Posts tagged ‘Othello’

Interdisciplinarity

I think? Maybe “interdisciplinariness”? Whatever. It’s beside the point.

Duane made an excellent post at ShakespeareGeek about how Shakespeare is taught to young students, and whether or not they should be expected to provide analyses based on history, literary theory and the like. Now, let’s not beat around the bush: No grade-school kid enjoys learning about British succession law, or the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and how those things influenced Shakespeare’s writing. And as Duane correctly points out, it’s this style of teaching that makes kids think Shakespeare is dry, dull and outdated. Nobody wants them to think that.

But should we eliminate the literary element entirely? I don’t think so. I’ve sometimes encountered an attitude that Shakespeare was just an entertainer, not a commentator on his times, a literary master, etc. And he was all those things.

Those who read my blog regularly know that I’m fascinated by literary analysis of Shakespeare, but that’s not my sole interest. I often compare my love of Shakespeare to my love of a person. When you fall in love, you love the other person in many ways: intellectually, emotionally, physically, psychologically, etc. But are they all distinct feelings? Can you say, “Here is where my intellectual love begins and my emotional love ends?” Of course not. It’s one complex, inter-related feeling. My love of Shakespeare is the same. I don’t love Shakespeare analytically sometimes and aesthetically other times. They feed off of each other.

I thus don’t think any understanding or appreciation of a play is complete without some analysis. Say you are teaching Othello. But say also that you fail to teach your kids about the tense relationship between European Christendom and the Ottoman Turks, and how that drives the play. No, you don’t need to dedicate hours upon hours to studying the political climate. But you do need to bring it up and give the children some background (and, perhaps, draw modern parallels, like the current tension between the West and the Middle East). This ought to help the students appreciate the play more, not less, because it makes more sense in light of that knowledge. It speaks on more levels. At the same time, if you teach Othello only as an exhibit in a history museum and not a passionate love story, you’ll make it dry and lame. The combination of both is what gives Othello its energy and spirit.

Even from a theatrical standpoint, the same is true. I cannot speak from experience, having only a slight background in theatre, but every actor or director I’ve spoken to (and I’ve spoken to many) has told me that one cannot be a good actor without studying the history of the play one is acting in.

Which brings me back to my original point: Interdisciplinaritivitism. The very first discussion Susan and I had on our podcast was about the fact that literary experts and theatrical experts tend to look down on the other. But both groups would benefit if they cooperated. Shakespeare is one of history’s great geniuses, because he wrote on thousands of levels simultaneously. Why do him the injustice of ignoring those levels?

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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?

Shakespeare in a Post-9/11 World

I posted recently about the possibility of portraying Othello as an Arab and the significance it would have in our modern world. What other plays have new significance since 9/11, and how? Or what does Shakespeare’s canon as a whole mean to us now?

A couple of plays come to mind:

Macbeth has a lot to say about violence, fear and dictatorship.

Coriolanus talk about a culture of fear perpetuated by a government.

What else can we have a new conversation about over this past decade and in the coming years?

Is “King Lear” undramatic?

I was flipping through A.C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy recently, and came across something interesting. Bradley notes that King Lear is often regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest work, the masterpiece among masterpieces. And yet, among the four “great tragedies” (the other three being Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet), it is the least performed and the least read by “casual” readers.

Bradley proposes that, while it may well be Shakespeare’s greatest work, it is not his greatest play. According to Bradley, in short, King Lear is too “big” for the stage. The vast scope of the play interferes with enjoyment of it as a drama, Bradley says.

There is, I think, truth in this. I have seen some bad productions of King Lear, which I think were so because the play is so ambitious that a staging of it must be as well. Furthermore, the number of characters that can dramatically bring down production value with a poor performance is huge: Lear, Goneril, Regan, Kent, Gloucester, Edgar, Edmund and the Fool all need to be acted beautifully to make a good production. Maybe Cornwall and Albany as well. Am I missing anybody?

At the same time, I think the scope of the play can be a boon to any director attempting to stage it. The amount of action, if directed well, can lead to incredibly dramatic moments, such as the storm scene. The best Shakespeare play I ever saw was, in fact, King Lear, with Alvin Epstein.

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?

Just Watched “She’s The Man”

Which is a high school adaptation of Twelfth Night.

Ever since I saw 10 Things I Hate About You, I’ve thought only good things about the idea of a Shakespeare high school adaptation. But then I saw O, which was a terrible disappointment. And She’s The Man wasn’t too great. It’s kind of a shame, because it had a lot of potential. I mean, it had its moments, and Amanda Bynes is a cutie. But for the most part, it was one long, predictable gender joke and a load of cliches. Nothing partiularly clever or entertaining.

It’s a shame. Are there any such films comparable to 10 Things I Hate About You?

“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?