Thursday, July 26, 2012

Othello by William Shakespeare

While Macbeth or Hamlet may be the usual high-school-Shakespeare fare (and for good reason, of course) I'd prefer to focus on some of the less-discussed plays this week. As far as Shakespeare's tragedies go, I admit to a soft spot for Othello, a work of incredible and satisfying grand-opera-tragic melodrama.

Othello was written only thirty years after the great sea-battle of Lepanto, fought to defend the Venetian territory of Cyprus against the overwhelming might of the Turkish fleet, and it is set in the post-Lepanto Mediterranean.

Stop me if you've already heard this one, but there's a Moor (North African), see, who after many adventures ends up a general of the Venetian forces, and the Duke and Senate of Venice send him to protect Cyprus. Othello is newly married, to the young and beautiful Desdemona, a gentle girl who fell in love with him while hearing the terrifying adventures of his life; and who has just run away from her father to marry him. She accompanies him to Cyprus, along with various others of the cast: Cassio, Othello's young, handsome lieutenant; Emilia, Desdemona's world-weary attendant; Roderigo, a former suitor of Desdemona's who still hasn't given up hope; and last but certainly not least, Iago--Emilia's husband, Othello's ensign, and a consummate villain who conceals his intention to cause death, destruction, and ruin to Othello and everyone he comes in contact with beneath a facade of loyal honesty and love.

Iago's motives never become perfectly clear--it may be that he is jealous and offended over Cassio's being appointed Othello's lieutenant ahead of himself, or it may be that he suspects his wife of cheating on him with Othello, or it may be that he just enjoys wreaking havoc--but one thing is certain: he intends to destroy Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio all three. First, he maneuvers Cassio out of Othello's favour; then, he advises Cassio to ask Desdemona to plead his cause with her husband; finally, he begins to play on Othello's mind with a cunning mixture of half-truths and falsehoods, suggesting that Desdemona cannot possibly love a old, grim black soldier and has been having an affair with Cassio instead. A cunning plan by a master schemer, but can it really succeed?

This is a Shakespeare tragedy, and so the language is brilliant, the story is melodramatic, the characters are compelling, the niffy jokes are plenteous, and the stage is covered with bodies at the end. Peculiar to this play is the character of Iago, who's gained a well-earned reputation as one of the most evil villains of all time: Shakespeare has constructed a villain whose peculiar hallmark is the uncertainty of his motives apart from the simple delight in evil--and he makes it work. (Shakespeare could do this. Very few writers can).

The thing, however, that amazed audiences when Othello first appeared was that the plot was constructed like a farce but executed like a tragedy. The lost handkerchief and partially-overheard conversations lead not to hilarious misunderstandings but to a swath of bodies littering Othello's bedroom.

I have not spent a great deal of time thinking over the themes of this particular Shakespeare play as it's one to which I've come fairly recently. But I have a few observations. The first is to do with the nature of tragedy. Greek tragedies saw the tragic hero as a good man pursued by blind Fate. Christian tragedy should see him as a man justly punished for sin. While Macbeth is probably the best example of this, Othello has a similar theme. In the beginning, we hear that Desdemona has just snuck off in a gondola to secretly marry Othello, against her father's wishes. Although she proves to be a chaste and submissive wife, the ominous words of her wronged father in Act 1 hang over the play and are used skilfully by Iago to bring about the cataclysmic ending:
Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceiv'd her father and may thee.
A few minutes previously in the same scene, the Duke of Venice has given the couple his blessing and the one piece of wisdom he considers most necessary to them. This too proves to be an immensely important passage, as I shall hope to show:
When remedies are past the griefs are ended
By seeing the worst which late on hopes depended.
To mourn a mischief that is past and gone
Is the best way to draw new mischief on.
What cannot be preserv'd when fortune takes,
Patience her injury a mockery makes.
The robb'd that smiles steals something from the thief;
He robs himself that spends a bootless grief.
This passage is somewhat cryptic to those of us that aren't familiar with Elizabethan idiom, but according to the footnotes in my edition, what the Duke is advising them is that, when hard times come, the only remedy is to be patient and contented beneath the trial. This hit me with some force as it is, personally, a thing which I have had occasion to learn.

Contentment has been defined as a deep satisfaction with the will of God, even in the most terrible circumstances. It is the opposite of idolatry, which makes the beloved object the sole foundation of earthly happiness. And it is just this kind of idolatry which both Othello and Desdemona confess to:
Othello: Think on thy sins.
Desdemona: They are loves I bear to you.
And later, in Othello's closing words:
Then must you speak
Of one that lov'd not wisely, but too well.
This makes Othello and Desdemona, on a certain level, another textbook case of the Foolish Lovers. As I read the play recently, I found myself wondering what would have prevented the tragedy despite Iago's schemes, and had to conclude that if Othello showed patience--if, in fact, he had followed the Duke's advice at all--the whole thing would have unravelled. And so from the very first Act we have both the seed of the tragedy and the cure for it.

There's more lurking beneath the surface of this play than I've touched on--constant wordplay on, for example, honesty and reputation (Iago is reputed to be honest and is not; Desdemona is reputed to be dishonest, and is not). This is, in fact, the most obvious theme of the play; it would be fascinating to delve deeper, but that will have to wait until I am better acquainted with the work. For now, a brief blog post from Peter Leithart will suffice:
In his recent book, Honor: A History, James Bowman suggests that Iago was motivated by concerns of honor. He elevates "good name" above riches, and his stated motive for hating Othello is his suspicion that the Moor slept with his wife is consistent with traditional honor codes: "Iago's appeal to honor ('good name') is also a disguised appeal against the new and more inward standard that would regard not the appearance of infidelity but its moral reality as the only relevant consideration. Iago stands for the same insistence on the sole reality of the public face that motivates those those who today murder rape victims to save their own honor." Iago knows that the rumored liaison may never have happened, but that doesn't matter: It "happened" in the world of public repute, which is the only reality relevant to the man of honor.
Othello, like all Shakespeare plays, is a ripping yarn in haunting and unforgettable language. I enjoyed it lots.

Wikisource etext

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