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Othello – Part I

In Books on February 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm

“I pray you, in your letters,

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am.  Nothing extenuate,

Nor set aught down in malice.  Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely, but too well;

Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unusèd to the melting mood,

Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum.”

In his memoirs, Sir Laurence Olivier wrote this about his preparation for the role of Othello:  “I roared, I ranted, I embarrassed my fellow players and fought with William Shakespeare […] I was becoming the text.  I was forgetting Iago.”    To forget Iago in the preparation for Othello is no easy thing – a great deal of what we learn about Othello (and about every other character in the play) is revealed through Iago’s perspective.  This is probably why Olivier spent hours bellowing at cows (to develop his reedy baritone into a more commanding bass), lifting weights (a skinny drama geek can’t convincingly emulate a military general without packing it on à la Lautner), and even developing a special walk – Olivier’s metrosexual mincing was a far cry from the I’m-storming-Iwo-Jima stride one would normally associate with an African general, and he took care to develop a presence that would communicate the power and strength that the character is known for.

But people don’t watch Othello because they like ripped black guys, and they sure as sugar don’t watch it because they like ripped white guys in blackface.  They watch it because of all of the plays Shakespeare wrote, this one is arguably his keenest illustration of human psychology – what creates, drives, and influences us – and the best thing about it is that the more we probe into the motivations and actions of the characters, the more questions we have about who they really are and why they do what they do.

Othello was written in 1603, ‘round about the time the childless Elizabeth Tudor died and James Stuart ascended the throne.  Artistically, this was a BFD for Shakespeare and his homies, since James Stuart inherited one of the wealthiest states in Europe and was looking to toss a few sheckles.  Having lived in political insecurity since conception, he was probably damn sick of it, and if there’s one thing all politicians respect, it’s cash.  Elizabeth had granted a royal charter to this little startup off Portobello Road called The East India Company, and as James (being half-French) had a decided penchant for all things beautiful, he went ahead and ordered Parliament to back them up.  Europe wasn’t very familiar with the East at this point; most of them had vague notions about Syria, Cyprus, and Turkey that were never more clearly articulated beyond the terms of ‘barbarian’, ‘Turk’, and ‘Saracen’.  However, when the independent (and incredibly ballsy) sea-merchants who had made the trip to Asia came back with stories as fantastic as the silks and spices they hawked at the harbor, public interest was ignited –   James’ and Parliament’s investment in a company that was dedicated to what is (in political parlance) referred to as ‘strengthening economic ties’ (and what is often, in historical parlance, referred to as ‘exploiting’) the East did a lot to spur public interest in the countries beyond Europe, and Shakespeare (knowing that the accountants were the ones running the boards), wrote a play about an African in Anglo society.

Recall that in Shakespeare’s day, anthropology got about as much respect in academic circles as palm-reading does at MIT.  The difference in skin color wasn’t attributed to geographic placement and the adaptation of the human body to its physical environment, but to moral depravity – the lightness or darkness of skin was attributed largely to which side of the moral bed one was bred on; the darker the skin, the greater the moral depravity.

But Shakespeare isn’t one for creating purely mind-numbing entertainment – if that were so, Henry VI (all three bloody parts of it) would never have seen the light of day, and I would still have 20/20 vision.   He opens his play with brilliantly flashing neon signs above the heads of Iago and Roderigo – ‘Major Bastard’ and ‘Tool’ respectively.  ‘I am not what I am’ and ‘I follow him to serve my turn upon him’ make it extremely clear that the bad guys in this play are the white guys.  The scene turns to Roderigo and Iago standing beneath the senator Brabantio’s home, shouting at the tops of their lungs about thieves stealing his money and his daughter, as well as making insinuations about what the thieves and his daughter are doing that would not look at all nice in print.  When we are at last introduced to Othello, we see him standing in front of the Duke of Venice and senators, begging forgiveness for his common and inarticulate speech, expounding on the wooing of Desdemona away from her father, and subtly reminding them that if he has erred against decorum, it’s because he’s spent the past seven years fighting the state’s battles, not attending John Harbinger seminars.

Othello defies the Elizabethan Englishman’s expectations; not in terms of his appearance, but in how he acts – instead of a bloodthirsty maniac, we have a political savaunt with a glittering military record who commands the loyalty and respect of great men.  The fact that Othello is even permitted to speak in his own defense speaks volumes of what the Venetians thought of him – no one’s going to mistake him for Nelson Mandela, but it’s evidence of his uncommonly astute mind that he’s carefully self-effacing, deferential and courteous without being sycophantic, and able to remind them that they owe their prestige in the international stage to his martial prowess so delicately that rather than allowing Brabantio to read ‘the bloody book of law in the bitter letter’ against him, they sanction his marriage to Desdemona.

UP NEXT:  ‘Bros Before Hos’: A Study In Relational Tension

 

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The Cricket On The Hearth

In Books on February 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm

The Cricket on the Hearth is meant to be a fairy story about the value of domestic harmony.  Just like A Christmas Carol, which is by far the most famous of Dickens’s five Christmas novellas (seriously, if you’ve never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m not sure we can be friends…), a supernatural element plays a significant part in the plot, revealing the truth to the various characters and offering them a chance to change their behavior before irreparable damage is done.  Although included in the canon of Dickens’s Christmas stories, The Cricket on the Hearth has nothing to do with celebrating the event of our Savior’s birth.  However, it does have everything to do with truth, love and forgiveness, which are integral components of Christian ideology.

The eponymous insect of The Cricket on the Hearth is first introduced as a harbinger of good fortune, and is gradually revealed to be a benevolent spirit; one of a tribe of modern-day Lares presiding over the hearth and home.   Mary ‘Dot’ Peerybingle, a beautiful and very young housewife, shyly reveals to her much older husband John that she has often heard the cricket chirping when worried or doubtful of her abilities as a homemaker, and says that its sound has always cheered and comforted her.   When slimy toy merchant Mr. Tackleton first insinuates that Dot does not care as much for John as she pretends (although what business it is of his, I am sure I don’t know), the chirping of the cricket soothes away John’s doubts, presenting him images of a joyful future instead.  And at the crisis of the story, when a distraught John contemplates murdering the man he thinks his wife is having an affair with, he is stopped by the cricket’s chirp with the gun actually in his hand.  The cricket manifests as a fairy spirit who contests John’s anger and hatred by showing him a series of visions: things Dot has done to make his home life cheerful and bright, all the little sacrifices she’s made for his sake, the tremendous influence she has had in making theirs a happy home.  This spirit does not actively prevent John from killing his supposed rival, but it reminds him of who he and his wife are, thus enabling him to step back and reconsider the justice of the conclusions he’s drawn.

In addition to benevolent supernatural forces, deception and blindness are major themes.  Edward Plummer, missing and presumed dead, returns home after a long absence to claim his betrothed bride May Fielding, only to find she is currently engaged to Tackleton…why he decides he has to disguise himself as an old man before he actually arrives in town is beyond me, except that it’s necessary to the rest of the plot.[1] So disguise himself he does, and then turns up to reveal his identity only to Dot (who is an old schoolmate of his as well as a devoted friend of May’s).   Dot decides to conceal this knowledge from her husband, but her secretive behavior makes John suspicious and very nearly destroys her marriage.  John has a streak of insecurity running deep just beneath his complacent surface, as shown by how easily he is disturbed by Tackleton’s insinuating hints about Dot.  And of course, Dot’s impassioned speech to May about why she shouldn’t marry an older man (thinking of Edward, who is patiently waiting in the wings in his scruffy old dude disguise and just generally being useless) doesn’t help matters—John thinks Dot is really talking about her own regrets, lamenting the loss of some ardent young suitor she once preferred but spurned in favor of her solid and steady old John.

Once he has convinced himself to put the gun away, a heartbroken John decides he was cruel to yoke himself to a beautiful and spirited woman so much younger than himself.   Although this particular story is devoid of Dickens’s usual social criticism, this passage has some interesting proto-feminist connotations—John recognizes that Victorian society does not give women much control, and also that this is unfair.  If a woman’s husband abandoned her, she was cast on the mercy of her relatives to protect and provide for her.  Although John forgives Dot for what he thinks is a poor choice in old boyfriends (having decided that she wasn’t actively cheating on him but is merely in love with an old flame), he still plans to ship her and their new baby off to live with her parents.   Divorce was not a feasible option, so she would have been free to remarry only once John had died (which, given the disparity in their ages, John hopes won’t be too late for her).

Over in the subplot we have another liar as well as literal blindness to contend with. Toymaker Caleb Plummer [2] constructs an elaborate web of lies with “innocent deceit” for his blind daughter Bertha.  He alters everything he fears would worry or pain her:  his own slowly declining health, the decrepit state of their home, their poverty, and even the character of their hard-hearted employer Mr. Tackleton.  Bertha trusts so implicitly in her father, that she falls in love with a man who does not actually exist: she believes that Tackleton is a wonderful man and a generous benefactor who cares deeply for their well-being.  She praises him for his supposed goodness even as he sneers at her, having decided within himself that she must be mentally disabled as well as blind to be so fond of him.[3] Caleb eventually has an epiphany and realizes that his lies have done Bertha more harm than good, and that he is obliged to come clean.  Bertha, though naturally reeling from the sudden comprehension that the world she thought she knew is completely imaginary, does not condemn him.  She, too, hears the chirping cricket on her hearth.  She knows that her father has acted out of love, and devoted his life to making hers as comfortable as possible.  Though she is initially hurt and upset that Caleb has altered her surroundings in her mind’s eye, Bertha loves him enough to forgive him.

I believe that Dickens chose to write a fairy tale emphasizing the value of domestic happiness because he was not very happy in his own marriage.  He’s also a big fan of marriages with a great disparity in age, probably because they tend to be founded more on mutual respect than lust, and also because both parties go into it knowing that they will have to work a little bit harder at their marriage rather than rely on that first blush of youthful love to carry them through the ‘honeymoon’ phase.  This idea comes up again in David Copperfield, in several moving scenes between Doctor Strong and his very young wife Annie (who are something like 60 and 25 years old, respectively).  In both cases, Dickens shows how the couple can overcome their difficulties and wind up by being even happier than ever before because they have aired their insecurities and doubts and dealt with them openly.

Brooke tried hard to make a case for the similarities between The Cricket on The Hearth and Othello—(I strongly suspect this is because she hasn’t actually read Cricket in its entirety) but I can’t in good conscience allow for the comparison.  I honestly don’t think they are enough alike to warrant it.  While Othello goes straight for the “my wife is impure therefore I must smite the false jade from the face of the earth” tack, John Peerybingle would rather avenge himself on his rival and then send his beloved wife away to a place where she would still be under his protection but he wouldn’t have to face the pain of his unrequited love for her.  He isn’t so much consumed by a jealous rage as brought low by the weight of his sorrow and regret—and he quickly blames himself for the whole situation, for being so foolish as to assume he was worthy of a superior woman like Dot.  And while Mr. Tackleton is a bitter old man with issues, and does happen to be the person who brings the supposed affair to John’s attention, he is definitely no Iago.  He doesn’t seek to purposefully hurt either Peerybingle—he just feels a sort of kinship to John because he too, is about to marry a much younger woman, and he seems to think this makes them members of the same Old Guys Rule Club.

In true Dickensian fashion, all of the various characters and loose plot points come together in a pretty little bow by the end:  the missing-and-presumed dead son returns to save his beloved from a loveless marriage to a horrible person (just in time to explain his actions to all the other characters and prevent further misunderstandings), the blind woman learns the truth from her well-meaning but deceptive father and wholeheartedly forgives her misguided parent, the heartbroken husband is overjoyed to find that his cherished wife was never unfaithful to him at all but merely a victim of appearances and her naive attempt to help an old friend keep a rather silly secret, the innocent wife proves that her character is without the slightest stain and she is gathered into her relieved husband’s waiting arms, and the cold, callous old man discovers his heart is not in fact made of stone and that he’d better shape up unless he wants to die alone.

And then everyone dances and eats cake—really, what else could you ask for in a heartwarming Christmas tale?


[1] Well, Edward later claims that he does not want to unduly influence May if she really is in love with another man, since he has been presumed dead for a while and their betrothal had been many years before—but why would you not want to influence your beloved and try to win her back if that were the case?  I say he’s a silly putz and should have just been honest and upfront with everyone from the jump…but then again I have a grand total of 0 bestsellers to my name and Dickens can go ahead and do just as he likes as far as I’m concerned.

[2] The father of aforementioned Edward Plummer, coincidentally, so apparently deception runs in the family

[3] So just because a woman seems to like you, she must be absolutely nuts, right?  What does this tell you about your own character, Mr. Tackleton?