Sunday, February 6, 2011

Discussion: Othello

The play: The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice

The plot tweet: The black general Othello marries Desdemona and promotes Cassio; the devious Iago persuades him they're having an affair. Murders all around.

My favorite line:
Put out the light, and then put out the light!
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume: when I have plucked the rose
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It needs must wither.


In all of Shakespeare, there are three scenes I find nearly unbearable to watch. Two are in King Lear: the blinding of Gloucester and the emergence of Lear onstage with Cordelia's body. The third is in Othello, and it is of course the murder of Desdemona. The other great tragedies are vast and grand affairs, tales of kings and kingdoms, but Othello is on a more human scale -- which makes it perhaps the most painful of them all.

Each week, after I finish reading the assigned play, I read through a pile of critical responses. This week, the response I've found most useful is in A.C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy. When we discussed Hamlet, we pondered what the title character might have been like before his world collapsed around him. In the same way, Bradley gives a useful description of the pre-tragedy Othello:
So he comes before us, dark and grand, with a light upon him from the sun where he was born; but no longer young, and now grave, self-controlled, steeled by the experience of countless perils, hardships and vicissitudes, at once simple and stately in bearing and in speech, a great man naturally modest but fully conscious of his worth, proud of his services to the State, unawed by dignitaries and unelated by honors, secure, it would seem, against all dangers from without and all rebellions from within. And he comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy.
How does such a man fall victim to Iago so easily? Not because he is stupid, as some scholars have claimed. More likely, it's because he is much more experienced and confident in his public life than he is in his private life, which until now he has largely ignored. And, as Harold Bloom convincingly argues, Othello never has time to consummate his relationship with Desdemona. So, when Iago implies that Desdemona has been false, Othello doesn't even know whether she is a virgin.

Iago knows just how to manipulate his general, and he is an outstanding improviser. Every passing word and chance event becomes part of his plot. Not surprisingly, most of the reading I've done this week deals with Iago: who and what he is and what motivates him to ensnare the people around him. As Bradley points out, we can't trust anything Iago says about his motives without seeking collaboration from other characters and circumstances.

Again, I turn to Bradley for the most cogent analysis of the week. What follows is Bradley's own summary of a much longer analysis, which is worth reading in full if you have time:
Let us remember especially the keen sense of superiority, the contempt of others, the sensitiveness to everything which wounds these feelings, the spite against goodness in men as a thing not only stupid but, both in its nature and by its success, contrary to Iago's nature and irritating to his pride. Let us remember in addition the annoyance of having always to play a part, the consciousness of exceptional but unused ingenuity and address, the enjoyment of action, and the absence of fear. And let us ask what would be the greatest pleasure of such a man, and what the situation which might tempt him to abandon his habitual prudence and pursue this pleasure ...

The most delightful thing to such a man would be something that gave an extreme satisfaction to his sense of power and superiority; and if it involved, secondly, the triumphant exertion of his abilities, and thirdly, the excitement of danger, his delight would be consummated ... Now, this is the temptation that comes to Iago ...

His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. What fuller satisfaction could it find than the consciousness that he is the master of the General who has undervalued him and of the rival who has been preferred to him; that these worthy people, who are so successful and popular and stupid, are mere puppets in his hands ... It must have been an ecstasy of bliss for him.
Of course, the tragedy undoes not only Othello and Desdemona but Iago as well. In that sense, Bradley says, we can consider this play Iago's tragedy, too: "It shows us not a violent man, like Richard, who spends his life in murder, but a thoroughly bad, cold man, who is at last tempted to let loose the forces within him, and is at once destroyed."

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