The "Compulsive Course" of 'Othello'

G.A. Wilkes


One tendency in Othello criticism in the twentieth century has culminated in an image of the Moor as "a kind of dazed, unhappy bull with Iago as a clever matador dancing round him". This shows the continuing effect of the Bradleyan anxiety about where, in Shakespearean tragedy, the "responsibility" for the outcome is to be fixed, and how the blame is to be apportioned. Critics examining Othello from these premises have found the Moor only too accountable for the disaster that overtakes him. Even the apportionment of responsibility between himself and Iago has turned to Othello's disadvantage, with Dr Leavis concluding that the secret of Iago's power is that "he represents something that is in Othello . . . the essential traitor is within the gates". The implication of this view, logically pursued, would be to cancel Othello from the list of Shakespearean tragedies. It would become the sordid chronicle of an ignoble figure who eventually meets the death he deserves. While this may be an accurate account of the tale Shakespeare found in Cinthio, I hesitate to apply it to the vastly different play he created from that material.

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