"Honest Othello: The Handkerchief Once More"
Critic: Michael C. Andrews
Source: Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13, no. 2 (spring 1973): 273-84.
Criticism about: Othello
[(essay date spring 1973) In the following essay, Andrews examines the different accounts that Othello gives of the handkerchief's origins in Othello, maintaining that the first account is true and that the second account is false. The critic contends that Othello changes his story in order to downplay his superstitious beliefs, which would have been viewed negatively by the Venetians.]
The fact that Othello gives two different versions of the history of the fatal handkerchief has, predictably, not passed ...view middle of the document...
Although critics have offered ingenious interpretations whereby the substitution of Othello's father for the "Egyptian" and the omission of any mention of the magical properties of the handkerchief become fraught with significance, it seems to me that all attempts to explain Othello's words to Desdemona as prevarication are liable to the same criticism Nevill Coghill so devastingly levels at T. S. Eliot's reading of Othello's suicide speech. To Eliot, of course, Othello's final speech is an "exposure of human weakness" rather than an expression of "the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature." After quoting the speech (V.ii.339-357), Eliot offers his influential analysis:
What Othello seems to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself ... Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatizing himself against his enrivonment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself.
"I do not believe," Eliot concludes, "that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare."5 To this Professor Coghill replies, with I think unassailable logic, that Eliot's interpretation is unworkable in the theater: "What tones of voice, what move or gesture, can an actor use to suggest a Bovarist cheering himself up?" And how is the audience supposed to determine "whether Othello is cheering himself up for being so gross a fool and a failure, or whether he is cheering his audience up by showing once again, and at the last moment, a true flash of that nobility for which they had first honoured him?" Moreover, as Professor Coghill points out, Eliot's Shakespeare would have to be considered a remarkably clumsy dramatist:
For if Shakespeare had wished to convey the "terrible exposure of human weakness" that Eliot sees in Othello's speech, he could very easily have made this single purpose plain, unless he was a bungler, or quite indifferent to the effect he was creating. For if Mr. Eliot is right, the better this speech is spoken and acted, the more it must deceive the audience; and this is, in effect, conceded by Mr. Eliot, who says Othello "takes in the spectator."6
The handkerchief speech seems to me an analogous instance. How are we to know that Othello is fictionalizing?7 For whether one says that Othello is speaking symbolically and is really "asking Desdemona to restore to him the sacredness of love,"8 or simply trying "to cover up the real reason for his disproportionate passion over such a trifle,"9 the lines are designed, in Eliot's phrase, to take us in. To adopt Professor Coghill's argument, "the better this speech is spoken and acted, the more it must deceive the audience";10 the more, in short, we are willing to accept the handkerchief as an...