Review: Othello

Review: Othello

OthelloOthello by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had rather be a toad and live upon the vapor of a dungeon than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ use.

This play recently reasserted itself into my life after I was taken to see it performed here in Madrid. Though I couldn’t understand very much, since it was in elaborate and quick Spanish, I still enjoyed it. (Among other things, the performance featured lots of semi-nudity, men wearing gas masks on dog leashes, and M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.”) Inspired, I decided to watch the BBC Television Shakespeare version, with Anthony Hopkins (looking suspiciously dark) playing the titular role.

The first time I read this play, I remember being somewhat baffled. Othello was stiff and uncompelling, Desdemona sickly sweet, and Iago operated from no discernable motive to accomplish pointless ends. This time around, I think I have made a little progress.

Othello naturally associates itself in my mind with Julius Caesar. In these plays, the titular characters, both generals, are distant, cold, and simple, and come to be totally overshadowed by other characters. In Julius Caesar, Brutus takes the lead, struggling to live morally in an immoral world; in this play we have Iago, who turns heroes into villains and innocence into carnage.

Who can pay attention to Othello when Iago is on the stage? He is hypnotizing. Shakespeare seems to accomplish the impossible by making one of his own characters the author of the play. Iago directs everything: he sets the plot in motion, manipulates the player’s emotions, controls what happens when, where, how fast, to who, for what reason, and what it means. He is playwright and stage manager, an artist whose intelligence is so cunning that he can paint upon reality itself.

The really frightening thing about Iago is that he can make you believe him, too, even though you know better. He is so utterly convincing in his lies, so keen in his psychological interpretations, so plausible in his attributions of motive and cause, that I found myself questioning whether Desdemona actually did sleep with Cassio. Nobody in the play stands a chance against such a roving and beguiling genius. Even Othello, brave, noble, commanding, is helpless in the Iago’s grips.

The mysterious thing about Iago is what drives him. In the beginning of the play, he attributes his hatred for Othello to rumors about Othello sleeping with his wife. Later on, Iago says he is resentful because Cassio was made Othello’s lieutenant. And yet his plan is not just to besmirch Cassio’s reputation—the self-interested thing to do—but to corrupt and then destroy Othello’s soul—which does not benefit Iago at all, or at least not in worldly terms.

What actuates him seems not to be jealousy, nor envy, nor egotism, but pure spite: the desire for revenge irrespective of justice or self-interest. Revenge for its own sake. This is so terrifying, and yet so compelling, because spite is such an exquisitely human emotion. It is an emotion that seems to have no practical benefit nor rational justification; and yet who has not felt the twangs of spite, the evil joy in injuring somebody who has injured you? It is spite that prompts Milton’s Satan to fight against infinite power; and it is spite that spurs Iago onward to destroy Othello, at great personal risk, for no personal benefit other than the joy in seeing Othello suffer for promoting Cassio instead of Iago.

As Harold Bloom points out, this tragedy is notable for having not even one moment of comic relief. It is unrelenting in its horror. We see innocent character after innocent character fall prey to Iago; we see Othello, a flawed but a good man, descend into madness; and finally we see Desdemona, the paragon of faithless love, smothered in her bed. Desdemona’s death scene is particularly hard to watch. She does not scream for help. She does not even protest her innocence as strongly as we’d like. Instead, she begs for one day, one half-hour, one moment of life more, and is denied.

We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing Iago pay for his crimes, or having him explain himself. “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never shall speak word.”

An interesting question is whether Othello and Desdemona’s marriage would have had a crisis even without Iago. They are a particularly ill-starred couple. Othello is a man of war, shaped by camp-life, accustomed to absolute power; he solves his problems with force; he destroys those who challenge or disobey him. Desdemona is love incarnate, faithful, kind, gentle, and totally without malice. She is attracted to Othello for his adventurous life; Othello is attracted to her admiration for him. The story of their courtship—Othello regaling her with his war-stories, and she giving him hints of her interest—makes it sound as though Othello is only attracted to his own reflection in her. This is in keeping with a man who refers to himself in the third person.

Othello’s obvious unsuitability to married life makes him an easy dupe to Iago. Desdemona’s guileless purity makes her the perfect victim. Iago’s only mistake is that he underestimated his own wife—an odd, but telling mistake to make. Is there a moral to this story? I’m not sure. But I’ll be staying away from people named Iago.
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Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #10: John Milton

Who overcomes / By force, hath overcome but half his foe.

—John Milton

Like nearly all good quotes from Paradise Lost, these words are spoken by Satan. He is both commenting on his own expulsion from heaven a well as his plans to disrupt God’s plans through guile and craft rather than force. (He tried using force first, but his army lost.)

This maxim strikes me as true with regard to both physical and intellectual force. If one person is stronger than another, one army better trained and equipped than another, one nation richer and bigger than another, they might be able to have their way through force alone. And doubtless, many have used force successfully. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it is seldom possible to completely defeat an enemy’s strength. Battles are costly, and destruction takes valuable resources. Usually the fallen enemy limps away to fight another day. What’s more, when you use force, you make more enemies than you defeat. There are innumerable examples of this. Through belligerent foreign policy, the United States has often undermined its own security this way, by inspiring hatred in the hearts of many while defeating the arms of a few.

This lesson is equally true in intellectual battles. Let’s say that you and I are having a disagreement. Let’s also say that I am almost certainly wrong, and you almost certainly right. Nevertheless, if you convince me by force, against my will, if you are condescending and contradicting, even if you’re right, you will only inspire resentment and bitterness in me. I will dig in my heels; I will struggle and strain; I will look for every possible argument, however farfetched, to combat you, just because my pride will be on the line. Every intellectual fight is inevitably a fight about something besides the ostensible subject. Every argument becomes a fight of egos, not of minds, and thus a battle in the purest sense. We are never less well disposed to empathize with another person’s point of view if we feel that they are trying to do us harm.

With varying levels of success, I try to apply this lesson whenever I have a disagreement. The trick, I’ve found, is to always try to find some truth in what your partner is saying. (Call them a partner, not an opponent.) Tell them all the ways they’re right before you say any of your own ideas. Then, even if you disagree, don’t frame your comments as contradictions to what they said. Instead, treat your ideas as additions to their ideas, as different bricks in the same structure. This way, you will have an ally instead of an enemy, and they will be much more well disposed towards agreeing with you.

Quotes & Commentary #3: John Milton

Quotes & Commentary #3: John Milton

The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

—John Milton, Paradise Lost

How often have these words been proven true in my life? I can dislike even the most pleasant things if I set my mind to it (a rather perverse thing to boast about).

Like many people, this truth is most apparent when I am being forced to do something against my will. Even when it’s something I enjoy, if I feel that I’m being cajoled or pressured to do it, I will instantly become stubborn and bitter. I love to sing; but if you pressure me to sing, I will take a vow of silence; and if you somehow make me sing, I’ll hold a grudge against you for as long as I live.

Once we realize how much our happiness is a product of our mentality, it frees us to choose to think differently, and thus to feel differently. This is the principle behind many philosophies and religions—Stoicism, Buddhism, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For me, learning to focus on my mindset rather than my circumstances has been enormously beneficial; sometimes it’s impossible to change the world, but you can always change your mind.

Yet there is a limit to this. Some situations are just more pleasant than others; and some conditions are dehumanizing and dreadful. Milton implies this when he puts this quote into the mouth of Satan, who was just recently banished to hell. Satan is really deluding himself that he can be just as happy in hell as in heaven. The differences between his fallen state and his former blessed life is too apparent.

Even so, I think it’s generally true that the greatest source of our happiness or unhappiness is our expectations, assumptions, interpretations, and our fears. We may not be able to make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven, but we can make both a heaven and a hell of earth.