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.
Although Ms Adamson refers on several occasions to The Characters of Love, she is understandably silent about Bayley’s later response to Othello as set out in the final section of his book The Uses of Division (1976). Bayley’s viewpoint in 1976 is compatible neither with Ms Adamson’s approach nor (as he himself indicates) with his own, earlier attitude.
Every time I have looked at Othello since [The Characters of Love] I have been struck by the lack of freedom in the play, by the sense of a theatrical challenge consummately dealt with in detail, but too great for any liberation of thought and feeling, except outside it. Our sense of freedom in Shakespearean tragedy is paradoxical, but essential.
In The Characters of Love, it was the ‘novelistic’ qualities of Othello which set it apart from the other tragedies. Bayley, however, could assure his readers that ‘the domestic and the dramatic are one: the material of the novel is also, so to speak, the material of the play.’ In The Uses of Division, this unity begins to break down. The play and the novel are now at odds. Moreover, Bayley in 1976 was beginning to detect in other tragedies (Macbeth or Coriolanus) a freedom greater than that of Othello: more of that unstageable, novelistic time by which he was coming to be obsessed.
Significantly, in The Uses of Division, Troilus and Cressida replaces Othello as the anomaly in the canon. This is not because it is ‘novelistic’, but precisely because Bayley is perplexed not to be able to detect behind it ‘the shadow of a gigantic and seemingly limitless novel’. It is ‘purely and simply a play’ and this, it soon becomes clear, is by no means an admirable thing to be. Bayley grants Troilus and Cressida individuality and even brilliance. He is sure that Jack Donne and the other clever young men at the Inns of Court must have adored it. In reading it, we are likely to ‘find ourselves thinking how well this would act’ – but this turns out not to be a very good thing either. (He never tries to explain why the stage history of the play should be so unusually meagre.)
Bayley’s antipathy to theatre, and to the actor’s art, first declared itself in The Uses of Division. Tragedy, apparently, exacts a solitary, not a public response. The interference of actors and directors distracts us, often repels us’ from those all-important ‘words’ in which the larger, novelistic kingdom of the work is adumbrated. Bayley was also beginning to reveal impatience with drama as a form, whether acted or not. This book is still concerned to stress co-existence: ‘Shakespeare’s masterpieces wax and wane between what could be termed novel and play.’ But the critical vocabulary here already implies that the movement towards ‘play’ must be a diminution. By threatening to inhibit and restrict the ‘novel’, binding it to a world of temporal immediacy and action, as well as to theatrical realisation, the ‘play’ curtails the essential freedom of Shakespeare’s imaginative conception. In short, the groundwork had been laid for the book Bayley now offers us: Shakespeare and Tragedy.
It is by no means an easy book to read. This is partly because Bayley is so extraordinarily elusive. Important terms in his argument – such as ‘consciousness’ – are either not really defined at all, or else shift their meaning in the course of the book. He also contradicts himself with bewildering frequency, sometimes in passages only a few pages apart. So, on page 209, ‘the only characters for whom love and sex are taken for granted as parts of the same whole are the three women, Bianca, Emilia and Desdemona herself.’ But on page 211, Othello ‘never quite manages to include sex, even when love speaks with the voice of Desdemona’. On page 19, ‘Gloucester cannot see what Edgar’s words put before us’ in the Dover Cliff scene. Since the samphire gatherer, the crows and choughs, the fishermen, the tall anchoring bark and all the rest of Edgar’s fantasy are precisely as concrete – or as non-existent – to the reader or theatre audience as they are to the blind Gloucester, it is hard to tell just what Bayley understands by ‘see’. Bayley himself seems to develop doubts. Abruptly, on page 27, Edgar is said to make ‘us and Gloucester see something where there is nothing’. On page 80, Troilus and Cressida ‘may well be the first play of Shakespeare’s in which the Jonsonian method was deliberately tried out’. But on page 96, it is ‘too early to have been influenced by Jonson’s major new-style plays’. Bayley adopts one view of the chronological relationship between King Lear and Macbeth on page 66: the reverse on page 217. And so on.
Professor Bayley is not only a brilliant but intellectually an extremely agile man. I have no doubt that he could supply explanations, or at least rationalisations, for these and other inconsistencies from outside the book as it stands. (The various factual errors – Tate’s King Lear (1681) as typical of ‘18th-century common sense’, Ford as a Jacobean rather than a Caroline dramatist, Shakespeare’s performance as an actor in Volpone, Antonio in The Duchess of Malfi as the person for whom Ferdinand devises the waxwork hoax, the muddle over The Massacre at Paris and over who goes into battle wearing Cressida’s favour, etc – are another matter.) Reading Shakespeare and Tragedy, however, is for much of the time like fighting through cobwebs. The strands of the argument give way, float off, coalesce again, stick to your hands, contrive at one and the same time to be gossamer-thin, structureless and impenetrable.
The book’s contradictoriness expresses itself in large matters as well as small. It is one of the central premises of Shakespeare and Tragedy that Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes are unfitted for their dramatic roles. This vaguely Bradleyan idea, aired briefly in The Uses of Division, acquires great importance here as a device for freeing characters from something that Aristotle regarded as the strength of tragedy, but which for Bayley is one of drama’s basic limitations: hero and action as naturally suited companions. It is therefore surprising to learn on page 165 that ‘both Hamlet and Macbeth are wholly at home in the situation which the play has wished upon them.’ And then (pages 181/2) to have to readjust to Hamlet as a character ‘unsuited to playing in revenge tragedy’ – or (as Bayley warms to his task) ‘in a tragedy, and thus indeed in any kind of play’. The slight sense of vertigo induced in the reader by that calmly placed ‘thus’ is by no means unusual. I feel it again, myself, when Bayley announces that ‘because’ love ‘is not the subject of [Coriolanus] it has a considerable importance in it’. Or when I try to make sense of his claim that since, according to Plutarch, Antony took lessons in the art of rhetoric, and since masters of rhetoric usually came from Asiatic Greece, his reference to Octavius Caesar as ‘my countryman’ in Act Four, Scene 15 must be ‘particularly poignant’.
Whatever point Bayley is trying to get across in that last example, one thing seems clear: extraneous material from Plutarch has been conscripted – not for the only time – in order to add novelistic depth to Shakespeare’s play. Bayley now appears everywhere to be trying to liberate characters, not just from the vulgar tangibilities of the theatre, but from the confines of their own, particular play world, and from drama as a form. The peculiarly deprived protagonists of Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens (which has joined Troilus as a second Shakespearean work mysteriously denied novelistic resonance) even seem to suspect how underprivileged they are. What Bayley finds most moving in both plays is ‘a disturbing sense of longing, apprehended through the behaviour of the leading characters, for something outside the play, and thus outside the art which has made it what it is’. Timon, for instance, already victimised by his creator in that the part ‘depends on being physically acted’, is allowed neither a woman to love him nor any comforting domestic intimacies. In the end, he has to invoke a ‘phantom of feminine consolation’ in the form of ‘the light foam of the sea’ washing over his grave. (Just why sea foam should be cither feminine or consoling, as opposed to neutral and – from Timon’s point of view – blessedly inhuman, is not clear.) Cressida is ‘doubly betrayed’ by Shakespeare’s acceptance of her as a legendary embodiment of infidelity, and by a play which cruelly prevents her from acquiring personality in a continuous, novelistic sense.
It is a measure of the distance Bayley has travelled since The Uses of Division, let alone The Characters of Love, that what he now seems to value most in Othello are the glimpses it offers of ‘a private world – too private for a play’, a ‘life that the play and its characters cannot touch’. Meanwhile King Lear has replaced it as Bayley’s central Shakespearean experience. This is partly because he is excited by the notion that Lear ‘defeats the quality of acting’. Charles Lamb also thought this, but not for Bayley’s reasons. Lamb found Lear too sublime for the stage. For Bayley, wedded as he is to a Tolstoyan idea of the theatre as something which falsifies human life, it is too ordinary. Lear, it seems, is a domestic, family play and ‘what it feels, a family does not express.’ In effect, families need narrators.
Only a narrator (or the critic as surrogate narrator) could really handle what Bayley finds to be Lear’s various ‘off-key’ utterances: ‘kinds of false note which cannot be acted, kinds of naked exclamation which cannot bear acting’. Edgar’s account of how Gloucester died is given within the staged tableau in which Edmund (for Bayley) merely ’enacts’ death. Edgar’s description serves to place Edmund’s death as that of ‘melodrama or of tragedy’: ‘but actors could hardly get that point across, and this is one of many occasions when Shakespeare seems more faithful to the story than to the play.’ Cordelia’s reserve, to Bayley’s delight, has been ‘actress-proof’ from the start. Her death, unlike Desdemona’s (Othello ‘does not really seem to have killed anybody’), is incontrovertible and real. This, it seems, is because it not only takes place off-stage – like Gloucester’s, and unlike Desdemona’s – but is ‘outside the tragedy as such’. It subdues ‘any possible initiative of the theatre’. Like the crows and choughs and samphire gatherer earlier on, Cordelia has triumphantly freed herself from the play. The theatre, Bayley oddly maintains, could only ‘fight back against Shakespeare’ here, sustaining its intrinsic unreality, if Lear came in at the end bearing not a live actress but ‘some sort of dummy’.
Bayley never addresses himself to the question of why Shakespeare should have stubbornly gone on writing in a medium apparently so uncongenial and thwarting. He does, however, suggest at one point that it may have had something to do with the fact that drama enjoyed ‘the status of triviality’. Plays left Shakespeare free, as epic or narrative poetry could not, to revel in irresponsibility. At this point, it needs to be said that (together with theatre, actors and drama) tragedy is for Bayley a very dubious commodity. Shakespeare, he asserts, believed ‘that tragedy would be an excellent thing if human beings were capable of it.’ In King Lear, Bayley finds, no one is, least of all the king himself – ‘an unhinged old person, such as most or many of us shall become’, ‘bespattered’ (Shakespeare wrote ‘crowned’) with ‘vegetable debris’. Gradually, it emerges that the title of Bayley’s book – Shakespeare and Tragedy – is not a simple variant on Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy. Bayley means to express antagonism, not an equal and harmonious partnership. Shakespeare is not out to embrace tragedy but to overthrow and disentangle himself from it, as from a venerable but overrated adversary.
In general, Bayley is concerned to strip away the terrible, everything that seems more than life-size, from Shakespearean tragedy. So, Coriolanus becomes, like Lear, ‘a domestic play, an intimate play’. Cleopatra is transformed into a creature of ‘sublime simplicity’, devoid of cunning, straightforwardly innocent and loving. ‘The impression she gives,’ according to Bayley, ‘is one of unbounded equanimity, whether she is giving audience to Caesar’s representatives, mourning the fate of Antony, or ordering the asps ... ’ It is hard to see how Cleopatra can display ‘unbounded equanimity’ when manhandling the messenger from Rome in Act Two, Scene Five (‘I’ll spurn thine eyes/Like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head ... ’), but perhaps this difficulty merely renders the part, like Cordelia’s, ‘actress-proof’. Despite the unequivocal stage direction in the Folio – ‘Enter the Ghost of Banquo and sits in Macbeth’s place’ – Bayley is cosily sure that ‘Macbeth knows, and we know, that there is nothing there.’ He even manages to find Othello’s searing fantasy about Desdemona being enjoyed by the common soldiers ‘ineluctably comic. Charmingly so in a way ... ’ While the Ghost’s warning to Hamlet, ‘Taint not thy mind,’ apparently is proof that the prince’s mind never does become poisoned. Hamlet’s later fulminations against his mother’s sex life reveal a mind in no way ‘tainted’, but ‘rather emancipated into a fuller range of human experience’. As with the examples of Bayley’s contradictions, one could go on ...
John Bayley is one of the most distinguished and perceptive critics of poetry and the novel writing today. His work on Tolstoy, Hardy, Pushkin or Keats is in a class by itself. At his best, he is imaginative, wide-ranging, daring and completely original. It is not accidental that so many of the insights and ideas he seems able to throw off almost effortlessly, over a great range of subjects, should reappear in the work of other and usually lesser critics. Even his rare failures tend to be more interesting and important than most people’s successes. Shakespeare and Tragedy, however, suggests that the very qualities and temperamental predilections which make Bayley such an outstanding interpreter of his favourite literary forms become handicaps when he confronts plays. The fact is that a mistrust of tragedy, combined with strong anti-theatrical prejudices and a fundamental preference for the novel over drama, is not a characteristic calculated to produce a good book on Shakespeare’s tragedies – let alone the natural successor to Bradley and Wilson Knight claimed in the publisher’s blurb.