“Then must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe…” (Act V, Scene II)
William Shakespeare’s classic ‘ Othello ’ is often seen as a concoction and identification of various themes, cultures and personalities. First published in 1622, and then in the First Folio (edited by Heminges and Condell) in 1623, with differences in the application of words persisting in the two consecutive editions (See Amanda Mabillard, 2008). The play is one of the five major tragedies of Shakespeare, apart from ‘ Hamlet ’, ‘ Macbeth ’, ‘ Antony And Cleopatra ’ and ‘ King Lear ’, and is also one of the most popular. Interestingly, ‘Othello’ is perceived from a number of prospects, including noble versus Moorish, military versus civilian, Christian versus Heathen (Debra Dee James), good versus evil, appearance versus reality, loyalty versus treachery and civilized versus barbarian. But the present essay endeavours to show the play as Shakespeare’s careful scrutinization of the two most common phenomenons- faith and honour. Before proceeding any further, let’s take a quick look at the overall characteristics of a Shakespearean tragedy.
For example, in these plays, Shakespeare observed the unity of action, but not the other two unities of time and place. For this, he was criticized by some of his contemporaries, including Ben Jonson. There is another peculiarity in his plays, which was especially pointed out by Dr. Samuel Johnson (See Johnson, 1765). It is that his tragedies also have occasional comic scenes in it. The clown plays a major role in ‘ King Lear’ and there is the porter scene in ‘ Macbeth’. For this reason Johnson wrote that the tragedies of Shakespeare were neither tragedies nor comedies. But this is an extreme position to take. To say that ‘ King Lear’ is not a tragedy is to banish from the category a work that may be called the greatest tragic play in literature.
In one sense his tragic plays in so far as the delineation of the central character is concerned, is in conformity with Aristotle’s ideas (See Aristotle, 1967). These (central) characters are not perfectly virtuous people nor are they positively vicious. They are persons of uncommon merit with weakness that contribute to their fault. In all the great tragedies of Shakespeare, the death of the central character at the end is the closing part of the action. The Prince of Denmark dies at the end and so does Antony and Othello. In this respect, Shakespeare’s attitude is closer to the popular opinion regarding tragedy.
Of all the tragedies of Shakespeare, it can be said that they do not imply what is called “poetic justice” (Johnson), i.e., good characters are not rewarded and the wicked are not always punished. In this matter, Shakespeare’s attitude is natural and not conventional. Though in other tragedies the distinction between the hero and the villain is clear-cut, like there is no chance of confusing Othello with Iago or Cordelia with Goneril, in one play Shakespeare goes against this simple pattern. In ‘ Macbeth ’, the hero is a villain and this gives a special flavour to his tragedy. Shakespeare makes this situation acceptable by showing, how the punishment he receives is severe enough to make us sympathize with him up to a point, in spite of his villainy.
There is no observable ethical bias in Shakespeare’s tragedies. His objectivity and detachment as a writer are unparalleled. This is true not only as regards his tragedies, but regarding his other plays. In ‘ Henry IV Part 1 ’, for example, Shakespeare’s detachment is so faultless, that it would be very difficult to point out what is his ethical stance. That is why, to appreciate the tragedy of Shakespeare, one has to take precaution against any moralistic bias. To this there seems to be a single exception. Iago is a character regarding whom it might be impossible to form a favourable opinion. But then, it is an exception that justifies the rule. Shakespeare’s attitude appears to have been that of exposing the complications of human character and motives. He did not set himself up as a judge of the implications of these things.
The reason why Shakespeare’s best tragedies are among the highest creations of literary works is that, he is a great poet. The tragedies are poetic tragedies. This is something that Bernard Shaw could not come to terms with. No amount of argument or display of intellectual brilliance could make a Shavian play come anywhere near the tragedy of Shakespeare. It is poetry that makes us stretch our imagination to those areas of life that lie beyond the range of our common experience. That is why, in his own field, Shakespeare has no competitors. Some writers have been able to fabricate good plots, create good characters, but there has been no other who could create the poetry that animates Hamlet’s soliloques or Macbeth’s contemplation of the horror growing out of his murderous imagination.
Another point may be touched on here. It would not be true to say that Shakespeare regarded “Character is fate”, famously quoted by “the weeping philosopher”, Heraclitus as a value statement. No tragedy of Shakespeare can be explained merely in terms of character. The world outside also plays a role. Accidents and coincidences are not left out of the plays. Desdemona’s loss of the prized handkerchief, which is a family heirloom may be cited as an example. But Shakespeare never allows such accidents to occupy a central position in the dramatic action. In this, he is as close to nature as Dr. Johnson said he was (Preface To Shakespeare).
Now returning to the question of faith, one is apt to find in the play a number of relevant insinuations underlining this phenomenon, such as “devil”, “Jove”, “fiends”, “damnation”, etc. (Jackson) In fact, faith occupies a dominant part in the play in not just religion, but also human relationships, and is somehow identical with it. It is faith in his daughter that spurs the noble Brabantio to rouse the Senate members to plead his case and search for his daughter, and it is that faith when overturned, untimely kills the old man out of misery. It is undue faith in the cunning Iago that Roderigo, the noble Venetian supports him and is also an accomplice to all his evil deeds, and it is again that faith overturned that deprives him of not only his wealth but also his life. Faith in the vicious Iago to quick fix and repair matters also endangers the life and position of Cassio, though he is lucky to survive and learn from his folly. Blind and unchecked faith in her husband accosts Desdemona her own life. As for the central character, Othello, he himself accounts:
“Excellent wretch, perdition catch my soul, But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, Chaos is come again.”
Shakespeare, as if seems to show through the above precedents that even though faith may appear an embalming and consoling proposition, yet its borders are very frail and unsupportive. That is why, by the end of the play, each of the characters have to pay the due for their own respective faiths. Even Emilia has to pay with her life for being faithful to a husband like Iago. Thus, faith occupies a stronghold in the play and Shakespeare shows a number of problems and complexities arising out of it, ultimately leading to the downfall of one’s own life. Thus, faith is shown to not only disrupt but also foil the normal pattern of human life.
Honour again appears to be a potent condition in the play. Shakespeare shows it to be ripe with frailties in its own part. To Brabantio, it is the alarm of this honour that calls into his immediate attention the safety of his daughter. However, when this honour is robbed of him, he dies a heartbroken man. This honour cloaks a dangerous self-pride (Jackson), which is again a sin and a necessary evil in the play. This pride often leads to prejudice. In Brabantio’s case, he severed all ties with Desdemona when he came to know of her bold decision to live with Othello. In Othello’s case, he went to the other extreme and murdered his own wife to save himself from being cuckolded by her. To be more forthright both the above central figures in Desdemona’s life dispensed of her out of their own honour or pride. But even there, had to pay sadly by their own lives. Shakespeare, seems to show that this honour is a very deceitful, Janus-like figure, which along with faith corrupts and undoes an otherwise good-hearted man, and leads him to his own inevitable misery and downfall. To quote Lady Macbeth affirmatively:
“Naught’s had, all’s spent
Where our desire is got without content.
Tis safer to be that which we destroy
Than by destruction dwell in doubtful joy.” (Macbeth)
Shakespeare creates a world of his own in his tragedies. He provides us with a kind of irrefutable wisdom, a perception of the deeper mysteries of life. This is also what characterizes his genius. As Jonson said, “he is not of an age but for all time.” (See Shakespeare, 1964) Even after four hundred years, “Bard Idolatory” continues to surge and is ever renewing.
Aristotle. (1967). Aristotle’s Poetics. Tr. Gerard F. Else, Ann Arbor. University Of Michigan Press
James, Debra Dee. A Teacher’s Guide To The Signet Classic Edition Of William Shakespeare’s Othello. (Online) Available: www.penguin.com/static/pdf/teachersguides/othello.pdf
Jackson, Russell. About Othello. (Online) Available: www.naxosaudiobooks.com/392912.htm
Johnson, Samuel. (1765). Preface To Shakespeare. (Online) Available: ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/johnson/samuel/preface/ [Last Updated: Thursday, Feb 27, 2014]
Mabillard, Amanda. (2008). The History of Othello. (Online) Available: <http.//www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/Othello/othellohistory.html>
Shakespeare, William. (1964). The Complete Works. ELBS. London and Glasgow: Collins Clear-Type Press.