The Shakespearean Awareness
Dear Unknown Friends:
Every dramatist has to be aware of the three great emotions which, when used not in behalf of a more just world but in behalf of a superior self, can do such harm. These three great emotions which may be used in behalf of a falsely advanced self are: Fear, Anger, Contempt.
Shakespeare says much of fear, anger, contempt. Some of the highest points in the world's literature have Shakespeare's awareness of these three emotions. And Shakespeare has hardly neglected contempt. Sometimes this contempt is readily seen—as when Hamlet satirically and poetically describes his usurping stepfather, Claudius. Everyone, then, would agree that Hamlet had contempt for King Claudius; also for Polonius. However, that he had contempt for Ophelia is a more difficult matter. And, changing plays, it is even more difficult to see that Othello had contempt for Desdemona.
1. How Did Othello See Desdemona?
Perhaps the greatest expression of regret in the world's literature is Othello's statement just before he uses his sword on himself. I quote from this self-critical statement. Othello tells a waiting literary and actual world—beginning with some Venetian dignitaries:
Then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
Othello here tells us of something that often takes place. The noted general tells us that he didn't value someone or something accurately. Incorrect valuing of what the world has in it is mighty frequent.
The question here is when the incorrect valuing of Desdemona by Othello began. Was Desdemona wrongly seen only through Iago's sinister labors? Would Iago have been so successful in the demolition of Othello's esteem of Desdemona if there hadn't been an underlying possibility or spiritual layer of contempt already? Shortly before Othello's mighty expression of regret, Emilia, the rather forthright and earthy companion of Desdemona, says (V. 2):
O murderous coxcomb! what should such a fool
Do with so good a wife?
Emilia is the wife of Iago, unquestionably one of the great villains of drama. She is not entirely praiseworthy. The way she got that damned handkerchief was hardly ethical. Yet she knows conceit when she sees it. She implies in her rather unexpected phrase, "murderous coxcomb," that conceit, causing contempt, can be a prelude to murder.
2. Was There Contempt in Othello?
We know that Othello has great grief. He has been told—Iago is the means—that his sweet, unblemished picture of Desdemona is false. Grief is certainly right. Yet it is possible for one to be disillusioned without mocking a pleasing previous picture. We should be a little tender, adequately respectful of the old, misleading picture. Perhaps it is true somewhere else in the world. What, however, is in these lines of Othello (III.3)?:
I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind
To prey at fortune.
Whistling a girl off is a sign that the previous feeling was not entirely substantial or respectful. Whistling was not appropriate so soon.
Elsewhere, again (III.3), Othello is in a depreciating hurry. This time, he blows away his love of Desdemona:
Now do I see 'tis true. Look here, Iago;
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven:
Might not bitterness, disillusion, change of mind, have been expressed without the word "blow"—just as earlier it might have been expressed without the word "whistle"? Could not something like this have been said, if the earlier esteem had been all-dimensional?—
My life has changed, Iago, for my love
Had falsity as friend. The witchery
I saw as sweet is bitterness itself.
With you some feet away, the past is gone;
For what the present has is memory;
Oh that, alone!
Surely, these lines are sentimental; but sentiment is one of the dimensions of authentic love, no matter what happens to it. And I now show as well as I can how abrupt Othello was. When a person is abrupt, in a play or not in a play, he is too fond of his own trenchant opinion.
3. The Accelerating Othello
As I have already implied, to have an opinion of another person too hurriedly is to have some contempt for truth. As the whole western world, nearly, knows, Iago has encouraged Cassio to be drunk. Cassio engages in a brawl, there at night on a street of Cyprus in the 16th century. Montano, the earlier governor of Cyprus (Othello has superseded him), is hurt. Still, is not Othello in too much of a hurry when, on the same night as the brawl itself, he says this to Cassio:
Cassio, I love thee;
But never more be officer of mine.
Could not the noble Othello have waited till the next morning? —And then, when Desdemona asks Othello what has been going on, Othello, pretty much like a complacent husband not given exceedingly to valuing feminine observation, says:
All’s well now, sweeting; come away to bed.
Did The Shakespearean Awareness want us to feel, through these words, that Othello had no contempt at all for Desdemona?
That Othello can likewise be in a hurry as to what may be true with just himself, is to be noticed a little later. If we don't want to see our own feelings accurately, then, too, we have some contempt for truth in its fulness. I quote two lines from III.3:
Iago. I see this hath a little dash'd your spirits.
Othello. Not a jot, not a jot.
I must say that Othello, answering Iago, might have said: "Perhaps," or ''I'll see later," or even "Peradventure, honest Iago." The Shakespearean vocabulary was large enough to express any feeling of uncertainty
The question is, did Shakespeare intend us to see that Othello did not wish to see himself as uncertain? And the insistence on certainty that a person can show or have, is an indication of his contempt for the subtle majesty of exact truth, of comprehensive truth. Absolute truth has all the hues of the relative in it.
4. Othello and Man, Wavering
Othello rather unexpectedly says that heaven can have contempt for itself:
If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself!
I'll not believe 't.
Is Shakespeare here intimating that Othello, like everyone, sees mockery as a rather pervasive thing? In the scene (III.3) from which I have been quoting, is English literature's classic statement about jealousy. It is uttered by that midwife of evil, Iago:
Trifles light as air
Are to the jealous confirmations strong
As proofs of holy writ.
If a person can change a "trifle light as air" into a "confirmation," that person thinks he has the right to do with truth as he pleases. And, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, this right to do with truth as one pleases, is the most nefarious, hurtful thing the unconscious of man has—and this disagrees with the classic psychoanalytic viewpoint. Our deepest and worst hope is to have contempt for truth; and furthermore, to have the right to manage it somehow. Jealousy is an accelerated and opulent contempt. It makes us have contempt unjustly and quickly for a person we care for, or another person perhaps; and also for ourselves because we cared for someone, may care even now. Jealousy sends contempt out on a various mission.
The desire to have contempt is always in man; but since true care for someone was felt as a threat to our care for ourselves, we are ever so ready, devilishly prompt, to deny that our care for another was well based. If this were not so, the well known regret of Othello would have a more chastening effect on conceit.
And it needs to be pointed out that whenever distrust of another person is honestly seen as good will for the person we care for, this is the kind of jealousy which God himself claims in the Old Testament. God says (Exodus 20:5): "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God." It can be felt in this noted passage that God was jealous in behalf of the children of Israel . Anyway, we have here a criterion distinguishing the jealousy of love from the jealousy of conceited possession.
Had Othello asked himself whether the feeling encouraged by Iago was in behalf of Desdemona, he would have questioned Desdemona and Cassio in a way that was just and comely. We certainly have a right to defend someone dear to us from the inconsiderate incursions of another.
Good will was not the chief thing in Othello's mind. I must say that Othello, like many people, did not think that good will was relevant. Iago or no, good will was relevant. Good will, Aesthetic Realism says, is the most relevant and crucial thing every moment in everyone's life.
Like Othello, the world is suffering from that most frequent paucity, the paucity of good will. I cannot mention as many things from the Shakespearean play as I might, showing that while Othello was noble, majestic, courageous, good will was not in him as much as it might be.
This question exists: Cannot, in this world, good will be cared for more, through being more exactly seen? I feel that when the rich factuality of good will is seen, its comprehensive and flexible yet constant logic—good will, instead of being a social surmise, will be like the heart itself, a working, clear, ever so old and ever so new force within.
5. A Conclusion
There has been much criticism of the play Othello. It is well to read Coleridge, Schlegel, Hazlitt, Bradley, Traversi, Barker, and many others on the play. Yet I believe this passage, say, from the Shakespearean work has not been looked at and has not had, therefore, enough questioning as to its meaning. Othello speaks (IV.1);
Ay, let her rot, and perish, and be damned to-night:
for she shall not live; no, my heart is turned to stone:
I strike it, and it hurts my hand.
Iago with his insinuating, resourceful, corrupting power, has Othello doubtful about the person he felt he loved. Yet does his heart have to change to stone in such a way that his hand hurts?
The incomplete ethics of Othello is to be seen in his not wanting to listen to Desdemona as she ever so prettily and sadly denies that of which Othello accuses her. These lines need to be looked at more closely and justly (V.2):
Othello. That handkerchief which I so loved and gave thee
Thou gavest to Cassio.
Desdemona. No, by my life and soul!
Send for the man, and ask him.
Othello. Sweet soul, take heed,
Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy death-bed.
Desdemona. Ay, but not yet to die.
When you love a person, you are ready for quite a while to hear that person clearly denying evil. If you are not pleased hearing a person close to you deny evil, there must have been some contempt before the unwillingness to listen.
Iago represents in man the desire to see reality itself as contemptible; and man as a fraud, deserving contempt. Iago is somewhat in everyone. So, dear unknown friends, while Iago made contempt a profession, it seems that Othello made contempt a guest he was not sufficiently against.