F.R. Leavis claimed that 'a habit of self approving self-dramatization is an essential element in Othello's make-up'. Do you agree with this description of Othello's character?
Many critics have disagreed over whether Othello ever actually experiences a catharsis and acknowledges his own culpability. This debate dates back to T. S.
Eliots view of Othello as only 'cheering himself up' and 'not thinking about Desdemona, only himself', and although Eliot's argument is focused on Othello's final soliloquy, Leavis echoes this same position in a rather more general manner, as he states that the 'habit of self-approving self-dramatization is an essential element in Othellos make-up, and remains so at the very end'. Indeed this is a view that I feel necessary to explore, and as in Olivier's production, Othello appears to convey both an egotism and - as as Olivier himself stated - a 'self-delusion'. This view both magnifies his tragedy and therefore our sympathy, yet also presents us with another perspective; that Othello's character is not sympathetic but insensitive and self-centred, self-approving and self-dramatizing.
Leavis' criticism suggests that a large part of Othello's egotism stems from his love of Desdemona. He states that 'Othello's love is a matter of self-centred and self-regarding satisfaction', that it is simply 'pride, sensual possessiveness, appetite, love of loving'. This 'love of loving' could be viewed as secondary narcissism, that he loves Desdemona for loving him, proud of this admiration that he has evoked. His eloquent speech to the Senators, although still encompassing Leavis' 'silver rhetoric' nevertheless is corrupted by an overwhelming feeling of self-admiration, in the fact that he asserts that he has 'won' her. Othello stated that 'She loved me for the dangers I had passed And I loved her that she did pity them', we are presented with a character who has achieved love for another, through self-love, through the idea that she is infatuated with him and what he has achieved. This cross-current of egotism is ever-present with Othello, and once again three acts on, we read as he declares 'she had eyes and chose me' over all the young Venetian men, and therefore rejects Iago's suggestions that she is unfaithful, however, ironically, his egotism speaks the truth and it is when his thought process moves from the constancy of values to the variability of sight that he can be tricked by Iago. We may also note that when speaking of Desdemona or indeed his love for her, we often hear an underlying notion of possessiveness. For instance, as he states ' her jesses were [his] dear heart strings', this metaphor suggests that he is strapped, fastened to her, and that he is the owner of this 'hawk'. Furthermore, it is not only Othello who expresses ownership, but also Barbantio, as he exclaims that Desdemona has been 'stolen from me'. It is this delusion of ownership, and perceived loss of it that brings both Othello and Barbantio to their deaths.
Delusion, according to Olivier, is the flaw in Othello's character. He describes him as 'only a goodish fellow who had merely fixed the earmark of nobility upon himself' and indeed whether Othello has fetched himself 'from men of royal siege' is questionable in itself; is he trying to justify himself in a foreign world, or truly deluded, simply vicariously noble. If this were the case then there is a side to Othello that is false in every sense, however to argue such a proposition would be going against what I believe Shakespeare was wanting to convey. Nevertheless, even if Othello is speaking the truth, then we once again come face to face with his egotism. He also refers to himself having a 'perfect soul', this is nothing other than hubristic, and indeed once again referring to Leavis' assertion, that he is prone to 'self-approving'. His 'self-dramatization' is presented through his speeches about his adventures, notably those pertaining to war or military. There is a suggestion that he likens his warring achievements with Desdemona, forming such a strong connection between the two, that once his confidence in his wife is lost, so is his profession. As he exclaims 'Othello's occupation's gone', we sense an overriding egotism both in referring to himself in the third person, and in the fact that it is this occupation, his masculinity, which is necessary to his existence.
As McAlindon suggests in the last scene, Othello's 'reintegration of the self is achieved by acknowledging and punishing the erring barbarian that he had become'. And thus, whilst there are moments where we see Othello as the Moor described by Iago, there are also those where our sympathy is evoked, and indeed this is what has defined him as a tragic figure, maybe his self-delusion even emphasising this tragedy.