Archive for Rereading

Setups & Payoffs

Posted in Othello with tags , , on 2014/01/08 by mattermind


Rereading is always good, especially with a text as linguistically complex as Othello. 

I was struck finishing the first act at how well Shakespeare lays pipe – a screenwriting term for setting up characters and events that will pay off later as events unfold.  A bad writer employs chunky exposition and on-the-nose dialogue to get the work done.  It feels awkward, sounds awful and comes across as utterly boring.  But with a writer as crafty as Shakespeare, we expect the opposite to be true.

And of course he doesn’t disappoint.  

I missed the first time round how Shakespeare establishes in Iago’s monologue that there are rumors circulating about his wife having an affair with Othello and that it doesn’t even matter whether they are true – he hates the Moor regardless, mostly for having bypassed him in promoting Cassio, an untested and book-learned soldier.

These portents come too soon for us to fully grasp what they mean, but that’s how laying pipe works.  The author wants to plant or suggest ideas that will flourish later…in this case, that the “poison” which Iago inflicts upon Othello is the same that has been working within himself.  The zombie jealousy virus has turned Iago rotten.

Probably the most important setup comes in the brief exchange between Brabantio and Othello in which Desdemona’s father warns:

Look to her Moor, if thou hast eyes to see.

She has deceived her father, and may thee.

To which Othello responds, notably:

My life upon her faith!

As the tragedy unfolds, we may reasonably ask what has changed between this passionate defense of Desdemona’s character and the complete meltdown in trust that leads to her strangulation.  Or, in other words, what’s up with Othello?  Did he mean this when he said it?  Or were they just easy words to utter to her father, before they were tested?

Along that line, I find it interesting to say the least how cool Othello’s love is for his wife.  In two places, I actually startled, mad that I had missed the meaning before.

When Othello retells how he and Desdemona fell in love, he summarizes by saying:

She loved me for the dangers I had passed,

And I loved her that she did pity them.

Come again?  

Whereas in Desdemona’s retelling:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,

My downright violence and storm of fortunes

May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued

Even to the very quality of my lord…

Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate. 

These are strong, passionate words of one soul uniting with another.  We see how this feeds directly in the tragedy to follow and how Desdemona stays true to her vows until the very end.

Another place that caught me was when Othello says, regarding marriage:

But that I love the gentle Desdemona, 

I would not have unhoused free condition

Put into circumscription and confine 

For the sea’s worth.  

So…love’s a prison that he’s willing to enter only because his wife is so fair and pities him?  Is this why he says, in front of Desdemona, that he’ll serve Venice “with all his heart” but that he’ll have to make haste to squeeze in a single hour to consummate his marriage before he goes?  And that they should not presume that bringing his wife along for the journey will interfere with his duties, because the sexual heat has cooled and that he loves her for her mind?


The precursors are all there; I just couldn’t see them.  Shakespeare has laid ample pipe, put it right in front of me, hidden in plain sight.  

Nothing that follows will be so strange or out-of-character that we can’t trace back to the opening act and find genesis of what happens later.