Posts from the ‘Othello’ Category

Iago: Creative?

It is generally said that Iago is one of the very creative, imaginative characters in Shakespeare, because of the way he so ably manipulates the people around him. But I disagree.

Of course, there are many types of creativity, and it would be impossible to deny that Iago is creative in some ways. His gift for improvisation, for example, is marvelous. But is he especially creative as compared to some of the other great characters in the Shakespearian canon? I have to say, I don’t think so.

Iago’s language is distinctly lacking in imaginative qualities. His mind is mired in very simple, straightforward imagery. Let’s look at part of Macbeth’s speech, when he is considering killing Duncan:

And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind
(I.vii.21-25).

It’s rich in intense, fantastic imagery. Macbeth is creative enough to, for example, personify “pity” and compare it to something so imaginative as “a naked newborn babe, / striding the blast.”

What about Iago? Here’s a speech of his:

Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now
(II.iii.356-59).

Dry, uninteresting imagery. How overdone is it to compare an evil individual to the devil? Of course, this is but one example, but I cannot find a speech of Iago’s in which he is any more poetic.

But, as I said at the beginning, creativity comes in many forms. One might protest that Iago is not a poet, but his creativity in being able to manipulate people and use human nature is tremendous. No, not quite, says I. People tend to forget that Iago doesn’t have his whole plot laid out. He has to improvise. Take, for example, the scene in which Roderigo finally confronts Iago and demands repayment. Iago, if he is as clever and as good of a judge of human character as many say he is, should have seen this coming. And yet, he has no prepared response. It isn’t until Roderigo threatens him that Iago even attempts an answer.

So what’s so creative about Iago? Can anyone defend this position to me?

Iago’s Final Words

After being asked by Othello why he has done what he has done, Iago says, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.303-4).

Almost invariably, when I talk with people about Othello, they tell me that they want Iago to answer Othello, to defend and explain his actions, and give a justification. But me, I’m different. I genuinely don’t want Iago to justify himself. Why? Because it’s easier for me, morally, when Iago remains dark and evil and not justified.

Iago is the villain in Othello. It’s simple, clear and straightforward. After seeing a production of Iago, I can walk out of the theater with a clear anger at him for what he’s done. I don’t have to mix it with sympathy for him. When I see Macbeth, I have mixed feelings about the title character. I find his actions wrong, but does he win my sympathy?

But Othello is more comfortable in terms of “hero” and “villain.” Of course, I read Shakespeare to be brought out of my comfort zone, not to settle in it, and I don’t mean at all to imply that Othello is a simple play with simple characters. But when Iago stays in his villainous role and defiantly refuses to answer Othello, he remains in character, and that’s easier to handle.

Am I the only one?

“Othello” in the Obama era

What new meaning does Othello have for us in the era of Barack Obama?

I’m sure this has been discussed before in the Shakespeare blogosphere, ad nauseum. Admittedly, I’m a little late to the party. But while this was a common subject of discussion during the presidential race and the early days of the current administration, we’ve now had time to digest our thoughts and see what Obama’s presidency entails.

Race relations have changed since Obama’s election. That’s not to say racism is eliminated in the United States. It’s still an issue. But that issue is different. How can Othello be relevant in this new context? Is it any different?

Defining Tragedy

How do we define a “tragedy”? What makes it distinct from other forms of drama?

Throughout history, the most well-known definition of tragedy has come from Aristotle in Poetics. The key element of his definition is that a character’s fall from grace “should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character.” As this is the prevailing way of thinking about the genre, we’re taught from our very early days as students to seek out a “tragic flaw” in a character.

While I admire Aristotle greatly, I outright reject this aspect of his definition of tragedy. It’s not only erroneous, but it limits our understanding of a good play. Character traits do not file neatly into “good” and “bad,” or “virtue” and “flaw.” Just as in life, a character’s trait can, given the context of his actions and the complexity of his personality, be either positive or destructive.

Consider Hamlet and Othello. If these characters have “tragic flaws,” Othello’s might be his gullibility, and Hamlet’s his tendency to overthink things instead of acting. (You may think their “tragic flaws” are other things, but humor me for now.) Imagine if the two were to switch places. Hamlet, in thinking, sees right through Iago’s lies, and Othello goes inside and kills Claudius ten minutes after seeing the ghost, thus saving a great deal of bloodshed. Their flaws are suddenly strengths.

So what is tragedy? There are any number of definitions that have been offered. One comes from G.W.F. Hegel:

Tragedy is the conflict of two substantive positions, each of which is justified, yet each of which is wrong to the extent that it fails either to recognize the validity of the other position or to grant it its moment of truth; the conflict can be resolved only with the fall of the ‘hero’. Within such a conflict each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification, while on the other hand each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by negating and damaging the equally justified power of the other. Consequently, in its moral life, and because of it, each is just as much involved in guilt.

(The quote is not from Hegel, but from Mark W. Roche, explaining Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy.)

This one has merit, but it applies very much to social and political tragedy, and not as much to psychological tragedies, like Macbeth.

How do you define tragedy?

Othello as an Arab?

In 1911, the Encyclopaedia Britannica stated, “The term ‘Moors’ has no real ethnological value.” This is because, at different times in history, the term has been used to refer to people of Berber, Black African and Arab descent.

For most people reading this blog, the most recognizable Moor is probably Othello, who, on stage, is almost always portrayed as a Black African. After all, the characters in the play, including Othello himself, refer to him as “black,” and modern audiences understand that term in a specific way.

But I’ve always wanted to see a production that portrayed Othello as an Arab.

Elizabethan Englishmen viewed the Muslim Middle East — at that time, dominated by the Ottoman Turks — as theocratic, totalitarian and backwards, dominated by sadistic dictators. The Empire was expanding into Europe and was a source of great fear for the West. And so, an Arab Othello would have been quite the interesting dynamic on stage: an Arab fighting against Arabs to protect Christendom.

And how do we, in our modern culture, view the Muslim Middle East? Since 9/11, we have cultivated an image of the region as theocratic, totalitarian and backwards, dominated by sadistic dictators. And there has been much fear of another terrorist attack from them. While no two political realities are identical, there is much similarity. So wouldn’t it be interesting to put that dynamic on stage? Othello the Arab, fighting against the enemy we fear the most: his own people.

Any directors reading this are more than welcome to steal the idea. 😉

“Get with the program, Twelfth Night”

Hello, Shakespearian world. I’m Mark Leff, the literary manager of Twelfth Night: The Theatre Company. And I figured it was about time Twelfth Night had its own blog. Our company had a podcast before it had a blog. We’re clearly not with the times.

But here we are now. This blog will be dedicated to information about our program and all things Shakespearian. Right now, we’re putting together a production of Othello. It’s in its infancy and there’s not a lot to tell, but we’ve cast our Othello. His name is Gano Grills, and he’s outstandingly talented.

In the meantime, keep your eyes on our blog and podcast to learn more, and for a forum to discuss Shakespeare-related topics.