Furness's Othello

A VOLUME of the Variorum edition of Shakespeare may be tedious to some, but for our part we read it gladly. Where else would one find such variety of subject, such change in intellectual exercise, such diversities of human nature ? If you have a taste for correcting proof, its most aristocratic form is emending a text, and here in this volume of Othello 1 is the Folio version exactly reprinted, with the Quarto readings pendent, and the guesses of a score of editors besides to make your task more interesting; or is your inclination for philology, here are antique words and constructions to furnish forth a dozen grammarians’ funerals ; or is it old-fashioned costume, or noble Venetian chronicle, or mediæval story-telling, or Kean’s last night, or perchance Teutonic metaphysics and the moral imperative in æsthetics, that you affect, you shall be provided for. Where else would one meet with more humorous illustrations of the old adage that only a wise man knows his own ignorance ? Time was, some three hundred years ago, when the master of English speech wrote a tragedy to be played before the unlettered vulgar ; the muddle-pated fellows heard, applauded, and went away, and never guessed how little they understood it all; and the world has been listening ever since in a thousand theatres, with the same natural ears, to the drama that Shakespeare made, and still the audience disperses with the notion that it knows why that bed was so tragically loaded. But the wise man has been sitting in his study poring over the playbook for a century; and many a ranged folio, very tall, now attests the voluminous discovery he has made of the things he did n’t know. He has cogitated over many a hard matter. Othello was a gentleman of color, it is not to be gainsaid ; but oh, was be, could he have been, black? The wise man (and much more the wise woman) has mused upon that. Othello did the murder; but the gentle lady’s face was as “ pale as her smock,” and she spoke after the breath was out of her, — “ Can such things be without our special wonder ?” A coroner’s jury of doctors has set upon the case: verdict, “ Fracture of the cricoid cartilage of the larynx.” The wise man

— but it is better to smile and be grateful. The commentator has honorably striven to recover the true text, the very, golden words of Shakespeare’s quill. Where meaning has gone out of them, he has brought it back; and he has dug out of the grave a quantity of information which those same dull apprentices of old had in their heads, just because they had the luck to live when Shakespeare did, but which the world has willingly let die. Intellectual curiosity, too, might find less happy huntinggrounds than the sources and dates of these plays, and psychological analysts might do much worse than vivisect lago. Here is the best original text of Othello, with all important variations and emendations, an admirable abstract, just, fair-minded, and reasonable, of the comment on the play, wherever found, and brief studies that abridge the learning and criticism which have gathered about the more general topics involved. The whole is a cyclopædia of our play, profitable for study, entertainment, and reference ; before it is put upon the shelf let us consider but one thing it suggests, — how acting throws light upon Shakespeare’s masterpieces.

There is a common opinion among men of the closet that to see Shakespeare acted is to see him burlesqued. It is not without excuse, for any representation of the great characters must clash with one’s own idea of them, and it is too much to hope for a company entirely satisfactory in the minor rôles. But Shakespeare wrote his plays to be acted, and he knew well that words were only a part of the means of expression to be used, that gesture and voice were to count, and that the purely material business of the stage could be relied on to show the links of the action and perfect its unity. It is most likely that as he was an actor and manager himself, and knew the Globe (both stage and pit) as well as he knew Montaigne or Plutarch, he had in mind, as he composed his scenes, both the theatrical setting and the traits of the players who were to exhibit his imaginations. If one had looked in at a rehearsal when he was training the company, it is conceivable that one might have learned very much of his meaning from the rendering of it; the tradition of his stage would have been an excellent commentary. Then we should know whether Hamlet was aware of Polonius and the King hiding to trap him with his love for Ophelia, and whether Iago failed to dispatch Cassio because he saw Lodovico and Gratiano approaching, and other such matters. Incidents essential to the clearness of the action may have taken place on the stage, without being indicated by any words in the text. So, too, the general conception of the character and the manner of its representation would show, with some probability Shakespeare’s own interpretation, if only some record of Burbage’s methods should turn up. But the tradition of that stage is practically nothing now; it is as irrecoverable as if it had been burnt in the Globe fire. Nevertheless, Mr. Furness thinks that some aid, some illumination, though not so authoritative, may be gained by attending to what the great actors of later times have thought about the meaning of Shakespeare, albeit they played their criticisms instead of writing them in books. The view is an eminently just one. An actor of genius, at the moment of impersonating (either in imagination or in fact) a character of Shakespeare’s, is probably nearer to the dramatist’s creative mood than any one else can get, except possibly the poet born. He may, to use a phrase of Booth’s, in speaking of this mode of coming to an understanding of Shakespeare, “ hit it ” by the mere force within that bears him naturally on. Or, to take the case in which his sympathy with the rôle is imperfect, he may perceive wherein he is defective more clearly by his conscious failure than by any analysis. Again, the difficulties that arise from not knowing how Shakespeare put the play on the stage may not be solved rightly, it is true, by the moderns ; but the conclusions of the acting fraternity on these matters are much more worthy of weight than those of men unacquainted with the practical working of that “ business ” which is a sort of cement for the scenes. Support could be found from many quarters for this claim put forward by Mr. Furness in behalf of the actors as useful critics; but without wearying the reader with further reasoning, we wall assume that he is quite willing to accord to the modern stage an authority similar to that of Shakespeare’s own, and on this understanding we shall invite his attention to some considerations suggested by Mr. Furness’s quotations from memoirs of the profession and other records, and especially from Booth’s annotated acting-copy, which, although not made with any view to publication, he has been allowed to use freely for this edition of the play.

Mr. White, in his satirical essay upon The Acting of Iago, expresses the opinion that all the modern impersonations are inadequate, and that the fault springs from a radical misconception of the character. Theatrical companies are made up, every one knows, with an actor for each of the varieties of human nature which are usual in a play ; so far as character is concerned, they enact types. Iago, of course, falls to the lot of the “ heavy villain,” whose aim, in stage life, is to do his wickedest always, everywhere, and in as many guises as possible; he is continually pointing to the mark of Cain on his forehead, so that there shall be no mistake about his identity. " I think,” says Booth, — and the criticism holds all the meat of Mr. White’s essay in a nutshell, — " the light comedian should play the villain’s part, not the ‘ heavy man ;’ I mean the Shakespearean villains.” In consonance with this is his reiterated advice to his Iago to think evil all the time, but not to show it; to be the prince of good fellows, inexhaustible in bonhomie, genial, jovial, gentlemanly, — the friend and pleasant companion whom every one liked, whom Desdemona trifled with, and Cassio respected for his soldiership, and Othello trusted as a man as faithful in love as he was wise in the world. " A certain bluffness,” says Booth, " (which my temperament does not afford), should be added to preserve the military flavor of the character : in this particular I fail utterly ; my Iago lacks the soldierly quality.” So far, certainly, Booth does not differ from Mr. White in his conception of the bearing, the outward manner and sensible aspect, of the Venetian liar. Let us look at it from Mr. White’s point of view : " Edwin Booth’s Iago is not externally a mere hardened villain, but a super-subtle Venetian, who works out his devilish plans with a dexterous lightness of touch and smooth sinuosity of movement that suggest the transmigration of a serpent into human form. And in his visage, and, above all, in his eye, burns the venom of his soul. . . . But even Edwin Booth’s Iago, although much finer and more nearly consistent with itself and with the facts of the tragedy than any other that is known to the annals of the stage, is not the Iago that Shakespeare drew.” But what is it that is lacking? Mr. White paints Iago as the popular flatterer, the sympathetic sycophant, the gay, easy-going, pleased, and pleasing fellow; and so far as the side shown to the world is concerned, this is Booth’s conception, and (allowing for the defect of soldier-like frankness which he feels in himself) it is his impersonation. Why is it not, then, Shakespeare’s Iago? Mr. White is ready with his answer : Because Shakespeare’s Iago would do no harm, except to advance his fortunes ; he had no malice ; he was merely selfish, utterly unscrupulous as to his means of obtaining what he sought, ready to win his gain at any ruin. Now, it is clear that the evil which Mr. White has just said burns in the actor’s eye is not mere selfishness, not the cold light of calculation simply, with no more rooted passion ; it is just what Mr. White says Iago did not have, — it is malice. So one gets the hint; and on searching the remarks of Booth to see what indications there are of his conception of the essence of lago’s soul, the spring of his motive, the changing emotions that enveloped his thoughts at their birth, one perceives at once that, while Booth would have Iago outwardly amiable, he has not the least idea of reducing the dye of villainy in which the character has been steeped by those of old time. Inside, Booth has no doubt, Iago was a spirit of hate, and he knows at what moments of anxious interest, at what crises of the temptation and the plotting, this will gleam out in the expression of the eye, or in those slight tell-tale changes which are natural to the most self-possessed man, and are significant to us only because we are on the watch for them. By observing, consequently. with what passages he connects this devilish malignancy of nature in Iago, one can judge, as between him and Mr. White, what justification he has for making Iago cruel as well as selfish, and revengeful as well as ambitious. Mr. White’s theory is that Iago wished to supplant Cassio, and ruined Desdemona in order to accomplish this end ; that he used his suspicion of Othello’s intimacy with his wife almost as an afterthought, to bolster up his purpose with an excuse; and that, having chosen his method with perfect indifference to its morality or its humanity, he overreached himself and failed. This view may gain upon one by its plausible and emphatic setting forth, just as pleas for Judas Iscariot or any other client of a clever devil’s advocate may do, but only momentarily ; for when one attempts to adjust the speeches of Iago, word by word and line by line, to this conception, especially with such notes of direction and caution as these of Booth’s to the actor, echoing the text, as they do, through all modulations of suspicion, suspense, and suppressed passion, the idea of an Iago without malice simply dissolves, and leaves not a rack behind. In reality, this new notion of Mr. White’s is only the old story that Iago is motiveless, which has disturbed so many critics, and given occasion to such marvelous explanations of his villainy. The disparity between the moral causes and the mortal results, between the errors and the penalties of the victims, has been widely felt; the attempt is consequently made to ascribe a cause for the catastrophe that shall justify it to the reason; and naturally one writer has over-accented and exaggerated one element in the play, and a second writer another element, and so on ; but Mr. White bears away the palm from all in his assertion that Iago did all the mischief just to get on in the world, and that the only reason it was so great was because of the unlimited power for harm in the union of ability to flatter with utter unscrupulousness in a man’s make-up. The fact is that Shakespeare gives the keynote of the action in the very first words Iago utters, unheard except by his own bosom. What was the first thought on his lips then ? “I hate the Moor.” And perhaps in that most difficult moment of the rôle, the climax of lago’s fate, the elder Booth was right in making the expression of this intense enmity dominant in “ the Parthian look which Iago, as he was borne off, wounded and in bonds, gave Othello,— a Gorgon stare, in which hate seemed both petrified and petrifying.” In this matter the actors seem to carry it over the editor, who, indeed, was in that essay a better social satirist than Shakespearean scholar; and, to our mind, the conception of Mr. White is too inharmonious, also, with the intellectual power and the delight in its exercise so marked in Shakespeare’s and in Booth’s Iago.

A word must be said—for so much only is left to us — of Othello. There is more scope for different interpretations in his case than in Iago’s. The manners of Kean, Fechter, and Booth in this part are described with most fullness. There is some brief account of other actors, but these three illustrate well enough that dramatic criticism of Shakespeare which the stage is unconsciously making, from generation to generation, and which Mr. Furness has done his best to incorporate with the mass of literary and philological matter which forms the bulk of his notes ; for though we give our attention exclusively to the actors’ part in the criticism of this play, it is not to be supposed that this is, comparatively, very large, while what there is of it is so scattered that it seems even less. Othello, it is obvious to any one of the least insight, is a character in whom temperament counts for so much more than anything else as practically to possess the whole man : his actions proceed directly from his nature ; his doubts and suspicions act at once upon his heart, and are converted into emotion of the most simple and primitive type almost instantaneously; his mental agony itself tends to become blind physical suffering ; he does not think, —he feels. It is in the expression of temperament that the actor is left most free by the dramatist, is least shackled by words, and oftenest relies upon other modes of utterance, among which (we too easily forget) language is only one.

In Othello, consequently, who is the creature of his temperament, the actor influences the character to an unusual degree; and as the range of feeling is from the lowest notes of tender happiness to the explosions of unlimited despair, the way in which the actor conceives of feeling, his ideas of what makes it noble and of the manner in which a grand nature would express it, affect the play profoundly. A certain bent has been given to the stage interpretation and also to criticism by the notion that Shakespeare meant to exhibit in Othello a barbaric passion, the boiling up of a savage nature, the Oriental fervor and rashness, the dæmon of the Moorish race. Yet nothing is plainer in Shakespeare than his utter disregard of historical accuracy ; he never depicted a race type, except the Jewish. If Theseus is an Athenian, or Coriolanus or Cæsar himself a Roman, then Othello may be a Moor ; but it is most conformable to the facts to regard them all as simply ideal men, who take from their circumstances a color of nationality and a place in time, but who are essentially all of one race. We have, therefore, no sympathy with the view of those actors who give Othello a ferocity of emotion because he is a Moor, or with those critics who discern in the violence and brute unreason of some players in this part something to praise on the score of Othello’s birth under a hot Mauritanian sun. The Oriental touch in the impersonation ought not to go beyond such slight signs and tokens as the crescent scimiter, — of which Booth says, “It is harmless,” — if we are to keep to Shakespeare’s art as something better than a costumer’s. We dare to say that Othello does not exhibit one extravagance that requires to be excused by the reflection that it is natural to an alien race, though not to the English. But within the limits of the character conceived as merely ideal, there is a fine opportunity for difference among actors, and they have availed themselves of it. To indicate what we refer to by a word, Othello’s passion seems to have been the cardinal thought of Kean, irresistible, compulsive as “ the Pontick Sea.” impressive by its main force and elemental sweep; Fechter, whose conception of nobleness of nature was a poor one, sank all the heroic in the melodrama to which the situations lent themselves ; and Booth, giving far more distinctness to Othello’s suffering, so that his revenge becomes hardly more than an incident in the course of his own soul’s torture, reveals the scene of the tragedy at once as in Othello’s breast, where the spirit of evil is feeding on a mighty but guileless heart. It is not Desdemona’s death that is the climax, — that is mere pity; but the tragic element finds its conclusion in Othello’s last speech and stroke. The intensity of Kean or the ideality of Booth, working upon the tragic temperament in each, must produce Othello’s with a difference : one tempts excess in ferocity, the other in pathos; but either is consistent with the text. After all, it is with great actors as with poets, — thencreations partake of their own nature, in all heroic and ideal parts; but if, as is thought, sympathy is the best revealer of the inner meaning of works of the imagination, certainly the disciplined and habitual enacting of great rôles by actors of genius ought to be a source of light and knowledge regarding them, notwithstanding the allowance that is to be made for the “ personal error ” of individuality. In reading these notes, too, one gets nearer to the actor’s ideal, perhaps, than in the theatre : there one receives the impression, and is carried on, with too little consciousness of why and wherefore ; but the synthesis that is made on the stage is here to be read analytically and to be reflected on. We are convinced that for the student of dramatic literature for its own sake, for the man of letters as distinguished from the scholar, these actors’ notes will prove a most valuable portion of the illustrations of Shakespeare’s meaning. They are not merely a literary curiosity or a matter of entertainment; but they are tools — for him who can use them.

  1. A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare. Edited by HORACE HOWARD FURNESS. Vol. VI., Othello. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.