Othello Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
famous critique based on his legendary and influential
Shakespeare notes and lectures.
Act i. sc. i.
ADMIRABLE is the preparation, so truly and peculiarly
Shakspearian, in the introduction of Roderigo, as the
dupe on whom Iago shall first exercise his art, and
in so doing display his own character. Roderigo, without
any fixed principle, but not without the moral notions
and sympathies with honour, which his rank and connections
had hung upon him, is already well fitted and predisposed
for the purpose; for very want of character and strength
of passion, like wind loudest in an empty house, constitute
his character. The first three lines happily state the
nature and foundation of the friendship between him
and Iago, the purse,as also the contrast
of Roderigo's intemperance of mind with Iago's coolness,the
coolness of a preconceiving experimenter. The mere language
If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me,
which falling in with the associative link, determines
Roderigo's continuation of complaint
Thou told'st me, thou didst hold him in thy hate
elicits at length a true feeling of Iago's mind, the
dread of contempt habitual to those, who encourage in
themselves, and have their keenest pleasure in, the
expression of con-tempt for others. Observe Iago's high
self-opinion, and the moral, that a wicked man will
employ real feelings, as well as assume those most alien
from his own, as instru-ments of his purposes:
And, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.
I think Tyrwhitt's reading of 'life' for 'wife'
A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife
the true one, as fitting to Iago's contempt for whatever
did not display power, and that intellectual power.
In what follows, let the reader feel how by and through
the glass of two passions, disappointed vanity and envy,
the very vices of which he is complaining, are made
to act upon him as if they were so many excellences,
and the more appropriately, because cunning is always
admired and wished for by minds conscious of inward
weakness;but they act only by half, like music
on an inattentive auditor, swelling the thoughts which
prevent him from listening to it.
Rod. What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,
If he can carry't thus.
Roderigo turns off to Othello; and here comes one,
if not the only, seeming justification of our blackamoor
or negro Othello. Even if we supposed this an uninterrupted
tradition of the theatre, and that Shakspeare himself,
from want of scenes, and the experience that nothing
could be made too marked for the senses of his audience,
had practically sanctioned it,would this prove
aught concerning his own intention as a poet for all
ages? Can we imagine him so utterly ignorant as to make
a barbarous negro plead royal birth,at a time,
too, when negroes were not known except as slaves?As
for Iago's language to Brabantio, it implies merely
that Othello was a Moor, that is, black. Though I think
the rivalry of Roderigo sufficient to account for his
wilful confusion of Moor and Negro,yet, even if
compelled to give this up, I should think it only adapted
for the acting of the day, and should complain of an
enormity built on a single word, in direct contradiction
to Iago's 'Barbary horse.' Besides, if we could in good
earnest believe Shakspeare ignorant of the distinction,
still why should we adopt one disagreeable possibility
instead of a ten times greater and more pleasing probability?
It is a common error to mistake the epithets applied
by the dramatis personae to each other, as truly descriptive
of what the audience ought to see or know. No doubt
Desdemona saw Othello's visage in his mind; yet, as
we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience
was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century,
it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful
Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro.
It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance,
in Desdemona, which Shakspeare does not appear to have
in the least contemplated.
Ib. Brabantio's speech:
This accident is not unlike my dream:
The old careful senator, being caught careless, transfers
his caution to his dreaming power at least.
Ib. Iago's speech:
For their souls,
Another of his fathom they have not,
To lead their business:
The forced praise of Othello followed by the bitter
hatred of him in this speech! And observe how Brabantio's
dream prepares for his recurrence to the notion of philtres,
and how both prepare for carrying on the plot of the
arraignment of Othello on this ground.
Ib. sc. 2.
Oth. 'Tis better as it is.
How well these few words impress at the outset the
truth of Othello's own character of himself at the end
'that he was not easily wrought!' His self-government
contradistinguishes him throughout from Leontes.
Ib. Othello's speech:
And my demerits
May speak, unbonnetted
The argument in Theobald's note, where 'and bonnetted'
is suggested, goes on the assumption that Shakspeare
could not use the same word differently in different
places; whereas I should conclude, that as in the passage
in Lear the word is employed in its direct meaning,
so here it is used metaphorically; and this is confirmed
by what has escaped the editors, that it is not 'I,'
but 'my demerits' that may speak unbonnetted,without
the symbol of a petitioning inferior.
Ib. Othello's speech:
So please your grace, my ancient;
A man he is of honesty and trust:
To his conveyance I assign my wife.
Compare this with the behaviour of Leontes to his true
Ib. sc. 3.
Bra. Look to her. Moor; have a quick eye to see;
She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee.
Oth. My life upon her faith.
In real life, how do we look back to little speeches
as presentimental of, or contrasted with, an affecting
event! Even so, Shakspeare, as secure of being read
over and over, of becoming a family friend, provides
this passage for his readers, and leaves it to them.
Ib. Iago's speech:
Virtue? a fig! 'tis in ourselves, that we are thus,
or thus,' &c.
This speech comprises the passionless character of
Iago. It is all will in intellect; and therefore he
is here a bold partizan of a truth, but yet of a truth
converted into a falsehood by the absence of all the
necessary modifications caused by the frail nature of
man. And then comes the last sentiment,
Our raging motions, our carnal stings, our unbitted
lusts, whereof I take this, that you calllove,
to be a sect or scion!
Here is the true Iagoism of, alas! how many! Note Iago's
pride of mastery in the repetition of 'Go, make money!'
to his anticipated dupe, even stronger than his love
of lucre: and when Roderigo is completely won
I am chang'd. I'll go sell all my land
when the effect has been fully produced, the repetition
Go to ; farewell; put money enough in your purse!
The remainderIago's soliloquythe motive-hunting
of a motiveless malignityhow awful it is! Yea,
whilst he is still allowed to bear the divine image,
it is too fiendish for his own steady view,for
the lonely gaze of a being next to devil, and only not
quite devil,and yet a char-acter which Shakspeare
has attempted and executed, without disgust and without
Dr. Johnson has remarked that little or nothing is
want-ing to render the Othello a regular tragedy, but
to have opened the play with the arrival of Othello
in Cyprus, and to have thrown the preceding act into
the form of narration. Here then is the place to determine,
whether such a change would or would not be an improvement;nay,
(to throw down the glove with a full challenge) whether
the tragedy would or not by such an arrangement become
more regular, that is, more consonant with the
rules dictated by universal reason, on the true commonsense
of mankind, in its application to the particular case.
For in all acts of judgment, it can never be too often
recollected, and scarcely too often repeated, that rules
are means to ends, and, consequently, that the end must
be determined and understood before it can be known
what the rules are or ought to be. Now, from a certain
species of drama, proposing to itself the accomplishment
of certain ends, these partly arising from the
idea of the species itself, but in part, likewise, forced
upon the dramatist by accidental circumstances beyond
his power to remove or control, three rules have
been abstracted;in other words, the means most
conducive to the attainment of the proposed ends have
been generalized, and prescribed under the names of
the three unities,the unity of time, the unity
of place, and the unity of action,which last would,
perhaps, have been as appropriately, as well as more
intelligibly, entitled the unity of interest. With this
last the present question has no immediate concern:
in fact, its conjunction with the former two is a mere
delusion of words. It is not properly a rule, but in
itself the great end not only of the drama, but of the
epic poem, the lyric ode, of all poetry, down to the
candle-flame cone of an epigram,nay of poesy in
general, as the proper generic term inclusive of all
the fine arts as its species. But of the unities of
time and place, which alone are entitled to the name
of rules, the history of their origin will be their
best criterion. You might take the Greek chorus to a
place, but you could not bring a place to them without
as palpable an equivoque as bringing Birnam wood to
Macbeth at Dunsinane. It was the same, though in a less
degree, with regard to the unity of time:the positive
fact, not for a moment removed from the senses, the
presence, I mean, of the same identical chorus, was
a continued measure of time;and although the imagination
may supersede perception, yet it must be granted to
be an imperfectionhowever easily toleratedto
place the two in broad contradiction to each other.
In truth, it is a mere accident of terms; for the Trilogy
of the Greek theatre was a drama in three acts, and
notwithstanding this, what strange contrivances as to
place there are in the Aristophanic Frogs. Besides,
if the law of mere actual perception is once violatedas
it repeatedly is even in the Greek tragedieswhy
is it more difficult to imagine three hours to be three
years than to be a whole day and night ?
Act ii. sc. i.
Observe in how many ways Othello is made, first, our
acquaintance, then our friend, then the object of our
anxiety, before the deeper interest is to be approached!
Mont. But, good lieutenant, is your general wiv'd?
Cas. Most fortunately: be hath achiev'd a maid
That paragons description, and wild fame;
One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,
And, in the essential vesture of creation,
Does bear all excellency.
Here is Cassio's warm-hearted, yet perfectly disengaged,
praise of Desdemona, and sympathy with the 'most fortunately'
wived Othello;and yet Cassia is an enthusiastic
admirer, almost a worshipper, of Desdemona. O that detestable
code that excellence cannot be loved in any form that
is female, but it must needs be selfish! Observe Othello's
'honest,' and Cassio's 'bold' Iago, and Cassio's full
guileless-hearted wishes for the safety and love raptures
of Othello and 'the divine Desdemona.' And also note
the exquisite circumstance of Cassio's kissing Iago's
wife, as if it ought to be impossible that the dullest
auditor should not feel Cassio's religious love of Desdemona's
purity. Iago's answers are the sneers which a proud
bad intellect feels towards women, aid expresses to
a wife. Surely it ought to be considered a very exalted
compliment to women, that all the sarcasms on them in
Shakspeare are put in the mouths of villains
Des. I am not merry; but I do beguile, &c.
The struggle of courtesy in Desdemona to abstract her
(Iago aside). He takes her by the palm : Ay, well
said, whisper; with as little a web as this, will I
ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her,
The importance given to trifles, and made fertile by
the villany of the observer.
Ib. Iago's dialogue with Roderigo:
This is the rehearsal on the dupe of the traitor's
inten-tions on Othello.
Ib. Iago's soliloquy:
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap'd into my seat.
This thought, originally by Iago's own confession a
mere suspicion, is now ripening, and gnaws his base
nature as his own 'poisonous mineral' is about to gnaw
the noble heart of his general.
Ib. sc. 3. Othello's speech:
I know, Iago,
Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter,
Making it light to Cassio.
Honesty and love! Ay, and who but the reader of the
play could think otherwise?
Ib. Iago's soliloquy:
And what's he then that saysI play the villain?
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and, indeed, the course
To win the Moor again.
He is not, you see, an absolute fiend; or, at least,
he wishes to think himself not so.
Act iii. sc. 3.
Des. Before Æmilia here,
I give the warrant of thy place.
The over-zeal of innocence in Desdemona.
Enter Desdemona and Æmilia,
Oth. If she be false, O, then, heaven mocks itself!
I'll not believe it.
Divine! The effect of innocence and the better genius
Act iv. sc. 3.
Æmil. 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
Warburton's note. What any other man, who had learning
enough, might have quoted as a playful and witty illustration
of his remarks against the Calvinistic thesis, Warburton
gravely attributes to Shakspeare as intentional; and
this, too, in the mouth of a lady's woman!
Act v. last scene. Othello's speech:
Of one, whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe, &c.
Theobald's note from Warburton. Thus it is for no-poets
to comment on the greatest of poets! To make Othello
say that he, who had killed his wife, was like Herod
who killed Mariamne!O, how many beauties, in this
one line, were impenetrable to the ever thought-swarming,
but idealess, Warburton! Othello wishes to excuse himself
on the score of ignorance, and yet not to excuse himself,to
excuse himself by accusing. This struggle of feeling
is finely conveyed in the word 'base,' which is applied
to the rude Indian, not in his own character, but as
the momentary representative of Othello's 'Indian'for
I retain the old readingmeans American, a savage
Finally, let me repeat that Othello does not kill Desdemona
in jealousy, but in a conviction forced upon him by
the almost superhuman art of Iago, such a conviction
as any man would and must have entertained who had believed
Iago's honesty as Othello did. We, the audience, know
that Iago is a villain from the beginning; but in considering
the essence of the Shakspearian Othello, we must perseveringly
place ourselves in his situation, and under his circumstances.
Then we shall immediately feel the fundamental difference
between the solemn agony of the noble Moor, and the
wretched fishing jealousies of Leontes, and the morbid
suspiciousness of Leonatus, who is, in other respects,
a fine character. Othello had no life but in Desdemona:the
belief that she, his angel, had fallen from the heaven
of her native innocence, wrought a civil war in his
heart. She is his counterpart; and, like him, is almost
sanctified in our eyes by her absolute unsuspiciousness,
and holy entireness of love. As the curtain drops, which
do we pity the most?
Extremum hunc . There
are three powers:
Wit, which discovers partial likeness hidden in general
diversity; subtlety, which discovers the diversity con-cealed
in general apparent sameness;and profundity, which
discovers an essential unity under all the semblances
Give to a subtle man fancy, and he is a wit; to a
deep man imagination, and he is a philosopher. Add,
again, pleasurable sensibility in the threefold form
of sympathy with the interesting in morals, the impressive
in form, and the harmonious in sound,and you have
But combine all,wit, subtlety, and fancy, with
profundity, imagination, and moral and physical susceptibility
of the pleasurable,and let the object of action
be man universal; and we shall haveO, rash prophecy!
say, rather, we havea SHAKSPEARE!