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Module Four

"Othello is a tragedy without meaning and that is the ultimate horror of it."
"Because Othello and Iago are part of every single person in the audience, the play has meaning for everyone."
What support can you find in the play for each of these opinions?
What impact has the play had on you?

Is Othello a tragedy without meaning, or does it have meaning for everyone? I am inclined to agree with the latter interpretation, but there is certainly support for the former view within the text. [ref to both views]

Othello is composed on a smaller, more intimate scale than Shakespeare's other tragedies. It does not concern the fate of kingdoms but is confined to the fall of one man. In some ways, the horror of it is that what happens to Othello is so avoidable—a little more understanding of human nature, a little more trust in the right people, and the hero avoids his fall. In addition, there is no overweening cause for the tragedy to occur save the malignity of Iago: there is certainly horror in the idea that such terrible things can be committed for so petty a cause. Perhaps worse, in the terms of tragedy itself, is the fact that Othello does not appear to come to an understanding of his own flaw, of the reason why he was at fault. TS Eliot suggests that self-love is the hardest thing to overcome, and that in his final speech, Othello is 'cheering himself up', trying to persuade himself once again of his own essential nobility. Muir disputes this view, and I think he has a point—Othello is talking of the fires of hell which are about to consume him, which is hardly a cheering thought. [indeed] Nonetheless, he does not really come to grips with his own failure, and there is horror in this lack of self-knowledge.

I think, however, that it is truer to say that the play actually has meaning for everyone. [cogent] The fact that it is essentially a 'Domestic tragedy' brings events down to a scale to which everyone in the audience can relate, unlike Macbeth or King Lear, where there is a kingdom at stake. There is a warning given by Othello's insights into the fragility of human nature: it is very much a drama of character, and it is in the specific characters that the truths reside.

The hero himself is an outsider. Far from making him alien to the audience, this in many ways brings him closer—we are all outsiders, in our own way, [interesting arg] and can identify with the way Othello subtly does not quite fit in to Venetian society, and does not quite belong. It is of course this sense that he is an outsider that makes him vulnerable, for he is willing to trust Iago's advice on the nature of Venetian women to be sexually voracious and inconstant: Othello is a soldier who has had little experience of women. His blackness is relevant mostly as the external manifestation of his other-ness as well as to some extent the cause of it. [sophist] Being a Moor also makes him vulnerable to the racist attitudes of many within the play (Roderigo and Brabantio are the most explicit, but only Desdemona and perhaps Cassio are free of racism), although Shakespeare's actual portrayal of the Moor is as a largely sympathetic and even admirable character.

It is the fact that Othello is an outsider that makes him vulnerable, but there are also flaws in his character for Iago to seize upon. [moves arg on] At first, Othello is undoubtedly the 'constant, noble' man who is described to us: his response to Brabantio's frothing accusations is a model of restraint, and he conducts himself with great dignity in front of the Venetian lords. He does, however, betray his lack of self-knowledge at times—he asserts that he will speak plainly, but in fact his description of his courtship of Desdemona is beautifully poetic; he also asserts that his sexual appetites have faded, but it is clear that he has a strong sensuality (he appeals to the senses of taste, touch and smell and enjoys Desdemona's charms through all of them), [insight] and he is aroused to intense sexual jealousy by Iago's cleverness. So Othello does not understand himself, as the critic F R Leavis asserts. [others' views] Othello is also moved from better-than-most men, in his nobility, to a near-animal state when Iago has worked on his emotions and brought them to such a pitch that Othello's marvellous command of language is brought down to incoherent syllables and broken phrases. [language] There is a warning here to us all, that within the human being is the base animal, and it is wise to keep it controlled. [interesting insight]

Iago is in many ways a more approachable character than Othello himself, being more down-to-earth, an ordinary man rather than the necessarily larger-than-life hero. Indeed, Iago can be the most attractive character in some ways—he is the force driving the plot, in some ways an avatar for the author himself—and he is also the chief humorist in the play. (Modern audiences are unlikely to be interested in the brief appearances of the Clown, introduced to relieve the tension of the taut plot, and many directors will cut him out altogether.) [An interesting, mature discussion]

Iago expresses motivations for his behaviour with which we can have some sympathy: he has been passed over for promotion in favour of an inexperienced but better-born officer; he suspects Othello of having cuckolded him. But in essence Iago is what Coleridge described—a character who is naturally malign, who needs no other motive than his own twisted hatred of Othello. Perhaps it is simply the natural loathing of the petty-minded for the great-hearted. [well exp] Iago's stated motives certainly do not seem adequate, but it is perfectly believable that he simply hates because... he hates. Bayley sees Iago as a demonic influence, entirely responsible for the ruin of the entirely noble Othello, but I do not agree—if Othello had no flaws there would be nothing for Iago to work on. Besides, Iago is clever, but he is also lucky: there are many points at which his plotting might go awry. Here, Shakespeare's technically brilliant achievement of the 'double time' scheme gives Iago's plots no time to go astray, while simultaneously making the actions and deterioration of Othello plausible.

When closely examined, Iago is a very nasty piece of work. Racist he certainly is; although Othello's blackness is not the cause of Iago's enmity, he expresses his opinion of it quite nastily. Iago is also sexist, having no pleasant feelings towards women at all. He is plainly estranged from his wife in every emotional sense—this is of course his downfall as he fails to understand her potential for unmasking him—and his opinions on the lustfulness of women do seem to be heartfelt, if repellent. He seems quite unable to believe in the possibility of enduring love, and is certain that Desdemona will misbehave. He is also, it seems, obsessed with Desdemona on a sexual level—he simply cannot get the image of her having sex out of his mind, and refers to it frequently and always with noxious vulgarity. Kermode refers to him as 'the foul-mouthed NCO', and this brings in another chip on Iago's shoulder, ie his lower class and status. The frequent references to 'good' and 'honest' Iago are condescending ones, from the higher-caste to the lower—as well as deeply ironic, since Iago is neither.

So Iago's faults are all too recognisable within us, and while they are unattractive, they make him a plausible villain, with much in common with every one of us, even if we do not like to recognise what he shows us.

It might be said that Iago and Desdemona are opposites, or that they and Othello represent three inter-balanced views of human nature. Certainly, by contrast with Desdemona Iago's viciousness comes into greater prominence. She is a mixture of innocence and sophistication—wonderfully poised in the intimidating circumstances of her first appearance, acknowledged as "exquisite" by all, and patently sincere in her unprejudiced love for the Moor. Even Iago is almost overcome by her goodness: she and Emilia, wondering at the terrifying changes in Othello, ponder whether someone may have slandered her—and she expresses a pious forgiveness which is quite beyond Iago's capacity to understand. But he is affected, nonetheless, and in the subsequent scene finds it difficult to speak at first. But, being Iago, he reverts to his chosen purpose nonetheless.

The intensity of the emotions and the unrelenting tension of the play are bound to leave their impression on audience and reader. I do not think that it can ultimately be described as 'without meaning', since there is so much to ponder and regret. The laying bare of different human characteristics increases our understanding of ourselves, just as we see it has failed to do with Othello himself; and the essential, believable humanity of both hero and villain provides a lesson which is well worth hearing. It is clear that the characters are indeed related to each and every one of us, and the horror of the tragedy is not without meaning, but in its potential within all human beings.


Keats believed that a poet should command "the knowledge of contrast, and the feeling for light and shade".
How far does the poetry of Keats reflect this belief? You may, if you wish, refer in detail to two or three of his poems, or range more widely through the selection.

The "knowledge of contrast, and the feeling for light and shade" are expressed in almost every line of Keats' poetry. [ref to ques] It seems to me that the idea of duality is an essential element in his work and thought. The vital tension between pleasure and pain—for which 'light and shade' may be seen as metaphors—is something Keats considered necessary for the formation of the soul. [conceptual] Any attempt to achieve pure pleasure is, or ought to be, doomed: [insight] and pain can be alleviated by the consideration of pleasure in its form of Beauty.

The contrast is unquestionably present, but hardly ever is it a black/white extreme: Keats' images are always overlaid with richness of allusion and interdependency. [modifies idea subtly] In 'The Eve of St Agnes', for example, there are many instances of contrast: cold/heat, pallor/vividness, the world/the lovers. Yet they are not mutually exclusive. The magnificently visualised, almost palpable chill [well expressed, gd vocab] of the first three verses presents not only the coldness of the physical world, but also suggests the comfortless framework of religion (Keats was perhaps a deist but not a Christian) and the eternal freeze of death. Yet inside the castle, even in her warm bed, Madeline can still be cold; and in the end, the lovers flee away into the storm, voluntarily going out into the cold which has become their sanctuary. Similarly, the stark monochrome feeling of the opening verses gives way to the bright colour of the revellers—yet there is still an impression of coldness in their 'silver snarling trumpets'. Madeline is a pale, pallid girl, but she is overlaid with "warm gules" and "rose" and "amethyst", shed through the window by the cold light of the moon. The contrasts are interlaced inextricably, adding to the richness of each image. Even Porphyro, a vivid, living contrast to the near-dead Beadsman and old Angela, and full of vitality next to dreamy Madeline, even Porphyro seems pale and wan when Madeline compares him to her dream. Porphyro also carries with him something of 'the world', bringing a physical presence into Madeline's ethereal, un-worldly aspirations: more, he has some sinister overtones, and his concealment of himself in her bedchamber is not the pure act of an entirely innocent lover—almost it has overtones of Tarquin's violation of Lucrece. Thus, no contrast is without its own ambiguities. [sophist] This is the richness and complexity which makes Keats' poetry such a delight to read.

In 'Lamia', Keats does present a more carefully separated contrast, [moves on] between Lamia's offering of blissful sexuality and beauty, and Apollonius' harsh intellectual reason. The application of his reason forces her to disappear altogether—but despite the accuracy of Apollonius' perception, Lycias is unable to continue without the sensual side of his life which Lamia offered. Despite this apparently obvious contrast, there is inevitably much greater subtlety involved: [perceptive] Lamia's sexuality is an eerie, rather frightening thing—her appearance initially as

"a gordian knot of dazzling hue"

and her metamorphosis in agony, and then her mysterious power to enchant Lycias, all suggest a rather fearsome feminine power. (Indeed, I think Keats' entire attitude to women embodies the contrast which features in his poems—he was afraid of/contemptuous of/desirous of women all at once.) Yet when Apollonius unmasks her we feel pity and sorrow for her pain and her disappearance, and despite his perceptiveness, we are inclined to dislike him for banishing beauty. [pers. resp.]

In general, Keats' poetry stresses the necessity of the balance between the light and the shade, or happiness and sorrow, beauty and death. In his 'Ode to Melancholy', the essential tension between these elements is wonderfully evident. The transience of happiness is part of its character: [well exp]

"...Joy, whose hand is always at his lips
Bidding adieu..."

Similarly, the awareness of sadness can be ameliorated [gd vocab] by the contemplation of something beautiful, 'globed peonies' for example—and these, too, are transient. The image

"to burst Joy's grape against his palate fine"

encapsulates Keatsian sensuality, the sudden ecstasy of sensation, and simultaneously a sense of destruction and the transience of the moment.

In 'Ode to a Nightingale' Keats uses again the contrast between the almost mindless bliss engendered by the beauty of the nightingale's song and the harsh necessities of human life. The poet expresses the yearning for 'easeful Death', but ultimately it is not in Keats' philosophy to accept the easy path. [insight, letters] In his letters he talked of the necessity of the hard school of life for the formation of the soul—and of course his own life contained so much hardship and sorrow that the imminence of death can never have been far from his mind. In the final stanza of the poem, the poet is drawn back from the contemplation of immortal bliss into the here and now, and a sense of bewilderment—"do I wake or sleep?"

The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' is part of the ekphrastic tradition, although the poem does not appear to have been based on an actual object, but rather an amalgamation created by the poet (adding yet another layer of complexity to the poem!). [indeed] Again, contrast is an essential element of the poem. There is the constant tension between the object itself, a physical thing with (in theory, anyway) a plastic existence in space, and the poem, which must be experienced through time instead. There is the contrast between the images of 'wild ecstasy' portrayed, and the fact that they are frozen in cold stone. The light of the near-rapture of the lovers is contrasted with the fact that they shall never achieve the pinnacle of bliss—and with the imminence of death, presented by the heifer being led to the sacrifice. There is also the implied contrast between the happiness of the figures on the urn and the constant struggle of the human being contemplating it. [sophist and well exp]

The sense of contrast and of the disparate elements present in any one thing was a force for Keats during his own life—his choice to be a poet (rather than getting a 'proper job') was necessary to him but required much sacrifice, not least of his prospects for marriage to Fanny Brawne. But he had faith in his own abilities, despite the condemnatory reviews he received from the 'Tory press' who were quite out of sympathy with his liberal, deist views and middle-class background.

That Keats did indeed command 'the knowledge of contrast' in his poetry is clear from his constant juxtaposition of different and opposing elements`—which he enriched so that the contrasts are never straightforward but always allusive and multi-facetted. His 'feeling for light and shade' is apparent at a literal level in the gorgeousness of his descriptive poetry—the stanza describing the casement window in 'The Eve of St Agnes', or the whole of 'To Autumn', demonstrate him as a poet who can present a world of wonderful detail. At a metaphorical level, 'light and shade' are present in counterbalance throughout his poetry, elements necessary to one another as inevitable counterpoints, as defences and remedies, as consolations or penalties.

[Accurate. Sophisticated. Fluent. Varied vocab. Cogent. Sound K & U. Mature skills. Secure conceptual grasp. Confident. Detailed knowledge. Analytical.]

[A brilliantly relevant answer—every detail at her finger-tips.]

Mark awarded: 90/90


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