Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Othello - Shakespeare

The legend goes that one night the famous actor Richard Burbage was talking with William Shakespeare and he said something like, "Bill, I'm the best actor there is.  You cannot write a part that I cannot must naturally play."  So Shakespeare went out and wrote 'Othello'. 

The plot is simple enough.  Othello is a Moorish (i.e. black) general in the service of Venice.  He has chosen for his lieutenant a man named Cassio.  This (along with other reasons) has greatly upset the man who thought he should be the lieutenant, a man named Iago.  Iago is also friends with a man named Roderigo, who also has reason to hate Othello; he wants the woman that loves Othello, Desdemona.  Iago promises Roderigo that if he helps, Othello will be undone.
Othello marries Desdemona in secret and, after some conflict, her father consents to the marriage.  However, war is declared and all of the principles are off to Cyprus to fight the Turks.  Iago looks for a way to cause havoc and he soon finds it in a friendship sprung up between Cassio and Desdemona. 
This is the truly brilliant part of the play.  Iago slowly seduces Othello to the prospect that Cassio is fooling around with Desdemona behind his back.  He quietly puts a piece of information out there, then loudly declares that there must be no truth in it.  Othello is quickly convinced that something is happening.  He then sees all events as confirmation of his fears.
In the end, Othello calmly goes to Desdemona while she is asleep on their wedding sheets.  He asks her if she has prayed before dying.  She is shocked and afraid but she can't stop him.  He kills her.  The murder is immediately found out.  Iago's role is discovered shortly thereafter.  Othello knows that he has become a monster and he commits suicide.

I don't really know how color divisions were in England at the time Shakespeare wrote this.  Othello is clearly despised in part because of his color, but this is all from Iago and Roderigo.  Otherwise Othello is treated well by soldiers and nobility.  Likewise, I don't know how the marriage between a white woman and a black man played in front of audiences then, or even how the portrayal of a black man on the stage went.
I can say that Othello, as a character, is completely sympathetic.  His love for Desdemona is very clear and so is hers for him.  When Shylock is punished in 'Merchant of Venice', there is little doubt that the punishment is deserved in large part because he is Jewish.  There is not quite the same sense that Othello is deservingly betrayed by Iago because he isn't white.
You can add 'Othello' to the (growing) list of plays that I wish we had the original audience reaction to.

Iago is almost perfectly evil.  He has motivations, but his revenge seems to go beyond them.  He was passed over for promotion, true.  And he thinks that Othello may have been in his marriage bed.  But he doesn't know and it's hard to credit these for his entire plot.  Iago is too controlled and controlling.  I mentioned above that he seduces Othello into believing that Desdemona was unfaithful.  He also seduces Roderigo into being his accomplice and henchman.  And when Roderigo no longer is useful, he calmly dispatches him.  Perfectly evil.  (What a tasty role!)

When I'm done with the tragedies, I may compile a list of the tragic heroines and rank them according to sympathy.  I suspect Desdemona will be at the top of that list.

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