Othello

It’s been a long while since I’ve been able to contribute anything to this archive, so I’m happy to be back in that swing of things while life settles down for a bit.  Just two more Shakespeare plays to go before I move on to some contemporaries and examine their worth for a modern production.  For now, though, it’s Othello.  Once again, it seems difficult to contribute something new to the conversation on a play that everybody already knows pretty well.

One of the most iconic roles of anything, ever.

This heart-wrenching  play portrays a racial and social outsider as a sympathetic protagonist, which is amazing when you consider that it was written for a culture that, you know, revolutionized the slave trade.  Yes, that means that a few uncomfortable lines slip into the dialogue, like “Her name, that was as fresh As Dian’s visage, is now begrimed and black As mine own face,” or “one whose hand, Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away Richer than all his tribe,”  but those can be easily edited out and either way are overwhelmed by the sympathy that the audience feels for Othello.  However, the play does fail as truly empowering to female characters, which is another common trait in plays from this era, but much harder to overlook.  Yes Shakespeare has some badass women, yes they are usually very sympathetic, but no they are not afforded the same level of humanity in Shakespeare’s plays that you might hope.

And we all know how this play ends.

Othello is a great soldier, but like Coriolanus or Titus Andronicus before him, he is not skilled at peacetime interactions.  Guiding his life in peace are the demonic Iago, his closest friend and brother-in-arms, and the angelic Desdemona, his white wife.  While the dichotomy of pure good versus pure evil battling for the soul of an Everyman is an old metaphor and a perfectly valid story, this play puts the nail in the coffin for my opinion on Shakespeare’s women.  While he certainly writes women well, I’ve come to realize it’s for the same reason that Orson Scott Card writes homosexuals well: as a humanist writer, they create fascinating characters rounded by flaws – but as humans, they evidently consider that socially disliked trait (womanhood and homosexuality, respectively) to be among those flaws.  And that’s an awkward thing for a modern artist to have to adapt.

Like, for example, the overwhelming sexism and bigotry of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel.

Of course, that doesn’t contradict the fact that this is an inherently fascinating, heartbreaking story.  And Desdemona still has enough life in her to be a compelling character, along with Iago’s wife Emilia.  The latter offers a compelling feminist viewpoint in the play, mirroring Shylock’s famous monologue in Merchant of Venice: Why, we have galls, and though we have some grace, Yet have we some revenge. Let husbands know Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell And have their palates both for sweet and sour, As husbands have.”  And she goes on, “have not we affections, Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?  Then let them use us well: else let them know, The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”  Sure, for an era when women were not even allowed to perform onstage, Shakespeare gets a gold star for writing this kind of dialogue.   But at the end of the day, Desdemona is held virtuous because she is “Truly, an obedient lady.”  She dies, ultimately, because she refuses to defy her husband.  The trick in performance is to make this an act of self-destructive love, and portraying her as heartbroken instead of meek.

Pictured: the meek, uninspiring heroine, a.k.a. anathema to civilized society.

It’s Emilia who steals the show, for me, in the final scene.  She realizes the scope of what has happened before anybody else, and successfully overthrows her evil husband, Iago.  Screaming, “O villany, villany!” she refuses to be shut up by the man she is socially bound to, and exhorts “Tis proper I obey him, but not now.  Perchance, Iago, I will ne’er go home.”  To bring justice to her murdered friend, she must essentially destroy her own livelihood in a brave and daring act.

… Better.

Of course, that gets her killed.  So that sucks.  Of course, this is a play that revels in the ambivalence of a storyteller’s motives, and I suppose you can make a feminist reading in either direction.  In any case, the story is certainly written for and about a misogynist society, and a modern adaptation must come to grips with that some way.  The key to performing it lies in Emilia’s murderer, Iago: “Spartan dog, More fell than anguish, hunger, or the sea!”

Hell and the Sea being two of the largest motifs in this play.

The thing that makes Iago distinct from any other Shakespearean villain is the absolute “Demi-devil” nature of his character.  The Puckish Devil archetype, who joyfully confides his schemes in the audience before ruining good people’s souls, was common in Shakespeare’s era, and is certainly echoed through much of his work.  Richard III is a good example of that echo, though he is a mortal king, freakish but not literally a demon.  Aaron the Moor shares a lot of qualities with Iago, especially his tactics and gleeful philosophy of evil for its own sake.  But even Aaron is mortal, while Iago possesses an almost supernatural evil, that causes Othello to finally double-take at the human form to see if Iago has cloven hooves:  “I look down towards his feet; but that’s a fable. If that thou best a devil, I cannot kill thee.”  Othello, a skilled soldier, then stabs the corrupter of his soul who indeed does not die.  And Iago’s final line, “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word,” bears an ominous supernatural hold on the end of the play.  Most telling of all is from one of Iago’s early soliloquies: ” I am not what I am.”

As opposed to “I Am Who I Am”

To be fair, Iago has fairly clear human motives.  Though he speaks mostly in ambiguities about why he hates the Moor, he confides in the audience that he is driven by the “mere suspicion” that Emila had an affair with him.  At one point, he admits a physical desire for Desdemona, “Not out of absolute lust, though peradventure I stand accountant for as great a sin, But partly led to diet my revenge, For that I do suspect the lusty Moor Hath leap’d into my seat.”  This could be easily overlooked, given the villain’s mercurial nature, except Emila herself cites Iago’s jealousy when she learns about Othello’s suspicions: “Some such squire he was That turn’d your wit the seamy side without, And made you to suspect me with the Moor.” – she knows that some rude rumor has soiled Othello’s love, but she does not outwardly suspect her husband as the progenitor of the lie.  Their marriage is very telling for two reasons; not only does the mask hiding Iago’s evil seem thinnest when Emilia is in the room, but also that nobody else in the society here seems to think their bickering is weird.

Nothing but games and lies, those two.

On one hand, this play clearly portrays how someone can turn to evil deeds from mere jealousy.  On the other hand, the evil in Iago’s deeds seems to transcend the jealousy of infidelity.  To say that Iago is completely honest with the audience and nobody else is very presumptuous.  In fact, that’s exactly what he probably wants us to think, and is exactly how he operates with his entire web of victims.  For example, there is Roderigo, a fatal pawn in Iago’s revenge scheme, who is in love with Desdemona.  Iago’s involvement with him predates the main thrust of the scheme to overthrow Othello, but just like the audience he is made to believe he is seeing the one true side of Iago’s persona.  With Roderigo, he pretends to hate Othello out of faithful friendship, insisting, “if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.”

Ha.  Now, there’s a pro choice argument if I ever heard one…

Yes, I prefer to stage this play with Iago as a devil, and his corruption of souls as the main motivation for his actions.  Even his age is clouded in clever phrasing: “I have looked upon the world for four times seven years; and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found man that knew how to love himself.”  So, while he could easily say he’s 28 years old, he phrases it in such a way that he has existed on the material plain for that long.  Contrast that relatively young age with the repeated references to him as Othello’s “ancient,” literally although awkwardly meaning flag-bearer (a variation of the word “ensign“).  “Ensign” would fit the meter just as easily in those cases, but Shakespeare chooses a word which carries antediluvian connotations instead.

To summarize: everything is more interesting once you recognize its demonic origins.

Along with the demonic nature of Iago, I also want to mention another crucial element for understanding the world of this play – the Venetian soldiers’ relationship with the alien “men of Cyprus”.  Othello is already somewhat of an outsider in Venetian society, where he is a ranking officer in the military.  When news of a Turkish invasion fleet comes in Act I, he is dispatched to lead a counter-strike based out of the island of Cyprus.  Of course, that whole enemy fleet is destroyed in a storm, merely a device that Shakespeare uses to get the soldiers and their civilian companions out of their element.

Not pictured on this map: how Shakespeare imagines an Italian fleet can land at that island before the Turks do.

And it is in this distant, alien land that Iago is able to take advantage of circumstance to corrupt the souls and steal lives from the innocent.  Soldiers are constantly on guard at night, though most of the civilians within the walls are foreigners.  It’s a stressful post, and it is important to remember that this tension is the basis for everything that Iago pours on top.  In fact, the entire first Act exists (in my mind) only to establish a world that the audience and the characters are violently ripped from, churned through a tempest, and brought into a strange realm where Iago can finally work his demonic purpose.

Which is not to say strange can’t also be disarmingly beautiful.

But, after that intense subject matter, let’s end the night with a fun quote from one of the more pleasant moments in the play: “every man put himself into triumph; some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him.”

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  2. […] the play is a parable, a heightened parody of patriarchy in Shakespeare’s time.  But, as I have said before, Shakespeare doth not a feminist make (To sum up those thoughts quickly: Shakespeare writes good […]

  3. […] Richard III is a fascinating character in a fascinating world. He is not manipulated by an Iago, he is not corrupted by witches or an ambitious wife, he is all cruel on his own.  He is a […]



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