« PreviousContinue »
“THE Tragoedy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. As it hath beene diverse times acted at the Globe, and at the BlackFriers, by his Maiesties Seruants. Written by William Shakespeare. LONDON, Printed by N. O. for Thomas Walkley, and are to be sold at his shop, at the Eagle and Child, in Brittans Bursse. 1622.” 4to. 48 leaves, irregularly paged.
Othello occupies thirty pages in the folio of 1623, viz., from p. 310 to p. 339 inclusive, in the division of Tragedies: it is divided into Acts and Scenes, and on the last page is a list of the Dramatis Personae, headed, “The Names of the Actors.”
o T H E L L o .
IOWAN BATTISTA GTRALDI CINTHIO, an Italian novelist, who flourished in the middle of the sixteenth century, is the first writer in whose works we find the story of Othello. Whether he invented it, we cannot tell; but probably he did. The first edition of his hundred and ten tales, called Hecatommithi, was published at Monte-regale, in Sicily, in 1565. It is divided into decades; and the seventh tale of the first decade is the foundation of the following tragedy.* The incidents related by Cinthio are, briefly, these: A Moorish Captain of approved valor, and in high favor with the republic of Venice, was loved by “a virtuous woman of great beauty, called Desdemona,” and returned her love. They married in opposition to the wishes of her family. The Moor was soon appointed to the command of the garrison of Cyprus, and was accompanied thither by his wife. Attending him was a standard-bearer or ensign, (“wn alftero,”) who was of a very pleasing exterior, but a very wicked heart; and he also was accompanied by his wife, a handsome woman, and a good. The Moor thought highly of him, and Desdemona was so fond of his wife that the two passed most of their time together. There was also in the company a lieutenant much beloved by the Moor, and highly regarded by Desdemona for her husband's sake, and who was very often at his captain's house. The ensign became enamoured of Desdemona, who utterly disregarded all manifestations of his passion. He supposed, not that she was chaste, but that she loved the lieutenant; and his feelings changed to bitter hatred. To revenge himself he determined to accuse Desdemona to her husband of being unfaithful to him with the lieutenant; but knowing the Moor's entire love for Desdemona, and friendship for the lieutenant, he saw that, to succeed, his deceit must be very artful. He waited; and ere long the Moor degraded the lieutenant for having wounded a soldier on guard, and Desdemona, much grieved for her own and her husband's friend, interceded for his restoration. The ensign seized the opportunity, and insinuated that her importunities for the lieutenant’s pardon had a dishonorable motive. He succeeded in awakening the Moor's suspicions, who demanded that he should speak more plainly ; and then he accused her directly of consoling herself with the lieutenant for the repulsive blackness of her husband. The Moor tells him that he deserves to have his tongue cut out for attacking the honor of his wife, and demands ocular proof of the truth of the accusation, which the ensign says that he does not despair of giving him. Desdemona goes to the ensign’s house, and takes with her, as she had often done before, a handkerchief, worked very exquisitely in the Moorish style. It was a gift from her husband, and very dear to her, as well as highly prized by him. This handkerchief the ensign steals from her as she is caressing his little girl, and places it upon the lieutenant's bolster. The lieutenant, recognizing it as Desdemona's, and not knowing how it came to be in his bed-chamber, takes it to the Moor's house to restore it to her. The Moor hears his knock, and going to the window, asks who is there; when the disgraced lieutenant, fearing his superior's anger, runs away without replying. The Moor suspects that it is he, and consults the ensign, asking him to get the truth out of the lieutenant. The ensign enters into conversation with the lieutenant in sight of the Moor, and talking of indifferent subjects, listens and speaks with laughter and extravagant gestures, as if eliciting the most surprising revelations. The interview over, his commander interrogates him ; but it is only after much assumed reluctance that he tells the Moor that the lieutenant has confessed that Desdemona seized every opportunity to gratify their mutual passion, and that she had given him the morisco handkerchief. To confirm this convincing testimony, the Moor asks his wife for the handkerchief, and as she cannot produce it, he determines to kill her. But while he is casting about for the mode of his vengeance, he asks the ensign to let him see the handkerchief in the lieutenant's hands. This the ensign cannot do ; but he shows him the lieutenant's mistress, who was a very skilful embroiderer, sitting at a window in the lieutenant's house, copying the morisco work from the handkerchief. Upon this they agree together to kill both the lieutenant and Desdemona. The ensign undertakes the death of the former, and attacking him at night, wounds him in the thigh. The lieutenant, though fallen, fights manfully, and raises an alarm ; and the ensign runs away, and then returning with the crowd, condoles with his unsuspecting victim. Desdemona, hearing of the lieutenant's misfortune, mourns it to her husband, who, enraged at this manifestation of her regard, contrives her death immediately with the ensign, and she is killed in this awkward and brutal manner: The ensign conceals himself in Desdemona's bed-chamber, and on his making a noise, the Moor tells her to get up and see what is the cause. She obeys, and is beaten to death by the ensign with a stocking full of sand; the Moor accusing her the while, and she protesting her innocence. Then they break her skull, and pulling down the ceiling of the room, which is old, they cry out that the house is falling. People rush in, and find her dead under the beams, and she is buried without suspicion of her fate. But her husband becomes moody, almost insane, for her loss, hates his accomplice, and dismisses him from his service. In revenge, the ensign tells the lieutenant that it was the Moor who wounded him in the thigh, because he suspected him with his wife; and he adds the truth about Desdemona's death, omitting his own share in the deed. The lieutenant accuses the Moor to the Venetian Senate, and produces the ensign as his witness. The Moor is arrested and tortured, but confesses, nothing. After a long imprisonment he is sent into perpetual exile, during which he is killed by his wife's kinsmen. The ensign having afterward, in the exercise of his innate and spontaneous malignity, accused one of his companions of attempting the murder of an enemy, and the gentleman having been put to the torture, and confessed nothing, his accuser is also tortured, and so violently, that he expires soon afterwards in great agony. From this concise but complete recital of the incidents of Cinthio's tale, we can determine exactly how much Shakespeare was indebted to it for the materials out of which he constructed his tragedy. He found in it his four principal characters, Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, and Iago, and two of less importance — the lieutenant's mistress and the ensign's wife. In the tale, none of these personages, except the ensign, have any noticeable traits of character. We are told, indeed, that the Moor is valiant, Desdemona virtuous, Iago a villain, and his wife an excellent young person, (“onesta giovane.”) But there the characterization—if such it must be called—is at an end; and, with the exception of Iago, we find none of these personages developing even their single attributed trait in action or in speech. Of the complex psychological structure of the various personages in the tragedy, and their harmonious mental and moral action, there is not even a rudimentary hint in the story. And as regards the dramatic movement of the play, its resemblance to the story is of very little more importance. The entire first Act, except the brief opening and closing interviews between Iago and Roderigo, is developed from the bare statements that the Moor was very valiant, prudent, and capable, (“molto valoroso . . . di gran prudenza, e di vivace ingegno,”) the lady virtuous and beautiful, (“una virtuosa donna, di maravigliosa bellezza,”) that she loved the Moor for his nobility of character, (“dalla virtà del Moro d' innamorè di lui,”) and that her family strongly urged another marriage upon her, (“ancora che i parenti della donna facessero ció che poterono, perchè ella altro marito si prendesse che lui.”) The whole of the second Scene — that in which Brabantio upbraids Othello, and of the third, in which the father's appeal to the Senate elicits from Othello the manner of his wooing, and from Desdemona the nature of her love for him, have no other external source than the brief clauses which have just been quoted. And, although in the after development of the action there is a striking similiarity of incident between the tragedy and the novel, it is yet more noticeable that this likeness consists merely in the identity of certain points which mark progress towards the catastrophe. Like a railway and a road from the same starting point to the same terminus, the novel and the tragedy cross each other's tracks at certain stages of the journey; but in the intervals they are as wide apart as they can be separated by the mightiest forces of nature and of art; the one pursuing a direct but graceless, uninteresting, and uninforming course from point to point; the other guiding itself by the natural laws which the former defies and violates, and lead
* The tale appears in the original Italian, and in an English translation, as a part of Mr. Collier's Shakespeare's Library.