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OTHELLO: Alexander Pushkin's Interpretation of
the Tragic Hero

08 of March 2017
We would like to bring to your attention the extended CFP for our seminar session(s) on "Shakespeare and Music" as a part of this year's European Shakespeare Congress which is held in Gdansk from 27 to 30 July. We have already received expression of interest from publishers and we plan to develop this seminar into a regular international study group.
Database "Russian Shakespeare"
Moscow University for the Humanities

Pushkin perceived the tragedy of the Moor very personally. This may have been related to the family rumor, according to which, his great-grandfather Abram Petrovich Gannibal had also suffered from the pangs of jealousy (mentioned in his descendant’s unfinished story The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, 1827-29). Bearing in mind Pushkin’s own jealous and fiery nature, we may well suppose what he suffered when observing the way Tsar Nicholas I showed benevolence towards Natalya Pushkina, or the glances of high-society lions. Subsequently, Pushkin’s own intense perception of honor led him to his untimely death. The most famous contemporary response in verse put it like this: “The Bard is killed! The honor's striver…”[1]

The Moor’s image haunted Pushkin. Boris Modzalevsky, going through Pushkin’s library, found Ivan Panaev’s translation of Othello (1836)[2], inscribed by the translator. This translation was performed on Yakov Bryansky’s benefit evening on December 21, 1836, and the musical accompaniment was provided by Vladimir Odoevsky, thinly disguised as Abbot Irineus[3], but recognisable to Pushkin.

However strongly personal implications matter to an artist, they should not be overestimated.

Pushkin’s involvement with the character of Othello was not all personal and intimate, it was part of his reflections about Russian and world literatures. Thus, in his draft essay, On National Spirit in Literature (1826), Pushkin praises the English playwright’s work as truly expressive of the national character. The idea is rooted in paradox, as the case often was with Pushkin. Mentioning the fact that Shakespeare, Lope, Calderon, Ariosto and Racine often borrowed from world literature, Pushkin insisted on recognising these writers as truly national. “But can one deny a strong national spirit to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Othello, Measure for Measure, etc.; Vega and Calderon are constantly shifting their action to all corners of the world and take the plots of their tragedies from Italian novelle and French lays. Ariosto sings the praises of Charlemagne, of French knights, and of a Chinese princess. Racine based his tragedies in ancient history” (tr. Tatyana Wolff). We know that Shakespeare’s source for the great tragedy of Othello was Cintio’s novella The Venetian Moor, but this borrowed image was reborn and adopted in Renaissance England.

According to Pushkin, non-indigenous characters may “incorporate national features”, while works handling native material may totally lack all national appeal: “As Vyazemsky rightly remarked, What Russian spirit is there in a Russiad or a Petriad except for the proper names?”

Another deep observation on Othello is found in Pushkin’s laconic remark (numbered 7th[4]), juxtaposing Shakespeare’s Moor and Voltaire’s Orosmane from Zaire. This is the poet’s key to Othello’s riddle: “Othello is not jealous by nature – on the contrary, he is trusting. Voltaire understood this, and developing this Shakespearean character in his imitation, gave Orosmane the following line:

Je ne suis point jaloux ... Si je l'étais jamais!..” (XII, 157)

Voltaire once was under Shakespeare’s strong influence[5].

Pushkin’s remarks on Othello, Shylock, Angelo and Falstaff were first published in Sovremennik[6].

Boris Tomashevsky supposed that the parallel between Shakespeare’s and Voltaire’s characters had been suggested by the debate in French theater criticism aroused by Alfred de Vigny’s translation of Othello (1829); Zaire had been the first attempt to adapt Shakespeare to the French stage[7].

Mikhail Alexeyev commented on Pushkin’s remark, pointing out that it was not prompted by the poet’s old affection for Voltaire, it was in fact a sign of Pushkin’s enhanced understanding of Shakespeare’s original drama[8]. Alexeyev also makes use of Pushkin’s response to a critique of his Poltava, where the poet retorted to the critic’s remark, “it had never been heard of that a woman should fall in love with an old man” with the statement that “love is the most wilful of passions”, and went on to list historical and traditional stories, including the purely literary illustration: “And Othello, the old Negro, captivating Desdemona with tales of his wanderings and battles?” It is noteworthy that Pushkin made use of this Shakespearean treatment of unpredictable turns in love, not only for his critical battles but in original artistic creation as well. We see a similar illustration in The Egyptian Nights (1835), where Charsky is strongly impressed by the verses:

Ask Desdemona why her whim
Did on her dusky moor alight,
As Luna fell in love with night?
Like wind and erne, it is because
A maiden’s heart obeys no laws.
Such is the poet: like the North,
Whate’er he lists he carries forth,
Wherever, eagle-like, he flies,
Acknowledging no rule or owner,
He finds a god, like Desdemona,
For wayward heart to idolize.

(VIII, 269) (tr. Walter Arndt)

Here the ebbs and flows of love passion are brought to witness poetic liberty.

Alexeyev notes that in the 1830s Othello enjoyed special popularity in Russia (Ivan Kozlov’s tow lyrical pieces bear witness: Desdemona’s Song and To Desdemona’s Shadow (published in Severnye Tsvety, 1830-31). The plot of Othello is part of Ernest Wilfried Legouve’s poem on the death of Pompeii (translated by Alexander Polezhayev, 1836-37)[9].

The love of an old Moor for a young white woman provided the subject for Pushkin’s story, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great (1827-29). Scholars have often pointed to the influence of the Walter Scott tradition[10], whereas L. Volpert states: “The image of Othello is of paramount importance in all the planes of The Blackamoor of Peter the Great: as biography,history, and psychological study. It was not by chance that Pushkin conceived his fiction about Gannibal exactly when he was most influenced by Shakespeare. I suppose the shadow of the Moor loomed to Pushkin behind his great-grandfather’s back”[11]. The scholar also mentions a fragment from 1824, When Tsar Peter’s Arab wished to marry, and sees Othello as the clue to the character of Gannibal[12]: “When creating Othello Shakespeare seemed to foresee his distant Russian double. Surprisingly, the life of this fictitious character was destined, in a way, to be re-lived by Abram Gannibal. Both Othello and Gannibal are black-skinned, both are of royal origin, each serves as a general in a strange and distant land, and goes through tragic breakdowns, each marries a white woman and is exposed to acute pangs of jealousy”[13].

Many scholars have noted that Pushkin was not led by the document when relating his ancestor’s life; moreover, he frequently modified them[14]: “Like so many other Pushkin characters, Ibrahim is a composite image”, says L. Volpert. “He combines traits of the historic figure, the poet’s great-grandfather, with what we may call some traits of Othello’s character. Pushkin took full measure of Shakespeare’s method to make his old Moor loveable. The chief quality in Othello is his readiness for heroic action”[15]. She goes on to say how much the heroes share: “Othello acts in turbulent Venice engaged in battle against Turks. The Venetian Republic is shown as a new type of state: old traditions give way to new ideas of justice, law, and human rights. The Doge never hesitates to invest the black general with highest authority, when the circumstances demand this. Peter’s Russia is described as a “huge workshop”, which strikes an obvious parallel. Ibrahim is enthusiastic about participating in his Tsar’s reform labors, just as Othello was ready to place himself at the service of the State”[16]. Similar parallels are to be found in the depiction of love progress between a black man and a white woman, and the psychological treatment of jealousy.

Certainly, Pushkin’s ancestor had been brought up in a more courtly tradition, and this character’ chooses another mode of behavior, but, as L. Volpert states, the theme of jealousy in the unfinished novel is partly autobiographical. “The theme emerged in Pushkin’s verse of the mid-1820s, such as Will you forgive me jealous dreams? (1823); Destroyed Letter (1825); translator’s choice of a fragment from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1826) where Orlando is jealous to Medoro the Moor. Pushkin scholarship has often posed the issue of the poet’s choice. We suggest that this may be regarded in the light of Pushkin’s current preoccupation with the story of Gannibal[17]. It is arguable whether the inclination to jealousy ran in the family and brought the poet to his death, but it is a fact that Pushkin embraced the Shakespeare method and enhanced it in his fiction.

Another strange coincidence is that during the conflict development Pushkin displayed no lesser degree of trustfulness than Othello.

Boris Gorodetsky once compared Pushkin’s vision of Othello with the words his Salieri says:

Will anyone dare accuse proud Salieri
Of mean envy,
Similar to that of a snake that people tread upon,
As it lies and writhes in the sand and dust?
No, no one will!..


 

Gorodetsky actually commented on a very outstanding feature of Pushkin’s mature work: then this Russian poet started re-interpreting eternal plots and images of world art. He handled the richest artistic samples not out of envy or a desire to imitate; no, this was rivalry and revival of age-long traditions. This why his Salieri, Mozart, Angelo, and even Othello (in his treatment) do not emerge as re-makes or shadows, but rather as original products of Russian poetic genius.

N. V. Zakharov

Translation from Russian by Vl. Rogatin


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