Shakespeare's play 'Othello' is fascinating. For a long time, I had problems with the play. In the Chamber Scene at the end, when Othello smothers Desdemona, he cat-and-mouses her, bullies her, for a while. It's not pleasant. Also, Othello's gullibility is hard to endure, even though he shares that trait with just about every other character in the play (including Desdemona).
Then, now over 30 years ago, I chanced to see Ronald Colman's movie 'A Double Life', for which he won the Academy Award in 1947, playing an actor so consumed by the roles he plays that he takes on those character traits. The character is cast as Othello, and ends up smothering a very young, very nubile Shelley Winters. The lines from the Chamber Scene haunt him, and occur several times in the movie - and I began to realize how powerful they really are. This happens a lot with Shakespeare - stuff that looks good on paper takes on even more resonance when spoken or dramatized.
Othello enters Desdemona's bedchamber, dark, illuminated only by the swinging lamp he carries. He's in an almost psychotic calm, imbued with the delusional belief the murder he's about to commit is required justice, completely unhinged by Iago's machinations. He is still deeply in love, but convinced the woman he loves is evil. He gazes down at her and contemplates the act of murder, with reference to the lamp he carries, whispering so as not to wake her, with genuine awe at the enormity of the act of taking life:
Put out the light, and then [looking down at his sleeping wife] put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,
Thou cunning'st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume. When I have pluck'd the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again. . .
Wow. The whole scene is imbued with language of this kind of intensity and lyricism, which does not make it any more pleasant to watch. But it does mean there is something there. So I decided to look deeply it. The more I became familiar with the play, the more fascinating it became. It also speaks with authority to the present age, through the mouth of one single character. But more of that anon.
Let's talk about it.
(1) Race. Of course that's an issue these days. But let me put this in Shakespearean perspective,. Shakespeare wrote the play in 1604, three years before the Jamestown colony was founded. There was Portugese and Spanish slavery in the New World, but I am not sure that the importation of African slaves had begun yet. In any case, it was not an element of English culture. The root cause of the tragedy in Shakespeare's conception isn't the diverse racial background of Othello and Desdemona, but their near unfamiliarity with each other. Race figures into the action only as one more element of mutual ignorance. Othello is 40 or so, maybe a little older, having spent nearly all his years as a soldier, a mercenary in the field. Desdemona is 20 or so, maybe younger, a nobleman's daughter, and completely unfamiliar with soldiery, She's a virgin (of course), and he might as well be. Whatever experience he's had with women is limited to camp followers. They are deeply in love, but they don't know all that much about each other - not enough for either of them to have enough trust and knowledge to ask the questions that might save them. That's the fatal flaw Iago exploits. No one in the play comments negatively on Othello's Moorish background, except Iago, who is obviously a special case.
That's not to say that the play doesn't have a memorable place in the history of racism and bigotry in Anglo-American culture. It surely does. But the place occurs in the performance history of the play, not in Big Bill's initial conception. Indications in the text is that he meant Othello not simply to be African, but an extremely dark African. I've always thought that the ideal 'look' for the character would be Lawrence Taylor, the former Giants linebacker, who was a huge man, very physical, very handsome, and very, very dark.
But as time went on, British audiences became more and more soured on that conception. Othello in performance (always by English actors in blackface at that time) became lighter and lighter. By mid-Victorian times, Othello had become Italian for all practical purposes. Samuel Coleridge, the 'Ancient Mariner' author, and a first rate Shakespearean critic in most instances, disgraced himself by attributing the 'Blackness' of Shakespeare's conception to his ignorance of the actual state of Africans. He was not alone. Only in this century has a return to the original reading of the text occurred - and although I'll stick with my opinion that we live in a large post-racial society, it still unsettles audiences.
2. Desdemona. Very quickly, because the play is not about her. She is too often played as a patsy, but she is actually a typical Shakespearean heroine, alert, intelligent, very feminine, and committed to being Othello's wife. She'd fit right in to one of his comedies. (BTW, you won't read it in most ciritcs, but it is striking that in almost every one of his plays the heroine is smarter than the hero, the one conspicuous exception being Hamlet. 'Othello' is in that pattern). She gets into trouble, not because she's passive, but because she finds Othello's increasingly difficult behavior impossible to understand in terms of what little she knows of him.
3. Othello. Everyone agrees the role is the most challenging role in all Shakespeare, which is really saying something. Lawrence Olivier, who failed spectacularly in the part in the mid 60's, made up a joke, to the effect that Shakespeare and Burbage were out drinking one night. Burbage in his cups boasted that Shakespeare could not write a role that he, Burbage, could not play. Big Bill thought to himself, I'll show you, went home and wrote Othello.
The role is near impossible. At the beginning, Othello is stately, composed, so formidable that he can still a nightbrawl in his nightshirt simply by his presence alone ('Keep up your bright swords or the dew will rust them' - a famous line - meaning you guys aren't going to be using your weapons for any purpose, so put them away. He's dressed at most in nightshirt - this is his wedding night - and unarmed. But his stateliness is so powerful he can end a riot simply by speaking.) Under Iago's influence, he loses all composure and dignity, collapsing in an epileptic fit at the end of Act IV, then restoring himself to the psychotic calm mentioned above. At the end, he reverts to a measure of his former self, in the manner of a musical recapitulation, and commits suicide in a dignified, though hardly heroic, manner.
The saving grace for the actor taking on the role is that Othello's language in all his various states is unvaryingly magnificent. His composure might fail; his poetic imagination never does. Hamlet may be Shakespeare's character philosopher, but Othello is his poet. I've always liked one line, which I quote for people who think Shakespeare is played by guys in ruffled collars and black tights. Othello is spying on the man Cassio has tricked him into believing is his rival, and says, in a fury:
Oh, I see that nose of yours, but not that dog I shall throw it too!
Not bad. But for all of Othello's poetry and corrupted nobility of character, the reason why the play is a masterpiece, and why it has so much to say to contemporary society is . .
4. Iago. One of Big Bill's greatest creations. Absolutely rational, completely cold-blooded, without a neurotic bone in his body, and stone cold, uninhibitedly evil. He has no real motive for engineering the catastrophe - Coleridge, in much better form with him than Othello, describes his actions as stemming from 'motiveless malignity', a wonderful phrase and absolutely descriptive. He does give explanations from time to time - he's been passed over for promotion, he thinks Othello may have seduced his wife - but the critics are unanimous in seeing these as lipservice, i.e., they are not themes in the play and he drops them without comment as the action moves on. In this case, the critics are right. Iago acts solely out of a fascination with his own malice.
In theory, he hates Othello. But he goes out of his way to see to it that Desdemona, who has never done him any harm and who likes and trusts him, goes to her death. He could easily spare her, as Othello by the end of Act IV has so badly compromised himself as to make his fall from grace inevitable. But Iago does not spare anyone, Instead, he goads the murder forward.
OTHELLO: Get me some poison, Iago; this night: I'll not
expostulate with her, lest her body and beauty
unprovide my mind again: this night, Iago.
IAGO: Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated
(As he speaks, Iago knows perfectly well that Desdemona has never 'contaminated' any bed.)
He's no mastermind, He's clearly improvising at times. He has no conscience of any kind - he also steals, lies without shame, and manipulates the murder of others. The only advantage he has over the other characters is that he is unrelentingly and unapologetically negative. Staged badly, which is the rule, he comes across as a witty villain in a crude melodrama. Staged properly, and the audience should hate him at the end. All he ever does is negate and destroy.
Iago is, in short, the quintessential sociopath, the first of his kind in English literature, and even now, likely the purest. He's the great grandfather of Goethe's Mephistopheles, the 'spirit that always denies'. That's Iago - he negates everything. It's only if the play is poorly presented that his endless, sterile cynicism sounds like wit. He is Shakespeare's rejoinder to all those sentimentalists who believe that some sort of mental illness must afflict serial killers, the Columbine shooters, the 9-11 terrorists. Nope - it is possible to do those things out of a morbid fascination in your power to accomplish those acts, if you are indifferent to human consequences - and Iago is, as are the others.
The final masterstroke in his characterization comes at the very end of the play. Othello, the truth revealed, unwilling now even to speak to the man he trusted without question, and now completely ruined, addresses one of the onlookers:
OTHELLO: Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?
Now, this was a playwright who could characterize anyone from, page boy to king, whore to empress, and often in a few short syllables. He could have given a speech to Iago. Instead . . . .
IAGO: Demand me nothing: what you know, you know:
From this time forth I never will speak word.
And that's all. No explanations. No protestations of righteousness. No Lady Macbeth sleepwalking qualms of conscience. Nothing - the final negation, so to speak. As noted, Iago is the ultimate sociopath. I did what I did. As to you civilized fools who would ask me to account . . . . no. Nothing.
This is the essence of pure malice. Ir sneers at you even when discovered. The explanations, the exuses, the apologetics you expect from persons within human norms . . . ain't never gonna happen. That is possibly the most frustrating aspect of dealing with major crime. To this day, I don't think any writer has displayed it so well.
It is the lesson drawn from this play that make me cynical about religious and political motives for abominable acts. Atta may discuss Islam, but ultimately he acts out of a fascination with flying a plane into a building. Nothing more. The Columbine kids, like Iago, gave the same ip service to motives for the deeds. But ultimately it was attraction to the power of a mass murderer that drew them in.That's all. There is nothing more to say. Iago, in saying nothing, has said it all.
5. Performance. Very frustrating - the play is super difficult. The Lawrence Fishburne/Kenneth Branagh movie is particularly unfortunate. Olivier's try in 1965 is embarrassing, as is Orson Wells truncated movie. There is a really good DVD with Willard White (an opera singer most noted for 'Porgy and Bess') as Othello, Ian Mckellen as Iago, and Imogen Stubbs nearly perfect as Desdemona - the balance is almost right. That's obtainable from Amazon.
But my own favorite is an audio recording of a performance with Chiewel Etiofor as Othello, Ewan McGregor as Iago, and a pretty good cast otherwise. Etiofor is perfect. McGregor has been criticized, but he is first rate, too in my opinion. You can find it on Audible.com if so minded. There are ludicrous objections that the play is abridged, but the evidence is compelling that Shakespeare expected his texts to be adapted in performance.