Othello by William Shakespeare

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Othello the Moor is lauded over Venice for his help in attempts to rid them of the pesky Turks in their battle over Cyprus.  Yet when Othello weds the beautiful Venetian Desdemona in secret, some opinions of his prowess change, notably those of Desdemona’s father.  And unbeknownst to Othello, Iago, his third-in-command, is plotting a dastardly revenge for being passed over for promotion, the position being given to Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio.  Hence proceeds perhaps the most shocking example of manipulation in literature, as Iago takes possession of Othello’s mind and emotions, like a beast taking possession of its prey, transforming our noble Moor from a honest, straightforward, respected man into an enraged, vengeful monster who believes every evil of his innocent wife, including her unfaithfulness with his second-in-command, Cassio.  Othello’s jealousy manages to eclipse anything within our understanding.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
ben Mohammed Anoun,
Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I
suggest inspiration for Othello
source Wikipedia

Iago reveals that, as well as the injury of being passed over for promotion, he also harbours a suspicion that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia, who is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.  There is no proof of this accusation in the play, and it is likely that Iago is expecting people to act with the same lack of integrity and base bestial urges, that he himself would, in the same circumstances.

How does a gentle and admired military leader allow himself to be reduced to a maddened beast, his fury leading him to commit the worst atrocity against a perfectly innocent human being, and one who has loved and supported him through their short marriage?  What hidden button inside Othello’s psyche has Iago discovered and pushed, knowing that it will make him snap?

Maria Malibran as Rossini’s
Desdemona
Françoise Bouchot
source Wikipedia

Certainly there are various issues that come into play and work against Othello.  He is used to being a commander, yet is unused to being a husband and obviously, when in love, is out of his depth.  Perhaps he sees Desdemona as a possession that he has conquered and, instead of being able to relax in his marriage, he, like a military leader, feels that he must wage battle to keep her.  And when difficulties do arise, instead of trying to search out the truth, he acts like a military leader and attempts to “conquer the enemy”.  He has insecurities that lead to him being a willing pawn of Iago’s machinations. The jealousy that Iago is able to set aflame within him, corrupts his normal good sense and his actions become intemperate.  I certainly have compassion for his state, as I believe these aspects have severely affected his decison-making and emotional state, but, that said, he is still human and he still has the option of choice.  He knows right from wrong, yet he decides to allow his emotions to rule and himself to be led down the tragic path of mindless jealousy.  In reality, he allows himself to turn into a beast.

Othello & Desdemona
Antonio Muñoz Degrain
source Wikipedia

Shakespeare’s exhibits an uncanny ability to weave endless possibilities into a Gordian knot of drama and draw the reader into his poetic spell.  Will we ever know exactly what motivated Othello and his spiral from an honourable man to a madly jealous murderer.  Will we ever understand why he believed Iago without any “ocular proof”?  What happened to the military commander that must have been used to exhibiting self-control?  Do intense emotions subvert our ability to act as a human beings?  There are so many avenues to explore and no obvious or set answers.

Of all the characters in the play, my favourite character was Emilia.  While she remains surprisingly unaware of the plotting and intrigues of her husband, upon realizing the truth, she becomes the voice of the audience, who has until this point been mute in horror, and satisfyingly spews vile recriminations on the head of Othello.

T.S. Eliot had a different view of the last actions of Othello than many older critics:

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello.  I am ignorant whether any one else has ever adopted this view, and it may appear subjective and fantastic in the extreme.  It is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature. What Othello seems to me 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. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”

I read this play as part of a Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course that I’m taking online, and it’s definitely moved in among my favourites!

Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branaugh
Othello 1995
source Wikipedia

Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri

“In my Book of Memory, in the early part where there is little to be read, there comes a chapter with the rubric: Incipit vita nova.  It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading —- if not all of them, at least the essence of their meaning.”

Beatrice was eight years old and Dante, nine, the first time they set eyes on each other. Instantly, he felt an abiding connection with her, even though it was nine years after that before he finally saw her again, and she greeted him, her words entwining through his heart.  Lovely Beatrice, who became Dante’s love, his obsession and his Muse.   Never a conversation was had between them, only greetings, yet his life was filled with her presence, her goodness and grace, her being so angelic that she filled his heart until he wondered if it could contain her.  All thoughts revolved around his beautiful Beatrice; she was his life and through her, his poetry gained a new vitality.

Dante’s three meetings with Beatrice
Elisabeth Sonrel
source Wikipedia 

Vita Nuova, or new life, chronicles Dante’s first sight of Beatrice, his occasional casual meetings with her, his attempt to deflect his interest in her by pretending his poetry was for another woman, her disgust at his perceived behaviour, the death of her father, Dante’s own illness and then, tragically, the death of the woman who had become the centre of his world ….. his lovely Beatrice ……

The book’s structure is unique in itself, as it is organized into chapters (probably by later translators/scribes), but nearly every chapter follows an easily recognizable pattern:  first he gives an account of his life circumstances and events, almost like a journal; second he shares a poem where he again relates those circumstances, usually in the form of a sonnet or canzone; and third, an analysis of the poetry, describing his intent and the divisions of thought in each poem.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikipedia

The poetry is in the courtly love tradition, a form borrowed from French poets which emphasized chivalry, bravery and nobility.  It is important to keep this in mind while reading this story, as the intensity of Dante’s emotions, the near idolization of Beatrice, the groans and sighs, the personification of Love and the professions of near despair can be somewhat hard to relate to in our unromantic day and age.

I found myself vacillating between two different emotions.  One one hand I wanted to say, “oh, you poor love-sick man”, and on the other, “what a fool!”  Why would you have your entire life be built around the gaze and approval of one person?  Why would you wrap your whole soul around a being who was as transient as the wind?  As for Beatrice, would it be tragically romantic to be loved this much by someone, or would it be just downright annoying?  But then Dante’s poetry began to speak through my cynical view, as his love and devotion to her was so apparent.  His descriptions and poetry to her rang with a tender regard, high terms of respect and an abiding love.  The vibrancy of his conflicting emotions, which were often buffeted by circumstances, won my heart.

Dante and Beatrice (1883)
Henry Holiday
source Wikipedia
Time and Again
Time and again the thought comes to my mind
Of the dark condition Love imparts to me;
Then the pity of it strikes me, and I ask:
“Could ever anyone have felt the same?”
For Love’s attack is so precipitous
That life itself all but abandons me:
Nothing survives except one lonely spirit,
Allowed to live because it speaks of you.
With hope of help to come I gather courage,
And deathly languid, drained of all defenses,
I come to you expecting to be healed;
And if I raise my eyes to look at you,
Within my heart a tremor starts to spread,
Driving out life, stopping my pulses’ beat.
Dante Alighieri
source Wikipedia

I was also struck my another aspect of the book, something perhaps Dante never meant to emphasis.  So many people go through life feeling small and insignificant, wondering how their everyday actions could possibly matter.  Well, they do matter and Dante illustrates quite marvellously how.  Just Beatrice’s looks affect him for days afterwards.  He recounts how her gaze not only brings out his imperfections but challenges him to be a better person.  And it’s not just his character that her actions work on; Dante emphasizes that her manner and virtue have an illuminating affect on the ladies who are in her company, and instead of being envious, they appreciate her qualities and feel joyful to be around her.  What a testimony to the importance of our every day actions.

Six Tuscan Poets
(Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti, Francesco Petrarch,
Giovanni Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino & Cristoforo Landino)

After the death of his love, Beatrice, Dante made a promise, to himself, and by writing the Vita Nuova, to the world.  He was going to write about Beatrice, not like he had been writing, following the pattern of a courtly love, but that he would write of her as no other woman had ever been written of before.  And twelve years later, the Divina Commedia, or the Divine Comedy was born, immortalizing Beatrice, not only in verse, but in the thrones of Heaven.  The Vita Nuova was certainly a new beginning …… a new life ……..

translated by Mark Musa

Dante’s Similes – In Preparation for a Visit to Hell

In preparation for starting my MOOCs course, Dante’s Journey to Freedom Part I, I thought it might be a good idea to do some pre-reading about Dante, his world and the poem itself, and it took me less than a second to decide who I wanted to take me there.  In spite of being known for his children’s and theological books, C.S. Lewis’ specialty was actually Medieval and Renaissance Literature.  In fact, his knowledge was so respected that Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge created a chair especially for him.

I’m not sure how interesting this post will be for people who aren’t interested in Dante, but I thought it would be a good reference for myself as Lewis’ lecture contains some very detailed information.  If anyone makes it to the end you win a prize of a virtual pat on the back and my enduring gratitude! 😉

Dante’s Simile’s

by C.S. Lewis

The simile is a poetic device that is used for illustration.  It can fall into three categories:

  1. Homeric type – the simile of Tennyson, Arnold, Wordsworth, Milton and Spenser which is derived through Virgil from Homer
  2. the unhappily named ‘metaphysical’ simile
  3. the Dantesque simile, which warrants a category of its own, being surprisingly almost confined to Dante

______________________________________________________________

Dante’s Similes

four classes

1.  Virgilian or Homeric Similes

         >  straight similes built on ancient principles
         >  a state or action in the story is compared to a state or action that can
                    be observed in external nature, whether animate or inanimate
        >  short by Virgilian standards

2.  Pictorial Simile

        >  illustrations of a traveler
        >  introduced in plain, business-like manner, simply in order to make the
                  meaning of the writer as clear to the reader as it is to himself
       >  a vividness that produces the maximum of illusion
       >  immediate impact on the senses
       >  connections purely pictorial
       >  eg.  ”  As frogs confronted by their enemy, 
                   the snake, will scatter underwater till
                   each hunches in a heap along the bottom.” 
                      Inferno IX, line 76 (Mandelbaum)

3.  Psychological Simile

       >  one emotion is compared with another
       >  Homer and Virgil rarely used this form (Homer only once)
       >  eg. #1  “so-and-so feels in this situation just like I would feel in that
                            situation in ordinary life”
       >  eg. #2  ”  At that he turned and took the filthy road
                        and did not speak to us, but had the look 
                        of one who is obsessed by other cares” 
                        Inferno IX, line 101-103 (Mandelbaum)
                   ** illustrates psychological and pictorial simile combined **

4.  Dantesque Metaphysical Simile

        >  things are linked together by a profound philosophical analogy or even
               identity
        >  “like” in these similes turn into “same”
        >  relation between things is one of response or correspondence, like that
               of a mirror image to a real object or, (as Dante says) of shadow to
               body
        >  “… in the greatest Dantesque similes, the longer you look the greater
                  the likeness becomes and the more fruitful in thoughts that are
                  interesting as long as you live.” p. 72
        >  eg.  In Paradiso, Beatrice gazes at the sun and Dante, who was gazing
                     at Beatrice, imitates her and also gazes at the sun.  The process
                     whereby Beatrice’s gaze produces Dante’s is compared to the
                     process of reflexion by which one beam begets a second.  And
                     this second beam is in its turn compared to a pilgrim desirous of
                     return.  Dante and Beatrice are literaliter [literal] to the sun (and
                     allegorice [allegorical] to God) what all reflected beams are to the
                     original source of light and what Dante is literaliter to Beatrice
                     and the human understanding allegorice to Wisdom and the
                     whole universe is to the Unmoved Mover.  The whole of
                     Christian-Aristotelian theology is brought together.  The image
                     reverberates from that one imagined moment over all space and
                     time, and further.

Other interesting notes:

  • Anglo-Saxon poetry uses no similes
  • popular song uses about the same amount of simile as ordinary conversation
  • Homer’s similes are not poetical, used more to convey or illustrate information than for an emotional response
  • Virgil at his best uses simile for purposes both good and new
  • Dante’s similes are “less poetical” than Virgil’s, because Virgil’s could not exist outside of poetry


Definitions:
   ectype – copy from an original

Quotes:

“There is so much besides poetry in Dante that anyone but a fool can enjoy him in some way or other ….” p. 75

“If bees were associated only with honey and not with stings, I should say that Dante every now and then wakes up a whole beehive, by giving us some image which seems to focus all the rays of his universe at a single point or touching some wire which sets the whole system vibrating in unison.” p.73


On the Virgilian simile:  “Clearly, when it has reached this stage, the original purpose of illustration has become a mere excuse, though an excuse still necessary to lull the logical faculty to sleep, and the real purpose of simile is to turn epic poetry from a solo to an orchestra in which any theme the poet chooses may be brought to bear on the reader at any moment and for any number of purposes” p. 66


“It is hard for a translator to ruin the great passages in Dante as every translation ruins Virgil.” p. 76


“I think Dante’s poetry, on the whole, the greatest of all the poetry I have read:  yet when it is at its highest pitch of excellence, I hardly feel that Dante has very much to do.  There is a curious feeling that the great poem is writing itself, or at most, that the tiny figure of the poet is merely giving the gentlest guiding touch, here and there, to energies which, for the most part, spontaneously group themselves and perform the delicate evolutions which make up the Comedy.” p. 76


” ….. I draw the conclusion that the highest reach of the whole poetic art turn out to be a kind of abdication, and is attained when the whole image of the world the poet sees has entered so deeply into his mind that henceforth he has only to get himself out of the way, to let the seas roll and the mountains shake their leaves or the light shine and the spheres revolve, and all this will be poetry, not thing you write poetry about ……….  We are made to dream while keeping awake at the same time.” p. 76-77

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