Having looked at the heroines of two of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, I thought of considering another couple from the great tragedies. I refer here to what is commonly seen as his most remarkable works, the five tragedies that between them span the different ages of man.
The first of these is Romeo and Juliet, which deals with youth. The last, King Lear, is about old age and. if Lear is not quite in the seventh stage that Shakespeare describes in As You Like It, still we are clearly looking at a man nearing the end of his tether. In between we have Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, and I will look today at the heroines of the first and last of these.
Ophelia and Desdemona are also innocent victims, which I think serves to make clear that Bloom missed the point when he thought Juliet’s lack of responsibility for what happened to her made the play ‘a tragedy of circumstance’, and in effect therefore a contradiction of the Aristotelian view of tragedy. Aristotle was talking about the tragic hero, and the problem with tragic heroes is that their flaws lead to suffering for others as well as themselves. The most obvious victims of the destruction such heroes cause are their loved ones, and in particular lovers and wives, as we see with Juliet and Ophelia and Desdemona (and I suppose daughters as in Lear are an extension of this for the old and already bereaved).
I would however posit a difference between the two ladies in the tragedies of youth and age, and those I will look at today. Though the latter two are innocent, there is a sense in which they fuel the suspicions of their loved ones, which contributes to the psychological neuroses that are the springs of tragedy in either case.
This brings me to perhaps the main fresh insight I bring to bear on the study of Shakespeare, namely a classification of the great tragedies as dealing, symmetrically, with the main wellsprings of human activity. The first and last of these tragedies deal with love. The second and fourth deal with identity. And Macbeth deals with power. What else is there that makes us, as it were, tick?
The eponymous heroes of Hamlet and Othello are at what one might terms the years of diffidence, the first trying to make his way in the world, the second having passed his peak in his chosen field and having to make his way in a new role. This makes them the more vulnerable to perceived inadequacies, or rather to perceptions of such, which is why they require total loyalty from their loved ones.
Ironically, in both cases they would seem to have this, but they develop reasons for doubt. Again in both cases the reasons are not good ones, but we must also recognize that the ladies contribute, by their willingness to use their standing with their loved ones for other ends.
With regard to Ophelia, she takes the advice of her father who thinks she should be circumspect with Hamlet, at the very time at which he needs reassurance about her commitment to him. This leads to his diatribes against faithlessness, in which he associates Ophelia with his mother Gertrude. The suffering Ophelia undergoes as a result of this is in no way deserved but, even if Hamlet’s response is monstrous, we must understand the little twist that has occurred that pushes him over the edge in this regard.
So too with Desdemona, her pleading for Cassio is eminently innocent. But it is understandable that Othello, given the differences of age and race between him and his wife, of which he is acutely conscious, should be painfully sensitive to any hint that he is not her only interest. What Iago does with this sensitivity is of course the reason for it spinning out of control, but we should register Shakespeare’s insight into the need for better understanding, on the part of loved ones, of the sensitivities of their partners moving through periods of crisis. In the modern age it might be necessary to add that this is particularly true with regard to men, given that at this stage in life they are
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel
That having been said, we should look also at the manner in which Shakespeare establishes the devotion of these ladies to their men, and also their uncertainties when faced with the more unpredictable elements of a man’s psychology –
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
Thus Ophelia when Hamlet has denied his affection. Desdemona’s pathos is the greater in her intimations of mortality, just before Othello kills her –
I would you had never seen him!
So would not I my love doth so approve him,
That even his stubbornness, his cheques, his frowns–
Prithee, unpin me,–have grace and favour in them.
I have laid those sheets you bade me on the bed.
All’s one. Good faith, how foolish are our minds!
If I do die before thee prithee, shroud me
In one of those same sheets.
Come, come you talk.
My mother had a maid call’d Barbara:
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her: she had a song of ‘willow;’
An old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune,
And she died singing it: that song to-night
Will not go from my mind; I have much to do,
But to go hang my head all at one side,
And sing it like poor Barbara. Prithee, dispatch.
This must be set against the early speech in which she asserts her devotion to Othello, and determination to accompany him on his duties
That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world: my heart’s subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord:
I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
And to his honour and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
So that, dear lords, if I be left behind,
A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
The rites for which I love him are bereft me,
And I a heavy interim shall support
By his dear absence. Let me go with him.
But, given that these tragedies are about identity, the women who are victims have nothing like the impact of the men who are both perpetrators and victims of tragedy. Othello’s account of how he won Desdemona deals with deeds but through words that establish an identity which seems secure
Her father loved me; oft invited me;
Still question’d me the story of my life,
From year to year, the battles, sieges, fortunes,
That I have passed.
I ran it through, even from my boyish days,
To the very moment that he bade me tell it;
Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field
Of hair-breadth scapes i’ the imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence
And portance in my travels’ history…
………………………..My story being done,
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs:
She swore, in faith, twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
‘Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish’d she had not heard it, yet she wish’d
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank’d me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,
And I loved her that she did pity them.
This only is the witchcraft I have used:
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.
But this apparent strength of mind proves its own undoing when once self doubt creeps in –
……… If I do prove her haggard,
Though that her jesses were my dear heartstrings,
I’ld whistle her off and let her down the wind,
To pray at fortune. Haply, for I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years,–yet that’s not much–
She’s gone. I am abused; and my relief
Must be to loathe her. O curse of marriage,
That we can call these delicate creatures ours,
And not their appetites! I had rather be a toad,
And live upon the vapour of a dungeon,
Than keep a corner in the thing I love
For others’ uses.
And it is a short step, albeit manipulated with extraordinary skill by Iago, to the determination to kill –
Had it pleased heaven
To try me with affliction; had they rain’d
All kinds of sores and shames on my bare head.
Steep’d me in poverty to the very lips,
Given to captivity me and my utmost hopes,
I should have found in some place of my soul
A drop of patience: but, alas, to make me
A fixed figure for the time of scorn
To point his slow unmoving finger at!
Yet could I bear that too; well, very well:
But there, where I have garner’d up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!
Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads
To knot and gender in!
Hamlet, contrariwise, begins with diffidence when faced with his mother’s marriage to his uncle, soon after his father death
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
Hamlet’s decline into helplessness at the Court is movingly portrayed, but getting away helps him to a stronger sense of purpose, after he sees the determination of the Norwegian Prince Fortinbras –
How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused……..
……. Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake.
Though the play ends in tragedy, with a spate of dead bodies in the last act that would be the envy of a horror movie, Shakespeare does however provide Hamlet with a speech of redemption. In his final long speech, to Laertes, brother of the Ophelia he realizes he let down, he registers that he has strayed from his true self –
Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong;
But pardon’t, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was’t Hamlet wrong’d Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta’en away,
And when he’s not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if’t be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong’d;
His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother
The recovery here of an identity he can affirm parallels Othello’s last more guilt-ridden speech, that ends in the suicide through which alone he feels he can extirpate the guilt of his murder of Desdemona –
Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.