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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Othello–Soap Opera and Due Process


I have watched four film versions of Othello:

1. Olivier in 1965

2. Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh in 1995

3. Bob Hoskins and Anthony Hopkins in 1981

4. Tim McInerny, others in live Globe performance 2007

I have mentioned in a previous blog that Olivier plays Othello in blackface, including deep, resonant “African” voice (Anthony Hopkins is mildly tinted, but does not do blackface; Laurence Fishburne and the Globe Othello were black.  Perhaps because Olivier played in blackface, I was encouraged to see the character as a buffoon, so gullible and easy to manipulate.  Othello, we are told, is a great warrior, with many honors, has risen to the rank of general, welcomed into Venetian society, and worthy of all men; and therefore it is strange to see him make up his mind on such flimsy evidence and that he believes Iago over Desdemona.

Now, flimsy evidence is not unusual for Shakespeare – Gloucester in Lear is presented with the most outrageous claim by Edmund; it is hard to imagine that the disguises of Kent and Edgar can fool anyone, etc. Lear’s surprising and illogical division of his kingdom cannot be believed, for we know from all the Histories if not from history itself that kings get to be kings because of ruthlessness, canny manipulation, etc.  He may be losing his mind; but Shakespeare seems to say that he loses his mind because of the results of is decision.  He is not a forensic psychiatrist determine when was the onset of dementia, but a playwright.

At the same time, there is a sense of due process in Shakespeare.  Hamlet has plenty of circumstantial evidence, processes it as such but still cannot act; but shows a remarkable knowledge of the law and due process in the Gravedigger scene soliloquy).  Scholars have argued that the lack of a rule of law animates revenge tragedies such as Titus Andronicus; and scholars have suggested that in a period when he was not writing, Shakespeare was studying the law (there is, by the way, a whole body of literary criticism on Shakespeare and the law).

There is even an internal logic (i.e. one relevant for Elizabethan times) in Macbeth.  Why, the readers asks, does he so quickly base his actions on a very likely prediction – that he will become Thane of Cawdor? Because witches and witchcraft were commonly believed in those days, so what Macbeth learned was actually “factual evidence”. In Othello the case is made for a legal hearing of Othello’s case – that he did not seduce Desdemona by witchcraft, but through the enticing stories of his life.

So why did Shakespeare decide to base Othello flimsy evidence?  Is Shakespeare really saying that Othello is at heart a savage and can be easily manipulated?  Yes and no.  His “savage” nature could suddenly take over; but what to do with his status, his history of military success which cannot be based on wild courage alone?  Is this pure soap opera and melodrama? Shakespeare is so revered, that it is hard to accept this; but he did pack them in at the Globe.

So my guess is a combination of all the above – 1) Othello was written as a melodrama (as was King Lear, which when you strip away much of the language is a lot like a Bollywood film – changes of identity discovered in a happy ending); 2) Shakespeare did want to create some doubt about Othello’s savagery – otherwise, why would he have cast a Moor as Othello? A white Englishman would have done fine.  Of the two, I favor the second because of the insidious Iago in the Olivier version.  I have said before that the relationship at times is like bear-baiting – Othello is unable to defend himself.

However, I watched other versions of Othello to see how they were played.  I liked Laurence Fishburne the best because he seemed to be true to the vision of Othello of a strong, dominant general, and a potent male.  Kenneth Branagh is a more deferential Iago and the two present the “simple” case of jealousy – most men are afflicted by it; even the most stable and reasonable commit heinous acts because of it. Of course this version of Fishburne in bed with Desdemona takes away the intriguing question in the text – did he really sleep with Desdemona?  For if he did, he would know for sure if she was sleeping with another man. Kenneth Branagh as Iago was the perfect balance to Fishburne.  He is not mean, aggressive or hateful; he is just a schemer like many characters in Shakespeare. 

Branagh’s depiction, however, made the basic question – why did Iago do what he did – even more problematic.  In the Histories, everyone was after something, but not Iago. As I have written before, lots of ink has been used up on this subject – he was jealous of Cassio, and wasn’t so much after the downfall of Othello as the downfall of Cassio.  He was jealous of Othello, etc.; but no explanation is really good, and Iago is therefore not the complete villain as Richard III or as Bloom likes to think, Edmund.  Therefore, I liked this version.

In the third version, Anthony Hopkins was a neutral Othello – neither strong, nor weak; very measured and circumspect; and in that way was more true to the vision of Shakespeare that he did believe in evidence, logic, and due process; was infected with jealously like many men; but Bob Hoskins played Iago as twerpy little schemer, and his giggling and stupid laughter totally took away from any of the serious of his intent.  Hoskins, therefore, detracted from Hopkins’ measured and eloquent portrayal of Othello.

I liked the Globe live theatrical production the least.  Perhaps because it was played in the round in a large theatre, the actors had to bellow; but more likely because the director wanted bombast and anger, it was incessant yelling, and for no reason.  OK, Brabantio is very, very unhappy that his daughter has married the Moor; but does he really need to yell about it.  Iago has his own designs and is unhappy he was passed over for lieutenant, but does he have to scream and shout it.  Not believeable.

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