Saturday, April 23, 2016

Othello

Properly performed, Othello should be a momentary trauma for its audience. ~ Harold Bloom

As in the case of King Lear, one walks out of a good performance of Othello feeling lacerated and even a bit ill. Bloom has it right. It is a trauma. Such is the power of Shakespeare’s tale of revenge, manipulation, and jealousy. Such also is the power of a villain who inspired a later writer in his depiction of the Devil himself, one who so deserves hatred, but who is so fascinating and convincing that one cannot entirely help rooting for his dastardly schemes for their perfect execution and infinite adaptability to circumstances even as one stares in horror at the ghastly consequences. You don’t want to look, but you can’t turn away.

I’m going to assume that the story of Othello is well known enough that spoilers shouldn’t be a problem. But if you are one of those who hasn’t seen this play - or at least read it - serious, go read it first. You won’t be disappointed.

I’ve reviewed a few plays from our local theater group, The Empty Space, before. (See reviews of Twelfth Night and The Glass Menagerie) It is the site of my first date with my wife, and features local actors like Brian Sivesind (Iago in this play) who we have watched since that time. This play runs one more weekend, should you get a chance to see it.

Othello is the titular character. A “Moor,” he is actually a black African, as the many lines about his color and features within the play reveal. He has risen to the rank of general in the Venetian army due to his outstanding qualities as a commander and soldier. Like many a soldier, he is a master of his craft, but more than a bit naive and awkward in civilian life. His tales of adventure have infatuated Desdemona, the daughter of a prominent senator, and she has thrown herself at him until he, grateful for her attentions, marries her secretly.

Meanwhile, Iago, Othello’s ensign, is fuming. He has devoted his career to war, and has been as devoted to Othello as any man. He has risked life and limb, and been with Othello through thick and thin. Othello, however, when given the opportunity to choose a new lieutenant, has skipped over Iago, and appointed the young Cassio, who Iago derisively dismisses as a mere “mathematician,” someone full of book learning, but lacking the experience of combat. Iago, who has hithertofore admired and loved Othello, feels deeply betrayed, and his love has turned to smoldering hate.

Iago is determined to have his revenge on Othello, and chooses to attack at the weak point, the secret marriage. Because Iago knows human nature, and has the wit and ingenuity to adapt his plans to the circumstances as they unfold, he is able to play upon the various characters in the play. Cassio is made drunk, and incited to a fight. Thinking Iago to be his friend, he takes the advice to apply to Desdemona to soften Othello’s heart after this disgrace. Meanwhile, Iago preys on Othello’s insecurities regarding his marriage, until Othello believes that his wife is having an affair with Cassio. Eventually, this being a tragedy and all, bloodshed and destruction result.

Whenever Shakespeare tackles racial issues, there tends to be an undercurrent of discomfort simply because he doesn’t rise above the anti-Semitism of his time. (Best case in point is The Merchant of Venice, but there are other places where Jews are played for laughs or stereotypes.) In a few other instances, the “exotic” dark skinned person is played according to type, the “other,” assumed to be sinister by nature. (This was the 1600s, so it’s what you got…)

Othello, however, takes a different tack. The Moor is another archetype we can see today: the sexually exotic brown skinned person. And, along with the dangerous virility, you have the fear of the enchanted White Girl absconding with him. (This fear of Black male sexuality drove the lynchings of the past and still haunt us today. Just hint to the average middle-class white woman that her daughter might date a black man, and watch for the flinch…)

Iago first appears on the scene to fan the flames of this fear, as he wakes up Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, to inform him that his daughter has run off with Othello. In one of the iconic lines of the play:

I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

I snicker when I hear this line, because in her college days, as a young and sheltered homeschooler, my wife was the one in her Shakespeare class who got the metaphor. Word to the wise: you never know with the “good girl” sorts…

And on that note, Brabantio is sure that Othello must have used some sort of black magic (in both senses of the word) to enchant Desdemona. After Othello claims that he won her fair and square, he replies:

A maiden never bold,        
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on?
It is a judgment maimed and most imperfect
That will confess perfection so could err.
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven
To find out practices of cunning hell
Why this should be. I therefore vouch again
That with some mixtures powerful o'er the blood
Or with some dram, conjured to this effect,
He wrought upon her.

Hearing or reading this is harsh - and timely. The very words found here have been at the heart of the pro-segregation. “Against all rules of nature.” “To fall in love with what she feared to look upon.”

And yet, it is clear from both Othello’s tale and from Desdemona’s actions throughout the play, it is she who is the aggressor in this relationship. He, in fact, was not inclined to marry before she sought him, and it sure looks as if she is the one who - for all intents and purposes - proposes. Later, it is she who keeps attempting to woo him to bed and to love, while he seems, well, less inclined.

But the seed has been planted. Othello is never quite secure in his deepest feelings that Desdemona loves naturally and purely.

Iago, of course, picks up on this dynamic, and uses it to his advantage. He hints and feints and dances around the issue of cuckoldry, all the while hinting that Othello could verify things for himself. To our modern ears, this doesn’t necessarily register. I puzzled a bit about it, and looked up a few commentaries, and I think I found a plausible answer.

It is clear from the play itself that Cassio has had no opportunity since the marriage to sleep with Desdemona. So any illicit activity must - by definition - have occurred before the marriage. Iago hints as much - and eventually invents a “sleep talking confession” from Cassio that confirms this.

Now, given the belief in Shakespeare’s time that virginity can be confirmed by an intact hymen, it would seem that Othello should, well, know if he got an untainted wife or not. But he doesn’t. And he seems terrified to make the trial and find out.

And then, there is a line at the end, when Othello, realizing how he has wronged his now-dead wife, says, “Cold, cold, my girl! / Even like thy chastity. -”

Shakespeare is nothing if not careful with his language. This is a devastating line. For whatever reason, Othello has never consummated this marriage (Iago’s taunt notwithstanding). Is he impotent? Does she not turn him on? Interesting question.

Given Iago’s perception and his words to Othello, I think he knows this is an unconsummated marriage, and he works that fact to perfection. Othello must, to save face, listen to Iago’s insinuations and feed his own fears rather than face what he cannot face.

Iago is, truly, one of the most fascinating villains ever. Unlike Macbeth, he isn’t conflicted. While Richard III is delicious, he is a fairly stock melodrama villain. (Physical deformity, evil cackle, the whole works…) Hamlet’s uncle is terrified of the afterlife. Most of the others in Shakespeare - and in classical tragedy are the playthings of the gods. Their fates are set and they act accordingly. Even Edmund (in King Lear) is logically selfish, if short-sighted and Machiavellian.

But Iago.

He takes delight in the pure ingenuity of his evil schemes. He may start out looking for a little (fairly harmless) revenge, but as things go on and the stakes - and the damage - get higher, he seems to marvel at his own wit and diabolic ideas, and seek the thrill of the descent into greater evil. He is the sort who kills just to escape boredom. And he is frightening because he is compelling. As I said before, you don’t want to watch him destroy everyone around him, but you sure as heck can’t look away.

Iago has reminded many of another villain, in a work written roughly 65 years later. In Paradise Lost (reviewed here), Satan himself reflects much of what Shakespeare put into Iago. (It has been said that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost - and there is no doubt that he is the best and most compelling character.) Just as Satan fumes that Christ has been promoted ahead of him, Iago is fueled by this jealousy and sense of betrayal. And as Iago destroys his “god,” Othello, so Satan seeks to destroy the great work of God himself.

There were a few of Iago’s lines which were so good that I remembered them to look them up after the play. The first is the way he does the lawyer thing and takes both sides of the same issue. Unlike a lawyer, however, he isn’t arguing for his clients, but against them. In talking to the disgraced Cassio after his dismissal for drunkenness, he talks of reputation thus:

CASSIO:
Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!

IAGO:
As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound. There is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all unless you repute yourself such a loser. What, man, there are ways to recover the general again. You are but now cast in his mood, a punishment more in policy than in malice, even so as one would beat his offenseless dog to affright an imperious lion. Sue to him again and he’s yours.

This is to Iago’s interest at the time, of course, as he has to persuade Cassio to press his suit to Desdemona. Later, however, when addressing Othello, he must convince him that the mere rumor of his cuckolding is such a grave offense to Othello’s reputation that he must react with violence to recover it.

IAGO:
Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash. 'Tis something, nothing:
'Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.

Iago uses his own “reluctance” to say more to bait Othello into assuming the worst, on mere insinuation. It is a masterful play, as a virtuoso plays on an instrument. As played by Sivesind in this production, Iago’s power was palpable. If we did not already know Desdemona was innocent, Iago would convince us of her guilt as he does Othello.

In the same dialogue, Iago delivers what is probably the most famous line in play. It is not an exaggeration to say that Shakespeare invented the English language. So many of our common phrases today - 400 years later! - originated with him. (This BBC article lists a few of them.)  This line is one of them.

IAGO:
Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger,
But, oh, what damn├Ęd minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts— suspects, yet soundly loves!

The green-eyed monster. What is Shakespeare referencing here, if not the cat, who plays with its prey? But Iago speaks not just of jealousy - although this is a singularly apt description of the way jealousy pretends to let its prey escape, only to pounce anew.

Iago is describing himself as well. He is indeed mocking the meat he is feeding on, toying with his victims with every bit as much slit-eyed malice as cat, snake, or demon ever did.

It is lines like this that are the reason Shakespeare has not merely lasted over 400 years, but has grown in reputation with time. Very, very few authors have so pierced the human psychology the way he did, and the fact that Iago is still terrifying and yet fascinating. One of the deeply disconcerting things for me was to realize that I love the Count in The Count of Monte Cristo for the same reasons that I hate Iago. Both use cunning to enable others to destroy themselves, and both are motivated by revenge for wrongs. Perhaps the only difference is that Iago’s revenge harms the innocent with the guilty.

This too is the power of this tale. We all are both Othello and Iago. We too can be so easily manipulated by our own fears, carried away by any idea which confirms that which we fear to believe. And likewise, our own pride can lead us to desire to be Iago, even while we lack the skills and opportunity.

Whatever the case, Othello, Cassio, Desdemona, and nearly everyone else is completely overmatched by Iago. He is above their weight class, and they never see the haymaker coming until it is too late.

Except for one person.

Iago has failed to account for the one who will eventually bring him down. His wife Emilia has been easily manipulated as long as she cannot see what Iago is doing behind the scenes. She unwittingly aids his schemes, but it is not through naivete so much as ignorance. While others cannot see, she just does not know.

But she is the closest to a real foil for Iago that there is in this play. Her banter with Iago shows she is no fool, and sees through him more than the others. She too has her opinions of jealousy - and men. She notes that Othello appears to be giving in to jealousy, and makes a snide comment about men.

EMELIA:
'Tis not a year or two shows us a man.
They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
To eat us hungerly, and when they are full,
They belch us.

And then she echoes Iago’s speech on jealousy:

DESDEMONA:
Alas the day! I never gave him cause.

EMILIA:
But jealous souls will not be answered so.
They are not ever jealous for the cause,
But jealous for they’re jealous. It is a monster
Begot upon itself, born on itself.

Again, Shakespeare’s way with words. “Monster” in both, and “mocks the meat it feeds on” contrasted with “Begot upon itself, born on itself.”

In the final conversation between Emilia and Desdemona, Desdemona asks if women ever abuse their husbands with false accusations. Emilia replies in the affirmative - but also adds that (unlike Desdemona) there is a price for which she would cheat on her husband. (If someone offered her the world - the world is pretty darn big, after all.) Desdemona cannot even conceive that such a woman would exist. But she is still naively in love with her husband, and cannot truly know what Emilia knows. (Hey, she is married to Iago…) Her statement is amazing, and corresponds with a number of other proto-feminist statements by Shakespeare which take on the idea that women lack the fortitude and virtue that men have. 

EMILIA:
But I do think it is their husbands' faults
If wives do fall. Say that they slack their duties
And pour our treasures into foreign laps,
Or else break out in peevish jealousies,
Throwing restraint upon us. Or say they strike us,
Or scant our former having in despite.
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. What is it that they do
When they change us for others? Is it sport?
I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?
It is so too. And 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.

Yes, women too have sense. And affections, desires for sport, and frailty. Just like the men. And sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

This speech is particularly poignant in light of the fact that Othello has slapped Desdemona in public - causing a great scandal.

In this particular production, all the fights and violence are done in slow motion. Really, an excellent choice, with appropriate lighting. It highlights the violence without making it comic.

And this leads to the final scene, and what I think was the most powerful moment in this production.

There are some interesting choices in the casting. Sivesind is a theater veteran - I’ve greatly enjoyed his work over the last 17 years. He’s been amusing as Bottom (my kids loved him in that production), and probably the best Jaques (from As You Like It) I have seen. But this was a command performance. He switched from personality to personality as the scene demanded, enough to deceive the other characters - and be worrisomely convincing to the audience. At the end, where he refuses to speak, even under threat of torture, it is obvious he will say nothing.

In contrast, Trayvon Trimble is a novice actor in his first major role, playing Othello. He does a fine job, but the choice makes for an interesting Method choice. The inexperienced actor playing straight sincerity matched with the veteran with all his wiles and cynicism. It fits well, as there is no denying that Trimble’s earnest virtue will be no match for Sivesind’s experienced malignancy. Great choice, and well directed.

Sivesind’s real-life wife Ellie plays Desdemona. In contrast to Brian, who has always played the cynic well, Ellie has done well as the naive and pure girl. (Her turn as Miranda in The Tempest a few years back was excellent.) In this production, she is entirely believable as a woman who has no guile and thus cannot imagine it exists in anyone else. Perhaps if she had been more like Beatrice, she may have defused Othello’s fears with her wit before they metastasized, but she has no such skills. Perhaps another factor here that works is the fact that Brian has his Method motivation in seeing his wife kiss another man. In any case, it works.

 Desdemona (Ellie Sivesind), Iago (Brian Sivesind), and Othello (Trayvon Trimble)
Promotional photo - The Empty Space

The rest of the cast is fine enough, with the others filling in their parts as the script demands. Cassio and Bianca were played by regulars in local theater with aplomb. 

 Bianca, Cassio's mistress (Rachel Sanders), Cassio (Carlos Vera) 
Promotional photo - The Empty Space

But one more deserves note, and it relates to that final scene referenced above.

At the end, Emilia realizes what her husband has done, and knows that her mistress and friend Desdemona is dead because of him. Iago has bet his game on his belief that she will, if pressed, shut up when commanded and/or threatened. She, however, is made of sterner - and more moral - stuff than he realizes. She determines to speak even though he has threatened to kill her. After she has spilled her guts, he runs her through with his dagger.

In this production, this is done in slow motion, and Emilia, played by Amy Hall, fixes Iago with such a look of hatred that time stood still for me. Oh. My. Goodness. That’s some acting chemistry. It’s the apotheosis of the play. Iago has won, as far as he knows. But Emilia can look him in the eye and without a word, undo him.

I’ve read Othello before, but this is the first time I have seen it live. Truly a powerful play, one of Shakespeare’s best - and darkest - works.

***

I've mentioned these before, but I need to add one to my collection. In researching my Shakespeare reviews - and aiding my enjoyment of the plays - I have relied on some outstanding reference works. 

The first is The Shakespeare Lexicon, published by Dover. This two volume set is an amazing resource on Shakespeare's language and its meaning in its time. 

The second is The Asimov Guide to Shakespeare, which is my go-to source for the historical and literary references in the plays. You want to know about the battle for Cypress between the Venetians and the Turks which is the setting for Othello? Asimov has it. 

The third, and newest addition is Harold Bloom's epic work, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which my wife found for me recently. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Bloom's thesis, or his denigration of earlier authors to prove it. However, his insight into the personalities of the characters in Shakespeare's works are worth reading in and of themselves. 

***

Hey, a chance to link some music! Giuseppe Verdi, arguably the greatest composer of Opera of all time, came out of retirement twice to write operas based on Shakespeare. The final one was The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of only two comedies he composed. The first, however, was what many consider to be his most revolutionary opera, Otello. Enjoy the overture.








6 comments:

  1. I knew you would mark the day with a Shakespeare post! Thanks for not disappointing.

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    1. Fortunately for me, The Empty Space attempts to do their yearly Shakespeare near his birthday. (And they serve cake too!)

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  2. "For whatever reason, Othello has never consummated this marriage (Iago’s taunt notwithstanding). Is he impotent? Does she not turn him on? Interesting question."

    Sincere question: would it have been too icky/disturbing for 16th- and 17th-century audiences to actually have a consummated interracial relationship in a story? I would wonder about that. Esp. since "Moor" usually implies not only non-white, but also non-Christian (= Muslim).

    "Just hint to the average middle-class white woman that her daughter might date a black man, and watch for the flinch"

    It is really, really sad that this is still a thing. My family has lived across the street for 25+ years from an interracial family (black husband, white wife), which people commented on when my parents moved in in the late 80s. Probably pretty standard for the 80s, but then someone assumed just this year that one of my music associates (white woman) was joking when she introduced them to her Japanese husband (i.e., they thought he wasn't really her husband). What made this even more ironic is that the person who made this assumption, plays in a music group with an white/Asian interracial couple.

    The more things change…

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    1. In answer to your question, "Would it have been too icky?" I don't think so. At the very outset, Iago makes some statements about the nookie that must be going on (and I think he believes it at that point - his realization doesn't come until later), and these statements are vulgar and explicit enough that even a modern audience might blush. Shakespeare clearly sets the audience up to believe this is a consummated relationship. It is only after we see Othello and Desdemona together that we start to suspect along with Iago.

      Another factor that is in play is that Europe has had interracial marriage (particularly in the south - Italy, Greece, and Spain) for longer than the US. Not that there wasn't racism, but there wasn't quite the fear of miscegenation that we have had. If anything, it was with the slave trade that stratification occurred.

      Just a couple of interesting examples would be Alexandre Dumas, the grandson of a Caribbean slave. Yet it is rarely mentioned that he was of African descent. Likewise, Pushkin had African ancestry, but that too is rarely mentioned.

      Regarding the religious question, Othello is a Christian convert, as the play makes clear. However, he mentions a few superstitions from his parents which sound more like the Polytheistic traditions than the Islamic. In any case, since the war is against the Ottomans, it is unthinkable that Othello would be a Muslim at that time.

      I think there is a *particular* fear of the Black man/White woman relationship that doesn't exist to the same extent with others. At least here in CA, as far back as I can remember, White man/Asian woman has been perfectly acceptable (although some older couples say they did get flack - but usually from *her* parents.) And, I think many parents would *probably* warm up to a White man/Black woman relationship - but the opposite still is a bit fraught.

      While California has its history (see anti-Asian laws in the 1800s), these days, one tends to just take interracial marriage for granted. We are now majority minority, and fully 40% of our couples are interracial. My kids, even more than I, have grown up assuming many of their friends will be mixed race.

      That's why, to me, it was astounding that Bob Jones University didn't permit interracial dating until freaking 2000! Say what?

      But there you have it.

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  3. Great post. I studied Othello at University and at the time didn't think much of it. However since then I have really come to appreciate Iago and the 'perfect' villain. I never picked up the idea that Othello had never consummated his marriage.

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    1. Not everyone sees Desdemona as a virgin, and I didn't really notice it when I read it years ago. I think one thing that helped was seeing it live, and seeing just how hard she is working to get him to bed - and he keeps finding excuses. I think one could find new perspectives on this play every time for years...

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