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Act V. SCENE vi. (v. ii. 63-5.)
Ob perjur'd woman / thou dost stone my beart,
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice. This line is difficult. Thou hast hardened my heart, and makest me kill thee with the rage of a murderer, when I thought to have sacrificed 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 lago 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 easily 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 of Iago is so conducted, that he is from the first scene to the last hated and despised.
Even the 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 stubborn
to resist an insidious invitation. - Rodorigo's suspicious credulity, and impatient submission to 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 Æmilia is such as we often find, worn loosely, but not cast off, easy to commit small crimes, but quickened and alarmed at atrocious villanies:
The Scenes from the beginning to the end are busy, varied by 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 to a drama of the most exact and scrupulous regularity.
The Rambler, No. 168.)
Delude the most ; few pry behind the scene. It has been observed by Boileau, that "a mean or common thought expressed in pompous diction, generally pleases more than a new or noble sentiment delivered in low and vulgar language ; because the number is greater of those whom custom has enabled to judge of words, than whom study has qualified to examine things."
This solution might satisfy, if such only were offended with meanness of expression as are unable to distinguish propriety of thought, and to separate propositions or images from the vehicles by which they are conveyed to the understanding. But this kind of disgust is by no means confined to the ignorant or superficial ; it operates uniformly and universally upon readers of all classes ; every man, however profound or abstracted, perceives himself irresistibly alienated by low terms; they who profess the most zealous adherence to truth are forced to admit that she owes part of her charms to her ornaments; and loses much of her
power over the soul, when she appears disgraced by a dress uncouth or ill adjusted.
We are all offended by low terms, but are not disgusted alike by the same compositions, because we do not all agree to censure the same terms as low. No word is naturally or intrinsically meaner than another;
our opinion therefore of words, as of other things arbitrarily and capriciously established, depends wholly upon accident and custom. The cottager thinks those apartments splendid and spacious, which an inhabitant of palaces will despise for their inelegance; and to him who has passed most of his hours with the delicate and polite, many expressions will seem sordid, which
another, equally acute, may hear without offence ; but a mean term never fails to displease him to whom
it appears mean, as poverty is certainly and invariably despised, though he who is poor in the eyes of some, may, by others, be envied for his wealth. · Words become low by the occasions to which they are applied, or the general character of them who use them; and the disgust which they produce, arises from the revival of those images with which they are commonly united. Thus if, in the most solemn discourse, a phrase happens to occur which has been successfully employed in some ludicrous narrative, the gravest auditor finds it difficult to refrain from laughter, when they who are not prepossessed by the same accidental association, are utterly unable to guess the reason of his merriment. Words which
convey ideas of dignity in one age, are banished from elegant writing or conversation in another, because they are in time debased by vulgar mouths, and can be no longer heard without the involuntary recollection of unpleasing images.
When Macbeth is confirming himself in the horrid purpose of stabbing his king, he breaks out amidst his emotions into a wish natural to a murderer :
Come, thick night!
my keen knife see not the wound it makes ; Nor heav'n peep through the blanket of the dark, To cry, Hold! hold !
In this passage is exerted all the force of poetry, that force which calls new powers into being, which embodies sentiment, and animates matter; yet, perhaps, scarce any man now peruses it without some disturbance of his attention from the counteraction of the words to the ideas. What can be more dreadful than to implore the presence of night, invested, not in common obscurity, but in the smoke of hell? Yet the efficacy of this invocation is destroyed by the insertion of an epithet now seldom heard but in the stable, and dun night may come or go without any other notice than contempt.
If we start into raptures when some hero of the Iliad tells us that dópu palvetal, his lance rages with eagerness to destroy; if we are alarmed at the terrour of the soldiers commanded by Cæsar to hew down the sacred grove, who dreaded, says Lucan, lest the axe aimed at the oak should fly back upon the striker :
Si robora sacra ferirent, In sua credebant redituras membra secures, None dares with impious steel the grove to rend,
Lest on himself the destin'd stroke descend ; we cannot surely but sympathise with the horrours of a wretch about to murder his master, his friend, his benefactor, who suspects that the weapon will refuse its office, and start back from the breast which he is preparing to violate. Yet this sentiment is weakened by the name of an instrument used by butchers and cooks in the meanest employments : we do not immediately conceive that any crime of importance is to be committed with a knife; or who does not, at last, from the long habit of connecting a knife with sordid offices, feel aversion rather than terrour?
Macbeth proceeds to wish, in the madness of guilt, that the inspection of heaven may be intercepted,