III. Othello's Cause
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III. Othello's Cause ι IN Othello, thecourse of the action seems all tooplain. Instead of struggling, as in Hamlet, to make sense of what is going on, we feel compelled to stop it. "Don't listen to him!" we say as Iago talks to Othello,and "Don't do it!"as he prepares to strangle Desdemona. Othello is probably, of all tragedies, the one in which the audience comes closest to intervening in the action—at any performance you will hear people talking about this feeling during intermission, usually with surprise. Indeed, one reason Othello strikes us as such a clear and simple play is that our reaction makes us feel so strongly, so unmistakably, the direction the play is going. How important is this reaction? Surely, one might say, it comes about simply because Iago is the most melodramatic of Shakespeare's villains. Perhaps he is, but consider some interesting comparisons. Even when Edmund is at his most melodramatic and Iago-Iike with his father and Edgar, my impression is that audience reaction is never so intensely interventionary . And among the less mature plays, Aaron the Moor is surely as melodramaticas Iago, butwe don't feel that special tug—the almost unbearable need to break in. If we are to understand Othello properly as a work of the theatrical imagination, we must come to terms with this emphatically solicited response. Now, of course it is true that other strong emotions are aroused by the play. Marvin Rosenberg, for example, points out that Othello has always been notable for its power to cause tears.1 Still, even here the fact is that we see the tears coming a long way off and wish to stop the process that will Othello's Cause cause them. We feel the possibility of tears rising through an action we yearn in vain to interrupt. That hopeless yearning— our sense that what Iago is doing to Othello is excruciating— is special to this tragedy. To understand it, though, and to understand why Shakespeare cultivates it so thoroughly, we must look with some careat theemotional pivot of the action, the point where we wish to intervene. This point is communicated to us not so much as a place in the play's external sequence of events as a stage in the action of Othello's mind. Forall its apparentsimplicity, Othello, like Hamlet, elaborates a spectrum-like view of the process of human action and makes us sensitive to a problematic relation among different segments of the arc. It is particularly concerned with the sequence by which experience of events in the outside world gets translated into action based on that experience. A striking emblem of this concern may be found in a well-known phrase of Othello's which forces reader and actor alike to puzzle for a moment about the motive—the proceeding toward action—it describes. "It is the cause, it is the cause," says Othello as he prepares to kill Desdemona— and we are forced to search for the cause of this cause. We ask, as the actor must ask, not only what is this cause which Othello cannot name, but why he cannot name it and why he must so urgently focus on its existence and quality. "It," of course, refers to Desdemona's adultery, but in order for us to feel that the speech itself has been effectively caused— motivated—in performance, the actor must have discovered and convincingly participated in the cause of his belief that Desdemona is adulterous. While the line itself is not difficult to understand, it never­ theless points to a central acting problem in Othello, and it reflects a central concern with the nature of action in the play. The actor who plays Othello must find the cause of his cause. His jealousy motivates his rage, but Iago instigates the jeal­ ousy. Whatcauses Othelloto receivethe instigation? Criticism has tended to translate this question into moral terms, sug­ gesting various flaws in Othello's character to account for his Othello's Cause loss of faith in Desdemona, but we instinctively feel that such analysis is beside the point. That Othello might have behaved better is not interesting, any more than it is interesting that Macbeth or Lear or Hamlet might have behaved better. What is interesting about tragic heroes is that they behave the way they do. That Othello shouldn't have been jealous is scarcely the point of his play—but that we nearly cry out...