Page images
PDF
EPUB

great surprise. As soon as they had parted, the Moor went to the eosign, to learn wbat had passed between them; and he, after inuch urging, declared that the lieutenant witbbeld nothing from him, but rather boasted of his frequent wickedness with Desdemona, and bow, the last time he was with her, she made him a present of the handkerchief her husband had given her. The Moor thanked him, and thought that if his wife no longer bad the handkerchief, this would be a proof that the ensign had told him the truth. So, one day after dinner he asked her for it; and she, being much disconcerted at the question, and blushing deeply, all which was carefully observed by the Moor, ran to her wardrobe, as if to look for it; but, as she could not find it, and wondered what had become of it, he told her to look for it some other time; then left her, and began to reflect how he might put her and the lieutenant to death so as not to be held responsible for the murder.

The lieutenant bad in his house a woman who, struck with the beauty of the handkerchief, determined to copy it before it should be returned. While sbe was at the work, sitting by a window where any one passing in the street might see her, the ensign pointed it out to the Moor, who was then fully persuaded of his wife's guilt. The ensign then engaged to kill both her and the lieutenant. So, one dark night, as the lieutenant was coming out of a house where he usually spent his evenings, the ensign stealthily gave him a cut in the leg with his sword, and brought him to the ground, and then rushed upon him to finish the work. But the lieutenant, who was very brave and skilful, having drawn his sword, raised himself for defence, and cried out murder as loud as he could. As the alarm presently drew some people to the spot, the ensign fled away, but quickly returned, pretended that he loo was brought thither by the noise, and condoled with the lieutenant as much as if he had been his brother. The next morning, Desdemona, bearing what had happened, expressed much concern for the lieutenant, and this greatly strengthened the Moor's conviction of her guilt. He then arranged with the ensign for putling her to death in such a manner as to avoid suspicion. As the Moor's house was very old, and the ceiling broken in divers places, the plan agreed upon at the villain's suggestion was, that she should be beaten to death with a stocking full of sand, as this would leave no marks upon her; and that when this was done they should pull down the ceiling over her head, and then give out that she was killed by a beam falling upon her. To carry this purpose into effect, the Moor one night had the ensign hidden in a closet opening into his chamber. At the proper time, the ensign made a noise, and when Desdemona rose and went to see what it was, he rushed forth and killed her in the manner proposed. They then placed her on the bed, and when all was done according to the arrangement, the Moor gave an alarm that his house was falling. The neighbours running thither found the lady

morse.

dead under the beams. The next day, she was buried, the whole island mourning for her. The Moor, not long after, became distracted with grief and re

Unable to bear the sight of the ensign, he would have put him openly to death, but that he feared the justice of the Venetians ; so he drove him from his company and degraded him, whereupon the villain went to studying how to be revenged on the Moor. To this end, he disclosed the whole matter to the lieuten.ant, who accused the Moor before the Senate, and called the ensign to witness the truth of his charges. The Moor was imprisoned, banished, and afterwards killed by his wife's relations. The ensign, returning to Venice, and continuing his old practices, was taken up, put to the torture, and racked so violently that he soon died.

Such are the materials out of which was constructed this greatest of domestic dramas. A comparison of Cinthio's tale with the tragedy built upon it will show the measure of the Poet's judgment better, perhaps, than could be done by an entirely original performance. For, wherever he departs from the story, it is for a great and manifest gain of truth and nature ; so that he appears equally judicious in what he borrowed and in what he created, while his resources of invention seem boundless, save as they are .self-restrained by the reason and logic of art. The tale has nothing anywise answering to the part of Roderigo, who in the drama is a vastly significant and effective occasion, since upon him the most profound and subtle traits of lago are made to transpire, and that in such a way as to lift the characters of Othello and Desdemona into a much higher region, and invest them with a far deeper and more pathetic interest and meaning. And even in the other parts, the Poet can scarce be said to have taken any thing more than a few incidents and the outline of the plot; the character, the passion, the pathos, the poetry, being entirely bis own.

Until a recent date, the tragedy of Othello was commonly supposed to have been among the last of Shakespeare's writing. Chalmers assigned it to 1614, Drake, to 1612; Malone at first set it down to 1611, afterwards to 1604. Mr. Collier has produced an extract from “ The Egerton Papers,” showing that on the 6th of August, 1602, the sum of ten pounds was paid “ to Burbage's Players for Othello.” At that time, Queen Elizabeth was at Harefield on a visit to Sir Thomas Egerton, then Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, afterwards Lord Ellesmere ; and it appears that he had the tragedy performed at his residence for her delectation. The company that acted on this occasion were then known as the Lord Chamberlain's Servants, and in the Egerton Papers were spoken of as Burbage's Players, probably because Richard Burbage was the leading actor among them. And an elegy on the death of Burbage, lately discovered among Mr. Heber's manuscripts, ascertains him to have been the original perVOL. X. 33

25

former of Othello's párt. After mentioning various characters in which this actor bad been distinguished, the writer proceeds thus :

“ But let me not forget one chiefest part

Wherein, beyond the rest, he mov'd the heart;
The grieved Moor, made jealous by a slave,
Who sent his wife to fill a timeless grave,

Then slew himself upon the bloody bed." When selected for performance at Harefield, Othello was doubtJess in the first blush and freshness of its popularity, having probably bad a run at the Globe in the spring of that year, and thus recommended itself to the audience of the Queen. Whether the play were then in its finished state, we have no means of ascertaining. Its workmanship certainly bespeaks the Poet's highest matority of power and art; which has naturally suggested, that when first brought upon the stage it may have been as different from what it is now, as tbe original Hamlet was from the enlarged copy. Such is the reasonable conjecture of Mr. Verplanck, conjecture not a little approved by the fact of the Poet's having rewritten so many of his dramas after his mind had outgrown their original form. The style, however, of the play is throughout so even and sustained, so perfect is the coherence and congruity of part with part, and its whole course so free from redundancy and impertinence, that, unless some further external evidence should come to light, the question will bave to rest in mere conjecture.

The drama was not printed during the author's life. On the 6th of October, 1621, it was entered at the Stationers' by Thomas Walkley, “under the bands of Sir George Buck and of the Wardens.” Soon after was issued a quarto pamphlet of fortyeight leaves, the title-page reading thus : “ The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. As it hath been divers times acted at the Globe and at the Blackfriars, by his Majesty's Servants. Written by William Shakespeare. London : Printed by N. O. for Thomas Walkley, and are to be sold at bis shop, at the Eagle and Child, in Britain's Bourse. 1622.This edition was set forth with a short preface by the publisher, which will be found at the end of this Introduction.

In the folio of 1623, Othello stands the tenth in the division of Tragedies, has the acts and scenes regularly marked, and at the end a list of the persons, headed, “The Names of ibe Actors." Iago is here called “a villain," and Roderigo “a gull'd gentleman.” In the folio, the play has a number of passages, some of them highly important, amounting in all to upwards of 160 lines, which are not in the preceding quarto. On the other hand, the folio omits a few lines that are found in the earlier issue. These variations will be specified in our notes, and therefore need not be pointed out here.

The play was again set forth in quartó form in 1630, with a title-page reading substantially the same as that of 1622, save as regards the name and address of the publisher.

Neither one of these copies was merely a repetition of another : on the contrary, all three of them, as the several variations marked in our notes will show, were printed from different and probably independent manuscripts. All

, therefore, are used as authorities in this edition; the folio being taken as the standard, and both the quartos drawn upon for completing and correcting the text. There are, besides, divers various readings in the several copies, which appear to have equal authority, and between which it is not always easy to choose. Wherever the folio text is in any important respect departed from, such departures are duly noted in our mar. gin ; so that the reader can use his own judgment in the matter. It will be seen that the quarto of 1630 is of great value in correcting or confirming the text of the other copies.

The island of Cyprus became subject to the republic of Venice, and was first garrisoned with Venetian troops, in 1471. After this time, the only attempt ever made upon that island by the Turks, was under Selim the Second, in 1570. It was then invaded by a powerful force, and conquered in 1571 ; since which time it has continued a part of the Turkish empire. We learn from the play, that there was a junction of the Turkish fleet at Rhodes, in order for the invasion of Cyprus; that it first sailed towards Cyprus, then went to Rhodes, there met another squadron, and then resumed its course to Cyprus. These are historical facts, and took place when Mustapha, Selim's general, attacked Cyprus, in May, 1570; which is therefore the true period of the action.

In respect of general merit, Oibello unquestionably stands in the same rank with the Poet's three other great tragedies, Macbeth, Lear, and Hamlet. As to the particular place it is entitled to hold among the four, the best judges, as we might expect, are not agreed. In the elements and impressions of moral terror, it is certainly inferior to Macbeth ; in breadth and variety of characterisation, to Lear; in compass and reach of thought to Hamlet : but it has one advantage over all the others, in that the pas. sion, the action, the interest, all lie strictly within the sphere of domestic life; for which cause the play has a more close and intimate hold on the common sympathies of mankind. On the whole, perhaps it may be safely affirmed of these four tragedies, that the most competent readers will always like that best which they read last. We have already, in our Introduction to King Lear, ex. pressed a slight general preference for that drama; but we find it not easy to keep up such preference while either of the others is dwelling more freshly in the mind.

Dr. Johnson winds up his excellent remarks on this tragedy as follows : “ Had the scene opened in Cyprus, and the preceding incidents been occasionally related, there had been little wanting

10 a drama of the most exact and scrupulous regularity.” This means, no doubt, that the play would have been improved by such a change. The whole of Act i. would thus have been spared, and we should have, instead, various narrations in the form of solilo. quy, but addressed to the audience. Here, then, would be two improprieties, - the turning of the actor into an orator by putting him directly in communication with the audience, and the making him soliloquize matter inconsistent with the nature of the soliloquy.

But, to say nothing of the irregularity thus involved, all the better meaning of Act i. would needs be lost in narration. For the very reason of the dramatic form is, that action conveys something which cannot be done up in propositions. So that, if narrative could here supply the place of the scenes in question, it does not appear why there should be any such drama at all. We will go further : This first Act is the very one which could least be spared, as being in effect fundamental to the others, and therefore necessary to the right understanding of them.

One great error of criticism has been, the looking for too much simplicity of purpose in works of art. We are told, for instance, that the end of the drama is, to represent actions; and that, to keep the work clear of redundances, the action must be one, with a beginning, a middle, and an end; as if all the details, whether of persons or events, were merely for the sake of the catastrophe. Thus it is presumed, that any one thing, to be properly understood, should be detached from all others. Such is not the method of nature : to accomplish one aim, she carries many aims along together. And so the proper merit of a work of art, which is its truth to nature, lies in the harmony of divers co-ordinate and concurrent purposes, making it, not like a flat abstraction, but like a round, plump fact. Unity of effect is indeed essential; but unity as distinguished from mere oneness of effect comes, in art as in nature, by complexity of purpose; - a complexity wherein each purpose is alternately the means and the end of the others.

Whether the object of the drama be more to represent action, or passion, or character, cannot be affirmed, because in the nature of things neither of these can be represented save in vital union with the others. If, however, either should have precedence, doubtless it is character, forasmuch as this is the common basis of the other two : but the complication and interaction of several characters is necessary to the development of any one; the persons serving as the play-ground of each other's transpirations, and reciprocally furnishing motives, impulses, and occasions. For every society, whether actual or dramatic, is a concresence of individuals : men do not grow and develop alone, but by and from each other ; so that many have to grow up together in order for any one to grow; the best part even of tbeir individual life coming to them from or through the social organisation. And as men are made, so they must be studied; as no one can grow by him.

« PreviousContinue »