The best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the linThe best speculative fiction - if not, by its very nature, all speculative fiction - explores issues of social justice and ethics, often along the lines of discrimination, prejudice and, beyond that, cloning, robotics - all things that ultimately lead to that unanswerable question: what does it mean to be human?
In 2012, a young medical student was travelling on a bus with a male friend in Delhi, India, when the five men and one teenaged boy on board beat her friend and dragged her to the back of the bus, to endure forty-five minutes of rape and assault. She died. The incident isn't isolated, but it's very blatant cruelty sparked protests and women-driven calls for change all across India. India may have a more obvious patriarchal ideology than Western countries like Australia, but when the bus driver in this particular case said in an interview that women are to blame for being raped, well that's not an Indian attitude at all. You here people - not only men, sadly - say the same thing in Western countries. Around the same time, a young Melbourne woman was raped and killed while walking home. We have a long way to go yet, in gender equality and respecting women.
Out of tragedy often comes something good, though, and one such example is Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, an anthology of shorts stories, graphic novel shorts, and one script written in collaboration between Australian and Indian women writers and illustrators. The title, according to the editors,
"suggested impossibilities, dreams, ambitions and a connection to something larger than humanity alone. ... This collection of stories embraces the idea of not just eating pie but of taking big, hungry mouthfuls of life and embracing the world. It's about the desire to have and do impossible things, especially things that girls aren't meant to do. We asked our contributors to re-imagine the world, to mess with the boundaries of the possible and the probable. ... Ultimately, this is a book about connections - between Australia and India, between men and women, between the past, the present, the future and the planet that we all share. If we had to name one thing we learnt in the process of making this anthology, it's the fact that when you eat the sky and drink the ocean, you are part of the earth: everything's connected." (Introduction, pages vii-ix)
Some of the contributors will be familiar to you; for me, an Aussie, the fact that my favourite author - Isobelle Carmody - was a contributor meant that I had to move this right to the top of my to-read list (I started reading it as soon as I got it, and actually finished it three days later - quite a feat for me at present!). Other names I recognised included Justine Larbalestier (I loved Liar) and Margo Lanagan (ditto for Tender Morsels). But I was blown away by so many of these authors and illustrators, unknown to me; I was truly inspired.
The anthology starts off strongly with the graphic short story, "Swallow the Moon", written by Kate Constable and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It is an uplifting, mystical sort of story, a story of hope and renewal around a deep core of tragedy. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, everything we know - all our 'stuff' - is gone; all that remains is the rubbish that drifts onto the beaches. The story was articulately told and beautifully illustrated.
It is from this story that the stunning cover illustration comes, too. It sets the tone and expectations for the rest of the anthology, which shows an impressive diversity of ideas and imagination, all linked by this common thread of a girl's place - and often, a boy's too - in society. Some of the other stories that stood out to me include "Memory Lace" by Payal Dhar - I am so a product of my society that I didn't see the 'twist' in that story! - "Anarkali" by Annie Zaidi and Mandy Orr, a graphic short story about a farming girl who is entombed alive for falling in love with the prince. She discovers she has the strength to escape, if she becomes one with her surroundings. In "Cast Out" by Samhita Arni, the familiar trope of exile into certain death for girls who exhibit sorcery - simply because it is not allowed - is given a strong, encouraging and hopeful ending when Karthini discovers a world in which she can be herself. In fact, that idea of finding your place, accepting yourself and being accepted by others, recurs in a number of these stories.
Several flip the gender imbalance on its head, like "The Runners" by Isobelle Carmody and Prabha Mallya, which also explores the idea of what it means to be human. As in some of the other stories, the central message is that how we perceive ourselves affects how we are perceived by others, and vice versa. If you are seen as human (meaning you are treated as one), you will be human.
Larbalestier's short story, "Little Red Suit" is a post-apocalyptic retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood"; it's not the only story to play around with well-known storylines and tropes. Environmentalism is also a running theme throughout this anthology, and it ties in well with the editors' comment about being connected to the planet. It made me think, what would this anthology look like if, keeping the same purpose and ideas and focus on girls, it was written by male authors? Because sometimes I wonder at that gender gap, that difference in perception that seems so hard to shift. What insights would we get? How do they see us, really?
Two of the stories - "Weft" and "Mirror Perfect" - deal with our contemporary society's obsession with appearance, and what we are willing to sacrifice for it. "Cooking Time", which I loved, questioned the point of survival for the sake of it, if there's nothing to enjoy. "Back-stage Pass", by Nicki Greenberg, is a short graphic story about Ophelia, and why she threw herself into the water, and the power of self that we gain when we take control of how we're 'written': how others perceive us, and the direction our lives take.
Each story offers something different to the conversation, in different styles and from different perspectives and genres. Some I loved, a couple I didn't quite click with, but overall, they showed how diverse we all are, women and men, girls and boys. We all have something worthwhile to offer the world. We can find safety and harmony and joy in working together and loving each other. And, ultimately, change is possible. ...more
1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and unacknowledged. Twenty-three year old Riley Purefoy lost half his jaw in the war; the artificial replacement helps hold his face together and is healing well, but he can't chew food or speak clearly. Still, Riley considers himself one of the lucky ones, and not just because all his limbs are in working order and his brain isn't muddled. He's just got married to Nadine, his fiancée from before the war, who served as a nurse on the front. While Riley comes from a working-class background, Nadine's parents are upper class, and as much as they've always liked Riley, they don't much care for the idea of their only child marrying a disabled veteran with no work skills or prospects.
Riley tries to find work, but he's just one of many unemployed young man missing body parts. Yet his determination not to live off Nadine's parents drives him to persevere, and make his own path.
In contrast, his commanding officer from the war, Peter Locke, returns from the war haunted by the overwhelming loss of life, all the men under his command who didn't make it. The list of names feels immense, and Peter soon turns to alcohol in order to endure. His wife is no help: Julia was raised by a domineering monster of a woman who made her understand that her only value was in her looks, so in order to be what she thought Peter wanted, she underwent a facial treatment that's left her face looking like a mask: white, immobile, false. Julia is ill-equipped to live with this new version of Peter, or their three-year-old son, Tom, who was whisked away by Julia's mother after his birth. Not knowing how to be a mother to Tom, or a wife or even friend to Peter, her plaintive, melodramatic behaviour quickly drives them both away. And now that Nadine and Riley are married and off on their honeymoon, the household only has Peter's cousin Rose to keep it sane.
Rose, however, has the opportunity to train as a doctor, an opportunity she wants with heart and soul. Never married and now never likely to be, medicine is the one thing she cares about - aside from her cousin and his family. Now she must make a decision, to put her own life ahead of someone else's and sacrifice her dream, or to stay and help.
From March to December, 1919, The Heroes' Welcome follows the paths of these five men and women as they struggle to build a life and a future while they mourn for all that's been lost.
There is always a "right" time to read a book, when your mind and emotions are aligned with a book's mood and tone and content, when your own mind is receptive and open to the story that wants to be heard. As interested as I am in World War One stories - stories about the first half of the twentieth-century interest me greatly - this was not, unfortunately, as it turned out, the right time for me to read this book. I kept picking it up, telling myself, Now, now, now I will start it; reading the first few paragraphs that describe Riley's injury, his face and what he's had to adapt to, I had to keep putting it down. The trouble way, I'd just finished reading Chloe Hooper's The Tall Man - a heavy non-fiction expository book - and was reading another about a man with mental health problems who abducts a girl, plus I'd just watched Sophie Scholl, a World War II story that made me cry buckets, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and in need of something light and fun. The Heroes' Welcome felt like the last nail in the coffin of my emotional well-being (that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there are other things going on at the time that were making me feel this way).
All of that aside, I did find this to be a very readable novel, and certainly a very memorable one. Not enough stories get written about life after the war - we tend to skip a few years and go straight to the heady, exciting, liberating Twenties. No one received counselling or support after the First World War; likewise, no one seemed to want to hear about the struggles of the survivors through fiction. This story felt raw and true and honest, just one story among many possibles that could have been told but no less real for that. It is a sequel to a novel I haven't read, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, but it didn't make a difference: anything you need to know in order to understand these characters and their stories is provided. And aside from the sense that they have considerable shared history that I wasn't privy to, it didn't really feel like I was missing out for not having read the first book.
This is a depressing tale, though: the story of Julia affected me deeply and on top of all the sad stories I'd been reading and watching at the time, it felt like one sad story too many. Perhaps its that element of realism, but this didn't read like a story of hope to me, but one of struggle. Riley's industry, pro-activeness and pragmatic outlook help considerably in balancing out Peter's self-indulgent (yet still understandable) melancholy, depression, and general stubbornness to move on with his life. The two are opposite ends of a pendulum with a narrow swing. Their wives - and Rose - also present drastically different perspectives. Julia is the wife who stayed behind, who has no idea how to do anything let alone look after a small child and a mentally ill husband who shuns her. Yet of all of them, Julia goes through the most in terms of metamorphosis, which is why what happens is all the more heartbreaking. You come to care for her, shifting from scornful pity to sympathy and then to empathy. Of them all, Nadine was the least well-developed, and a little too perfect, but it was Tom, the child, who, while being thinly sketched, hit the hardest: my own son is three, nearly four, as I write this, and the neglect that Tom experiences was painful to read.
At times, the prose style felt too static, too constrained. The omniscient narrator describes almost endlessly, and left too little for me to but endure. The writing flowed, the story flowed, and you certainly get swept along - almost, slightly, with that 'train wreck' sensation, that fascination with the macabre that continues to appeal to us - but at the same time it never relaxes into the telling, never relinquishes control or trusts the reader to understand these characters on their own.
This was an emotional read, an intense and often upsetting story that I can't imagine myself ever forgetting. That's something I always want from fiction, that evidence of a connection and a good story told well. These people felt real, their stories like true reflections of real ones. For all that, though, it lacked that organic touch: the third-person omniscient narrator was just too intrusive for me. That's an element of the story that I don't think I would have reacted to any differently, had I read this at a different time.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours...more
**spoiler alert** In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and g**spoiler alert** In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and guilt - no one really talks of it in that way but it's there, nevertheless. Whether you're Canadian, Australian, American, Kiwi or from any of the other ex-British Empire colonies (with perhaps the exception of India; slightly different scenario), we weren't exactly welcomed with open arms, and we've yet to really apologise or make amends (because that would mean, as far as we're concerned, returning land, and we are very resistant to this). This post-colonial, anxiety-riddled, ideological hang-up comes out in our fiction, of course, and never more so than in Fantasy Fiction. Which is just one of the reasons why I love the genre.
While some authors take the Big Guns approach, in which the heroes of their fantasy worlds bring 'freedom', 'democracy' and 'capitalism' to the 'oppressed', the 'enemy' or the 'savages' (a la The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind), or forcibly unite the countries in order to defeat a greater enemy (American colonial history in a nutshell a la the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) - and both push into the 'frontier' - others take the perspective of the 'indigenous' population being invaded, conquered and oppressed by another, arrogant force. Stories like Eric van Lustbaader's excellent Pearl Saga (which he's never finished and I fear, now, never will), for example, or any other Fantasy tale in which we side with the invaded rather than the invader, tells an interesting story of its own as we seek to empathise with our own indigenous populations, who we have and continue to oppress and denigrate.
Palmer's Ours is the Storm is a worthy entry into this body of ideologically-driven fantasy fiction, and unique enough to stand proud amongst them. It sets up fairly conventional expectations: the underdog hero with an epic purpose; the discovery of magic and a belief in its might and power; the Native-American-like plains people (Huumphar) who fight guerrilla style; the female hero of the Huumphar who, you think, will play the role of a great interracial love affair with the male hero; a great, perverted evil that corrupts and erodes those who wield it (always fun to pick what this trope is an analogy of: capitalism? colonialism? Depends what your views are...); and of course a might big showdown of power and ego in which our underdog hero much be triumphant. Like any genre, Fantasy has a formula - or several - but it is what authors inventively do with that formula that keeps us reading.
The boy has lived so long in complete darkness, in a stone cell somewhere, nowhere; he hasn't spoken to anyone in he doesn't know long, he has now lost his memories. He doesn't know who he is, who his parents are, what they looked like or how their voices sounded. He doesn't know where he's from or where he is now. This has become his life, his present, past and future.
Until, one day, an opening appears in the ceiling: a hatch has been opened, and a voice reaches down to him. The voice, the man, promises to release him, sounds outraged at his condition, and passes him a knife: the first of many tests. The boy, freed, learns that he is Revik Lasivar, son of a great man, a powerful leader in uniting Feriven, this land, under one strong leader: Halkoriv, the man who has freed him.
Halkoriv styles himself a king, and has lived for far longer than a normal human life span. He wields a magical force, a power that dominates and turns his servants into obedient mindless drones. Halkoriv is cunning, but at first seems merely fatherly to Revik. Revik, a poor starved boy driven nearly mad by being held captive in the dark of Cunabrel's fortress for so long. With no memories of his parents he latches onto Halkoriv and strives to please him - and to honour his father's legacy. Established as Halkoriv's heir, after years of training Revik is sent out on his final test: to lead an army to Cunabrel's door and defeat this nobleman who dares to separate himself from Halkoriv, and destroy the dream of a united Feriven in the process.
To get to Cunabrel's lands, Revik must pass through the plains: Huumphar land. He comes up with a brilliant strategy that changes the balance of power in the grasslands, and in the process of defeating Cunabrel, Revik comes into his own power. Seemingly invincible, he rides down a party of Huumphar on his own, but meets his match in the seeress Ahi'rea, who, with her Sight, can See that it is not a real magic Revik wields, but that he is being ridden by a monster that will devour him. The clash of swords and magic will have a devastating result for Revik, as he learns that everything he believed in was a lie. So who is Revik Lasivar?
This is just the beginning, really, and the deceptions and lies are handled with a magician's sleight-of-hand, a dexterity and skill that will surely surprise you. You think you've got it worked out, you think you understand more than poor Revik: that Halkoriv arranged for him to spend tortuous years in a dungeon cell so that he could pretend to save him; that Halkoriv set Cunabrel up to take the blame for it; that Revik is an ally to the Huumphar, by birthright, but this knowledge has been stolen from him; and so on. Who is Revik is a question that runs through the whole novel, and this theme of identity is pivotal to the plot. The turns in the plot are delicious, and one of the book's greatest strengths.
Ours is the Storm is well-written, visually arresting and fast-paced; the Huumphar are easily established, building upon our contextual knowledge of indigenous populations, specifically Native Americans. As an analogy for American colonialism and frontier-expansion, Ours is the Storm isn't particularly subtle, and by extension does seem to say the British Empire was rotten to the core, amongst other things. The one thing I would have liked more of was characterisation. Revik was well drawn, believable and oddly charismatic. In contrast, I never quite understood the key Huumphar characters, who are pivotal, such as Ahi'rea (not sure how to pronounce that either!). She was never fully fleshed out, so, while she was a strong character with whom you could place great faith, a believable character, I didn't get to know her as a woman or a Huumphar.
Alongside this theme of colonial invasion is the one of peace versus war, and the idea that the Feriven army is almost possessed by a hatred of the Huumphar - whom they dehumanise and fear - and an unnatural drive to fight. What it brings to mind, of course, is that our natural state of co-existence is one of harmony and peace, not bloodshed, and that, given a real choice, people would rather live peacefully and cooperatively than in terror. Thus, the thirst for blood, for whatever ideological reason, is largely manufactured. I can't help but think of the bloodlust and push for revenge that occurred in the mainstream media after 9/11, the repercussions of which are still being felt by many. Peace begins to seem like a fanciful dream, and Ours is the Storm posits the idea that you have to tackle the rotten core at the heart of it to finally find rest from the hatred and endless fighting. And, hopefully, to be happy with what you've got, appreciate differences rather than fear them, and respect others' right to live freely.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book....more
As I read Tsiolkas' first published collection of short stories, I couldn't help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all iAs I read Tsiolkas' first published collection of short stories, I couldn't help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all its glorious and tawdry flaws. He strips away the veneers we use so constantly - veneers of civilisation and humanity and tolerance - and puts our real selves up on display. You don't have to identify with any of his characters to connect with them, or recognise them. It's not about you, the reader, in a narcissistic way; it's about humanity and all its bullshit. Ironically, once stripped of the façade of gentility, what's left is yet another layer of bullshit.
Take Vince in the title story, "Merciless Gods". This is a story about stories, as a group of friends share anecdotes of when they took revenge. Vince's story leaves the others shocked and sickened, and it's hard to tell whether he's even telling the truth or not. If he is, he's a bastard. If he isn't, he's still a bastard. In "Petals", we are deep within the twisted consciousness of a prison inmate, homesick for Greece, who brings us right into his hell of a life with authentically bad grammar. He is a character who is instantly believable, deeply flawed, full of 'greys' and ultimately more than a bit scary. There's the story of a young man with a girlfriend who lets himself get pulled into a relationship with another man who uses him for sex, money and to enable his drinking habit, who is violent and a rapist, in "Jessica Lange in Frances".
Life is a journey, the old cliché says, but what's missing are the adjectives: violent, brutal, dirty, rich, textured, unpleasant, joyous, disgusting, frightening, paralysing. Merciless Gods has its high moments, but mostly it descends into the underbelly of humanity, laying it all bare without shame, apology or censorship. A few stories touch upon Indigenous issues, like "Civil War" which, scarily, tells us that there are people in Australia stockpiling weapons for some fantastical war against the Aborigines (who are, of course, simply living off welfare etc. etc.), in which they will be wiped out, once and for all.
"There's gonna have to be a war soon in this country." I look up at him and he's glancing over at me. "People are getting ready," he continues, "arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away." He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying. "Do you know those bastards get money to send their kids to school? And what do the parents do with all that money? Drink it or spend it on drugs. The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars." He is animated now, anger and passion softening the hard surfaces of his skin, making him seem younger. "It's our money that pays for all those gifts to the bloody blackfella while he sits on his lazy arse and sells his kids and wife for extra cash. They're cunning bastards. No natural intelligence at all, just animal cunning." He spits out this last insult. "They know how to use the system. But the bastards are making use of my taxes to live the good life." [pp.232-3]
What's especially frightening about this is just how prevalent this attitude is in Australian society. In certain parts of the country - Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia especially, where "Civil War" is set - this is the common, mainstream attitude and perspective. You'll find it in other places, too, including my own state, Tasmania. We live in a deeply racist land and have done little about it. Most people don't even bother to hide it.
It would be a shame to be turned off by the strong language, the gruesome scenes of rape, pornography and other sexual acts, as well as the subject matter explored here. Personally, I like confronting stories: I like to have my world shaken up by fiction and non-fiction, along with documentaries, though in order to live my life I have to read the fun stuff too. It's important not to shy away from the truths of our world, or the realistic flaws of human nature. It's also important to, in a way, 'bear witness', to hear and listen and think about and feel, because while Merciless Gods may be fiction, it carries that stamp of 'gritty realism' and the bone-deep knowledge that people have lived this, and more, all the time. These are stories that can deliver a punch to the gut, have you chewing your fingernails in suspense, and even bring out a tissue or two.
Tsiolkas isn't shy of bringing you into this world, far from a cozy middle-class existence. His ability to create scenes, characters and explore, with subtlety, hard-hitting contemporary issues is his greatest strength. I saw that in Barracuda and I see it even more here, in these stories. What saves it from being downright depressing is that sense of his character's fragile, vulnerable quest for beauty in this grim world, that even a wart on a toad can be loveable because it's your toad - like the mother in "The Hair of the Dog", or the father-son relationship in "Genetic Material". Not all the stories are in-your-face or contain vulgarity, or are about homosexuality, violence, pornography. The married couple in "Tourists" feel so familiar because they are so vividly, realistically drawn, and the tense mother-son relationship in "Sticks, Stones" makes me wonder what my own little boy will put me through when he's a teenager - and how I'll react. (On a side note, my son, three years old, found the cover of this book quite scary.)
You never know what one of these stories will bring you, or where it will take you. Each is a surprise, and each is subtle, full of nuance and shades of grey. Tsiolkas' raw and insightful examination of our flawed psyches and troubled relationships is, strangely, a joy to read, not least because of the skill and craftsmanship he brings to each tale. Truly Tsiolkas has become one of Australia's truly great writers for the 21st century....more
As I try to catch up on reviews of books read earlier in the year, this being the middle of December, I very nearly overlooked this gem of a play. I'vAs I try to catch up on reviews of books read earlier in the year, this being the middle of December, I very nearly overlooked this gem of a play. I've read two different editions of this tragedy this year, several times over, so the fact that I first read it was back in February doesn't come with the usual problem of forgetfulness. On the pyramid scale (i.e. Bloom's Taxonomy) of learning, teaching a thing is high up there. I won't be forgetting the details of this play or the complex ideas and issues it tackles any time soon.
Othello is a simple enough story, in terms of plot, though whenever you start to explain it you discover just how intricate and multi-layered it is from the beginning. The character of Othello is a Moor - that is to say, a dark-skinned foreigner of uncertain origins, though he himself tells another how he is the son of a king in his own land - and the celebrated general of the Venetian army. Venice is a republic, a cultured and civilised city-state, the envy of the civilised world. It holds many territories beyond the city itself, including the island of Cyprus, a military outpost on the frontier with the Ottoman Empire. Venice is ruled by a duke - or "doge" - and many senators; one, Brabantio, spent several evenings with Othello, inviting him to tell the fantastical stories of his childhood and pre-Venice days at the senators home, where his beautiful daughter, Desdemona, listened avidly. She falls in love with Othello and the two marry in secret.
On the night of their wedding, Iago - Othello's ensign, or ancient (standard-bearer - the third-in-command in the army) - rouses Brabantio from his bed to tell him "an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." [Act I, scene I). Brabantio may have been interested in listening to Othello's stories, as a curious exotic, but the idea of a foreigner - and the protector of the city's wealth - stealing one its most precious jewels (Brabantio and other characters refer to Desdemona as a jewel, and in other instances as a possession), is not to be borne. Iago has long been Othello's trusted ensign, but behind his mask of friendliness and trustworthiness is a self-obsessed, misogynistic man of great ambition. He has cultivated friendship with Othello but this night learned that Othello had promoted Cassio to be his second-in-command over Iago. Cassio is much beloved by the ladies, and Iago scorns him as a man who may have studied the art of war in books but hasn't proven himself on the battlefield. Iago's cunning is, at first, unfocussed: he makes up his plan as he goes along, starting with betraying Othello to Desdemona's father, all the while carefully keeping his own role in it secret. His foil and dupe is Roderigo, a wealthy civilian who Iago constantly borrows money off.
Brabantio takes the matter of the unsanctioned marriage between his daughter and the outsider to the Doge, but the Doge does not take his side. Othello has proven his worth, the marriage is done, and Desdemona sides with her husband over her father. More pressing matters are afoot: the Turkish fleet is massing and looks set to target Rhodes; however, the clever senators understand it for the trick that it is and believe Cyprus is the real aim. The Doge must send Othello and the army out to defeat them. It is arranged that Desdemona will follow the army to Cyprus in the company of Iago and his wife, Emilia.
Desdemona arrives before Othello, as a violent storm destroyed the Turkish fleet and scattered the Venetian one. By the time Othello arrives on Cyprus, the war is over without a single fight between men. But the real war, the war between good and evil, the war between Iago and Desdemona for Othello's soul, is just about to begin.
My students were rather annoyed that I gave away the ending of this play at the beginning of the unit on Othello, so I've refrained from doing so here. In fact, there's so much to discuss with this play it's worth a whole book. For the purposes of writing this review, I'm going to focus on a couple of ideas in the play, a bit of context and the difference between the two editions I read this year.
Shakespeare adapted his play from an earlier, Italian play, changing certain things but keeping the general premise and the setting. It's set in the previous century, though a clear date is hard to discern as Venice was at war with the Turks four times (it certainly wasn't the last war). Yet it's very much an Elizabethan play, in terms of attitudes and prejudices (it was first performed for King James I in 1604, if I remember my dates correctly, but the Jacobean was a clear extension of the Elizabethan era, in which it was possibly written and at the very least, informed). While Hamlet is, on one level at least, about Queen Elizabeth I in terms of the anxiety the play reflects at the time it was written, Othello doesn't seem to speak to any major fears at home. Certainly, black people (Africans) were not hugely common, and the era saw the start of racism towards dark-skinned foreigners (more because such people were turning up on English shores and as servants/slaves in English homes, making them a visible affront compared to a distant, vague idea), but it could also be about the ongoing battle between perceived notions of civilisation and barbarity. The 'known world' had become even larger during the 16th century, with explorers journeying forth and bringing back all sorts of new things and stories, but the interesting thing about the play is just how sympathetic a character the dark-skinned outsider actually is.
(On a side note, there is an excellent essay - the first chapter in fact - in Stephen Marche's How Shakespeare Changed Everything, that sheds a perceptive light on the whole race issue: really fascinating. Also, Ian Mortimer's The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England - both the book and the 3-part TV series - provide additional contextual information that I recommend. Plus the show is great to use in the classroom!)
Othello may be denigrated by his foes, likened to animals and his foreign features exaggerated (Roderigo calls him "the thick-lips", for instance), but to his friends and employers he is valiant, noble and brave. He has won not just the heart but the (literally) undying loyalty of Venice's most treasured, beautiful women. In the first half of the play, he has the gift of a silver tongue, and humility too - he doesn't comprehend just how charismatic he really is. It is his insecurity, as the perceived outsider amongst the refined, civilised folk of Venice, that makes him insecure and self-conscious. And it is Iago's incredible ability to discern people's weaknesses, their flaws - their 'hamartias' - that enables him to turn Othello against his wife. Truly it is a remarkable performance that Iago puts on.
My students were preoccupied with two elements of the play, both of which surprised me - it shouldn't have, but it did, perhaps because this was the first time I'd taught it. The first was Iago's apparent lack of motive. It's hard to get across the old "just wait till you've experienced more of the world, then you'll see: there are plenty of Iago's around" without sounding incredibly patronising. The other is Othello's trust in Iago. They saw Othello as incredibly naive and gullible, and it was a struggle to help them see just how charismatic Iago was, too, and how clever. Watching the 1995 movie (with Lawrence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh) helped a bit, but considering these plays are meant to be watched rather than read, it's not that strange that they had trouble visualising and stringing it together. It is a surprisingly complex story told with a deceptive simplicity and a very fast pace - so fast, in fact, that on my first reading it lent an unrealistic ridiculousness to the whole proceedings - a criticism that others have made over the centuries. But in the process of studying the play in order to teach it, the surface reading peeled back and I glimpsed pure genius at work in this play, both in terms of constructing a gripping, intense play and in terms of the wonderful imagery, symbolism and use of language used within it.
The Pelican Shakespeare edition has an absolutely excellent introduction by Russ McDonald that you should definitely read after reading the play; however, my students used the Cambridge School Shakespeare edition instead, a well-laid-out, accessible edition with the text of the play on one page, and explanations, plot snapshots and dramatic activities on the facing page. It's an excellent edition for use in the classroom, and there's plenty of room for making notes (more than a few pages of my copy are covered in notes, while my Penguin remains clean). Having used both editions simultaneously, I can say that if you're studying a Shakespearian play, you should definitely make use of more than one edition. The editors are different, the 'translations' are sometimes different (in fact, I referred to two other editions in compiling definitions for some of Shakespeare's more archaic language), and the introductions - worth the price of the book - are different. Other theorists and critics worth consulting (alongside Marche, above) include Harold Bloom, AC Bradley, Marilyn French, Thomas Rhymer and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
I enjoyed studying (and teaching) this play more than any other Shakespeare play I've studied, which includes the ones I did at university. It's thought-provoking (and provocative in other ways), clever and mesmerising. Having got so much out of this play, I look forward to delving into his other plays just as deeply - without the additional research, there's only so far you can go in this day and age (his original audience would have got more out of it on their first viewing, which is ironic considering how little education some of them would have had). It's just as well that I love learning, and getting stuck into texts - something I've missed doing, since my undergrad. Othello has piqued my interest in tackling Shakespeare in ways I hadn't felt before, and that is a glorious feeling....more