My reading and writing has become quite disjointed as a result of some ongoing health problems – nothing like a couple of trips to hospital to break up your Shakespeare reading routine!!
I did manage to read Othello last week though.
I had been looking forward to reading Othello. I don’t remember having sat down and read the play before in its full form. At the very start of my career in theatre, I assisted on a 60-minute abridged version, and I saw Nick Hytner’s National Theatre production several years ago (starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear). These have been my interactions with the play, and I was expecting/hoping to find a play that grappled with the nature of trust, envy and jealousy, more so than racial prejudice.
In reality, however, I found a play that (to my mind) is laced with the subconscious biases of a world that viewed black people as innately savage. It feels to me that this is a sort of study in showing that, however much a black man may appear civilised, he will inevitably return to his native savage state. And (for obvious reasons!!) this is incredibly uncomfortable to read! There are lots of throw away lines and references to mysticism and exoticism, that highlight Othello’s otherness and in a way that heavily implies he is less civilised and less human than those around him. There is somehow an inevitability in the unfolding of the story that the ‘unnatural’ union between Othello and Desdemona can only end badly.
Largely as a result of this, I felt that, unlike Shakespeare’s great plays, Othello fails to ask us many questions. It presents an archetype or lesson, rather than opening up questions and uncertainty. I found myself feeling like Othello wasn’t given enough humanity for his tragedy to have weight, and that Iago’s evil was just evil with no real sense of peril or doubt.
In many ways, I felt that the most interesting perspectives in the play are those of Desdemona and Emilia, who are given hardly any stage time at all. It feels a great shame that these characters aren’t given more of an opportunity to show us their side of things. Emilia, in particular, is such a fantastic character but only really has a scene to show us her worth.
All in all, I was left somewhat cold by the play as a whole. But it undoubtedly has some fantastic scenes and characters. Iago would be a lot of fun to play as an actor, with a very playful relationship with the audience. Iago’s scenes with Othello are very well structured and full of excellent lines and dramatic tension. Similarly, the scene when Emilia is preparing Desdemona for bed is probably one of the best Shakespeare ever wrote. I just felt like the plot as a whole and the deeply problematic portrayal of Othello meant that I never felt truly invested in the story.
So, definitely a play to grab moments from for scenes studies and auditions. But, for me, not one that I’d be leaping to direct. I would find it far too uncomfortable to present this story on stage.