A Model of Pluralist Criticism


A Model of Pluralist Criticism Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation By Stanley Edgar Hyman Atheneum 180 pp $5 95 Reviewed by Albert Bermel Playwright, translator, former...

...A Model of Pluralist Criticism Iago: Some Approaches to the Illusion of His Motivation By Stanley Edgar Hyman Atheneum 180 pp $5 95 Reviewed by Albert Bermel Playwright, translator, former theater critic of "The New Leader" There is a bit of a history behind this book by the late Stanley Edgar Hyman More than 20 years ago Hyman drew attention m The Armed Vision to the diversity of modern criticism The man of letters was giving way before critics who marched mto the thickets of literature brandishing such tools as anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, biology, physics, even mathematics Instead of snubbing these intruders, Hyman proposed a "plural or multiple or many-leveled" criticism, a mixed methodology that embraced the best of them Pluralist criticism meant entering the subject matter—a poem, novel, play, whatever—by different paths and doors The reader might then gain a larger understanding of its site, foundations, and architecture, as well as experience more of its interior design, its plumbing and heating systems In 1956 Hyman edited an anthology, The Critical Peiformance, containing 17 essays that illustrate the variousness of criticism in the 20th century (By now it must be the third most imitated book of all time ) The following year Northrop Frye—who seemed to have been thinking along similar lmes—published his dauntingly comprehensive Anatomy of Criticism, four long essays on the theory of criticism, steered by a "polemical introduction " Like Hyman, Frye was evidently getting bored with the skirmishes that took place when an anthropologist with his ritual hardware ran into a psychoanalyst bearing a guilt-tipped hazel twig off a family tree, or into a Marxist clearing the underbrush with a bandsaw Again like Hyman, Frye wanted to effect a big reconciliation by exploring "the possibility of a synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism"—that is, by encouraging critics to work m concert, even in harness, rather than competitively Frye's four theories of "modes, symbols, myths, and genres" amounted to an overview of critical effort up to that time, and gave commentators a useful idea of where their work belonged m the corpus of criticism About a decade later, in A Study of English Romanticism, Frye borrowed from these four theories as he examined some of the poetry of Shelley, Bed-does, and Keats But by then Hyman and Frye had unleashed followers and pursuers, if not disciples Hyman's new book, as its sub-tide tells us, represents a single-handed attempt at pluralist or synoptic criticism—not the first, not even the first pluralist crack at Othello, yet a model of its kind In it Iago is seen successively as a stage villain (by means of "genre criticism"), as a figuration of Satan (theological criticism), as a portrait of the artist, in which Iago becomes a surrogate of the playwright and takes command of the plotting ("symbolic action criticism"), as a latent homosexual who unconsciously loves two of the men he tries to destroy, Othello and Cassio (psychoanalytic criticism), and as a Machiavel or power-manipulator ("history of ideas criticism") A supplementary chapter written by Phoebe Pettmgell (Mrs Hyman) applies some of Hyman's ideas to the opera Otello She investigates the nature of the charac-tei Jago, as Boito and Verdi recruited and recreated him in the libretto, anas, and music It goes without saying (and therefore has to be said) that to push through with an ambition like Hyman's calls for a critic of extraordinary wisdom, deftness and sympathy Too many assistant profs nowadays go off half-cocked after readmg a review of The Naked Ape or On Aggression or Love's Body, and come back with a perforated bucketload of theory that will not hold rocks, much less water Hyman disclaims specialized qualifications "I am no Shakespeare scholar, nor indeed any scholar at all " But his book gives him the polite he He draws heavily on (and pays handsome tribute to) earlier pioneermg treatments of Othello by Robert Heilman, Norman Holland, Kenneth Burke, Bernard Spivack, and Coleridge At tne same time, he takes no evidence for granted, he constantly sifts and weighs Readers of this magazine who recall Hyman's biweekly column and his reviews elsewhere are in for a pleasurable shock when they meet this book The familiar qualities are there—the apparent effortlessness derived from painfully correct choices m every sentence so that virtually each word works for its living, the chastemng but never spiteful wit, the gift of dramatizing ideas and making the narrative of an essay sing Yet now we have chapters that run to four times or more the length of the old reviews, although they seem as swift and magnetic n. the readmg Hyman has the room to offer himself closely and unstmtingly to his arguments, but, as ever, he does not waste language The consequence is detailed criticism as art, a set of intricate variations on the Iago theme, for the last movement of which Miss Pettingell's chapter provides a ringing cadenza After he has unraveled his five variations, Hyman finds his theological reading to be the most productive When Iago is looked upon as a Satanic figure, he concludes, Othello (referred to once m the play as "the base Judean") becomes a personation of Judas, and Desdemona a perfect virtuous soul, a Christ When we view the action in this way, Satan tempts Judas into betrayal and the play turns into a metaphor of the Passion None of the five readings, as Hyman points out, can stand up by itself Only when put together do ithey suggest "the answer, or a large part of the answer " The decision as to which of the five is most valuable rests finally with the reader I mchne to agree with Hyman that his theological "approach" yields "Iago's richest and most resonant meaning " But what about Othello's'' Hyman exammes the Moor, as he admits, "only in the most cursory fashion " Here thi book could have used amplification, for in all but one of the interpretations (Iago as playwright) Othello occupies center stage And after all, it is from Othello that the play takes its name Iago, however fascinating a theatrical fiction, remains secondary Hyman does spend several paragraphs on Othello's baffling susceptibility to Iago's wiles, which is no less a mystery than Iago's motives In 'truth, the two mysteries are one But to understand their unity we would have to invent a sixth reading, one that would take account of Othello as well as Iago For the dubious sake of classification we might call this sixth reading symbolic-dramatic criticism Miss Pettmgell verges on it when she quotes Otello's line to Desdemona m the opera "My soul, I curse you1" In this reading Iago, Othello, and Desdemona are roles in a dramatic action, but they are simultaneously three roles, or views, of Othello—one character split three ways The Moor gives expression to the spiritual beauty, the virtue in himself when he unhesitatingly loves Desdemona He is later just as responsive to his "evil genius," when he falls prey to Iago's insinuations and keeps calling him "honest Iago " The play begins with Othello's absolute allegiance to his virtue, he marries Desdemona and takes her to Cyprus with him Their ships, however, are separated at sea by a storm, a warning Through the remaining four aots Othello undergoes a change of heart until he comes almost to beheve that there is no good in virtue Almost, but not quite He has qualms right up to the end, when he looks down on the sleeping Desdemona, his better self, and speaks his great speech of indecision "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul" Then he "smothers her" The virtue dies in him And he survives her long enough to repent and to try to make amends by wounding Iago and taking his own life Iago remains alive at the end of the play The evil that men feel lives after them This interpretation, far from contradicting the ones eloquently presented by Hyman, reinforces them all While it does not "explain" the play, any more than they do, it does invite us to regard Othello as a play, rather than as a literary case history I hint here at the possibilities of this "sixth readmg" as theater m the expectation that other readers of the book will be moved (practically driven) back to Shakespeare's text, as I was, to see how inspired a job Hyman has done...

Vol. 53 • December 1970 • No. 24

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