Monday, July 02, 2012

Othello (Shakespeare Re-Read #3)

My friend Matt is a noted hater of reading and 'artsy stuff,' (which is funny since he's a teacher), so when he wants to push my buttons, he'll make his argument that "Shakespeare doesn't need to be taught in schools since 400-year-old plays have no relevance today."  He believes that today's kids don't get any value from reading such old material, particularly half the battle is just in interpreting the verse into 'modern English.'

To this I say Othello.  Well, really, I say "Hey dumbass, of course there's value in teaching goddamn Shakespeare, he's the greatest fucking author in the history of the English language," but I'll see if I can explain it here with less profanity.  In fact, I'd argue that one of the things that makes Shakespeare so notable is that fact that the vast majority of his plays DO translate so well.  Strip away the iambic pentameter, centuries-old in-jokes about English culture and plots based around outdated concepts like dowries, and you have are still just simple, great stories that are just as interesting and relatable today as they were to the Globe's audiences.

Case in point, Othello.  You can easily make the case that of all Shakespeare's plays, this is the most relatable.  If you break it down dramatically, it seems odd that Othello goes from perfectly happy husband to stark-raving nuts over the span of, like, a couple of days, and yet isn't it all something we have experience with?  Don't we all know someone (or, are someone) who's perfectly  sane and reasonable under most circumstances and yet gets instantly jealous and suspicious about any of their significant other's allegedly platonic friends?  The person who can spin an act of unforgivable betrayal out of their partner adding someone on Facebook?  Jealousy is a timeless emotion, which is Othello is a timeless story.  Even Shakespeare himself realizes this plot-wise, using a threat of Turkish invasion* as a Macguffin just to get the characters in position for the REAL story to begin.  This isn't like in Hamlet, where the personal story leads to a nation's downfall, but rather a personal story altogether.

* = Man, pour one out for the poor country of Turkey.  Othello and company go to Cyprus as guard against the approach of Turkish ships.  As soon as they arrive, however, they find out that fleet was destroyed in a storm, and they're all, "ok cool, let's hang out for a few days."  Shakespeare really kinda sloughed off this tragic annihilation of Turkey's military, I must say.  And, not to mention overlooking this Storm Of The Century that would've been required to wipe out an entire fleet.   

It also helps that the story is so straight-forward.  Iago's plan boils down to nothing more than double-talk, making a bunch of insinuations and stealing a handkerchief, yet that's all it takes.  The simplicity is accepted because, well, sometimes that's all it takes.  It's called a 'seed' of doubt for a reason.  As I recently discovered with the plastic panel/shelf on the bottom of my fridge that covers the crisper, all it takes is one crack to weaken the strength of the entire structure.  In an unrelated story, if any Canadian Tire or IKEA employees are reading this, give me a price quote.

So, Iago.  What can you say about Iago besides that he's one of the very best villains in literary history.  As mentioned, his plan could hardly be any more basic, but he'd set the groundwork for years by establishing himself as 'honest Iago.'  Virtually every character in the play refers to him by this nickname and can barely mention his name without saying what a great guy he is.  It's another key to the plot, as Othello isn't hearing these rumours from just anyone, but from a trusted source. 

Iago's reputation is interesting since you wonder how he was able to keep himself hidden for so many years.  He's essentially a serial-killer type, one of those guys who the neighbours call a friendly, quiet man until the police find a dozen bodies in his freezer.  You wonder Iago's villainy was a fairly recent development --- as in, he actually was a decent, honest man until something snapped.  What exactly made his snap is one of the larger critical questions about the play, as Iago gives a number of motives (he's angry that he was passed over for promotion, he believes Othello slept with his wife, he makes more than a few comments about Othello's race) for his actions.  He changes motives so often, in fact, that the more Iago tells us about them in his soliloquies, the more we realize that this guy isn't playing with a full deck.  The soliloquy is, as a dramatic device, supposed to be the moment when a character reveals his innermost thoughts to the audience.  The fact that Iago isn't even honest in soliloquy form is a sign that he's either mad or that he is simply pure duplicity and can't even keep track of the lies he tells himself, to wit when he off-handedly decides to ruin Cassio too because he suddenly suspects Cassio of also cuckolding him.  If Iago was once good, it's like he's trying to create these grievances in order to justify his actions to himself.  

Then again, you can also argue that Iago really is just a sociopath, since it's his wife Emilia (the person who has to live with him 24/7 and knows him best) who finally uncovers his ploys and isn't the least bit surprised that "honest Iago" has been a lying bastard.  It was like that moment in mystery fiction when the detective figures it out thanks to one unconnected hint.  Emilia keeps repeating "my husband" in Act V, Scene II and you can tell in her head, she's putting all the pieces together like Chazz Palmintieri looking around his office in Usual Suspects.

Usually when a villain is used as a protagonist, you can't help but root for the villain to succeed.  Call it respect for their intricate plan, or a rebellious desire for them to get away with it, or maybe just a literary version of Stockholm Syndrome --- the more we familiarize ourselves with the villain, we sympathize.  Shakespeare, however, makes sure that this doesn't happen.  Iago is a villain through and through, and if anything, the audience is openly hoping that someone punctures his balloon of lies before it's too late.  He's a villain who is impossible to like, impossible to sympathize with because of his petty and ever-changing motivations and even impossible to respect.  That might be the key one; you can't even respect Iago's manipulative abilities since his plan fell apart basically the minute one character actually talked to another without him there to supervise.  You can't give a plate-spinner credit for being a telekinetic. 

Iago doesn't even get his final comeuppance.  Sure, his plan falls apart, his reputation is disgraced and he's sent away to be tortured…huh, well, when I write it all out like that, it does sound like decent comeuppance, but stay with me here.  What Iago does have working for him is that he's taken Othello and Desdemona down with him and while his choice not to speak again is poetically nice --- the ultimate poison tongue is no longer talking --- but remember, it's Iago's choice.  It's really a pretty big fuck-you to Venetian authorities, who are no doubt beside themselves with anger and confusion about what exactly happened.  It isn't like Cassio ordered the guy's tongue to be cut out, though there would've been a real boss move for Cassio (who's otherwise just an amiable dunce in the text) and also pretty dramatically fitting.  Shakespeare probably wanted to keep Iago alive to use him as the villain in his version of The Avengers…..and if you don't think I'm not going to use "who would Shakespeare's Avengers be?" as a thread throughout this series of Shakespearean re-read posts, you're nuts.

So yeah, I've talked about Iago for basically this entire post and he's not even the title character.  He is, however, by far the most interesting character, as everyone else is basically reduced to being a prop in Iago's machinations (or are simply perceived as such, which IS a way the audience is influenced by Iago's dominant position as the play's narrative).  Maybe the real tragedy of Othello is that the poor guy can't even get the lion's share of dialogue in his own play.*  I've read about how most directors try to balance the two roles by making it more of a battle of wits between Othello and Iago, but just on the page, it's no contest.  Iago plays Othello like a fiddle. 

* = In Shakespeare's day, the plays were advertised or known as "The Tragedy of Othello," "The Tragedy of Hamlet," etc, which is why all of Shakespeare's tragedies are named after the tragic figure.  I can't help but think, however, that Othello deserved a more thematically fitting title.  Most of the comedies had broader and more thematic titles, so I wonder why you were allowed to be creative with a comedy's title but not with a tragedy.  Was it a marketing thing?  As in, patrons expected light entertainment at the theatre and would be upset if they arrived to find a tragedy playing unless the show was specifically advertised as such?

Othello is unique, however, as a rare example of ethnicity playing a major part in a character's makeup.  From the text itself, Othello was just about as progressive at it got for the early 17th-century.  Othello is widely respected as a general, well-liked personally and all racial comments against him are presented as hateful slurs.  (The three characters who make the most racist comments against Othello are Iago, Rodorigo and Brabantio, who are all clearly portrayed as villains and morons who are in the wrong.)  Even though Othello descends into murderous rage, it isn't because he's a Moor and Shakespeare is playing on African stereotypes of the time --- it's just because Iago suckered him, as he did everyone else in the play.  "The Moor," however, quickly goes from descriptive term or almost a term of endearment for Othello to an epithet when others suspect the worst about him.  The race card is never too far away from being played, and some critics have argued that part of the reason for Othello's jealousy is because he sees Desdemona's betrayal as the last straw.  He can grin and bear the bullshit accusations from Brabantio and the senate in the first act since he's used to it from them, but to hear that Desdemona has turned against him is just too much pressure for Othello to bear.  I'm not sure I agree with this interpretation, since the Othello I see in the first act is a proud man who is more than willing to stand up to racist accusations and is calmly able to defuse them as nonsense.  It's at that point Iago realizes mere race-baiting isn't going to work and he needs to destroy Othello himself in order to really ruin him.  Iago tries to make Othello into an 'other' via his actions, not via his ethnic background.  Most modern productions play with Othello as 'other' in interesting ways, such as a 1997 theatrical run starring Patrick Stewart that made Othello the only white role in an all-black cast, or when Othello is played by a woman.

I've never had the pleasure of seeing the play performed on stage, though I have seen the 1995 film version starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh which I didn't care for since (surprise surprise) Branagh played the role way over the top.  One can only imagine the tension rising in the theatre as a non-hammy actor uses every persuasive bone in his body to bring Iago's twisted words to life and bring Othello closer and closer to madness.  It's a play that speaks to us on an emotional level and is endlessly fascinating to read and discuss.  So, take that, Matt.


3. Coriolanus
2. The Comedy Of Errors
1. Othello

Two of my New Year's resolutions were to lose 38 pounds and to re-read (and in some cases, read for the first time) all 38 of William Shakespeare's plays.  At least one of these resolutions will come true.  And, since in these modern times it's impossible to undertake a personal project without blogging about it, here is the first of a series of reviews/personal observances I'll make about the plays.  Well, 'reviews' is a bit of a stretch.  It's William goddamn Shakespeare.  What am I going to tell you, "Don't bother reading this one, folks!  What a stinker!  Ol' Mark doesn't like it, so you should definitely believe ME over 400 years of dramatic criticism!" 

It's better that you read these instead of waiting for a weight-loss blog, since brother, that ain't happening.  The 'before' picture alone would break the internet.

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