My Shakespeare Project is nearing its final assignments. I’ve got four more plays to go now that Othello is complete: Coriolanus and King Lear, neither of which I have ever read or watched (!!! no spoilers please especially on Lear), and two history plays: Henry VIII, written and produced in 1612-1623, and Henry IV Part II, which I swear I read a year and a half ago but I might be wrong. It’s been a lot of Shakespeare! I have missed my own self-imposed deadline to finish this play twice now, originally slated for commentary last August 1 and this year on April 25.
I first read Othello in the spring of 1991, when I was 17. The scene: AP English class. I remember a lot of snickering on the part of certain boys as the play opened with strong imagery, the beast with two backs, the black ram tupping your white ewe, etc. etc. I laughed along nervously, looking around. I don’t think those boys got hushed or talked to. Othello presents some extremely mature content. I’m impressed we tackled it in high school. Alas, our suffering teacher was in the midst of a bitter divorce herself, and belabored the proof of infidelity, and likely lacked the gumption to tell those senior boys to can it.
It’s been a challenging week here, high in the hills in our summer escape. The weather is a relief but the body has largely refused to cooperate! I read the play and marked it to death in my cheap Collins edition. Othello is a play that makes sense in the simple reading of it, unlike many other Shakespeare plays, so stuffed with characters and action that it’s hard to keep the characters straight without a visual aid. It’s very clear on the page what’s happening. But, as I told Jason after I finished it, don’t read Othello if you are already feeling upset or anxious about anything, because the play is a searing indictment of human cruelty.
The image above shows Cyprus, where most of the action in Othello takes place among transplanted Italians: a passel of Venetians and just one Florentine essential to all the drama: the sociopath Iago, who plays every side proficiently, manipulating the emotions and beliefs of everyone with whom he comes into contact. But why? What does Iago really want? He says he wants the downfall of the Othello the Moor, a military general in service to the Republic of Venice. But why? What did the Moor do to Iago to deserve such psychological machinations? We don’t know much in the way of backstory, but Iago is adamant: he will have done with the moor. As a writer I feel a prequel is in order to establish firmer grounds for this reckless, mendacious vendetta of Iago against Othello that ends with a stack of bodies. Perhaps someone will write it.
The play opens with a joyful wedding between the youthful Desdemona and the much older Othello, who met at the house of Desdemona’s father over numerous family dinners that always concluded with Othello’s masterful storytelling of his many war campaigns and successful scrapes past death. Desdemona’s father is furious after finding about the marriage secondhand but lets it slide. Othello is called to Cyprus to fight the Turkish navy. Desdemona goes with him, together with his lieutenant, Cassio, and Iago, and Roderigo. Iago plants the seed of suspicion in Othello’s ear: that Desdemona has taken up with Cassio. And yet Cassio has asked Desdemona to plead his case as he senses Othello has turned on him! Bad leads to worse. Iago just won’t quit. His wife Emilia isn’t really onto him either until well into the action. The more Desdemona tries to speak to Othello about Cassio, the more Othello suspects her infidelity, egged on by Iago. (The Florentine!) The protestations of the women fall on deaf ears. Iago tries to kill Cassio, but fails. The tragic end finds all three female characters murdered (Bianca, Emilia, and Desdemona), and Othello atop the bodies, dead by suicide after he realizes how misled he was. Iago seems to get out okay, none the worse for the wear.
I mean, my God. What did I make of this play when it was 17? Perhaps I was still so untried by the world that it seemed like deep fantasy to me, like back in the time when I thought all fiction was anchored in pure invention and not taken from real life. Now, three decades later, in a world filled with unmasked Harvey Weinsteins and George Floyds, Sean Spicer and Tucker Carlson (those sophistic and modern Iagos), George Santos et al, it’s hard to not see the parallels. That’s why Shakespeare is always relevant. There is no vogue when it comes to human behavior (as the great Bjork crooned!) It’s always relevant and always fresh. The years and names may change but the song remains the same. And yet the racism, sexism, misogyny, and femicide depicted in the scene and acts remain shocking. How is it even possible to produce a viable Othello in 2023? What would a director and producer have to do to make it relevant, and not like a Tudor-language flavored nightmare? My concern with such content is: does the audience take it as a scathing commentary or as a shrugging justification for the actions and lies? What did the Tudor theatergoer think of this piece!?
The takeaway from Othello is this: question the evidence and its source. Don’t be led by the nose down the deep path of suspicion. And judge those well and generously, if at all, even if you feel they gave reasons to do otherwise. Most importantly, question gently the motivations of person X for telling you thing Y.
Rattled. Well played, William. You got your response, more than four hundred years later. Moving on to Henry VIII. Great. Femicide here we go …