow of a strong and great man ; no mare egotist could have wrung our beasts by his fall as Othello does. Bradley recognises that Iago is less than perfect as a human being, and he has a better and more correct appreciation of the nature of Othello’s tragedy than most other critics. Iago’s character had no place for love in it, and this brought about the destruction of those around him as of Iago, himself. As Bradley puts it, Iago was
destroyed by the power that he attacked, the power of love, and he was destroyed by it because be could sot understand it ; and he could not understand it beams it was not in him.
Defence of Iago
One of the most curious pieces of criticism on Othello is the defence of logo attempted by ‘a Gentlemen of Exeter’ in 1790, entitled ‘An Apology for the Character and Conduct of logo’. He bases himself on what is to him an incontrovertible fact––the good reputation which Iago enjoys. He maintains that if throe bad been any real wickedness in him it would have come to somebody’s notice during the twenty-eight years of his life. Some other critic also have justified Iago by maintaining that Othello had reply cuckolded him––which would give him a good motive for revenge and save him from being branded a monster. Even some twentieth century critics have found substance in such an approach, and taken the words ‘honest Iago’ at their face value. Not only is there a controversy about this particular motive of Iago’s actions, but a strong difference of opinion exists about what his real motive is, or even whether he has any motive at all, or suffers, in the words of Coleridge from ‘motiveless Malignity’.