Preface to Shakespeare, by Samuel Johnson

Othello

ACT V. SCENE vi. (v. ii. 63–5.)

Oh perjur’d woman! Thou dost stone my heart,
And mak’st me call, what I intent to do,
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice.

This line is difficult. Thou hast harden’d my heart, and makest me kill thee with the rage of a MURDERER, when I thought to have sacraficed thee to justice with the calmness of a priest striking a victim.

It must not be omitted, that one of the elder quarto’s reads, “Thou dost stone THY heart:” which I suspect to be genuine. The meaning then will be, thou forcest me to dismiss thee from the world in the state of the murdered without preparation for death, when I intended that thy punishment should have been “a sacrifice” atoning for thy crime.

I am glad that I have ended my revisal of this dreadful scene. It is not to be endured.

The beauties of this play impress themselves so strongly upon the attention of the reader, that they can draw no aid from critical illustration. The fiery openness of Othello, magnanimous, artless, and credulous, boundless in his confidence, ardent in his affection, inflexible in his resolution, and obdurate in his revenge; the cool malignity of Iago, silent in his resentment, subtle in his designs, and studious at once of his interest and his vengeance; the soft simplicity of Desdemona, confident of merit, and conscious of innocence, her artless perseverance in her suit, and her slowness to suspect that she can be suspected, are such proofs of Shakespeare’s skill in human nature, as, I suppose, it is vain to seek in any modern writer. The gradual progress which Iago makes in the Moor’s conviction, and the circumstances which he employs to inflame him, are so artfully natural, that, though it will perhaps not be said of him as he says of himself, that he is “a man not esily jealous,” yet we cannot but pity him when at last we find him “perplexed in the extreme.”

There is always danger lest wickedness conjoined with abilities should steal upon esteem, though it misses of approbation but the character if Iago is so conducted, that he is from the first scene to the last hated and despised.

Event he inferiour characters of this play would be very conspicuous in any other piece, not only for their justness but their strength. Cassio is brave, benevolent, and honest, ruined only by his want of stubbornness to resist an insidious invitation of Rodegigo’s suspicious credulity, and impatient submission of the cheats which he sees practised upon him, and which by persuasion he suffers to be repeated, exhibit a strong picture of a weak mind betrayed by unlawful desires, to a false friend and the virtue of AEmilia is such as we often find, worn loosely but not cast off, easy to commit small crimes, but quickend and alarmed at atrocious villanies.

The Scenes from the beginning to the end are busy, varied but happy interchanges, and regularly promoting the progression of the story; and the narrative in the end, though it tells but what is known already, yet is necessary to produce the death of Othello.

Had the scene opened in Cyprus, and the preceding incidents been occasionally related, there had been little wanting of a drama of the most exact and scrupulous regularity.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38