Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Othello - Life on the Fringe

Othello was one of those plays that made me feel really uncomfortable, and for a while absolutely hated in. In a way it seemed to lack what the great tragedies such as Hamlet and King Lear contained, yet it seems to be considered one of the great tragedies. I suspect one of the reasons is that it seemed to be a lot more straight forward than Shakespeare's other tragedies, namely because there doesn't seem to he a huge number of sub-plots being woven together. On the other hand, it probably has something to do with me studying it at university and that our lecturer really wasn't somebody that I particularly warmed to. I suspect one of the reasons was because she allegedly hated Christians (though the only reason I believed that was because somebody told me that she hated Christians - I never actually heard her make any comments along those lines), and the second reason was because she seemed to be quite obsessed with sex - though I have since discovered that all of the sexual references that she discussed in relation to Shakespeare were quite legitimate.

Well, I probably shouldn't be all that surprised if she did hate Christianity because this was an academic institution, and academics seem to have this attitude that Christianity is intellectually lazy, and quite old fashioned. The idea of believing in a God, and explaining everything away on the grounds of 'because God spoke' does reek not only of anti-intellectualism, but also medieval thought. It is not something that the scientific method subscribes to, and with regards to the English department, well, in many cases there seems to be this attitude that we as moderns should have outgrown God, and we don't need any divine being to either tell us how to behave, or make us feel guilty because we are not following this strict standard that has been laid down by an ancient book.

As for being sex obsessed, well, that is a different story. Of the number of lectures that I had attended that she delivered, she always managed to bring up the subject of sex. Me, being a rather young, immature, yet good Christian, felt that it was inappropriate to always bring up the idea of sex, and that anybody who even thought about analysing it during a lecture was simply reading too much into play. In any case, this was Shakespeare, and this was a classical work of literature, and how could this classical writer debase himself so much by writing about sex. Well, as it turns out, quite easily. Considering that he was competing with the bear-pit across the road, Shakespeare needed to pander not just to the intellectual and aristocratic class, but also to lower classes that were easily entertained by the basest of jokes. In a way it seems that very little has changed between then and now - there are those of us who are stimulated by character development, and critical thinking, and then there are those of us who simply like big explosions (though the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive).

Anyway, this was the second of the plays that I saw at Melbourne's Pop-up Globe. Okay, there were two more plays that they were putting on in addition to this (and Much Ado About Nothing): Henry V and As You Like It, but I had seem both of those plays recently and wasn't all that keen on seeing them again. Then again, considering that they were using original costumes, and that the version of Henry V I saw was set in a school room during World War II, it probably would have been good to have actually see a performance of Henry V. Then again, it is going on into December, so I should be able to see a version of that as well (as it turns out, I did eventually see Henry V, but not As You Like It).

Jealousy Abounds

In one sense Othello seems to be a rather simply play, but if we scratch the surface there seems to be a lot more detail than meets the eye. The story goes that Othello, a Moor, is a general in the Venetian army, and he marries the daughter of a wealthy duke, Desdemona. It is also the case that they did it behind the Duke's back, though it appears that her father was not particularly easy to impress, as it also seems that he had rejected other suitors, though it seems that Rodriguez, who was one of the suitors, was a bit of a fop so in the end I'm not surprised.

We soon discover that Othello's lieutenant, Iago, basically despises his superior and is working behind the scenes to destroy him. However, while we know that he is a villain, it is not all that obvious to those in the play. Anyway, after the marriage is revealed to the duke, Othello is sent off to Cyprus, which at the time was a Venetian outpost, because a Turkish fleet is heading towards the island to capture it. However, after the Venetian fleet sets sail the Turks decided that it would be prudent to return home.

So, Othello and his troops land in Cyprus and set themselves up, and turns out that Desdemona has also decided to come along (which is probably not all that usual, at least where the normal troops are concerned, but he does happen to be a member of the ruling class). It is now that Iago decides to set his plan in motion, and it all comes down to the manipulative use of a handkerchief. Well, it isn't any normal handkerchief, it is actually Othello's family heirloom (much like Grandma's engagement ring would be). It is thrown on the ground by Othello, during a bit of a spat with Desdemona, and Desdemona forgets about it for a bit so it is picked by the maid, who also happens to be Iago's wife, and thus it ends up in Iago's possession.

Along with this is Cassio, a friend and confidant of Desdemona's, and Iago uses this friendship to fuel Othello's jealousy by suggesting there is actually a lot more going on, such a bit of hanky-panky. When Cassio ends up with the handkerchief, Othello's fears are confirmed, and he proceeds to strangle Desdemona, only to later discover the truth. However, Iago's deceits are also uncovered and his is placed under arrest (after killing his wife to keep her quiet), and Othello proceeds to commit suicide. What happens to Iago is unclear, though it seems that he isn't necessarily executed, but placed in prison to endure countless tortures.

The Borderlands

One of the themes that seems appear every so often in Shakespeare is the concept of the borderlands. This is that the world is set out like a circle, with there being a centre and a fringe: the centre is civilised, stable, and peaceful, while the fringe is wild, dangerous, and barbaric. Thus the further from the centre we travel, the more wild and dangerous the world becomes, until we cross the borders into a savage land. This isn't necessarily something that was true, nor is it something that was particularly Euro-centric at the time, since it was the view of many of the ancients as well.

The play begins in Venice, which is the centre of civilisation (particularly in Shakespeare's time). In a sense it is basically where everybody wanted to be - much in the same that the all of the patricians wanted to be in Rome because that was where they could have the most influence. These days it would no doubt be Washington, but with the waning of American power, we are finding these centres of power moving to places like Brussels and Beijing (though notice that these days we have the political centres and the economic centres - here I am thinking of New York vs Washington and Beijing vs Shanghai - in the past it seemed that the political and economic centre were one and the same).

The fringes of the empire are always in danger, as the barbarians are always seeking to penetrate into the centre. In a sense this is one of the reasons why powerful states seem to want to perpetually expand - they are seeking to create a buffer zone between the centre and the barbaric fringes, and the more prosperous the centre becomes, and the larger the civilised area becomes, the greater the buffer zone needs to be. This is the case here in Othello, and the Turks are seeking to raid one of their eastern outposts - which is on the fringe. This was important because Venice had a virtual monopoly on trade with the East (and I do suggest virtual because there was the rival Genoa on the other side of the Italian peninsula). These eastern outposts were vital to Venice's trade, and in turn their prosperity. In fact one of the main reasons that the Venetian empire collapsed was because the silk road was closed to them (and that other powers had found other ways to getting to the East).

Yet even though the outpost may be controlled by the Venetians, it does not necessarily mean that the place is peaceful and secure. Sure, the Turks pretty quickly turn tail when they discover the Venetians are sending a fleet, but the outpost is hardly free of intrigue - in a way it is quite like the Wild West. In a way this, being the wild fringe, creates a perfect opportunity for Iago to work is wickedness. He undermines Cassio's integrity by having him become rather drunk when he is supposed to be on guard, and then fuels Othello's jealously through the use of the handkerchief. The end result is a complete collapse in the stability of the situation with ends with three murders and a suicide.

I Hate That Moor

I sort of wonder why people seem to automatically believe that Moors are black. Most, if not all, versions of Othello that I have seen (which I have to admit are only two, one of them being the Kenneth Branaugh movie, the other being the version I saw at the pop-up Globe) portray Othello as being black, and the Moor in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was the same. The thing is that after reading the entry on Wikipedia, this is theoretically not the case. In fact, the term Moor actually refers to an inhabitant of the region around Morocco and Algeria, and also the Iberian Peninsula during the time of the Muslim occupation. In fact, the term has been applied to Arabs as well, though mainly the occupants of the North African coast. Then again, there is also this idea that when we refer to Africans we automatically assume that they will be Negroid, ignoring the reality that the North African coast is actually inhabited by Arabs.

Anyway, I personally don't believe that Othello was necessarily black, but that really isn't the point. I guess the reason that I raise it has to do with charges of racism, in particularly racism against Negros when this is not necessarily true. However, whether Othello is being targeted by Iago because of his race still raises that fact that in reality Othello is a Moor, which means that he is not a Christian, and as such is not only damned to hell, but is also not bound by the civilised laws of the Christian nations and is considered to be little more than a savage barbarian.

While it is not clear exactly why Iago hates Othello - is it because he is a savage, or is it because he was promoted ahead of him - it is clear right from the start that Iago hates Othello. I believe it has something to do with Othello's position, which is exacerbated by the fact that he has married Desdemona. In a way Iago is jealous, and also suspicious. He does not believe that Othello is suited to command a Venetian army, and I suspect believes that he is basically a savage. As such the whole play is a plot of Iago's to prove to the world that Othello is a savage, but it is a plot that results in the death of innocent people. Then again, as people like Iago believe, one cannot make an omlette without breaking a few eggs.

The interesting this is that Othello falls to Iago's trap hook line and sinker. A part of me believes that it has something to do with him not fully understanding the machinations of the Venetian court. However, in another sense, it is more than possible that anybody could have fallen for Iago's trickery, and it is not simply because Othello is an outsider. Yet, while we consider Venice to be the centre of civilisation, this does not stop the nobles from plotting against each other, and wheeling and dealing to get themselves moved up the chain as quick as possible.

Honest Iago

Interestingly people all seem to trust Iago, in particularly Othello. Then again this is probably not surprising because we are dealing with a skilled manipulator. The thing is that we are given a secret look into the reality behind Iago's facade, so we actually know what is really going on in his head. He is a trustworthy individual at face value, but then again people don't get all that far being otherwise. Openly evil, aggressive, and violent people don't really succeed in places like Venice (though that isn't necessarily always the case). Sure, many of these manipulative people will tread on those that they don't consider matter, and cultivate friendships that will advance their career - consider the manager that is disliked, yet seems to not only move up the ladder, but to maintain his position - the reality is that they know have to cultivate the relationships that count - and it is also against the law (at least in Australia( for potential employers to ask people about a candidate without getting the candidate's permission, so they only put forward references that they know will give them praise.

This is how Iago works. I suspect that in destroying Othello's credibility he is seeking to take Othello's place. The thing is that the person he is seeking to destroy is his superior, so he needs to tread very, very carefully. Yet, it is clear that he is incredibly skilled at doing this. Othello trust Iago implicity right until the end, and when his betrayal comes to light, he is absolutely enraged. Not only is he tormented, but he is struck with the guilt of the fact that he has not only murdered an innocent person, but murdered the woman that he loved. Furthermore, he has believed a villain over an honest woman, and it is a shame that will stay with him forever. In fact, the duke determines that this shame is punishment enough as he has to live with it.

Iago is a villain pure and simple, but then again he describes this right at the beginning. In fact he is probably one of the best villains ever portrayed. The fact that people trust him, and he is portrayed as being honest sets him apart from many of the villains that are regularly trotted out by Hollywood. The reality is that the modern Hollywood villain is clearly evil, and not only do we know that they are bad, but the heroes, and in fact all of the characters, know this as well. Shakespeare stands apart in that the only people who know Iago's true identity is us, the audience, which ratchets up the tension and the suspense.

The other thing about Iago is that I have always pictured him as having a rather short stature, but then again this probably has a lot to do with being influenced by the Kenneth Branaugh movie, where Branaugh played Iago. Yet in the Pop-Up Globe  production Iago was a quite tall, and fit. This is probably a much better portrayal of the character, considering that Iago is a soldier, and the man of short stature probably just panders to our cultural view of villainy - which the portrayals of Napoleon and Hilter haven't helped. Yet it did take a little getting used to because I have been influenced so much by the previous film, yet by the end I felt that the portrayal, and the performance, was quite well done.

Cassio & Desdemona

One of the interesting things about Othello is how innocent people are inevitably drawn into Iago's plan. While it is Othello that Iago seeks to dispatch, he has no concerns with destroying others on his quest to bring down the protagonist, and this is very clearly the case with both Cassio and Desdemona. In a way  all of the characters are innocent, but Iago's hatred is directed towards Othello, not Desdemona or Cassio, but they suffer the side effects of his rage nonetheless. For instance Cassio is plied with drink while he is supposed to be on guard duty, and then gets involved in a fight thus bringing punishment upon himself.

Interestingly, Cassio doesn't point out Iago - Cassio is an honourable man and he knows what he did was wrong. Even though Iago was tempting him, and not letting down on this temptation, Cassio in the end accepted responsibility for his decision and took what punishment was due to him. Yet this didn't stop Iago as he then goes onto construct an affair between Desdemona and Cassio. This no doubt enrages Othello even more - particularly since he was already disappointed with Cassio for his dereliction of duty. Yet notice how Desdemona pleads for Othello to have mercy on him - this no doubt feeds his jealousy.

I guess this says much more about Iago than anybody else. He doesn't try to turn others against Othello, instead he manipulates Othello so that his actions destroy himself, and this no doubt requires the sacrifice of innocent people. Then again rumour and innuendo generally don't get anywhere near as far as somebody having blood on their hands, which is the case here with Othello. Yet the thing is that while it ends badly for Othello, it doesn't end all that well for Iago either, as he is eventually found out. The thing is that when the plan comes to fruition, and it becomes evident was somebody is up to, somebody is eventually going to talk, and you are going to be found out.

Yet the thing is that Iago's hatred fuel him, and that can be an incredibly difficult feeling to master. While Iago is responsible for his actions, one must consider the fact that his actions are being defined by his hatred toward Othello. In a way he has let his hatred define not only who he is, but also to control his actions and his motivations. In the end Iago has become a slave to his own passions, and there is no way for him to escape.

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Othello - Life on the Fringe by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me


  1. It is pretty funny how many people seem to think that the great masters of the past were somehow "above" sex. Um, not so much - but they were often pretty dang good at writing about sex, which isn't the case with every author.

    My wife took a few semesters of Shakespeare for fun when she was in nursing school. (The local community college had and has a fine theater program.) She, the sheltered home schooled girl had to explain to the other students such sexual references as "beast with two backs," and I swear we were the only young people to snort at the line in Much Ado about women and their bucklers. I guess our sheltered upbringing was ruined by the fact that we learned Elizabethan language and metaphor well enough to figure things out.

    I tend to think that "Moor" is more than anything, a shorthand for an exotic outsider. There certainly are a few references to "black" and "dark" when it comes to Othello, but probably during Shakespeare's time, the religious differences were at least as important as racial - and Arabs too were considered "swarthy" at minimum. At least here in the US, using a black actor makes sense - although one with a turban would too. It communicates the same dynamics.

    In the version we saw a few years ago, Iago was played by the man who is now the head of the Theater Department at Bakersfield College - and he sure plays a good villain. Othello was a first time actor with a knack for naivety (he recently played Lenny in Of Mice and Men.)

    Interesting idea of the borderlands. I hadn't thought of that specifically, but I think you are right.

    I'll end with a quote that captures how devastating Othello is if done right:

    "Properly performed, Othello should be a momentary trauma for its audience." ~ Harold Bloom

  2. Thanks for your comments, I do enjoy reading them. We don't have a big home school movement here in Australia, but there does sound like there are some benefits to it. Good point about the Moors though - religious differences seemed to be a much bigger thing back then.