Anne Barton

  • Othello as Tragedy by Jane Adamson
    Cambridge, 301 pp, £15.00, October 1980, ISBN 0 521 22368 7
  • Shakespeare and Tragedy by John Bayley
    Routledge, 228 pp, £9.75, April 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0632 2

Twenty-one years ago, in The Characters of Love, John Bayley suggested that ‘there is a sense in which the highest compliment we can pay to Shakespeare is to discuss his great plays as if they were also great novels.’ At that time, Othello seemed to him particularly (indeed uniquely) responsive to such treatment. Here, Shakespeare was writing about ‘the private life – personal relations and problems of domesticity and daily living – in a way he does nowhere else’. This early essay on Othello, conceived in large part as a rejoinder to Leavis, has been widely and justly influential. Jane Adamson’s meticulous and sensitive reading of the play in Othello as Tragedy can be seen as an extension and development of Bayley’s 1960 approach. Her book catches up Bayley’s resistance, in The Characters of Love, to Leavis’s condescending detachment, his neat placing and dismissal of the hero. Uneasy, like Bayley, both with Bradley’s noble Moor, and Leavis’s criminal egotist, she seeks to understand love’s failure in terms of naturalistically-conceived characters placed in a detailed and convincing social milieu: people who are flawed and psychologically vulnerable in ways we all share.

Ms Adamson shifts Bayley’s original focus. She finds it ultimately ‘inadequate’ to describe Othello as ‘a tragedy of incomprehension’ in his sense. For her, the interest lies rather in why the characters need so actively to misunderstand themselves and each other, and what happens when events force them ‘to the point where those self-preserving misunderstandings crumble’. From the beginning, when Brabantio before the Venetian Senate reaches out for witchcraft and sorcery to explain his daughter’s elopement, rather than face the fact that she now cares for someone else more than for him, to the fragments Othello shores against his ruin in his suicide speech, this is a painful study in human self-protectiveness. Even Desdemona and Emilia steadfastly push away recognition that the men they have married are not quite what they initially thought them to be. Iago, however, protects himself more radically. He refuses (at a terrible price) ever to commit himself to another person, to admit any capacity for suffering, or an openness to feelings which cannot be controlled by the will.

Although Othello as Tragedy occasionally seems rather long-winded and repetitive, Ms Adamson’s detailed analysis does establish some fresh and interesting connections between scenes and speeches widely separated in the play. She points out, for instance, that Desdemona’s plea for Cassio’s reinstatement is an ill-judged attempt to make Othello do exactly what he promised the Senators he would avoid – let his marriage impinge on his job if Desdemona accompanied him to Cyprus. Othello’s carefully-worded assurance, as reported to Cassio by Emilia in Act Three, Scene One, that he needed ‘no other suitor but his likings’ to restore Cassio to favour – at a politic and fit time – should have silenced both Desdemona and Cassio himself. She is good, too, on Bianca’s story as ‘a miniature example’ of what it is like to be ‘cashiered’ and yet have to ‘be circumstanced’, and on the way those two predicaments weave themselves through the play in relation to both the active and the emotional lives of its characters.

Ms Adamson’s undeviating concentration on the text (she does not, perhaps, pay enough attention to the difference between the Quarto and Folio versions of Othello) buys its clear, uncluttered quality at the expense of historical awareness. So, when explaining Brabantio’s outrage at Desdemona’s stolen marriage, she seriously underplays the contemporary emphasis on paternal authority – the father as king in his own family. Othello’s much-debated final speech (‘Soft you, a word or two ... ’) needs to be placed in the context of a period when people flocked to public executions less for the death itself than to hear what the condemned man would say in his last, formal statement from the scaffold. Ms Adamson also seems to me to minimise unduly what Jacobeans, even more than we, must have regarded as the extraordinary, and inherently perilous, nature of Othello’s marriage: the union of ‘an extravagant and wheeling stranger’ with a Venetian maiden not only half his age, but previously so shy and retiring that ‘her motion almost blushed at itself.’ She is probably right to claim that 20th-century criticism has overemphasised the racial issue in the play. Nevertheless, the contrast between white and black skin matters more than she allows, if only because it is, on stage, the visually inescapable and culminating disparity between Othello and Desdemona. As such, it goes on reminding us of the special and atypical character of their love: the risks it takes and the barriers it must overleap.

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