In Othello, William Shakespeare, the thinker of on a regular basis life, holds up a mirror to us and exhibits us what human beings are able to. Beneath our most pleasantly cultivated exterior, there typically lurks a serpent…
William Hazlitt is widely known as one among the biggest of Shakespearean critics. Sure, there’s Dr. Johnson; sure, there’s Coleridge; sure, there are lots of others. However Hazlitt offers a peculiar delight, not least as a result of what shines via his criticism is the peculiar delight he takes in studying the Bard. He’s unabashed and unapologetic that he spends a lot time with Shakespeare as a result of it’s simply plain enjoyable. Literary critics might typically do with a stronger pinch of the epicurean.
Thus when he begins his feedback on Othello in Characters of Shakespeare’s Performs with an extended set-up on the drama’s attraction to what Edmund Burke referred to as the “moral imagination,” the reader suspects he’s being arrange for a joke. That’s what I, at any fee, thought. (Actually, being one thing of a literary sybarite myself, that’s what I had hoped.) The opening is simply too good in that respect. See for your self:
It has been stated that tragedy purifies the affections by terror and pity. That’s, it substitutes imaginary sympathy for mere selfishness. It provides us a excessive and everlasting curiosity, past ourselves, in humanity as such. It raises the nice, the distant, and the attainable to an equality with the actual, the little and the close to. It makes man a partaker together with his variety. It subdues and softens the stubbornness of his will. It teaches him that there are and have been others like himself, by displaying him as in a glass what they’ve felt, thought, and achieved. It opens the chambers of the human coronary heart. It leaves nothing detached to us that may have an effect on our widespread nature. It excites our sensibility by exhibiting the passions wound as much as the utmost pitch by the energy of creativeness or the temptation of circumstances; and corrects their deadly excesses in ourselves by pointing to the higher extent of sufferings and of crimes to which they’ve led others. Tragedy creates a stability of the affections. It makes us considerate spectators in the lists of life. It’s the refiner of the species; a self-discipline of humanity. The ordinary research of poetry and works of creativeness is one chief a part of a well-grounded schooling. A style for liberal artwork is important to finish the character of a gentleman, Science alone is tough and mechanical. It workouts the understanding upon issues out of ourselves, whereas it leaves the affections unemployed, or engrossed with our personal quick, slender pursuits.
This starting, virtually Hemingwayesque in its refusal of syntactical subordination, commences with the rhetoric of the priamel (“It has been said”). It’s the basic system by which to say, “Some people say that [x] is the greatest, but I say it’s [y].” A reasonably current instance:
Some say love, it’s a river
That drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it’s a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it’s a starvation
An infinite aching want
I say love, it’s a flower
And also you its solely seed
(You weren’t bargaining for Bette Midler, have been you?) But the gadget could be very previous—a lot older than Bette Midler. Sappho makes use of it. Horace begins his Odes with it. Jesus makes use of it too: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” W.H. Auden exploits it to nice impact in “Law Like Love.” And so forth. It might not be shocking, then, for the gourmandizing Hazlitt—for he’s rhetorically adept—to make use of simply this trick to tug the rug out from beneath the moralizers.
However Hazlitt is in earnest. He follows the above observations by saying instantly, “Othello furnishes an illustration of these remarks.” Why? As a result of on this play, Shakespeare (“who was as good a philosopher as he was a poet”) does certainly write with an ethical function. “The moral [the play] conveys has a closer application to the concerns of human life than that of any other of Shakespeare’s plays,” Hazlitt says, for it’s a matter of “every day’s occurrence.”
And what’s that ethical? It will be onerous to pinpoint only one, for there are a number of. If one insists on utilizing the singular, one should no less than admit that the ethical has as many elements as the jealous temperament has causes for provocation. And jealousy is at the coronary heart of the play—a play that’s an excruciating show of the ease with which, in the character of Othello, “the fondest love and most unbounded confidence” are reworked into “the tortures of jealousy and the madness of hatred.” It’s at the similar time a showcase, in the individual of Iago, that human beings typically interact in and procure evil virtually for the sheer hell of it (“For I mine own gained knowledge should profane/If I would time expend with such snipe/But for my sport and profit”); that, in the individual of Desdemona, the virtuous, noble, and sort are simply as typically trampled underfoot; and that, in a number of characters directly, ardour is often the driver of purpose (as Hume argued) slightly than vice versa.
Shakespeare exhibits this final ethical with particular acuteness in the third act. There, Iago, pushed by his passionate hatred of the Moor, employs shabbily engaging plausibilities to awaken a inexperienced possessiveness in Othello that may overwhelm his deliberative schools and drive him to rationalize the homicide of his spouse. For Hazlitt, this act was Shakespeare’s superlative achievement:
The third act of Othello is [Shakespeare’s] masterpiece, not of data or ardour individually, however of the two mixed, of the information of character with the expression of ardour, of consummate artwork in the maintaining of appearances with the profound workings of nature, and the convulsive actions of uncontrollable agony, of the energy of inflicting torture and of struggling it.
When Shakespeare “paint[s] the expiring conflict between love and hatred” and “tenderness and resentment; when he “put[s] in motion the various impulses that agitate this our mortal being”; when he exhibits to what depths man will descend, and from what noble heights, he’s the impresario of our fallen human nature—depressingly, maybe, however precisely for all that.
The determine by way of which he accomplishes this unveiling of human depravity is Iago, whom Hazlitt calls “one of the supererogations of Shakespeare’s genius.” A stage supervisor of real-life evil, Iago is a sensible thinker’s parody. He’s a perversion who can solely happen when the energy of mind is uncoupled from the sturdy stability of moral order and as an alternative allied with the plasticity of guile, all in an effort to stave off the boredom of day by day life. As Hazlitt places it, in strains that aren’t unworthy of the Bard himself:[Iago] is a thinker, who fancies that a lie that kills has extra level in it than an alliteration or an antithesis; who thinks a deadly experiment on the peace of a household a greater factor than watching the palpitations in the coronary heart of a flea in a microscope; who plots the spoil of his associates as an train for his ingenuity, and stabs males in the darkish to stop ennui.
As Iago says in 1.three, “Virtue? A fig! ’Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.”
These two phrases sum up Iago pretty properly. Lest he develop into “sterile with idleness,” he befouls himself with excremental business, and soils throughout him as he does so. Paradoxically it is because of the undeniable fact that his evil is bigger when he’s bored that its exercise is so ghastly. Or, in Hazlitt’s superior phrasing, “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.” It’s subsequently Iago who makes the play, as the critic A.C. Bradley notes in Shakespearean Tragedy, “the most painfully exciting and the most terrible” of Shakespeare’s works.
It’s horrible as stagecraft, to make certain. However additionally it is horrible as a result of it’s a reminder to us of the base potentialities of our nature—that, as Solzhenitsyn stated in an oft-quoted passage from The Gulag Archipelago, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” In Othello, Shakespeare, the thinker of on a regular basis life, holds up a mirror to us and exhibits us what human beings are able to—and subsequently what we are able to. Beneath our most pleasantly cultivated exterior, there typically lurks a serpent, what the pop group INXS in 1988 referred to as “the devil inside,” or, in Hamlet’s maybe most memorable locution, “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” It exhibits us, too, in the character of Othello, how foolish and defenseless we frequently are in opening ourselves to evil’s work and in failing to repel it. The shock of Iago, then, in addition to the naivete of Othello by which it’s absorbed, provoke self-reflection of the most humiliating and uncomfortable, and subsequently salutary, variety. Certainly, that is (to revert to Hamlet once more) the “purpose of playing.” As he tells the appearing firm that involves Elsinore:
Go well with the motion to the phrase, the phrase to the motion, with this particular observance, that you simply o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For something so o’erdone is from [that’s, “against”–ed.] the objective of enjoying, whose finish, each at the first and now, was and is, to carry, as ‘twere, the mirror as much as nature; to point out advantage her personal function, scorn her personal picture, and the very age and physique of the time his type and strain.
In different phrases, the ethical seriousness of Othello is one among the foremost methods during which it recommends itself to us for studying and repeated rereading as an excellent and abiding work of perennial second. If even a gastronomist of letters like Hazlitt can acknowledge this, we should always, too.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (November 2018).
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Editor’s Notice: The featured picture is a photograph of actor Gavin Hoffman as Iago, in a manufacturing of Othello by Portland Middle Stage. Photograph taken by Patrick Weishampel.