Othello & Iago
Othello is a tragedy where a black man trying to get on in a white society kills his wife in a rage, tricked by a conniving no-gooder into thinking she's unfaithful. This simple play about a handkerchief raises many questions about how we define ourselves in relation to others. We can interpret the play (and life) as a drama where good and bad, black and white characters work for or against each other to achieve personal desires. Alternatively, Othello can be seen as a complex world where all players are part of a cohesive whole, all complicit in the play's denouement. It's not as simple as Othello is good, Iago bad; as in life, the line dividing right and wrong runs through us, not between us.
I am wary of applying today's constructs of "black" and "white" to society a few hundred years ago; I suspect both race and morality are much more black and white today than was once the case, and by defining ourselves as one thing we deny the many things that we are. For example, as Bermuda considers independence, issues of identity arise. It may be that a strong sense of national identity is a positive thing; however, there may be not one, but rather many, Bermudian identities. All Bermudians have recent ancestry from somewhere else, and it's not a simple matter how to be both Bermudian and English, Bermudian and West Indian. It's also not clear how much overlap there is between black and white Bermudian identity and culture.
Analogously, there is a tendency by many to divide the world into those who share our beliefs (the good guys), and those who don't (the bad guys). It's a bit like westerns - the reason Unforgiven works is because Eastwood shows that the guys in white are not much different from the guys in black. The same applies to Othello - it's too easy to play Othello as the good guy and Iago as the bad guy. The challenge is to draw sympathy for both characters.
It has been said that Othello is really Iago's story, but it is possible to see the two lead characters as schizophrenic emanations of one mind. Such counterpoise between characters in conflict exists in many of Shakespeare's tragedies, and the comedies at a surface level, where it plays for farce. Othello is more than a totally honourable but ingenuous warrior, a bit like a cross between Gandalf and Bilbo Baggins, and Iago not just a cross between Gollum and the Dark Lord, plotting revenge for muddied reasons. The Othello character serves to represent that part of us to which we aspire, and Iago shows the self-doubt and mean-spiritedness which exists in us all and holds us back from becoming that which we are. As Marianne Williamson says:
" Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. "
Othello stands for that part of each of us which is powerful, and Iago that which is inadequate.
Othello is a difficult play precisely because it seems so simple. The psychological tension which underlies the characters' relationships need to be teased out to turn good theatre into great. Play Othello straight and it remains entertainment, not the inspirational commentary on the continuing battle between heart and mind that it can be. Productions of Othello often adopt David Lynch's approach of casting on looks, and while it may have a lot going for it, this approach can narrow a show. A recent production of Othello by the Africa Arts Theater Company in New York cast Timothy Stickney, a soap-opera actor, as Othello. Stickney is one hunk of a man, all tatts, boots and long braided hair. The guy looks like a noble warrior who would weaken the knees of cloistered Venetian maidens. In that production, Owen Thompson's tubby, pallid Iago looked a weasel beside his boss.
Such casting can lead to a superficial interpretation of a psychological drama, suggesting the director is not pushing beyond the surface that Othello shows the world. What we may not see is the culturally alienated man who lacks the confidence to dismiss insinuating whisperings about his wife's faithfulness.
The easy way to play any of Shakespeare's tragic heroes is to bring out a bit of madness in them. Certainly in Lear and Hamlet the possibility of lost marbles is overt, and you'd have to say that's one way of justifying Othello's sudden turning on Desdemona. The tragic flaw in Othello is his coloured perspective, which he refers to early in response to Cassio's drunken brawl:
" My blood begins my safer guides to rule; and passion, having my best judgement collied, assays to lead the way. "
So the guy has a temper. But this "tragic flaw" interpretation is in itself somewhat adolescent, and leads to a superficial reading. Racist underpinnings have been interpreted into Othello , working both for and against Shakespeare in intention. It is clear that some Venetians are wary of Othello because he's a Moor, and to that extent the play reflects the lot of anyone from outside existing structures who is trying to be accepted on their merits by the power elite. However, the Moor is pretty easily duped, and you would have to think that Shakespeare is ascribing, or at least using, a racial stereotype of ingenuousness. Othello knows he lacks the sophistry of the Venetians, and we need to see the torment of the man trying to adapt to a sophisticated culture. We also need to avoid inverted racism of the noble warrior type. It is difficult to move outside your culture, and the difficulties are exacerbated by fixed opinions based on stereotypes.
Any imputed racism is open to many interpretations. Othello is based on a story by Cinthio which warns against marrying outside your culture, and it is possible that the tragedy of Othello's and Desdemona's marriage arises from cultural misunderstandings, not only Othello's hot blood. Again to bring this out requires an equality of complicity in the characters, this time between Othello and Desdemona. Shakespeare provides much room for an actress to show Desdemona's unwitting complicity in her downfall. Even allowing for the blush of new love, she should have seen that the guy was pissed off about something, and stopped prattling on about Cassio. Desdemona too often is played as a sweet pretty thing, wistful and demure in the face of her husband's ranting, and some feistiness is needed. I remember one production from my teenage years where Desdemona spent most of her stage time in a flimsy nightie rolling about her bed, which was pretty good stuff for this fifteen-year-old, but it didn't convey the strength of the woman. It needs to be shown that Desdemona is adding fuel to Othello's flame because of her own willful ignorance.
Seeing the characters as manifestations of different aspects of one self, or as being driven to different ends by the same motivation, turns drama into tragedy. Without that depth, Othello can come across a bit like a tele-movie, where the morality is black and white. The play succeeds only if we acquire some recognition of what's driving Iago. Too often Iago is the bad guy we don't like. The audience doesn't recognise and has no empathy with the character. Many times in the play the goodness or honesty of Iago is asserted by another character, and this can draw hoots of derision from an audience batting for the good guy. I have seen productions which descend to pantomime, where some of Iago's soliloquies are almost played for laughs, as if it's Dick Dastardly twirling his moustache as he comes up with another scheme against the forces of good.
If a great theme of Othello is clarity of vision and knowledge of self, an enmeshment of the two main male characters also allows an interpretation which brings out another universal aspect of life, which is the relationships between men and women. Othello and Iago both suffer from the Madonna/whore complex. Othello the warrior, not comfortable with the trappings of society, puts the virtuous Desdemona on a pedestal, from which she can only fall, whilst Iago considers women as mere pawns to his machinations. That feelings of inadequacy drive Iago is hinted at by the suggestion that he feels Emilia is attracted to Othello. These feelings are paralleled in Othello's easily-provoked belief that his wife could so flippantly deceive him. The two men mirror each other in their misogyny, but this is not touched upon in an "Othello good, Iago bad" reading. Latent homosexuality is hinted at in some of Iago's earlier exchanges with Cassio. Some productions bring this aspect out, portraying Othello's marrying Desdemona as a betrayal of the love shared by Othello and Iago. But our motivations are manifold and defining Iago by one facet of his character, such as sexuality, denies the multiple parts that make up each person.
Similarly to her husband, Desdemona puts Othello on a pedestal, not believing him capable of irrational behaviour, and once again, it is important to show this parallelism to bring out the universality of the themes. Shakespeare is not Spielberg, the morality is complex. In the Africa Arts production, Stickney's size and stage presence tended to overwhelm the other characters, making Othello too much the focus, which means we lose that sense of all characters moving together toward an inexorable tragedy.
Real art is more than entertainment, and provokes response both universal and personal. Shakespeare's plays, especially the tragedies, are frameworks on which we build interpretations of life, allowing us to speak to each other and ourselves. People and morals are not black and white, and perhaps humanity can be considered as an indivisible whole working toward some better world, rather than a bunch of separate tribes who think they're more different than they actually are. Each one of us is a complex creature capable of great things and dirty deeds. How do we ascribe responsibility when it's the good guy, provoked by the bad guy, who kills Bambi? Othello's self-doubt and cultural alienation is something we all face every day, and sometimes the Iago in us gets the better of us all.