Shakespeare’s Othello has always been a bit of a problem play for me, respected more than loved, and, of the four great tragedies with eponymous heroes (Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, the other three), it was always the least satisfying, primarily because I could never really feel the tragic aspect of Othello’s situation. Killing whom one loves because of jealousy is bad enough, but groundless jealousy at that. It makes Othello a dupe in a way much less interesting than Macbeth, bad as he is, is.
What wins my fascination is the character Iago, for here we have Shakespeare’s flair for villainy at its most villainous. The treachery of Iago, its 'motiveless malignity,' has been the cause of much spilt ink, but, apart from whatever ways we might rationalize it, it simply is inspiring at the level of machination, meanness, and the very theatrical nature of lying, deceit, manipulation. A case study in how unsuspecting people can be ‘played’ by someone apt to do it.
Today I saw a production of the play by students in the Yale School of Drama, directed by Michael McQuilken, that, although student work within the program and not really aimed for the general public, struck me as a definitive interpretation of the play. I say this because I actually learned a few things while watching it. The productions I’ve seen have been hammy (Welles’) or sleep inducing (Olivier’s), or both (Branagh’s), but, even while watching those filmed versions in frustration, I could feel that there was something truly remarkable about this play -- that my conviction of its greatness wasn’t due to some syncophantic aping of what Shakespeare scholars say, but was based on my own experience of reading the play. But, in performance, more than all Shakespeare's other tragedies (except Romeo and Juliet), it just seemed too improbable, too loaded with dupes and stooges, but for the super-slick and dastardly Iago.
It was Stanley Edgar Hyman’s book-length study of Iago, which I read in high school, that convinced me not only that this play was extraordinary but also that literary criticism might be worth reading, but it fatally swayed me in favor of the villain over the hero of this play. Why would Welles or Olivier play Othello, I fumed, because he’s the title of the play? All the psychological complexity is in Iago!
So one thing the YSD production did was put paid to that conviction. Austin Durant’s Othello was invigorating, so full of dignity, so great-souled, that his downfall was truly tragic, stirring in a way that had to do with our sympathy for him, but that came from his passionate grasp of his own misery. 'O the pity, Iago, the pity!' was a moment of staggering realization of all he has lost, once he believes he can no longer trust his wife.
And that realization, which might seem naive or inconsequential, to our modern ears, is sustained by the fact that, in this version, there were grounds for his suspicions, even without Iago. Desdemona (Sarah Sokolovic) wasn’t simply a paragon of virtue, but was rather a woman who liked being admired (as many women, even those who are virtuous, might, without actually being vain or deceitful) by Cassio, the handsome lieutenant. Of course, it’s in the play that she might favor Cassio more than is seemly, but it’s all a question of how it’s carried off. In this version, it was all innocent enough, but not wholly innocent. We could feel how desired Desdemona might well be among the other men in the cast and that was enough to make her fidelity to her husband questionable.
Another striking aspect of this production was the suffering of Iago. Usually he’s just a cad who wants to see how far he can push the gullibleness of human nature, but with an ulterior motive of bringing down his enemies. His hatred of Othello has been seen as bigotry, and as jealousy; his hatred of Cassio as frustrated homosexual longings, and so forth, but nothing completely explains him. As played by Will Connelly, Iago, thin, small, wiry, was a man burning with a sense of his own psychological power -- his ability to anticipate how others will act in scenarios he creates. He became, rather explicity to my mind as I watched, a figure for the playwright himself, manipulating his characters, giving them roles in scenes he creates, making them suffer to make up, perhaps, for his own suffering -- or lack thereof. What he suffers from is being stuck with who he is (a mere scribbler), able to see the great as, in Nietzsche’s phrase, 'the play actors of their own ideals.' As Iago says, in a meditative moment of clarity that ripples throughout the entire play in terms of who is actually true to who they are: 'Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.'
I’m sure that’s not an original idea, that others have seen Shakespeare in Iago, and perhaps I’ve even encountered that argument. But never have I felt it so convincingly rendered as in this version of the play, and not as a tendentious ‘interpretation’ being foisted on it for our benefit. It simply came out in the brilliance of how well the drama Iago creates runs its appointed course. I think this is meant to be the case and should be obvious to the viewer, and to be present as it happens -- to see 'the mousetrap' close with such effective timing -- is truly staggering.
What’s more, the tragedy stung with the feel of the playwright’s utter perversion of what Romeo and Juliet portrays: there true love is frustrated by fateful errors, but the love remains true, even unto death. Here, the love is thwarted by a major error -- lack of trust of the beloved, willingness to believe the worst so as to undermine one’s own happiness -- that leads to murder and suicide. The crippling power of jealousy -- which is the overwhelming insight of this play, and which needs to be played extremely well to be convincing, convincing as tragic affliction and not simply ego assertion -- is Shakespeare’s great theme and so finely tuned, so well-wrought, as to be endlessly entertaining, even to modern audiences. And all the best characters are sacrificed on its altar.
Durant’s delivery of Othello’s 'that in Aleppo once' speech was truly heart-breaking, and not, as it can appear, the last bid for sympathy by a wife-murderer. We have to believe in the love and we have to believe in the urge to kill for it, and to die as a consequence. Durant fulfilled those requirements handsomely.
This was textbook stuff -- not in the sense of boring, already digested information -- but in the sense of a rendering of the play to be studied by students of the play, to see the power of the text come to life, and death.