IT has been said that tragedy purifies the affections
by terror and pity. That is, it substitutes
imaginary sympathy for mere selfishness. It
gives us a high and permanent interest, beyond
ourselves, in humanity as such. It raises the
great, the remote, and the possible to an equality
with the real, the little and the near. It
makes man a partaker with his kind. It subdues
and softens the stubbornness of his will.
It teaches him that there are and have been
others like himself, by strewing him as in a glass
what they have felt, thought, and done. It opens
the chambers of the human heart. It leaves nothing
indifferent to us that can affect our common
nature. It excites our sensibility by exhibiting
the passions wound up to the utmost
pitch by the power of imagination or the temptation
of circumstances; and corrects their fatal
excesses in ourselves by pointing to the greater
extent of sufferings and of crimes to which they
have led others. Tragedy creates a balance of
the affections. It makes us thoughtful spectators
in the lists of life. It is the refiner of the
species; a discipline of humanity. The habitual
study of poetry and works of imagination
is one chief part of a well-grounded education.
A taste for liberal art is necessary to complete
the character of a gentleman. Science alone is
hard and mechanical. It exercises the understanding
upon things out of ourselves, while it
leaves the affections unemployed, or engrossed
with our own immediate, narrow interests.--OTHELLO
furnishes an illustration of these
remarks. It excites our sympathy in an extraordinary
degree. The moral it conveys has
a closer application to the concerns of human
life than that of any other of Shakespear's plays.
"It comes directly home to the bosoms and
business of men." The pathos in Lear is indeed
more dreadful and overpowering: but it is
less natural, and less of every day's occurrence.
We have not the same degree of sympathy with
the passions described in Macbeth. The interest
in Hamlet is more remote and reflex. That
of Othello is at once equally profound and affecting.
The picturesque contrasts of character in this
play are almost as remarkable as the depth of
the passion. The Moor Othello, the gentle
Desdemona, the villain Iago, the good-natured
Cassio, the fool Roderigo, present a range and
variety of character as striking and palpable as
that produced by the opposition of costume in
a picture. Their distinguishing qualities stand
out to the mind's eye, so that even when we
are not thinking of their actions or sentiments,
the idea of their persons is still as present to us
as ever. These characters and the images they
stamp upon the mind are the farthest asunder
possible, the distance between them is immense:
yet the compass of knowledge and invention
which the poet has strewn in embodying these
extreme creations of his genius is only greater
than the truth and felicity with which he has
identified each character with itself, or blended
their different qualities together in the same
story. What a contrast the character of Othello
forms to that of Iago: at the same time, the
force of conception with which these two figures
are opposed to each other is rendered still more
intense by the complete consistency with which
the traits of each character are brought out
in a state of the highest finishing. The making
one black and the other white, the one unprincipled,
the other unfortunate in the extreme, would
have answered the common purposes of effect,
and satisfied the ambition of an ordinary painter
of character. Shakespear has laboured the finer
shades of difference in both with as much care
and skill as if he had had to depend on the execution
alone for the success of his design. On
the other hand, Desdemona and Aemilia are not
meant to be opposed with any thing like strong
contrast to each other. Both are, to outward
appearance, characters of common life, not more
distinguished than women usually are, by difference
of rank and situation. The difference
of their thoughts and sentiments is however laid
as open, their minds are separated from each
other by signs as plain and as little to be mistaken
as the complexions of their husbands.
The movement of the passion in Othello is
exceedingly different from that of Macbeth. In
Macbeth there is a violent struggle between opposite
feelings, between ambition and the stings
of conscience, almost from first to last: in
Othello, the doubtful conflict between contrary
passions, though dreadful, continues only
for a short time, and the chief interest is excited
by the alternate ascendancy of different passions,
the entire and unforeseen change from the fondest
love and most unbounded confidence to the tortures
of jealousy and the madness of hatred.
The revenge of Othello, after it has once taken
thorough possession of his mind, never quits it,
but grows stronger and stronger at every moment
of its delay. The nature of the Moor is noble,
confiding, tender, and generous; but his blood
is of the most inflammable kind; and being
once roused by a sense of his wrongs, he is
stopped by no considerations of remorse or pity
till he has given a loose to all the dictates of his
rage and his despair. It is in working his noble
nature up to this extremity through rapid but
gradual transitions, in raising passion to its
height from the smallest beginnings and in spite
of all obstacles, in painting the expiring conflict
between love and hatred, tenderness and resentment,
jealousy and remorse, in unfolding the
strength and the weaknesses of our nature,
in uniting sublimity of thought with the anguish
of the keenest woe, in putting in motion the
various impulses that agitate this our mortal
being, and at last blending them in that noble
tide of deep and sustained passion, impetuous
but majestic, that "flows on to the Propontic,
and knows no ebb," that Shakespear has strewn
the mastery of his genius and of his power over
the human heart. The third act of OTHELLO
is his master-piece, not of knowledge or passion
separately, but of the two combined, of the
knowledge of character with the expression of
passion, of consummate art in the keeping up
of appearances with the profound workings of
nature, and the convulsive movements of uncontroulable
agony, of the power of inflicting
torture and of suffering it. Not only is the tumult
of passion heaved up from the very bottom
of the soul, but every the slightest undulation
of feeling is seen on the surface, as it arises from
the impulses of imagination or the different probabilities
maliciously suggested by Iago. The
progressive preparation for the catastrophe is
wonderfully managed from the Moor's first gallant
recital of the story of his love, of "the spells
and witchcraft he had used," from his unlooked-for
and romantic success, the fond satisfaction
with which he dotes on his own happiness, the
unreserved tenderness of Desdemona and her innocent
importunities in favour of Cassio, irritating
the suspicions instilled into her husband's
mind by the perfidy of Iago, and rankling there
to poison, till he loses all command of himself,
and his rage can only be appeased by blood.
She is introduced, just before Iago begins to put
his scheme in practice, pleading for Cassio with
all the thoughtless gaiety of friendship and winning
confidence in the love of Othello.
"What! Michael Cassio?|
That came a wooing with you, and so many a time,
When I have spoke of you dispraisingly,
Hath ta'en your part, to have so much to do
To bring him in?--Why this is not a boon:
'Tis as I should intreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing meats, or keep you warm;
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your person. Nay, when I have a suit,
Wherein I mean to touch your love indeed,
It shall be full of poise, and fearful to be granted."
Othello's confidence, at first only staggered by
broken hints and insinuations, recovers itself at
sight of Desdemona; and he exclaims
"If she be false, O then Heav'n mocks itself:|
I'll not believe it."
But presently after, on brooding over his suspicions
by himself, and yielding to his apprehensions
of the worst, his smothered jealousy breaks
out into open fury, and he returns to demand
satisfaction of Iago like a wild beast stung with
the envenomed shaft of the hunters. "Look
where he comes," &c. In this state of exasperation
and violence, after the first paroxysms of
his grief and tenderness have had their vent in
that passionate apostrophe, "I felt not Cassio's
kisses on her lips," Iago by false aspersions,
and by presenting the most revolting images to
his mind [see the passage beginning, "It is impossible you
should see this, were they as prime as goats," &c.],
easily turns the storm of passion from
himself against Desdemona, and works him up
into a trembling agony of doubt and fear, in
which he abandons all his love and hopes in a
"Now do I see 'tie true. Look here, Iago,|
All my fond love thus do I blow to Heav'n. 'Tis gone.
Arise black vengeance from the hollow hell;
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! Swell bosom with thy fraught;
For 'tis of aspicks' tongues."
From this times his raging thoughts "never
look back, ne'er ebb to humble love" till his
revenge is sure of its object, the painful regrets
and involuntary recollections of past
circumstances which cross his mind amidst
the dim trances of passion, aggravating the
sense of his wrongs, but not shaking his purpose.
Once indeed, where Iago shews him
Cassio with the handkerchief in his hand, and
making sport (as he thinks) of his misfortunes,
the intolerable bitterness of his feelings, the
extreme sense of shame, makes him fall to praising
her accomplishments and relapse into a
momentary fit of weakness, "Yet, Oh the pity
of Iago, the pity of it!" This returning fondness
however only serves, as it is managed by
Iago, to whet his revenge, and set his heart
more against her. In his conversations with
Desdemona, the persuasion of her guilt and
the immediate proofs of her duplicity seem
to irritate his resentment and aversion to her;
but in the scene immediately preceding her
death, the recollection of his love returns upon
him in all its tenderness and force; and after
her death, he all at once forgets his wrongs in
the sudden and irreparable sense of his loss.
"My wife! My wife! What wife? I have no wife.|
Oh insupportable! Oh heavy hour!"
This happens before he is assured of her innocence;
but afterwards his remorse is as dreadful as
his revenge has been, and yields only to fixed and
death-like despair. His farewel speech, before
he kills himself, in which he conveys his reasons
to the senate for the murder of his wife, is equal
to the first speech in which he gave them an
account of his courtship of her, and "his whole
course of love." Such an ending was alone
worthy of such a commencement.
If any thing could add to the force of our
sympathy with Othello, or compassion for his
fate, it would be the frankness and generosity
of his nature, which so little deserve it. When
Iago first begins to practice upon his unsuspecting
friendship, he answers--
----"'Tis not to make me jealous,|
To say my wife is fair, feeds well, loves company,
Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well;
Where virtue is, these are most virtuous.
Nor from my own weak merits will I draw
The smallest fear or doubt of her revolt,
For she had eyes and chose me."
This character is beautifully (and with affecting
simplicity) confirmed by what Desdemona
herself says of him to Aemilia after she has lost
the handkerchief, the first pledge of his love to
"Believe me, I had rather have lost my purse|
Full of cruzadoes. And but my noble Moor
Is true of mind, and made of no such baseness,
As jealous creatures are, it were enough
To put him to ill thinking.
Aemilia. Is he not jealous?
Desdemona. Who he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humours from him."
In a short speech of Aemilia's, there occurs one
of those side-intimations of the fluctuations of
passion which we seldom meet with but in
Shakespear. After Othello has resolved upon
the death of his wife, and bids her dismiss her
attendant for the night, she answers,
"I will, my Lord.|
Aemilia. How goes it now? He looks gentler than he did."
Shakespear has here put into half a line what
some authors would have spun out into ten set
The character of Desdemona herself is inimitable
both in itself, and as it contrasts with
Othello's groundless jealousy, and with the foul
conspiracy of which she is the innocent victim.
Her beauty and external graces are only indirectly
glanced at; we see "her visage in her
mind;" her character every where predominates
over her person.
"A maiden never bold:|
Of spirit so still and quiet, that her motion
Blushed at itself."
There is one fine compliment paid to her by
Cassio, who exclaims triumphantly when she
comes ashore at Cyprus after the storm,
"Tempests themselves, high seas, and howling winds,|
As having sense of beauty, do omit
Their mortal natures, letting safe go by
The divine Desdemona."
In general, as is the case with most of Shakespear's
females, we lose sight of her personal
charms in her attachment and devotedness to her
husband. "She is subdued even to the very quality
of her lord;" and to Othello's "honours and
his valiant parts her soul and fortunes consecrates."
The lady protests so much herself, and
she is as good as her word. The truth of conception,
with which timidity and boldness are
united in the same character, is marvellous.
The extravagance of her resolutions, the pertinacity
of her affections, may be said to arise out
of the gentleness of her nature. They imply
an unreserved reliance on the purity of her own
intentions, an entire surrender of her fears to
her love, a knitting of herself (heart and soul)
to the fate of another. Bating the commencement
of her passion, which is a little fantastical
and headstrong (though even that may perhaps
be consistently accounted for from her inability
to resist a rising inclination ["Iago. Ay, too
gentle./Othello. Nay, that's certain."]) her whole character
consists in having no will of her own, no
prompter but her obedience. Her romantic
turn is only a consequence of the domestic and
practical part of her disposition; and instead of
following Othello to the wars, she would gladly
have "remained at home a moth of peace," if
her husband could have staid with her. Her
resignation and angelic sweetness of temper do
not desert her at the last. The scenes in which
she laments and tries to account for Othello's
estrangement from her are exquisitely beautiful.
After he has struck her, and called her names,
What shall I do to win my lord again?
Good friend, go to him; for by this light of heaven,
1 know not how I lost him. Here I kneel;
If e'er my will did trespass 'gainst his love,
Either in discourse, or thought, or actual deed,
Or that mine eyes, mine ears, or any sense
Delighted them on any other form;
Or that I do not, and ever did,
And ever will, though he do shake me off
To beggarly divorcement, love him dearly,
Comfort forswear me. Unkindness may do much,
And his unkindness may defeat my life,
But never taint my love.
Iago. I pray you be content: 'tis but his humour.
The business of the state does him offence.
Desdemona. If 'twere no other!"--
The scene which follows with Aemilia and the
song of the Willow, are equally beautiful, and
shew the author's extreme power of varying the
expression of passion, in all its moods and in all
Aemilia. Would you had never seen him.|
Desdemona. So would not I: my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his checks, his frowns,
Have grace and favour in them," &c.
Not the unjust suspicions of Othello, not Iago's
treachery, place Desdemona in a more amiable
or interesting light than the casual conversation
(half earnest, half jest) between her and Aemilia
on the common behaviour of women to their
husbands. This dialogue takes place just before
the last fatal scene. If Othello had overheard
it, it would have prevented the whole catastrophe;
but then it would have spoiled the play.
The character of Iago is one of the supererogations
of Shakespear's genius. Some persons,
more nice than wise, have thought this
whole character unnatural, because his villainy
is without a sufficient motive. Shakespear, who
was as good a philosopher as he was a poet,
thought otherwise. He knew that the love of
power, which is another name for the love of
mischief, is natural to man. He would know
this as well or better than if it had been demonstrated
to him by a logical diagram, merely from
seeing children paddle in the dirt or kill flies for
sport. Iago in fact belongs to a class of characters,
common to Shakespear and at the same
time peculiar to him; whose heads are as acute
and active as their hearts are hard and callous.
Iago is to be sure an extreme instance of the
kind; that is to say, of diseased intellectual
activity, with an almost perfect indifference to
moral good or evil, or rather with a decided preference
of the latter, because it falls more readily
in with his favourite propensity, gives greater
zest to his thoughts and scope to his actions.
He is quite or nearly as indifferent to his own
fate as to that of others; he runs all risks for a
trifling and doubtful advantage; and is himself
the dupe and victim of his ruling, passion--an
insatiable craving after action of the most difficult
and dangerous kind. "Our ancient" is a philosopher,
who fancies that a lie that kills has
more point in it than an alliteration or an antithesis;
who thinks a fatal experiment on the
peace of a family a better thing than watching
the palpitations in the heart of a flea in a microscope;
who plots the ruin of his friends as
an exercise for his ingenuity, and stabs men in
the dark to prevent ennui. His gaiety, such as
it is, arises from the success of his treachery;
his ease from the torture he has inflicted on
others. He is an amateur of tragedy in real
life; and instead of employing his invention on
imaginary characters, or long-forgotten incidents,
he takes the bolder and more desperate
course of getting up his plot at home, casts the
principal parts among his nearest friends and
connections, and rehearses it in downright earnest,
with steady nerves and unabated resolution.
We will just give an illustration or two.
One of his most characteristic speeches is that
immediately after the marriage of Othello.
"Roderigo. What a full fortune does the thick lips owe,|
If he can carry her thus!
Iago. Call up her father:
Rouse him (Othello) make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets, incense her kinsmen,
And tho' he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies: Tho' that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on it,
As it may lose some colour."
In the next passage, his imagination runs riot
in the mischief he is plotting, and breaks out
into the wildness and impetuosity of real enthusiasm.
"Roderigo. Here is her father's house: I'll call aloud.|
Iago. Do, with like timourons accent and dire yell,
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
ls spied in populous cities."
One of his most favourite topics, on which
he is rich indeed, and in descanting on which
his spleen serves him for a Muse, is the disproportionate
match between Desdemona and the
Moor. This is a clue to the character of the
lady which he is by no means ready to part with.
It is brought forward in the first scene, and he
recurs to it, when in answer to his insinuations
against Desdemona, Roderigo says,
"I cannot believe that in her--she's full of most blest conditions.|
Iago. Bless'd fig's end. The wine she drinks is made of
grapes. If she had been blest, she would never have married the Moor."
And again with still more spirit and fatal effect
afterwards, when he turns this very suggestion
arising in Othello's own breast to her prejudice.
"Othello. And yet how nature erring from itself--|
Iago. Aye, there's the point;--as to be bold with you,
Not to affect many proposed matches
Of her own clime, complexion, and degree," &c.
This is probing to the quick. Iago here turns
the character of poor Desdemona, as it were,
inside out. It is certain that nothing but the
genius of Shakespear could have preserved the
entire interest and delicacy of the part, and have
even drawn an additional elegance and dignity
from the peculiar circumstances in which she is
placed.--The habitual licentiousness of Iago's
conversation is not to be traced to the pleasure
he takes in gross or lascivious images, but to
his desire of finding out the worst side of every
thing, and of proving himself an over-match for
appearances. He has none of "the milk of human
kindness" in his composition. His imagination
rejects every thing that has not a strong
infusion of the most unpalatable ingredients;
his mind digests only poisons. Virtue or goodness
or whatever has the least "relish of salvation
in it," is, to his depraved appetite, sickly
and insipid: and he even resents the good
opinion entertained of his own integrity, as if
it were an affront cast on the masculine sense
and spirit of his character. Thus at the meeting
between Othello and Desdemona, he exclaims--"Oh,
you are well tuned now: but I'll set
down the pegs that make this music, as honest
as I am"--his character of bonhommie not sitting
at all easily upon him. In the scenes,
where he tries to work Othello to his purpose,
he is proportionately guarded, insidious, dark,
and deliberate. We believe nothing ever came
up to the profound dissimulation and dextrous
artifice of the well-known dialogue in the third
act, where he first enters upon the execution of
"Iago. My noble lord.|
Othello. What dost-thou say, Iago?
Iago. Did Michael Cassio,
When you wooed my lady, know of your love?
Othello. He did from first to last.
Why dost thou ask?
Iago. But for a satisfaction of my thought,
No further harm.
Othello. Why of thy thought, Iago?
Iago. I did not think he had been acquainted with it.
Othello. O yes, and went between us very oft--
Othello. Indeed? Ay, indeed. Discern'st thou aught of that?
Is he not honest?
Iago. Honest, my lord?
Othello. Honest? Ay, honest.
Iago. My lord, for aught I know.
Othello. What do'st thou think?
Iago. Think, my lord!
Othello. Think, my lord! Alas, thou echo'st me,
As if there was some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shewn."--
The stops and breaks, the deep workings of
treachery under the mask of love and honesty,
the anxious watchfulness, the cool earnestness,
and if we may so say, the passion of hypocrisy
marked in every line, receive their last finishing
in that inconceivable burst of pretended indignation
at Othello's doubts of his sincerity.
"O grace! O Heaven forgive me!|
Are you a man? Have you a soul or sense?
God be wi' you; take mine office. O wretched fool,
That lov'st to make thine honesty a vice!
Oh monstrous world! take note, take note, O world!
To be direct and honest, is not safe.
I thank you for this profit, and from hence
I'll love no friend, since love breeds such offence."
If Iago is detestable enough when he has business
on his hands and all his engines at work,
he is still worse when he has nothing to do, and
we only see into the hollowness of his heart.
His indifference when Othello falls into a swoon,
is perfectly diabolical.
"Iago. How is it, General? Have you not hurt your head?|
Othello. Do'st thou mock me?
Iago. I mock you not, by Heaven," &c.
The part indeed would hardly be tolerated,
even as a foil to the virtue and generosity
of the other characters in the play, but for its
indefatigable industry and inexhaustible resources,
which divert the attention of the spectator
(as well as his own) from the end he has in
view to the means by which it must be accomplished.--Edmund
the Bastard in Lear is something
of the same character, placed in less prominent
circumstances. Zanga is a vulgar caricature of it.