OthelloOthello by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapor of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ use.

This play recently reasserted itself into my life after I was taken to see it performed here in Madrid. Though I couldn’t understand very much, since it was in elaborate and quick Spanish, I still enjoyed it. (Among other things, the performance featured lots of semi-nudity, men wearing gas masks on dog leashes, and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”) Inspired, I decided to watch the BBC Television Shakespeare version, with Anthony Hopkins (looking suspiciously dark) playing the titular role.

The first time I read this play, I remember being somewhat baffled. Othello was stiff and uncompelling, Desdemona sickly sweet, and Iago operated from no discernable motive to accomplish pointless ends. This time around, I think I have made a little progress.

Othello naturally associates itself in my mind with Julius Caesar. In these plays, the titular characters, both generals, are distant, cold, and simple, and come to be totally overshadowed by other characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus takes the lead, struggling to live morally in an immoral world; in this play we have Iago, who turns heroes into villains and innocence into carnage.

Who can pay attention to Othello when Iago is on the stage? He is hypnotizing. Shakespeare seems to accomplish the impossible by making one of his own characters the author of the play. Iago directs everything: he sets the plot in motion, manipulates the player’s emotions, controls what happens when, where, how fast, to who, for what reason, and what it means. He is playwright and stage manager, an artist whose intelligence is so cunning that he can paint upon reality itself.

The really frightening thing about Iago is that he can make you believe him, too, even though you know better. He is so utterly convincing in his lies, so keen in his psychological interpretations, so plausible in his attributions of motive and cause, that I found myself questioning whether Desdemona actually did sleep with Cassio. Nobody in the play stands a chance against such a roving and beguiling genius. Even Othello, brave, noble, commanding, is helpless in the Iago’s grips.

The mysterious thing about Iago is what drives him. In the beginning of the play, he attributes his hatred for Othello to rumors about Othello sleeping with his wife. Later on, Iago says he is resentful because Cassio was made Othello’s lieutenant. And yet his plan is not just to besmirch Cassio’s reputation—the self-interested thing to do—but to corrupt and then destroy Othello’s soul—which does not benefit Iago at all, or at least not in worldly terms.

What actuates him seems not to be jealousy, nor envy, nor egotism, but pure spite: the desire for revenge irrespective of justice or self-interest. Revenge for its own sake. This is so terrifying, and yet so compelling, because spite is such an exquisitely human emotion. It is an emotion that seems to have no practical benefit nor rational justification; and yet who has not felt the twangs of spite, the evil joy in injuring somebody who has injured you? It is spite that prompts Milton’s Satan to fight against infinite power; and it is spite that spurs Iago onward to destroy Othello, at great personal risk, for no personal benefit other than the joy in seeing Othello suffer for promoting Cassio instead of Iago.

As Harold Bloom points out, this tragedy is notable for having not even one moment of comic relief. It is unrelenting in its horror. We see innocent character after innocent character fall prey to Iago; we see Othello, a flawed but a good man, descend into madness; and finally we see Desdemona, the paragon of faithless love, smothered in her bed. Desdemona’s death scene is particularly hard to watch. She does not scream for help. She does not even protest her innocence as strongly as we’d like. Instead, she begs for one day, one half-hour, one moment of life more, and is denied.

We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing Iago pay for his crimes, or having him explain himself. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never shall speak word.”

An interesting question is whether Othello and Desdemona’s marriage would have had a crisis even without Iago. They are a particularly ill-starred couple. Othello is a man of war, shaped by camp-life, accustomed to absolute power; he solves his problems with force; he destroys those who challenge or disobey him. Desdemona is love incarnate, faithful, kind, gentle, and totally without malice. She is attracted to Othello for his adventurous life; Othello is attracted to her admiration for him. The story of their courtship—Othello regaling her with his war-stories, and she giving him hints of her interest—makes it sound as though Othello is only attracted to his own reflection in her. This is in keeping with a man who refers to himself in the third person.

Othello’s obvious unsuitability to married life makes him an easy dupe to Iago. Desdemona’s guileless purity makes her the perfect victim. Iago’s only mistake is that he underestimated his own wife—an odd, but telling mistake to make. Is there a moral to this story? I’m not sure. But I’ll be staying away from people named Iago.
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