Why This Play?:
Oh, y’all. I’ve been so very, very behind. And I have swell excuses. First off, my years-ago brush with the Macbeth curse reared its ugly head in the exact same manner after just writing about the play – I came down with laryngitis a couple of days after that last blog post. Cursed, cursed play! And then here in the States, I hosted our Thanksgiving meal and spent all my free time for a few days refining the menu and prepping dishes. Then we decorated the house for the holidays, and the kids were constantly under my feet, I’m volunteering at the school…the list of excuses that I have for not writing goes on and on. But if I’m honest, I’ve been stalling.
I think the real reason I put off writing about Othello is that it is a very disturbing play. For all my love of horror movies and the gore of other plays, it’s this domestic drama that really scares me. This blog encompasses my own personal view of Shakespeare – how I interpret and relate to the Bard’s works through events/feelings in my own little life. No one wants to think Othello’s themes of jealousy, racism, gender issues, domestic violence, or manipulation are represented in her own life. I’ve been skirting around my thoughts of Desdemona in particular and how she’s the worst-case scenario of what happens when women are viewed as prizes rather than partners. And let’s face it – every woman has been there to some degree.
So What Happens?:
Iago professes villainy as soon as the play opens. He’s been passed up for promotion in the army (rich boy Cassio has been made lieutenant instead), and he’s setting up a plan to retaliate. He’s out to get the Moor, and Cassio while he’s at it. The Venice army’s general, Othello, is a powerful fighter and a Moor (broad, olden term for Islamic and/or dark-skinned person from the Middle East/North Africa). A gentleman named Roderigo enters, lamenting that Othello has just secretly wed Desdemona (the lady Rod adores). Iago instantly seizes the opportunity to make trouble for Othello. The two men head to Brabantio’s house to wake him up and warn him that his daughter’s married the Moor. Enraged, Brabantio’s calling for blood and wants the marriage to be annulled. How dare they interracially wed!
Othello arrives, and Iago, ever pretending friendship, warns him of Brabantio’s wrath. Cassio arrives as well with news that the Duke of Venice wants to ship their troop out to Cyprus to suppress a Turkish attack. All the Venetian bigwigs enter, and Brabantio publicly accuses Othello of witchcraft in wooing his daughter; he also wants the Duke to denounce the marriage. Othello denies sorcery (claiming he wooed simply by telling about his past), and asks Desdemona to speak on her own behalf as to the reasons for their marriage. She confirms she’s married, and her duty is now aligned more with her husband than father, as is proper. The Duke prizes Othello’s military prowess above all else, so he basically tells Brabantio to get over his issue with the marriage. Papa B relents, quite unhappily. Othello prepares to leave for Cyprus right away, and smitten Desdemona insists on following. Roderigo is upset that he no longer has a chance with Desdemona, but Iago convinces him to join their forces to seek revenge on Othello. Separately, Iago reflects on his hatred for Othello (due to lack of promotion? that he’s maybe cuckolding Iago? that he’s black? -- all of the above according to Iago!) and creates a scheme to convince Othello that Desdemona is cheating on him with Cassio.
The Turkish naval fleet was dashed away in a storm! War’s no longer at hand, but everyone will chill in Cyprus for a bit since they’re already there. Iago and Desdemona arrive on the island, and Iago’s wife Emilia is called to serve Desdmona. Cassio welcomes the lady with his flowery manners (which annoy Iago, but could act as fuel for his scheme). They all engage in some banter about how ladies should be treated. Othello’s ship comes in, and the newlyweds are happily reunited. Later, Iago tells Roderigo that Desdemona has the hots for Cassio – all part of his plan to get Rod on board with his mischief to harm Cassio. Even Iago claims to “love” Desdemona a bit, since she’s such a great tool for his revenge.
Since the Turkish army is no longer a threat, everyone can party! Cassio initially declines to partake since he can’t really hold his liquor, but Iago convinces him to join in. A drunken Cassio proves to be a bit of a hothead, and when Roderigo goads him, he attacks and causes general mayhem. Othello comes out to restore order and demands explanation. Iago slyly says he won’t say anything to condemn Cassio, but that Cassio’s rage was provoked. Othello doesn’t have room for riffraff in his army, so he dismisses Cassio from service. Cassio is distraught over his lost reputation, and Iago recommends that he ask Desdemona to plea to Othello for his reinstatement. Iago’s plans are moving along swimmingly.
Desdemona agrees to help out her pal Cassio. Othello sees Cassio hurrying away, and Iago is there to claim that looks suspicious. Desdemona tries to plea Cassio’s innocence to her husband. Iago tells Othello to beware of jealousy…which now firmly lays the seed of marital doubt in Othello’s mind. Iago puts on such a good show of friendship, that Othello holds his advice dear. He’s irritated, and when Desdemona tries to soothe his headache with her handkerchief, he pushes it away. It lies forgotten on the floor, and Emilia retrieves it. She’s going to give it to Iago, because he’s been asking her for a while to steal it for him (you get the impression that they don’t have a good marriage, and that Emilia will do this one little thing to make him happy/keep the peace).
Everything’s just coming up Iago! He’s stoked to have the handkerchief, and he plants it in Cassio’s room. Othello’s thoughts have been churning, and he’s worked himself up into a frenzy over the idea of his wife’s infidelity. He consults Iago for proof to back up his insinuations about Desdemona. Iago tells a story of Cassio sleeping next to him and murmuring lovey-dovey stuff about Desdemona in his sleep. Othello brushes off the tale. So Iago counters that Cassio has been wiping his beard with Desdemona’s handkerchief. This is good enough for the Othello, who vows revenge on his lieutenant and his wife, enlisting the help of an eager Iago. In a final attempt at proof, Othello questions his wife about the handkerchief when she tries again to persuade him to forgive Cassio. She reveals it’s lost, and Othello tells her an ominous story about how that handkerchief is supposed to bless a marriage. Elsewhere, Cassio brings the handkerchief (he found it in his room!) to a local prostitute, Bianca. She’s sweet on him, but he doesn’t take her seriously as a love interest. He gives her the handkerchief and asks her to copy the embroidery on it, because why not?
Othello is heartbroken and dazed. Iago places him on standby to overhear what Cassio will say about “Desdemona”. Iago lures Cassio nearby and masterfully gets him talking about Bianca. Cassio laughs over her adoration, and Othello overhears, thinking Cassio is speaking about his wife. This is the final straw. Othello decides he must kill Desdemona. Iago recommends strangling Desdemona in their wedding bed, since she’s supposedly besmirched it. Othello feels this is both reasonable and fair (*reader pulls hair out*).
A bigwig from Venice, Lodovico, rolls into Cyprus to call Othello back to Venice and to hand over his current post to Cassio. Desdemona tells Lodovico of the rift between Othello and Cassio and implores him to right it. Othello, infuriated, publicly hits her, stunning everyone in the court. Desdemona thinks the change to his post is upsetting Othello, but O informs her that it’s because she’s a whore. Emilia is infuriated on Desdemona’s behalf – rightly so. Roderigo is finally coming to his senses and realizes that Iago has been stringing him along with promises to help win Desdemona. Iago calms him, and convinces him that the only way forward is for Rod to kill Cassio – in fact, he should do it that very night. Desdemona is distraught, and consults with Emilia, wondering how women could ever commit adultery. Emilia responds that most women could, including herself. Desdemona tells a story of a maid who had her heart broken by a mad man, and she sings a song called Willow.
To cover his tracks, Iago realizes that both Roderigo and Cassio have got to go. As planned, Roderigo picks a fight with Cassio, but Rod ends up injured, and Cassio’s leg is wounded as well. [Interesting note: there’s a debate in textual interpretation…some indicate that Rod hurts Cassio in their brawl, others that a hidden Iago stabs his leg. Depends on how much a director/actor want to play up Iago’s evil machinations, I suppose.] Othello hears the cries and thinks Iago is dealing with Cassio. But nobles Lodovico and Gratiano hear the cries as well and come running to help. Cassio says he’s been attacked. In all the confusion and dark, Iago kills Roderigo. Other folks arrive to help – Bianca takes Cassio to her place to be mended, and Iago sends Emilia to tell Othello and Desdemona about the fight.
Othello watches Desdemona sleeping and he agonizes over killing her but resolves to do it anyway. She awakes and he demands she confess her sins. Othello says he’s going to kill her, and Desdemona pleads that she knows not what crime she’s committed. He tells her Cassio has the handkerchief, and that he knows of their affair. Desdemona frantically proclaims her innocence and even begs a stay of execution to utter a last prayer. But Othello closes in and smothers her. Emilia arrives to share the news of Cassio’s injury, and she witnesses Desdemona’s dying words of innocence and self-blame. Othello confesses that he’s murdered her due to infidelity with Cassio, and that Iago was kind enough to tell him of it. Emilia is flabbergasted at her husband’s actions and instantly realizes why Iago wanted the handkerchief. Emilia rails against Othello and screams out that murder has occurred.
Iago and the nobles, led by governor Montano, come running into the bedchamber. They see the dead Desdemona, and Emilia reveals Othello’s murder and Iago’s hand in it. She sadly explains her own role in procuring the damning handkerchief, and a furious Iago stabs her. She dies singing the Willow song to Desdemona. The nobles take Iago prisoner on the spot. A contrite and mourning Othello contemplates suicide and attempts to wound Iago, whom he believes is a devil. The nobles take his weapon away. Others bring Cassio in, and Othello apologizes to him. When he asks Iago for his motive for his villainy, Iago shuts down and will no longer speak. Othello asks the nobles to remember his true character, produces a hidden sword, stabs himself, and falls over Desdemona’s body to die. Iago is sent to prison (to be tortured?), Gratiano is given all Othello’s wealth, and Lodovico will return to Venice to tell the story of what occurred.
Check This Out:
I watched Olivier’s 1965 film version, notable for Derek Jacobi’s very decent drunken scene. While I hardly think blackface is appropriate (or at all necessary for this play, given the long list of stellar Black actors throughout history), I was impressed with Olivier’s vocal characterization. His voice is a few octaves lower than usual and has a beautiful musical quality that’s really well-suited to such pretty words. Oh, and Maggie Smith is gorgeous.
Check out this wonderful breakdown of the scenes between the women in Othello, through interviews by the actresses who portrayed Desdemona and Emilia in a 2013 production at National Theatre:
An interesting interview with Ewan MacGregor about Iago’s motivations:
Awesome collection of images of Othello through the years on the Folger Shakespeare Library’s site – it’s fascinating to see the transition of ethnicities in the actors that portray Othello over the years (click on Picturing Othello within link).
Thoughts and Themes:
Isn't it interesting that we see Desdemona as a stronger character in the beginning of the play? She defies family and social order to marry who she will. She defends that choice publicly to the local leaders and her father. She exhibits bravery in wanting to travel to Cyprus (separately from her husband) in order to be with him. But marriage seems to chasten her. Slowly, she starts to dwindle. At first she continues to speak her mind, urging Othello to forgive Cassio, even speaking with Lodovico about it. But over the course of the play, her once doting husband turns cold, slaps her in public, berates her, calls her a whore. By the play’s end, we see her practically submitting to her death, even though she laments that she did nothing wrong. Her final words even let her husband off the hook for murder:
O, who hath done this deed?
Nobody; I myself.
We talk so much about the manipulation of Othello by Iago...but Othello's increasing manipulation of Desdemona is just as striking. It's a classic tale of emotional and domestic abuse -- he wears her down over time, making her think she deserves the treatment that is dealt to her. And in the worst situations, it gets violent.
Ugh. This, for me, is Shakespeare's most disturbing play.
Here’s the thing about being female – at some point, there will be a man who is looking to control you. Now, this is certainly not the case with all men – I’m so, so, so lucky to have incredible male partners, family members, mentors, and friends in my life now and in the past. I don’t in any way want to condemn all men. But you have to understand that my mother, aunts, girlfriends, female colleagues…we ALL have stories of times that we’ve been made to feel that we have to submit, or modify our behavior, or not speak up for fear of hurting a man’s feelings (or quite literally of being hurt by a man). Desdemona put up with Othello’s erratic behavior because she believed it was her duty as his wife. Women are taught to be polite and submissive, even in the 21st century. Men are still taught to take charge. There’s nothing wrong with being polite or with being a leader…but there’s an intersection where it can negatively affect how we treat each other. Please take the time to read this amazing piece by Gretchen Kelly about how women utilize de-escalating techniques everyday – it’s more intelligible than my flailing words. This is important behavior to recognize within both women and men because then we can start to make changes before anything intensify to a level where people get hurt.
I took a trip to Tahoe a few years ago with some girlfriends, where we ended up discussing various creepy ordeals we’d each undergone. We all had tales of strange hands grabbing our butts or grazing our breasts in public settings. One of my friends confessed that a superior at her work was giving very forward (unwanted) advances and she wasn’t sure what to do. It had gotten to the point where he was starting to act strangely, and I was afraid he would eventually turn physical toward my friend. We all convinced her to document everything and report him to HR (happy to say that situation was swiftly and firmly handled after she did). The entire conversation, she kept saying how badly she felt for him. And that’s the funny thing about manipulation – the victim of unwanted advances or emotional abuse (like Desdemona’s text-book case) either thinks something is her/his fault or she/he feels badly toward their aggressor, who puts on a great apologetic face.
It absolutely sucks when someone you care about makes you feel like shit. Makes you feel that you don’t measure up to their arbitrary standards. My high school boyfriend was not a good guy, but never overtly mean. He had plenty of his own self-esteem issues, so he exerted control by giving me strange back-handed “compliments” and consistently comparing me with other girls (not in my favor). I put up with it…I don’t even know why, because he would counter-act with over-the-top romantic gestures after each incident, and maybe just because I wanted to be a normal teenager who had the same experiences my friends were having. There is a part of me that wants to hug/throttle 17-year-old me at those memories. I am very, very relieved to say that we went to separate colleges, and I quickly realized that I never had to be treated so disrespectfully ever again. Leaving him behind and embarking on university life (at the school I worked SO HARD to attend) restored all my old confidence that he had tried to chip away to bring me to his level of discontent. But I guess we learn a lot about ourselves from the bad relationships too, right? In a weird way, I’m lucky that my first serious relationship was the worst because I never allowed it to be repeated. But turns out that kid wasn’t done with me. Oh, no.
More than five years after I dumped him (during which we had no contact), he edged his was back into my life. By that point, we had each graduated college and started our adult lives. I was already even dating the stellar dude who would become my husband. The ex-boyfriend called me out of the blue. [I remember it was Superbowl Sunday, because I was at a party. To this day, I hate watching the Superbowl]. He called with a very vague message about how he was “sorting through some things” and wanted to talk. He left several messages before I broke down and returned his call (stupid, polite girl that I was). He led me through a 25-minute conversation of small talk without getting to whatever was really on his mind. He then was extremely irritated when I told him that one polite catch-up conversation was enough and ended the call. He said that our talk wasn’t enough time to get to the “real issue at hand” (I had no idea what he wanted to discuss, nor why he didn’t actually get around to it while he had me on the phone).
For the next few weeks, he proceeded to leave me numerous abrasive voicemails in which he would put deadlines on me to return his calls, insisting that he needed my help in working through his past. He even sicced some pal of his from therapy on me, a bland-voiced young woman who would leave long rambling voicemails about how he was one of the most caring and open people she knew, and I was really hurting him by not fulfilling my part of his healing process. This ordeal only finally ended when a) I asked two good male buddies (the 3 of us were at college together; they also knew the ex from high school) to tell him to back off, and b) I emailed the dude informing him that his behavior was frightening and that I would take action with the cops if he didn’t stop.
I hope my husband and I are good examples for our children. We try to teach them basic kid-appropriate lessons on basic respect for others. We try to instill them with self-confidence. I’m realizing that there’s a really hard lesson in teaching polite manners, but knowing to speak out when someone else’s actions or words sincerely bother you. I think as they get older, it’s important for us to share specific stories of our own experiences with them. They need concrete cautionary tales of how not to treat people and what kind of treatment that neither of them should ever have to endure.
Besides, I’d rather raise a Beatrice than a Desdemona any day.