Adam Smith’s Slips and the End of Othello

arts & culture theory of moral sentiments sarah skwire imitative arts adam smith othello shakespeare memory hamlet iago

Sarah Skwire for AdamSmithWorks

Smith’s misrecollection of the end of Othello, then, is very much of a piece with this aesthetic preferences for the smooth, the regular, and the well ordered.
We detest Iago as much as we esteem Othello; and delight as much in the punishment of the one, as we are grieved at the distress of the other. 
--TMS I.ii.3.2

One of my quiet pleasures in reading Adam Smith’s writing is the rich world of literary allusion that enlivens his work. Smith quotes from works of poetry and drama often, and he often does so from memory, suggesting that these works are so much a part of his mental furniture that he doesn’t even need to pull them off the shelf to access the quotation he wants.

I enjoy this about Smith’s work because it is yet another reminder (can we ever have too many?)  that the founder of modern economics began his career as a lecturer on rhetoric. But I also enjoy it because Smith--like all of us--does not always quote with complete accuracy. Dr. Johnson referred to such moments as “casual eclipses of the mind” and suggested that they “darken learning.” But for me they illuminate Smith’s mysterious interior life.

We know that Smith quotes from memory because, sometimes, he gets it wrong. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments he refers to a line from Hamlet about old King Hamlet’s death, saying that, “he dies, as Hamlet says, with all his sins upon his head, unanointed, unanealed” (TMS VI.iii.45). The original lines in the play are:

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousell’d, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head. (Hamlet I.V.76-9)

And they are spoken not by Hamlet, but by the ghost of the old king.

Adam Smith gets it wrong. He attributes the speech to the wrong character and transforms the word “disappointed” into “unanointed” probably because it turns the line into a comfortably flowing series of “un” words--”Unhousell’d, unanointed, unaneled.” Smith is not a “bad Shakespearean.” He’s just so comfortable with the work that he quotes from memory. And when we quote from memory, we tend to make unintentional edits. 

Those unintentional edits, however, can tell us something about the person who makes them. Smith’s edits to the Hamlet quotation, for example, emphasize the preference for smoothness and regularity that marks his aesthetic judgements. They also emphasize the way that the lines could apply to so many deaths in the play--most of which are caused by Hamlet.

Smith’s allusion to Shakespeare’s Othello is another such “casual eclipse” or “misquote from memory.” In his discussion of the unsocial passions of hatred and resentment, Smith notes that while we can and do sympathize with them, our sympathies are divided between the person who is experiencing these passions and the person who is their target. Indeed, we have “a very strong sense of the injuries that are done to another” (TMS I.ii.3.2).

As is so often the case, Smith’s thoughts turn to literary examples of this sympathetic experience. He notes, “We detest Iago as much as we esteem Othello; and delight as much in the punishment of the one, as we are grieved at the distress of the other” (TMS I.ii.3.2). Smith is prompted to think of Othello in this moment, I expect, because this section of TMS continues by noting that while we do sympathize with the injuries done to another, we do not often feel those injuries as strongly as the one who has suffered them. This seems to me to be a strong reading of the audience’s experience of Iago’s many complaints about Othello: that he has promoted Cassio instead of Iago; that he is rumored to have slept with Iago’s wife; that his military expertise brings him safety and honors he doesn’t deserve, and on and on. Iago has so many complaints about Othello that they dissolve into what Coleridge called a “motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity.” The audience is left with the sense that Iago gives so many reasons for hating Othello that he really doesn’t have any reason. Thus, we are unable to feel the injuries that Iago says he has suffered.

It’s an apt and interesting allusion worthy of extended consideration. But equally interesting is that, once more, working from memory, Smith gets Shakespeare slightly wrong.
His comment strongly implies that the end of Othello gives us a satisfactory literary closure--where, although Othello suffers, Iago’s wicked designs are punished. But this is not quite right.

Instead, the ending of Othello dissolves as we read it. Othello strangles Desdemona, who revives long enough to call out to her maid Emilia. Emilia is then killed by her husband, Iago. Iago and Othello are arrested, and Othello stabs himself and dies. But at the end of the play Iago--the cause of all this horror--is still standing. More than that, he is standing mute, Iago refuses to explain his villany, after spending the play doing nothing but explaining himself. And Iago’s future punishment even seems in doubt, as the play closes with a plea to Cassio to actually enforce the laws against his crimes. It’s not an unusual ending for one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. They often close with a return to order that is less persuasive the longer one looks at it. But it’s not exactly the satisfying retribution that Smith remembers. 

In his essay “Of the Imitative Arts” Smith criticizes “the study of variety, of which the merit is scarcely ever sufficient to compensate the want of that perspicuity and distinctness, of that easiness to be comprehended and remembered, which is the natural effect of exact regularity. Smith’s misrecollection of the end of Othello, then, is very much of a piece with this aesthetic preferences for the smooth, the regular, and the well ordered. Iago *should* be punished at the end of Othello, therefore, he must have been.

After all, that’s how we all remember it, right?

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Adam Smith's Essays on Philosophical Subjects

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