Archive for March 14th, 2010

The Bardathon: 22 – Othello

Isn’t it astonishing the difference that even a slight re-wording can make? Shortly before Desdemona is killed, Othello tells her she is on her death-bed. In most editions, Desdemona replies “Ay, but not yet to die”. This gives the impression that she is responding to Othello in a calm and collected manner, and discoursing with him. But in both the Folio and in the Quarto text, she replies “I, but not yet to die”. This obviously makes little sense, and one can see why most editors change the “I” to “Ay”. But in the Arden edition, the editor, A. J. Honigmann keeps the “I”, but re-punctuates it so it reads “I? – But not yet to die!” So now, Desdemona is not discoursing with the man about to kill her – she is beside herself in blind terror, and is shrieking incoherently in panic. Of course, she doesn’t stand a chance. “I hope you will not kill me,” she says with a sort of child-like innocence before she has had the chance to take in the full horror of the situation. And soon, she is pleading desperately with all her might: “Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight!” But it is no use. In full view on stage, Othello drags this screaming, terrified woman, still almost a child, back to her bed and strangles her. It is horrible. Even if Desdemona were be guilty of what has been alleged, it is horrible even beyond what may be imagined. And Shakespeare forces us to watch it being done.

And yet, isn’t it curious that the man who commits so horrendous an act even before our eyes should command such sympathy? That we can refer to him (as so many do) as the noblest tragic protagonist that Shakespeare had created? In real life, a man who murders his helpless teenage wife (for, as I shall go on to argue, I cannot see Desdemona as anything other than very young – possibly about sixteen or so) would, quite rightly, be regarded as a monster. Most of us, I imagine, would close our ears to any possible mitigating factor. So why do we not feel that way about Othello?

To answer this question one must peer deeply into some of the most complex characters that even Shakespeare ever created. Indeed, so complex are they that no two readers, and no two members of the audience, can have the same view of them. And no matter how often one reads or sees this play, one comes away with a changed perception from the last time – one’s mind becomes a seething cauldron full of different possibilities.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that any interpretation is correct. I’ve read too many accounts of this play that are just wrong – some embarrassingly so. (I read a profoundly embarrassing column in the Guardian blog some time ago advising Lenny Henry not to demean himself by playing Othello, as Shakespeare had merely written a racist stereotype.) One rule of thumb is that any interpretation that is simple is bound to be wrong. Shakespeare knew not merely the complexity of human character, but also the essential mystery at the centre of it.

It seems to me that if this play is “about” anything at all, it is “about” damnation. Throughout the play there are references to hell and heaven, to demons and devils, to salvation and to damnation. The play is about how we forfeit our very souls, by allowing evil to enter. At the centre of this play is the damnation of Othello’s soul. No matter what Iago’s part in all this may be, Othello has committed a crime for which there can be no forgiveness. Othello himself knows this, and does not look for absolution, either in this world, or in the next: he knows at the end that he is irrevocably damned, and that Desdemona, his vision of heaven, is lost to him for all eternity. At the end, he asks someone to ask Iago why “he hath ensnared my soul”. Iago refuses to answer: “what you know, you know,” he says. And given what Othello knows, he cannot even hope for redemption of his soul:

When we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it. Cold, cold, my girl!
Even like thy chastity. O cursed slave!
Whip me, ye devils,
From the possession of this heavenly sight!
Blow me about in winds! roast me in sulphur!
Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!
O Desdemona! Desdemona! dead!

Of course, one may say that Iago made him do it. I doubt whether that would count as much of a mitigating factor in court, but to understand the drama, we must try to understand the nature of both Iago and of Othello.

Iago is a fascinating character, but also, I think, a very shallow character. There are some who think that it is actually Iago, and not Othello, who is at the centre of the play. I find myself disagreeing with this strongly. It is true that Iago is on stage longer than Othello, and has more lines; but Iago is, I think, incapable of feeling anything very deeply. For instance, consider his suspicion of Emilia: he tells us, twice, that he suspects his wife of having had an affair with Othello (for which, incidentally, Shakespeare gives us not a shred of evidence), and he says that the thought of this “gnaws [his] inwards like a poisonous mineral”. But he only says this: we don’t see him feeling anything- certainly nothing remotely comparable to the inner torment Othello later feels when he begins to suspect his wife. Iago, I think, wanted Othello merely to experience something of the discomfort he had himself experienced; but when Othello reacts with far greater passion (in III,iii, 362ff), Iago is taken by surprise: the depth and intensity of Othello’s passion are beyond Iago’s own narrow emotional horizons.

There is a very surprising scene also in IV,ii, where Iago is made to witness Desdemona’s distress. And here, too, I think Iago is taken by surprise. He says a few comforting words to Desdemona, but on the whole, seems surprisingly ill at ease: it’s one of the few scenes in the play where he is not in charge of the proceedings. Immediately afterwards, Iago meets with Rodrigo, and in this confrontation, it is Rodrigo who does most of the talking, and the normally loquacious Iago is mainly restricted to the occasional “go to” and “very well”. I think the reason for this is that Iago has been affected by Desdemona’s distress: his own limited imaginative capability could not have foreseen the depths of Desdemona’s anguish – it is well beyond his own stunted emotional range.

The eternal question, of course, is that of motive: why does Iago do all this? Iago himself gives two motives – that he had suspected Emilia with Othello, and that he had been overlooked for promotion. It has been said that neither motive is strong enough, but I don’t think that’s entirely true: it seems to me more the case that Iago does not appear to feel either motive very strongly. (And the very fact that he is given two motives when one would have been sufficient seems to me to weaken their power rather than otherwise.) Sure, he mentions these two motives, but when he does so, he seems curiously lacking in passion. Rather than seeking revenge for slights, real or imagined, it seems more likely that Iago is using these two reasons to spur himself on: this brings us to Coleridge’s famous formulation of “motiveless malignity searching for a motive”. But how does such malignity arise?

We get a clue, I think, in a revealing aside Iago has in V,i, where he speaks of Cassio having a “daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly”. Iago is aware that there is something missing in himself: what that something is, he does not know, but he knows that others have it, and that he doesn’t. He is a shallow character aware of his own shallowness. And in Othello and Desdemona, he seems to catch a glimpse of something that he knows is beyond his own narrow emotional horizons; and, although he cannot understand what exactly it is, he resents it.

Iago clearly did not intend everything from the very start: in his soliloquies, we see him making up the plan as he is going along, and, to begin with, he thinks of nothing further than placing impediments to Othello’s happiness. However, when Othello reacts with such unexpected passion, Iago realises that he has to go further – if only for his own safety (Othello threatens to kill him if he doesn’t provide proof of Desdemona’s infidelity); and as he does so, he finds himself enjoying the power he now wields over Othello, who is his superior in every way – in both social and military hierarchies, and also morally and spiritually. Iago finds enjoyment in his ability to bring Othello down to his own level: it is tremedously exciting. And, intoxicated by this sense of excitement, he goes further and further, unable to resist.

Yes, Iago is a fascinating character, but it is Othello who is at the centre of the play. Iago is at the end what he had been at the start – a morally and emotionally stunted character: it is in Othello that we see a nobility of soul, a grandeur that makes his descent into damnation all the more painful. And in the innocent, childlike Desdemona, we are offered an antithesis to Iago. “We work by wit, and not by witchcraft,” Iago says near the start of the play; Desdemona, on the other hand, works by witchcraft – of a sort: indeed, her father had suspected witchcraft in her love for Othello, and in a sense, he was right, but it is not the sort of witchcraft he had in mind. So, at the end, Iago, still alive, refuses to speak further, while in contrast, Desdemona speaks miraculously from apparently beyond death to forgive Othello: where Iago ensnares Othello’s soul, Desdemona offers the possibility of redemption – a redemption that, by the end, Othello does not himself look for.

There is a mystery at the heart of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. On the surface, this is a story of a European woman who unwisely marries someone from a background very different from her own, and eventually pays for her mistake with her life as she becomes the victim of an honour killing. But if we see the play in these terms (and rather depressingly, many do – even certain “cultural commentators” who write for national newspapers!), we miss the essence of this very profound work.

I think that to appreciate the nature of the drama, we must consider the nature of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona. In I,iii, Desdemona’s father says to Othello: “She has deceived her father, and may thee.” Othello’s reply is magnificent: “My life upon her faith.” This is no mere figure of speech: Othello really has staked his very life on the matter. Desdemona is his image of heaven itself, and if this image proves false, then the all of life itself becomes insignificant, devoid of meaning. This is made quite clear by the imagery of heaven and hell, and of salvation and damnation, that runs throughout the play:

Perdition catch my soul,
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not
Chaos is come again.


If she be false, O then heaven mocks itself,
I’ll not believe it.

But there where I have garnered up my heart,
Where I must live or bear no life,
The fountain from which my current runs
Or else dries up –

Such depth of feeling, such witchcraft, is beyond the scope of Iago’s wit. But Iago’s perspective is, of course, a very limited one. He cannot see the extent to which Othello has invested his very being into his love for Desdemona. This is, indeed, beautiful and noble, but it is also dangerously fragile; and Iago, being what he is, cannot understand the beauty and the nobility, but he does detect its fragility,

It is fragile because Othello and Desdemona come from completely different worlds. It is not merely a question of race (although it seems that modern interpretations of this play seem fixated on the issue of race at the cost of everything else): Othello is, for a start, much older than Desdemona; and on top of that, he comes from a different culture, a different world. Othello has no understanding of the world of the Venetian aristocracy, any more than Desdemona has any understanding of the world of military campaigns. Their decision to marry was a tremendous act of trust and of faith on both sides. Such trust is, of course, very beautiful, but once it is broken, there remains no stable base. Othello himself knows this: he has, as he says, “garnered up” his very heart in Desdemona’s love, and it is from there that his “current runs, or else dries up”: there is no middle course.

But once Iago breaks this fragile trust, Othello’s mind itself collapses. The exact nature of this fragility depends upon the interpretation: Antony Hopkins, in the BBC production, played up the fragility – he was, throughout, insecure in his relationship with Desdemona. Willard White, in Trevor Nunn’s RSC production (also available on DVD) takes Othello at his word: his Othello is not “easily jealous”, but, “being wrought, perplexed in the extreme”. But however we interpret this, the blind trust between Othello and Desdemona is fragile indeed, and no-one knows this better than Iago.

Iago knows that the world of the Venetian aristocracy is a closed book to Othello, who knows nothing about its customs and mores, about how people behave in that society. What Othello does know – and hence trusts – is the world of the military. Soldiers have to rely on each other implicitly: often, they rely on each other for their very lives. So when a fellow soldier – especially someone as universally renowned for his honesty as Iago is – suggests something, it is very powerful. And it is all the more so when that suggestion concerns something that Othello knows he does not understand – i.e. Venetian aristocracy. Even so, Othello resists: after Iago first starts to apply his poison, Othello says “If she be false, heaven mocks itself: I’ll not believe it”. But for the drama to work, we must appreciate how very potent this particular poison is: quite literally, it drives Othello mad. He turns on Iago with a violent fury, threatening to kill him:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it, give me ocular proof,
Or by the worth of man’s eternal soul
Thou hadst better been born a dog
Than answer my wak’d wrath!
If thou dost slander her and torture me
Never pray more, abandon all remorse;
On horror’s head horrors accumulate,
Do deeds to make heaven weep, all earth amazed,
For nothing canst thou to damnation add
Greater than that!


(Once again, “eternal soul”, “heaven” and “damnation”! But whose damnation is Othello referring to? Iago’s, or his own?)

This is way beyond Iago’s understanding. But he knows that he can’t now stop here. And Othello, who has always been aware of the fragile nature of his faith in Desdemona, is now easy prey in Iago’s hands.

The final scene of this play is gut-wrenching. Othello knows he is damned: he does not ask for pardon or for mercy, either in this world or in the next. He knows the earth-shattering nature of the crime he has committed, and nothing can he to damnation add greater than that.

All Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists undergo a transformation, but none undergoes a transformation more dramatic than does Othello, who changes from a man of noble character and of spiritual grandeur into an unhinged wife-killer, a child-killer. He comes down, indeed, to the level of Iago, and one cannot descend to a level lower than that. (Othello’s unspeakably horrible murder of Desdemona has been pre-figured in the earlier scene by Iago’s murder of Roderigo, who, like Desdemona, is also, I think, a teenager.)

Desdemona doesn’t have as prominent a part in the play as does Othello and Iago. While Shakespeare was happy to write leading parts for women in his comedies (Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice, etc.), he seemed less keen to write prominent parts for women in tragedies: this may have been because he didn’t feel that the boy actors available could convincingly depict tragic passion – although, presumably, he changed his mind on that score by the time he came to create Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. But whatever the reason, Desdemona is not as much at the forefront of the drama as are Othello and Iago. But that is not to say that she is not characterised.

If it is true that Desdemona has an idealised vision of Othello, it is also true that Othello has an idealised view of Desdemona: to Othello, Desdemona is a vision of heaven itself. But Shakespeare presents both as real characters, and not as ideals. Desdemona eventually does prove herself to be something of a saint, but this is all the more moving because she has been depicted not in terms of an ideal, but as a figure of flesh and blood. Far from being some sort of perfect vision, she is a young woman capable of deceiving her own father: this, indeed, is one of the main planks of Iago’s case – “This girl deceived her own father, and is therefore, is not only capable of deceiving, but is well-versed in the art of deception.” Othello cannot deny this, and neither can we, the audience.

Another point is the lie she tells Othello. When he asks her if the handkerchief is lost, she instantly answers it isn’t, even though, earlier in the scene, she had asked Emilia where she thinks she may have lost it. This seems to me the instinctive reaction of a child afraid of being told off. As to the question of why she hadn’t looked after the thing properly, well – she’s an aristocrat, and is used to having servants picking things up after her.

There’s also the scene where she pleads for Cassio to be reinstated. Now, Cassio has been quite rightly demoted for having been drunk while on guard duty. Whatever Iago’s part in the incident, for a senior officer such as Cassio to become drunk while on duty (especially in a time of war) is an extremely serious matter, and one suspects that were it not for Othello’s personal regard for him, Cassio may well have been clapped in irons and court-martialled. Desdemona is completely out of order in interfering in such a case, and pleading on Cassio’s behalf. Othello, as a military leader, must realise how improper it would be to reinstate Cassio, and he should have asked Desdemona, gently but firmly, not to interfere in this matter; but he seems incapable of doing so, and merely puts the thing off, saying to her “I will deny thee nothing”. (Antony Hopkins is particularly good in this scene in the BBC production: he seems unable to look Desdemona in the eye here, and started fidgeting with various things.) We may wonder why Othello behaves this way, but the reason for Desdemona’s behaviour isn’t hard to deduce: she is still childlike and immature, and, what’s more, she is still the spoilt daughter of a rich man, used to being pampered by her indulgent father, and blissfully unaware of the wider issues in the big bad world. In short, given her social background and her upbringing, Desdemona is, throughout, a perfectly believable creature of flesh and blood.

And, although Desdemona is usually played by a mature actress, I really cannot see her as anything other than a child. There is much that is child-like about her behaviour. Emilia, for instance, says of her:

…..but she so loves the token [the hankerchief],
For he conjured her she should ever keep it,
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to.

This is very much the behaviour of a child. Her failure to see that mention of Cassio is driving her husband mad seems to me very odd in a mature woman, but in a child inexperienced of life, it is more understandable. And her pleading on behalf of Cassio, while inexcusable in a mature woman, is perfectly understandable in a child used to asking for favours. And she seems to look on Emilia almost as a sort of mother-figure, although Emilia herself, married to a man who says he is twenty-eight years old, is most likely still in her twenties.

All of this makes it all the more surprising that this otherwise unremarkable girl, still virtually a child, should make such an extraordinary leap of faith to marry Othello: there is, indeed, some form of witchcraft in this. She breaks off completely from the only society she knows, and goes off to a completely alien environment – a military outpost on the front line of a war. However, if Othello and Desdemona had seen each other in terms of ideals, neither is really greatly mistaken: for Othello is the great hero that Desdemona sees in him; he is a man of real nobility, and of moral and spiritual grandeur: were it not so, his moral decline would have been, in dramatic terms, unremarkable. Othello is a man who feels deeply, a man who loves not wisely, but too well. And, as the play progresses, it becomes apparent that Desdemona, for all her immaturity and her foibles, is also a saint: when Othello saw in her a vision of heaven, he wasn’t far mistaken. But Shakespeare depicts this saint very much as a creature of flesh-and-blood. It may be said with some justification that in King Lear, Cordelia is more important for what she represents than for what she is, but I don’t think this can be said of Desdemona, who emerges as a well-rounded, well-characterised figure in the drama. And it is precisely because she is so believable that her tragedy, and her forgiveness, are so unbearably moving.

Iago may be the epitome of evil and Desdemona the epitome of saintliness, but Shakespeare saw both in human terms. And, despite delving into these characters as deeply as he could – or as deeply as anyone could – he acknowledges the mystery that lies at their heart, the mystery that lies at the heart of human existence itself.


The structure and pacing of the play are also deserving of comment. Given how tense the tragedy is, the tempo at the start is surprisingly leisurely. For almost half the play – right up to the middle of the third act – Shakespeare maintains this leisurely tempo. It’s not that nothing happens – far from it: but there seems little sense of urgency. But it is in Act 3 scene 3 (a worthy contender for the single greatest scene that Shakespeare ever wrote) that it really starts to grip. Indeed, in this scene, we find ourselves caught in a vice: it is here that Iago first starts applying the poison to Othello’s mind. And from this scene onwards, Shakespeare does not let up. In terms of emotional involvement, I don’t think any other play in the canon can quite compare with this. We register every agony felt by Othello and by Desdemona: no matter how often I revisit the play, I seem to re-live this extraordinary intensity of mental turmoil. If Othello’s mind becomes unhinged – as it surely does – we can feel why it does so, even if we cannot explain it fully to our satisfaction.

Perhaps we can never explain it. Great works of art always retain that mystery at their heart – although that is not to say we shouldn’t try to think about it as deeply as we can. Certainly, not even Shakespeare ever wrote anything more wonderful than this.

Some Further Thoughts on Emilia and Iago
The problem with trying to write about something such as Othello is that even after you’ve written thousands of words, you still feel you’ve barely scratched the surface.

One question is often raised about Emilia: how much did she know of her husband’s plotting? I personallty don’t think that she did know about it. When Othello, after killing Desdemona, mentions that it was Iago who had told him about Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, there can be no doubting Emilia’s surprise and shock:

Cassio did top her; ask thy husband else.
O, I were damn’d beneath all depth in hell,
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity. Thy husband knew it all.

My husband!

Thy husband.

That she was false to wedlock?

Ay, with Cassio. Nay, had she been true,
If heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and Perfect chrysolite,
I’ld not have sold her for it.

My husband!

Ay, ’twas he that told me first:
An honest man he is, and hates the slime
That sticks on filthy deeds.

My husband!

What needs this iteration, woman? I say thy husband.

A bit later, when Iago enters, we get this:

O, are you come, Iago? you have done well,
That men must lay their murders on your neck.

What is the matter?

Disprove this villain, if thou be’st a man:
He says thou told’st him that his wife was false:
I know thou didst not, thou’rt not such a villain

This does not seem like counterfeiting to me. Emilia is certain that her husband, whatever faults he may have had, could not be such a villain. A bit villainish, may be – but not such a villain.

Yes, it is true that Emilia had picked up the handkerchief when Desdemona had dropped it, and had given it to Iago, as he had requested. She is not entirely unquestioning:she does ask “why?”; but she does not insist on an answer to her question:

What will you do with ‘t, that you have been
so earnest
To have me filch it?

[Snatching it] Why, what’s that to you?

If it be not for some purpose of import,
Give’t me again: poor lady, she’ll run mad
When she shall lack it.

Be not acknown on ‘t; I have use for it.I
Go, leave me.

She clearly does not know what Iago plans to do with the handkerchief. This brief scene between Emilia and Iago does suggest very strongly to me that their marriage is on the rocks. Iago, we know, suspects Emilia of being unfaithful (although there is no evidence apparent for this). And when later in the play, Emilia speaks passionately of the bad treatment wives get from their husbands, one feels that she may be speaking from experience:

But I do think it is their husbands’ faults
If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties,
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite;
Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace,
Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour,
As husbands have. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is: and doth affection breed it?
I think it doth: is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too: and have not we affections,
Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
Then let them use us well: else let them know,
The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.

It may be possible, I think, that Emilia gives the handkerchief to her husband as a sort of peace offering. Of course, she sees (in III,iv) that Othello is angry with Desdemona for having lost the handkerchief, but, not knowing how Iago has been affecting Othello’s mind, she is in no position to judge the severity of this matter: as far as she can see, it is simply a domestic row – the sort of thing that may be quite commonplace in her own life. Of course, she could have said that the handkerchief was with Iago, but she could not do this without giving her husband away. As far as she is concerned, nicking the handkerchief was just a piece of petty pilfering and nothing more, and she certainly wasn’t going to incriminate her husband on that point just to settle a domestic row between Othello and Desdemona.

Of course, things get much worse after that, as Othello strikes Desdemona in public (IV,i), and then humiliates her horribly in a scene that is almost too unbearable even to read (IV,ii), but there is no reason for Emilia to associate any of that with the handkerchief.

Does she suspect Iago? I doubt it. In IV,ii, after that terrible scene between Othello and Desdemona, Emilia vents her fury at the injustice of it all; but, interestingly, the fury is aimed not at Othello, but at someone who Emilia imagines (as it happens, quite rightly) has been poisoning Othello’s mind. Although she comes very close to the truth in her guessing, I’d be very surprised if she suspected her own husband as the villain. If she did, her words to him at the end would make little sense:

Disprove this villain, if thou be’st a man:
He says thou told’st him that his wife was false:
I know thou didst not, thou’rt not such a villain

I really can’t see any evidence in any of this to suggest that Emilia suspected her husband, even vaguely. If she had done, and had remained silent, then she would have been complicit in the terrible crime. And yet, her distress on discovering the crime can hardly be doubted. When she realises the truth, she insists on speaking it. Given the social mores of the time, the wife was expected to obey the husband (which is, indeed, what Emilia had done when she pilfered the handkerchief for him); but now, to reveal the truth, she is prepared to defy those social mores:

What, are you mad? I charge you, get you home.

Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak:
‘Tis proper I obey him, but not now.
Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.

She even has a premonition of her own end at this point, I think, when she speaks those last words.

Emilia, in this scene, is heroic. Whatever petty pilfering she may have done in the past, she is now prepared to sacrifice her very life to reveal the truth about her beloved Desdemona. A few minutes earlier, she had said this to Othello:

Thou hast not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt.

This is magnificent. Emilia feels that the willingness to receive hurt for the sake of the truth is in itself a strength. As, indeed, it is. This moral strength that she displays, the power of her love for the dead Desdemona, is something else that was beyond Iago’s limited horizons: he could only see into the weaknesses of people, but such matters as moral courage or self-sacrifice are beyond his limited vision. Just as he could not even conceive the nature of the relationship between Othello and Desdemona, neither could he conceive that Emilia – whom he had taken for granted – would be prepared even to face death for the sake of someone she had loved. The more I ponder this, the more I think how very pathetic and lacking in insight Iago’s view of humanity really is: the worst he can see in people is the only truth there is for him. Although he succeeds in bringing Othello down to his level, humanity is capable of being far, far greater than Iago could ever imagine.

Othello, it is true, does not see through Iago, but neither does anyone else. He is referred to throughout by everyone as “honest”. In Act One, Othello proposes that Iago escort Desdemona to Cyprus, saying about him: “A man he is of honest and trust.” If anyone had known Iago to have been otherwise, they would have objected immediately, but no-one does. Later, we see that Iago is trusted by Cassio, who is happy to take his advice on being re-instated. Desdemona, when in deep distress in IV,ii, asks Emilia to fetch her husband to advise her. And after Cassio is wounded and Roderingo murdered, both Lodovico and Gratiano trust Iago, and are happy to allow him to take charge of matters:

This is Othello’s ancient, as I take it.

The same indeed; a very valiant fellow.

I think Iago was overlooked for promotion because of his class. He is actually quite right when se says this:

Why, there’s no remedy; ’tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first.

My history books tell me that Cromwell’s New Model Army was successful in part because it was a complete meritocracy: promotion depended purely on ability, not on social standing. And Shakespeare, of course, predated the New Model Army. Cassio is an aristocrat: he belongs to the same social circles as Desdemona. In II,1, while they are all waiting anxiously for Othello’s ship to arrive, Desdemona whiles away the time for a bit listening to Iago’s jokes, but then goes off with Cassio to one side of the stage to speak in private – away from the mere “riff-raff”, as it were. Iago notices this, and resents this. Cassio seems to me a sort of Renaissance equivalent of the Sandhurst-trained officer: Harrow, Cambridge, Sandhurst … he has all the connections, and, naturally, gets the top posts. At no time does he show any leadership qualities: indeed, when he gets drunk while on guard duty, he displays qualities that should have disqualified him from high position altogether. And yet, even so disgraceful a display earns him a mere demotion rather than a court-martial; and later, he is appointed the new Governor of Cyprus. Iago is well within his rights to resent this.

But for all this, I don’t think it is this motive (any more than the belief that his wife had slept with Othello) that drives him on: he doesn’t seem to feel any of this strongly enough. He seems to use these motives merely to spur himself on into doing what he wants to do anyway. For instance, when he speaks of his suspicion that Emila has had an affair with Othello:

And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

In short, “I don’t know if this is true, but I’ll assume it is, and go on from there.” This seems strange. If the thought bothers him, why not investigate it further? Why not look for evidence one way or the other? And similarly with being overlooked promotion: if it really rankles with him, why does he mention it so rarely? Surely, if this were a major motive, it would always have been in the forefront of his mind? And if it was, then surely – given his extreme loquacity – he’d have mentioned it more often? But he mentions it only once, and then seems to forget all about it. He may feel these things – but he really he doesn’t seem to feel them strongly enough. Certainly not strongly enough to justify the atrocities he commits: one has to feel very strongly indeed to do something so unspeakable.

No matter how much one writes about these characters, one still feels that one hasn’t scratched the surface. And I’m sure that the next time I read or see this play, I’ll think about it differently once again….

The Bardathon: 21 – Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure is the second of three unclassifiable plays that Shakespeare wrote in between writing his major tragedies, and in some ways, I find it the most puzzling.

It starts with the Duke of Vienna temporarily leaving his post for reasons unspecified, and appointing in his place a deputy, Angelo. Angelo’s doubts that he may not be worthy to take the Duke’s place are brushed aside. A couple of scenes later, we see the Duke take on the disguise of a friar, and explain his motives. But his motives seem very strange indeed. As ruler, he has been too lenient, he says, and as a consequence, the dukedom has become lawless. But he cannot now begin to enforce the laws he had so long neglected, as that would be tyrannical. So he is now resolved to wander through the city in disguise, to see how the city fares under Angelo.

There seems to me to be a great number of problems with this. Surely, one may think, that to appoint as deputy a man who would replace past leniency with a sudden and immediate strictness is no less tyrannical than enforcing the laws oneself. This issue is not addressed. And the Duke describes Angelo as “a man of stricture”; and yet, as we shall find out later, the Duke knows full well that Angelo had cruelly deserted his intended when she had lost her dowry: we, the audience, don’t know this yet, but surely the Duke must have known that Angelo’s morals are not above criticism. Is the Duke being dishonest in this scene with regard to his motive, I wonder? And if so, why?

It is certainly true that in the rest of the play, the Duke does not act in accordance to his stated motive. Far from allowing Angelo to enforce the law, the Duke does everything in his power to subvert Angelo. What can be the purpose of this? It is hard to say, because the Duke is among the most shadowy figures Shakespeare ever created: his stated motives seem hard to credit, his real motives inscrutable. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to see the Duke as a sort of divine figure: he holds complete power in his hands throughout, but, until he reveals himself at the end, he does not make that power apparent. And he seems to test the characters – Angelo and Isabella. And it is he who, at the end, passes judgement on them all, and shows mercy. Indeed, when the Duke does finally reveal himself, Angelo describes his actions “like power divine”. If the Duke is, indeed, a sort of symbolic representation of the divine, then it is perhaps not surprising that his characterisation is so shadowy: it is necessarily shadowy, for the same reason that the figure of God is so shadowy in Paradise Lost. Not even Shakespeare could characterise the Almighty! But in dramatic terms, placing at the centre of the play so shadowy a figure with such indistinct motives creates a sort of vacuum.

But for all that, this play contains – especially in its first half – some of the most vivid and memorable scenes in all Shakespeare. In scene after scene, speech after speech, there are passages, lines, moments, that leap out of the page. There is a marvellously rich, comic tapestry that actually put me in mind of Dickens: the lecher Lucio, the cheerful pimp Pompey Bum, the foolish Froth, the bawd Mistress Overdone (she has had nine husbands, and was Overdone by the last) … Dickens, given the moral code of his times, would have excluded the bawdiness, but in terms of sheer exuberance and delight in comic eccentricity, this is not too far from Dickensian comedy. (Indeed, the court scene in Act 2 had me laughing out loud.)

And there’s the drama – and what drama! Isabella, who is about to become a nun and enter the strictest of orders, pleads to Angelo for her brother Claudio’s life  (her brother has been condemned to death for sex outside marriage). Her passionate pleas for mercy are among my favourite passages in all of Shakespeare:

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Really! – Is there anything more magnificent than that? And Angelo falls: he cannot resist Isabella. And he is given one of Shakespeare’s finest soliloquies:

From thee, even from thy virtue!
What’s this, what’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is’t I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Even till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder’d how.

This is all magnificent – but is it coherent? Isabella is unwilling at first to plead for her brother’s sake, and was merely lukewarm: what made her come out so suddenly with so powerful and so passionate an outpouring? For the moment, we may not worry as we are carried away by the sheer magnificence of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse, but questions such as this start nagging more as the play proceeds.

But for the moment, we are swept away – scene after scene of the most powerful dramatic intensity. Angelo, after fighting with himself, falls: Isabella’s brother will be saved if she comes to his bed. Meanwhile, the Duke, disguised as the Friar, delivers a wonderful speech to Claudio advising him to prepare for death. But only a few minutes later, Claudio delivers the most terrifying lines ever written expressing fear of death:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.

This speech, which never fails to send shivers up my spine, comes in the middle of one of the most painful of all scenes in drama. Isabella tells her brother of Angelo’s perfidy, fully confident that her brother will happily accept death rather than expose his sister to such shame. But Claudio is too frightened of death to think so. And Isabella turns upon her brother hysterically, berating him in the vilest of terms. What does one make of a scene such as this?

Up to this point, we have been witnessing one of the high points of Shakespeare’s canon. But, from the middle of Act 3, something seems to go wrong. All the great scenes and the great speeches disappear: instead, the time is taken up with the mere mechanics of the plot. When the plot is not the primary focus of interest, it matters little if it’s silly; but when it is the primary focus – as it is in the second half of this play – then flaws in the plot do become important. The final tableau in Act 5 is, admittedly, splendidly theatrical, but for all that, the brilliance of the first half of the play finds no counterpart in the second.

And the final scene in which the Duke reveals himself (as we knew all along he would) is curiously joyless. Brother and sister are reunited: but where, in Twelfth Night, the siblings greet the reunion with a sense of wonder and of awe, here they don’t exchange a single word. Angelo, pleads only for death: in that, he is consistent – the guilty must be punished, even if the guilty is himself. The Duke shows mercy, but there is no expression of relief from Angelo: he probably would have preferred to have died. It is Isabella who pleads on Angelo’s behalf, and while this may seem out of character, it is consistent on another level: it was she who had spoken earlier on behalf of mercy. The Duke offers to marry Isabella at the end: once again, there is no real expression of joy – on either side.

While I am powerfully affected by this play – especially the first half – I find it puzzling. Even thematically, I find it puzzling. There is clearly a dichotomy between justice and mercy, and while the Duke feels (or says he feels) that he has erred too much towards mercy and away from justice, everything he does thereafter tends towards mercy. What about the claims of justice? When Angelo is asked to show pity, he says he shows it most when he shows justice, for then he pities those whom he does not know: for if the course of justice were to be denied for the sake of pity, then justice would soon become a meaningless concept (this is what, according to the Duke himself, has already happened in his dukedom) – and the result is that innocent people will suffer. This is a powerful argument: it is, indeed, unanswerable. And yet, Shakespeare seems to me to load the dice, as, in this case, justice is here represented by a law that is clearly unjust. It is not only in our modern times that we think it draconian (to say the least) to execute someone for sex outside marriage: Shakespeare’s audiences would have thought so too. Indeed, even in the play, everyone (except Angelo) feels that the law in this case is wrong : even the law lord, Escalus, and the Provost of the prison, feel it is not right to resurrect an old law that is so cruel. Surely the conflict between justice and mercy would have been less one-sided if Claudio had been guilty of something that is actually heinous – robbery, say, or murder. Why is the dice so very heavily loaded?

Overall, I don’t know that I understand exactly what Shakespeare was getting at in this play. I am transfixed by the first half, but the quality of the drama seems to decline significantly from the middle of Act 3 onwards. As they say in another context, it’s a play of two halves, Brian!

The Bardathon: 20 – Troilus and Cressida

In between writing the tragedies usually considered to be among his finest – Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – Shakespeare also wrote three plays which defy categorisation: Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well. These are sometimes referred to as “tragicomedies” – a pointless piece of categorisation if ever there was one – or as “problem plays”, because of the problems attendant upon even attempting categorisation, and also because they address some insoluble problems concerning human existence.

Troilus and Cressida is perhaps the most open-ended of all Shakespeare’s plays. It is the only play featuring a battle in which there is no resolution: the battle is still raging as the final curtain descends. And, for good measure, the final speech goes to the revolting Pandarus, who throughout the play has taken a vicarious pleasure in bringing his niece Cressida into Troilus’ bed: in this final speech, this Pandarus, who is clearly suffering from venereal disease (Shakespeare was never too bothered about anachronisms) expresses his wish that the audience may share his diseases.

The tone of the play is dark and tragic, but there is no sense of catharsis. There is a death in the final act, but it is not the death of either of the titular protagonists: it is Hector who is killed – a major figure in the war, certainly, but a comparatively minor figure in this drama. Cressida, having betrayed Troilus, has now taken up – apparently quite happily – with Diomedes; and Troilus, his ideals all shattered, is battling away with an inhuman fury. As the scurvy Thersites says, all is mere war and lechery – mere unthinking savagery and lust. This is all human beings are reduced to.

But of course, if this were all there is to the play, it would be no more profound than Titus Andronicus. What raises this play above Titus Andronicus – quite apart, that is, from its obviously superior artistry – is the underlying sense of what human being might be. Hector, after all, is noble; Ulysses is intelligent and courteous; Troilus is idealistic. Thersites’ view that humanity as all as debased as himself may seem superficially attractive, but this is by no means the whole story: human beings – at least, some of them – do aspire to greater things. It is for this very reason that their failure to match their aspirations is so tragic. But even the best are caught in this unweeded garden that grows to seed, possessed merely by things rank and gross in nature. As has been noted, Troilus and Cressida could be a play written by Hamlet – at least, by Hamlet as he appears in the start of the play.

Of course, the environment of Troilus and Cressida seems miles away from that of the Renaissance court. It is an environment of endless war. However, Troilus is not too far from the Renaissance world of Hamlet – or, indeed, from the world of Romeo and Juliet: he is a lovelorn young man, yearning for the woman beyond his reach. And, like Hamlet, he is very much an idealist, shocked by the failure of those around him to live up to his ideals. When Hector suggests ending the pointless war by returning Helen, it is Troilus who opposes: they have to fight on, he insists, for the sake of honour. The figure of the man who engages in battle for the sake of honour is a familiar one in Shakespeare: there’s Hotspur in Henry IV Part One; and there’s young Fortinbras, whom Hamlet so admired. Before we scoff at this concept of honour that causes so many meaningless deaths, we should consider those examples Shakespeare sets us of lack of honour – the amoral cynicism of Falstaff (“Food for powder, food for powder! They’ll fill a pit as well as their betters”) or the sheer unmitigated evil of a Richard Duke of Gloucester. But for all that, Troilus’ sense of honour does help prolong a pointless war. As with so many moral issues, there is no obvious answer.

It is not perhaps surprising that a play so bleak and so uncompromising has not established itself amongst the most popular in the canon. One may object that King Lear is also a pretty bleak play, but, for all its bleakness, it does offer us the possibility of moral redemption: Troilus and Cressida doesn’t. War and lechery: that’s all there is. Even the catharsis of tragedy is denied us. On top of all this, the language is difficult and knotty: even when one is reading it, considerable work is required to penetrate through the tortuous syntax. And it is even harder to cut through these linguistic difficulties in performance, when we have far less time to think about the words. And as if all this weren’t enough, for much of the play, there is no sense of forward movement. One would almost think that Shakespeare had gone out of his way to make this play as inaccessible as possible, and as devoid of any element likely to enhance popular appeal.

For the first half of the play, barely anything happens. Troilus and Cressida are introduced quite early, but it’s only some half way through the play that they come together. Rather than advance the “plot”, as such, Shakespeare explores the situation. And it is a static situation: as in The Iliad, the Trojans and the Greeks have declared a truce, and Achilles is sulking in his tent, refusing to fight. But this Achilles is very different from the demi-god of Homer: this Achilles is cruel and narcissistic, and, unlike Homer’s creation, incapable of being humanised. And he kills Hector not in combat, as in Homer: he orders his men to fall upon Hector when he is unarmed. It is a cruel and nasty world, completely at odds with the idealism of Troilus, and seemingly confirming the scurrilous gibes of Thersites.

In the first three acts, the protagonists, Troilus and Cressida, barely even appear. and the big scene that Troilus has during the first half of the play – when he persuades the Trojans to continue with the war – has nothing to do with his love for Cressida, which is, ostensibly, the main theme of the play. This exploration of the situation is certainly absorbing, but is, perhaps, less than dramatic.

Troilus and Cressida are no sooner together than they must part: as part of a treaty, Cressida has to join her father (who had defected) in the Greek camp. Troilus seems quite insensitive to Cressida’s predicament: all he can do is to tell her not to be unfaithful to him. And this sparks Cressida’s shocked realisation that it isn’t really she whom Troilus loves: Troilus, the idealist, is in love with an idealised form of Cressida, not Cressida the real person.

Once she is in the Greek camp, she takes up with a protector – Diomedes. She has to – for her own safety. But we must beware against simplifying the issues: Cressida is no mere victim of male domination. She shows absolutely no remorse about having to betray Troilus; and there is no indication that her new affair with Diomedes is entered into unwillingly: quite the contrary. When Troilus, accompanied by Ulysses, views Cressida’s perfidy, his dismay is entirely justified. And while Troilus and Ulysses spy on Cressida and Diomedes, Thersites spies upon them all, and undercuts Troilus’ expressions of despair with his own nasty brand of cynicism: the despair is depicted simultaneously with a delight in that despair.

This remarkable scene is at the start of the final act, which seems to me among the most extraordinary acts in the entire canon. It is a furious finale in which nothing is resolved – where everything is left whirling madly in space. The tone of the play is dark and tragic, and Shakespeare isn’t even going to offer us the consolation of a tragic ending.

One wonders what made Shakespeare write this play. It is clearly a work of genius, but it was never, I think, designed to be popular. And that seems strange coming from a writer who depended on the box-office for his living. Indeed, looking through its performance history, it has never captured the audience’s imagination. Perhaps this is a play that is appreciated more in being read than in being seen. It’s possibly Shakespeare’s most underrated play, but even in such cynical times as ours, it is, perhaps, a bit too much for audiences to take.

The Bardathon: 19 – Twelfth Night

Reading through these plays, I get the impression that, in the comedies at least, Shakespeare sought for a harmony that balances all the elements that are constituent parts of life. In tragedy, harmony is not possible: it’s not merely that Iago cannot be reconciled with those he has harmed – Othello cannot be reconciled even with himself. But in comedy, there has to be a balance, a harmony. But how can this be possible? What happens to those who cannot be reconciled? How can the writer of comedy include all those things that we know exist in life – suffering, sorrow, delusion, nastiness, cruelty, evil – and still achieve a sense of balance, of harmony?

I think Shakespeare often attempted to fuse everything together – to force together all those elements that are irreconcilable. In The Merchant of Venice, he created, within the context of a comedy, a figure of the stature of Shylock. Shylock was meant to be the villain, but Shakespeare, with his insatiable curiosity into the nature of human different types, had to look closely at the nature of his villainy, and in doing so, created a figure of magnificent tragic power who transcends simplistic categories such as “villain” or “hero”. The artistry of this creation is in no doubt, but it unbalanced the play: the comedy, such as it is, barely registers.

Then, in Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare tried again, and this time, to make sure that the villain did not overwhelm the play, Shakespeare kept him well in the background. He did not offer a motive for the villainy, in case, as with Shylock, the motive raised the villain’s stature above that of the heroes; and he made sure that the villain was not on stage in the final scene. Don John may well have “brave punishments” coming his way, but that’s outside the scope of the play: within the play itself, he is safely out of sight, and so does not disturb the harmony achieved at the end.

Of course, even without the presence of Don John, there are tragic elements in Much Ado About Nothing that create dissonances, and these dissonances had to be resolved into some sort of harmony. But this resolution is possible because the reconciliation in the final scene is not between good and evil, but between the innocent victim and the deluded victimisers: once the latter have recognised the nature of their delusions, and have repented, there is no bar to including them in the final harmony. Claudio is deluded, but he is not evil. It is only in the later play The Winter’s Tale that Shakespeare gives us, in Leontes, a figure who is both a Don John and a Claudio, and there, the issues of repentance and of the painful journey towards reconciliation are far more complex.

Shakespeare had achieved in Much Ado About Nothing a sense of harmony that had eluded him in The Merchant of Venice, but he had to employ a devious sleight of hand to achieve this: he had focussed on those deluded by evil, while keeping the source of the evil itself well in the background. The problem of fusing together irreconcilable elements remained unsolved.

Then came As You Like It , the warmest and the most idyllic of his comedies. Of course, there’s sleight of hand here as well – we hear of hardships, of masters with “churlish disposition”, of rough winds and brambles, wild animals and serpents – but we don’t actually see any of this, and each crisis is over almost before we are aware of its existence. But yes, I can understand why one might picture heaven in the image of the Forest of Arden. There is an enchantment about this forest, and, in these enchanted environs, evil does not need to be reconciled because it simply melts away. It is an enchantment that is potent in the theatre, but whether such a vision holds up to close scrutiny in the cold light of the study is another matter: perhaps it should not be subject to such scrutiny in the first place. If we are to value the products of our imaginations, why shouldn’t we value that imaginative world of wish-fulfilment that fulfils our deepest desires?

For me, it is in Twelfth Night that Shakespeare achieved the most miraculous of harmonies. Here, everything is synthesised into a perfect balance – love, grief, sorrow, joy, high spirits, knockabout comedy, melancholy, lyricism, cruelty, venality, delusion, suffering, and the sad awareness of the transience of it all. I can’t help thinking that, in many ways, it is possibly the most miraculous work that even Shakespeare ever wrote.


There are all types of comedy here – the lyrical, gentle comedy of romantic love; sparkling wit and wordplay; and more knockabout stuff. There is tremendous sadness as well – the sadness of unrequited passion, the grief of loss, the awareness of the passing of time, and of the transince of it all. There is self-delusion: Orsino, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Olivia, Malvolio – they all delude themselves some way or other. There is also cruelty and suffering: Sir Toby’s gulling of Sir Andrew is exactly what Iago does to Roderigo in Othello: the later play is a tragedy, and that particular strand ends in Iago murdering Roderigo; but as this is a comedy, Sir Andrew is merely rejected, and the moment of his rejection is heartbreaking: Sir Andrew is, we all know, a fool, but no-one deserves this.

(The late Harold Pinter used to say that the greatest line in all literature is Sir Andrew’s “I was adored once too”. It’s a good choice. That one line, in that particular dramatic context, is funny, and, at the same time, infinitely sad.)

And Malvolio too: yes, he is pompous and self-regarding, but no-one deserves what he goes through. He is publicly humiliated – and it is a sexual humiliation. And when he is urged to join in the general merrymaking at the end, we can only wonder how anyone can think that so deep a humiliation can merely be forgotten about. Like Shylock, Malvolio cannot be accommodated into any harmony.

And yet, somehow, miraculously, the play does have a harmony. I still don’t know how Shakespeare managed it, but he did. Shylock unbalances The Merchant of Venice: here, everything is held in the most delicate equilibrium.

The melancholy lyricism of Twelfth Night is like nothing else in Shakespeare, or, indeed, by anyone else:

If I did love you in my master’s flame,
With such a suffering, such a deadly life,
In your denial I would find no sense;
I would not understand it.

Why, what would you?

Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

I really know of nothing more sheerly beautiful than these lines.

And towards the end, at that moment when Viola and Sebastian, who had thought each other dead, recognise each other, time seems to stand still: we step outside time, and seem to have a vision of the Resurrection itself. “Most wonderful!” says Olivia, and that line shouldn’t be played for laughs: the whole scene should be suffused with a sense of wonder. As Viola says earlier in the play,

Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.

And when we think it’s all over, Feste the clown stays behind on his own to sing about the brevity of life, of the passing of time.

Shakespeare never wrote another romantic comedy after this. After all, how can one improve on perfection?

“What is your favourite Shakespeare play?” is virtually an impossible question to answer – partly because one’s always changing one’s mind about it. But, for now at least, I’d nominate this as my personal favourite.