1. All of Shakespeare's tragic figures are singular in some way, but Othello is utterly alone. Unsupported by other "Moors" in Venice, a highly valued mercenary, he lives on the merits of his military exploits and a commanding presence. His susceptibility to the poisoned ideas of Iago, that supreme Shakespearian villain, is the mark of a man whose hold on his daily reality is fragile despite the appearance of calm control. As he says of Desdemona, "Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul/ But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,/ Chaos is come again" (3.3.90-92).
2. What Shakespeare meant by "Moor" is not entirely clear. We know that Morocco, generally speaking northern Africa, had a symbolic significance to a Europe invaded by Muslim armies in 711, and at war in Spain until 1492. It has been noted that Iago is named for the patron saint of the battles against the invaders, Sant Iago Matamoros, the Moor-slayer. The nominal enemy of Venice in the play, however, is the Turkish empire, and the Turk is the feared Other in Shakespeare's England, demonized in the literature of the time. From the fall of Constantinople in 1453 through the fighting in Austria even in the year Othello was written, the Turk stood for anarchy and savagery to Shakespeare's audience. Othello the Moor is sent to fight the Turk in a Mediterranean world where Venice is a small geographical presence compared to the looming land masses of Africa and the Ottoman Empire in a typical Renaissance map:
3. Othello identifies himself with the savage Turk in his final speech, and it is clear that both Iago's diabolical cunning and Othello's outbreak of violence are symbolic of Turkish, rather than European behavior in the context of the play. We see less plausible motivation in Iago than we do in Richard III or Edmund in King Lear; his presence evokes a nameless evil, marked by 22 uses of the word "devil" and 11 instances of "hell." Coleridge named him a figure of "motiveless malignity," a matrix of many motives and none at all. How Othello is susceptible to Iago's manipulation is the real story of the play.
Janet Suzman's production of Othello in Capetown, South Africa is celebrated in the following clip. The echoes of apartheid may shed a particularly vivid light on racial issues in the play, reminding us that Shakespeare's audience no doubt grappled with the image of an interracial marriage as many do today.
Interpretation: performance and the text.
4. Typical of Shakespearian tragedy, the first scene is not ceremonial but urgent and colloquial. Iago is baiting both Roderigo, his pawn, and Brabantio, Desdemona's father. Ironically, Roderigo approves Iago's confession of a hidden nature even as he is being manipulated himself: "I am not what I am" (1.1.62).
Iago tries to stir up a riot, urging Brabantio to ring the alarm bell. Such a tactic does not work in Venice, a stable society; Iago will have to wait for the frontier outpost in Cyprus to engineer the chaos he intends. And indeed, Othello's calm demeanor quells the budding street brawl:
Brabantio charges Othello with using magic or drugs, or "arts inhibited" (1.2.77), marking the Moor as a dangerous outsider. He had resisted Iago's warning with this reminder: "What tell'st thou me of robbing? This is Venice;/ My house is not a grange" (1.1.102-103). This is the initial tension of the play, the security of Venice against the threat of foreign invasion.
5. We see the same confrontation in the Oliver Parker film, followed by the meeting with the Signiory where Othello defends himself.
"Rude am I in my speech," Othello begins, "and little blessed/ With the soft phrase of peace" (1.3.81-82). But like another warrior, Henry V, he is a silver tongued orator when called on. He weaves a persuasive tale of his courtship of Desdemona which convince the city elders, but we might pause over his conclusion: "She loved me for the dangers I had passed/ And I loved her that she did pity them" (165-166). They have fallen in love with the respective images of each other; subsequently it is not surprising that they are unable to have a meaningful conversation about Othello's jealous suspicions. He is full of exotic tales of cannibals and other wonders, and she responds with heartfelt sympathy and either "sighs" (1622 quarto) or "kisses" (1623 Folio). This is one of the most interesting textual cruxes in Shakespeare. (Try a Google search on <world of sighs kisses othello folio>. Here's a review of some textual questions from an authority in the field.)
6. Satisfied that Desdemona was "half the wooer" (174), Brabantio "gives" Desdemona to Othello, somewhat less grudgingly in the BBC version:
He does, however, plant a poisoned seed: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:/ She has deceived her father, and may thee" (287-288). Iago will be the gardener to bring it to fruition, but first he cultivates Roderigo. This is Shakespeare's most dangerous kind of villain: controlling the appearance of weakness or desire in himself, uncovering the vulnerabilities of the victim, closing in for the kill. This is tragedy's version of Sir Toby Belch manipulating Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, but the results are far worse than humiliation. What vulnerabilities and insecurities Iago can discover to exploit in Roderigo, he will find in Othello too. Here's Bob Hoskins' Iago in the BBC production:
This Iago is increasingly demonic as the play wears on, a terrifying psychopath whose path is charted here: "I have't! It is engendered! Hell and night/ Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light" (392-393).
7. Chaos does not reign in Venice, but the expedition leaves for Cyprus, to defend against the Turks. In this fragile frontier outpost, danger is manifest from within as well as without. The geography of the play is as symbolic as the geography of comedy: Cyprus is an inverted Green World, a place where dark desires can destroy rather than cure. Trevor Nunn's production clearly shows the isolation of a frontier posting, and Ian McKellan's Iago is an interesting take: Iago is everyone's pal, a barracks entertainer, an utterly disarming figure:
We're going to look now at the BBC production for Act 2, to follow Bob Hoskins' Iago as his plan evolves. His psychopathic Iago keeps his wild ravings inward, not playing to the audience or the lens as Branagh does in the Parker film. The diabolical humor that an Olivier can find in Richard III or Branagh in Iago is realized through a conspiracy with audience, winking and sharing jokes. Hoskins' detachment from observation makes him the more frightening. First, he casts his net for motives that are only fantasies, about Othello (and even Cassio) with Emilia:
After the riot that he and Roderigo engineer, leading to Cassio's dismissal, tasting success, he has the fatal plan. Othello had just asked the brawling soldiers, "Are we turned Turks, and to ourselves do that/ Which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?" (2.30.169-170). Iago has his answer:
Finally, here is a montage of Kenneth Branagh's Iago (1.3, 2.1, 2.3):
In Shakespeare's theater, Othello was played by a white actor. Although Anthony Hopkins is Othello in the BBC production, American audiences are likely to see black actors in the role, like Laurence Fishburne in the Parker film. In a play where race and racism is central, we are less likely now to accept even the legendary Othello of Laurence Olivier because of the patronizing implications of casting a white actor in makeup. Patrick Stewart attempted to escape this trap with his "photo negative" production, which reversed the races in the casting, suggesting that the play is about the psychology of the outsider independent of color.
8. Iago's seduction of Othello (3.3) is played without cuts in the BBC production. It is an extraordinarily bold scene for Shakespeare, with a long, sustained sequence that modern directors are tempted to alter for the sake of credibility. In fact, the point of the scene is that Iago cunningly breaks Othello down in an astonishingly short time, with only a few subtle changes of pace involving short exits and entrances by Iago and Desdemona. We'll watch the first part of this long scene in the BBC version, then watch the Parker film change settings and pacing in anticipation of audience scepticism about Othello's swift psychological collapse:
This excerpt ends at line 180, where Othello is still resisting Iago's insinuations even as they are taking hold of him. We turn now to the Parker film, at line 90. Notice how ominous music begins at line 147, with Iago's use of "jealousy." Othello's "I am bound to thee forever" (213) marks the turning point, and is paralleled by the last line of the scene, Iago's "I am your own forever" (476). But Parker stretches time to make Othello's emotions more credible:
But there is an astonishing cut in the scene, Othello's expression of his own vulnerabilities:
I am black
And have not those soft parts of conversation
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years—yet that's not much—
She's gone. I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her. (262-267)
Parker substitutes the beginning a petit mal seizure, a mark of Othello's epilepsy (free registration required).
9. At this point in the clip you have just watched (and should watch again at the end of this paragraph), as Emilia sees Desdemona's handkerchief left behind, I cross-dissolve to Parker's interpolation of Othello's line from 1.1: "My life upon her faith" (289). The fatal loss of Othello's love token is often criticized as a flimsy plot device, but the point is that Othello is so alone and insecure that convincing proofs are not required. Indeed, Parker then splices in an earlier moment from 1.3, Brabantio's warning to Othello. He then has Othello leave the sleeping Desdemona and walk to the seaside, where he meets Iago. Again this stretches time for the sake of plausibility. Othello demands "proof" of Desdemona's infidelity and holds Iago's head underwater. This is the last moment he could escape, if he sought true proof. But Iago risks a desperate gambit, telling a preposterous story of Cassio talking to Desdemona in his sleep. When Othello succumbs to that, and to Iago's tale of Cassio with the handkerchief, he is doomed.
Trevor Nunn's Royal Shakespeare production of the play sustains the unbroken power of the scene:
10. The final shape of Iago's conquest of Othello comes in Act 4. In pursuit of more gradual character development once again, Parker transposes parts of 3.3 to 4.1, and crosscuts frequently. Eavesdropping on the conversation that Iago has staged with Cassio, mistaking Bianca for Desdemona, Othello asks, "How shall I murder him. Iago?" (171). Then we hear "Damn her, lewd minx" (3.3.472), followed by a return to 4.1. But the strongest emotions are again moved here from 3.3, to make Othello's murderous rage less impetuous:
All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
Arise, black vengeance, from the hollow hell!
Yield up, O Love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! (3.3. 442-446)
Only now does Parker show the final vow sworn by Othello and Iago, the pact with the devil:
11. The murder of Desdemona, after her poignant scene with Emilia and the "Willow" song, is a difficult moment for the actor playing Othello. Here Charles Dutton takes direction from John Barton:
We'll begin the final sequence with Anthony Hopkins in the BBC production, then move to Laurence Fishburne in the Parker film. What readers and audiences think and feel about Othello at the end of he play is likely to vary widely, depending on the production and the principal actor. Here is Hopkins:
Common to both interpretations and to Shakespeare's text is Othello's determination to recover his heroic image and to punish himself. Here is a montage of the final moments of the Parker film:
Please use the following prompts for your journal. Add your own if you like, and send them to me before class. They may suggest ideas for your students.
The play's attitudes towards race and ethnicity are complicated by Shakespeare's
perception of Venice as a particularly cosmopolitan city, a crossroads of
commerce and cultures in the Mediterranean world. What is Othello's personal history?
What causes jealousy?
Iago uses many references to the devil and hell. Is there an explanation for his evil plots against Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio?
Does Othello understand why he killed Desdemona?
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