Othello

The tragedy of Othello by William Shakespeare tells the story of a good man who is deceived by his close friend and, subsequently, kills his honest wife.

Othello is a Moor who has just married a beautiful, white Desdemona.  Still in their honeymoon stupor, the authorities in Venice send him to Cyprus to fortify the colony from an invasion from the Turks.  Desdemona wishes to go with him, and he accepts her request.  Jealousy enables Iago to plant doubt of Desdemona’s fidelity in Othello’s mind.  At first the newlywed couple behave as equals, but soon Othello’s chauvinistic, stubborn side comes to light.  Othello soon believes “honest” Iago over his own wife.  Othello’s temper overpowers him and in a fit, he suffocates Desdemona.  After her death the truth is revealed and a shamed Othello takes his own life.

It was difficult at first to be interested in the story.  But soon I found myself reading page after page, quite interested in the story.  There are so many layers, motifs, and ideas presented that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the play.  It is not one of my favorites, but Shakespeare wrote of racism, jealousy, power, loyalty, domestic abuse, honesty, and more – all of which are topics that are currently being explored and expanded 400-some years later.

I watched an excellent film adaption of the play from the BBC series of Shakespeare’s Tragedies.  It stars Anthony Hopkins (heavily tanned) as Othello.  As you probably can guess, he can play angry very well.  Here’s a link to the IMDB page: Othello (1981).

My essay for the play focused on Desdemona’s strength in adversity.  She died honest – she did not lie in an attempt to save her life when Othello confronted her.  She took charge of her own life, thoughts, and beliefs which is contradictory to the role and position of women at the time.  Desdemona was not a trophy wife, a play thing, or a mere sexual object, she was a confident, well-articulated, passionate woman who refused to take no or admit falsehoods.  I’d like to be friends with someone like her.  Someone who knows when to stand up for an injustice and most importantly, knows when to back down.  She did not deserve to die, however, her murderer gave himself quite, equal justice with his own life.  Of course, Emilia, Othello, and Desdemona all end up dead at the end and that serves no one, but I felt all murders were avenged with poetic justice.

Measure for Measure

The Duke of Vienna announces he must travel to Poland and leaves all executive and judiciary power to his second in command: Angelo.  Modestly, Angelo declines, the Duke tells him again that all life and death matters will be his concern until the Duke’s return.  Angelo accepts.  Unbeknown to everyone except a Friar, the Duke has not left Vienna, but is rather in disguise as Friar Lodowick.  Claudio has been sentenced to death by Angelo for fornication (sleeping with Juliet who is nearly 9 months pregnant now).  Instead of the typical forced marriage, Angelo is using Claudio as an example of his stricter enforcement of laws.  Claudio pleads to Lucio to fetch his sister who is about to take her vow to be a nun to plead with Angelo for his life.  Isabella goes to Angelo and pleads for her brother’s life.  Infatuated with her, he gives her a proposition – yield her virginity to him or her brother dies.  She refuses to sleep with him and thus she has condemned her brother to die the next morning via the chopping block.

The Duke, as Friar Lodowick, has overheard this dilemma and attempts to persuade the Provost to help him save Claudio’s life.  Friar Lodowick and Isabella trick Angelo to sleep with Mariana, whom Angelo was previously engaged to but broke off the engagement when her brother and dowry drowned at sea.  More trickery and disguising occurs to keep Angelo and another prisoner, Barnadine, alive.

In the last act, Friar Lodowick reveals himself to be the Duke, to the astonishment of everyone.  His subjects spoke frankly with him about their opinions of the Duke and of their past.  The Duke pardons some transgressions and forces Lucio to marry the prostitute he begot with child.  Confronted with the trickery, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana who still pined for Angelo.  Lastly, the Duke proposes to Isabella and though there is no scripted answer, it is implied by most theatre companies that she shakes her head yes.

I struggled though the first read of the play, which is not surprising as Shakespeare’s language is difficult to read, despite knowing its in iambic pentameter.  As I did with Twelfth Night, I watched the BBC production of the play while following along with the book.  The book and BBC version were 98% identical which was helpful to see facial expressions and body language as well as hear the spoken lines.  With the movie and book together I understood the play much more and rather enjoyed it.  It is typically classified as a “dark comedy” as it still falls in line with comedy expectations, but the audience begins to see a bit of tragedy that occurres in his later works begin to take root.

I would recommend Measure for Measure to read as well as the BBC production.  I still feel as though I am watching a play, as the background and props are simple and typical for stage plays, but have the benefit of a complete background that does not need my imagination to fill it in.  I can concentrate significantly more on the dialogue.  The BBC production of nearly every Shakespeare play was done in the late seventies and throughout the eighties, which actually adds to the charm and feeling of seeing a stage play.