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Liberal Humanist Features in Leavis’s Essay on Othello Essay Sample

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Liberal Humanist Features in Leavis’s Essay on Othello Essay Sample

Liberal humanism is a traditional way of doing English. We have all been instilled and programmed to do English in a traditional way without even realizing it. The values and beliefs which forms English remains hidden in the theory of Liberal humanism. F.R Leavis was a preacher of the traditional values of liberal humanism. His essay on Othello namely “Diabolic intellect and the noble hero: or the sentimentalist’s Othello” is essentially an attack on A.C Bradley’s criticism on Othello namely “The Shakesperean tragedy” for not having a liberal humanist approach towards the play “Othello” in order to critically analyze it. Instead of analyzing the play adopting the Liberal Humanist approach, Bradley’s criticism is based on his own sentimental preconceptions which Leavis does not approve of. Bradley’s interpretations are shaped by a number of presuppositions and his expectations towards the text. He is using the approach followed by literary theory where preconceptions govern the way u interpret where as for liberal humanists “words on page” or the “text” without any indulgence in preconceived ideas govern the way you interpret.

It is on the basis of this liberal humanist feature that Leavis writes almost the whole essay and it is from here that other liberal humanist features stem from which can be found in the essay. The foremost liberal humanist feature is focusing on the “text” also known as “on sight close reading”. A careful verbal analysis is needed for instance the shifts in tone by Shakespeare in order to reveal the intricately woven threads of language and to bring forth the hidden ideas or realities by reading between the lines without the interference of preconceptions and in Bradley’s case “sentimental preconception” due to which Bradley fails to see the true picture(Leavis 139). In other words, Bradley with his preconceptions also violates the tenth tenet of liberal humanism which says “the job of criticism is to interpret the text, to mediate between it and the reader” (Barry 20). Therefore, Leavis does not consider Bradley’s criticism sound enough to be accepted because he completely misses out on this dimension of liberal humanism.

Through careful verbal analysis, Leavis believes that through out the play from the beginning to the end, the seed of tragedy lied within the character of Othello himself and not the supposed villain Iago but Bradley due to his sentimental preconceptions sees Othello as flawless and perfectly noble while the evidences from the text prove otherwise. Othello is seen by Bradley as “purely noble, strong, generous and trusting […] merely a victim- the victim of Iago’s devilish intellectual superiority”(Leavis 137). No matter how devilish one makes of Iago, if Othello was such a noble man he would not have been so quick to doubt his wife and respond to Iago. It is not Iago but the element of self dramatization, self idealizatoin, habitual nobility, self preoccupation and self deception in Othello that leads to the ultimate tragedy. Bradley’s presuppositions do not allow him to see this hideous reality of Othello and the clumsy villainous role of Iago whom Bradley considers to have super intellect so that he could sympathize with his so called noble Othello. Leavis offers many such instance of Bradley’s utter deviation from this liberal humanist feature and his stubborn adherence to such an attitude.

Bradley says that Othello “was not easily jealous”(Leavis 138), “his trust, where he trusts, is absolute”(Leavis 140), that he really loved his wife and others, while careful study of the text proves otherwise. Bradley fails to see that Othello is just attracted to Desdemona due to her tenderness and for his sensual pleasures which he transforms into “romantic idealizing of love” by resembling his love to that of Romeo. This is another attribute of Othello leading towards the ultimate tragedy. He is more entangled with his own emotions, loving his own pride and purposes rather than Desdemona as a person. This inevitably leads us to another facet of liberal humanist feature that literature does not convey ideas directly in a programmatic way. It is latent. Words demonstrate what they signify. Therefore, one has to read between the lines to get to the meaning within. Apart from the evidences cited above, kneeling down to vow to take revenge stands symbolic that killing his wife was a matter of honor for him not murder.

After he finally kills Desdemona, his last speech is perfect example of self dramatization and the realization that the seed of tragedy clearly lay in him. In other words, the words of his last speech demonstrate what they signify that is the element of self deception or self dramatization in Othello. As Leavis points out “… he speaks his last words as the stern soldier who recalls, and reenacts, his supreme moment of deliberate courage”(152). Careful examination of the words and shifts in tone helps reveal and recognize Shakespeare’s artistry of language and hidden meanings. Therefore, according to the ten tenets of liberal humanism “…literature is a silent showing and demonstrating of something rather than explaining or saying of it” (Barry 19). Another feature of liberal humanism that Leavis’s essay brings forth is a belief that ‘individuality’ exists as a unique essence in everyone (Barry 18). “The whole personality is shifted into a new dimension by the force of circumstance”(Barry 18), but nevertheless the essence remains unchanged.

Apparently, it seems that Othello’s marital status and and Iago’s devlish role has changed him and led to the tragedy while the reality was that the tragedy was because of Othello’s own character. His quality of self dramatization led to the tragedy that is his essence remained same whether circumstances changed from a life of action to a marital life. To state this shift in circumstances, Leavis says in his essay “…the trials facing him now are of a different order”(Leavis 142). On a surface level it might not seem so but a profound analysis of the text shows that he remains responsible for his own tragedy to the very end. After Othello has killed Desdemona, Leavis contends that “…he is the same Othello in whose essential makeup the tragedy lay”(151). This is to further testify that his essence remained same. Pertaining to the prime feature of liberal humanism that Leavis continuously points out is another feature which Bradley fails to use. As stated in the ten tenets of liberal humanism, “to understand the text well it must be detached from contexts and studied in isolation”(Barry 18).

Rather than seeing things as they are Bradley interprets and sees the play through “Othello’s eyes rather than shakespeare’s” (Leavis 152). He merely sees what he wants to see and expects to see. Yet again Leavis points out this tendency of Bradley by saying “…his (Bradley) knowledge of Othello coinciding virtually with Othello’s, sees nothing but the nobility”(147).Since Othello in the play is of great military expertise and at a high position, Bradley tends to see the play through him. Like Leavis points out “he (Othello) is truly impressive, a noble product of a life of action”(141). For a fair analysis, it was required of Bradley to interpret the play not in the context of Othello but by simply focusing on the evidences that the “text” provided. In the play ‘Othello’, Shakespeare uses his utmost skilled artistry of language, therefore equal artistry is required to make interpretations or deduce meanings from it which could be best done using liberal humanist features. The play Othello or the “text” seems to provide evidences contrary of Bradley’s preconceived notions. Thus it is on the basis of liberal humanist features that Leavis finds Bradley’s criticism ineffective.

Work Cited
Barry,Peter. Beginning Theory: an introduction to literary and cultural theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press,1995

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