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Othello: George Bennett (1800 - 1879) as Othello, and Miss Jane Bennett, as Desdemona. Jane Bennett made her debut at Sadler's Wells, London, May 1, 1850. Islington Paine (Photographer); Thomas Sherratt (Engraver) Furness Image Collection.
Its racial challenges seem to have made Othello very controversial, yet popular (Gallery 2.3.22-27). Issues of casting the lead role only with black actors in the lead have been debated recently, particularly since Olivier's film (Gallery 5.2.35-40). Iago is increasingly seen as not only the longest but the dominant role: his black humor is as important a production element as that of the comparable role of Richard III. Desdemona's initial boldness has not endeared her to feminists, because of her ultimate acquiescence to her fate. HMR
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Ira Aldridge as Othello, circa 1848. Ira Aldridge was the first black American theatre star. In England Aldridge opened as Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1833, and never returned to the U.S.A. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Othello: Iago's Audience [draft]
Modern theatrical technology has brought live theatre to a point at which it can often attempt to duplicate the lighting, acoustics, and location-resources of the cinema. Thus we may lose sight of the crucial distinction between stage and screen: a live performance is the unique result of the interaction of a particular audience and a single group of performers, in which the audience is an active determinant of the outcome through its sustained communication with the actors. This interaction is the primary consideration for experienced playwrights, as Lope de Vega stresses in his verse treatise on the art of writing plays for public theatres in the Renaissance. His audiences simply will not tolerate scripts that merely conform to neoclassical rules at the expense of lively and suspenseful action, variety of pace and tone, and a range of characters from the sublimely tragic to the farcical. The uncertainty of each outcome of a live performance, particularly one as diversified as Lope specifies, is what gives live theatre its excitement, perhaps verging on the uncertainty, even apprehension with which we watch the acrobatics of trapeze artists. Indeed, sometimes such skills are required of actors, for I recall a performance of Othello that I saw in Moscow in 2000 in which Iago’s manipulative dexterity was matched by his skill in playfully balancing on a high parapet. This feat certainly added to the audience’s sense of suspense. The divergences between successive performances of the same production of a play confirm the decisive role of the audience in successful outcomes, often to the discomfiture of reviewers and critics, not to mention actors and directors. Othello has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular and often performed plays (as its frequent seventeenth-century reprintings as a single-play quarto indirectly confirm). This success suggests an exceptional impact in the play’s effect on audiences, making it a plausible example of the intersection of the roles of actors and audiences.
From early performances of drama, this defining status of the audience was implicitly recognized by the terms used in Aristotle’s Poetics to identify the emotional impact of ancient Greek tragedy. His term “catharsis” was applied to the consequences of audience identification with a positive hero-figure on the stage, whose mistakes and resulting misfortunes supposedly excited sympathy and anxiety, traditionally translated as “pity” and “fear.” Aristotle’s observations, largely based on the Oedipus of Sophocles, have found sympathetic modern echoes quite different from the neoclassical “rules” which were distilled from his empiricism. Freud’s description of “identification”, as abstracted by Norman Holland in Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare, is “based upon the possibility or desire of putting oneself in the same situation as another” because “one ego has perceived a significant analogy with another” which “may arise with any new perception of a common quality shared with some other person.” (Holland, 278) One example of this kind of audience affinity is identified in the dramatic form of comedy by Bertrand Evans in Shakespeare’s Comedies, where he has shown in detail how Shakespearean audiences empathize with the best-informed character on stage and relish the feeling of mastery resulting from awareness of the dramatic irony involving the actions of less well-informed characters. In the mixed dramatic forms which Shakespeare shares with Lope de Vega, various feelings about characters may co-exist in the audience, as with our initial involvement with Richard of Gloucester’s manipulation of his unwitting yet somewhat dishonorable victims in Richard III, which ultimately leads to our rueful detachment from the later role of Richard as king, when we see its high cost to innocents such as the princes in the Tower. This distinctive progression gives that play its unique and powerful ”affect”, which has secured its continued stage success, and I believe it will prove helpful in clarifying that of Othello.
I would argue that every successful performance of a play has such a distinctive emotional interaction between actors and audience, though not necessarily exactly in the ratios specified by Aristotle, Freud, and Evans. The determination of just what this interaction might be in some broadly representative performance of a specific play defines the distinctive operation of drama criticism, and indeed the professional motivation for the performers and playwrights themselves. A dramatic script is focused primarily not on its purely literary character as a printed document but on its recurrent emotional “affect” in performance, to which Lope de Vega asserts he is obliged to give priority in writing it over all other considerations. This interaction is far more instinctive than the analytic silent reading of non-dramatic literature that concerns “reader response” critics such as Stanley Fish, who are far closer to use of the intensive scrutiny of New Criticism dealing with a static, printed text, such as a novel or narrative poem. The reader is normally an isolated individual dealing at leisure with a passive object, while a theatre audience is a dynamic group focused on interacting immediately with another live team sensitive to their reactions. The publication of Shakespearean quartos like those of Othello proves that Elizabethans did consider a private literary reading of a script to be rewarding (though probably only after the more dynamic experience of seeing the play performed), thus transcending the literary censure implicit in the inaccessibility of most modern television and film scripts. Nevertheless, in so far as Elizabethan drama has its own unique aesthetic, that aesthetic can only plausibly apply to recurrent audience experience of each script in live performance. Even modern reading of any published script is normally still a consequence of its successful performance, despite exceptions such as Shelley’s The Cenci. In conformation of this divergence of mode, we perceive instantly the gains and losses of attending the staging of a dramatized novel, which is no less distinct from a film or a television version. The shared theatrical experience evokes an immediacy of empathy for which there is scarcely any equivalence outside the live theatre.
Thus, for me, the formative experience defining the uniqueness of Othello’s impact came from the 1949 production at Stratford-upon-Avon in which Godfrey Tearle (1884-1953) played Othello to Antony Quayle’s Iago. Like his actor father, “a man of natural elegance and dignity” (Grebanier, 336), Tearle was a grandiloquent and monumental actor in the old, mellifluous tradition surviving in John Gielgud’s Shakespearean vein, against which Quayle mustered a believably jaded military authenticity founded on his own front-line service in World War II. The stylistic tension between the archaic Edwardian romanticism of Tearle’s Othello and the wry expertise of Quayle’s war-weary Iago had an immediacy and pathos which still resonates with my own experience of military service at the time of the Korean War, set against simultaneous exposure to the last vestiges of the pre-lapsarian world shattered by World War I, as recalled by great aunts and octogenarian imperial officers. As it progressed, the production rang the changes in mourning for Othello’s heroic image, fading like that of mythic England, as modern political expediency wore it down, with Winston Churchill in forced retirement. The audience responded instinctively to this cumulative loss of legendary status by the hero from moment to moment in a way I have rarely experienced. As reviewers noted: “Othello may be at a height of self-torment; the actor is unstrained; and works on our sympathy as he will.” (London Times, 20 June, 1949). This archetype of heroic decline provided a performance with an audience impact “not equaled by any other actor of our time” as reaffirmed by Marvin Rosenberg’s The Masks of “Othello.” (Rosenberg, 149) The experience was particularly powerful because the contrasting temperaments evoked by the script correlated well with the real-life identities of the performers and was validated by the audience’s own experience. That a good script achieves this synchronicity was confirmed for me in 1989 when a very similar distinctive tension occurred in a New York performance of The Merchant of Venice, in which Dustin Hoffman played Shylock in an intuitive Method style for Peter Hall’s production, against the grain of more formal British acting by the rest of the cast, before a largely Jewish audience recruited for that performance by Sam Wanamaker in support of his rebuilding of the original Globe Theatre in Southwark. There was great tension and involvement in the action. It is not accidental that Shakespeare so often chooses challenging themes persisting in human consciousness, like race, religion, and gender.
In his Poetics, Aristotle hypothesized in rather more general terms than these that dramatic structure requires analysis of a script’s progressive interaction with an audience’s experience. While such broad terms as exposition, complication, climax, reversal, and resolution still have relevance to the evolution of any audience’s experience in the theatre, they are not precise enough to define the exact emotional affects of the audience from moment to moment in the staging of Othello. Take the issue of exposition. This opening phase of any drama establishes a situation, context, characterization and ideology, but such terms do not in themselves differ absolutely from the requirements of most genres from lyric to novel. What is distinctive is how the visible and auditory sensations impact on the reflexes of the audience as designed by the playwright. In Fiction and the Shape of Belief, Sheldon Sacks has plausibly argued that the opening of any literary text involves the negotiation of an aesthetic contract with its audience about the conventions and texture of the communication: for example, whether it is to be laboriously documentary, allegorically stylized, flippant, or intense, or both, and so on. This negotiation is accomplished by “signals which influence our attitudes toward character, acts, and thoughts represented.” (230) Sacks goes so far as to assert that writers’ “ethical beliefs, opinions, and prejudices are expressed as the formal signals which control our response to the characters, acts and thoughts represented.” (231) This alertness to the likely emotional responses of a live audience is what Lope de Vega considers the unique concern of the playwright, in his treatise on the popular drama of his time.
For we can more properly begin to appreciate the opening procedures of Othello by comparing them with those of similar plays, not novels, and most accurately by contrasting them to analogous plays of Shakespeare. Sometimes he goes so far as to establish preliminary attitudes in a prologue laying out expectations for the subsequent performance like the sonnet opening Romeo and Juliet, which violates Lope de Vega’s requirement of maintaining suspense by glumly predicting the conclusion of which “Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” This type of prediction matches the contrary anticipations for the mocking of fated love, established by Quince’s misphrased Prologue before we are exposed to the merry tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Though primitive, these sign-postings establish the audience’s role and point of view: “the kinds of critical discriminations we can make are rigidly controlled by our initial preconceptions.” (Sacks, 3) In the prologue to Henry VIII we are overtly instructed that we are to concentrate empathically on such feminine misfortunes as the repudiation of Katherine of Aragon. In complete contrast, the macho opening of Richard III establishes the audience’s initial relationship to the action as that of an involuntary confidant of the omniscient and masterful Richard of Gloucester, from which “insider” role we are progressively detached, and ultimately alienated by the brutal killing of the children in the Tower. By contrast, the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew establishes the artifice both of the frame story about the deception of the drunken Sly and of the plots of the play within this frame concerning Katherina and Bianca. We certainly do not see the performance from the point of view of Sly, and we see that Katherina will be played by a boy, so that if the audience shares any character’s perspective it is that of the controlling intelligence of the Lord and his company, later transferred to a considerable degree to the dramatist’s manipulative surrogate in the play-within-the-play, the puppet-master Petruchio.
In this Shakespearean context of audience manipulation, the opening scene of Othello proves far more sophisticated than any of these alternatives, as it blends many of their options. It establishes the artifice of the subsequent plot through Iago’s avowals which (like those of Richard of Gloucester) invite us, along with Roderigo, to share an involuntary association with his manipulative intelligence as the manager of the pending action. Like the Lord in the Induction of The Taming of the Shrew, in Othello’s opening scene Iago also emerges as the definer of the states of mind of the other characters, both Roderigo and Brabantio, not unlike the result of the controlling intelligence of the playwright himself. As the play progresses the synchronization of audience’s awareness with the cynical manipulator is largely attributable to the stage effect of his soliloquies, in which he explains his motives to them at length. (2.1.286-312). At this point, like Richard of Gloucester, he also accurately identifies the limitations of character and injudicious behavior of the rest of the cast. The other characters never recognize the artifice of Iago’s performance and this leaves them with less awareness of their own contrived identity and situation. Later Shakespeare even endows Iago with a unique status when he verges on direct acknowledgement of the audience’s existence in the theatre, through the repeated queries he poses about his malicious advice to the cashiered Cassio:
How am I then a villain,
To council Cassio to this parallel course,
Directly to his good? (2.3.48-50)
As the scene ends he repeats the question:
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? (2.3.336-9)
As Antony Sher says “Iago uses truth as a weapon.” (Dobson, 63) Lope identifies the fascination of this virtuosity when he writes; “To trick with the truth is a device which has seemed good, . . . Equivocal speech and the uncertainty arising from the ambiguous has always held a great place with the crowd, for it thinks that it alone understands what the other man is saying.” (Gilbert, 547) It is probable that this kind of seductive appeal to audiences’ egotism was initiated by the Devils and Vice figures of medieval drama, to which such confessional characters in Shakespeare as Richard of Gloucester, Falstaff, and Iago continually compare themselves (as Bernard Spivack has shown in Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil). Like the witches in Macbeth, diabolic forces traditionally can accurately recognize the nature of evil in themselves and in others, thereby achieving more conscious control of their own actions and skill in penetrating the minds and swaying the behavior of others. This skill in self-analysis persists in Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, recurring later in The Brothers Karamazov (Book IX, Chapter IX) where Dostoevsky allows the Devil to defend himself candidly as the catalyst of self-knowledge, “the indispensable minus.”
By Bertrand Evans’ criteria, if the Devil is traditionally self-aware, we risk seeing everything from his perspective and appreciating his seeming mastery over the doomed awareness of his naïve victims. Such is probably the basis for many Romantics identifying with Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. As Lope de Vega points out, the resulting pattern of discrepant awareness (as Evans calls it) or dramatic irony (in more traditional terminology) invites an audience to feel a complacent sense of superiority to the ignorance of victims of a self-aware villain such as Iago, or even those manipulated by a well-meaning sage such as Prospero. Entrapment by this sense of superior alertness is a crucial source of audience involvement in the action of a play like Othello and may explain its popularity, for Evans observes that the play is among those with the highest “proportion of scenes during which we hold a significant advantage over participants, and the number of participants over whom we hold advantage.” (Evans, Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, 115) As a result Iago's "position is a sort of mediator between audience and action and his oft-commented upon role as producer of the play within the play is crucial." (Anita Loomba, cited in Kolin, 6) This audience perspective is what Shakespeare maintains throughout Othello, so that we continually refract our views of Roderigo, Brabantio, Cassio, Othello, and even Desdemona, through Iago’s eyes, as Kent Cartwright confirms in Shakespeare’s Tragedy and Its Double: “ Through fourteen of the fifteen scenes of Othello, the audience shares its discrepant awareness with Iago.” (142) This point of view is established immediately, as Evans notes of the play’s opening: “It tells us unmistakably that Iago is not what he seems to others in his world. During the course of subsequent action, and always as a result of specific practices contrived by Iago, numerous incidental discrepancies arise between the participants’ awareness and ours” (Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, 116). The victims are innocent in several senses: naively idealistic, unaware of evil, inexperienced emotionally. This displacement of audience perspective from the victims’ point of view may somewhat justify Aristotle’s idea of pity as a classic emotional response to tragedy: we are sorry to see well-meaning characters destroyed by their own credulity. But instinctively we cannot identify with either their ignorance or their moral obtuseness. This assertion is amply confirmed in practice by Antony Sher’s observations of his audiences while performing Iago in Gregory Doran’s Othello at the RSC in 2004. He comments on “Iago’s use of the audience”:
They are complicit with him – he forces them to be, by confiding in them. He is the torturer who takes you by the hand and invites you to sit in the corner while he works. And, surprisingly, the audience becomes strangely attracted to the process. When I spoke the soliloquies, I was intrigued by a distinctive expression I saw on the faces in the front few rows: a peculiar smile, a peculiar kind of excitement. In listening to me, in sharing my dangerous secrets, they were doing something very immoral, very naughty, and they liked it. (Dobson, 64)
There is not much pity in this reaction, but it matches the specifications of Lope de Vega about an audience’s fascination with incorrect behavior .
In Othello, Aristotle’s other asserted audience “affect” of fear might perhaps be derived from anxiety that one could be as deceived as the hero, as Sher says: “we could all be Othellos. We could all be deceived by the right lies. And after all, Othello is not the fall guy of some third-rate con-man. Iago is a master of his craft.” (Dobson, 63) Nevertheless, this self-projection has never been a normal response to Othello by critics or audiences, who tend to censure the victims’ credulity in the play rather than empathize with it. Shakespeare systematically reinforces this detachment from the victims’ perspective by the repeated passages assigned to Iago which ridicule their gullibility and confirm the audience’s sharing of his feelings of superiority. One outcome of this audience approach to the script is to enhance the role of Iago greatly. It is already the longest role in the play: 1,094 lines to Othello’s 879, according to Stanley Well’s Dictionary of Shakespeare, (228-9) and the third longest in all of Shakespeare (after Hamlet and Richard III). Sher finally confesses “I think Iago is one of the most mesmeric and original characters in all of drama.” (Dobson, 69) In view of such reactions perhaps a more accurate title for the play might be “Iago,” acknowledging that, because of our superior knowledge of the plot, we can never identify fully with Othello’s consistent misreading of characters and circumstances. Such detachment permits us to elucidate A.C. Bradley's fascination with Iago, which Tucker Brook sought to rationalize by marginalizing Othello and Desdemona and thus allowing our identification with Iago's sophisticated egotism:
Like the somewhat rigid virtue of Brutus, Isabella, or Timon, the “goodness” of Desdemona is also the object of dispassionate psychological investigation: these Shakespearean characters are all as ruthlessly tested to destruction by the dramatist as Webster’s Bosola is made to destroy the Duchess of Malfi, in an almost clinical investigation of her resilience. Iago is the dominant toreador, Othello the simpler, albeit heroic creature in a sacrificial rite celebrating fallen humanity’s mastery of natural virtue. Antony Sher observes that while “some black commentators say that the play is racist because Othello, once roused, reverts to being a violent savage. But this is to deny one of Shakespeare’s most searing observations about human behaviour – when we’re under extreme pressure, the animal in us takes over. Call it savage, call it primal. Call it what you will, but it manifests itself in Lear, Titus, Shylock, Leontes, . . the list is long, and they’re not black” (Dobson, 61) The stupefied paralysis of the toreador’s baffled victim matches the momentary catatonic fit of Othello (4.3.35-59). This strictly pathological episode is distanced by Iago’s cold diagnosis of Othello’s sickness. It is like Caesar’s comparable deafness and epilepsy, which we perceive similarly as a fatal sign through Casca’s critical eyes, as physical symptoms of the mental decline and loss of initiative which invite his assassination (Julius Caesar, 2.2.32-6). We are not required to share the mental anguish of the sacrificed at any point because it is always seen as misplaced. In Shakespearean Tragedy and Its Double, Kent Cartwright Kent asserts of Othello that “audiences will feel this thrill of passion at a distance. We seldom surrender wholly to a character’s point of view”; indeed, he calls this attitude ”clinical” and “observational.” (141)
This Brechtian response is reinforced not only by conservative critics such as Thomas Rymer and T. S. Eliot, but also by many radical feminists and African Americans. Such distancing even occurs in many critics' views of other characters in the play, not just Roderigo, but even the women: far from identifying Desdemona as a victim of machismo, both reactionary and progressive thinkers despise her, from Thomas Rymer’s sarcasm about her poor housekeeping skills in losing her handkerchief in his Short View of Tragedy (1693), through James Baldwin’s contempt for her dependency (in the Shakespeare anniversary edition of Le Figaro Littéraire in 1964), down to modern feminist attacks on her self-sacrifice: “Desdemona’s moral development is arrested at the level of altruistic self-denial.” (Diane Dreher in Domination and Defiance, 90, 180)
This detached state of mind of the audience during the most disturbed scenes of Othello resembles that which I believe is intended during the storm scenes of King Lear. We may be clinically fascinated by Lear’s extravagant emotion but cannot share it, since its initiation occurs with Lear’s monstrous, not to say pathological curse against Goneril, which I have seen most modern audiences shudder at. Granted this, one must reject the idea that such entropy constitutes the climax of either play, even though the misguided rages of Othello and Lear are all too often seen as the optimum opportunity for strenuous “acting.” In describing one classic effect of tragicomedy, Castelvetro makes some excellent points about the audience “affect” of such a drastic reversal of attitude as Othello’s sudden arousal to murderous intentions towards both Cassio and Desdemona. Castelvetro agrees that a switch in a major character from love to hatred has a powerful impact on audiences, but denies that it can induce sympathy:
It is a great wonder among men that one should kill his friend or one not his enemy than that he should kill his enemy. . . .For we wonder not at all or but little if one kills an enemy, but we marvel greatly if he kills a non-enemy or friend. And however marvelous his act may be, it does not produce compassion for him but a great deal for the sufferer, who has not merited death. (338-9)
The characters’ emotional breakthrough to a new level of understanding comes only after these high-points of the heroes’ megalomaniac resentment, in the infinitely subtler sequels in which they finally begin to escape from this “mad” condition (in the sense of rage not insanity, surely): in Lear’s new humility and concern for others and in Othello’s increasing doubts of the appropriateness of puritanical “justice.” Only at these crucial points of discovery can some audience empathy with the hero develop. Our modern identification with such madness, as seen in Ginsberg’s Howl, is rejected as anachronistic by Lily B. Campbell in Shakespeare’s Heroes, Slaves of Passion, where she has stressed that Shakespeare approaches intense feeling as a dispassionate psychiatrist, in such scenes as the gravediggers’ discussion of the theological implications of Ophelia’s suicidal mania. At that point, in contrast to her obsession, one perceives the increasingly skeptical views of Hamlet about such fatal preoccupations. Similarly, after the reinforcement of Emilia’s final denunciations of Othello’s folly in murdering Desdemona, we are never wholly released from the truth of Castelvetro’s diagnosis that we do not feel much compassion for him. A good modern example of such audience resistance to empathy with Othello is displayed in T. S, Eliot’s essay on the play with its notorious hostility to the rhetoric of Othello’s final attempts at self-judgment, followed by his self-exculpatory execution of an appropriate death sentence on himself. This further violent action only seems to reinforce a sense of excessively negative feeling.
However, we might possibly see it as a positive conclusion if we accept Castelvetro’s idea of “tragedy with a happy ending” in which “often for greater satisfaction and better instruction of those who listen, they who are the cause of disturbing events, by which the persons of ordinary goodness have been afflicted, are made to die or suffer great ills.” (257) If this interpretation proves valid about how the audience may feel when it leaves a performance of Othello, then perhaps it is not a tragedy in Aristotle’s pessimistic vein, after all, but of the secondary kind in which the committers of evil are properly punished and society gains the potentially wiser leadership of a well-meaning Cassio, who is resilient enough to survive his own humiliations.
Othello’s own self-punitive verdict against the effects of destructive entropy overlaps with the modern theatre's concern with type-casting in which paradoxes of judgment have evolved. One is the supposed preferability of race- and gender-neutral casting. A version of the latter deliberately reverses the involuntary “boy playing a girl” which convention imposed on Elizabethan players. So that we voluntarily exploit its opposite: a female Falstaff, Richard II, Hamlet, Lear, or Prospero. This reversed impersonation of men by women from Sarah Bernhardt to Fiona Shaw has often proved physically and vocally far less plausible and successful, according to some reviewers, than what we hear of boys’ impersonation of young women, from Pepys’ praise of Kynaston down to Edith Evans’ enthusiasm for the Katherina Minola of Lawrence Olivier. Modern, politically correct, feminist-reinforced casting contrasts bizarrely with the other modern tendency, to cast Shylock and Othello from actors with the same ethnic character as the roles (as in Peter Hall’s use of Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice, mentioned earlier), presumably because other races’ mimicry of ethnic traits might seem too condescending. After Nonso Anozie had played Othello in Cheek by Jowl’s Othello of 2004, he wrote “I am black, so I have for free, all of those things that white actors had to spend time working on before getting to grips with the story of the play and Othello’s relationships with the other characters from. ” (Dobson, 89)
However, he also accepts that Elizabethan society diverges radically from ours (88). The irony is that such race-consistent casting invites non-aesthetic identification with the actors as true representatives of historical victims in our modern world, which is potentially at odds with an earlier author’s possibly more objective intent, as with Shylock, perhaps, to display the tragic fact that racism may distort any victim’s own behavior into viciousness, or alternatively (as in Othello’s case) to display in a character’s outward race what is a more universal failing. Just as we might be less troubled by Petruchio’s treatment of Katherina if we have just seen in the Induction how she is acted by a lively boy, so we might identify less with the emotional extravagance of Othello if we know he is not acted by an actual victim of racism against persons of African descent such as Ira Aldridge or Paul Robeson. Similarly, Kozintsev’s fragile Lear to the contrary, King Lear should not be played (indeed cannot be, if he is to carry the dead weight of Cordelia) by any one close to being an octogenarian, thus avoiding the involuntary sympathy for age which might compromise our detachment from Lear’s hysteria. We need to defer our sympathy until when he transcends such ageism. Entropy is never admirable, even in the spectacular but wasteful energies of Victorian steam engines, which Turner and the Impressionists so vividly illustrated in their paintings. Those memorable clouds of steam and smoke merely indicate misuse of power, and pollution of the landscape.
Another issue about the original casting of Othello arises from the divergence between Elizabethan and modern audience reactions to a female role such as Desdemona’s. One basic concern is the discovery of the Elizabethan audiences’ attitude to having boys play women’s roles, something explored in the rebuilt Globe Theatre. Seventeenth-century Londoners were probably completely at ease with the convention, as Samuel Pepys revealed in describing a Cockpit Theatre performance of The Loyal Subject (by John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s colleague), in which “one Kynaston, a boy, acted the Duke’s sister, but made the loveliest lady I ever saw.” (F.E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion, 269) Such evidence is confirmed by our most recent discoveries at the rebuilt Globe Theatre. Reviewing the implications of stage experience at the third Globe Pauline Kiernan in Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe has noted how recently “studies have focused on what is perceived to have been the homoeroticism of the boy actor in the original staging of the plays when women were forbidden from acting on a public stage in England.” (55) Putting on one side the more specialized minority reaction that sees boys in themselves as objects of sexual excitement on or off stage. it appears that most Elizabethans did not see boys in female costume on stage as primarily exciting on homosexual grounds, or even as disturbing challenges to sexual identity (despite the claims of militant Puritans). Such responses reflect primarily on late-twentieth-century anxiety about gender. in contrast to earlier treatments of the cross-gender youth of Achilles, or Hercules with Omphale, or the female costume of the heroes in Sidney’s Arcadia, etc.
Fortunately, as Kiernan notes, the normal heterosexual response has been effectively validated by Toby Cockerell in the role of Princess Katherine in the Henry V at the rebuilt Globe (1997), in which the pathos of the Princess’s situation as a prize of war was not deflected through homosexual responses but heightened by the male actor’s obvious sympathies with his role’s feminine anxieties. His awareness helped us to perceive the persona’s tension between political constraint, social propriety, and the historical original’s compulsive sexual attraction to King Henry. The latter circumstance is often ignored as a subtext of the script, despite Shakespeare’s explicit recognition of it (3.5.27-31) just after the princess has eagerly set about appreciating the sexual overtones of English (3.4). Like his Renaissance predecessors, Toby Cockerell demonstrated his understanding so well that, like Kynaston, he was courted offstage, not by gay men but by nubile women, in a triumph for the sensitive heterosexual. Kiernan concludes “from the experience of seeing a young man in the part of Katherine in Henry V, it would seem that some recent scholarship’s evidence on the homoerotic effects on the original audience (apparently taking its cue from certain anti-theatrical pamphleteers of the period, who railed against the provocative effects of male playgoers of boys dressed up as women on the public stage) may have to be reassessed.” (55) In this matter there seems to be a considerable divide in responses between modern theorists on one hand and both Elizabethan and modern popular audiences on the other. Lope de Vega would argue that drama critics should recognize the authority of latter more than that of the former.
In this context we must question the current feminist hostility to Desdemona’s “servile” devotion to Othello as necessarily invited by a possible exaggerated feminization of the role by a boy actor. Just as a non-Jew playing Shylock with exaggerated “Jewishness“ might be considered offensive by a modern audience, so a boy playing a woman contemptibly would surely offend the substantial female element in Shakespeare’s audience, of which we know he was intensely aware because of his epilogues to As You Like It and All Is True, both of which address women in the audience directly as decisive influences on its response to a performance. A similar recognition of them comes in Celia’s bitter denunciation of just such misconduct by the boy playing Rosalind in her misogynistic exposition of female wiles to Orlando: “You have simply misus’d our sex in your love-prate. We musty have your doublet and hose pluck’d over your heads, and show what the bird has done to her own sex.” (4.1.200-3) The reference to stripping indicates that the audience is being reminded that it is a boy actor who has spoken lines against women and is thus a tainted authority.
In his development of Desdemona’s presentation, Shakespeare ultimately requires the boy actor to express her boldness, courage, and independence, but only through the veil of her initial conventional femininity. Lope de Vega is very firm about establishing decorum in initiating women’s roles: “Let ladies be in keeping with their character.” (246) As with so many other Shakespearean women, Desdemona’s role requires this creation of a plausible female posture, which is then modified by a heroic but modestly expressed autonomy of judgment. Whether we talk of Rosalind, Cordelia, Imogen or Hermione, we must observe in the staging of each a deliberate progression from propriety to enforced and highly reluctant rebellion. It is this paradox which makes Shakespeare’s female roles so vital and attractive to women in seventeenth-century audiences (as reflected throughout the pages of The Shakespeare Allusion–Book): there is a continuous tension between a boy actor’s efforts to evoke a conventional feminine manner, while allowing for an unexpected bold autonomy to subvert it. Desdemona’s behavior illustrates this fascinating paradox throughout: she carries her commitments beyond the bounds of plausibility, as her father Brabantio establishes for us:
A maiden never bold,
Of a spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blush’d at herself: and she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, every thing,
To fall in love with what she fear’d to look on!
It is a judgment maim’d, and most imperfect,
That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rulers of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood,
Or with some dram (conjur’d to this effect)
He wrought upon her. (1.3.94-106)
These lines amount to authorial directions for the boy actor: that he should perfect his attractively feminine presentation (as illustrated by Pepys’ view of Kynaston) as a foil to a subsequent and surprising negation of it. Shakespeare continues to ensure audience attention to his female characters from moment to moment by doing precisely as Lope de Vega specified: defying audience expectations by such abrupt divergences from a successful impersonation of traditional femininity to something more akin to a masculine manner instinctive to the boy actor. This switch is often corroborated by adoption of masculine attire, which Lope also considers a provocative device for female roles. From such a desire to subvert expectations we owe Desdemona’s temporary recovery from asphyxiation only to proclaim herself guilty of her own death, before dying definitively. The boy actor has simply to enunciate the concise statement to astound the audience, just as does Cordelia’s abrupt refusal to flatter Lear, or Lady Macbeth’s assertion that she could dash out her child’s brains. Such unpredictable statements can only have their intended shock effect on the audience in a contrasting context of absolutely plausible femininity. “Camping” of the roles by modern males cast as Shakespeare’s women may amuse some critics, but it falsifies the planned impact of the scripts.
Like Lope de Vega, Shakespeare keeps his audiences in suspense by this kind of reverse psychology. There may even be re-reversals, with consequent further subversive effects, as in Kate’s final speech in The Taming of the Shrew (5.2,136-79). After outwitting Petruchio at his own game of mock dogmatism on the road to Padua (4.5), she now effortlessly and irresistibly dominates the wedding party while modestly professing submissiveness, a delicious irony not always recognized by feminists. Reversing the customary progression, Katherina evolves from being violently unfeminine to the decorum prescribed by Lope, but even this reversal is covered by another of his prescriptions: as Lope asserts, “sometimes what is contrary to correctness for that very reason pleases the taste.” (548).. The repentance of Edmund in King Lear is another provocative case in point, which so offends modern expectations that it is often cut by directors, such as Peter Brook in his film, as just too shocking for modern sensibilities to bear. Such reversals of expectation are essential to theatrical effect of Lope’s new art of writing plays and provide a challenge to academic critics sharing Sidney’s preference for boring consistency of tone and situation in The Defence of Poetry. Lope and Cinthio justify Shakespeare’s calculated inconsistencies in their defense of the melodramatic reversals characteristic of their preferred mode of tragicomedy, or what Aristotle’s “tragedy with a happy ending.” In Othello this “happy conclusion” may hardly seem to be the case to those who empathize more deeply with Othello than the “new art” of drama might propose, but at the play’s end the various characters’ misapprehensions have been disentangled and not only is the evil genius of the play identified and secured, but the relatively innocent Cassio recovers his status, if only after a sobering experience which may plausibly make him likely to succeed better than Othello as the new governor of Cyprus. His limitations have been driven home to him so painfully, but he has survived them in a way characteristic of double-ending tragedy, but less so of Aristotle’s preferred mode which normally leaves us simply with a sense of “waste” as A. C. Bradley has described it. This survival of a chastened new leader is a recurring feature of Shakespearean tragedy which is usually ignored or undervalued by critics. Cassio is a figure matching Fortinbras, Malcolm, Edgar, and above all Octavius, as figures encouraging the audience to look hopefully beyond the end of each play, with a sharpened awareness of what might or historically did occur after events in the play’s ending. This positive factor is generally recognized in the endings of Lope’s drama, and a deeper investigation of their affinities may serve to modify our responses to Shakespeare’s drama. At least it offers an option not to send the audience home in quite so depressed a state of mind.
Obviously, an exhaustive examination of the audience affect in every scene of Othello is scarcely needed once the broad pattern of calculated discontinuity is recognized. The driving force behind the action and characterization in Shakespearean dramas is not psychological consistency but audience reaction: this principle of pure expediency creates a nexus of seeming complexity for which critics are duly grateful as an opportunity to create elaborate rationalizations: religious, Freudian, existentialist, or whatever. The best one can say in this line of rationalization of expedient effects may be merely that human nature itself is not consistent and that, by ignoring Aristotelian probability, writers like Lope de Vega and Shakespeare accidentally come closer to our uncertainty about personal identity in “real” life. This is certainly why it was with Shakespeare that Erving Goffman began his studies culminating in his seminal work The Presentation of Personality in Everyday Life, in which he stresses the discontinuities in every person’s social behavior. That behavior is largely dictated by anticipated audience response in terms of each group one finds oneself addressing, a fact which even teachers like myself find it essential to recognize. All such performances, whether within or outside the theatre, depend on accurate anticipation of audience response, but this may be so unpredictable that it can only be determined in the event, as Antony Sher discovered in his first performance in a Shakespearean production, of Richard III, a play which he only began to understand after he could observe live audience reactions. He found that, in terms of preparation and rehearsal, “previews are almost the most valuable in the whole process. The audience teaching us what does and doesn’t work.” (The Year of the King, 240) By this criterion the modern fashion of excessive rehearsal is self-defeating. Over direction may result in locking in a rigid conditioning of actors that may well defy the audience’s interactive role, in contrast to the near improvisation typical of Elizabethan production of scripts, which ensures responsiveness to audience input.
An overall interpretation of Othello in terms of audience reactions may well conclude that Iago should be seen as the dominant role, with Othello seen as always responsive to Iago’s initiatives, of which the audience shares the knowledge. This awareness probably invites audience identification with Iago rather than with Othello, whose knowledge we always exceed, and whose misguided reactions prove too predictable for sympathy. His death as a murderer falls into place in Aristotle’s lesser form of tragedy, in which a deserved penalty is imposed, as Othello himself decides in his own case after his excessively puritanical reactions. In this he is unlike Lear, who comes to the point of ridiculing the idea that one should “Die for adultery? No.” (4.6.111) In similar contrast to Othello, Desdemona is consistently challenging to our impression of a conventional woman, because she transcends prediction from the moment she gives precedence to Othello in her life. She flirts with Iago and Cassio in a way which has permitted some directors to suggest she is merely promiscuous, interferes with Othello’s professional concerns as if she were his equal, identifies his failings without manipulating them to her advantage, and acquiesces in the unfair penalties inflicted by her own choices. Like Juliet, her tragedy lies in her generous acceptance of an impressively idealistic lover, without the skill to temper him with which Shakespeare endows comic heroines such as Rosalind, Portia, and Helena. If this view of Othello seems cavalier, I will venture only to recall that the hero’s limitations have been just as severely censured by T. S. Eliot in his essay on the play. My difference with him is that he says nothing of the black humor of Iago which enlivens this play as much as Richard of Gloucester does Richard III, and that sardonic element balances the self-destructive entropy which attracts many bravura actors to the title role. The play’s ending liberates its society of both negative factors, leaving at least the plausible option of an imaginative world properly purged of emotional excess. © HMR
References Brooke, C. F. Tucker, "The Romantic Iago," Yale Review VII (1918) 349-59. Dobson, Michael, ed., Performing Shakespeare's Tragedies Today: the Actor's Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Dreher, Diane E., Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.
Evans, Bertrand, Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. Gilbert, Allan H. ed., Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, Detroit: Wayne State, 1962. [includes Cinthio, Lope de Vega, Castelvetro, etc.]
Brooke, C. F. Tucker, "The Romantic Iago," Yale Review VII (1918) 349-59.
Dobson, Michael, ed., Performing Shakespeare's Tragedies Today: the Actor's Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Dreher, Diane E., Domination and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.
Evans, Bertrand, Shakespeare’s Tragic Practice, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.
Gilbert, Allan H. ed., Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, Detroit: Wayne State, 1962. [includes Cinthio, Lope de Vega, Castelvetro, etc.]
Halliday, F. E., A Shakespeare Companion, 1564-1964, Harmandsworth: Penguin, 1964.
Holland, Norman, The Dynamics of Literary Response, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Kiernan, Pauline, Staging Shakespeare at the New Globe, London: Macmillan, 1999.
Kolin , Philip C., editor, "Othello": New Critical Essays. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.
Mendonça, Barbara H. C. de, “Othello: a Tragedy Built on a Comic Structure”, Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968), 31-38.
Rosenberg, Marvin, The Masks of Othello, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.
Sacks, Sheldon, Fiction and the Shape of Belief, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964.
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