Thursday 5 January 2012

Devouring Books: Othello by William Shakespeare

Good lord, Othello's a dreary play! And by dreary, I of course don't mean badly written or anything like that (hello, this is Shakespeare we're talking about. The dude can write) but it absolutely makes you feel like the world is this horrible dark place where the bad guy wins (sort of), or, rather, the guy you want to win, doesn't. Even when that guy is a girl. It's the reason they're called tragedies, I guess, but it doesn't make them and their conclusions any less depressing!

Of what I think of as the three 'big name' tragedies (Othello, Hamlet and Macbeth- for some reason I always forget King Lear, I think because it sounds boring?) Othello was the only one I hadn't read, and so I seized on the opportunity provided by Shakespeare reading month to dive right into it! Doing that was interesting, because, I haven't read any Shakespeare for a really long time, and while I was reading this, all these analysy thoughts kept popping into my brain (apparently I put my analytical brain on when I read classics and stuff now, which must be the result of years of training) and I was feeling all pleased with myself. But then I read the introduction to the play in my GIANT RSC copy (won from my college for being clever and shit, and so so difficult to hold) and it basically said all the things I'd thought of, only there were more of them, and they were better expressed. This was comforting in one way because it means I'm not a total Shakespeare moron, but on the other hand, I felt all unoriginal and boring. This is what you get for reading basically the most studied writer, probably ever!

Anyway, Othello. We all know this story, right? Poor noble Othello, the black guy (or, as far as I can make out from the introduction, actually the converted muslim guy-playing excellently on the fears of the growing Ottoman empire at the time*) is mistreated by the evil villain Iago, who makes him believe that his brand new wife Desdemona is having an affair, so that he is simply forced to SPOILER kill her, and then himself, because he is no longer able to live with himself, let alone without her END SPOILER. It's actually an incredibly simple plot, but within it, since this is Shakespeare, so much is contained, and so many things explored. I hardly even know where to start with it, or if I'll be able to stop... So buckle up and enjoy the ride, yeah?!

Firstly, Iago. He's really an awful, awful man- he gains people's trust, and then uses what he knows against them for his own ends. Except, actually, at times it seems like he doesn't really have ends of his own- like he's just doing all these things out of spite, because he can, and because he wants to see what happens. Far be it for me to quote from a Batman film when I'm writing about Shakespeare, but in the words of Michael Caine: "Some people just want to see the world burn." This really seems to be Iago's motivation because other than that, I can't really see one- I thought it might be to get a promotion, but that wouldn't really happen without his being found out, and as soon as he's found out, a promotion is obviously impossible. There's also the slight accusation he makes of Cassio (the man he accuses Desdemona of sleeping with) and Othello of sleeping with his wife, but it's not clear that he actually believes it, OR that he holds any regard whatsoever for his wife- so I just prefer to think that he wants to see the world burn. Iago, then, is basically a psychopath, but he's an exceedingly important psychopath, and one who, in fact, has more lines than the supposed hero, Othello. I'm not sure what that means about this play (that Shakespeare wanted a villain as a main character, I guess) but it sure makes for some interesting untangling of one man's twisted little brain.

Much as I hated Iago, I kind of hated Othello too. Hated is probably too strong a word, but how trusting/gullible can one man be?! I have to wonder what Iago has done in the past to earn Othello's complete and utter trust, and if the answer to that is nothing, then Othello has a lot to answer for in terms of his actions. According to my introduction, "Othello inspires our pity because he also inspires our awe, above all through his soaring language", to which I kind of went 'really?!' because, yeah, he speaks well, but he also completely mistrusts his own wife because, when it really comes down to it, she's a woman who deceived her father (to be with YOU, Othello!) whereas Iago is a man who is apparently honourable (except to his wife, who knows what he's really like). So Othello's nobility and eloquence sort of isn't enough for me to forgive him for what he does later, although, obviously, he's still better than Iago because hey! He's not a psychopath!

Also not a psychopath, and probably my favourite character in the whole play is Emilia, Iago's wife. She's mainly my favourite because her existence in the play means I can go 'well look at that, Shakespeare was a feminist before feminism was even a thing!' because Emilia is awesome. Not only does she completely non-condone Iago's actions: "O, are you come, Iago? You have done well, That men must lay their murders on your neck." but she also considers women to be relatively blameless if they have affairs outside of marriage- "But I do think it is their husbands' faults, If wives do fall." This is a view that must have been so unbelievably unaccepted at the time (when I suspect it was wives fault if their husbands 'fell', but never the other way round), and so important to the plot since, even if the rumours Iago spreads about Desdamona were true, it wouldn't be her fault, and she wouldn't deserve any punishment for them (which, you know, she doesn't anyway, but still.) This also makes Emilia a MUCH better character than Desdamona who, SPOILER when asked who has inflicted her death upon her, says "Nobody- I myself," to which I groan and smack my forehead, even if she does also try to defend herself beforehand by asserting "That death's unnatural that kills for loving," which I have to agree with wholeheartedly, take note domestically violent people! END SPOILER.

I kind of thought, form my preconceptions about Othello that there would be more racism than there actually was, and I was refreshingly surprised with what I got. The only objection to Othello's race really seems to come from Desdemona's father, and he's got plenty of reasons not to like Othello and doesn't really need to bring up his race here at all:
"Whether a maid so tender, fair and happy,
So opposite to marriage that she shunned
The wealthy curled darling of our nation,
Would ever have - t'incur a general mock -
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom
Of such a thing as thou." 
Sure, he's upset that she's married an ex-muslim, but I feel that he's more upset that she ran away, thus proving his own skills as a guardian as inadequate. On the whole, though, Othello's race is neither here nor there with most of the characters, he has a high-up position in the Venetian army, and is greatly respected by his men: "If virtue no delighted beauty lack, Your son-in-law's far more fair than black." I have a slight issue with the fact that fairness=goodness, and blackness=evil, but since Iago proves that this is clearly untrue; I think we can more or less assume Shakespeare's openmindedness on the issue of race (if you ignore the ending, where Othello can be seen as little more than a savage, although, again, he has strong feelings about what he does- he's a very emotional lad!)

Othello rocks, basically. From a simple premise, so many things can be explored, and at the same time I can see how it would work merely as a play, as a means of entertaining people (which, you know, all his plays were written to do, primarily). Iago is wholly engaging as a villain, even if whether or not he has motives is up for debate, and the play does a lot to encourage me about Shakespeare's personal principles and beliefs. It stands up well against the other two 'big name' tragedies (again, that's just in my opinion/brain) and honestly, I'm a little ashamed that I waited so long to read it. Emilia, since yours is the only opinion I respect, please forgive me. And I leave you with this, possibly my favourite line from the play, by Iago:
"I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am."
That deceptive little fucker.

*Did you know that croissants are moon-shaped because they were invented in Austria after the Ottoman invaders had been vanquished, and since the crescent moon is the main symbol of Islam, it was a way for the Austrians to symbolically eat their enemies. This has literally nothing to do with Shakespeare, but interesting, huh?!


  1. When I took a Shakespeare course in college, this was one of the plays we discussed. Even though I had enjoyed Shakespeare as a teen, I never read Othello. I found it interesting how he used suicide as kind a pseudo form of atonement. In addition, after being elevated to that status he was, he was so easily deceived by Iago. That really struck me when I read the book.

    But I'm going to keep rambling if I continue writing this comment ^_~ After taking that class and writing paper that encompasses Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear, I have too much to say!! LoL

    Glad you read it an enjoyed it!

    sunn @ sinnful books

  2. I have the same reaction each time I read/see Othello: I hope THIS time maybe Othello won't kill Desi. I'm constantly disappointed.

    However I LOVE Iago. I mean he is awful and a psychopath and no redeeming qualities other than he is fun to watch. He's so conniving and so much more interesting than Othello.

    If you haven't yet, you should watch the Oliver Stone version of the movie with Laurence Fishburne (first black actor to play Othello on film) and Kenneth Branagh. Branagh's Iago is. so. good.

    And I know this is getting long BUT I must share this clip of the Othello Rap by the Reduced Shakespeare Company

  3. When I read your posts, I always get distracted by one AMAZING thing you say and end up having nothing of actual substance to contribute to the discussion. This time, it was the Batman quote. I am a firm believer that all of life's important themes can be expressed using lines from a Batman movie. Well done.

    (Also, yay Othello!)

  4. Guys, I'm so impressed that you read the whole thing- gold stars all round!

    @Sinn- I LOVE LONG COMMENTS! I was kind of surprised at how easily Othello could be deceived, but I do kind of think that either 1) we have to assume that Iago has proved himself worthy in the past and so Othello fully trusts him, or 2) it's a kind of racist thing where Shakespeare's being a bit like 'well these savages, look how easily they can be fooled!' I'm going with 1, because I don't want to think that about ole Will!

    @Red- Oh man... Othello could so easily have NOT killed Desdemona (love that you have a nickname for her!) it's all so tragic. And I totally agree that Iago is entertaining (literally nothing in the play would happen without him) but he's still SO EVIL AND I WANT TO BEAT HIM ARGH!

    @Megs- Hehe, I very nearly didn't include it because I was being all 'Shakespeare's farrrrr too serious to compare with Batman!' but really it's all I could think of! I'm pretty sure all life's important themes can be expressed through a Batman line, and if not then Friends probably has it covered!

  5. Wow, I loved your review. It was brilliant. This is the second review of Othello I have seen and I am definitely adding it to my list. I love that you analyse Lago's character and conclude that he's a psychopath.

    Oh, and I did not know that about Croissants. I will think of that whenever I have one.

  6. GREAT review - brought me right back to when I read this in high school, and again in college. Thank you for that!