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

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Olivier’s Othello


I watched the film version of Olivier’s 1965 Othello.  He played the Moor in blackface, and affected a deep African voice.  This was disconcerting because today either Othello would be played by a black man or a white man for that matter.  Our view these days is either that there are many black actors (Laurence Fishburne, for example, in a 1985 movie with Kenneth Branagh as Iago, more later) who could play the role; or that in this era of multi-culturalism, we can easily suspend our disbelief at seeing a white man playing Othello.

This feeling of unease I had with Olivier’s blackface was made worse by his interpretation of the role.  Othello is made out to be a hysterical fool, easily led and manipulated by Iago.  The later scenes with Othello and Iago together are like bear-baiting – the gullible, unthinking animal is provoked, prodded, and tormented.  Othello’s reactions to Iago, and in scenes with Desdemona are of the fool gone mad – full of histrionics and melodrama.

I do not believe Shakespeare intended the Iago-Othello relationship to be that one-sided – that Othello could be so easily demented.  He is, after all, a respected general, welcome at court, and admired by the Doge of Venice and his nobles.  It is true that the jealousy that infects him is corrosive, insistent, and unquenchable; but not so completely, so soon, and in so wildly manifest a manner.

To compare, I watched parts of the Fishburne-Branagh film.  Fishburne plays Othello in a more believable and moderate way.  He exudes power and force, but has the same weakness that many if not most men have – suspicion of their wives – and this weakness festers until it kills him, and in this he is tragic.  Iago is Machiavellian, but not cruel – and again, I think this is much closer to Shakespeare, for in many of his plays there are Machiavellian characters (Richard III, Edmund), and the thinking of Machiavelli was beginning to gain currency when Shakespeare wrote. 

I do not recommend the Branagh-Fishburne film, since it is seriously abridged, hard to follow, and not really Shakespeare (if you take the view, as I do, that the playwright intended for every piece of his plays to have a meaning germane to the whole); but it does show very starkly how different actors and directors can interpret the same play in different ways.

In this vein, the director of the Olivier version chose to take out one of the most critical, although small scenes of the play – when Desdemona and Emilia (IV.iii) are talking “girl talk”.  Did Desdemona ever think of taking a lover? Didn’t she find some of the nobles of the court handsome? “Would’st thou do such a deed for all the world?”, Desdemona asks Emilia.  “The world is a huge thing.  It is a great price for a small vice…Why, the wrong is but a wrong in the world; and having the world for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in your own world and you might quickly make it right.”

Emilia is a strong character in this scene and others.  Here she goes on to say “Let husbands know their wives have sense like them…” And in another scene she says that men have a gluttonous appetite – they devour women and when they are sated, belch them out.  Desdemona is tempted by what Emilia says, and admits she has a roving eye.  So, although Desdemona may not have actually committed adultery, she certainly could have and might indeed have if circumstances had not evolved so quickly.  This is an important omission.

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