Friday, May 17, 2013

Review: Othello by William Shakespeare

Title: Othello
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Classics / Plays
First published: 1622

Rating: 7 out of 10

This tragic play by Shakespeare is one that I read as a child, but didn't quite understand. So last night in Barnes & Noble's, I decided to re-read it.

This is the story of a Venetian nobleman named Othello, a Moor from Northern Africa, who made his way from slavery to wealth and power. His sad story and noble character inspire Desdemona, a beautiful young woman, to fall in love with him. The two hastily marry in secret, to the disapproval of many. Othello's personal attendant, a man named Iago, is meanwhile hunting for a way to bring about his master's ruin. Iago feels that Othello promoted another man to a higher position that should have been his, and dwells on a rumor that Othello slept with his wife. For this, he actively and purposefully sets out to usher in Othello's destruction. He plants doubts in Othello's mind about his wife's faithfulness, and goes to great lengths to set up an entire story of her alleged affair.
Though Othello believes his wife to be loyal, he eventually allows the smallest doubt to creep into his mind, which Iago coaxes into certainty with his clever words and twisting of events.
Eventually, Othello decides that he must kill Desdemona and her supposed lover.

This play was, indeed, very tragic and sad. I would even go so far as to say that it is the saddest Shakespeare play I have ever read. For some reason, the idea of a perfect couple being torn apart by an outsider seemed even more horrible than the Romeo and Juliet plot line.

I thought at one point in the story: Poor Othello, poor Desdemona, poor Cassio! Really, all of the characters played out a very unfortunate story, and met an equally unfortunate end, all because of one scheming man.

This man is Iago, who everyone believes to be a loyal, mostly good individual, even if he does have a negative view on women, as is witnessed by his wife and Desdemona.
Iago has heard rumors that Othello slept with his wife, Emilia. He has no proof, and he never tells us where exactly he heard these rumors. In fact, he seems more interested in picturing his wife cheating than actually trying to discover if the rumors are true or not.
With this already in his mind, he takes the advancement of Cassio as the last straw. Cassio is a younger, less experienced man, who has just been promoted in the army. Iago feels that he deserves the job, and that it was wrong of Othello to forget him.
Though he never voices this like his other complaints, Iago also seems to have a racist grudge against Othello, who is black. At the time, serving under a black man would have been unusual and controversial, and Iago makes a few snide remarks in the beginning that pertain to Othello's race, mostly in the form of name-calling.
So Iago does not like Othello.
But he takes it much farther than a simple dislike toward someone. He truly hates the man, he loathes him, he obsesses day and night over how to bring about his ruin. This is not done over just a few days, and nor does Iago simply come up with one plan and go through with it.
Iago's plans are complex and extremely involved, taking enormous effort. Because his plans are so complicated and rely heavily on how others react to them, Iago's plots must adapt constantly, and require much quick-thinking.
Iago has a way with words. Simple everyday acts like greeting someone politely, laughing, walking, or making a new friend are twisted into terrible acts of wickedness by his silver tongue.
Shakespeare uses Iago's character to do what he does best: clever dialogue, which no can do quite like him, still to this day.
An example of this is the scene in which Iago tells Othello to listen to him speak to Cassio (who is supposedly cheating with Desdemona, Othello's wife). Iago asks Cassio about his whore, knowing that Cassio will assume he is referring to Bianca, who actually is a whore and can thus be accurately referred to as one. Iago also knows that Othello, listening, will assume that Iago is referring to Desdemona, who is not a whore, and thus is being insulted. Cassio speaks lightly of her, laughing, just as men normally do when speaking of their latest conquest. However, Othello takes this to mean that Cassio is shameless and thinks that cheating with his master's wife is a joke.
Scenes like this are scattered through-out the play, and if the topic at hand weren't so grave, they would be extremely funny in how witty they are.

Othello is a Moor (meaning that he is from northern Africa) who is honorable, respectful, and logical. He does not seem like a jealous man, and at first is doubtful that Iago can possibly be right about Desdemona's unfaithfulness. However, I believe that even a trusting man married to an angel would have eventually grown suspicious with Iago's tricky words leading him on.
Othello also shows himself, farther on in the story, to be very passionate, which was actually what made Desdemona attracted to him in the first place. Yet another sad little fact: The thing that made her fall in love with her husband is also what ruins their relationship. Othello becomes utterly enraged by the idea of another man touching his wife, and the thought consumes him as he does his best to dismiss it. By the time Iago is done, Othello completely believes the story he has been told, and is driven even to murder.

Cassio, yet another of Iago's victims, is another character whose life is ruined simply by Iago's word choice. One day, he is a handsome, charismatic young ladies man who has just been promoted to a prestigious new title. But the next day, he has been falsely labeled a drunkard and a brawler, is thought to be an adulterer, and has two men scheming out how to murder him.

Iago's third victim would be Desdemona, a pretty young rich girl who fell in love with Othello despite the public opinion that they were an ill match. She risks and endures her father's disownment of her just to be with Othello, only to have her romance torn apart by Iago's lies. The injustice of it all is a sense that is strongly felt through-out the play, particularly in the scenes involving Desdemona, due to her innocence.
Desdemona is completely unaware of the schemes being plotted against her, and the suspicions that her husband is needlessly drawing up about her.
She struck me as naive, angelic, and very sweet. This cherubic character only served to make the audience pity her even more.
At the end, when Othello voices his thoughts about her cheating, she remains devoted to him, a touching and heartbreaking scene.

I think that every single character in this play suffers in some way (mostly in a very large way) due to Iago.
Jealousy is a prominent theme here. Iago is jealous of almost everyone, seeing himself as deserving of whatever pleasures they may have. He uses other men's admiration of Desdemona's beauty to prod them into jealousy over Othello (who is certainly sleeping with her, since he is her husband) or of Cassio (who is allegedly sleeping with her just because Iago says so). Understanding jealousy inside and out and being an apparent expert on the subject, Iago skillfully weaves other men's jealousy into yet another way of getting what he wants.

Though the entire play is about jealousy and cheating, it appears that none of the characters actually ever cheat.
The first woman who is accused of cheating by Iago is his wife, Emilia, but this is presumably not true. No evidence to it being true is ever even hinted at.
The next is, of course, Desdemona, who is unquestionably innocent.

This is a sad play that sets off Shakespeare's style and abilities perfectly. I would recommend it highly.