The Moor of Venice/Introduction

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The work from which the plot and story of Shakspere's 'Othello' are taken, belongs to that class of Italian novels which arose out of the popularity of Boccaccio's Decamerone, and was fostered by the taste prevalent in Italy during the fifteenth and sixtcenth centuries. Although occasionally we meet with a tale of merit or interest, and a certain charm in style and language, these but partially atone for a coarse licentiousness, a reflection of the times, which, notwithstanding that it received the seal and license of the Inquisitor, who proclaims them consonos sanctæ Ecclesiœ et ab Apostolica Fide non abhorrere, offend the moral sense of a purer age.

This story of the Moor of Venice may be taken as a favourable specimen of the better class: it is contained in a collection of a hundred tales, entitled, 'Gli Hecatommithi,' by Giovan Battista Giraldi Cinthio,—a work which has been rescued from oblivion simply by the accident of its having furnished the muse of Shakspere with the plot and incidents of his 'Othello.' The author was a nobleman of Ferrara, and a professor of philosophy in that city: it is somewhat amusing to read the terms in which he speaks of the composition of his work, in connection with his "grave studies of philosophy,"—"by the light of which, the fount and origin of laudable habits, and of all honest discipline, and likewise of every virtue, I have sought to perfect my work, which is wholly directed, with much variety of examples, to censure vicious actions and to praise honest ones,—to make men fly from vice and embrace virtue." What could the reader expect after this proem, (which is found totidem verbis in all the books of this school,) but a work of untarnished purity and morality?—all I can say is, he would be disappointed.

Whether Shakspere met with this story in the original Italian, in the French translation by Gabriel Chappuys (published at Paris in 1584), or, which is perhaps most probable, in one of the numerous class of story-books, furnished from the romance writers, which were widely circulated and read in the south of Europe, is an undecided question; but that Cinthio's tale forms the groundwork of 'Othello,' is a fact unquestioned by any critic.[1] This circumstance gives it a peculiar interest, which we shall proceed briefly to consider.

The comparison which some critics have drawn between the relative merits of the Play and the Novel, proceeds upon an erroneous principle; the same test of criticism is inapplicable to the two productions. "There was wanting in the narrative of Cinthio," observes M. Guizot, "the poetical genius which furnished the actors,—which created the individuals,—which imposed upon each a figure and a character,—which made us see their actions, and listen to their words,—which presented their thoughts and penetrated their sentiments,—that vivifying power which summons events to arise, to progress, to expand, to be completed,—that creative breath, which, breathing over the past, calls it again into being, and fills it with a present and imperishable life:—this was the power which Shakspere alone possessed, and by which, out of a forgotten novel he has made Othello[2]."

This passage is eloquently true as a criticism on Shakspere's Play, but does not apply to Cinthio's Tale; in fact, it only defines the province of the dramatic poet's art. Cinthio's story was no drama, but one of the plainest and most straightforward narratives, exhibiting human nature under its ordinary aspects, and tracing the simple chain of events with ordinary regularity: there is no art in its structure, no consideration in its arrangement, and it consequently lays claim to no merit beyond what it may possess in point of style, consistency, and general truth to nature: it was not a true tale, but it might have been. "My intention in this work," says the author, "was, above all, to narrate events the most like truth, which might, together with innocent amusement, bring also some profit to every class of persons." On each of the grounds just mentioned, the claim of this Tale to considerable merit may be admitted, apart from any invidious comparison with the infinitely grander fabric which Shakspere has erected out of its simple materials.

At the same time, a comparison of a different and more legitimate kind may be profitably drawn. The greatness of any work of art, in conception, form, and execution, serves to enhance the interest which attaches to the elements of thought out of which it arose. With what eagerness do we regard the first studies of any of the great Masters,—tracing the elementary thoughts, their treatment, and changes under the artist's hand,—studies of nature, snatched with a passing stroke of the pencil, to be eventually immortalized in some masterpiece of art.

An interest akin to this is offered by the Tale before us: in it we trace the suggestions out of which was produced one of the most perfect triumphs of dramatic art. The incidents, traits of character, and motives which Shakspere has adopted, enlarged, altered, ennobled,—the skeleton which he has informed with life, dignity, and beauty,—all give back a reflected charm to the original story, which in its first and naked form it wanted.

The simple elements of the Story were precisely calculated to seize upon Shakspere's attention,—the opposition and contrast of characters, the deep play of the passions, the suggestive motives, thoughts, and springs of action, the capabilities of the plot,—were all materials as if created for his genius to mould, work upon, and fashion. To a few points of similarity, and some of the changes the Poet has introduced, we may here advert.

Desdemona, both in the Play and Novel, is the same affectionate and gentle being,—the very soul of purity and honour,—innocent as unsuspecting, trusting and betrayed. Some of these points of character are but faintly sketched in the tale, but still visible. Her devotion to the Moor appears in several simple touches of the novelist: her delight at the honour paid him by the Senate; her impatience that he should obey their summons; her eagerness to accompany him, adding, that he could not love her did he imagine she could be happier to remain in safety than to share his dangers. Shakspere departs from the story in the motives for Desdemona's interference for Cassio with the Moor. Cassio importunes her, and she pleads as for a suitor; she promises to do so as "a vow of friendship" to Cassio; and although she says to Othello,

"Why this is not a boon;
'Tis as I should entreat you wear your gloves,
Or feed on nourishing dishes, or keep you warm,
Or sue to you to do a peculiar profit
To your own person;"

this comes with only the force of an additional argument urged for Cassio's sake. Again, in the Moor's presence she says to Ludovico,

"I would do much
To atone them, for the love I bear to Cassio.
Oth. Fire and brimstone!"

This was necessary to give full motive to the Moor's suspicions, to silence the questioning and scruples of his love and trust in Desdemona, and to establish in his mind her guilt beyond a doubt. But in the Novel, when the Moor betrays his suspicion, she says, with much simplicity, "Be not angered with me, my dear lord; I have no other cause to bid me speak, than sorrow that I see you lose so dear a friend; nor has he done so grave a fault, that you should bear him so much enmity." Desdemona's pleading for the Captain is prompted by the sole thought of her lord's own interest and sense of justice, which is the higher motive.

Othello is a character of Shakspere's creation. In the Story he is passionate in his affections, sudden to suspect, prompt to revenge. Nevertheless, after he is convinced of his wife's guilt, his love pleads for her: it cannot be true,—and he bursts out with the exclamation—"By heavens, I scarce can hold this hand from plucking out that tongue of thine, which dares to speak such slander of my wife!" And again,—"Make thou these eyes self-witnesses of what thou tell'st; or, on thy life, I'll make thee wish thou hadst been born without a tongue!" which suggests the exclamation Shakspere has put into the mouth of Othello, in the torture of his bewilderment and doubt,—

"Give me the ocular proof;
Or, by the worth of thine eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath."

But the refined gentleness, the true nobility of soul, the unsuspecting trustfulness, and all the higher qualities which make up the character of Othello, are wanting in the Story: his revenge is of an ordinary stamp, and satisfied with planned barbarity of execution; whereas, in the Tragedy, the punishment of his wife's supposed guilt is not revenge;

"For nought I did in hate, but all in honour."

It is not a selfish prompting, but a feeling of necessity, which his stern sense of justice lays on him, and against which his natural tenderness and love vainly wrestle:

"Yet she must die, or she'll betray more men."

He is driven by the demon of fate to the verge of the precipice, too hurriedly to look back or to resist; bewilderment deprives him of the power of reflection, and in the rapidity of the action in the Play he is rendered the helpless tool of Iago's villainy, which Shakspere's plot required. We see the force of this necessity, which rules Othello strikingly after the deed is perpetrated, in the startled horror, the ghastly despair of his soul, when the portentous and damning doubt—that if—is forced on his mind, by the opening proofs of Iago's villainy and falsehood:

"O, I were damned beneath all depth of hell,
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity."

And again:

"Had she been true,
If Heaven would make me such another world
Of one entire and perfect chrysolite,
I'd not have sold her for it."

The same inevitable law of consequence, we may observe, which dominates the thoughts and conduct of Othello, conducts equally, by the most consummate art, the whole machinery of the Play, shaping the plot, determining the actions, overruling the wills, and leading on to a necessitated conclusion.

The characters of the Ensign and Iago are very similar; but whilst the former is a deep-dyed villain by habit, the latter is an unmitigated fiend by nature. Iago is one of the greatest impersonations of the Evil Spirit that has ever been suggested to an artist's mind. In the Novel, the Ensign's revenge is prompted solely by the resistance of Desdemona's virtue to his licentious arts, and is directed against her alone. She is his victim. But in the Tragedy, the motives of Iago's hatred of Othello and Cassio are of a different nature, and his vengeance sweeping, universal, black, and terrible: he uses every one in turn as a tool to effect his purpose, and all are in turn his victims; his is a pure lust of villainy and revenge, for which, it is true, the motives appear at first inadequate,—perhaps unnatural, as some critics have remarked; but a little consideration surely removes this objection. Had there been sufficient cause, however atrocious, for Iago to have been actuated by personal revenge, his guilt would have been simply the excess of wicked and unbridled passion; but by affixing to his conduct less natural motives, its malignity is rendered in proportion fiendlike, passionless, and instinct with guilt in its most unmixed form of "motiveless malignity." At the same time, Iago's revenge is not so entirely "inadequate and vague" as it has been represented. In the opening scene of the Play we see one chief cause of his hatred both of the Moor and Cassio; but he afterwards avows other motives, of jealousy, expressed in the strongest and plainest language, "the thought whereof," he says—

"Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards,
And nothing can or shall content my soul,

Till I am even'd with him, wife for wife;
Or, failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgement cannot cure."

It does not however appear in the Tragedy, that Iago actually practised on the virtue of Desdemona, as he does in the Tale; for, as Mr. Knight observes, "It is a part of the admirable knowledge of human nature possessed by Shakspere, that Iago does not, even for a moment entertain the thought of tampering with the virtue of Desdemona, either through Cassio or Roderigo, or any other instrument." No, in all probability Shakspere departed in this instance from the Novel, purposely to bring this highest testimony to the virtue of Desdemona; her purity was not only superior to assault or artifice, but above the reach of trial: had she been tried, and remained firm, her virtue would have been heroic,—removed from the possibility of trial, it is divine. And here we observe the well-balanced contrast to the villainy of Iago: the characters are extremes, or they would not correspond.

Minor points of comparison will suggest themselves on a perusal of the Story. In the latter, the Ensign, at the entreaty of the Moor, attacks and wounds the Captain; but in the Play it is a natural conclusion of Iago's treatment of Roderigo to induce him to do the deed: this perfects the plot as regards Roderigo; he had been the dupe and tool of Iago as long as he could serve his purposes; but he was now become dangerous,—the villainy had spun its last thread, and the web must break: one service more remained,—to kill Cassio, and thus to relieve Iago of this dangerous deed, and at the same time to furnish him a pretext to slay Roderigo.

A word or two, in conclusion, on the much-vexed question among critics and actors respecting the colour and nationality of the Moor. "It is very probable," well observes Mr. Knight, "that the popular notion of a Moor was somewhat confused in Shakspere's time, and that the descendants of the proud Arabs, who had borne sovereign sway in Europe ('men of royal siege'), and, what is more, had filled an age of comparative darkness with the light of their poetry and their science, were confounded with the uncivilized African, the despised slave." This probable confusion prevalent in that age is quite sufficient to explain the fact of Shakspere's having placed a negro's head upon the shoulders of "one of the most noble and accomplished of the proud children of Ommiades and the Abassides." At the same time I observe, that this is no legitimate subject for dramatic criticism: in this point of view we have merely to deal with the poet's own conception of the character, and to take this as the standard by which to judge its delineation: the drama, as a work of art, is simply amenable to the rules of art. And this is an instructive instance of the fact, that artistic truth may consist with accidental errors which lie beyond the pale of art; the character of Othello may be in itself perfect,—faultless; and yet, when a nationality is affixed to it, it may violate the physical and moral laws of nature displayed in the distinction of races. This is a very minor point of mere speculation, not of criticism; still it is open to discussion. The novelist speaks of the blackness (negrezza) of the Moor, and that Shakspere had the outward figure of a black present to his thoughts appears more than probable, from numerous allusions in the Play;—such as "thick lips," "devil," "sooty-bosom," "more fair than black." "Haply for I am black," Othello says expressly; and again, "My name is now begrimed and black, as mine own face." Nothing can be more conclusive than these expressions, and the tradition of the Stage (there is reason to believe) has uniformly represented Othello as a black from Shakspere's day to the present. Nevertheless, this in no degree affects the character of the Moor, for the reasons just stated.

It is needless to remark on the differences in the concluding portion of the Tragedy and Novel; amongst others, Shakspere has omitted the Ensign's accusation of the Moor to the Senate: Iago's vengeance on Othello had reached its culminating point, and his task of villainy was perfected; to have afterwards repeated his revenge in a mitigated form would have marred the structure of the drama,—the epos perfected, the curtain falls.

  1. The Italian novel was published in 1565.
  2. Quoted by Mr Knight: Suppl. Notice to 'Othello.'