Othello Critical Analysis

Honigmann: The portrayal of Iago (Othello) – he is not a straightforward character so there are different responses to him- the audience/reader reaction changes and may come close to sympathy at times- dramatic perspective makes the audience/reader his accomplice as he confides in us- however the reader is more able to control their view of Iago- he is the play’s chief humorist which can blind readers to his sadism and his humour is only intended to give pain or allow him to enjoy a sense of superiority- he feels a godlike sense of power- his victims lack humour so he seems cleverer and more amusing, dramatic perspective makes us see with his eyes and share in his jokes- however his cleverness shouldn’t be overstated as he is bad in any long-term strategy, he neither felt nor understood the ‘spiritual impulses that bind ordinary human beings together’
Leavis: The character of Othello (Diabolical Intellect and the Noble Hero) – at the end of the play Othello remains the same and there is no tragic self-discovery- self-dramatising in his final speech, he sees himself as tragically pathetic, this is also the reverse of a reason for us to sentimentalise too- tragedy is contained and concentrated in the final speech / action and this could not have been the same if he had ‘learnt through suffering’
Loomba: Othello, race and society (Othello and the Radical Question) – the play is a ‘fantasy of love and social tolerance’ and a ‘nightmare of racial hatred and male violence’- white woman goes against social norms to marry a black man- Iago can be successful because Othello is predisposed to belief in ideas about the inherent duplicity of women and the fragility of his ‘unnatural’ relationship, ideologies only work because they are not external to us- Othello combines and reshapes images of blacks and Moors (the good and the bad)- Venice was seen as a place of female ‘openness’ and political and mercantile openness- it became an ideal to some and was used to critique England- it was also a dangerous model for the English, openness viewed as dangerous by a society suspicious of outsiders- tensions exist between the state and family (Duke and Brabantio) but the two were often equated in contemporary political rhetoric
Kastan: Shakespearean tragedy (“A rarity most beloved”: Shakespeare and the Idea of Tragedy) – Shakespeare’s understanding of tragedy came from medieval articulations e.g. Chaucer, seen as the fall from prosperity to wretchedness- this is simplistic as it only defines the inescapable trajectory of the tragic action but not its cause- its reserve about who/what is responsible speaks of tragedy’s fearful incomprehensibility- this definition finds its most powerful analogue in the silences of Shakespeare’s tragedies- uncertainty is the point as it is the emotional truth of the struggle rather than the metaphysical truth of the worldview that is central and the refusal of answers prevents confident attribution of meaning or value to human suffering- Shakespeare did not write tragedy with a fully developed theoretical conception of the genre (uncompensated suffering) however successive plays reveal an ever more profound formal acknowledgement of their desolating controlling logic
Nuttall: The pleasure of tragedy (Aristotle and After) – cruel and sadistic pleasure is different from what Aristotle called the ‘proper pleasure’ of tragedy- in tragedies suffering and death are seen as matter for grief and fear which then become matter for enjoyment- ‘the pleasure of tragedy’ is an uncomfortable phrase- Nietzschean oxymoron offers ‘tragic joy’ as an alternative- Dr Johnson believed poetry and drama must please- moralism has meant that now ‘uncomfortable’ is read as praise as we reject the pleasurable- Stoics and Epicureans would dispute this modern idea about tragedy- the shift in taste towards discomfort doesn’t solve the problem of tragic pleasure but creates the problem of ‘enjoyed discomfort’- Jeremy Bentham suggested that pleasure is pleasure and is always the same- however pleasure doesn’t need to be at the foreground of consciousness, ‘the pleasant’ is not a separately introspected element, instead audiences have an unbroken preoccupation with the subject matter itself (the play)
Bradley: The Shakespearean tragic hero (The Substance of Shakespearean Tragedy) – tragedies contain many characters but focus mainly on a hero or in some cases a hero and a heroine, however the effects extend far beyond him- the story leads up to and includes the death of the hero but depicts the troubled part of the hero’s life which precedes this- essentially a tale of exceptional suffering and calamity that results in death – suffering and calamity afflicts a conspicuous person and are unexpected and contrasted with previous happiness or glory- suffering and calamity the chief source of tragic emotions, especially pity, this can be directed either towards the hero or minor characters- in medieval minds tragedy meant a narrative rather than a play so the above would suffice and it would appeal strongly to common human sympathy and pity- it also frightened and awed medieval minds, men were seen as the ‘plaything of an inscrutable power’ which is favourable one moment and then strikes men down in their pride in another- however Shakespeare’s idea is larger and goes beyond this- Shakespearean tragedies are always concerned with persons of ‘high degree’ i.e. Othello is General of the Republic and the consciousness of his high position never leaves him- the fate of the tragic hero affects the welfare of a whole nation or empire and their fall produces a sense of contrast, the powerlessness of man and the omnipotence and caprice of Fortune/Fate, no tale of private life can compare
Mack: Tragedy and madness (What Happens in Shakespearean Tragedy) – Elizabethans believed madness lay in the excess of any passion- Kyd showed madness to be dramatically useful- madness in Shakespearean tragedies is a punishment or doom- it also has a further dimension as insight, those who are mad are privileged to say things Shakespeare himself couldn’t have