The Beast with Two Backs

Othello, Act I

Well, so much for my first question.

I entered the year wondering why I had never encountered Othello till this day. Strange, because I had often heard it considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.

I am no academic, but I do have both a bachelor’s degree from UCLA and a master’s in the great books from St. John’s College at Annapolis. You’d think I would have run into it at some point.

And yet not. And now I know why! Or at least I suspect it’s because of the explosive racial content of the story.

What high school would touch this? What university wants to grapple with the implications of what Shakespeare has done?

I’m reeling – literally. And I’ve only begun! Iago is more treacherous than any villain I’ve ever come across. He appears loyal to nobody but himself.

Othello, on the other hand, is noble and trusting. He is being harshly judged solely because of the color of his skin.

Only Desdemona, his wife, loves him for his character and soul. And for that crime, she is disowned by her own father. She literally risks everything to declare her love of a man of color – even if he’s a respected officer and military mind.

Othello is needed against the Turks and must leave his wife temporarily at home. Not with her father, who wants nothing to do with her, but under the watch of his lieutenants whom he trusts.

Iago’s concluding soliloquy is brutal. After encouraging Rodrigo to make a cuckold of Othello by making as much money as he can and waiting Desdemona out, he confesses to using everyone for his own diabolical ends.

Truly we are entering the dark heart of man. And what’s brilliant about Shakespeare’s design is that he has flipped convention on its head. Not skin color, but inner soul is the true determinant of evil. Othello, the Moor, is the brave, kind and trusting soul.

How radical a setup is that?

Not just for now, the 21st century. But for the early 1600s!


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