Archive for the Othello Category

I Kissed Thee Ere I Killed Thee

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , , on 2014/01/06 by mattermind

Othello, Act V

Othello: the Director’s Cut Quarto must be out there somewhere.

For surely the opening to Act V feels like a farce.  I accept that Roderigo fails at killing Cassio – we have no evidence that Roderigo is anything but a wealthy, foolish blunderer.  And I also grudgingly accept that Cassio might not mortally wound Roderigo, for Iago has chastised Cassio as being book-learned but untested in battle.  So I suppose that this, indeed, has all the makings of a farce.  But Iago, as we later see, has no qualms about killing whatsoever.  He dispatches Roderigo and his own wife with alacrity when the moments present themselves.  So the idea that he botches the job with Cassio makes no sense to me whatsoever, instead screaming that this is the only means by which Shakespeare could resolve the play with a happy ending.  Bladerunner, thy hath met thy match.

If Roderigo kills Cassio and Iago kills Cassio, does Iago get away with the perfect crime?  I wonder about this as I read Iago’s undoing in the final moments of the play, and ask myself where his true downfall begins.

It feels like the breakdown begins not with the farce, but with Iago’s murder of Roderigo.  Up till now, Iago has employed a dubious metaphysics which subscribes to the notion that if he doesn’t do the the actual deed, then he remains free of ultimate guilt for what transpires.  We saw this back when he tells Othello (a paraphrase): “You ordered this, I didn’t.”  It’s the same twisted metaphysics which manifests itself in the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, where guards justify their brutality by saying that they were required to do so.

Until now, Iago has worked his diabolical methods by inducing others to commit atrocious acts to suit him.  To his own mind, however, his hands have remained clean.  But as he says at the end of Scene 1:

This is the night

That either makes me or fordoes me quite.

His lechery moves from the realm of the theoretical to the applied.  And as it does so, we see that he’s more than up to the task.  He has been a demon hiding in shadows, more than content to provoke others to commit the deeds that he feels no qualms to complete himself.

This becomes certain in two following actions: the cold-blooded killing of Roderigo and the murder of his wife, Emilia, in the presence of the others after she protests his sins like a Greek chorus.  At this point, Iago has taken on the mantle of the full-blown monster and Othello has become a piteous creature.  And now I do begin to feel for him, especially when he takes his own life as the only suitable justice befitting the crime he has committed with the words:

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

Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.

I doubt there’s a more apt or poetic description for Othello’s state of mind at this moment.  He commits this act equal to Oedipus after learning that he has killed his father and slept with his mother, so it is little wonder that Othello invokes fate itself by saying, albeit in a different context:

Who can control his fate?

I have little doubt that Shakespeare wants us to know that he has Oedipus on his mind in the tragic figure of Othello.  Only Shakespeare has revised and updated the morality tale because it is not merely fate but the “semidevil” Iago who has instigated the crime with Othello’s own mistrust as the accomplice.  It’s as if Shakespeare were saying, Sophocles got it right, only I’ve got it better: man is to blame both in the motivation and its accomplishment.

Blame the devil all you want, but look no further than human weakness, greed and vanity for the real reasons why evil yet exists.

POSTSCRIPT: It bothered me why Desdemona persists in her sense of blame and guilt even as she’s being murdered by her husband.  When Emilia enters the bedchamber and asks:

O, who hath done this deed?

Desdemona responds:

Nobody – I myself.  Farewell.

Earlier, I stated that Shakespeare must have had Sophocles in mind while writing of Othello’s suicide.  But now I hear echoes of Homer in Desdmona’s reply.  For when Odyseus blinds the Cyclops, he has set the moment up in advance by claiming his name to be “Nobody.”  So when the other Cyclopeans ( plural?) come running to find out who blinded him, Polyphemus cries, “Nobody!  Nobody did this to me.”

My initial reaction, however, was to shout, oh, no, this woman has a serious guilt complex.  Then it dawned on me that she answers thus because, experiencing herself as wedded to Othello in the biblical sense, becoming one soul, one flesh, she in a true, wildly romantic sense does this to herself in the being of her husband, who has become inseparable from herself.

So here is Othello, questioning his wife’s fidelity to the point of murder, and here is Desdemona blaming herself because the beast who now attacks her has become one with her essence as husband.

That contrast is romantic, shocking – and as wildly divergent as any one single moment of time could sustain.  Quintessentially Shakespeare – and about as damned brilliant as any writing can possibly be.

A Horned Man’s a Monster and a Beast

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , , , on 2014/01/05 by mattermind

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Othello, Act IV

I may end up breaking this into two posts, so please bear with me.  But since each is related to the other, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to bring them together without making this entry too long.  We shall see.

Throughout the play, the terms DEVIL and HELL have occurred on numerous occasions, too many to be a mere accident by so careful a writer as Shakespeare.  I believe it may have to do with an intent on Shakespeare’s part to address the very nature of evil – which in itself may explain why he wraps the tale around the metaphorical character of Othello.

I say Othello, in the way that Moby Dick revolves around Ahab and not the whale, for the whale stands as a symbol against which Ahab’s diabolical nature is revealed.  It seems to me that Shakespeare wants to toy with the audience, provide it hints and suggestions, dangle tantalizing possibilities only to snatch them away again and tease, “Not so fast. The issues simmering in my play are anything but simple.”  You might even say, not as easy as black and white.

In the fourth act, I hear a Bach fugue in my head, a profusion of voices and meanings that clash and clang into the purest music in the world.  Small wonder that Harold Bloom raves.  I too howl at the moon, tickled by such shadings of wit and wisdom while Shakespeare’s characters speak at me from all directions.  Good, bad, right, wrong.  Who is to blame?  What is to be done?  Why should such problems as this one exist?

There used to be a popular cultural meme that went: “The Devil made me do it.”  It seems like Iago is such a miscreant who might utter such a line in his defense, even as he counsels others that their fate lies in their own hands.  Such twists and turns that even such a character as Desdemona, the purest lady and true tragic center of the play, does not present herself as a simple snow-white Disney princess.  Not because she has sinned, the thought of which she hardly can conceive.  But because she feels a guilt and a doom as if she had, as if the mere presentment of death were deserved for some reason, even if she can’t come up with why.

Is it because she didn’t listen to her father’s counsel?  Because she abandoned all in her love of Othello?  She states in no uncertain language that she lacks regret for her choice and loves Othello despite his relentless fury.

And what are we to make of that rage?  I love, love, love how Shakespeare subtly inserts clever backstory into Act IV that makes Iago all the more complex.  Here we discover that Iago himself has suspected his own wife of having slept with Othello behind his back.  What a tremendous “aha” moment this is, for we realize that in exactly the same manner that Iago has used jealousy to corrupt Othello, he too was corrupted by somebody else, either a knave like himself or his own suspicious nature.

Might this be how the Devil operates?  How evil propagates itself from Eve’s first bite of the apple to this very day?  It is a poison working its dark arts from one corrupted soul to the next unsuspecting victim, much like a zombie or vampire whose bite transforms the recipient  into one of its own kind.

This may be the key that unlocks how I can feel so little for Othello, yet my heart yearns and breaks for Desdemona.  Othello does not need hard evidence of his wife’s alleged crime to work up the passion for a revenge that would strangle his beloved in their own bed – and leave his loyal lieutenant to the devious devices of Iago.  Where is the trust and compassion?

And yet, for Desdemona, she loves Othello even in his fits of unjust rage, considers herself to be guilty of a crime she cannot name, and allows herself to go willingly to a demise she can foresee but not forestall.  OMG – here is your heroic heart and center of the play.

As for the dialogue between Desdemona and Emilia, the connected bit I had thought perhaps to save for another day: I invite you to read this short, two-person dialogue as further, shattering proof of how in total command Shakespeare is not only of plot and character, but of the overarching, underlying, and through-lining theme.

Books and movies are commonly divided into those driven by plot and those driven by character.  Many an action movie presents moviegoers a cast so paper-thin as to hardly remain memorable at all.  For that reason, people still cite Lethal Weapon and Die Hard as exceptions to the typical, mind-numbing, CGI bombast.  Shoot shoot, explode.  Kiss kiss, bang bang.

On the other hand, character-driven pieces make us think of Masterpiece Theater, the BBC and movies we were forced to watch in grade school, novels that win prestigious prizes but serve only as functional doorstops and hefty paperweights long after we buy them.  Must it always come down to a choice between Dan Brown or Jonathan Franzen?  Might it not be possible to marry the best of both worlds?

I suspect that herein lies a great deal of the reason why Shakespeare remains now forevermore the greatest single writer humanity has ever witnessed.  For if he doesn’t, take this tiny, quiet scene between Emilia and Desdemona and find me a better one.  Find one even close.  And then find one hiding in a twisted story about love and lust, betrayal, revenge and murder.  You want character?  Check.  Action?  Check!  Theme?  Check, and mate.

What’s going on in the mind of Emilia as she answers the heartfelt queries of her mistress?  Desdemona can’t conceive of a woman anywhere who would do the things that her own husband accuses her of.  Emilia, the wife of Iago, can.  What these two reveal – and suggest – about the nature of women, of evil, of betrayal – and of human motivation in general – is so mind-bending that you could squeeze War & Peace within these same slender pages and make it the concluding scene from Othello, Act IV.

Call me a disciple of Mr. Bloom, fine.  But I really do believe that Shakespeare is that good.

On Horror’s Head Horrors Accumulate

Posted in Othello on 2014/01/04 by mattermind

Othello, Act III

As I delve deeper and deeper into the tragic consequences wrought by Iago’s foul play, I can’t help but wonder: how blameless is Othello in all that transpires?  

While it’s safe to say that without Iago’s meddling, none of this wickedness would have happened, it might also be said that without Othello’s suspicions and fits of jealous rage, Iago would not have had the flame to fuel.  Indeed, jealousy is a green-eyed monster – and all Iago had to do was prick Othello’s own imagination by feeding it ambiguous clues.

I’m intrigued by how quickly Othello accepts these suspicions, even though at first he denies that he’s the sort of man to be susceptible to them.  Iago dastardly withholds proof, cleverly “defending” Cassio with faint support, all the while leading Othello to believe Iago the more “honest” for not rushing to provide the dirty details.

She wore a strawberry beret...the kind you can't find in a second-hand store

She wore a strawberry beret…the kind you can’t find in a second-hand store

I was struck by the suddenness of Othello’s transition from trusting husband to enraged lover, especially when he backs himself into a stark corner by saying:

Even so my bloody thoughts with violent pace,

Shall n’er look back, n’er ebb to humble love,

Till that a capable and wide revenge 

Swallow them up.

(he kneels)

Now, by yond marble heaven,

In the due reverence of a sacred vow

I here engage my words.

Though the evidence can’t help but be circumstantial, and flimsy at that, since Cassio and Desdemona are wholly innocent of all charges, Othello as much as orders Iago to assassinate Cassio, while Desdemona’s fate he leaves to himself.

Iago, whose devilish work of provoking Othello has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, himself pulls back from the ultimate guilt of what he’s done by telling Othello:

My friend is dead; t’is done at your request.

But let her live.

Iago seems now to backpeddle from his out-of-control creation like Dr. Frankenstein from his monster.

Indeed, the inevitable next step occurs when Othello lets loose his rage upon Iago, thereby raising the stakes on all that has hitherto transpired.  Once provoked, Othello then demands hard, cold, physical evidence or else Iago will suffer for having been the one to insert the cancerous doubt into Othello’s head in the first place.  This firmly locks the door behind Iago.  He has no choice but proceed and see his plans through to the end.

At this point, who but Othello can choose a different path and avoid the tragedy?  We certainly don’t expect it of Iago, who has stated (and proven) time and again that he’s only in this for himself.

But what about Othello, the heroic general?  Were he not so bent on revenge, not so willing to take “justice” into his own hands, might he not prevent the carnage that now seems destined to follow?

Why So Serious?

Posted in Othello with tags , , , , on 2014/01/03 by mattermind

Othello, Act IIImage

How am I then 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.   – Iago (Scene 3)

How does he do it?  How does Shakespeare create such memorable characters time and time again?  For if Hollywood can hold us spellbound with its “Fava beans and a nice chianti,” how much moreso does Shakespeare with the suave lechery of Iago?

It would be one thing if Iago were pure villainy, dripping vengeance and violence.  But as the quote above indicates, he works with a smile, gaining the trust and confidence of those he would corrupt and destroy.

I have to laugh again at what Harold Bloom has said, his insistence that Shakespeare has beaten every other writer to the punch in his characterizations of human behavior.  For I kept thinking, what is this play but Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment set nearly three centuries earlier?  In exploring the play, must we not address the question of evil itself and where it comes from?

What exactly is driving Iago into such a frenzy?  He states early in the play that he hates the Moor for passing him over for promotion, favoring Cassio to be his lieutenant.  It isn’t hard for us to see why Othello made the wise choice in doing so, because even if he had selected Iago it is clear that Iago only serves Iago.  There is a deeper rot inside him, a malignant narcissism, if you will, to borrow a song title from Rush.  He seems to care only about himself.

Iago has a wife, whom we haven’t met yet but will shortly as his machinations take a deeper turn.  For in Act II we see that his plans are playing out perfectly.  Exploiting alcohol, but really as an accentuation of trust, he gets Cassio drunk on a little wine and uses Roderigo to provoke a skirmish that leads to removal by Othello – exactly what Iago had set out to do.

I don’t want to merely recount the story beat by beat or reveal SPOILERS for those who wish to read the play for themselves because you should, you really should.  Complexities pile atop another.

One gets the sense that for Iago, all the human chaos he causes is just a game.  In that sense, it seems in keeping that he often cites the devil, whose motives are more to undo God than to gain any particular advantage.  Iago’s delight – if one can call it that – stems from his takedown of trust, goodness and honor, the very qualities upon which God’s house is built.  The more loyal and heartfelt Cassio is in service to Othello, the more delight in seeing him fall.  And to do so by exploiting “honesty” and “trust,” maintaining his own good reputation while demolishing that of the truly good Cassio – who but the devil would take pleasure in that?

As we leave Act II, Iago has convinced (it doesn’t take much) Cassio to appeal to Desdemona for reinstatement, to state his case and cause for her to take up.  While it sounds a reasonable course of action, it will only play into Iago’s next bit of foul play as he attempts to convince Othello that both his wife and lieutenant are frauds who are carrying on an affair behind his back.  You can see what’s coming a mile away…mostly because Iago tells us himself, in mischievous asides that wrap up each bit of action in which he’s involved.

If I’m critical of one aspect of the play in particular, it is this: the overuse of those asides to tell us precisely what Iago is thinking and planning next.  It leads me to wonder if Shakespeare isn’t manipulating me by making it too easy to decipher Iago’s intent.  Is he playing me as well?  Is there another layer that I’m missing?

Nevertheless, these monologues deliver all the best lines — oozing with full-fanged treachery.  It causes me to question why I take delight in the starkness of that revelation of pure evil.  I despise what he’s doing.  I fear for Cassio and Othello and Desdemona and the whole state of goodness that Iago is unraveling with his devious plot.  So why is he so much fun to watch?  What makes those monologues the best part?  Might this be what Shakespeare is driving at?  Has he uncovered our Freudian thanatos, a deepset desire to revel in the destruction of order and applaud the descent into chaos?  Can that be?

I despise what is happening, yet I cannot look away.  I revile the monster, yet admit that he is by far the “best” character.  Othello is unquestionably the hero, yet Iago holds our fascination.

In contemporary terms, this is the Joker hanging upside down, laughing at Batman! Try snuffing out the illogic of evil, caped crusader! Iago (and Shakespeare) sees us for who we really are, and how easily our plays at goodness are outdone.

The Beast with Two Backs

Posted in Othello on 2014/01/01 by mattermind

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!