Send in the Clown

Why is there a clown in Othello? He only makes two brief appearances, neither of any seeming importance. So why have him at all?

I scoured my sources and searched the internet for a satisfying answer. “He’s absurd,” I thought. Is he here to add levity? Amusement? That sounds plausible. But probably too easy. That’s generally what clowns do.

I wasn’t satisfied until I reread the farce attack at the start of Act V. No matter how many times I scan the lines, the action doesn’t add up.

Iago is an experienced soldier. I can’t believe he only manages to wound Cassio in the leg. Not when so much rides on his removal in order for Iago’s plans to succeed.

Then again, from a distance, there really is a farcical element to the play. Iago’s treachery is held together by chewing gum and baling wire. Appearance is mistaken for reality, reality for appearance. This tragedy is almost an inverted comedy. We might laugh at Iago’s wit the way Desdemona does until we realize that the consequences are so dire.

My theory, therefore, is that the clown is Shakespeare’s concession to the audience that yes, yes, certain aspects of the plot strain credibility. No more than clowns do and yet get a laugh.

Othello may indeed be a farce when viewed from a certain direction. But then comes the climax with its unjust murders, suicide and torture – hardly laughing matters.

The consequences are somber and real, even if the story itself is fiction. That’s why the clown doesn’t stay long.

He appears as a reminder that absurdity dwells among us, then just as quickly is gone again, leaving us to clean up what’s left after our actions have collided and fate has run its tragic course.


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