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INTRODUCTION TO OTHELLO.
Shakespeare's dramas, four are, by philosophical criticism
and universal assent, recognised as his greatest works. These are Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear. They were apparently produced, in close succession, within the lustrum following the year 1600, when the genius of the poet was, as Coleridge has said, 'in full possession and habitual exercise of power,' and, indeed, at its very point of culmination. In 1605, the probable date of the latest of these plays, Shakespeare was in his forty-first year. It appears from the Accounts of the Revels that Othello was acted before the court of King James, in the Banqueting-house at Whitehall, on Hallowmas Day, November 1, 1604. We have a notice also of its being performed in the Globe Theatre, April 30, 1610, when the representation was witnessed by an attaché of the Duke of Wurtemberg, then in England ; and in 1613, as noted in Vertue's Manuscript, Othello was again acted at the court. It was no doubt a popular play, and Burbage was celebrated for his personation of the Moor. The tragedy, however, seems to have remained unprinted until 1622, when it appeared in the usual quarto form, but preceded by the following curious address from the publisher :
THE STATIONER TO THE READER. To set forth a book without an Epistle were like to the old English proverb, “A blue coat without a badge;" and the author being dead, I thought good to take that piece of work upon me. To commend it I will not, for that which is good, I hope, every man will commend without entreaty; and I am the bolder, because the author's name is sufficient to vent his work. Thus leaving every one to the liberty of judgment, I have ventured to print this play, and leave it to the general
In the following year (1623), Heminge and Condell included Othello in Shakespeare's dramatic works, having, as Mr Collier conjectures, purchased Walkley's interest in the play. A third edition appeared in 1630, and these three editions all
from each other in portions of the text, shewing that they were printed from different manuscripts.
The story of Othello is found in Cinthio's Hecatommithi, where it forms the seventh novel of the third decade. It had a sort of historical basis in the fact, that Selymus II. made an attempt on the island of Cyprus, to recover it from the Venetians, in 1570. A French translation of Cinthio's novel was published in 1584. No English translation of so early a date as the age of Shakespeare has been met with ; 'but undoubtedly,' says Steevens, many of those little pamphlets have perished between his time and ours.' Cinthio names only one of his characters —that name 'most musical, most melancholy –Desdemona. Othello is simply the Moor; Cassio, the lieutenant ; Iago is ‘an ensign of a very amiable outward appearance, but whose character was extremely treacherous and base.' Emilia is mentioned only as the ensign's wife ; of Brabantio, we hear nothing, except that Desdemona’s relations ‘did all in their power to make her take another husband ;' and Roderigo is a creation of the poet, 'truly and peculiarly Shakespearian, as the dupe on whom Iago shall first exercise his art, and in so doing display his own character.'--COLERIDGE. The conclusion of the play is widely different and immeasurably superior to that of the novel. Cinthio makes Othello adopt a coarse and clumsy expedient to fulfil his vengeance. The Moor and Iago agree to kill Desdemona by beating her with a stocking full of sand. Three blows are given by Iago, while Othello upbraids her for her imputed infidelity, after which they lay the victim in her bed, and pull down part of the old ceiling of the chamber, in order that the death may appear accidental. Othello in time relents, becomes disgusted with his prompter Iago, and degrades him from his commission. The ensign in revenge acquaints Cassio with the circumstances of the murder. Othello is apprehended
and brought to Venice, where he is put to the torture, but will make no confession or acknowledgment of his guilt. He is, however, condemned to perpetual exile, and is ultimately killed by Desdemona's relations. Iago, continuing his criminal career, makes a false accusation against one of his companions, and on being subjected to the rack, dies in great agony. Thus' concludes the novel, 'was the divine vengeance executed against those who had murdered the innocent Desdemona. The ensign's wife, who had been informed of the whole affair after his death, thus circumstantially related the story. Shakespeare's noble tragic catastrophe and overwhelming pathos, contrasted with this vulgar commonplace detail, is truly “Hyperion to a satyr.'
• The most perfect in tragic passion of Shakespeare's greatest dramas] is Othello. There is nothing to determine unhappiness to the lives of the two principal persons. Their love begins auspiciously ; and the renown, high favour, and high character of Othello, seem to promise a stability of happiness to himself and the wife of his affections. But the blood which had been scorched in the veins of his race, under the suns of Africa, bears a poison that swells up to confound the peace of the Christian marriage-bed. He is jealous ; and the dreadful overmastering passion, which disturbs the steadfastness of his own mind, overflows upon his life, and hers, and consumes them from the earth. The external action of the play is nothing
the causes of events are none ; the whole interest of the story, the whole course of the action, the causes of all that happens, live all in the breast of Othello. The whole destiny of those who are to perish lies in his passion. Hence the high tragic character of the play—shewing one false illusory passion ruling and confounding all life. All that is below tragedy in the passion of love is taken away at once by the awful character of Othello, for such he seems to us to be destined to be. He appears never as a lover, but at once as a husband, and the relation of his love made dignified as it is a husband's justification of his marriage, is also dignified as it is a soldier's relation of his stern and perilous life. .... If Desdemona had been really guilty, the greatness would have been destroyed, because his love would have been unworthy_false. But she is good, and his love is most perfect, just, and good. That a man should place his perfect love on a wretched thing, is miserably debasing, and shocking to thought; but that, loving perfectly and well, he should by hellish human circumvention be brought to distrust and dread, and abjure his own perfect love, is most mournful indeed—it is the infirmity of our good nature, wrestling in vain with the strong powers of evil. Moreover, he would, had Desdemona been false, have been the mere victim of fate ; whereas, he is now in a manner his own victim. His happy love was heroic tenderness, his injured love is terrible passion, and disordered power engendered within itself to its own destruction, is the height of all tragedy. The character of Othello is perhaps the most greatly drawn, the most heroic of any of Shakespeare's actors, but it is, perhaps, that one also of which his reader last acquires the intelligence. The intellectual and warlike energy of his mind, his tenderness of affection, his loftiness of spirit, his frank, generous magnanimity, impetuosity like a thunderbolt, and that dark fierce flood of boiling passion, polluting even his imagination, compose a character entirely original, most difficult to delineate, but perfectly delineated.' — PROFESSOR WILSON.
‘Nothing can be more soothing, more flattering to the nobler parts of our nature, than to read of a young Venetian lady of the highest extraction, through the force of love and from a sense of merit in him whom she loved, laying aside every consideration of kindred, and country, and colour, and wedding with a coalblack Moor-for such he is represented, in the imperfect state of knowledge respecting foreign countries in those days, compared with our own, or in compliance with popular notions, though the Moors are now well enough known to be many shades less unworthy of a white woman's fancy. It is the perfect triumph of
virtue over accidents, of the imagination over the senses. She sees Othello's colour in his mind.'-CHARLES LAMB.
'Rod. What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe.' 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 Shakespeare 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 Shakespeare 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 personce 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 Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated! -COLERIDGE.
A more artful villain than Iago was never portrayed ; he spreads his nets with a skill which nothing can escape.
The repugnance inspired by his aims, becomes tolerable from the