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