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Othello (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Othello - William Shakespeare Disclaimer: Maybe I shouldn't review this one, since I've only ever seen it performed, and never actually read it. Still, I've got some thoughts to share, so navigate away if you must, but I'm forging on with a review.I wonder how the first audiences in the Globe Theatre felt after the curtain closed on this one. Did they want their money back? It's such a bummer, this play. Don't get me wrong; it has a great, complex story, with lots of little nooks and crannies you can take pleasure in exploring; and of course it has that beautiful language common to all Shakespeare works. The problem is that the center of the action- the web of lies and deceit the plot rests on- is so dark and mean-spirited, it just becomes very disheartening and wearisome to watch. I saw the 1995 movie with Lawrence Fishburne last night on DVD, and one thing I noticed is that in contrast to Hamlet (Hamlet's banter with Polonius; the little play-within-a-play, "The Mousetrap") and MacBeth (the drunken porter), there is no comic relief in Othello. No one-liner zingers; no dick jokes; nothing. Shakespeare just never lets you come up for air in this one (which is a funny way to say it, considering the lovely Desdemona is smothered to death in the final scene). But seriously, the play is a real drag.To oversimplify things: we're talking about a 2 hour performance in which the sociopathic Iago meticulously and very intentionally destroys the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. Before all is said and done, no less than four people are killed, and two marriages destroyed. Why does Iago do it? He was General Othello's loyal servant, passed over for promotion by the "rising star" Lieutenant Michael Cassio. For that humiliation, Iago wreaks human suffering out of all preportion to the temporary stalling of his career. So it's a revenge story. But there are different types of revenge. In some stories, the architect of revenge sets things in motion, but when he sees how much pain he's causing, there's an "Oh my God, what have I done?" moment, where he realizes the error of his ways, and maybe even tries to reverse events. Nothing like that happens here. In fact, to get things to work out the way he wants, Iago must continuously tend to his scheme like a gardener raising fastidious orchids- and as he does, he never once wavers from his plan. He's there every step of the way, fanning the flames of mistrust and jealousy between Othello and Desdemona. Maybe that's what makes this so painful. Iago is full of malice from the first scene to the last, with na'er a misgiving, hesitation, or a single flicker of remorse. He is completely resolute in his selfish machinations.And you know- it's fine to have a character like that in a tragedy. Personally, I like a little more complexity in my villains, but there's no denying people like this exist. There's a scene in the Lovely Bones movie where the murderer starts drawing up blueprints for this underground room he wants to build, to capture and murder his victim in. It's a bit of a shock, because it makes you realize the degree of premeditation that goes into some peoples' evil schemes. It's a very uncomfortable moment. In fact, in a movie filled with uncomfortable moments, this brief bloodless scene with a man scribbling furiously on a sketchpad was the most troubling to me, just for all the depravity and unrepentant hurtful intent it implied. Othello doesn't have the rape and murder of a child in it, so maybe the comparison with Lovely Bones will strike some readers as inappropriate, but what I'm getting at is that in scene after scene, we see Iago (metaphorically) at his sketchbook, devising the mechanism of the other characters' undoing, and it is every bit as disturbing as the Lovely Bones blueprints scene. At the movie's end, when the credits were rolling, I just had to ask myself what all this relentless human agony was for. Surely, Shakespeare wasn't just telling me that Evil (with a capital "E") exists in the world. That fact must have been as obvious in 1604 as it is today. So what was it? What was the point? You see, I've got that particular quirk in me that I want there to be a point. I don't think anything Shakespeare wrote was "just a bunch of stuff that happened". So reflecting more on the play's events, I have to admit that Othello is not blameless here. For one thing, he strangled Desdemona, but more fundamentally than that: he harbored the seeds of mistrust which Iago was able to manipulate so skillfully. Furthermore, Othello had -for whatever reason- the poor judgment to trust Iago and mistrust Desdemona, when he should have done the opposite. We're getting into a very uncomfortable area for me now; my inner self is beginning to squirm, because this is "blame the victim" territory, and I am very much opposed to blaming victims, in principle. How much blame does Othello deserve for this yarn's tragic outcomes? We are all possessed, after all, of human failings like suspicion and the occasional (*cough* frequent) miscalculation. Did Othello have any of this coming? And if so, what is the extent of his sin? No two people are going to come up with the same answer to that, but here's how I see it: when things started taking a turn for the worse... when Iago started putting specific ideas in his head, I think Othello had a certain moral obligation to verify the facts of the matter. The business with the stolen hankerchief was very circumstantial; certainly insufficient basis for committing murder. To be completely fair, Iago gave Othello reasonable cause to question his wife's loyalty. Where Iago's blame ends and Othello's begins is the point that Othello accepted her infidelity as a proven fact, and responded accordingly. Does that sound about right? We accept the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" as one of the virtues of the American legal system, don't we? So it's a virtue, isn't it? So isn't the flip side of that to say that it is immoral to presume guilt? Part of me wants to say so, but I'm still not comfortable with it. I feel like I may be painting myself into a corner somehow, because for one thing it seems to be saying that virtue requires a certain intellectual capacity to ferret out the truth in circumstances when the truth is being obscured. On a gut level, I hate to say that virtue has an intellectual requirement to it, like one of those signs at the amusement park, which says "YOU MUST BE AT LEAST THIS TALL [SMART] TO RIDE [BE VIRTUOUS]". Ethics doesn't really work that way.But it sort of does in some circumstances, doesn't it? The prison guards tried at Nurenburg offered the defense that they were innocent of war crimes, because they were merely following orders. This was rejected, because even so, they should have had the critical thinking skills to know that what they were doing was immoral, and they should have refused to obey. I agree with that, but I also wonder whether this might have been asking too much of some of the dumber guards. Not everybody is equipped to see the bigger picture like that. In fact, the whole plot of the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson movie "A Few Good Men" hinges on the question of how guilty a soldier was for following illegal "Code Red" orders.Do you feel conflicted yet? I do. I also find myself wondering to what extent the world, or at least parts of the world, are responsible for some of the greater evils which plague mankind. Specifically, when Hitler (you just knew he was going to come up in this, didn't you?) burned down the Reichstag building, and then used it to seize power, don't you think there were some people in the German population who might have had an inkling of what was going on? And didn't they have some moral obligation to speak out? For all I know, some of them did... and I'm not laying all the atrocities of the Third Reich on their shoulders, but I'm just saying that it seems there are some situations where doing the right thing requires a person to use his head, to figure out what's going on around him isn't quite right.So before I get all "9/11 was an inside job" (which is totally where I was going with this, I admit), let me end by saying there are a lot of other interesting aspects of this play, which I have completely neglected here. On the night she is killed, before Othello arrives home, Desdemona and her attendant Emilia have a weird little conversation about the nature of marital infidelity. It deserves some parsing by somebody willing to give it the time it deserves. There is also a whole historical backdrop that would be fun to explore. I think Shakespeare had a minor fetish for Rennasissance Italy, and all the geopolitical connivings it was enmeshed in. A minor plot point requires Othello to go to Cypris to defend Venetian interests against the Turks. This places the events of the play around 1570, when Turks really did attack Cypris and threaten the Venetian trade empire. Two interesting things about that: (1) in reality, the Turks won control over Cypris, but in Othello, Shakespeare gives the victory to Venice. I wonder why he did that. (2) The Turks were only able to do this because Venice declined to aid Greek forces against the Turks, when they took Constantinople in 1453. Some people might argue that Venice had a moral obligation to fulfill the terms of their alliance (i.e. promise) with the Greeks (Reference) to prevent this from happening, and that the Turks' success in 1453 was a consequence of Venetian "moral" failings... a consequence which came back to haunt Venice in 1570. Karma can be a bitch in real life, although it wasn't nearly as harsh with Iago as it could have been in this play.