What Ho? No Watch? No Passage? Murder! Murder!

I spent the weekend watching (and ruminating upon) three notable adaptations of Othello: The Orson Welles version from 1952, the Laurence Olivier version from 1965, and the Kenneth Branagh (Oliver Parker) version from 1995.  I hope you’ll forebear if I skipped the modernization from 2001.

What I discovered won’t be earth-shattering news for those who cry foul whenever a beloved book or play is “translated” for the screen.  Movies are a different medium – I understand that.  But the more you know and love the underlying material, the more unbearable the cuts, alterations and interpretations become.

This is especially true for what would today be unthinkable: the use of blackface makeup to allow white men (Welles, Olivier) to play the part of a black man.  Was the role of Iago not good enough?  Were no males of dark skin color available?  Why not cast boys as women?  Would that be possible – or desirable – too?  What may have been standard practices will no longer do today,  and can’t help but induce groans and grimaces, regardless of the quality of performance.

That said, the cast in the 1965 production is superb and comes closest to rendering the Shakespeare we read in the text.  I can imagine that Olivier’s interpretive skills must be the only thing keeping it relevant, managing somehow to outweigh the revulsion at seeing him in black makeup.

On par is the almost unforgivable CUT in quintessential dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia at the end of Act IV.

When I said that I ruminated upon these movies, I mean over decisions such as that one, since it’s a profound – and profoundly moving – Shakespearean proto-feminist statement from the early 17th century that belongs both thematically and contextually to the play.  Can it be that lines Shakespeare penned nearly four centuries earlier were too shocking, too scandalous to be shown to the public in 1965?  Blood, lust, revenge and sword fights were a-ok, but a bold exchange between two women over equal rights was too hot to handle?  I must be careful here though, because I have no idea what the justifications were for the choice.  Whatever they were, they must have been compelling.   We mourn their dreadful loss.

But then other little things irk too, such as Emilia dying on the floor rather than on the bed next to Desdemona.  Isn’t her placement crucial to render sense of Lodovico’s line:

O Spartan dog…

Look on the tragic loading of this bed.

Am I quibbling over small matters?  I think not.

If you’re going to line-edit Shakespeare – Shakespeare! – then make damned sure you pick the right lines to fiddle with.  That’s no easy task, granted.  But if it’s more than you can handle, don’t bother.  Read the play a dozen times and read it a dozen more.  Make sure there are compelling reasons why this and not that.  Go ahead, interpret.  But please don’t eviscerate crucial moments because you are pulling threads from a precious fabric that will come entirely undone.

For those wondering, I love Baz Luhrman’s Romeo, so I’m not averse to either modernization or stylization.  I’m smitten by Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing as well.  But there are certain limits that, when crossed, will push me straight over the edge.

Oliver Parker, in his 1995 adaptation starring Laurence Fishburne as Othello and Kenneth Branagh as Iago simply won’t do.  Sure, Branagh is deft with Shakespearean dialogue and Fishburne certainly looks the part, smoldering in his slow-boil portrayal of Othello.  Yet at the same time, the gravity of the tragedy is entirely missing – maybe because of the soft-core porn flashbacks and soundtrack playing cloyingly beneath crucial passages of dialogue.

One critic noted that over half of Shakespeare’s words were cut for that adaptation.  For me, I could almost survive those cruel cuts.  But somebody had to make a mockery by having Othello and Desdemona consummate their relationship in graphic physical terms.  Shakespeare notably left that open – not because he was a prude (he absolutely was not) but because the ambiguity adds a further wedge for Iago to insert his poison.

Othello asserts that he has lost his physical passion.  Desdemona confesses that she fell in love with his mind.  At various points when the relationship could be sexual, it gets interrupted by surrounding events that contribute to Othello’s mounting frustrations.

A few critics have pointed out that consummation undermines any doubts in Desdemona’s fidelity.  Othello would experience her virginity as a fact and know firsthand the ardor of her devotion in the most intimate terms possible.  Othello would then have the physical evidence he lacks and needs to outweigh his wavering mind.  Iago’s flimsy circumstantial evidence would have no dry tinder with which to catch flame.

There are other odd interpretive decisions, some of which work, while others end up far too distracting.  While I can understand breaking long scenes or soliloquies into smaller, more digestible pieces or staging a scene on the beach or in a stable or armory, I cannot fathom why others are interpolated, manufactured out of wholecloth and inserted as if Shakespeare had written them or left holes that needed filling by more qualified artists.

This, ultimately, is my quarrel with Orson Welles. While Citizen Kane is the work of an undisputed genius, Othello comes across as the overreach of a bombastic ego, adding scenes, deleting scenes, obliterating dialogue, fabricating narration out of thin air.  You can get away with doing almost anything to Shakespeare but please don’t dice him into baby food for me.

These are just my opinions, of course, and many people, perhaps the majority, will disagree.  That’s as it should be.

But as I post these reviews, I take comfort from a review of 1995 Othello by Roger Ebert, who mentions that Harold Bloom holds the texts of Shakepeare so sacred that he cannot bear either filmed or staged versions, but prefers to hear them spoken instead.  I suppose I follow in his footsteps, then, when I confess that this rings true and close to home.

Every edition of a Shakespeare adaptation ought to come with a warning label stating: THE ORIGINAL WILL ALWAYS BE BEST.

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2 Responses to “What Ho? No Watch? No Passage? Murder! Murder!”

  1. I came across this footnote while I was reading Act V in the Norton and thought you might be interested:

    “At 5.2.244, the dying Emilia says, “O, lay me by my mistress’ side.” She then addresses Desdemona in a way that suggests that her wish has been granted. If it has, however, the presence of her body intrudes upon the concluding tableau of the dead Desdemona being kissed by the dying Othello, where “die” in line 369 has the secondary sense of “orgasm”.

    Personally, I’m not buying it. With everything else that’s going on here, it makes absolutely no sense to me that Othello would be using the word “die” in any sense other than the literal. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, y’know?

    • Precisely. Othello is wracked with grief at this point. He wouldn’t dare more than a kiss. Emilia is beside her lady. In this way, the bed contains Iago’s victims (all but Roderigo) doomed for their loving. Scholars…sheesh.

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