Shakespeare, Othello and Domestic Tragedies
Continuum Shakespeare Studies Series
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
Paperback. ix + 173 p. ISBN 978-1472508874. £18.99
[First Hardcover Edition. London: Continuum, 2012. ISBN 978-1441194701]
Reviewed by Sophie Chiari
Chalk it up to the huge number of case-studies already devoted to Othello (c. 1604) or perhaps to Julie A. Carlson’s monograph on Domestic Tragedy (2001), but in any case, readers may well consider Sean Benson’s enterprise as just another book on a well-trodden subject. Besides, Henry H. Adams’s English Domestic or Homiletic Tragedy, 1575 to 1642 (1943), in which the American scholar already expatiated upon Othello as “domestic tragedy”, is not completely forgotten either. Yet, no title had so far directly associated Shakespeare’s play with the advent of domestic tragedies, often founded upon actual murder cases and featuring middle-class backgrounds.
Indeed, as Sean Benson makes clear in his introduction, this books aims at putting Robert Yarington’s Two Lamentable Tragedies (1601) as well as several other domestic tragedies such as A Yorkshire’s Tragedy, A Woman Killed with Kindness, The Witch of Edmonton, A Warning for Fair Women, or The Lamentable Tragedy of Page of Plymouth (the lost play by Ben Jonson and Thomas Dekker), to quote but a few, in connection with Othello, a play otherwise devoid of the heavy didacticism permeating domestic tragedies. And, even though its setting is definitely not English, Shakespeare’s tragedy nonetheless fits (or almost fits?) within this particular subgenre, even though, according to the author, this remains a fact that “has yet to be fully acknowledged” .
That is true insofar as Benson’s focus lies on the adverb “fully”, for it is now hard to ignore that Shakespeare was familiar with this subgenre. As already demonstrated by MacDonald P. Jackson,(1) the playwright may even have written some scenes of an anonymous domestic tragedy first published in London in 1592, Arden of Faversham. If this is the case, it naturally strengthens Benson’s argument, and his study shows how conversant Shakespeare was with the conventions of domestic tragedy. However, with statements such as “generic categories are thus subject to continual updating and revision”  and the like, the author seems to be labouring the obvious. Moreover, if Benson’s study focuses on the very end of the Elizabethan era and the beginning of the Jacobean one, the book nonetheless gives little consideration to the historical context of the period, even though he devotes good, synthetic pages to the shifting social structure which characterized the 1580s and gave rise to domestic tragedy. The interdependence of theatre and society is hinted at, but the question of how the theatre represented and, as a consequence, distorted the social realities of the time, is not really addressed in a consistent way. As domestic tragedies were generally based on real events, an in-depth study of the links between stage and reality (as far as such plays were concerned) could have made a fascinating chapter, and Benson definitely had the expertise required to deal with such a tricky topic.
Logically enough, when it comes to defining what a domestic tragedy exactly is, he finds himself at pains to provide us with clear-cut features. Nonetheless, his first chapter suggests that the topos of spousal murder due to alleged adultery, together with the influence of “low” literature and morality plays and, most importantly, with the protagonists’ non-aristocratic status, can lead us to a better understanding of this particular subgenre. Arden of Faversham is, of course, a case in point as it introduces its spectators to a world of “social volatility” , so that Benson logically devotes his second chapter to a thorough analysis of the play. His fluid rhetoric and relevant examples really put forward what was thought of as the originality of Arden of Faversham at the time, since before that, playwrights had always dismissed the possibility “of introducing an arriviste in the role a tragic lead” . This argument is not new but the author sets up an original position by stating that the anonymous play created a brilliant precedent for Shakespeare, whose black title-part is characterised by his “tenuous political and thereby tragic standing” , like Thomas Arden—who, in real life, was murdered by his wife, her lover, and eight other people in February 1551.
Obviously, such an assumption is debatable since, in spite of his position as an outsider, the Moor of Venice actually possessed sufficient verbal and physical charisma as well as all the required psychological flaws to become the perfect embodiment of the tragic hero. Benson himself is forced to acknowledge that Othello “seems” easily distinguishable from such predecessors as Thomas Arden and George Sanders , but this “seems” paves the way for a reassessment of the Moor which does not grant him much magnificence. The author’s view is that Othello lacks true nobility and seems only preoccupied by the stability of his marriage, like so many “class aspirants” (P. Stallybrass) of his time. This argument is developed in the book’s third chapter, where Benson provides a useful survey of the critical reception of Othello in conjunction with domestic tragedy, thereby testifying to the fact that many critics before him took a particular interest in this association. The author is therefore bound to rely on the works of critics such as H.H. Adams (who, incidentally, refused to see any link between Shakespeare and domestic tragedies, but usefully identified the sin-adultery-murder-repentance scheme usually at work in Arden and similar plays), P.K. Jensen, L.C. Orlin, or N. Korda, which are all duly acknowledged.
Yet, he takes their lines of reasoning a step further by examining the ways Shakespeare actually innovated with the form, reluctant as the playwright was to write another Page of Plymouth or Arden of Faversham . No wonder then if, in chapter 4, the author pleads for Othello, a play contemporaneous with Heywood’s Woman Killed with Kindness, as a strong example of domestic tragedy. Apart from Shakespeare’s focus on the use of interior spaces and material objects, often stressed by scholars, the author supplies several other reasons to convince his readers. First, Othello considers dismembering Desdemona (herself a recognisable type, close to that of patient Griselda) in 4.1, like the vast majority of the husbands of domestic tragedies. Secondly, class antagonism permeates the play as a whole: Cassio, a somewhat pretentious upstart, is thus to be contrasted with Iago, who fails to “win the lieutenancy at the outset of the play” . Third, the tragedy relies on a love triangle (a husband, his wife, and a presumably adulterous suitor) reminiscent of domestic tragedies, even though Shakespeare slightly subverts this code by emphasising Roderigo’s failure to fill his role as a suitor and by providing us with a second love triangle “with Cassio as alleged suitor” . Benson argues here that the playwright goes further than his rivals in the exploration of social mobility, all the more so as Othello’s race, religion and colour make the title character socially inferior to Desdemona. Besides, contrary to John Frankford (in A Woman Killed with Kindness), Thomas Arden (in Arden of Faversham) or George Sanders (in A Warning of Fair Women), he is only an imaginary cuckold.
All in all, if Benson’s arguments convincingly underline Othello’s affiliation with Arden and the like, the reader cannot help noticing that Shakespeare’s numerous deviations from the main codes of the genre, emphasised as they are by the author himself, do not make him fit that easily in the “domestic tragedy” category. Indeed, Benson takes the example of Othello’s ‘scaffold speech’ to acknowledge that this particular passage can be seen as an important “parting connection to the domestic tragedies” , and paradoxically, it is in dismissing his own case that the author writes one of the most interesting developments of his study.
The last chapter dwells on Shakespeare’ play, as the author promises to examine in detail Desdemona’s deathbed revival [5.2]—a moment which certainly has many analogues in domestic tragedies, but which Shakespeare significantly alters thanks to three literary devices. Relying on the miraculous, the monstrous, and the uncanny, the playwright made these elements much more prominent than they usually are in domestic tragedies. Having posited this, Benson does not immediately proceed to analyse act 5, scene 2, but mentions general considerations on the miraculous, the monstrous and the uncanny in Shakespeare’s play. Whereas the vast majority of critics have acknowledged the many associations between Iago and the monstrous, he is keen to associate the villain of the play with the uncanny, because even more than his reprehensible actions, his hold over the Moor is hardly understandable. When Benson eventually deals with Desdemona’s death, he first does so by reminding us of Cinthio’s narrative before considering a more original approach, giving pride of place to the insofar relatively neglected Warning of Fair Women (1599), whose source was the real murder of a merchant named George Sanders. This Elizabethan tragedy could indeed have been a major source for Shakespeare when he wrote the scene in which Desdemona exonerates her husband instead of putting the blame on him. At this point, such a new reading of Othello offers an interesting insight into the play, which would certainly deserve further development.
The conclusion, emphatically titled “Tragic Ontology and Spousal Murders”, is an apt recapitulation of the preceding chapters and, once again, it emphasises the difficulty of defining once and for all a subgenre like that of the domestic tragedy. This paradoxically weakens Benson’s case, as spousal murder is not enough to align Othello with Arden, A Woman Killed, and other similar tragedies, even though Shakespeare was undoubtedly influenced by the stereotypes permeating such plays. This influence is clearly at work in The Taming of the Shrew whereas in other plays like Romeo and Juliet or Coriolanus, it seems more tenuous. “It is time to recognise Othello as a domestic tragedy because it communicates this turn inward to the private and intimate sphere of the domestic, not as a substitute for de casibus tragedy, but as its corrival” , the author confidently asserts in the very last paragraph of his book.
Well, what about starting from this assertion to reassess Shakespeare’s play within not just one, but a variety of fluctuating genres?
(1) See MacDonald P. Jackson, "Shakespeare and the Quarrel Scene in Arden of Faversham", Shakespeare Quarterly 57-3 (2006) : 249-293
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