(They were very inventive with the 'trumpet calls' in the text; characters carried mobile phones which rang to convey messages.)
Othello is essentially a revenge tragedy. Iago believes that his wife, Emilia, slept with Othello, Iago's boss. For this (and, possibly, other reasons; Iago has been passed over for promotion in favour of Michael Cassio who also may have slept with the generous Emilia, Iago displikes Othello's blackness) he determines to destroy Othello's happiness.
But Shakespeare elevates Othello head and shoulders above any other revenge tragedy with his masterly portrayal of Iago. The audience knows, almost from the outset, that Iago is a villain. He explains how he intends to deceive. But all the characters are deceived by him; they call him 'Honest' Iago repeatedly. He plays his part magnificently, telling the truth but twisting it, giving sound advice but manipulating things to make the good advice have a bad consequence, warning Othello against jealousy even as he ensnares him.
There's plenty of classic Shakespeare in this play including a punning clown and a sword fight but it is the style that makes Othello special. For example, there is the repetition and repetition and repetition of key themes like the ironic 'honest Iago' mentioned above. There is careful foreshadowing in early scenes (including where Iago warns Othello against jealousy). There is the careful structuring of the act/ scene structure: the two, heartbreakingly intense scenes set in Desdemona's bedroom are separated by a fight scene; the scene in which Iago begins to develop Othello's jealousy and talks about the handkerchief is immediately followed by Desdemona and Emilia wandering the streets, accosting a punning clown, and then talking about the handkerchief. The whole play is beautifully timed so that it starts with a bang, the turning point happens dead centre and the tension rises and rises to the end. And a number of scenes, including the very first, begin in media res.
But it is the dialogue that is exceptional. Dialogue is used to establish dominance: the dominant character tends to have the longest speeches and in Act Three when Iago the servant manipulates Othello that balance dramatically switches with cat's paw Othello getting a few words to respond to Iago's carefully articulated arguments. Shakespeare is best known for the vaulting speeches with their incredible poetry. But in Othello, Shakespeare never lets a speech go on too long. In Desdemona's singing of the Willow song she even interrupts herself when she sings the wrong line. And Shakespeare uses fractured lines to express fear, anger, dismay and bewilderment (Emilia's repeated 'my husband?' queries in the final scene).
Brilliant. December 2015
Othello was derived from a source called Gli Hecatommithi by Giovanni Battista Cinthio. In this a Moor working in Venice marries a lady called Disdemona despite the fact that her relatives try to make her marry someone else. They travel to Cyprus where the Moor becomes Commandant; the Moor's Ensign, a wicked man, accompanies him with his own wife, who spends a lot of time with Disdemona. The Ensign then falls in love with D but becomes jealous that she is in love with the Moor's Corporal and plots to make the Moor believe that the Corporal is the adulterer of D. After the Moor deprives the Corporal for having drawn his sword and wounded another soldier; the Ensign keeps stirring the pot including telling the Moor that D dislikes his blackness. The Ensign then steals D's handkerchief, given to her by the Moor as a wedding present; prompted by the Ensign the Moor asks where the handkerchief is and she has to confess she has lost it. The Ensign then has a sword fight with the Corporal (and cuts his leg off); the Moor then beats D to death with a stocking filled with sand. Shakespeare didn't change much!
Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):
- Timon of Athens (RSC 2019)
- As You Like It (RSC 2019)
- Antony and Cleopatra (NT 2019)
- Richard II (NT 2019)
- Merry Wives of Windsor (RSC 2018)
- Romeo and Juliet
- Macbeth (RSC 2019)
- A Midsummer Night's Dream (Lazarus, 2018)
- Hamlet (RSC 2013, RSC 2018)
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre (George Players, Huntingdon 2017)
- The Taming of the Shrew
- Cymbeline (RSC 2016)
- King Lear (RSC 2016, BBC 2018)
- A Winter's Tale (RADA 2016, Branagh 2019)
- The Tempest (RSC 2017, Royal Northampton 2016, Lazarus 2019)
- Measure for Measure (Young Vic 2015; RSC 2019)