Monday, February 26, 2018

Michael5000 vs. Shakespeare: Othello

The Play: Othello
Edition: Signet Classics, Edited by Alvin Karnan, 1963.

Genre & Setting: Tragedy in Venice and one of its military outposts.

Previous Contact: This was my first reading. I saw a movie version almost 20 years ago that I don’t remember very well; other than that, my only contact was with a ballet version, which was understandably less successful at exposition than at artsy dancin’.

The Gist, which will obviously involve spoilers: Iago, a career officer in the Venetian army, is developing a bad attitude towards his friends. He owes money to the thick-witted Rodrigo, and he is seething with envy because General Othello has appointed Michael Cassio (no relation) as his second in command, a promotion that Iago was expecting for himself.

Rodrigo is smitten with the fair Desdemona, but the fair Desdemona is smitten with General Othello and has, in fact, secretly married him. As the play begins, Rodrigo has only just found out about this and is pissed off at Iago for not having kept him in the loop. In order to get him off his back, Iago talks Rodrigo into waking up Desdemona’s dad and telling him about the secret wedding. Iago is in fact hoping to kill two birds with one stone: to sidetrack Rodrigo, and also to cause trouble for Othello. It almost works – Desdemona’s dad’s entourage goes out to confront Othello’s entourage in the streets – but suddenly the army needs to mobilize, Othello is called up, and dad is forced to accept the marriage.

Having enjoyed this taste of manipulating people, Iago ups his ante. Using Rodrigo as his pawn, he tricks Cassio into drinking too much and brawling at a party. Othello, who runs a tight ship, immediately strips Cassio of his rank.

Now at this point, if Iago was only after solving his practical problems, he would be smart to hold up and see if he gets that big promotion after all now that Cassio is out of the way. But he doesn’t. Instead, he immediately determines to keep up the mischief and destroy Othello. Generations of scholars have debated whether Shakespeare intended by this to represent Iago as a malignant psychopath, or to show that once you start down the path of evil you tend to keep going, or what.  On a pragmatic level, Shakespeare might not have thought too hard about these theoreticals, since he was working pretty closely from an Italian short story, and also because if he stopped after Cassio’s demotion the play would be way too short.

Iago destroys Othello, and re-destroys Cassio, by convincing the former that Desdemona is sleeping with the latter. This is a nicely depicted piece of scheming. Iago starts with a faux-reluctant confession of his "suspicions," then tricks Cassio into some compromising man-talk about his girlfriend while Othello, eavesdropping, thinks they are talking about Desdemona, and, as a final touch, plants the fancy handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona on their first date in Cassio’s room. Othello, consumed with envy and rage – golly! just like Iago! – overreacts a bit, if you ask me. Lovingly, and feeling really conflicted about it, he strangles Desdemona.

Iago’s tricks have worked the way he hoped, but he hasn't set himself up for sustainable gloating.  If any two people compare notes, it’s going to be patently obvious what he’s done. This happens almost immediately, with Iago’s wife Emelia the first to put two and two together. Iago kills Emelia, Othello kills himself, Iago is condemned to be tortured to death, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Edition: The Signet is a cheap paperback, but it’s generously fitted out with interpretive material. It’s past half a century old, however, so the critical stuff is a bit stiff and so not exactly reflective of current concerns and bleeding-edge scholarship. Line-by-line notes are fine, but packed together in fine print at the bottom of the page, making them hard to access without interrupting the flow.

Adaptation: I think a gritty, film-noir approach would be my choice, in the unlikely event I was asked to direct Othello. The character that I’d want to develop would be Emelia, Iago’s wife, probably the smartest character in the play -- depending on what you make of Iago's IQ, anyway. She is a tool in the plot, then comes within a hair’s breadth of figuring it out in time to stop it (IV:ii), then is the first to figure it out once it’s all too late. She’s a real tragic figure, until she gets stabbed, and then's she's even more of a tragic figure.

Othello is interesting for a English play of its era in that its title character is black. Now, as a “Moor,” a North African, he wouldn’t necessarily have to be, and in the nineteenth century it was apparently considered obvious that he was a bronzed but basically white Moroccan dude. But, no, the text is pretty clear that Shakespeare is imagining a black Othello. What surprised me most, though, was that it doesn’t seem to matter much, at least not to the mechanics of the plot, that Othello is black. It is so external to the action that the Victorians could have him be a white North African dude, and the play still made sense.

Now, I’ve read (though not in this edition, obviously) that until the 1980s – the 1980s! – that in Britain particularly, it was widely considered a bad idea to cast a black actor as Othello, because it would confuse audiences into making them think that Othello is a play about race. That's pretty absurd.  But, the fact that it's absurd doesn’t mean that Othello is essentially about race. It seems to me – after, mind you, this single first reading – that the text could support anything from an adaptation that was very much “about race” to one that was hardly “about race” at all.

Prognosis: If Othello was a novel, it wouldn’t have quite enough plot to hold its own weight. Plenty of plotting, but not enough plot, because Iago is essentially a one-man show. He puts a scheme in motion, and it either succeeds or not because of circumstantial factors. In a novel, we would need to have someone acting against him – I’m imagining Emilia gradually getting suspicious, discovering his terrible secret, and then trying to foil the plot in a desperate race against time! But then I probably read too much detective fiction.

What makes the play “work,” I think, is the pleasure of watching the plotting unfold. Iago’s schemes aren’t that complicated, but they’re complicated enough that we feel clever every time we figure out what he’s up to. Secondarily, Iago is oddly careful about treading the line between truth and lies. Although his every effort is to get people to believe things that aren’t true, he is oddly squeamish about openly stating a falsehood. Again, we feel kind of clever when we recognize that something he says is technically true but intended to deceive. We’ve all done it ourselves! Although, perhaps not quite to this extent.

All in all, it’s an intellectually satisfying play on the page, and offers lots of room for actors to make tragedy and dark comedy on the stage. I can definitely see why it’s one of the big hits.

Nabil Kanso, Othello, My Warrior.  Oil, 1985.

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