Monday, May 08, 2006

Week 15-16, Shakespeare

05/08. William Shakespeare. Othello (Film: Director Oliver Parker, Laurence Fishburne as Othello, Irene Jacob as Desdemona, Kenneth Branagh as Iago). 05/15. William Shakespeare. Othello (2919-2996).

Act 1

One of the powerful things about Othello is that the hero, a brave warrior, proves defenseless against the tricks of Iago’s rhetoric: honor is at war with words in this play. Iago may not be a deep character acting from outrage, but he lists a basic reason or two: he suffers from a sense of injured merit since Cassio has been placed above him, and he fears that Othello may have slept with his wife. What makes Iago interesting is that he’s a self-conscious Machiavellian and a master of role-playing. On 2920, he says to Roderigo, “I am not what I am.” Iago may be a trusted underling in Othello’s view, but that is not how he sees himself “five years from now,” as corporate interviewers ask potential hires to describe their ambitions.

Othello possesses a combination of military bearing and chivalric eloquence and extravagance. The Italians accuse him of witchcraft and at 2928 he promises to deliver “a round unvarnished tale.” Even so, he “romances” all of them with his beautiful words. Othello cuts quite a figure, and he is aware of his impact on other people. He will eventually prove tragically unable to deal with the difference between seeming and being. He is honest and, unlike Iago, he “is what he is.” He won’t find any honest guides to help him negotiate the divide between appearances and actuality.

Act 2

“Trifles” – innocent banter, a drink or two, a lost handkerchief: how easy it is to weave an unflattering tale, and with it to take advantage of Othello’s insecurity and weakness. (See 2941 top, 2943, etc.) In the second act, Cassio is easily led to conform to the type of the genial soldier, and then to the quarrelsome drunk, and finally to the importunate suitor. To him, reputation is everything. Desdemona’s virtue is helpless – innocence can seldom defend itself in a world of Machiavels.

Othello is an absolutist in matters of honor, and honor is always a concern for him. Once lost, trust cannot be restored. Honor is an ideal that Othello can’t reconcile to the messy real world. Shakespeare often explores this rigid idealism as a trap – in Julius Caesar, for example, or in Coriolanus, or in the comedies that pit love’s idealists against more worldly characters. Life has many shades of gray, many nuances to catch, many roles to play and imperfections to accept.

Act 3

“Chaos” (2954) is exactly what Iago needs. He makes Othello draw the alleged truth from him, and reinforces the Othello-principle that people must always be what they appear to be. Iago knows that Othello doesn’t have what John Keats later calls (in reference to the character of poets) “negative capability” – the ability to plunge into a situation and run with it even though certainty is nowhere to be found. Othello, that is, can’t live in a state of doubt; he must gather his evidence with military efficiency and render a firm decision. The Moor’s lack of knowledge about sophisticated Venetian mores makes him anxious and an easy mark for Iago, a master manipulator and spin doctor of overblown trifles. Othello fears that Desdemona will abandon him because he is older than she is and because he is black.

Othello expects the same romantic extravagance from Desdemona as he has shown towards her. The handkerchief is an emblem of the romantic magic and the charm underlying his sense of erotic fidelity. The loss of the handkerchief is catastrophic for Othello, who is a romantic idealist as well as a military or chivalric idealist.

Act 4

Simple piety and honest declaration are the qualities Desdemona holds to, but by this time, Othello’s mind has been warped by Iago into taking such virtue as evidence of a pitch-black, cunning soul. He has become convinced of what Desdemona is, and all “seeming” to the contrary must be ruthlessly turned against her. To borrow a line from the Miranda Rights statement, “Anything she says can and will be used against her.” Emilia is kindly, but something of a match for the cunning of her husband. On 2983-83, she tries to temper Desdemona’s pious absolutism – in her way, she’s as much of an idealist as her husband Othello. Her answer to Emilia, in fact, is unstinting loyalty to Othello, even later when he strangles her.

Act 5

When he kills Desdemona, Othello, always strict, makes himself an example. In the end he doesn’t look for anyone else to blame. He also bills himself somewhat extravagantly as the example of a man who “loved not wisely but too well” (2995, lines 350-52). His eloquence in word and elegance of gesture and action reassert themselves one last time. Even so, his death seems just since such a recovery hardly makes up for Desdemona’s murder. I don’t know that Othello has as much time to arrive at the degree of horrible recognition (anagnorisis) that, say, Oedipus attains in Oedipus Tyrranus, but the insight he gains is enough to qualify him as a tragic hero.

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