Othello by William Shakespeare: A.C. Bradley Review

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‘Schadenfreude’ is when a person who experiences pleasure or satisfaction upon learning or observing pain, failure or humiliation of others. It is often noted that schadenfreude is backed up by rivalry, sense of justice, and hostility. Tragedy unfolds in William Shakespeare’s play Othello where the audience is exposed to a complex network of cause and effects. This can be traced back to Iago where I argue that his motives, fuelled by jealousy and schadenfreude, are the root cause for the downfall of Othello. It is shown that Iago bases acts purely to ruin Othello. A.C Bradley and Sam Wood (2009) both provide critical analysis on Iago’s psychology with contrasting arguments from different time periods. These two critics demonstrate shared analysis on the inner workings on Iago while defending Othello.

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My hypothesis is somewhat consistent with A.C Bradley’s review on Othello in 1904 where he concluded that Othello is blameless and instead accounts Iago and his motives for Othello’s downfall. Bradley defends Othello by describing him as an influencing ‘passion of mingled love and pity’ since he succumbs to his insecurities and gullibility. Othello describes himself as “One not easily jealous, but being wrought, perplexed in the extreme,” showing that he submitted himself to deception and acted ‘with little reflection’. For Bradley, the moor was seen to be a man of mystery, trusting, and poetic. Bradley believed that Othello’s noble character does not cripple completely and proposed that at the conclusion of the play we experience ‘admiration and love’ for Othello. Bradley then indicts Iago as the sole reason of Othello’s downfall by stating that when he ‘has no dislike or hostility to a person he does not show pleasure in the suffering of that person: he shows at most the absence of pain.’ Bradley argues that Iago’s belief and his practices are evidently connected with his lack of humanity and reasons that Iago’s motives are twofold; Othello both passed Iago over for a promotion and is suspected to sleep with his wife. The foundation of Iago’s motives can be seen through his reasoning: “And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets he has done my office…”. Iago believes that Othello had slept with his wife which is an understandable and common reason to develop hatred for another. To aggravate the situation, Iago was passed over for a promotion, expressing that Cassio “in good time, must his lieutenant be, and I – God bless the mark! — his Moorship’s ancient.” Bradley concludes that Iago is driven by pride and does not perform evil acts for the sake of being evil. He mentions a common misconception that Iago is ‘impelled by passions, a passion of ambition and a passion of hatred’. However, in the report, Bradley declares that passion is void within Iago. Yet, to conjure up a device so potent and hazardous, the driving force from Iago only has one origin: born from his empty words, “I hate the Moor.”

Whilst I do agree with Bradley that Iago’s motives are what caused Othello’s downfall, unlike Bradley, I cannot fully defend Othello as a truly innocent man. In his last speech in Act V Scene II, although fitting Bradley’s description of being elegant and poetic, lacks good intentions. He is obsessed with image and reputation by saying “I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am.” He is hasty to defend his own reputation which is filled with irony. Othello is highly impulsive and jealous from Iago’s allegations and clashes with his problems head on, yet he also attempts to avoid reality and misinterprets himself. I agree with Bradley when he states that Othello’s judgement is easily overcome by jealousy and deceit, but I personally cannot see that Othello is a model of ‘admiration and love’. He sealed his downfall, but Iago is the one who ignited Othello’s passion. I would like to acknowledge Bradley where he states that Iago lacks humanity, passion, and that his drive’s source is from his cold words. I, however, hold a different opinion on Iago and claim that he has four driving qualities instead: racism, vengeance, jealousy, and schadenfreude. He expresses cold racism to Othello by referring to him as a “black ram” and having “thick lips”. Iago also shows intense irrational vengeance and establishes that Cassio and Othello must die because of the promotion. Jealousy is the absolute trait that fuels Iago and is the major driving force behind his motive by utilising and criticising from it. Iago is portrayed as inhumane, and his words are true yet deceitful. He is influential yet easily ignored. But regardless, I do not think his driving force is empty and void like Bradley suggested. His motives are clearly dedicated to ruining Othello by strong jealousy. Finally, the most complex emotion Iago experiences is schadenfreude, when he expresses glee at his plan: “Hell and night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light”. Perhaps the most prominent feature in Iago’s schadenfreude is a sense of self-justice. When an individual is denied of his rightful acknowledgements, they will go to excessive efforts to obtain their sense of justice which is then backed up by schadenfreude. Watching Iago lay out his entire plan made me realise that schadenfreude contributes to racism, vengeance and jealousy.

In contrast to A.C. Bradley, Sam Wood has a different viewpoint on Iago’s motives and shifts the root cause to Othello instead. Wood argues that Othello and Desdemona were not compatible from the start: ‘The marriage between Desdemona and Othello is an attempt to reconcile these terms, but one that fails, in part, because of the conflicting ideas of what a home should be’. From Wood’s standpoint, Othello and Desdemona’s relationship were ill-fated to begin with since they come from diverse social and racial backgrounds. Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, accuses Othello that “thou hast enchanted her” and disapproves of their marriage on racial grounds. Othello himself expresses despair at Desdemona’s supposed infidelity after Iago’s allegations, “Her name, that was as fresh as Dian’s Visage, is now begrimed and black as mine own face”. It is strikingly odd that Othello begins to use self-inflicting racism, by comparing Desdemona’s previously known reputation to align with a fresh white face. Then, he compares her supposed tainted infidelity to his “begrimed and black” face. At this stage of the play, Othello has associated himself with racist ideologies of the Venetian era, the same repeated themes presented by other characters in the play. Wood concludes that his position in Venice is insured, and ‘any doubt of that security lies on Othello’s part.’ In defence of Iago, Wood suggests that his motives have his own merits and not purely cold and inhumane. Wood states that ‘the question of his motivation has been either ignored or deliberately avoided’ and argues that ‘Iago is, in fact, profoundly discomforted by his ability to manipulate his victims’. He explains that Iago gives ‘himself a content and credible motivation’, labelling him a subtle villain instead. Iago built up a reputation of being honest, yet he is surrounded by bitter irony. He is an enigma. Even though Iago performs several soliloquies, he fulfils his intent by saying, “from this time forth I never will speak word” at the end of the play. We never learned his past, his reason for ‘self-hatred’, or his paradoxical honesty; only that he was strongly jealous of Cassio and Othello. Wood claims that Iago is representative of ‘humanist fools and clowns’ whom is ‘distinct from these figures in his self-hatred.’ From these social conventions and from Iago’s abilities, Wood was able to acknowledge Iago as an ‘actor, director and audience’ of the events that transpired in Othello.

After reading Wood’s review, I had to consider to what extent was Othello responsible for his downfall. I do agree with Wood when he said that Othello and Desdemona’s marriage was doomed to begin with. The disparity of race and social status during the Venetian era was the most prominent factor. Othello also compares Desdemona as a higher entity: “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul, but I do love thee! And when I love thee not chaos is come again.” The problem came from Othello’s attitude to Desdemona, thinking that she reigns absolute superiority over Othello and thus he mentally distances himself from her. His juxtaposition comparing her name from a white fresh face to a grimy old black man portrays self-degradation and racial inferiority. I believe that Othello was destined to become a slave: a slave of the Venetian army, and a slave to Desdemona’s heart.

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