"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Othello–Many Questions Make a Compelling Play

I am re-reading Shakespeare.  I was an English major at Yale in the mid-Sixties, suffered through Shakespeare, Marlowe, Thomas Kid, Clarissa, the Epistolary Novel, Blake and the Romantics parsed and analyzed to death by Harold Bloom….and now I can’t get enough of Shakespeare, and Harold Bloom.  A good education was wasted on the young, or at least me; but I am only thankful that I discovered Shakespeare for the first time about six months ago.  I was interested in Tudor history, decided to read and see Henry VIII (a good presentation at the Folger), and then moved on to all the Histories, then to the Tragedies.  I have read King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, and now Othello. 

As I have mentioned before, I wish Shakespeare had been taught the way I am reading him now – 1) short synopsis of the play for orientation, historical context; 2) reading the play carefully, with references to history; 3) criticism, at least three takes on the play; and 4) movies or theatre of the plays.  It has been an education (which it should have been back at Yale), and a delight.  I have the patience now to read every line; the sense to realize that Bloom and the Shakespeare critics do, in fact, know more than I do; but the confidence after forty years of literature to know that I do have a point of view.

Which leads me to Othello, my favorite play of those that I have read.  Why?  I thought Hamlet was the most philosophical, and I have contrasted the play with those of Chekhov whose early existentialism mirrored Hamlet’s “indecision” but from a modern perspective.  I liked Hamlet because of the questioned relationship between Hamlet and his mother, and concluded that Gertrude married the King to get ahead and protect herself from the insecurity of the English court – like Lady Anne in Richard III; but when I saw Olivier’s film version of the play, I saw what critics had written about the sexual and Oedipal relationship between Hamlet and his mother.

I thought that Macbeth was fascinating because of the depiction of blind ambition, but tempered by guilt or at least reflection which Edmund, Richard III, or Iago never did.  I liked Lear for the same depiction of ambition, and for the classic greed and avarice of all families. I never felt, as Bloom did, that Edmund was the villain that Richard or Iago were, and focussed more on the predatory evil of Goneril and Regan.  I was not taken with the hidden identities, the metaphor of the heath, and the quick transition from good to questionable (Lear’s sudden rejection of Cordelia), but they all had echoes in the other plays, and thus were important for understanding Shakespeare.

Othello is fascinating because of its ambiguity: was Desdemona a virgin or not?  Did Othello ever consummate the marriage? for if he had, he would know whether or not his jealousy was grounded in fact – or at least the presumption of fact.  If he did not consummate the marriage, why did he not have intimate relations with his wife, to at least find out half of the issue (i.e. if she was a virgin, then he had nothing to be jealous about, would have known the duplicity of Iago and the honesty of Cassio; if she was not then he would not have been wracked with doubt but could have then found out who was sleeping in his bed)?  What was behind Iago’s evil?  It couldn’t have been because he was passed over, but was it really some sexual inadequacy – he hated the potent Moor because of the Moor’s potency (legend had it that Africans were promiscuous, and therefore potent)?  He had homosexual and unrequited longings for Othello, and thus turned his feelings to hatred?  We saw this in Hamlet, where he turns violently against his mother for having quickly jumped in bed with the new King who had killed his father.

Why did Othello marry Desdemona in the first place?  He didn’t appear to love her, despite what he said; wasn’t in a hurry to consummate the marriage.  It was not a political marriage, so what was behind it?  And Desdemona, was she truly smitten by Othello as it seems, and she becomes an innocent like Juliet or Cordelia (less so, since Cordelia also had an iron fist of revenge)?

Why did Othello believe Iago and not Desdemona?  Was it because he trusted men and his military brothers?  Or deeply mistrusted and hated women (there are many lines of vitriol against women)?

Was Othello really out of his depth in Venice?  Despite his military victories and the nation’s honors, putting aside convictions of about Africans, in the end he is not smart, tactical, or wise, and given to irrationality and witchcraft (the handkerchief, blood of virgins etc.)?

Iago is the main character in the play, but is he?  Bloom loves him (and Richard III and Edmund) because of his Nietzsche-esque rejection of common mores and his freedom), but Othello with all his internal grief and torment is really more like the rest of us than the pure and unexplained evil of Iago.  His torment is more real than that of Hamlet or Macbeth.

I like Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca who are independent women, and especially the scene with Desdemona and Emilia when Emilia asks if Desdemona has ever thought of sleeping with another man.  And her lines about men taking women to satiate their hunger, then belching them out are great.  So what about Desdemona, then?  She didn’t sleep with Cassio or the Venetian noblemen, but she did think about it.

On to the movie versions of the play…..!!!

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