Archive for the Othello Category

Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Woman

Posted in Guest Post, Othello on 2014/01/15 by mattermind

Your conclusion was pretty similar to mine: Desdemona, not Othello, is the tragic center of the play. I believe she owns her death because she took her vow seriously and “became one” with her husband. Othello not so much. It’s why I agree with others (and against the 1992 film with Kenneth Branaugh) that the relationship can’t possibly have been consummated. Thanks so much for your extended take!

Shakespeare 365

I’m quickly realizing that the detached, academic analysis-type stance is not going to work for me.
I’m not sure why I kept trying to go there with my writing, except for maybe habit.
After all, the last time I encountered Shakespeare was roughly a decade ago, when I took a class as part of my Master’s program.
Then, I really had no choice. I also had absolutely nothing else going on in my life–so it was relatively easy to spend countless hours doing research and writing formal papers with lists of citations.

Now, my time (and my attention span) is far more limited.
Perhaps a time will come when I’m able to really dig in and check one source after another, and conduct a more formal examination of the text(s)…
But I can’t start out that way. It’s too much for me to handle. I need to ease in and…

View original post 2,044 more words

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Put Out the Light, and Then Put Out the Light

Posted in Othello with tags , , on 2014/01/12 by mattermind

My final Othello post will deal with the question of why he kills himself.

I thought I had it figured out when I discovered striking similarities with Oedipus in the Greek Tragedy by Sophocles.  Certainly Shakespeare must have been aware of his great predecessor as evidenced in the lines:

But, oh, vain boast!

Who can control his fate?

That’s a line that Oedipus himself might utter.

Throughout the play, Othello has operated out of ignorance.  Like Oedipus, he has striven to behave honorably and “do his best,” only to discover that good intentions aren’t enough.  Other factors such as destiny or the evil machinations of others play a hand.

When Oedipus discovers that he has unintentionally killed his father and slept with his mother, he blinds himself in a spontaneous act of self-inflicted punishment.

But when Othello learns too late that he has been manipulated by the demidemon Iago, he does not kill himself straight off.  It is nowhere near the rash – and one might argue more heartfelt – act by Oedipus who does not allow reason to catch up with profound regret.

Othello, on the other hand, ponders.  At first, he even behaves like a weasel when he pretends not to know how Desdemona died.  He tells Emilia:

OTHELLO: Why, how should she be murdered?

EMILIA: Alas, who knows?

OTHELLO: You heard her say herself it was not I.

Granted, Othello has rationalized that killing Desdemona was an act of sacrifice and imposed justice rather than murder.

Othello soon clarifies to Emilia that he was the agent of Desdemona’s death.  But the more the circumstances are clarified, the faster the revelations pile on.  Once it becomes clear that the handkerchief served as the crucial link in Othello’s crazed mind, Emilia registers that her husband has in fact been the agent of all the mischief.

At this point, Othello profoundly laments.  He strikes out at Iago and demands an explanation from him, which Iago unmercifully denies him.

We watch as Othello realizes that he has been stripped of everything he once had: honor, reputation, power, place, prestige – and a wife who truly loved him.  “Let them all go,” he tells himself.  And later, referring to himself in the 3rd person: “That’s he that was Othello.”  He knows that his old life is irretrievably gone.  And again: “Where should Othello go?”

What options now remain to him?  Adding insult to profound injury, he must accept that Cassio will take over in Cyprus and that he has been stripped of any title, place or standing in Venice.  He will return as a criminal, if one who committed a crime of the heart.

There is little punishment that Venice could inflict which would exceed the toll he has already exacted upon himself.  Othello professes that it will be Desdemona’s innocent look that casts him from heaven to hell.  And yet in guilt he invites the just wrath of the afterworld, bellowing:

O cursed, cursed slave!

Whip me, ye devils,

From the possession of this heavenly sight!

Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur,

Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!

So where does that leave us?

It was then that I read this explanation from Harold Bloom:

Rather than survive in a diminished guise, and with the eternal torment of knowing that he has been led by Iago’s treacheries and persuasions to destroy his wholly innocent and blameless wife, he passes a judgment upon himself that he fears that Venice will not pass, because he still could be very useful to Venice; he condemns himself to execution, and he executes himself. And in doing so, he recovers a certain quality of tragic dignity.

I find this a compelling argument but ultimately unsatisfying.  For while I believe that the rational part of Othello might come to this conclusion, the passionate part chooses suicide for a different reason that can be summed up by the following lines:

I kissed the ere I killed thee.  No way but this,

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

These are not the words of a Stoic statesman or a husband rationalizing himself to suicide.  Othello may have soberly contemplated the terms of his newfound criminal status and outlook back in Venice.  But he commits the act from the aptness of its poetic justice, thrusting himself by his own hand within Dante’s Inferno in which every sin has a commensurate punishment and each dreadful act its own metaphorical fulfillment.

Othello has indeed tried and found himself guilty – not by an inner logical criminal court, but by the devastating inevitability of the completion of the arc of love within his heart.

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

Posted in Movie Reviews, Othello with tags , , , on 2014/01/12 by mattermind

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.

Send in the Clown

Posted in Othello on 2014/01/11 by mattermind

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.

What Are You Thinking?

Posted in Othello with tags , , on 2014/01/10 by mattermind

Now that I’ve finished reading Othello on my own, I’m open to opinions and suggestions from secondary sources (and your commentary) to expand and/or contradict what I’ve written here.  I understand it’s a bit foolish to publicly flail your way through the greatest works in Western literature…but then, hey, the whole idea is that we all have to do this for ourselves at some point.  We can’t let teams of experts tell us what to think and believe about everything.

That said, I dove headfirst into a book by Mr. Colin McGinn called “Shakespeare’s Philosophy: Discovering the Meaning Behind the Plays.”  if curious, you can read more about that HERE.

What had me most curious was how a professor of philosophy would approach the text, rather than the usual literary historian or critic.  To say that I was thunderstruck would be an understatement.  My conceptual hinges were blown away by his suggestion that the play centers itself upon the conundrum of epistemology – the study of how we know what we know (and if it can be known at all).

I’d certainly seen elements of this for myself.  But it was the way Mr. McGinn honed in on this as his cornerstone proposition…that Shakespeare was acutely aware of the impassible bridge separating interior states of consciousness from one another.  Or, to put it another way, I may know what I’m thinking, but how can I ever be sure about you?

Once grasped, the implications take on a life of their own.  I found my face contorted in that Macaulay Culkin OMG Home Alone expression while scrawling yes Yes YES in the margins as if I were Molly Bloom.

This central thesis, and the companion notion that Shakespeare constructed the whole play around its core idea, makes perfect sense from the text as far as I’m concerned.  No, it can never (nor should it)  explain every nuance or flatten out its complexity or hidden layers of meaning.  But it does provide a firm grasp on what’s happening both at the meta-level as well as buried deep within the subterranean subtext of the individual characters.

It’s a point that recurs again and again and again in Othello: what do people know, how do they know it, and how can they be manipulated by somebody who is willing to not play by the rules?

We all operate to some extent in a state of darkness.  I don’t know what you’re thinking and you can’t be certain of me, even if I swear I’m telling the truth.  This is Desdemona’s problem as she attempts to convince Othello that she has remained faithful.  This is Othello’s problem as he weighs his intuitive trust in his wife with the psuedo-evidence that Iago has fabricated.  We can go down the list of characters – and even background events – and describe how appearances not matching up to reality underlies the troubles that climax in tragedy.  But that’s better left in the hands of Mr. McGinn.

For my own evidence, I turn to a striking dialogue between Othello and Iago, a pivotal moment that sways Othello from predominant faith in Desdemona to the tipping point of jealous madness.  In the span of hardly a page, Shakespeare keeps driving home the single word think.

OTHELLO: What dost thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: “Think, my lord?” Alas thou echo’st me

As if there were some monster in thy thought 

Too hideous to be shown…

IAGO: My lord, you know I love you.

OTHELLO: I think thou dost…

IAGO: For Michael Cassio

I dare be sworn, I think, that he is honest.

OTHELLO: I think so too.

IAGO: People should be what they seem,

Or those that be not, would they might seem none!

OTHELLO: Certain, men should be what they seem.

IAGO: Why then, I say Cassio is an honest man.

And therein lies the problem: Iago is lying!!!  Othello “thinks” he’s telling the truth.

Desdemona tells the truth…and Othello “thinks” that she is lying.

Here is the real tragedy in Othello.  And it’s woven into human nature and the human predicament itself.

This isn’t Othello’s story – or Iago’s or Desdemona’s for that matter.  It’s yours and mine and ours.  We deal with it every moment of every single day, even if our misunderstandings don’t necessarily lead to murder.

And yet it happens.

How many times do we turn on the television only to hear that same frightening news report from the shocked neighbors who swear that they had no idea a serial killer lived on the same street/ next door/around the corner?

Who is telling the truth and who is lying?  Whom do you trust?  What proof do you have?  What proof do you want or need?

Do you really know your husband or wife?  Your children?  Your best friend?  What secrets are they keeping?  What secrets do you keep from them?

That’s epistemology in a nutshell, folks.  And it’s why Othello is truly a creepshow – as well as a work of staggering genius –  that a horror master such as Stephen King might wish he’d dreamed up.

The Sleep of Reason

Posted in Othello on 2014/01/09 by mattermind

I’m going there.  I have no choice.  The matter will come up eventually so we may as well get to it now.

In rereading the tavern scene from Act II in which Iago manages to get Cassio drunk in order to stir up trouble, what struck me most was how Cassio curses the wine as a “devil” that transformed him into a beast.

O though invisible spirit of wine, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee devil!

(…) Oh, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!  That we should, with joy, pleasance, revel and applause, transform ourselves into beasts!

(…) To be now a sensible man, by and by a fool, and presently a beast!  Oh, strange!  Every inordinate cup is unblessed and the ingredient is a devil.

We get the point.  Cassio is upset because he has allowed himself to let his guard down, to enjoy a little wine, get a little drunk, and to make a big ass out of himself – which leads directly to his demotion by Othello.  The critical issue here is that Cassio blames his suffering on the loss of his reasoning faculty, that the impairment of his judgment has led directly to a loss of reputation.

Iago, speaking to Roderigo later in the same act says:

Thou know’st we work by wit and not by witchcraft.

So how different is the reasoning faculty of Cassio from Iago’s?  Why is Cassio a moral being while Iago is not?  What quality separates them – and how is Iago able to exploit Cassio to his own advantage?  Is that a matter of misplaced trust, of bad judgment?  How can Iago be so precise, so exacting in his villainy and yet so in charge over himself?

His plans, like that of any great villain, make cold, cruel, logical sense.  What then is the human capacity that separates us from being beasts?

To further complicate the issue, Iago relishes a sadistic, twisted moral inversion when he contemplates how he will undo Cassio and Desdemona by their own virtue and goodness.  My blood turns to ice when he says:

(Of Cassio)

How am I a villain 

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,

Directly to his good.  Divinity of hell!

When devils will the blackest sins put on

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows

As I do now…

(And of Desdemona)

And by how much she strives to do him good

She shall undo her credit with the Moor.

So will I turn her virtue into pitch

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all.

Othello gets into trouble by allowing jealousy to overcome his faith and intuition.  Iago unleashes his lechery out of revenge.  Cassio is unbalanced by drink and a misplaced trust in friendship.  Emilia (who catches herself) in her husband.  And poor Desdemona behaves with reverence and regard for everyone else’s welfare but her own.  Each of these is “reasonable” in their own way…and yet for each, reason is not enough.

What might Desdemona do differently to change her fate?  Or Cassio?  Or Othello?  Or Emilia?  Or Iago?  What is their downfall, their Achilles heel, their fatal flaw?  Is there a single moral thread here that runs through them all?

I would argue that there isn’t; that Shakespeare confounds our simple attempts at explanations.  Just as, when Iago entertains Desdemona by witty wordplay, he pronounces that even the most perfect of women will end up suckling nitwits and cutting coupons, we all have our virtues and our undoings.  Each of us is subject to a host of individual vices.

Is logic enough? Not for Cassio.

Is virtuousness enough? Not for Desdemona.

Is heroism enough? Not for Othello.

Is loyalty enough? Not for Emilia.

Is civic duty enough? Being a good parent? Not for Brabantio.

The Age of Reason posited a notion that man’s rational faculties could lift him from out of a primitive state of darkness.  Through laws, by education, with conversation and debate, men and women could raise themselves from a bestial mode into one of sound judgment, equitable treatment, civic fairness, and societal goodness.

But is Iago not a rational creature?  And if so, what chances do we mortals then have?  To what higher sense of self or divinity can one turn to improve the lot of everyone?  Religion?  Government?  To our elitist minds and thinkers?

Why can’t Iago stop himself?  What prevents the other characters from seeing through his charade, to stop trusting him at face value?  What defenses do we have to prevent ourselves from being taken advantage of in this same way?

I told you I didn’t want to go there.

But these are questions that needed to be asked, not just now but over the course of the entire year.  Especially when we arrive at Romeo & Juliet – and address the nature of true love.

 

I Am Not Merry, But I Do Beguile

Posted in Othello with tags , , , on 2014/01/09 by mattermind

These are Desdemona’s words in Act II – and indeed, they do beguile.  They arise in a dialogue between her and Iago that I didn’t fully understand at first, but which intrigued me nonetheless.

We often say that what makes Shakespeare so transcendent is how he captures moments from life – real life, not just stage life or life as a simulation.  We find ourselves recognizing certain behavior whether it flatters us or not.  From our best citizens to our slimiest villains, the human canvas is rendered for us to behold, to wonder, to experience and to analyze.

What I love and am mystified by in this extended exchange is how Desdemona provokes Iago the way good girls flirt with bad boys all the time.  And it is a kind of flirting, isn’t it?

She scolds Iago even as she prods him into praising her, but as an excuse really to take delight in Iago’s scandalous retorts.

The key for me to understanding this passage is to recognize that Desdemona here is really us.  Shakespeare knows that Iago is the most fun part to play – he’s an actor, remember, and he knows a good role when he writes one.

The crucial element comes, however, when Desdemona distinguishes between acting a part and actually being a bad character.  She may take as much delight in Iago’s scandalous behavior as we do, but she would be the first to draw the line and say enough, time to stop messing around.

Iago is extremely harsh when talking about Emilia, his wife.  We see this kind of behavior from husbands and wives all the time, snarling in otherwise innocent situations to express their pent-up displeasure.  We can only imagine what Emilia has had to put up with, being married to such a curr as Iago.  She has lived much more than Desdemona has, knows the real world much better as we intuit from her responses to Desdemona in Act IV.  She would sleep with a man for the “right” reasons – if it could advance her husband’s career, for example.

Desdemona’s reactions here and elsewhere are those of a younger girl still fired by hopes, dreams and idealism, who shades the world into blacks and whites, rather than grays.  It may be fun to flirt with a guy like Iago, but she would never dream of marrying him.  That is why she, like a fairytale princess, rejected every other suitor who asked for her hand back in Venice.

She has chosen a man who inspired her mind rather than won her heart.  Othello is valiant, a warrior who has seen and survived much.  He aspires to do good, even when he ends up doing wrong.  He has made a great name as a warrior.  It is easy to understand why a young girl might fall for a man with such a history – and with such big ambitions.

But it’s also easy to imagine that she hasn’t had a lot of fun in her life, either.  We know that Brabantio has kept her under lock and key, and that a lot of expectations have been riding on her choice of husband.  Seafaring battles, adventures in general, are not open to her as a career choice.  So, again, she almost becomes Belle-like in Beauty and the Beast, a girl with imagination who has few real options, choosing a “beast” like Othello with a noble heart and prospects to take her out into the wider world.

Could this be what Shakespeare means by having her argue so passionately to accompany her husband to Cyprus?  Why else did Desdemona risk everything to smuggle herself out of the house and elope with a man who would shatter her father and change her life forever?

Even a seemingly straightforward character such as Desdemona has so many aspects to her in the hands of Shakespeare.  We, as readers, must search between the lines and be alert for subtle clues and suggestions that might pass us right by.  He rewards us for that effort again and again.

I’m not arguing that this is the “right” reading of Desdemona, if such a thing exists.  But I do offer that the element of complexity itself would be enough to make Shakespeare a hall-of-famer in the annals of literature.

We can read him again and again, drawing new layers and levels with each pass.  The characters seem to grow as much as we do, to the limits of what we are capable of understanding and beyond.

Beguiling, yes.  In oh-so-many ways!