Studies in letters and life/Some Actors' Criticisms of Othello, Iago, and Shylock



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 what Dr. Furness says in behalf of actors as useful critics; but without further reasoning, one may invite attention to some considerations in regard to Othello suggested by quotations from memoirs of the profession and other records, and especially from Booth's annotated acting-copy, extracts from which, although not made with any view to publication, may be found in the Variorum 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," Booth says "(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 Iago'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 after-thought, 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. Shakespeare gives the key-note 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 Iago'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.

There is more scope for different interpretations in Othello's case than in Iago's. 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. The view of those actors who give Othello a ferocity of emotion because he is a Moor, or of 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 deserves no sympathy. 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. 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 it 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 with a difference: one tempts to excess in ferocity, the other in pathos; but either is consistent with the text. After all, it is with great actors as with poets,—their creations 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.

It is a striking quality in the immortality of The Merchant of Venice that it has survived a change in the public mind in its attitude toward the Jewish people. To the Elizabethans, and Shakespeare among them, the Jew was hateful. It may well be questioned to what extent Shakespeare himself, with all the tolerance that his understanding of the springs of human nature gave him, felt the pity in the dramatic situation of Shy lock that a modern audience must feel. Booth's conception of Shakespeare's creation is too direct and natural not to justify itself to the student,—"'an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.' It has been said that he was an affectionate father and a faithful friend. When, where, and how does he manifest the least claim to such commendation? Tell me that, and unyoke! 'T was the money value of Leah's ring that he grieved over, not its association with her, else he would have shown some affection for her daughter, which he did not or she would not have called her home 'a hell,' robbed and left him. Shakespeare makes her do these un-Hebrew things to intensify the baseness of Shylock's nature. If we side with him in his self-defense, 't is because we have charity, which he had not; if we pity him under the burden of his merited punishment, 't is because we are human, which he is not, except in shape, and even that, I think, should indicate the crookedness of his nature." Booth goes on to justify this traditional conception by an easy argument against the notion of "the heroic Hebrew," the type of the vengeance of a persecuted race, whose wrongs justify its acts. He refers to the "dangerous 'bit of business'" when Shylock whets his knife. "Would the heroic Hebrew have stooped to such a paltry action? No, never, in the very white-heat of his pursuit of vengeance! But vengeance is foreign to Shylock's thought; 't is revenge he seeks, and he gets just what all who seek it get,—'sooner or later,' as the saying is."

This characterization is not too vigorous, nor does it go too far. We may find it not only in Shylock as Shakespeare drew him, but reflected also from Antonio. It is in Antonio personally that the attitude of the mediæval Christian toward the Jew is found. The unexplained melancholy of Antonio, his fidelity in high-minded friendship, and the dignity of his bearing under the cruelty to which he is exposed have obscured to us the other side of his character as the Rialto merchant. We see more of Bassanio's Antonio than of Shylock's: the man who had interfered with the usurer in every way and personally maltreated him, and was as like to do the same again; the proud, hard-hearted, and insulting magnifico whom Shylock hated for himself. Antonio is every whit as heartless to the Jew in the hour of his triumph as Shylock was to him when the balance leaned the other way. His cruelty is lacking only in the physical element; it is not bloody, but it goes to the bone and marrow of Shylock's nature none the less. There is no sign that Shakespeare saw any wrong in all this. It was thus that the Christians looked upon the Jews, and they thought such treatment right. Shakespeare differed from others—from Marlowe, for example, in his delineation of the Jew at Malta—in one point only: he was able to take Shylock's point of view, to understand his motives, to assign the reasons with which revenge justified its own motions; in a word, to represent Shylock's humanity. The speeches he puts into the Jew's mouth are intense and eloquent expressions of the reasoning of that "lodged hate" in his bosom; they are true to fact and to nature; on our ears they come with overwhelming force, and it is impossible to our thoughts that Shakespeare could have written them without sympathy for the wrongs that they set forth with such fiery heat. But when from this it is argued that Shakespeare, in writing this play, made a deliberate plea for toleration, and carried it as far as the necessities of his plot and the temper of his times permitted, then it is needful to remind ourselves of what Booth calls "the baseness of Shylock's nature." Shakespeare did represent him as base, with avarice, cunning, and revenge for the constituent elements of his character; he did not hesitate to let the exhibition of these low qualities approach the farcical, as he would never have done had he thought of the Jew as in any sense heroic. Shylock had suffered insult and wrong, but there was nothing in him individually to excite commiseration. From beginning to end he shows no noble quality. Modern sympathy with him, apart from the pity that tragedy necessarily stirs, is social sympathy, not personal; it is because he is an outcast and belongs to an outcast race, because every man's hand is against him and against all his people, that the audience of this century perceives an injustice inherent in his position itself, antecedent to, and independent of, any of his acts; and this injustice is ignored in the play. The feeling which Shylock, as a person, excites, and should excite, is nearer that which Lady Martin describes as her experience: "I have always felt in the acting that my desire to find extenuations for Shylock's race and for himself leaves me, and my heart grows almost as stony as his own. I see his fiendish nature fully revealed. I have seen the knife sharpened to cut quickly through the flesh, the scales brought forward to weigh it; have watched the cruel, eager eyes, all strained and yearning to see the gushing blood welling from the side 'nearest the heart,' and gloating over the fancied agonies and death-pangs of his bitter foe. This man-monster, this pitiless, savage nature, is beyond the pale of humanity; it must be made powerless to hurt. I have felt that with him the wrongs of his race are really as nothing compared with his own remorseless hate. He is no longer the wronged and suffering man; and I longed to pour down on his head the 'justice' he has clamored for, and will exact without pity." Upon this matter Spedding admits of no reply. "The best contribution," he says, "which I can offer to this discussion is the expression of an old man's difficulty in accepting these new discoveries of profound moral and political designs underlying Shakespeare's choice and treatment of his subjects. I believe he was a man of business,—that his principal business was to produce plays which would draw.... But if, instead of looking about for a story to 'please' the Globe audience, he had been in search of a subject under cover of which he might steal into their minds 'a more tolerant feeling toward the Hebrew race,' I cannot think he would have selected for his hero a rich Jewish merchant plotting the murder of a Christian rival by means of a fraudulent contract, which made death the penalty of non-payment at the day, and insisting on the exaction of it. In a modern Christian audience it seems to be possible for a skillful actor to work on the feelings of an audience so far as to make a man engaged in such a business an object of respectful sympathy. But can anybody believe that in times when this would have been much more difficult, Shakespeare would have chosen such a case as a favorable one to suggest toleration to a public prejudiced against Jews?"

The omnipresent devil's advocate has several times come to Shylock's defense with a legal plea. Those who could find something to urge in extenuation of Judas Iscariot had an easy task in showing that the Jew of Venice was more sinned against than sinning. The decisions of the young doctor who came armed with the recommendation of the learned Bellario have been overruled in every court of appeal. The bond itself is declared invalid, inasmuch as it contained an immoral proviso in the article that sought Antonio's death; the attempt to defeat it, its validity having once been granted, by denying the right to draw blood and requiring the exact amount of a pound of flesh to be cut out, is characterized as a wretched quibble, and set aside on the ground that a right once allowed carries with it the minor rights to make it effectual; the denial of the original debt for the reason that it had been tendered and refused in open court is declared a gross error, such tender having no other result than to destroy any claim for interest subsequently. But not to mention all the grave reasons alleged to break down the reputation of the Court of Venice and show the illegality of its judgments, it is clear that on legal grounds the case was very badly managed, and in the event the Jew met with no better fortune than was the lot of his race before an unscrupulous and hostile tribunal everywhere. Nevertheless, the disputants upon the other side, who allege the substantial justice of the decisions rendered, do well to remove the discussion out of the plane of legality. There is much that is weighty in their argument. Shylock must be regarded as standing, after the nature of Judaism, for the law as a thing of the letter; this is the justice which he demands, not real, but literal; and if, by a still more strict interpretation of the letter of the bond than he had thought of, his claim was defeated, the audience will acknowledge the relevancy of the new point that is made, and will enjoy the spectacle of the Biter Bit, in which there is always an element of comic justice. As to the quibble involved, that belongs to the nature of literal interpretation always. Thus the matter is not without defense even on this level. But what really pleases the audience is not the method, but the fact, of the Jew's defeat; and in the fact, however brought about, lies the ethical element, the victory of real over illusory justice, of equity over legality, of the right over the pretense of right. Shakespeare was not expressly philosophical; but there is little straining of the facts of the case in the view that in the discomfiture of that "law" which the Jew invoked, in the signal defeat inflicted on the letter of the bond, there is a suggestion of the conflict between Judaism and Christianity, the literal and the spiritual, the law and that justice with its elements of mercy into which the law develops, which is one of the great phases of historical civilization. Whether Shakespeare put it there is immaterial; but that a modern audience finds it there, and that it was at least dimly present to an Elizabethan audience, is hardly to be questioned. The idea is a simple and ancient one; and in it is to be found whatever ethical meaning the play may have.

But it ought to be always remembered that the primary endowment of Shakespeare was the artistic temperament: he was a poet first, and everything else afterwards. To say this is the same thing with saying—though it must be stated briefly—that the ethical principle in him was a necessity of the imagination, not of the understanding; was vision rather than inference; was a part and not the whole. One can no more imagine life truly without ethics than he can imagine mass without cohesion; a creative genius, consequently, a man of imagination all compact, does not necessarily start from ethics in moulding his works, but it is more likely that the moral principle which his works must contain as a part of their reality will be secondary and derivative. Shakespeare is ethical because he imagined life truly; he did not imagine life truly because he had thought out, in Lord Bacon's manner, the general principles of morals.