Archive for Freud

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.


Calling Dr. Freud

Posted in Hamlet, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on 2010/01/22 by mattermind

Glenn Close is nine years older than Mel Gibson, give or take a few months. (Shhh — don’t tell her I said that.) This span of not even a decade makes them an odd pairing to be cast as mother and son.

What in tarnation possesses older men to insist on playing Hamlet?

That said, he hits the ball way out of the park in this version. Many a moment took my breath away. It’s a pure pleasure to watch from start to finish. But, me being me, there are still a few aspects with which I’d like to quibble.

First: I’m not terribly fond of how Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia. Fine actress, no doubt. But her reading robbed the girl of a great measure of her innocence. She seemed far too knowing, far too insightful into Hamlet’s behavior than the role warrants.

Second: Most of the abridgements were handled smoothly, and didn’t call too much attention to their absence. Gone again, understanably, is the outer doubling with Fortinbras and the Norwegians. To the good, we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back, who were notably absent from Olivier’s. But I take umbrage at how the burial scene was mangled. This, I believe, is more than a quibble. Watching it, I even got angry.

Here’s why: Laertes’s actions are in part driven by the cold-heartedness of the Priest, who insists that Ophelia did not deserve a Christian burial, and indeed, was only receiving anything more than a pauper’s burial because of her connections. Laertes, in reply, defends his sister’s purity and honor, saying she’ll be among the angels singing in heaven while he rots away in hell. It’s powerful stuff.

Maybe Mel didn’t like it because he’s a devout Cathlolic. But the tone of the scene turns wrong from the moment the funeral procession comes in singing a requiem. The Priest’s lines state specifically that she didn’t get one because she didn’t deserve one, at least according to the letter of the law.

Shakespeare indicates that there is stealth to the procession, that it has to occur under a cloak of secrecy due to the circumstances. Yet in they come, this long freight train of mourners, singing away.

Laertes does not jump into the grave. And his passionate words are not what motivate Hamlet to reveal himself in a bit of a pissy who-loved-her-more sort of a duel. Leaping into the grave and grappling in the midst of a burial — yeah, that’s over the top. But it also foreshadows the duel ahead and the ever-spiraling tragedy engulfing them. It’s one of my favorite moments of the play, and this telling did not do it justice.

The finale, however, was a huge improvement over Olivier’s — with one exception. The swordfight, the death of the King, Hamlet’s final speech… these were all superlative and fitting. But whoa whoa whoa, I did not like the alternative reading of the Queen’s innocent victimhood with the poisoned wine. It’s a viable option and it deserves credence. But it sounds a sour note in my heart.

Gertrude’s pivotal moment occured just prior, when Hamlet serves as a mirror to repent and change her ways. That she does so, we can see in her tenderness for Ophelia, her devotion to her son, and (we can only interpolate) her withdrawl of affections for the King.

It would in part explain why Claudius puts up such faint-hearted resistence when she takes the cup to drink. But then again, he’s such a foul and corrupted man at this point, all he really cares about is saving his own skin.

I’m not saying that there’s definitive proof in the text for either reading. Certainly a case can be made for Gertrude’s shock and surprise at the level of treachery uncovered by her own unwitting demise. There is poetic justice in her falling victim to her own husband’s trickery.

But I guess what I miss is her own immolation as a form of ultimate repentence. That’s the note that feels more right in Olivier’s telling. First, she suspects that Claudius is up to no good yet again. Second, she willingly intercepts the cup and sacrifices herself, in her mind with the hope of saving her son.

Take that away, she becomes yet another pawn in the villainy.

But maybe that’s just me.

I recommend both Zefirelli (Gibson) and Olivier DVDs very highly. If I protest, I do protest too much. I am cruel only to be kind.