Copyright
Charles Lamb.

Tales of Shakespeare online

. (page 21 of 23)
Online LibraryCharles LambTales of Shakespeare → online text (page 21 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


port in Denmark. From that place Hamlet wrote to the king, acquainting
him with the strange chance which had brought him back to his own
country, and saying that on the next day he should present himself
before his majesty. When he got home, a sad spectacle offered itself
the first thing to his eyes.

This was the funeral of the young and beautiful Ophelia, his once dear
mistress. The wits of this young lady had begun to turn ever since her
poor father's death. That he should die a violent death, and by the
hands of the prince whom she loved, so affected this tender young maid,
that in a little time she grew perfectly distracted, and would go about
giving flowers away to the ladies of the court, and saying that they
were for her father's burial, singing songs about love and about death,
and sometimes such as had no meaning at all, as if she had no memory of
what happened to her. There was a willow which grew slanting over a
brook, and reflected its leaves on the stream. To this brook she came
one day when she was unwatched, with garlands she had been making,
mixed up of daisies and nettles, flowers and weeds together, and
clambering up to hang her garland upon the boughs of the willow, a
bough broke, and precipitated this fair young maid, garland, and all
that she had gathered, into the water, where her clothes bore her up
for a while, during which she chanted scraps of old tunes, like one
insensible to her own distress, or as if she were a creature natural to
that element: but long it was not before her garments, heavy with the
wet, pulled her in from her melodious singing to a muddy and miserable
death. It was the funeral of this fair maid which her brother Laertes
was celebrating, the king and queen and whole court being present, when
Hamlet arrived. He knew not what all this show imported, but stood on
one side, not inclining to interrupt the ceremony. He saw the flowers
strewed upon her grave, as the custom was in maiden burials, which the
queen herself threw in; and as she threw them she said: 'Sweets to the
sweet! I thought to have decked thy bride-bed, sweet maid, not to have
strewed thy grave. Thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife.' And he
heard her brother wish that violets might spring from her grave: and he
saw him leap into the grave all frantic with grief, and bid the
attendants pile mountains of earth upon him, that he might be buried
with her. And Hamlet's love for this fair maid came back to him, and he
could not bear that a brother should show so much transport of grief,
for he thought that he loved Ophelia better than forty thousand
brothers. Then discovering himself, he leaped into the grave where
Laertes was, all as frantic or more frantic than he, and Laertes
knowing him to be Hamlet, who had been the cause of his father's and
his sister's death, grappled him by the throat as an enemy, till the
attendants parted them: and Hamlet, after the funeral, excused his
hasty act in throwing himself into the grave as if to brave Laertes;
but he said he could not bear that any one should seem to outgo him in
grief for the death of the fair Ophelia. And for the time these two
noble youths seemed reconciled.

But out of the grief and anger of Laertes for the death of his father
and Ophelia, the king, Hamlet's wicked uncle, contrived destruction for
Hamlet. He set on Laertes, under cover of peace and reconciliation, to
challenge Hamlet to a friendly trial of skill at fencing, which Hamlet
accepting, a day was appointed to try the match. At this match all the
court was present, and Laertes, by direction of the king, prepared a
poisoned weapon. Upon this match great wagers were laid by the
courtiers, as both Hamlet and Laertes were known to excel at this sword
play; and Hamlet taking up the foils chose one, not at all suspecting
the treachery of Laertes, or being careful to examine Laertes' weapon,
who, instead of a foil or blunted sword, which the laws of fencing
require, made use of one with a point, and poisoned. At first Laertes
did but play with Hamlet, and suffered him to gain some advantages,
which the dissembling king magnified and extolled beyond measure,
drinking to Hamlet's success, and wagering rich bets upon the issue:
but after a few passes, Laertes growing warm made a deadly thrust at
Hamlet with his poisoned weapon, and gave him a mortal blow. Hamlet
incensed, but not knowing the whole of the treachery, in the scuffle
exchanged his own innocent weapon for Laertes' deadly one, and with a
thrust of Laertes' own sword repaid Laertes home, who was thus justly
caught in his own treachery. In this instant the queen shrieked out
that she was poisoned. She had inadvertently drunk out of a bowl which
the king had prepared for Hamlet, in case, that being warm in fencing,
he should call for drink: into this the treacherous king had infused a
deadly poison, to make sure of Hamlet, if Laertes had failed. He had
forgotten to warn the queen of the bowl, which she drank of, and
immediately died, exclaiming with her last breath that she was
poisoned. Hamlet, suspecting some treachery, ordered the doors to be
shut, while he sought it out. Laertes told him to seek no farther for
he was the traitor, and feeling his life go away with the wound which
Hamlet had given him, he made confession of the treachery he had used,
and now he had fallen a victim to it: and he told Hamlet of the
envenomed point, and said that Hamlet had not half an hour to live, for
no medicine could cure him; and begging forgiveness of Hamlet, he died,
with his last words accusing the king of being the contriver of the
mischief. When Hamlet saw his end draw near, there being yet some venom
left upon the sword, he suddenly turned upon his false uncle, and
thrust the point of it to his heart, fulfilling the promise which he
had made to his father's spirit, whose injunction was now accomplished,
and his foul murder revenged upon the murderer. Then Hamlet, feeling
his breath fail and life departing, turned to his dear friend Horatio,
who had been spectator of this fatal tragedy; and with his dying breath
requested him that he would live to tell his story to the world (for
Horatio had made a motion as if he would slay himself to accompany the
prince in death), and Horatio promised that he would make a true
report, as one that was privy to all the circumstances. And, thus
satisfied, the noble heart of Hamlet cracked; and Horatio and the
bystanders with many tears commended the spirit of this sweet prince to
the guardianship of angels. For Hamlet was a loving and a gentle
prince, and greatly beloved for his many noble and princelike
qualities; and if he had lived, would no doubt have proved a most royal
and complete king to Denmark.





OTHELLO

Brabantio, the rich senator of Venice, had a fair daughter, the gentle
Desdemona. She was sought to by divers suitors, both on account of her
many virtuous qualities, and for her rich expectations. But among the
suitors of her own clime and complexion, she saw none whom she could
affect: for this noble lady, who regarded the mind more than the
features of men, with a singularity rather to be admired than imitated,
had chosen for the object of her affections, a Moor, a black, whom her
father loved, and often invited to his house.

Neither is Desdemona to be altogether condemned for the unsuitableness
of the person whom she selected for her lover. Bating that Othello was
black, the noble Moor wanted nothing which might recommend him to the
affections of the greatest lady. He was a soldier, and a brave one; and
by his conduct in bloody wars against the Turks, had risen to the rank
of general in the Venetian service, and was esteemed and trusted by the
state.

He had been a traveller, and Desdemona (as is the manner of ladies)
loved to hear him tell the story of his adventures, which he would run
through from his earliest recollection; the battles, sieges, and
encounters, which he had passed through; the perils he had been exposed
to by land and by water; his hair-breadth escapes, when he had entered
a breach, or marched up to the mouth of a cannon; and how he had been
taken prisoner by the insolent enemy, and sold to slavery; how he
demeaned himself in that state, and how he escaped: all these accounts,
added to the narration of the strange things he had seen in foreign
countries, the vast wilderness and romantic caverns, the quarries, the
rocks and mountains, whose heads are in the clouds; of the savage
nations, the cannibals who are man-eaters, and a race of people in
Africa whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders: these travellers'
stories would so enchain the attention of Desdemona, that if she were
called off at any time by household affairs, she would despatch with
all haste that business, and return, and with a greedy ear devour
Othello's discourse. And once he took advantage of a pliant hour, and
drew from her a prayer, that he would tell her the whole story of his
life at large, of which she had heard so much, but only by parts: to
which he consented, and beguiled her of many a tear, when he spoke of
some distressful stroke which his youth had suffered.

His story being done, she gave him for his pains a world of sighs: she
swore a pretty oath, that it was all passing strange, and pitiful,
wondrous pitiful: she wished (she said) she had not heard it, yet she
wished that heaven had made her such a man; and then she thanked him,
and told him, if he had a friend who loved her, he had only to teach
him how to tell his story, and that would woo her. Upon this hint,
delivered not with more frankness than modesty, accompanied with
certain bewitching prettiness, and blushes, which Othello could not but
understand, he spoke more openly of his love, and in this golden
opportunity gained the consent of the generous lady Desdemona privately
to marry him.

Neither Othello's colour nor his fortune were such that it could be
hoped Brabantio would accept him for a con-in-law. He had left his
daughter free; but he did expect that, as the manner of noble Venetian
ladies was, she would choose ere long a husband of senatorial rank or
expectations; but in this he was deceived; Desdemona loved the Moor,
though he was black, and devoted her heart and fortunes to his valiant
parts and qualities; so was her heart subdued to an implicit devotion
to the man she had selected for a husband, that his very colour, which
to all but this discerning lady would have proved an insurmountable
objection, was by her esteemed above all the white skins and clear
complexions of the young Venetian nobility, her suitors.

Their marriage, which, though privately carried, could not long be kept
a secret, came to the ears of the old man, Brabantio, who appeared in a
solemn council of the senate, as an accuser of the Moor Othello, who by
spells and witchcraft (he maintained) had seduced the affections of the
fair Desdemona to marry him, without the consent of her father, and
against the obligations of hospitality.

At this juncture of time it happened that the state of Venice had
immediate need of the services of Othello, news having arrived that the
Turks with mighty preparation had fitted out a fleet, which was bending
its course to the island of Cyprus, with intent to regain that strong
post from the Venetians, who then held it; in this emergency the state
turned its eyes upon Othello, who alone was deemed adequate to conduct
the defence of Cyprus against the Turks. So that Othello, now summoned
before the senate, stood in their presence at once as a candidate for a
great state employment, and as a culprit, charged with offences which
by the laws of Venice were made capital.

The age and senatorial character of old Brabantio, commanded a most
patient hearing from that grave assembly; but the incensed father
conducted his accusation with so much intemperance, producing
likelihoods and allegations for proofs, that, when Othello was called
upon for his defence, he had only to relate a plain tale of the course
of his love; which he did with such an artless eloquence, recounting
the whole story of his wooing, as we have related it above, and
delivered his speech with so noble a plainness (the evidence of truth),
that the duke, who sat as chief judge, could not help confessing that a
tale so told would have won his daughter too: and the spells and
conjurations which Othello had used in his courtship, plainly appeared
to have been no more than the honest arts of men in love; and the only
witchcraft which he had used, the faculty of telling a soft tale to win
a lady's ear.

This statement of Othello was confirmed by the testimony of the lady
Desdemona herself, who appeared in court, and professing a duty to her
father for life and education, challenged leave of him to profess a yet
higher duty to her lord and husband, even so much as her mother had
shown in preferring him (Brabantio) above her father.

The old senator, unable to maintain his plea, called the Moor to him
with many expressions of sorrow, and, as an act of necessity, bestowed
upon him his daughter, whom, if he had been free to withhold her (he
told him), he would with all his heart have kept from him; adding, that
he was glad at soul that he had no other child, for this behaviour of
Desdemona would have taught him to be a tyrant, and hang clogs on them
for her desertion.

This difficulty being got over. Othello, to whom custom had rendered
the hardships of a military life as natural as food and rest are to
other men, readily undertook the management of the wars in Cyprus: and
Desdemona, preferring the honour of her lord (though with danger)
before the indulgence of those idle delights in which new-married
people usually waste their time, cheerfully consented to his going.

No sooner were Othello and his lady landed in Cyprus, than news
arrived, that a desperate tempest had dispersed the Turkish fleet, and
thus the island was secure from any immediate apprehension of an
attack. But the war, which Othello was to suffer, was now beginning;
and the enemies, which malice stirred up against his innocent lady,
proved in their nature more deadly than strangers or infidels.

Among all the general's friends no one possessed the confidence of
Othello more entirely than Cassio. Michael Cassio was a young soldier,
a Florentine, gay, amorous, and of pleasing address, favourite
qualities with women; he was handsome and eloquent, and exactly such a
person as might alarm the jealousy of a man advanced in years (as
Othello in some measure was), who had married a young and beautiful
wife; but Othello was as free from jealousy as he was noble, and as
incapable of suspecting as of doing a base action. He had employed this
Cassio in his love affair with Desdemona, and Cassio had been a sort of
go-between in his suit: for Othello, fearing that himself had not those
soft parts of conversation which please ladies, and finding these
qualities in his friend, would often depute Cassio to go (as he phrased
it) a courting for him: such innocent simplicity being rather an honour
than a blemish to the character of the valiant Moor. So that no wonder,
if next to Othello himself (but at far distance, as beseems a virtuous
wife) the gentle Desdemona loved and trusted Cassio. Nor had the
marriage of this couple made any difference in their behaviour to
Michael Cassio. He frequented their house, and his free and rattling
talk was no unpleasing variety to Othello, who was himself of a more
serious temper: for such tempers are observed often to delight in their
contraries, as a relief from the oppressive excess of their own: and
Desdemona and Cassio would talk and laugh together, as in the days when
he went a courting for his friend.

Othello had lately promoted Cassio to be the lieutenant, a place of
trust, and nearest to the general's person. This promotion gave great
offence to Iago, an older officer who thought he had a better claim
than Cassio, and would often ridicule Cassio as a fellow fit only for
the company of ladies, and one that knew no more of the art of war or
how to set an army in array for battle, than a girl. Iago hated Cassio,
and he hated Othello, as well for favouring Cassio, as for an unjust
suspicion, which he had lightly taken up against Othello that the Moor
was too fond of Iago's wife Emilia. From these imaginary provocations,
the plotting mind of Iago conceived a horrid scheme of revenge, which
should involve both Cassio, the Moor, and Desdemona, in one common ruin.

Iago was artful, and had studied human nature deeply, and he knew that
of all the torments which afflict the mind of man (and far beyond
bodily torture), the pains of jealousy were the most intolerable, and
had the sorest sting. If he could succeed in making Othello jealous of
Cassio, he thought it would be an exquisite plot of revenge, and might
end in the death of Cassio or Othello, or both; he cared not.

The arrival of the general and his lady, in Cyprus, meeting with the
news of the dispersion of the enemy's fleet, made a sort of holiday in
the island. Everybody gave themselves up to feasting and making merry.
Wine flowed in abundance, and cups went round to the health of the
black Othello, and his lady the fair Desdemona.

Cassio had the direction of the guard that night, with a charge from
Othello to keep the soldier from excess in drinking, that no brawl
might arise, to fright the inhabitants, or disgust them with the
new-landed forces. That night Iago began his deep-laid plans of
mischief: under colour of loyalty and love to the general, he enticed
Cassio to make rather too free with the bottle (a great fault in an
officer upon guard). Cassio for a time resisted, but he could not long
hold out against the honest freedom which Iago knew how to put on, but
kept swallowing glass after glass (as Iago still plied him with drink
and encouraging songs), and Cassio's tongue ran over in praise of the
lady Desdemona, whom he again and again toasted, affirming that she was
a most exquisite lady: until at last the enemy which he put into his
mouth stole away his brains; and upon some provocation given him by a
fellow whom Iago had set on, swords were drawn, and Montano, a worthy
officer, who interfered to appease the dispute, was wounded in the
scuffle. The riot now began to be general, and Iago, who had set on
foot the mischief, was foremost in spreading the alarm, causing the
castle-bell to be rung (as if some dangerous mutiny instead of a slight
drunken quarrel had arisen): the alarm-bell ringing awakened Othello,
who, dressing in a hurry, and coming to the scene of action, questioned
Cassio of the cause. Cassio was now come to himself, the effect of the
wine having a little gone off, but was too much ashamed to reply; and
Iago, pretending a great reluctance to accuse Cassio, but, as it were,
forced into it by Othello, who insisted to know the truth, gave an
account of the whole matter (leaving out his own share in it, which
Cassio was too far gone to remember) in such a manner, as while he
seemed to make Cassio's offence less, did indeed make it appear greater
than it was. The result was, that Othello, who was a strict observer of
discipline, was compelled to take away Cassio's place of lieutenant
from him.

Thus did Iago's first artifice succeed completely; he had now
undermined his hated rival, and thrust him out of his place: but a
further use was hereafter to be made of the adventure of this
disastrous night.

Cassio, whom this misfortune had entirely sobered, now lamented to his
seeming friend Iago that he should have been such a fool as to
transform himself into a beast. He was undone, for how could he ask the
general for his place again? he would tell him he was a drunkard. He
despised himself. Iago, affecting to make light of it, said, that he,
or any man living, might be drunk upon occasion; it remained now to
make the best of a bad bargain; the general's wife was now the general,
and could do anything with Othello; that he were best to apply to the
lady Desdemona to mediate for him with her lord; that she was of a
frank, obliging disposition, and would readily undertake a good office
of this sort, and set Cassio right again in the general's favour; and
then this crack in their love would be made stronger than ever. A good
advice of Iago, if it had not been given for wicked purposes, which
will after appear.

Cassio did as Iago advised him, and made application to the lady
Desdemona, who was easy to be won over in any honest suit; and she
promised Cassio that she should be his solicitor with her lord, and
rather die than give up his cause. This she immediately set about in so
earnest and pretty a manner, that Othello, who was mortally offended
with Cassio, could not put her off. When he pleaded delay, and that it
was too soon to pardon such an offender, she would not be beat back,
but insisted that it should be the next night, or the morning after, or
the next morning to that at farthest. Then she showed how penitent and
humbled poor Cassio was, and that his offence did not deserve so sharp
a check. And when Othello still hung back: 'What! my lord,' said she,
'that I should have so much to do to plead for Cassio, Michael Cassio,
that came a courting for you, and oftentimes, when I have spoken in
dispraise of you, has taken your part! I count this but a little thing
to ask of you. When I mean to try your love indeed, I shall ask a
weighty matter.' Othello could deny nothing to such a pleader, and only
requesting that Desdemona would leave the time to him, promised to
receive Michael Cassio again in favour.

It happened that Othello and Iago had entered into the room where
Desdemona was, just as Cassio, who had been imploring her intercession,
was departing at the opposite door: and Iago, who was full of art, said
in a low voice, as if to himself: 'I like not that.' Othello took no
great notice of what he said; indeed, the conference which immediately
took place with his lady put it out of his head; but he remembered it
afterwards. For when Desdemona was gone, Iago, as if for mere
satisfaction of his thought, questioned Othello whether Michael Cassio,
when Othello was courting his lady, knew of his love. To this the
general answering in the affirmative, and adding, that he had gone
between them very often during the courtship, Iago knitted his brow, as
if he had got fresh light on some terrible matter, and cried: 'Indeed!'
This brought into Othello's mind the words which Iago had let fall upon
entering the room, and seeing Cassio with Desdemona; and he began to
think there was some meaning in all this: for he deemed Iago to be a
just man, and full of love and honesty, and what in a false knave would
be tricks, in him seemed to be the natural workings of an honest mind,
big with something too great for utterance: and Othello prayed Iago to
speak what he knew, and to give his worst thoughts words. 'And what,'
said Iago, 'if some thoughts very vile should have intruded into my
breast, as where is the palace into which foul things do not enter?'
Then Iago went on to say, what a pity it were, if any trouble should
arise to Othello out of his imperfect observations; that it would not
be for Othello's peace to know his thoughts; that people's good names
were not to be taken away for slight suspicions; and when Othello's
curiosity was raised almost to distraction with these hints and
scattered words, Iago, as if in earnest care for Othello's peace of
mind, besought him to beware of jealousy: with such art did this
villain raise suspicions in the unguarded Othello, by the very caution
which he pretended to give him against suspicion. 'I know,' said
Othello, 'that my wife is fair, loves company and feasting, is free of
speech, sings, plays, and dances well: but where virtue is, these
qualities are virtuous. I must have proof before I think her
dishonest.' Then Iago, as if glad that Othello was slow to believe ill
of his lady, frankly declared that he had no proof, but begged Othello
to observe her behaviour well, when Cassio was by; not to be jealous
nor too secure neither, for that he (Iago) knew the dispositions of the
Italian ladies, his countrywomen, better than Othello could do; and
that in Venice the wives let heaven see many pranks they dared not show
their husbands. Then he artfully insinuated that Desdemona deceived her
father in marrying with Othello, and carried it so closely, that the
poor old man thought that witchcraft had been used. Othello was much
moved with this argument, which brought the matter home to him, for if
she had deceived her father, why might she not deceive her husband?


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 23

Online LibraryCharles LambTales of Shakespeare → online text (page 21 of 23)