Othello's Models II
Before moving on to the way that Shakespeare used his characterization of Brutus to inform his portrait of Othello, we should pause and continue our thoughts about Cassius. As I argued in the previous essay, Shakespeare used his portrait of Cassius in Act V of Julius Caesar to shape Othello. Both Cassius and Othello jumped to conclusions, moving from inconclusive data which they did not directly perceive (i.e., data that had to be interpreted to them) to an immediate conclusion leading eventually to death. Shakespeare has Messala raise the haunting question in reference to Cassius, a question that also pertains to Othello:
"O hateful error, melancholy's child,/ Why dost thou show to the apt [i.e., ready to be deceived] thoughts of men/ The things that are not (JC 5.3.67-69)?"
In other words, why is it that people are so ready to be misled by things that are not truly the case? Is error a function of melancholy? That is, are people more prone to make erroneous and harmful decisions, to misconstrue information, when they are sad? Or is it just error itself that is sired by melancholy and that error, as it were, has in its "genes" the capacity and interest in shedding its message of melancholy throughout the world? Why do humans rush to judgment, and often in a negative way, even when information is out there that could alleviate the suffering that midjudgment will certainly bring in its wake? To explore this problem more deeply, Shakespeare also modeled Othello on Julius Caesar's Brutus.
Just as it was only one aspect of Cassius' character (proneness to precipitate action) that underlay Othello's characterization, so it is only one aspect of Brutus that will affect Othello's description. In Julius Caesar Brutus is the "big name" that joins the conspiracy against Caesar. Cassius works hard in 1.2 to win him over, and in 2.1 Brutus wrestles in his mind whether to join it. He says:
"since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,/ I have not slept./ Between the acting of a dreadful thing/ And the first motion, all the interim is/ Like a phantasma or a hideous dream./ The Genius and the mortal instruments/ Are then in council; and the state of a man,/ Like to a little kingdom, suffers then/ The nature of an insurrection (JC 2.1.61-69)."
The thing Shakespeare uses from this description of Brutus in Othello's characterization is the concept of what happens between the proposal ("the first motion") and the actual effecting ("the acting") of a fearful plot ("a dreadful thing"). In this interval, which may be a brief or a long one, there is an inner conflict because the higher and lower elements within ("The Genius and the mortal instruments") are in tension, and the resulting feeling is continuous inner turmoil ("the nature of an insurrection"). This not only describes Brutus's inner struggles with the conspiracy but even more aptly captures Othello's mental upheaval from 3.3 to 4.2 where Othello's mind suffered "the nature of an insurrection."
Therefore, a fruitful way to study Othello's seemingly contradictory thoughts in 3.3 to 4.2 is to see them as elements of an insurrectionary upheaval that alternatively ebbs, flows, erupts and is calm. On the one hand, he says to Iago in 3.3 that his desire for Desdemona's blood is now unyielding. Iago has said, "Patience, I say; your mind perhaps may change (3.3.452)." Othello responds by repeating the word "never" four times and adds to this icy determination the frigid picture of the Black Sea's unremitting flow.
"Never, Iago. Like to the Pontic Sea,/ Whose icy current and compulsive course/ Nev'r feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on/ To the Propontic and the Hellespont,/ Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,/ Shall nev'r look back, nev'r ebb to humble love,/ Till a capable and wide revenge/ Swallow them up (3.3.453-460)."
Noteworthy in this description is also Othello's conviction that his "compulsive course" will never "ebb to humble love"--i.e., will never be leavened with mercy or never recover the patience and love that he has had for Desdemona until this time. Several other indications of Othello's resolute firmness against Desdemona could be cited (including his entire conversation with Desdemona in 3.4.32-98).
Then, on the other hand, Othello will also be moved to softer words and thoughts, words that might even be characterized as "humble love." This is especially apparent in 4.1 before he slaps Desdemona (4.1.240). The next mini-essay will consider closely the flow of 4.1.170-190 to show how Othello's mind was divided when thinking of Desdemona.
Eventually the inner voice of compassion, of "humble love," will be stilled in Othello's breast even as he "stills" Desdemona from breathing in 5.2. But in portraying Othello's march to judgment, Shakespeare is clever enough to show that it is not simply a steely resolve that overtakes Othello in 3.3 and remains unexamined. Instead, using the insurrectionary language of Brutus, Shakespeare shows Othello as subject to the inner revolution that he only adumbrated briefly and inadequately in Brutus. Thus, in Othello we see not only the development of a valuable insight into human nature (internal insurrection between the decision and effecting of a horrendous deed) but the efflorence of a dramatist into full and arresting bloom.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long