Othello and the Democrats


  • David L. Frost


Bad criticism is often the result of imposing on a work an unhelpful theoretical model: in the case of Othello, a tragic model developed by nineteenth-century critics out of Aristotle's Poetics. We are accustomed to look for a tragic hero with a fatal flaw, with hubris or with hamartia (in the non-Aristotelian sense of moral fault) that leads to catastrophe. Criticism of Shakespeare's Othello is still very much engaged in a long war over the personality and progress of the tragic hero. There are two conflicting schools, each of which offers an interpretation that is faithful to details but unsatisfactory as a final account; and if individuals have withdrawn from the contest, it was more because discussion had grown tedious than because it had reached solutions. A. C. Bradley might be taken as one extreme, giving us the noble Moor, virtuous, open and majestic, a "rough diamond" whose only conceivable flaw might be that his generous nature prompted him to over-impulsive action. The problem with such a reading of the character, as Harley Granville-Barker found, is that Othello's end must seem meaningless and non-uplifting. At the other extreme, we have T. S. Eliot and, after him, F. R. Leavis offering us an unheroic Moor, a self-dramatizer and unconscious poseur, a life denying romantic who retreats at the last into protective self deception and avoidance of reality.