In Othello, William Shakespeare, the philosopher of everyday life, holds up a mirror to us and shows us what human beings are capable of. Beneath our most pleasantly cultivated exterior, there often lurks a serpent…
William Hazlitt is widely recognized as one of the greatest of Shakespearean critics. Yes, there is Dr. Johnson; yes, there is Coleridge; yes, there are many others. But Hazlitt provides a peculiar delight, not least because what shines through his criticism is the peculiar delight he takes in reading the Bard. He is unabashed and unapologetic that he spends so much time with Shakespeare because it’s just plain fun. Literary critics could often do with a stronger pinch of the epicurean.
Thus when he begins his comments on Othello in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays with a long set-up on the drama’s appeal to what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination,” the reader suspects he is being set up for a joke. That is what I, at any rate, thought. (In fact, being something of a literary sybarite myself, that is what I had hoped.) The opening is just too perfect in that respect. See for yourself:
It has been said that tragedy purifies the affections by terror and pity. That is, it substitutes imaginary sympathy for mere selfishness. It gives us a high and permanent interest, beyond ourselves, in humanity as such. It raises the great, the remote, and the possible to an equality with the real, the little and the near. It makes man a partaker with his kind. It subdues and softens the stubbornness of his will. It teaches him that there are and have been others like himself, by showing him as in a glass what they have felt, thought, and done. It opens the chambers of the human heart. It leaves nothing indifferent to us that can affect our common nature. It excites our sensibility by exhibiting the passions wound up to the utmost pitch by the power of imagination or the temptation of circumstances; and corrects their fatal excesses in ourselves by pointing to the greater extent of sufferings and of crimes to which they have led others. Tragedy creates a balance of the affections. It makes us thoughtful spectators in the lists of life. It is the refiner of the species; a discipline of humanity. The habitual study of poetry and works of imagination is one chief part of a well-grounded education. A taste for liberal art is necessary to complete the character of a gentleman, Science alone is hard and mechanical. It exercises the understanding upon things out of ourselves, while it leaves the affections unemployed, or engrossed with our own immediate, narrow interests.
This beginning, almost Hemingwayesque in its refusal of syntactical subordination, commences with the rhetoric of the priamel (“It has been said”). It is the classic device by which to say, “Some people say that [x] is the greatest, but I say it’s [y].” A fairly recent example:
Some say love, it is a river
That drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor
That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love, it is a hunger
An endless aching need
I say love, it is a flower
And you its only seed
(You weren’t bargaining for Bette Midler, were you?) Yet the device is very old—much older than Bette Midler. Sappho uses it. Horace begins his Odes with it. Jesus uses it too: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” W.H. Auden exploits it to great effect in “Law Like Love.” And so on. It would not be surprising, then, for the gourmandizing Hazlitt—for he is rhetorically adept—to employ just this trick to pull the rug out from underneath the moralizers.
But Hazlitt is in earnest. He follows the above observations by saying immediately, “Othello furnishes an illustration of these remarks.” Why? Because in this play, Shakespeare (“who was as good a philosopher as he was a poet”) does indeed write with a moral purpose. “The moral [the play] conveys has a closer application to the concerns of human life than that of any other of Shakespeare’s plays,” Hazlitt says, for it is a matter of “every day’s occurrence.”
And what is that moral? It would be hard to pinpoint just one, for there are several. If one insists on using the singular, one must at least admit that the moral has as many aspects as the jealous temperament has causes for provocation. And jealousy is at the heart of the play—a play that is an excruciating display of the ease with which, in the character of Othello, “the fondest love and most unbounded confidence” are transformed into “the tortures of jealousy and the madness of hatred.” It is at the same time a showcase, in the person of Iago, that human beings often engage in and procure evil almost for the sheer hell of it (“For I mine own gained knowledge should profane/If I would time expend with such snipe/But for my sport and profit”); that, in the person of Desdemona, the virtuous, noble, and kind are just as often trampled underfoot; and that, in several characters at once, passion is frequently the driver of reason (as Hume argued) rather than vice versa.
Shakespeare shows this last moral with special acuteness in the third act. There, Iago, driven by his passionate hatred of the Moor, employs shabbily attractive plausibilities to rouse a green possessiveness in Othello that will overwhelm his deliberative faculties and drive him to rationalize the murder of his wife. For Hazlitt, this act was Shakespeare’s superlative achievement:
The third act of Othello is [Shakespeare’s] masterpiece, not of knowledge or passion separately, but of the two combined, of the knowledge of character with the expression of passion, of consummate art in the keeping up of appearances with the profound workings of nature, and the convulsive movements of uncontrollable agony, of the power of inflicting torture and of suffering it.
When Shakespeare “paint[s] the expiring conflict between love and hatred” and “tenderness and resentment; when he “put[s] in motion the various impulses that agitate this our mortal being”; when he shows to what depths man will descend, and from what noble heights, he is the impresario of our fallen human nature—depressingly, perhaps, but accurately for all that.
The figure through which he accomplishes this unveiling of human depravity is Iago, whom Hazlitt calls “one of the supererogations of Shakespeare’s genius.” A stage manager of real-life evil, Iago is a practical philosopher’s parody. He is a perversion who can only occur when the power of intellect is uncoupled from the durable stability of ethical order and instead allied with the plasticity of guile, all in an effort to stave off the boredom of daily life. As Hazlitt puts it, in lines that are not unworthy of the Bard himself:
[Iago] is a philosopher, who fancies that a lie that kills has more point in it than an alliteration or an antithesis; who thinks a fatal experiment on the peace of a family a better thing than watching the palpitations in the heart of a flea in a microscope; who plots the ruin of his friends as an exercise for his ingenuity, and stabs men in the dark to prevent ennui.
As Iago says in 1.3, “Virtue? A fig! ’Tis in ourselves that we are thus, or thus. Our bodies are gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.”
Those two phrases sum up Iago fairly well. Lest he become “sterile with idleness,” he befouls himself with excremental industry, and soils all around him as he does so. Paradoxically it is due to the fact that his evil is greater when he is bored that its activity is so ghastly. Or, in Hazlitt’s superior phrasing, “If Iago is detestable enough when he has business on his hands and all his engines at work, he is still worse when he has nothing to do, and we only see into the hollowness of his heart.” It is therefore Iago who makes the play, as the critic A.C. Bradley notes in Shakespearean Tragedy, “the most painfully exciting and the most terrible” of Shakespeare’s works.
It is terrible as stagecraft, to be sure. But it is also terrible because it is a reminder to us of the base potentialities of our nature—that, as Solzhenitsyn said in an oft-quoted passage from The Gulag Archipelago, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” In Othello, Shakespeare, the philosopher of everyday life, holds up a mirror to us and shows us what human beings are capable of—and therefore what we are capable of. Beneath our most pleasantly cultivated exterior, there often lurks a serpent, what the pop group INXS in 1988 called “the devil inside,” or, in Hamlet’s perhaps most memorable locution, “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” It shows us, too, in the character of Othello, how silly and defenseless we often are in opening ourselves to evil’s work and in failing to repel it. The shock of Iago, then, as well as the naivete of Othello by which it is absorbed, provoke self-reflection of the most humiliating and uncomfortable, and therefore salutary, kind. Indeed, this is (to revert to Hamlet again) the “purpose of playing.” As he tells the acting company that comes to Elsinore:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from [that is, “against”–ed.] the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
In other words, the moral seriousness of Othello is one of the main ways in which it recommends itself to us for reading and repeated rereading as a great and abiding work of perennial moment. If even a gastronomist of letters like Hazlitt can recognize this, we should, too.
Republished with gracious permission from The American Conservative (November 2018).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of actor Gavin Hoffman as Iago, in a production of Othello by Portland Center Stage. Photo taken by Patrick Weishampel.