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The Character And Signifigcanc Essay, Research Paper

The Character and Signifigcance of Iago

George Brandes

(originally published in 1914)

A manuscript preserved in the Record Office, of doubtful date, but probably copied from an authentic document, contains the following entry:–

The plaiers

By the Kings

Maties plaiers

1605

Hallamas Day being the

mayd the plaies

first of November.

in the Banketing house

att withall called the

Moore of Venis.

The Poets wch

A play

Shaxberd.

Thus Othello was probably produced in the autumn of 1605. After this we have no proof of its performance till four and a half years later, when we hear of it again in the journal of Prince Ludwig Friedreich of Wurtemberg, written by his secretary, Hans Wurmsser. The entry for the 30th of April 1610 runs thus:–

“Lundi, 30. S.E[minence] alla au Globe, lieu ordinaire ou l’on

Joue les Commedies, y fut represente l’histoire du More de

Venise.”

In face of these data it matters nothing that there should appear in Othello, as we have it, a line that must have been written in or after 1611. The tragedy was printed for the first time in a quarto edition in 1622, for the second time in the Folio of 1623. The Folio text contains an additional 160 lines (proving that another manuscript has been made use of), and all oaths and mentions of the name of God are omitted. It is not only possible, but certain, that this line must have been a late interpolation. Its entire discordance with its position in the play shows this clearly enough, and seems to me to render it doubtful whether it is by Shakespeare at all.

In the scene where Othello bids Desdemona give him her hand, and loses himself in reflections upon it (iii.4), he makes this speech:–

“A liberal hand: the hearts of old gave hands;

But our new heraldry is hands, not hearts.”

Here there is an allusion, which could only be understood by contemporaries, to the title of Baronet, created and sold by James, which gave its possessors the right of bearing in thier coat-of-arms a bloody hand on a field argent. Most naturally Desdemona replies to this irrelevant remark: “I cannot speak of this.”

In Cinthio’s Italian collection of tales, where he had found the plot of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare at the same time (in Decade 3, Novella 7) came upon the material for Othello, the story in the Hecatommitti runs as follows: A young Venetian lady named Desdemona falls in love with a Moor, a military commander– “not from feminine desire,” but because of his great qualities–and marries him in spite of the opposition of her relatives. They live in Venice in complete happiness; “no word ever passed between them that was not loving.” When the Moor is ordered to Cyprus to take command there, his one anxiety is about his wife; he is equally unwilling to expose her to the dangers of the sea voyage and to leave her alone. She settles the question by declaring that she will rather follow him anywhere, into any danger, than live in safety apart from him; whereupon he rapturously kisses her, with the ejaculation: “May God long preserve you so loving, my dearest wife!” Thus the perfect initial harmony between the pair which Shakespeare depicts is suggested by his original. The Ensign undermines their happiness. He is described as remarkablyhandsome, but “as wicked by nature as any man that ever lived in the world.” He was dear to the Moor, “who had no idea of his baseness.” For although he was an arrant coward, he managed by means of proud and blusterous talk, aided by his fine appearance, so to conceal his cowardice that he passed for a Hector of Achilles. His wife, whom he had taken with him to Cyprus, was a fair and virtuous young woman, much beloved by Desdemona, who spent the greater part of the day in her company. The Lieutenant (il capo di squadra) came much to the Moor’s house, and often supped with him and his wife.

The wicked Ensign is passionately in love with Desdemona, but all his attempts to win her love are entirely unsuccessful, as she has not a thought for any one but the Moor. The Ensign, however, imagines that the reason for her rejection of him must be that she is in love with the Lieutenant, and therefore determines to rid himself of this rival, while his love for Desdemona is changed into the bitterest hatred. From this time forward, his object is not only to bring about the death of the Lieutenant, but to prevent the Moor from finding the pleasure in Desdemona’s love which is denied to himself. He goes to work as in the drama, though of course with some differences of detail. In the novel, for example, the Ensign steals Desdemona’s handkerchief whilst she is visiting his wife, and playing with their little girl. Desdemona’s death-scene is more horrible in the tale than in the tragedy. By command of the Moor, the Ensign hides himself in a room adjoining Othello’s and Desdemona’s bed chamber. He makes a noise, and Desdemona rises to see what it is; whereupon the Ensign giver her a violent blow in the head with a stocking filled with sand. She calls to her husband for help, but he answers by accusing her of infidelity; she in vain protests her innocence, and dies at the third blow of the stocking. The murder is concealed, but the Moor now begins to hate his Ensign, and dismisses him. The Ensign is so exasperated by this, that he lets the Lieutenant know who is responsible for the night assault that has just been made upon him. The Lieutenant accuses the Moor before the council, and Othello is put to torture. He refuses to confess, and is sent into banishment. The wicked Ensign, who has brought a false accusation of murder against one of his comrades, is himself in turn accused by the innocent man, and subjected to torture until he dies.

To the characters in the novel, Shakespeare has added two, Brabantio, and Roderigo. Only one of the names he uses is found in the original. Desdemona, which seems made to designate the victim of an evil destiny,Shakespeare has changed into the sweeter-sounding Desdemona. The other names are of Shakespeare’s own choosing. Most of them are Italian (Othello itself is a Venetian noble name of the sixteenth century); others, such as Iago and Roderigo, are Spanish.

With his customary adherence to his original, Shakespeare, like Cinthio, calls his protagonist a Moor; but it is quite unreasonable to suppose form this that he thought of him as a negro. It was, of course, inconceivable that a negro should attain the rank of general and admiral in the service of the Venetian Republic; and Iago’s mention of Mauritania as the country to which Othello intends to retire, shows plainly enough that the “Moor” ought to be represented as an Arab. It is no argument against this that men who hate and envy him apply to him epithets that would befit a negro. Thus Roderigo in the first scene of the play calls him “thick-lips” and Iago, speaking to Brabantio, calls him “an old black ram.” But a little later Iago compares him with “a Barbary horse”–that is to say, an Arab from North Africa. It is always animosity and hate that exaggerate the darkness of his hue, as when Brabantio talks of his “sooty bosom.” That Othello calls himself black only means that he is dark. In this very play Iago says of dark women:

“If she be black, and thereto have a wit,

She’ll find a white that shall her blackness fit.”

And we have seen how, in the Sonnets and in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “black” is constantly employed in the sense of dark-complexioned. As a Moor, Othello has a complexion sufficiently swarthy to form a striking contrast to the white and even blonde Desdemona, and there is also a sufficiently marked race-contrast between him, as a Semite, and the Aryan girl. It is quite conceivable, too, that a Christianized Moor should reach a high position in the army and fleet of the Republic.

It ought further to be noted that the whole tradition on the Venetian “Moor” has possibly arisen from a confusion of words. Rawdon Browne, in 1875, suggested the theory that Giraldi had founded his tale on the simple misunderstanding of a name. In the history of Venice we read of an eminent patrician, Christoforo Moro by name, who in 1498 was Podesta of Ravenna, and afterwards held similar office in Faenza, Ferrara, and the Romagna; then became Governor of Cyprus; in 1508 commanded fourteen ships; and later still was Proveditore of the army. When this man was returning from Cyprus to Venice in 1508, his wife (the third), who is said to have belonged to the family of Barbarigo (note the resemblance to Brabantio), died in the voyage, and there seems to have been some mystery connected with her death. In 1515 he took as his fourth wife a young girl, who is said to have been nicknamed Demonio bianco–the white demon. From this the name Desdemona may have been derived, in the same way as Moor from Moro.

The additions which Shakespeare made to the story as he found it in Cinthio–Desdemona’s abduction, the hurried and secret marriage, the accusation, to us so strange, but in those days so natural and common, of the girl’s heart having been won by witchcraft–these all occur in > the history of Venetian families of the period.

Be this as it may, when Shakespeare proceeds to the treatment of the subject, he arranges all the conditions and circumstances, so that they present the most favorable field for Iago’s operations, and he so fashions Othello as to render him more susceptible than any other man would be to the poison which Iago (like Lucianus in the play-scene in Hamlet) drops into his ear. Then he lets us trace the growth of the passion from its first germ, through every stage if its development, until it blasts and shatters the victim’s whole character.

Othello’s is an inartificial soul, a simple, straightforward, soldier nature. He has no worldly wisdom, for he has lived his whole life in camps:

“And little of this great world can I speak,

More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.”

A good and true man himself, he believes in goodness in others, especially in those who make a show of outspokenness, bluffness, undaunted determination to blame where blame is due–like Iago, who characteristically says of himself to Desdemona:

“For I am nothing of not critical.”

And Othello not only believes in Iago’s honesty, but is inclined to take him for his guide, as being far superior to himself in knowledge of men and of the world.

Again, Othello belongs to the noble natures that are never preoccupied with the thought of their own worth. He is devoid of vanity. He has never said to himself that such exploits, such heroic deeds, as have won him his renown, must make a far deeper impression on the fancy of a young girl of Desdemona’s disposition than the smooth face and pleasant manners of a Cassio. He is so little impressed with the idea of his greatness that it almost at once appears quite natural to him that he should be scorned.

Othello is the man of despised race, with the fiery African temperament. In comparison with Desdemona he is old–more of an age with her father than with herself. He tells himself that he has neither youth nor good looks to keep her love with, not even affinity of race to build upon. Iago exasperates Brabantio by crying:

“Even now, now, very now, an old black ram

Is tupping your white ewe.”

Othello’s race has a reputation for low sensuality, therefore Roderigo can inflame the rage of Desdemona’s father by such expressions as “gross clasps of a lascivious Moor.”

That she should feel attracted by him must have seemed to outsiders like madness of the effect of sorcery. For, far from being on an inviting, forward, or coquettish nature, Desdemona is represented as more than ordinarily reserved and modest. Her father calls her (I.3):

“A maiden never bold;

Of spirit so still an quiet, that her motion

Blush’d at herself.”

She has been brought up as a tenderly-nurtured patrician child in rich, happy Venice. The gilded youth of the city have fluttered around her daily, but she has shown favour to none of them. Therefore, her father says (I.2):

“For I’ll refer me to all things of sense,

If she in chains of magic were not bound,

Whether a maid to tender, fair, and happy,

So opposite to marriage, that she shunn’d

The wealthy curled darlings of our nation,

Would ever have, to incur a general mock,

Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom

Of such a thing as though.”

Shakespeare, who know everything about Italy, knew that the Venetian youth of that period had their hair curled, and wore a lock down on the forehead.

Othello, on his part, at once feels himself strongly drawn to Desdemona. And it is not merely the fair, delicate girl in her that allures him. Had he not loved her, her only, with burning passion, he would never have married her; for he has the fear of marriage that belongs to his wild, freedom-loving nature, and hi in no wise considers himself honored and exalted by this connection with a patrician family. He is descended from the princes of his country (I.2):

“I fetch may life and being

From men of royal siege;”

And he has shrunk from binding himself:

“But that I love the gentle Desdemona,

I would not my unhoused free condition

Put into circumscription and confine

For the sea’s worth.”

Truly there is magic in it–not the gross and common sorcery with the others believe in and suppose to have been employed–not the “foul charms” and “drugs or minerals that weaken motion,” to which her father alludes– but the sweet, alluring magic by which a man and a woman are mysteriously enchained.

Othello’s speech of self-vindication in the council chamber, in which he explains to the Duke how he came to win Desdemona’s sympathy and tenderness, has been universally admired.

Having gained her father’s favor, he was often asked by him to tell the story of his life, of its dangers and adventures. He told of sufferings and hardships, of hairbreadth ?scapes from death, of imprisonment by cruel enemies, of far-off strange countries he had journeyed through. (The fantastic catalogue, it may be noted, is taken from the fabulous books of travel of the day.) Desdemona loved to listen, but was often called away by household cares, always returning when these were despatched to follow his story with a greedy ear. He “found means” to draw from her a request to tell her his history, not in fragments, but entire. He consented, and often her eyes were filled with tears when she heard of the distresses of his youth. With innocent candor she bade him at last, if ever he had a friend that loved her, to teach

In other words, she is not won through the eye, though we must take Othello to have been a stately figure, but through the ear– “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” She becomes his through her sympathy with him in all he has suffered and achieved:–

“She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d,

And I lov’d her that she did pidy them.

This only is the witchcraft I have us’d.

Duke. I think, this tale would win my daughter too.”

Such, then, is the relation in which the poet has decreed that these two shall stand to each other. This is no love between two of the same age and the same race, whom only family enmity keeps apart, as in Romeo and Juliette. Still less is it a union of hearts like that of Brutus and Portia, where the perfect harmony is the result of tenderest friendship in combination with closest kinship, added to the fact that the wife’s father is her husband’s hero and ideal. No, in direct contrast to this last, it is a union which rests on the attraction of opposites, and which has everything against it–difference of race, difference of age, and the strange, exotic aspect of the man, with the lack of self-confidence which it awakens in him.

Iago expounds to Roderigo how impossible it is that this alliance should last. Desdemona fell in love with the Moor because he bragged to her and told her fantastical lies; does any one believe that love can be kept alive by prating? To inflame the blood anew, “sympathy in years, manners, and beauties” is required, “all which the Moor is defective in.”

The Moor himself is at first troubled by none of these reflections. And why not? Because Othello is not jealous.

This sounds paradoxical, yet it is the plain truth. Othello not jealous! It is as though one were to say water is not wet of fire does not burn. But Othello’s is no jealous nature; jealous men and women think very differently and act very differently. Hi is unsuspicious, confiding, and in so far stupid–there lies the misfortune; but jealous, in the proper sense of the word, he is not. When Iago is preparing to insinuate his calumnies of Desdemona, he begins hypocritically(iii.3):

“O beware, my lord, of jealousy;

It is the green-eyed monster. . . .”

Othello answers:

“‘Tis not to make me jealous,

To say–my wife is fair, feeds will, loves company,

Is free of speech, sings, plays, and dances well

; Where virtue is, these are more virtuous:

Nor from mine own weak merits will I draw

The smallest fear, of doubt of her revolt;

For she had eyes, and chose me.”

Thus not even his exceptional position causes him any uneasiness, so long as things take their natural course. But there is no escaping the steady pursuit of which he, all unwitting, is the object. He becomes as suspicious towards Desdemona as he is credulous toward Iago– “Brave Iago!” “Honest Iago!” Brabantio’s malison recurs to his mind– “she had deceived her father, and may thee;” and close on it crowd Iago’s reasons:

“Haply, for I am black,

And have not those soft parts of conversation

That chambers have; or for I am declin’d

Into the vale of years;– yet that’s not much.”

And the torment seizes him of feeling that one human being is a sealed book to the other–that is impossible to control passion and appetite in woman, though, the law may have given her into one’s hand– until at last he feels as if he were stretched on the rack, and Iago can exult int he thought that not all the drowsy syrups of the world can procure him the untroubled sleep of yesterday. Then follows the mornful farewell to all his previous life, and on this sadness once more follows doubt, and despair at the doubt:–

“I think my wife be honest and think she is not;

I think that thou art just and think thou art not,”

–until all his thoughts are centered in the craving for revenge and blood.

Not naturally jealous, he has become so through the working of the base but devilishly subtle slander which he is too simple to penetrate and spurn.

In these masterly scenes (the third and fourth of the third act) there are more reminiscences of other poets than we find elsewhere in Shakespeare within such narrow compass; and they are of interest as showing us what he knew, and what his mind was dwelling upon in those days

In Berni’s Orlando Innamorato (Canto 51, Stanza 1), we come upon Iago’s declaration:–

“Who steals my purse, seals trash; ’tis something, nothing;

‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has ben slave to thousands;

But he that filches from me my good name,

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed.”

The Passage in Berni runs thus:–

“Chi ruba un corno, un cavallo, un anello,

E simil cose, ha qualche discrezione,

E potrebbe chiamarsi ladroncello;

Ma quel che ruba la riputazione

E de l’altrui fatiche si fa bello

Si puo chamare assassino e ladrone.”

A reminiscence also lies hidden in Othello’s exquisite farewell a soldier’s life:–

“O now for ever

Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!

Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars,

That make ambition virtue! O, farewell!

Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality,

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

It is clear that there must have lurked in Shakespeare’s mind a reminiscence of an apostrophe contained in the old play, A Pleasant Comedic called Common Conditions, which he must, doubtless, have seen as a youth in Stratford. In it the hero says:–

“But farewell now, my coursers brave, attrapped to the ground.

Farewell, adieu, all pleasures eke, with comely hawk and hound!

Farewell, ye nobles all! Farewell, each martial knoght!

Farewell, ye famous ladies all, in whom I did delight!”

The study of Ariosto in Italian has also left its trace. It is where Othello, talking of the handkerchief, says:–

“A Sibyl, that had number’d in the world

The sun to course two hundred compasses,

In her prophetic fury sew’d the work.”

In Orlando Furioso (Canto 46, Stanza 80) we read:–

“Una donzella della terra d’Ilia,

Ch’avea il furor profetico congiunto

Con studio di gran tempo, e con vigilia

Lo fece di sua man di tutto punto.”

The agreement here cannot possibly be accidental. And what makes it still more certain that Shakespeare had the Italian text before him is that the words prophetic fury, which are the same in Othello as in the Italian, are not to be found in Harington’s English translation, the only one then in existence. He must thus, whilst writing Othello, have been interested in Orlando, and had Berni’s and Ariosto’s poems lying on his table.

Desdemona’s innocent simplicity in these scenes rivals the boundless and actually tragic simplicity of Othello. In the first place, she is convinced that the Moor, whom she sees wrought up to the verge of madness, cannot possibly suspect her, and is unassailable by jealousy.

“Emilia. Is he not jealous?

Desdemona. Who? he! I think the sun where he was born

Drew all such humors from him.”

So she acts with foolish indiscretion, continuing to tease Othello about Cassio’s reinstatement, although she ought to feel that it is her harping on this topic that enrages him.

Then follow Iago’s still more monstrous lies: the confession he pretends to have heard Cassio make in his sleep; the story that she has presented the precious handkerchief to Cassio; and the pretense that Desdemona is the subject of the words which Othello, from his hiding-place, hears Cassio let fall as to his relations with the courtesan, Bianca. To hear his wife, his believed, thus derided, stings the Moor to frenzy.

It is such a consistently sustained imposture that there is perhaps, only one at all comparable to it in history– the intrigue of the diamond necklace, in which Cardinal de Rohan was as utterly duped and ruined as Othello is here.

And now Othello has reached the stage at which he can no longer think coherently, of speak except in ejaculations (iv.1):–

“Iago. Lie with her.

“Othello. With her?

“Iago. With her, on her, what you will.

“Othello. Lie with her! Lie on her!– We say, lie on her when they

belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.– Handkerchief,– confessions,–

handkerchief.– To confess, and be hanged for his labour.– First, to be

hanged, and then to confess. . . . It is not words, that shakes me thus.–

Pish!– Noses, ears, and lips.– Is it possible? Confess!– Handkerchief!–

O devil!”

With the mind’s eye he sees them in each other’s arms. He is seized with an epileptic fit and falls.

This is not a representation of spontaneous but of artificially induced jealousy; in other words, of credulity poisoned by malignity. Hence the moral which Shakespeare, through the mouth of Iago, bids the audience take home with them”

“Thus credulous fools are caught;

And many worthy and shaste dames even thus,

All guiltless, meet reproach.”

It is not Othello’s jealousy, but his credulity that is the prime cause of the disaster; and even so must Desdemona’s noble simplicity bear its share in the blame. Between them they render possible the complete success of a man like Iago.

When Othello bursts into tears before Desdemona’s eyes, without her suspecting the reason (iv.2), he says most touchingly that he could even have endured to be made the butt of mockery and scorn– but that he cannot bear to see her whom he worshiped the object of his own contempt. He does not suffer most from jealousy, but from seeing “the fountain from the which his current runs” a dried-up swamp, or “a cistern for foul toads to knot and gender in.” This is pure, deep sorrow at seeing his idol sullied, not mean frenzy at the idol’s preferring another worshiper.

And with that grace which is an attribute of perfect strength, Shakespeare has introduced as a contrast, directly before the terrible catastrophe, Desdemona’s delicate little ditty of the willow tree–of the maiden who weeps because her lover is untrue to her, but who loves him none the less. Desdemona is deeply touching when she leads with her cruel lord for but a few moments’ respite, but she is great in the instant of death, when she expires with the sublime lie, the one lie of her life, upon her lips, designed to shield her murderer from his punishments.

Ophelia, Desdemona, Cordelia– what a trefoil! Each has her characteristic featured, but they resemble one another like sisters; they all present the type which Shakespeare at this point loves and most affects. Had they a model? Had they perhaps one and the same model? Had he about this time encountered a young and charming woman, living, as it were, under a cloud of sorrow, injustice, misunderstanding, who was all heart and tenderness, without any claims to intellect or wit? We may suspect this, but we know nothing of it.

He figure Desdemona is one of the most charming Shakespeare has drawn. She is more womanly that other women, as the noble Othello is more manly than other men. So that after all there is a very good reason for the attraction between them; the most womanly of women feels herself drawn to the manliest of men.

The subordinate figures are worked out with hardly less skill than the principal characters of the tragedy. Emilia especially is inimitable– good-hearted, honest, and not exactly light, but still sufficiently the daughter of Eve to be unable to understand Desdemona’s naive and innocent chastity.

At the end of Act iv. (in the bedroom scene) Desdemona asks Emilia is she believes that there really are women who do what Othello accuses her of. Emilia answers in the affirmative. Then her mistress asks again: “Would’st thou do such a deed for all the world?” and receives the jesting answer, “The world is a huge thing; ’tis a great price for a small vice:

“Marry, I would not do such a thing for a joint-ring, nor for

measures of lawn, nor for gowns, petticoats, nor caps, nor any petty

exhibition; but, for the whole world! . . . Why, the wrong is but a

wrong I’ the world; and having the world for your labour, ’tis a

wrong in your own world, and you might quickly make it right.”

In passages like this a mildly playful note is struck in the very midst of the horror. And according to his habit and the custom of the times, Shakespeare also introduces, by means of the Clown, one or two deliberately comic passages; but the Clown’s merriment is subdued, as Shakespeare’s merriment at this period always is.

The composition of Othello is closely akin to that of Macbeth. In these two tragedies alone there are no episodes; the action moves onward uninterrupted and undissipated. But the beautiful proportion of all its parts and articulations gives Othello the advantage over the mutilated Macbeth which we possess.

No other drama of Shakespeare’s had bee so much of a monograph. He assuredly felt this, and with the impulse of the great artist to make his new work a complement and contrast to the immediately preceding one, he now sought and found the subject for that one of his tragedies which is least of all monograph, which grew into nothing less than the universal tragedy– all the great woes of human life concentrated in one mighty symbol.


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