Archive for women

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!

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.