Othello - a many-sided tragedy

Ex-spook and now Reader in English at the ANU, Dr Simon Haines, has joined the culture wars, complaining at the ideological treatment of literature in universities: “And so Othello has become a tragedy of race rather than a tragedy of jealousy. It hasn’t always been; up until the 1960s, it was a tragedy of jealousy.” (Australian, 21 February 2008)

Equating Othello with jealousy is as misguided as it would be to ignore everything but skin-colour. The other emotions at play include malice from Iago, passion from Othello, conjugal love from Desdemona, and envy from Rodrigo. If Haines equates Othello with only one of these, he is cheating his students.

Haines regrets the invasion of ideologies and other disciplines into the heart and soul of literature. It has not occurred to him, as it did to Raymond Williams, that criticism is also an “-ism”. If Dr Haines is determined to quarantine the literary from polluting disciplines he will have to give up jealousy to the psychologists and philosophers. Let’s see how many students he attracts by discerning patterns among the qualifiers and modifiers. Meanwhile, he could take a few lessons in the history of Shakespearean criticism and performance.

Haines’s claim to know what Shakespeare intended the play to be about is preposterous. We know almost nothing about him or his beliefs – except for the conflicted opinions he puts into the mouths of his characters. The rest is guesswork.

One thing we do know about performance style and audience response is that race is not a recent intrusion. Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare, A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present, (1990) quotes the first professional English critic Thomas Rymer who published A Short View of Tragedy in 1693:

With us a Black-amoor might rise to be a Trumpeter; but Shakespear would not have him less than a Lieutenant-General. With us a Moor might marry some little drab, or Small-coal Wench; Shakespear, would provide him the Daughter and Heir of some great Lord, or Privy-Councellor: And all the Town should reckon it a very suitable match. (p. 39)

Taylor comments, “From Rymer’s perspective Shakespeare was not bigoted enough.” Rymer feared that audiences would interpret the protagonist as a social type. If they did not, what is the play’s moral? If they did, a black was elevated above his station.

            In the 1820s, Samuel Taylor Coleridge addressed himself to how Shakespeare could have allowed himself to marry a fair high-born maiden to a negro:

… and here comes the one if not the only justification of the blackmoor Othello, namely as a negro, who is not a Moor at all.

What a full fortune does the thick-lips owe,

If he can carry’t thus!

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 nerves of his audience, had sanctioned it, would this prove aught concerning his own intentions as a poet for all ages? Can we suppose him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth? Were negroes then known but as slaves; on the contrary were not the Moors the warriors, etc?

Iago’s speech to Brabantio implies that he was a Moor, i.e., black. Though I think the rivalry of Rodrigo sufficient to account for this willful confusion of Moor and negro - yet though compelled to give this up, I should yet think it only adapted for the then acting, and should complain of an enormity built only on one single word – in direct contradiction of Iago’s “Barbary horse”. If we can in good earnest believe Shakespeare ignorant of the distinction, still why take one chance against ten – as Othello cannot be both?

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 Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated. (Coleridge on Shakespeare, Penguin, 1959, p. 187-88)

Coleridge is all too aware of the race question. His esteem for Shakespeare as poet and philosopher leads him to argue that we are mistaken to see Othello as black. Rather he is a Moor. Woven into Coleridge’s alarm about race is his view of class relations. His horror at the mating of white with the black is compounded by the disruption of class barriers, as it had been for Rymer.

            Effective criticism is never reductionist. Coleridge began his explication with Rodrigo who is Iago’s dupe because he is envious of Othello:

In what follows, let the reader feel how, by and through the glass of two passions, disappointed passion and envy, the very vices he is complaining of are made to act upon him as so many excellences, and the more appropriately because cunning is always admired and wished for by minds conscious of inward weakness. And yet it is but half [of the process] – it acts like music on an inattentive auditor, swelling the thoughts which prevent him from listening to it. (p. 187)

Skin colour, class, envy, lust and jealousy feed on each other in the text, as they should in the criticism. Of course, not every aspect can be equally prominent in our readings, still less so in each production. And it is as a work for the stage that Othello must be experienced and judged, not as a crossword puzzle in a seminar room. It has survived multiple readings across 400 years, and will, we presume, survive Haines’s narrow-mindedness.

As is not hard to imagine, unless you are a Dr Haines, the play’s reception in the slave-owning Americas retained even more a reputation for political incorrectness. When it premiered there in 1765, it had to be promoted as a moral dialogue to get around the Puritan proscription on the theatre. In keeping with the Abolitionist sentiment that would overtake New England, the playbill announced that ‘ ‘Tis crime, not colour, makes the being black’. Class relations were not neglected. Desdemona’s servant woman Emilia was promoted an exemplar ‘to all servants, male and female, and to all persons in subjection.’. The last being the million or more chattel-slaves whose labours made it possible for their masters and mistresses to enjoy the theatre.

The renowned tragedian David Garrick (1717-79) knew that Shakespeare had created other jealous white characters. However, when he wanted an embodiment of that passion he chose an “African in whose veins circulated fire instead of blood.’ The American John Adams in 1760 endorsed Garrick’s view by quoting Othello: ‘Arise, black Vengeance, from the hollow Hell.’ Garrick and Adams died before Dr Haines could disabuse them of this equation of skin colour with at least one of the deadly sins.

Twenty-six years later in London, Adams’s wife, Abigail, had a visceral reaction against

[t]he sooty appearance of the Moor … I could not separate the African color from the man, nor prevent that disgust and horror which filled my mind every time I saw him touch the gentle Desdemona; nor did I wonder that [her father] Brabantio thought some love potion or some witchcraft had been practiced to make his daughter fall in love with what she scarcely dared to look upon.

 By the 1820s, actors such as Edmund Kean slid around negrophobia of his paying customers by introducing a ‘bronze age’ to hint at the Moor’s racial pedigree.

            No pretence could separate the play’s protagonists from the Moor’s blackness. From the next generation of Adamses, John Quincy represented the gulf between support for emancipation and acceptance of the blacks as in any sense one’s equal. He turned on Desdemona as  ‘a lady of easy virtue’:

Upon the stage her fondling of Othello is disgusting. Who, in real life, would have her for a sister, a daughter or wife … she is always deficient in delicacy …

How else could she be so sensuously passionate about a black man? As theatre critic, Adams took the chance to denounce her wantonness:

… she not only violates her duties to her father, her family, her sex and her country, but she makes the first advances …  The character takes from us so much of the sympathetic interest in her sufferings that when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately to the sentiment that she had her just deserts.

It was one thing for white men to bed black women. It was an abomination to think of a white woman’s lusting after a black man. The Abolitionist champion John Quincy Adams was in no doubt that

[t]he great moral lesson of Othello is that black and white blood cannot be intermingled without a gross outrage upon the law of Nature, and that, in such violations, Nature will vindicate her laws …

The white male’s fear of their sexual inferiority could not be spoken yet it pervaded the parlours of Massachusetts and the lynch mobs of Mississippi.

(Tilden G. Edelstein, ‘Othello in America: The Drama of Racial Intermarriage’, Region, Race and Reconstruction, Oxford, 1982, pp. 179-98.)

The first black actor to appear on the legitimate stage in the United States, Ira Aldridge (1807-67), had won positive reviews for his performances in a round of black roles until, in 1833, he moved up to Covent Garden as the Moor of Venice. Reviewers railed against his presence as ‘truly monstrous’. The onslaught forced him back to the provinces for fifteen years and finally to touring the continent. (Bernth Lindfors, Ira Aldridge, two volumes, University of Rochester Press, 2012.) One hundred years later, Paul Robeson endured similar reactions. (See also Ray B. Browne, ‘Shakespeare in American Vaudeville’, American Quarterly, 12 (3), Autumn 1960, pp. 374-91.)

Othello is about more than racial prejudice in any of the forms it has taken in the past 400 years. Only an ignoramus, however, could suppose that its presence in the university courses is a further mark of the decline of civilisation that began when non-whites won greater rights during the 1960s. Annoyance at the intrusion of socio-cultural themes into criticism is an old stage trick to mask petulance at the intrusion of blacks, gays, women and workers into social life.