Saturday, December 11, 2010

Visions of Shakespeare's "Othello"

(below,  the great American actor Paul Robeson and Peggy Ashcroft in a scene from the London, 1930 production of Othello in London.) 



"Othello" was likely written by Shakespeare sometime around 1604, at least that is when it was recorded as being first performed.  It is taken from a short story by an Italian writer named Giraldi Cinthio, but seems considerably improved by the playwright based on the available English version, which is rather a rambling and disjointed tale.  A friend of mine who has studied Italian literature called the story a "hack job".

Shakespeare's "Othello" is direct and precise by contrast---we see a story set in Venice and later in Cyprus of a great general who is a Moor and a converted Christian who does great service to the Venetian Republic.  Despite his great travails of a life in exotic places and in countless battles,  he is taken in by Iago, a villain of rare power who seemingly  is willing to destroy all those around Othello and then himself and will do anything and use anyone--even his own wife, Emilia--to set the course of this evil plot involving a misplaced handkerchief, invidious gossip,  false and misleading interpretations of simple chivalrous gestures, and literal back-stabbing of his fellow officers.

Iago knows the weaknesses of all those around him, and yet no one suspects him until they are wounded or wronged beyond measure.    

What drives Iago? Is it just because he is an ensign and is past up for promotion to lieutenant by a younger man, Cassio? It hardly seems enough of a reason to justify the deviousness and malice in the way Iago takes advantage of Othello's trust and twists him into a terrible crime.  

A lot of theories are out there about this--racism, sexual attraction to either Desdemona or maybe Othello himself, but Shakespeare doesn't seem to me to be too worried about any specific reason.  Othello is a great man with a gaping blind spot for the virtue of his new wife,  and so his fall will be pitied because it is from such a height  that the falls, and that, unlike, say, Hamlet who doubts everybody, the Moor's inherent trust in Iago is so abused.  

I wondered when I last read this play if Iago is,simply,  evil for the sake of being evil. This makes the play perhaps the most modern of the great tragedies of Shakespeare--we live in a world where sociopaths and serial killers haunt our media.  Like the scorpion in Franz Kafka's  fable from "The Trial" about the reptile killing a frog while on his back in the middle of a stream, even though the scorpion himself will die. It is just Iago's nature and no explanation therefore could be seen as having a purpose.  How else, perhaps,  to explain the speech here by Kenneth Branagh in a 1995 version of the play:   


Here is from the Third Scene of the First Act, where Othello speaks to the Venetian Senate and his new father-in-law, Brabentio, a worthy of the city, on how he and the older man's daughter were secretly wed.  This is from Orson Welles' 1952 version, and it also my favorite speech in the play.          



  1. I just found this as I was logging off. I'll get back to it soon, Doug, looks interesting!

  2. I am not familiar enough with either the play or Shakespeare's thinking on such questions to be able to address the query authoritatively Doug.

    But I was struck to consider the inverse of the proposition which is that nowadays are we again very similar in our world view to that of the early moderns populating Elizabethan England?

    And then I was moved to wonder whether we have never actually changed, and it is just a continuing conversation across time and space and therefore Shakespeare is indeed a proto-psychologist with great insight into the 'human condition'?

    But then the whispers of postmodernity tell me that if we were to meet a fellow from early 17th century London we may have a difficult time communicating appropriately within mutually conventional standards, given that the standardisation of the English language itself was a 'work in progress' when Shakespeare was alive.

    The worst of it is Doug.... that I think all of those propositions are possibly true, even when they seem mutually exclusive and if that is indeed a correct reading I don't see how there could possibly be 'evil for evils sake' it would be too monocausal I think...... on that reading anyway.

  3. The inverse of my theory could be equally valid, AA. There could have been a more compelling reason Shakespeare assigned for Iago's malevolence, and I just didn't pick up on it, or it simply fell out of the play long ago along the line from Shakespeare's "foul papers" (the original prompt book ), rehearsals and performance to the first public printings of the play.

    I also think you've hit on an important point here in language and semantics over four centuries. I'm certainly no expert on Elizabethan prose writings, but its clear from just a few paragraphs of most any extant sample I've seen that communication would be highly problematical across the centuries.

    I feel we might have more in common with the literate people of Jacobean London, say, as a society than we do with other more recent generations, but still there are depths to be plumed and meanings to be agreed on with our 17th Century time traveller that might not make those depths fathomable.

    Although English began to come together in a standardized way we moderns can understand--how else to explain the popularity of Shakespeare main works-- the meanings and references and the "world picture" of four centuries ago still eludes all but the scholars' grasp. (Assuming any two literary specialists would agree on the points discussed.)

    To suppose one is "evil for evil's sake" still begs the question of what is the initial purpose for the actions. IN that sense true I have "answered" the question in a way that is as unsatisfying as the mystery of Iago's real motivations.

  4. I suppose the tragedies followed a line of comedies so maybe Shakespeare thought we had had enough of laughter for the time being. Othello like Coriolanus lifts us above the daily world of men. Poor old Othello and his jealous rages looks doomed from the start. It could almost be a comedy of errors. Desdemona drops a hankie that was a special gift from Othello. It is picked up and planted where it will cause a whole lot of trouble. In fact it ends up in her being smothered. When Shakespeare writes a tragedy, he sure writes one, but to me the way Othello is set up, one expects the comedy to slip in at some point.

    This is a play where I prefer later productions. The earlier ones are really heavy going.

  5. Thank you for the videos Doug, interesting to see different styles of acting.

  6. It easy to forget for many (myself included) that Shakespeare was a working author and likely had a sense of pacing as to the dictates of his company and what audiences and patrons wanted.

    Comedy and tragedy, in "Othello" and other productions, do seem to almost invite comparisons with one another. Indeed the business with the hankerchief in "Othello" brings to mind his last full comic play "Twelvth Night" where the bad guy (Malvolio) is gulled by a forged letter into making an even bigger fool of himself than he was in the beginning.

    In my Signet Edition of the play, there is a rather ridiculous opening review by a Restoration Critic named Thomas Rymer, who seems to see purpose of the play as a warning to young ladies!
    The tragedy is indeed so complete here it is rather painful to behold the last act, but you woul;dn't know it from Mr. Rymer's points here:

    "What ever rubs or difficulty may stick on the Bark, the Moral,
    sure, of this Fable is very instructive.

    "1. First, This may be a caution to all Maidens of Quality how,
    without their Parents consent, they run away with Blackamoors.

    "Secondly, This may be a warning to all good Wives, that they look
    well to their Linen.

    "Thirdly, This may be a lesson to Husbands, that before their
    Jealousie be Tragical, the proofs may be Mathematical."

    A tragic play with an unintentionally comic critique!

    For myself, I found Olivier's version from 1965 with Maggie Smith and Frank Finlay to be on the heavy side. Taking nothing away from Lord Laurence, I prefer the two films I showed clips from.

  7. Thanks Cassandra. I was lucky to find some good ones on You Tube--the Welles speech in particular was one I was especially fond of, but they are all compelling in different ways.

    Robeson's introductory defense of Othello says a lot about his profound sensitivity to the material.