Alex's Reviews > Othello

Othello by William Shakespeare
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2010, reading-through-history, best-villains, rth-lifetime, 2018
Read 2 times. Last read December 12, 2018 to December 14, 2018.

The thing with Othello is that he's a fuckin’ idiot and he sucks. There's this towering scene, Act 3 scene 3, it’s the centerpiece of the play. Iago's convincing him that his wife Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio, and he has this whole complicated plan worked out involving handkerchiefs and innuendo, but he needs none of it: at the first drop of poison in his ear, Othello's like,

"Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore.
Be sure of it, give me the ocular proof."

Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett in 2001 high school Othello, I love this version

Iago's all, it can’t be this easy.
"Beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster."

But it is! Othello careens totally off the rails:
"I had been happy if the general camp,
Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,
So I had nothing known."

He instantly believes the worst, and then he makes it entirely about him, right? "She could have fucked the whole army - it's the part where I found out that hurts." Othello sucks.

Top Five Worst Husbands
5. Othello (would also accept the Duke of Cornwall from Lear)
4. Heathcliff
3. Agamemnon
2. Humbert Humbert
1. Tie, Bluebeard & Shahryar (that's Scheherezade's husband from Arabian Nights; I had to look up his name)

If there's a problem with Othello it's that, it's what an irredeemable dickbag Othello is. He sounds great. He's maybe my favorite Shakespearean character to read. Try it, read some out loud: everyone sounds like Shakespeare but him. But he has no real character arc, and that’s frustrating. He talks big but he's flimsy. Only one thing happens here: Iago subverts Othello. There are none of Shakespeare’s characteristic parallel, wandering subplots. Othello is his most focused work. It's as close as he comes to classic Greek tragedy. One - thing - happens.

Lawrence Fishburne in Branagh’s 1995 version

Right, so on to that one thing: Iago. He's Shakespeare's best villain ever, the apotheosis of a certain thing Shakespeare loves to do, what James Earl Jones called "motiveless malignity." He tosses motives around - he thinks Othello fucked his wife? - but he doesn't really go into it and you don't get the sense he really cares any more than you do. It's motiveless malignity. Iago gets compared to the personified Vice character in old morality plays, who was (of course) always the most fun. Vice for Vice's sake. He snickers to the audience. He's the one who connects with us; no one else is paying attention.

He works in darkness. He's enshadowed at the beginning, and in most of his key scenes. He works by suggestion and sudden moves from alleys. There are maybe hints of gayness? In 3.3, as "proof" of Desdemona's infidelity, he says he shared an army cot with Cassio and in the middle of the night Cassio started dreaming, called him Desdemona, and frenched him. It's not less weird than it sounds.

We like Iago because he's fun and he's not an idiot, and this is a play mostly populated by idiots - Othello, Roderigo, Cassio, omg is Cassio a chump. The only other characters with any sense are the women: Desdemona, the sex worker Bianca, and Iago's wife Emilia, the actual linchpin of the play. Shakespeare's women are often powerful. Here’s my favorite part with Desdemona: Othello gets called off to war on their wedding day and he’s like oh, man, bummer, see you when I get back, and she’s like fuuuuuuuuck that, I'm coming too! “The rites for why I love him are bereft me,” she complains. I was promised sex! That was the point! Where is the sex? You’re not getting rid of me until you sex me!

Carver from The Wire and Marianna Bassham in 2010 Othello on the Boston Common, which I got to see and it was fun

Later on, she will feel differently about the other sex. “Oh these men,” she cries, “These men!” Emilia agrees:

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food:
They eat us hungerly, and when they are full
They belch us.

And the ending is as painful as anything Shakespeare's ever written. Watching Desdemona beg for life:

D: But half an hour!
O: Being done, there is no pause.
D: But while I say one prayer!
O: It is too late.
It's wrenching.

So that’s part of what the play’s about: these men, these men, these men and their posturing and their dicks. How weak they are, and what chumps. “Thou hast not half that power to do me harm,” says Emilia optimistically in the final act, “As I have to be hurt.” But it’s a lot of harm.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
August 9, 2010 – Finished Reading
August 11, 2010 – Shelved
August 11, 2010 – Shelved as: 2010
July 19, 2011 – Shelved as: reading-through-history
August 26, 2013 – Shelved as: best-villains
January 2, 2015 – Shelved as: rth-lifetime
December 12, 2018 – Started Reading
December 14, 2018 – Finished Reading
December 17, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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Jason Ah, the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. Would you believe I lived in Boston for 5 years and never saw Shakespeare on the Common? What an idiot. I'm still close enough that I could take advantage of it, but I forget. Maybe 2013...

Alex wrote: "Othello doesn't stand with Shakespeare's best plays."

Please rate your favorite Shakespeare plays in order from favorite to least favorite. Go!

message 2: by Alex (last edited Nov 30, 2012 01:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Lear
Henry IV 1 and 2 and Henry V, as a trilogy
Merchant of Venice
Midsummer Night's Dream
Richard II & III
Philip Marlowe, just in general
Titus, Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Macbeth, Othello, As You Like It
Most of the comedies / the shittier of the tragedies
King John
Anything co-written with anyone
Henry VIII


ETA Merchant and As You Like It

Jason Dude I'm nowhere near as well read as you. I've only ever read Macbeth, Hamlet, Henry V, and R&J. But I'll report back once I'm a little more smarter, yeah?

By the way, everyone I respect puts Lear as their #1, so. That's cool.

Alex Yeah, I went through sortof a Shakespeare thing in college. I try to re-read two or three of his plays every year, but that didn't work out very well this year.

message 5: by Cecily (new)

Cecily I like your list of worst husbands! (I'd pencil in Edward Rochester, as well.)

I'm ashamed to say, I've never seen or watched Othello (though I'm familiar with the basic plot). But that will be fixed next weekend.

Alex Rochester? He just gave his wife what Virginia Woolf wanted: a room of her own. :)

Are you reading or seeing Othello next weekend? (Or both?)

message 7: by Cecily (last edited Jul 24, 2015 05:21AM) (new)

Cecily Alex wrote: "Rochester? He just gave his wife what Virginia Woolf wanted: a room of her own. :)"

LOL, though I was really thinking more of his second wife. For his first wife, he was a variant on your number 5.

Alex wrote: "Are you reading or seeing Othello next weekend? (Or both?)"

Seeing. I rarely read plays; it doesn't resonate and engage me enough.

Alex I understand that. I love reading plays - imagining the characters for myself - but I think I'm in the minority there. I'm psyched to hear how you like it!

message 9: by Cecily (new)

Cecily It's strange and silly, really: I happily read novels with lots of dialogue, but with plays... it's somehow different. I'm glad it works for you.

It's an RSC production at Stratford, so it ought to be good, though it's had mixed reviews. We'll see. (Sometimes I've written a GR review of a play I've watched but not read. Sometimes it feels like cheating, but I suppose it's not more so than reviewing an audio book.)

message 10: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Yeah, it's like a wicked good version of an audio book. Not cheating at all.

David Sarkies I agree, I don't think race has anything to do with the play. I guess we are viewing this from a post civil rights world. To me it is more because Othello, while a great warrior, didn't understand the nature of Venetian politics, which is why he so readily fell for Iago's tricks.

message 12: by Robin (last edited Dec 18, 2018 12:43PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Robin Alex, damn you and your fantastic reviews. Damn you, sir!

This was excellent. You're right, Othello is a major dick. And Humbert Humbert would make a god-awful husband.

PS Where is Macbeth in your list of favourite Shakespeare? Where? This is a major omission. It will always rank #1 with me.

EDIT: I just saw the Scottish play in your list. Sorry. I guess I missed it because it was lumped in a big list of names and didn't have the prominence it deserves :D

message 13: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex That list is six years old! Macbeth and Othello would both move up now, I think. (This is around the fourth time I've read Othello and I finally get it!) So would Much Ado. Midsummer's, Merchant and Titus would move down.

Humbert did make a god-awful husband.

Robin You're right! He did! Not would, did.

message 15: by Kevin (last edited Jan 13, 2019 10:39PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kevin Ansbro Ha! Othello is all of that, Alex, but the story showcases one of literature's finest villains nonetheless! Great review. Loved it!

message 16: by Mrs. Danvers (new)

Mrs. Danvers Humbert Humbert was a sucky husband but I would still rank him as better than Mr Edward Fucking Rochester or, frankly, Mr Maxim Douchebag DeWinter.

message 17: by Laura Anne (new)

Laura Anne Is there a jealousy issue between Iago, and Othello? Not read, but my son has just requested a copy, I presume its uni reading - should get mine as well.
Definitely intrigued by your review.

message 18: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Thank you Kevin!

Mrs. Danvers, for gosh's sake, Humbert was molesting his stepdaughter!

Laura, somewhat. Iago twice says he thinks Othello slept with his wife. He gives zero evidence and it's not a major plot point. He's also jealous of Cassio, who got a promotion Iago wanted. If you're buying for your son, this Folger edition is probably the best one for uni students.

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