Leavis Othello Essay

SOURCE: Tsomondo, Thorell Porter. “Stage-Managing ‘Otherness’: The Function of Narrative in Othello.Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 32, no. 2 (June 1999): 1-25.

[In the following essay, Tsomondo analyzes the narrative and dramatic strategies of Othello, concentrating on the construction of Othello as “Other” in terms of its implications within the play and for Shakespeare's canonical status in the postcolonial epoch.]

New historicist and postcolonial research has lent to narratology's concern with voice and location of voice a heightened awareness of the sociopolitical as well as ideological functions of narrative discourse and the ways that literary texts inscribe and exploit these functions. In Hayden White's view, narrative is “not merely a neutral discursive form that may or may not be used to represent real events … but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications” (ix). More concretely, Foucault's Discipline and Punish, and Said's Culture and Imperialism, draw critical attention not only to the sociopolitical and psychic dimensions of narrative discourse but to questions of power relations that inform narrative structures and practices.

Although Shakespeare's Othello is a dramatic rather than a narrative work—or perhaps because it is drama in which racially-turned narrative performance is conspicuously, structurally staged—the play offers a fascinating, if unusual, site for examining narrative production and use. The plot in itself is simple enough: Othello, a General in the Venetian army and a Moor, secretly weds Desdemona, the young daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello's ensign, beguiles him into believing that Desdemona has been adulterous with the lieutenant, Cassio, and in a jealous rage, Othello murders Desdemona. The period in which the play was written—the Elizabethan age of exploration and colonial expansion, a time of shifting geographic boundaries and of unprecedented cross-cultural transaction—has already attracted considerable attention on the part of theorists concerned with the constitution of institutionalized sociopolitical structures and the textualization of these structures, as well as those concerned with modes and processes of literary representation and the ideological and rhetorical tensions that it necessarily inscribes. What needs more attention, however, is how these features are concretely conjoined in a work like Othello and how this play makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the politics and poetics of the Elizabethan period.

Thus in the following essay, I want to focus on the significance of the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs in Othello, arguing that these strategies subtly distinguish and operate along the geographic, political, and cultural boundaries that the play's Renaissance world stage draws. With a view to showing how the contrastive interplay of these generic techniques enacts the ideological accountability of narrative functions in general as well as of Shakespeare's manipulation of these functions, I will first analyze Shakespeare's use of these formal literary devices in the play to create a thematics of absence/presence that comments tellingly on Othello's dubious identity in Renaissance society. Then, I will elaborate on Shakespeare's procedure by linking it to the dynamics of fiction-making in general, going on to explore what his particular construction of Othello reveals about his poetic agenda. Finally, I will expand my argument to explore relations of power in imperialist culture and the signs of this power in Shakespeare's art and canonic status. In this way, I wish to demonstrate not only how Shakespeare's schizoid casting of the Moor as, at once, central subject and marginalized object reflects colonial power relations but also how the play's colonializing instrumentality extends beyond the literary text and pertains to Shakespeare scholarship and criticism of the play as well.

In the last scene of Othello, the protagonist, aware of how he has been duped by Iago, is confined with the corpse of his wife whom he has just murdered; the time seems to have come finally for what Othello has not yet done: self-examination in the heroic tradition of Shakespearean tragedy. Though Othello's predicament is markedly different from that of Richard II, one might expect that like Richard he would study how to “compare this prison … unto the world,” and engage in setting “the word itself against the word” (5.5.1-14). Given his knowledge of Desdemona's innocence—the sight of “the tragic loading of this bed”—and the realization that he has been nothing more than a comic actor in Iago's deadly play, one might have expected Othello to be teased into thoughts of the kind that Macbeth utters upon hearing of the death of his wife:

She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word. … Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

(5.5.17-28)

Macbeth's aside, indeed, captures the meaning that Iago has imposed on Othello's life and what must have seemed to Othello to be the significance of his life as he gazes on its deadly outcome.

Othello, however, has no capacity for reflection of this kind, either in personal or general humanistic terms. Faced with the tragic results of his poor judgment, he musters an audience and, predictably, tells another story: “I have seen the day / That with this little arm, and this good sword, / I have made my way …” (5.2.261-63). Earlier, goaded into believing that Desdemona is guilty of adultery, he disintegrated into apoplectic incoherence: “Lie with her? lie on her? We say lie on her, when they belie her … Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief—… Pish! Noses, ears, and lips…’ (4.1.36-42). When faced with similarly disillusioning circumstance, Hamlet (though it is highly unlikely that he could be tricked by Iago) protested:

… O God, God, How [weary], stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't, Ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden That grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely. That it should come [to this]! But [two days married], nay, not so much, not two. Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!

(1.2.132-46)

Though one cannot applaud Macbeth's oblique assessment of his dilemma nor endorse Hamlet's misogyny, one is aware that their commentaries represent stages in their moral and intellectual delineation. The closest Othello comes to soliloquizing in the vein characteristic of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is in his paranoiac(ally) telescoped aside:

Haply for I am black, And have not those soft parts of conversation That chamberes have, or for I am declin'd Into the vale of years (yet that's not much), She's gone. I am abus'd and my relief Must be to loathe her.

(3.3.236-68)

In these lines, Othello's insuppressible urge to tell his story points not inward to a heightened consciousness but outward to the narrative signs of his insecurity.

Othello (1604) was written four years after Hamlet, one year before King Lear and two years before Macbeth, the three plays with which it is usually ranked. Yet Othello is not invested with any of the self-searching, self-revelatory monologues that endow Shakespeare's tragic heroes with their special poignancy. Othello does not experience those ennobling moments when with lyric intensity the protagonist faces a personal crisis and gains and imparts insight into self and the vicissitudes of human life. In Shakespeare, the soliloquy is one means of bringing the hero closer to the audience; it magnifies and at the same time humanizes him. Lear's self-excoriating “unaccommodated man,” Hamlet's benumbing “heartache and the thousand natural shocks / that flesh is heir to,” Macbeth's sobering “brief candle,” all involve their audiences in moments of intense moral reckoning and philosophic contemplation.

Notably, in Othello, instead of the Moor, it is Iago, his white ensign, who is given to self-communing and his primary role is to diminish, through calculated psychic violence, Othello's humanity. As part of this function, Iago's privileged soliloquizing installs him between the protagonist and the audience even as it signalizes his own impressive intellectual capabilities and psychological astuteness. With this edge, Iago interprets, manipulates, even forecasts the hero's thought and actions for the audience, flattening the character, rendering increasingly evanescent verbal profundities like those allowed to Hamlet and Lear. Othello himself, in contrast, is limited to retailing his history, telling stories about his past exploits.

The predominance of narrative in Othello, that is “the presence of a story and a storyteller” (Scholes & Kellog 4), distinguishes the play and, in turn, has prompted much critical dispute, which inevitably turns on Othello's verbal proclivities and therefore his character. In a well-documented critical dialogue, when A. C. Bradley defined Othello as a poetic romantic victimized by Iago's “absolute egoism” (179), T. S. Eliot and F. R. Leavis respectively responded by describing Othello as someone given to “dramatizing himself” (111) and as doomed by his own “noble,” “brutal egoism” (146). More recently, Stephen Greenblatt has described Othello as self-fashioner of an “identity” that is dependent upon “constant performance … of his story” (81); Martin Elliott, in turn, has noted what he sees as a “habit of self-publication” (108), and Valerie Traub has argued that Othello essentially becomes a “signifier only of another signifier” (36). James Calderwood goes even so far as to suggest that Othello's preoccupation with storytelling comes close to jeopardizing the drama: “For a moment we seem on the edge of an Arabian Nights infinite regression of stories: Shakespeare's dramatic story yields to Othello's senatorial story, which disappears into stories of cannibals and Anthropophagy which might disappear into. … But fortunately they do not” (294). While these assessments accord with the play's own depiction of Othello's “bumbast circumstance / Horribly stuff'd with epithites of war” (1.1.13-14), in doing so they also point to a number of questions that need to be asked of Othello and its author. Why this yielding to the narrative impulse in this drama? Why in this play more than in any other is Shakespeare's dramatic art in danger of being upstaged by the characters' storytelling? What necessary dramatic function does narrative serve in Othello?

Drama and narrative are not, of course, mutually exclusive generic provinces, and Derrida's observation that a text may participate in more than one genre—thereby not belonging to any one specifically (61)—seems particularly applicable to Shakespeare. Harold Bloom, indeed, rates Shakespeare as one of the “great originals among the world's strongest authors” on the grounds that he “violates known forms”: “Shakespeare wrote five-act dramas for stage presentation, yet Shakespeare wrote no genre. What … is Troilus and Cressida? It is comedy, history, tragedy, satire, yet none of these singly and more than all of them together” (18). While one could similarly ask whether Othello is drama or narrative singly or more than both combined, and while it is true that Shakespeare resists generic prescriptives, one also needs to bear in mind that “violation of forms” does not erase form, and that there can be no infringement where there are no boundaries. Todorov's solution is to regard theory of genre as “hypothesis” or proposition merely; he maintains that study of literary works from a generic viewpoint will “discover a principle operative in a number of texts rather than what is specific about each of them” and that the best procedure is to begin by “presenting our own point of departure” (1,19-20).

For my purposes, then, a helpful starting point is Robert Scholes's contrastive definition of the two genres: “drama is presence in time and space; narrative is past, always past” (206; emphasis mine). Because narrating can take place only in the “once upon a time” of the story that it relates, in the dramatic here and now of the play, the staged present of the tale that Othello tells about himself is not the events he recounts or the “self” he re-creates but the act of narration. This act or role directs attention to past events and to a protagonist (the hero of his narrative) whose experiences are framed in an earlier time than stage time, the time of the narrating, and in unfamiliar, distant locations. Interpreted in this context, Scholes's definition may be reworded thus: narrative is a sign of absence, whereas drama is a sign of presence. To some extent, then, drama and narrative could work at cross-purposes. And when, as in Othello, narrative is woven extensively into the dramatic work, the significance of Scholes's “time” and “space” translates into stage-time and stage-space and thereby into commentary on the play's dramatic representation.

In Othello, the “pastness” which narrative re-presents, functions as a “distancing” device which enables Shakespeare to locate the Moor or alien on the Elizabethan stage and by extension in the European community. Through juggling of narrative and dramatic devices, Shakespeare is able to manipulate stage time and space so that much of the action that defines the protagonist is located offstage, outside the cultural and geographical purviews of the Elizabethan audience, in revealing contradistinction to his central, heroic stage position. Thereby the playwright renders largely innocuous the threatening or “undramatizable” elements of his material he displaces them into the storied realms of distant lands and times. Just as within the play the Turks' diversionary military tactics are described as “a pageant / to keep us in false gaze” (1.3.18-19), so there may be something deceptively seductive about Shakespeare's recourse to narrative strategies.

In the terms used by critics to define Othello's self-expression—“self-fashioner,” “self-publication,” “signifier … of another signifier,” “disappearing” stories, “bumbast”—one can detect a tacit articulation of a sense of lack or absence, and at the heart of this absence and lending it validity is Othello's blackness. It is this otherness that necessitates and gives impetus to his narrative “I am” and correspondingly to his individuated expansive rhetoric, just as conversely it is Shylock's otherness that induces his startlingly callous economy of speech. According to Greenblatt, “the telling of the story of one's life—the conception of one's life as a story—is a response to public inquiry: to the demands of the Senate sitting in judgment, or at least to the presence of an inquiring community” (42; emphasis mine). Othello's self-declarative stories, however, register less his presence than they do a palpable absence. This dilemma is due in part to the nature and utility of narrative itself. It is Othello's awareness of his cultural disconnectedness that makes his narrative performance necessary. At the same time, it is this awareness that further cultivates and intensifies the very sense of discontinuity that his story attempts to dispel—the story can be told from the beginning, his childhood, but only up to the point at which he is required to tell it. So, Othello must repeat his history later for Desdemona and later still for the Senate in a seemingly endless effort to establish an identity. In this light he is, for the most part, a potential presence only, his dramatic contextualization, his presence, being seriously undermined by his narrative (dis)position.

In an attempt to fix this problematic characterization, Leslie Fiedler makes a telling remark: “mythologically speaking, Othello is really black only before we see him; after his first appearance [on the stage], he is archetypally white, though a stranger still, as long as he remains in Venice: a stranger in blackface” (185). Since the dramatic tension throughout the work rests upon Othello's blackness, Fiedler's comment also raises questions about representation. Is the “lascivious Moor”—“the old black ram” with “thick lips”—of Scene 1 indeed transformed into and replaced by a disguised European in Scene 2? Does the audience, or rather can the audience, dispel the scathing image of blackness so pointedly drawn in the first scene when the disguised “white” Othello later enters the stage? Or does the audience, cognizant of the essential discrepancy, merely sit back and enjoy the power of dramatic irony?

What Fiedler reads as the substitution of identities—familiar for strange—is a strategic stage dislocation: a shift in the Moor's figurenposition, as Robert Weiman terms “the actor's position on the stage and the speech, action, and degree of stylization associated with that position” (224). The shift in Othello's figurenposition is from a narrativised presentation in Scene 1 to a dramatic representation in Scene 2, in other words, from a figural absence to a symbolic presence. The play between these two modes of enactment creates the ironic illusion of the color-coded color blindness that Fiedler's statement describes: black and white being interchangeable, racial difference is neutralized; Shakespeare is vindicated. In the debate about Othello's color, Fiedler takes his place among those critics who abstract the sign of Othello's presence and name it “white.” The early scenes of the drama invite this interpretation by splitting the character into competing fragments: a narrativised (alien) half and a dramatized (familiar) counterpart. Besides, this interpretation is necessary if the tragedy of a noble-mind-in-a-black-body corrupted by a black-mind-in-a-noble-body is to work.

The question of race continues to be a vexed one in Othello criticism. In her study, Gender, Race, Renaissance Drama, Ania Loomba points out that whereas there has been controversy about Othello's ethnicity, there has been no debate concerning the racial identity of Aaron the Moor of Titus Andronicus; Aaron, “unlike Othello,” corresponds easily to “the stereotype of black wickedness, lust and malignity”—he, as well as other characters repeatedly link his intractably evil nature to his “physical features” (46). In an essay titled “Race,” Kwame Appiah cautions against attributing such bias to Shakespeare's works since, he argues, in Elizabethan England Jews and Moors were hardly an “empirical reality”; stereotypes were based largely on the non-Christian standing of these ethnic groups, not on experience of them (277).

Some critics, however, see things differently, arguing that Elizabethans had access to much more than inherited theological beliefs. Eldred Jones, for example, marshals a wealth of research data to support his contention that factual information concerning peoples of Africa was available: classical historical documents, popular digests, and eyewitness “accounts of actual sea voyages and land travels” (1). Noting as well that black slaves were introduced into England as early as 1554, several years before John Hawkins's first voyage (15-16), Jones concludes that Othello derives from “conflicting material” from various sources (14). Similarly, Jack D'Amico traces a “Moroccan connection” of extensive trade and diplomacy between England and Morocco from circa 1550-1603; as he sees it, Othello represents the sum of Elizabethan images of the Moor as “everything” from the noble to the monstrous, and that in creating him Shakespeare explores the inherent contradictions (177-96).

In addition to “conflicting material” and complexity of issue, it is likely that, given his subject matter, Shakespeare had to deal also with his own divided impulses regarding Africans. His extended deployment of narrative in a dramatic work and the tension created by the dynamics of the two generic modes may be evidence of this division. Of course, shifting perspectives is nothing new in his art. John Keats lauds as “Negative Capability” this quality in Shakespeare. John Bayley sees as a mark of genius the irresolution and reserve that characterize the dramatist's works (15). Herman Melville identifies Shakespeare as a master “of the great Art of Telling the Truth” “not so much for what” the playwright “did do as for what he did not do, or refrained from doing” (65-66). However, unsettledness and reticence do not signify neutrality, and in the case of Othello, moreover, we have the kind of social and political baggage that has a charged ideological resonance in whatever context the subject appears and by whomever it is addressed.

Through the narrative/dramatic strategies that Shakespeare employs, Othello reveals, among divided impulses and motives, some instructive exclusions, emphases, and suppressions. Othello's initial introduction to the audience takes place in his absence and in the form of gossip between Iago and Roderigo. This gossip may be likened to the third person narrative point of view which voyeuristically creates the character it describes. Shakespeare's use of this means of introducing Othello is felicitous. The familiarity that is apparent in Iago and Roderigo's conversation, in the coarse language they use and in their interrelationship, is soon seconded by the concordant sentiments that their “concern” about Desdemona's elopement awakens in the socially and politically privileged senator and parent, Brabantio, who endorses Roderigo: “O would you had had her” (1.1.175). This breakdown of reserve between social classes and individuals signifies the existence of common cause with the Elizabethan audience; it articulates the society's deepest fears: sexual deviation and miscegenation. Already, before the audience sees him, Othello is guilty of a cultural transgression; he has seduced the senator's daughter, married her without parental consent. Iago, Roderigo, and Brabantio react within the bounds of a shared cultural understanding that makes Othello a threatening otherness. Aptly, therefore, their conversation locates him offstage, out of sight.

By contrast, in Macbeth, the absence of the protagonist and the use of a third person, formal narrative to introduce him, locates him centerstage. The sergeant's story of Macbeth's battlefield prowess and the king's response establishes the protagonist as defender, kinsman, hero whose past as well as destiny is also the community's. In this case, the distance that narrative signals is temporary only; the past, because it is shared, is retrievable. In a similar vein, Prospero's story of his past provides Miranda with a history, bridges the reserve between father and daughter and preludes their return home. In these instances, narrative creates a sense of distance the better to dramatize presence and continuity.

This is not to say that narrative always works in the same way in Shakespeare or generally. The distance inherent in and implied by narrative performance varies in its schema and function. The form it takes will depend upon the relation between teller, story, and audience and what is at stake. For example, Caliban and Prospero tell similar stories of loss and dispossession but from different standpoints. Prospero's story subjects Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine” (5.1.275). And even if, as is commonly believed, Caliban is Prospero's psychological double, it takes a degree of...

The title of F.R.Leavis’ critique on Othello itself depicts the entire critique. The main title of his critique “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero” suggests the Bradley’s point of view of analyzing Othello, which according to Leavis is sentimental approach towards Othello. Leavis accused Bradley and other critics who supported Bradley’s point of view for not being objective. And thus he called them sentimental and their critique “Sentimentalist’s Othello”.

According to Leavis, because of the collective opinion about Othello, it essence suffers. He says that “relevant discussion of its tragic significance” (p.136) is the result of extrinsic approach i.e. “character-analysis”. Leavis himself was liberal humanist and that’s why he accused Bradley of using extrinsic approach. In spite of the fact, that Bradley also proved his points by giving examples from the text.

Leavis called Bradley’s criticism on Othello “extravagant in misdirected scrupulosity” (p.136) and accused Bradley for lacking knowledge. The reason Leavis assume of misunderstanding by Bradley is that Bradley didn’t fully understand the text, therefore the evidence he give lacks ‘weigh’ (p.136). Bradley’s wrong interpretation of text was due to the lack of understanding of words on text, which happened due to him being sentimental, and that’s the reason he excessively ‘misdirected’ (p.136) the quality of moral integrity in Othello.

Leavis disagree with the Othello being centre of the play “Othello”. According to Leavis, displacement of Iago (which is for Leavis is the centre of Shakespearean tragedy) by Othello is also the result of Bradley being sentimental. He proved his point by quoting from Bradley’s essay that,

Iago’s plot is Iago’s character in action.” (p.137)

For Leavis, it seems like Bradley himself is not aware of the significance of ‘Iago’s character in action’, as for Leavis, the play itself is Iago’s character in action.

The reason Leavis suggest behind this is that Bradley is unaware about Othello’s character in depth. He just considers Iago as a ‘necessary piece of dramatic mechanism’ (p.138). On the contrary, if we treat Iago as a centre according to Leavis, then Othello would be considered as a ‘necessary material and provocation for a display of Iago’s fiendish intellectual superiority” (p.138). In any case, both of the characters are necessary to set the play in action.

Leavis proved Bradley of being sentimental by proving his counter argument from the same text given by Bradley, to prove his own point. Leavis says that Othello was essentially flawed. Iago just provoke that ‘essential element’ (p.139), which was necessary for his success. So in a way Bradley’s too innocent and faultless Othello was according to Leavis essentially faulty. That’s the reason Othello responded to Iago in a manner, Iago wanted him to respond. And thus its Othello’s ‘readiness to respond’ (p.140) which make Othello a tragic play, not Iago’s diabolic intellect.

Leavis proved his point of ‘Othello being essentially faulty’ by quoting from Othello as well as Bradley’s own text. Leavis says that Othello’s trust on Desdemona was partial from the beginning, if we consider Othello under Bradley’s words;

His trust, where he trusts, is absolute.” (p.140)

Also, Othello is represented as a middle aged man in a play, and according to Bradley Othello is ‘of a great openness and trustfulness of nature’ (p.140), but still he didn’t trust Desdemona.

Leavis suggest the reason behind Othello’s distrustfulness about his wife Desdemona’s character and faithfulness is because Othello was essentially ‘self approving self-dramatization’ (p.142) and an emotional person, which didn’t work in his relationship with Desdemona.

The main point which Leavis tried to prove in the entire essay is that it’s not merely Iago’s devilish tricks which cause the tragedy in ‘Othello’. Othello himself was essentially faulty and not too innocent, as the way Bradley depict him. That’s the reason Leavis uses the term “Bradley’s Othello” and claim it to be different from the “Shakespearean Othello”, the traits of Othello which Leavis define in his essay.

Leavis also accused Bradley for being sentimental and in the entire essay he uses the terms like ‘Bradley’s Othello’ (p.136), ‘sustained and sanctioned perversity’ (p.138), ‘preconception’ (p.139), ‘idealizing’ (p.148), ‘betray certain misgivings’ (p.153), to make the reader themselves sentimental, and when it comes to bring forward his own opinion, Leavis uses the terms, ‘the plain fact’ (p.138), ‘it is plain’ (p.145), ‘the text is plain’ (p.144) to show that the text of Othello is so simple. If Bradley had been objective, he would have noticed these points.

According to liberal humanist approach, the job of the criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader. Bradley’s analysis of Shakespearean writing is considered authentic and valid. Therefore, the interpretation which he did of Othello was also considered sustained and sanctioned. Bradley’s reader also treats Othello, the way Bradley has treated. But according to Leavis, the Othello which Shakespeare wanted to depict is entirely different from what Bradley’s followers perceive. To prove his point, Leavis himself became too sentimental and deviate from his thesis, when he starts discussing the purpose of Othello being poetic.

Every person has his own way of interpreting text. It’s not possible to kill your thinking pattern and become entirely objective; the way Leavis wanted Bradley and other critics to be. The point which Leavis proved is very true, but the way he targeted Bradley from the beginning till end suggests that Leavis himself is emotional or so called ‘sentimental’, which contradict with his own point of being objective. Or else he would have put forward his analysis in more descent way, i.e. without taunting Bradley.

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