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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