This is my first review of a Shakespearean play. A Shakespearean play a peculiar thing considering that he is experienced by most British through statuary study. Such study is mandatory because Shakespeare is difficult, especially to study on the page. Most people who choose not to read or watch him. I am teaching this for A-Level this year, and I must admit it took me time to get back into the act of reading and watching and reflecting on what I saw on the page. With that in mind, I would say anyone outside of education or literature who is not reading habitually (and who would almost certainly not be reading this review…) will not enjoy the play. Too much of the language and the themes would be vague to the point of nonsense, and Shakespeare’s language patterns too artificial to be appreciated by those without plot knowledge. Where Shakespeare succeeds, however, is the knowledge that the plays are cohesive in their own way, and that if you understand them on their terms, they offer the kind of rich appreciation that just wouldn’t be popular in 2018. At all.
As always, the modernised film adaptations are more visual (and shorter). They succeed, through camera work and music, in creating better pacing, and guiding a modern audience through the plot line. A modern audience is not necessarily incapable: they just have sharper tastes and are more visually than aurally literate. However, to appreciate Shakespeare aptly is to appreciate how he create art through almost language alone: in Romeo and Juliet’s prologue, he calls upon the audience to ‘hear’ rather than see the play.
That is key for understanding. People were expected to listen to plays, not just see them. This was, remember, a culture that would expect people to sit and listen to sermons for three hours or so each week. I also understand that his plays did not always last for three hours. Finally, the audience would be aware of the story, and therefore would be more interested in how it was portrayed rather than eager to follow the plot. An audience contemporary to Shakespeare would all enjoy these aids to appreciation.
So why is Shakespeare so potent even in this age? To understand Shakespeare’s language you have to understand his intention: to include high culture in something that also intends to make money. Part of my pre-teaching of Shakespeare is to guide students through a PC game called Showtime where the class attempts to make money through the production of films. Our first ambition is to judge films by how much money they make – their companies pragmatically live or die on that basis. More lucrative companies are able to employ more established actors and rent plusher sets. Of course, my students love this competition and work hard to create the stories that will make the most money. They often get to judge what genres are popular with the audience that year. After a few years of game time, I ask the pupils whose company has been the most successful.
At this, the most eager pupils declare their success with millions of profit. In return, I suggest judging the most successful film companies as the ones who have garnered the best acclaim. Such acclaim is measured in the game through academy awards. Students respond with magnificent emotion, especially those struck by the notion that less lucrative film studies can be deemed better. Invariably, those companies who have made the most profit struggle to reject their capitalist esteem.
Luckily, for Shakespeare, he enjoyed both profit and acclaim.
Turning to Othello specifically, I see this as the classic play of jealousy with a complex position as an English/Greek tragedy. As is so interestingly often the case with Shakespeare, it is the lesser characters who influence the machinations of those above them. Iago, the Spanish ensign and ‘honest’ servant to Othello, is obsessed with reputation and is able to subvert it to detriment of others. He calms Cassio upon the demotion like he does with others, by telling them what they want to hear: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving. (Iago, Act II, scene iii)”
Of course, Iago believes entirely in reputation. I think he is motivated by the perceived degrading of his status, despite Coleridge’s assertion that he strives with ‘motiveless malice’. It is the ease and the extent of Iago’s manipulation that frames the play, making him the true protagonist of the story. The context of Venice was one of fear. The Turks were a real threat to Europe. There is no coincidence that the Byzantine empire has been written out of high school history, or deprioritised into insignificance by curriculum makers. Even pictures of Jesus are often blue-eyed. I remember being reduced to pointless tears by an angry primary school teacher who expressed her fury that I deigned to paint Jesus with eyes not blue but green. Even then I realised how foolish of her that seemed.
The key reputation in the play is that of Othello, a born outsider in high-Ventian society. With the threat of the Turks, a militaristic need is created. It is this militaristic need that grants Othello a position beyond his birth and family. Othello is an outsider regardless of his race, and his class status would, I think, play a greater role than his race in this outsider status.
It is worth stating that concepts of racism did not exist at this time in the sense that in some countries there is no concept of racism at all: their country is the best, and their people are the best. To promote what we know best and to think our values most ideal is very human. Yet It is a civilised and therefore an even better part of being human to grant a pariah status to those who express derogatory views on race. However, Othello himself is judged more on his practical position than his low-birth (outside high-class Italian nobility who would be homogenously white). Still, when Othello is attacked, it is with racist epitaphs (‘thick-lips’ ‘black-ram’). But it is ultimately his outsider status that is being attacked, the flavour of it being through his race.
This outsider status is essential to consider in Othello because I think concentrating on the realistic nature of the story is misleading. Instead, we should ask, is this good drama? Does it satisfy our expectations? And, more precisely, does this satisfy our expectations of a Greek tragedy? To do this I’ll consider each character in turn.
Othello the character is our hero, no high-born but highly-raised and demonstrating the many desired virtues of those in power. His stately iambic and measured imagery when defending himself in court impresses us. His ease with such language is supported by his knowledge that Venice needs his leadership and martial skill. Such noble language is especially impressive given Iago’s initial demonization. We do not expect it. He is also accepted in this society by male standards: his capability as a soldier. He is liked because he is able with weapons, and that he can look after the capital interests of Venice. More than this, he shows a pathological calmness of professionalism, most notably in his brother dying in front of him and reputably not showing a peep. Indeed, Shakespeare positions Othello’s attraction to Desdemona firmly in the bounds of Orientialism. She loved him because:
My story being done, She gave me for my pains a world of sighs: She swore, in faith, twas strange, ‘twas passing strange, ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful
The adjective ‘strange’ transmogrifies here into ‘pitiful’: here we see an interesting collision of worlds. Othello presumably means that wants pity for the physical ardour of his military battles; the pity Othello perhaps receives from a 2018 reader is also pity for suffering an unstable status. Either way, pity is an emotion that easily undermines any combatively-gained social status. It is this unstable status for Othello, predominantly because his status relies upon his profession rather than his family, that makes his jealous harmartia so provocable.
In contrast to Othello’s naïve manipulation, Iago is a clever villain. I admire how Iago is called upon to be smart with words under pressure. His world-play is superior, even when he is being monstrous. His images of Othello are far more intricate than Rodrigo, who is a total ‘nice guy’. While race would be noticed, remember there wasn’t a racist consciousness that overrode class-consciousness.
Less comfortable are his misogynies, and his growing dismissal of Rodrigo. He suffers a desperate insecurity, yet this insecurity seems more based upon how he is perceived than how he is. He happily tells the audiences that he is not what he appears, (”am”). He also suggests that others know that Othello has slept with his wife. It is as likely that others have prized Othello potency over Iago’s rather than this infidelity actually happening. Ultimately, as has been said elsewhere, the kind of faux humility Iago adopts (for self-benefit) contrasts Desdemona’s humility (that actually leads to her death and destruction). One is virtuous, the other a vice: only one succeeds in the modern world although both are punished here.
In contrast to Iago’s embracing of vice, we have Desdemona, the feminine representation of virtue. While often criticised for being too passive, she impressively challenges Iago and continually seeks to champion what she sees as right. She is duly educated, willful in her values, and yet values the expectations of obedience. As said before, she apparently desires to hear an ‘unvarnish’d tale’ of Othello’s past. Part of the experience of being an educated and well-connected female Venetian is an artificial protection from the world. She is protected somewhat from the machinations of others. Such an image also suggests how much attracted she (and we) are to the exotic. In order to truly operate within a European court a woman would have to be aware of the operational space between virtue and truth. The prophetic words of her father serve to foreshadow Othello’s jealousy: Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee.
Desdemona’s reasoning for her marriage to Othello are sound: that she is true to her father when called upon is telling. She is a powerful character and one who lives in her role admirably.
In contrast to these rich characters, Cassio represents a man holding a stable, yet ultimately flawed, position of privileged youth. Unduly naive and conflicted in his ambition, he is easily manipulated by Iago and cannot hold his drink. Shakespeare’s celebration of English drinking abilities is sadly still true. Upon his demotion by Othello, he relies upon Iago to buoy him: Virtue! a fig! ’tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.
Where the humanists would be most pleased in this is idea that we are in control of our own definitions. Of course such self-definition requires power and position, and realistically others to accept and ratify those positions. At best, as low-born readers, we are perhaps within power to choose the others who will define us. Cassio, after Othello demotes him, is happy to seek Iago to tell him that he is powerful and has worth. Since only Desdemona has the true power to support him, Cassio’s reliance on Iago will prove his undoing. He is a typically provocative character to present the upper-classes, and annoyingly weak. The intrusion of his name via Desdemona as Othello calls for his ‘hankerchief’ is manifested privilege wrecking a delicate situation entirely.
If we are to judge the play of Othello, we want to judge the extent to which this is tragedy. As questioned before, is this hero high-born? Do we have expectations of how they should behave, or not? What is his harmartia? Is his flaw distinct to the noble classes? I think the answers to these questions are complex, and in 2018 such thoughts raise the worthy study of this play. Othello has risen in this society because his martial prowess grants him power in duty. His love with Desdemona has also helped raise him, but in a fragile manner, and one in which others will be able to attack unduly. It is perhaps the case that marriages mixed in status are challenged not because of issues between the lovers themselves, but rather between others positioned against them. Such a framework is an extra layer of intrigued I think intended by Shakespeare and pertinent even now.