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THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Shakespeare in this tour-de-main — the “Merry Wives" - reveals the organic nature of the link between romantic and sophisticated comedy. The result is due, perhaps, to sheer haste and indifference on Shakespeare's part. He retains the wit, slashes the characters into fixed types, and elaborates the plot. As a result you have the Comedy of Manners. In another age Shakespeare might easily have become a court dramatist. He would have turned out potboilers with as great facility as he turned out the “Tempest” and “Cymbeline.”
OTHELLO AND HENRY V "OTHELLO" is in one sense the most perfect work of art in literature. There is no excess in it - a thing most rare in Shakespeare. Every facet is true, and casts a ray upward and forward toward the distant focus and burning spot of the climax. For any speech in a play has a complex function. It must arise from the circumstance, explain a character and unfold it a little, oppose the context, move the story on a step, and be in itself something witty and agreeable, or something poetic and profound. Besides all this, it becomes second nature with a playwright to make his characters say things that have a double meaning - one for the audience and one for the stage characters.
And yet the perfection of Othello as a play has been gained at a certain sacrifice of romantic beauty. In “Othello” the inordinate powers of Shakespeare became concentrated upon stage technicalities as the main point. Everything is sacrificed to theatrical effect. There is thus more to be gained and less to be lost in seeing the play (as opposed to reading it), than with most of his dramas. Shakespeare has not been carried away with Desdemona as he is with Juliet and Ophelia and Imogen. Iago seems to be the author's favorite. Shakespeare is perfectly enchanted with Iago; and the character is, I confess, the best stage villain ever invented. Yet Iago is not a human being
he is a
at all; he is not even a true stage character; demon. By the sacrifice of one personage to diabolism and virtuosity, the greatest analyst of human character that the world has known found a framework about which the stage characters of his drama should dance. He obtained from Iago that sort of advantage that the Greek dramatists drew from their chorus, which kept punctuating the story with explanations. Iago has eight soliloquies, in which he explains the innumerable and very complex details on which Othello's suspicions are to hang. These soliloquies are the iron armature that holds up the group of sculpture. They are the centre of the action. They are the sine qua non of the drama. The story does not tell itself, as in “Romeo and Juliet,” but is assisted by machinery.
Is there in the whole history of cynicism anything comparable to the eloquence and magical perfection of Iago's talk ? Real cynicism is sad; Mephistopheles is a dried-up, middle-aged clubman; Milton's Satan is a rhetorician. But Iago is a black angel, full of leaping, spontaneous, electrical vitality. He is, in truth, the Spirit of Evil, with no passions and no habitation; and he ought to have been shown with horns and a tail. But the world has never noted this circumstance. The world accepts Iago as a man, and shudders, feeling nevertheless a little mystified and prejudiced against the play. It is a tragedy of intrigue, and Iago is a figure borrowed from comedy, a precursor of the Barber of Seville. We must not think that Shakespeare adopted his devil-machine intentionally: he was driven into it as a means of working the plot. In order to fulfill his function, Iago must be ubiquitous, in touch with all classes, a social being, a privileged character. This is the reason why he has been compared to an innkeeper. Iago, being the showman of the piece, is never on an even footing with the other characters. The rest seem to be in a hypnotic conspiracy to proclaim him a fine fellow and friend to all. They talk like parrots, using the same words whenever they mention him. “Honest Iago"; "Iago is most honest”; “I never knew a Florentine more kind and honest”; “O that's an honest fellow"; "Full of love and honesty"; “This honest creature"; "This fellow 's of exceeding honesty"; "Nay, stay, thou shouldst be honest"; “O brave Iago, honest and just”; “An honest man he is”; “My friend, thy husband, honest, honest lago.” All this is magnificent play-writing of the sign-board kind.
The scheme of “Othello” is somewhat obvious, somewhat mechanical, and the result is that the catastrophe seems to follow, not from fate or moral causes, but from the machinations of a purposeless devil. And this sharpness of touch is spread over the rest of the play. The dramatic points are everywhere rubbed in to the limit of human endurance. Desdemona is not merely too innocent, but in one place is flatly unnatural. This is where Othello is roaring for the handkerchief (Act III, Scene 4), and she refuses to explain. So also, Emilia, who has witnessed Othello's rage over the lost handkerchief, never explains the situation, although she is represented as a kind-hearted woman and had herself stolen the handkerchief. Particularly crude is the repetition of Iago's mode of dealing with his various dupes, Roderigo, Othello, and Cassio. “I have professed myself thy friend and I confess me knit to thy deserying with cables of perdurable toughness; thou art sure of me”; “I protest in the sincerity of love and honest kindness”; “My lord, you know I love you,” and so on.
Many other examples could be found to show the coarseness of Shakespeare's brush in “Othello.” It is as if some painter with the technical equipment of Velasquez had done a masterpiece in which all the values were slightly forced. Almost every one of Edwin Booth's very remarkable notes on the play, which are printed in Dr. Furness's edition, consists of hints to the actors, telling them how to soften the text by forbearing to do the obvious thing: how to avoid being stagy,
The quantity of stage business in “Othello" injures the poetic temperament of the play as we read it, and almost reduces the great speeches in it to what used to be called the "Beauties of Shakespeare." Not so on the stage. On the stage the characters flock by us, talking and thinking, often talking to themselves, sometimes pursuing two trains of thought at once. Rapid short scenes following one another with no curtains between what a system was this to give life to a play! As an example of swiftness take the second scene of Act I. There are two distinct search-parties who are out after Othello.
Iago. He's married.
(Reënter Othello.) IAGO. Marry, to - Come, Captain, will you go?