Shakespeare, On Human Weakness – an explorative essay

Arguably all literature has the capacity to expose human weakness, as where others have tried and failed, there is something to be learnt. William Hazlitt [1] believes this is the reason tragedy touches us so. It “excites our sensibility” through the presentation of exaggerated emotions thus “[correcting] their fatal excesses in ourselves by pointing to the greater extent the sufferings […] they have led others.” Othello’ certainly excites our sympathy to an exceptional degree, and Hazlitt argues that “of all Shakespeare’s plays, its moral has the closest application to the concerns of human life.” In Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice”, the subtle ambiguity of villain and victim allows us to see the events as they unfold through the eyes of both Christians and Jews. Through closely analysing the events leading to the downfalls and sufferings of the principle characters, we will come closer to discovering where exactly they have failed, thus uncovering something about where human weakness lies.

Impulse, instinct and passion are some of the many human characteristics essential for survival, yet these are the traits that eventually lead the protagonists towards their tragic ends. Where the elopement of Desdemona and Othello is outwardly an act of passion, Othello’s explanation for the basis of their relationship seems reasonable: “She lov’d me for the dangers I had pass’d, And I loved her that she did pity them.”(I.iii.167-68) Tony Martin (Nov 2004) [2] however argues that “beneath the surface of this measured rationality there lies a passion more unpredictable because it is not acknowledged or understood.” When for example Othello finds himself losing his temper because of the drunken misbehaviour of his officers, he describes his loss of control as a conflict between blood and his better judgement: “My blood begins my safer guides to rule,” (II.iii.195-97). Blood is intrinsically linked to passion, thus his feelings stem down to the basic human instinct he is fighting so hard against. According to Martin, “Othello sees blood as a force which threatens to usurp the rule of rationality, and his words reveal a fear of this danger, a sense that his judgement is a defence against the chaos of unleashed passion”. He argues that Othello’s response is to “transfer all [his] feeling of anxiety and insecurity onto Desdemona,” convincing himself she is guilty of what he fears himself capable. I find this argument rather implausible as Othello never shows indication of lust or desire for another woman. Rather, it seems his complete and utter devotion towards her rendered him incapable of such a betrayal.

Martin further examines an implied sense of conflict between “judgement and self-possession” and the passions that are of course associated with blood. He argues that “Both Lodovico and Othello fail to acknowledge the demands of blood, regarding it as a force to be suppressed rather than a reality to be acknowledged and held in balance.” The fear of bestial behaviour relating to blood, survival and passion, is also evident in “The Merchant of Venice”, where it is used by Antonio and his friends in dehumanising Shylock. Anne Crow[3] states in the English review (2004) that Antonio’s contempt for Shylock is “not just because he is a misbeliever but because he is a ‘cut-throat dog’, taking no risks and making profit out of merchants.” He is a “wolf”, preying on Antonio the innocent sheep (IV.i.73), an “inhuman wrench, / Uncapable of pity, void and empty/ from any dram of mercy.”  (IV.i.117)

Othello too is portrayed as “below human” by Brabantio, Iago and Roderigo. From the very first scene, he is defined as “a Barbary horse” (I.i.113) and we hear Iago shout to Brabantio that “Even now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe” (I.i.91) in a successful attempt to rouse his anger at the elopement of his daughter. Iago’s use of black and white colour imagery here emphasises the racial difference between Othello and Desdemona whilst implying the idea that Othello is tarnishing her innocence and virginity. The stark contrast between the violence of an “old black ram” and the purity of a “white ewe” makes the prospect even more alarming.

Though Othello does experience the marginalization and prejudice from the other characters, he could still be seen as exotic or desirable and rise in status in society. Despite the initial impression of Othello we receive from the words of Iago and Roderigo, once we meet him it is clear that he is a civilised, eloquent and honourable man, far from the ugly, cruel, and sexually rampant monster the Elizabethan audiences might expect. It is worth noting that according to Reginald Scot, a contemporary whom Shakespeare read, the Devil’s favourite form was that of a Moor. The struggle against these associations remains a problem for Othello throughout the play despite his status, and he has no control over what others are saying about him. It could be argued that in a society with such inherent prejudices, even others have no control over what they themselves are saying about him. Perhaps it is the lack of individual thought and understanding that makes humanity weak as a society. Who is to argue if even Queen Elizabeth expresses her intent of banishing “the great number of niggers and blackamoors which are crept into this realm,”[4] in her proclamation of 1601? Unlike his Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare depicts a far more human, and relatable Moor, that would have challenged the prejudices of his audience.

Shakespeare is perhaps less compassionate towards Shylock in his portrayal of a Jew than of the Moor Othello. Emma Smith comments in the English Review (2006) [5] that there are many difficulties in the text for those who wish to see Shylock in a positive light, such as the monologue ‘I hate him for he is Christian’ (I.iii.1), in which Shylock “expresses his malice towards Antonio, before the two have even met on stage” and ultimately his “implacable pursuit of revenge in the trail scene”. The unconditional hatred drives him to pursue the bond further and further leading to his ultimate humiliation suggesting that his weakness is simply a compulsion to hate.

William Hazlitt[6] however argues that Shylock is “a man no less sinned against than sinning”. He respects and sympathizes with him on the basis that he has strong grounds for his hatred of Antonio and the other Christians. In his words, Shylock was simply “stung to madness by repeated undeserved provocations,” This is a convincing explanation for his touchingly desperate plea for humanity in his “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, where he defines the fundamental characteristics that make a man human. Speaking in simple prose, Shylock is presented as an ordinary man who acknowledges the complete lack of sympathy and the full extent of their prejudices towards him, but where Othello responds with paranoia, Shylock responds with malice and a bloody lust for revenge. He ends the speech defining revenge as yet another human instinct: “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” in much the same way Othello’s hatred for Desdemona is driven when he hears of her unfaithfulness. In both cases the hatred is fuelled by a perceived injustice that the protagonists seek to rectify. The total belief in the concept of justice is the weakness here.

Othello’s paranoia plays a big part in his susceptibility to Iago’s words. He claims early on in the play, that he is “rude” in his speech, and “little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (I.iii.81–82) implying an unworthiness of status on account of his race. The quiet sound of sibilance in this phrase shows an uncertain modesty in his words. He is clearly very articulate, yet succumbs to the pressure of his enemies by putting himself below his true aptitude. His self-consciousness is indeed his greatest weaknesses and makes him very vulnerable and exposed to the words of Iago who feeds him diabolical words of hell and evil. S.L Bethell, notes the statistics that back up the gradual transfer of such imagery in “The diabolical images in Othello”[7]: “In Act 1, Iago has eight diabolical images and Othello none”. By Act 5, “Iago has none, and Othello six”. Thus Iago has successfully penetrated Othello’s imagination with his own “gloomy and low conceptions”. The “Othello Music”[8] he never knew he had, the “peculiar chastity and serenity of thought”, breaks down into a jagged, and disordered prose.

Control seems to be the ultimate motive in these two plays. In Iago’s case, however, Coleridge argues it is the “The motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity,” [9] and that Iago, does evil simply because he is evil. Gamini Salgado[10] however argues that Iago has almost too many motives. “In the first place, he has been deprived of his lieutenancy which he coveted. Secondly he is clearly prejudiced against Othello’s race and colour. Further there are his suspicion that Othello, and perhaps Cassio too, have cuckolded him.” Her last and my favourite motive is the merest hint of Iago’s “thwarted love for Desdemona, which is the primary motive in Cinthio’s original story[11].”  Although there is little evidence for this, it suggests Iago once had the capacity to love, and reveals the shadow of a far more complex character. Regardless, I think the most plausible reason for his actions would have to be Coleridge’s first interpretation. Iago’s sheer delight at scheming to manipulate and control the people around him is very evident in his speech from the very beginning. In his soliloquy at the end of Act 1 scene 3, he formulates the plan for Othello’s ruin. The fact that Iago can state that “The Moor is of a free and open nature”[12] is ironic, as Iago knows Othello so well whilst Othello has no idea who Iago really is. He predicts how Othello will “tenderly be led by th’nose/As asses are.”  The animal imagery is characteristic of Iago, and the idea of “leading” Othello brings him much pleasure. When inspiration strikes him he exclaims “I hav’t! It is engendered! Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.” The striking juxtaposition of the words “monstrous” and “birth” displays his ability to transform something as beautiful, positive and miraculous as a birth into the creation of a grotesque idea formulated to inflict pain on a large scale. The rhyming couplet ending the scene contrasts the idea of the “night” and the tainting of the world’s “light”.

Both Othello and Shylock have been driven to seek their own revenge where they have been betrayed by their societies and their loved ones. Their capacity to love is not only their greatest strength, but also their most terrible weakness. When we love we become totally vulnerable and are in a sense, completely powerless. Othello’s complete devotion towards Desdemona makes him susceptible to Iago’s words and creates an inner turmoil between the human instinct to defend oneself and that to make connections with others. The concept of justice dictates that should we have been wronged, we can regain our power by taking control of the situation. Iago was not promoted, Shylock has been abused and Othello has been betrayed. In both plays Shakespeare examines under a harsh light the temptation to gain power through discrimination, revenge or manipulation, and how easily it can all spiral out of control into a most hideous and deforming hatred.

[1] William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello (1817)

[2] Tony Martin, Dichotomy in Shakespeare, The English review (November 2004)

[3] Anne Crow, ‘The poor rude world hath not her fellow’, The English review (November 2004)

[4] Queen Elizabeth I’s Proclamation of 1601

[5] Emma Smith, “The Merchant of Venice; Prejudice and Performance”, The English review (2006)

[6] William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice (1817)

[7] S.L. Bethell, The diabolic images in Othello, Shakespeare survey Vol 5 (1952)

[8] G. Wilson Knight, ‘The Othello Music’ in “The wheel of Fire” (1930)

[9] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Othello Lectures, Lectures 1808-1819

[10]Gamini Salgado, Introduction to Othello (1976)

[11] Shakespeare found the story for Othello in a collection of Italian stories called the “Hecotommithi”by Giraldi Cinthio, published 1566.

[12] (I.iii.384-389)                                                                                                                                                        3/10/2014, Sarah Zein

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