Critical essays on Shakespeare's Othello
Othello: A Survey of Criticism - Internet Shakespeare Editions
In addition to prompting a reassessment of Iago, the nineteenth-century view of Shakespeare's characters as expressions of fundamental truths about human nature stimulated a growing interest in Desdemona. This attentiveness to the play's tragic heroine intersected with a notable increase in the number of women's voices contributing to public conversations in the realm of literary criticism, as female actors began lecturing and publishing on the roles they performed on stage, and as women slowly began to be admitted to the ranks of professional scholars of Shakespeare. Among the latter category, Anna Jameson (1794-1860) is notable as the author of the first substantial and systematic discussion of Shakespeare's female characters, a volume published first in 1832 as Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical, and later retitled simply Shakespeare's Heroines. Jameson challenges boldly many of her contemporaries by locating Othello's tragedy not in the plight of its male hero, but rather in the character of its heroine, arguing that "the source of the pathos throughout—of that pathos which at once softens and deepens the tragic effect—lies in the character of Desdemona" (224). Discussing Desdemona at length, Jameson describes her in amusingly patronizing terms as "one in whom the absence of intellectual power is never felt as a deficiency, nor the absence of energy of will as impairing the dignity, nor the most imperturbable serenity as a want of feeling: one in whom thoughts appear mere instincts, the sentiment of rectitude supplies the principle, and virtue itself seems rather a necessary state of being, than an imposed law" (224). Desdemona is, on Jameson's account, a young woman who is neither clever nor dynamic, and whose dominant features—her goodness and gentleness—are both beyond her control and inadequate to ensure her survival: "Desdemona displays at times a transient energy, arising from the power of affection, but gentleness gives the prevailing tone to the character—gentleness in excess—gentleness verging on passivity—gentleness which not only cannot resent—but cannot resist" (218).
Critical essays on othello | scholarly search
As Romantic poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge's (1772-1834) comments on the play illustrate, the conviction that Othello depicts fundamental truths about human nature did not always lead to the sort of condemnation of its central character found in Schlegel. Favoring a view of Othello "not as a negro, but a high and chivalrous Moorish chief"—and thereby providing scholarly support for actor Edmund Kean's so-called "tawny" stage Othello—Coleridge reads the tragic hero's actions as the product not of innate and uncontrollable passions, or even of jealousy, but rather as the consequence of moral indignation and wounded honor, and he argues that by generating an empathetic response in the audience the play is finally sympathetic to Othello (2:350). Coleridge was also fascinated by the figure of Iago, and his assessment of the play's enigmatic villain as a "passionless character, all will in intellect" (1:49) influenced readings of the play for decades. Indeed, Coleridge's claim that Iago's final soliloquy is best understood as "the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity" (1:49) remains one of the most quoted assessments of Iago to this day.