segunda-feira, junho 13, 2016

The War of the Sexes: "Othello" by William Shakespeare


This is one of the plays I’d never read. This was the first time I read it. I’ve watched lots of plays based on Othello, but I never got to read it. This fact alone confirms the fact, just by watching the plays something always goes over one’s head. Only by reading the play can we grasp its full mastery. Shakespeare indeed was the master of human mind's machinations! Every time I watch Othello on the screen or on the stage, I'd like to jump on it and slap both Iago and Othello; watching it was like sitting in a car driven too fast by a bad driver...you are braking so hard that your legs hurt. It’s excruciating… Mind you, I would also give wretched Desdemona a piece of my mind, too (I’m just kidding. Somehow I understand Desdemona's passivity: she's in a state of absolute shock, as she sees her life is built on very unstable sand: she left her father and her rank to marry Othello for love, and he starts calling her terrible names and mistreating her...she's completely alone in a foreign country, cannot trust anyone apart from Cassio, who helped Othello woo her, and Cassio is banished. Back in Venice her father dies, and by the laws of the times she was her husband's property. On top of that she was very young and innocent. Enough trauma to turn a person into half a zombie. That's why, no slap for her :-)


As for Desdemona (whom by the way I don't much like either) had no home in Venice, her father would not have her in the house. Probably Othello lived in military or bachelor quarters, unsuitable for an aristocrat. As it happened the war in Cyprus turned out to be a storm in a teacup , because the Turkish fleet was conveniently dispatched by a storm...so it could have been a dream honeymoon, were it not for dratted Iago and Desdemona lying about losing the blasted handkerchief !
Desdemona invites a lot of lively debate as to her character, Othello too. I bet Shakespeare would laugh out loud if he knew all the interpretations we put on them and others in his works and the lengths to which we take them!

After reading the play for the first time, Iago’s motives are inscrutable. It's almost like a menu, pick one: jealousy, resentment about the promotion, racism or possibly a combination plate. Which is why his character can be rendered in a multitude of believable interpretations. Rory Kinnear played him as an older more experienced blue collar warrior against Cassio's younger more upper crust gentleman soldier. So age is an aspect of the resentment. And Desdemona's presence does upset the band of brother's apple cart. Kenneth Branagh played him as pure evil. Another production emphasized the racial hatred. What a rich vein for an actor!


And now on to what took my fancy.

Close Reading of Othello Act 3, Scene 4:

Othello. Give me your hand: this hand is moist, my lady. (III, 4,2214)
Desdemona. It yet hath felt no age nor known no sorrow. (III, 4,2222)

Othello. This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: Hot, hot, and moist: this hand of yours requires.....
Othello, in speaking of Desdemona's hand, is punning on her hand in marriage, as well as her physical hand. The heat and moisture of her hand as described by him, reveals her fertility and sexuality. These qualities arouse in Othello suspicion that Desdemona's heat, her passion, and her moist sweating palm indicate her interest in Cassio, when in fact it is Othello himself who has aroused her.
The many sibilant tones in the line allow the actor to express desire, suspicion, and restrained anger. He is practically hissing at her.

Othello's line, "This hand is moist, my lady" is almost an accusation. Othello has been talking with Iago about Cassio, and already suspects that Desdemona may be in love with Cassio. However, Desdemona in her innocence and honesty takes this line as a compliment from her husband. She has no reason to imagine that he would be jealous, because she has done nothing to warrant his jealousy.
Her reply to him, "It yet hath felt no age nor known no sorrow,"(III, 4,2215), has a feminine ending, however, indicating a certain puzzlement or lack of conviction in the way she delivers the line. She's gamely entering into the game of wits, but there is something in his tone which puzzles her, and makes her wonder where the conversation is really going. The many "o" sounds in her line connect her to Othello, whose name begins and ends with "o." It is hard to say "o" without making an open and frank expression, appropriate to Desdemona's mental state. She is open and honest, her conscience untroubled, not at all aware of his suspicions, but definitely aware that there is something off in the way he is speaking to her.
The "fruitfulness and liberal heart" Othello associates with Desdemona's type of hand are appropriate between husband and wife, and are exactly the qualities expected to bring the most happiness to their union, but already Othello fears the liberality, or generosity, of Desdemona's nature.


Othello is just beginning to seriously entertain the thought that Desdemona may be unfaithful. He bursts out with "oh, curse of marriage That we can call these delicate creatures ours And not their appetites" The “we” reflects the ambivalence that Othello feels about marriage by calling it "a curse." Earlier on the play he said he never would have given up his "free" state for marriage except for extreme love. By using "we" he emphasizes his camaraderie and male bond with Iago with whom he has just been talking. Moreover, he divides even the audience: we men versus those women. This is the war of the sexes. It reminds us strongly that Othello has spent his life in an all-male environment. By using the verb "call" he suggests that the women may only seem to be ours but are not really--in name only. "Delicate creatures" stresses the angel/whore dichotomy that Othello feels about women. As distinct from the rough soldiers, women are delicate. But "delicate" can imply overly pampered, overly luxurious. The word recalls the world of Venice in which Othello is an outsider but Cassio very much a part. Early in the play, Iago brings up this exact contrast in talking to Roderigo. Desdemona, he says, will soon fill her appetite with the rough Othello and crave someone more refined and delicate and young--the kind of Venetian she grew up with such as Cassio. The fact that he thinks "we men" can call women "ours" underlines the subservient status of even high-born women in society. A woman passed from her father and became the "property" of her husband who had nearly unlimited legal rights over her. Cassio is, in effect, taking Othello's property if he has sex with her. Finally, the key word in the whole passage: "appetites" refers specifically to women's supposedly voracious sexual appetites. Since women have a weaker faculty for rational thought, ran the argument, they are more likely to succumb to the lower passions. There is a long tradition of anti-feminist literature--written most by monks-- that asserts just this. The two sides of this dual Madonna/whore mentality are summed up in "delicate"--Desdemona's father thought her so delicate she would blush at any stirring of emotion--to "appetite"--unbridled desire that perhaps Othello has all along doubted he could satisfy. These few lines are the play in little. Othello begins by thinking Desdemona is a "delicate creature," but now fears she is a creature entirely of appetites he can neither satisfy nor control.



Close Reading of Othello Act 1, Scene 3:

For this close reading, I chose four lines that Desdemona speaks when defending her marriage to Othello to her father and the Venetian nobility, towards the beginning of the play. I chose these lines because they illuminate ideas about race, gender, and female agency in this play, albeit in a way that may seem contradictory to modern audiences.

My noble father,/I do perceive here a divided duty/To you I am bound for life and education. My life and education both do learn me/How to respect you. You are the lord of my duty, I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband,/And so much duty as my mother showed To you, preferring you before her father, /So much I challenge that I may profess Due to the Moor my lord. (1.3.179–188)

Desdemona is speaking to her father whom she addresses with the formal “you”, as was expected of children towards their parents. She compares her love for her husband, Othello, to that of her mother's for her father (whom she is addressing). The grammatical structure “So much... so much“ is parallel and thus equates her own and her mother's acts. Desdemona makes a connection and creates continuity (she behaves like her mother does), so she presents a tradition of females “showing duty to“ or “professing to“ their husbands.


Through the parallelism, she at once includes her father and shows him as somebody to whom duty is due and at the same time refutes his authority over her. What is more, she presents her revolutionary act of marrying a “moor” as enclosed within the framework of tradition. The parallelism works almost to distract from the rebellion that she has just engaged in and in which she has demonstrated her agency.

This is possible because she stays within the patriarchal framework, although she leaves the racially determined boundaries it imposes, as we can see in the final parallelism, her final words in this passage (“the Moor my Lord”). He is a “moor”, yes, but he is also her husband and “lord”. Her agency is only partial, she must argue and act within the boundaries imposed by her society.
The fact that these acts of hers are in fact a shock and shake the system of the society is indicated on the level of meter. As expected for people of nobility in Shakespeare's plays, Desdemona speaks in iambic pentameter. Interestingly, the last line leaves out the final two feet: “Due to the Moor my Lord - ' - ' ”. It seems to me that this indicates a silence after Desdemona finishes, surprise on the side of her listeners.


Another close reading of the passage could run on different lines; it is an interesting excerpt because it shows Desdemona as good diplomat, defending her choice of a husband without offending any of the interested parties. It shows Desdemona is very skillful with language.
First, she addresses her father: she calls him noble, which has two basic meanings - noble as in belonging to aristocracy, nobility, which Brabantio undoubtedly does, of an elevated social status, and noble meaning morally right, behaving in a way which we should emulate, being a paragon of virtue. In this way, she emphasises that the father has positive qualities and is a worthy person, not only is he noble because of his birth as a nobleman, but also because of his character. In this way, she shows she is not a social rebel some of the Venetians may consider her. Then she goes on to speak of "divided duty." She carefully chooses her words so as to hurt neither her newly-wed husband, not her father. Division suggests some kind of a conflict, which mirrors her being torn between two people whom she loves. It is curious she does not talk about her feelings of love, but uses the word "duty" which may have some slightly negative connotations, as it is something one is bound to do by laws, rules or honour, rather than what one chooses to do. This is continued by her use of the word "bound" which brings to mind some other negative associations as "bonds" and lack of freedom, though these words can also be used to describe the strength of her relationships with her father. Desdemona enumerates the things she owes to her father, namely "life and education" - in return of these, she respects her father. Desdemona emphasises the importance of duty in the relationship between father and daughter by calling him "lord of my duty" - the one who can dictate what is her duty. Calling her father "lord" also emphasises his authority over Desdemona as his daughter, and hence a person he is the master of. So far, so good: the father is probably pleased, and Desdemona shows herself to be an obedient daughter who knows her place in the society.


With the word "But" Desdemona introduces the dichotomy between her conflicting duties to her father and her husband, which was hinted at in the phrase "divided duty." Now she explains what this "divided duty" means, why is her duty divided: because she should show it to both men/father/husband. "Here's my husband" - it changes everything in her relationship with her father, because now her "duty" is to her husband, and not her father; she calls Othello "the Moor my lord" - as a husband, he is now the most important man in her life, and now her "duty" is to Othello. She cites the example of her mother, who also considered the husband more important than the father: "preferred" him - in this way, Desdemona finds the justification of her behaviour in tradition. "Challenge" may have some legal connotations - Desdemona now passed from the power of her father to that of her husband. "Profess" has religious connotations, but it also means to claim something falsely, which may later give rise to doubts about Desdemona's sincerity of her feelings towards Othello.


This speech shows Desdemona as a courageous and independent woman, who has the strength to defend her choices and decisions. She is clever and does it in a very convincing way. Yet, at the same time she emphasises woman's position in the society, as a person who is dependent on male figures in her life, first under the care of her father, and then - husband. In a way, a woman belongs to these men, and by marriage she simply goes from hand to hand, becoming the property of her husband. So it is a bit ironic that this speech is a proof of Desdemona's independence. Here, she is the most outspoken in the play. As the play progresses, Desdemona loses more and more of her agency, until she is literally strangled.

Some more bit and pieces worth mentioning:

Due to the Moor, my lord. Act 1 Scene III v.189
My dear Othello Act II Scene I v.179
What is the matter, dear ? Act II Scene III v. 244
How now, my dear Othello? Act III Scene III v.280
My lord is not my lord; nor should I know him, Were he in favour as in humor alter'd. Act III Scene IV v.120-121
Good madam, what's the matter with my lord? With who? Why, with my lord, madam. Who is thy lord? He that is yours, sweet lady. I have none. Do not talk to me, Emilia; Act IV Scene II v.104-109
Commend me to my kind lord. O, Farewell. Act V Scene II v132

In general, the way that Desdemona addresses to Othello is “my lord”. That usual line drew my attention as well as the thoughts of Desdemona about her lord. The first time she addresses to him as my lord is before the Venetian Senate where she literally declares that the Moor is her lord. I think she names him Moor in order to imply that she knows his status in the Venetian society and his origins and the fact that these contrast with her own nobility. In the second and third Act she calls him affectionate dear Othello. Then in the Scene IV of the third Act she uses this address my lord in order to confide Othello's change in Cassio because that change affects him too. If it hadn't been so, Desdemona would have never admitted Othello's change because it is something she cannot realize and cannot deal with. She has never thought that his character would change so dramatically. She uses the words in a similar way with Iago (“I am not what I am”). She phrases a negative sentence which contradicts the subject by using it twice in order to emphasize the change of Othello. It is almost as whether she admits to herself this change, that she hears her own words. She makes a pause which stresses the significance of her confession and her distress and she continues verifying the change and analyzing it. In Act IV there is a whole scene that Othello abuses her and she replies repeatedly only my lord. In the Scene II of the above Act there is the dialogue between her and Emilia when she denies Othello as her lord. Although he had abused her not only verbally she doesn't act with rage or fury against him. On the contrary she is shocked, deeply sad and denies him with sorrow. Her remark “I have no lord” reveals a Desdemona fully submissive to Othello, a Desdemona who considers her value as a person not self-evident, but as a reflection of her lord's esteem. When she tells Emilia not to talk to her... she is shocked and devastated by the turn of Othello, of her marriage. In the last scene she tells Emilia to commend her to her kind lord. Until her last breath she is deeply in love with Othello naming him her kind lord. It is an oxymoron not only in words but and in actions since her kind lord has just strangled her and at the same time it is an irony, not a tragic one since she has deep knowledge of what happened. Then with a dramatic and noble farewell which is stressed with the O she dies.


In these scattered verses take place the transformation of Othello through the eyes of Desdemona. It is very interesting that the way Iago addresses to Othello in front of him is similar to Desdemona. If you isolate his lines you can easily pass Iago for Desdemona.

And now I return to Act t, Scene 2, lines 282-285. There are alternations of cold and heat that he expresses--the cold of Desdemona in death, cold as he describes her chastity juxtaposed against the heat he feels and the fire of hell, which he acknowledges in his word he will deserve because of what he has just done. In fact, he cries, "Whip me, ye devils," as if he is already in hell in that "Sulphur" and "liquid fire" he refers to in subsequent lines. He calls himself also a "cursed slave," clearly he knows he is deserving of eternal damnation even as at the very end of his speech he cries "O Desdemon! Dead Desdemon!" The truncation of her name significantly contains "demon" - the demon his words imply. Shortly afterwards when Lodovico enters the scene he will parrot Othello's words with "O thou Othello . . . fallen in the practice of a cursed slave." The fact that Othello calls to be whipped indicates he knows his act is deserving of grave punishment.


What is an enigma about Iago is that Shakespeare has created him without one ounce of humanity, which is quite different from the sort of "baddie" we see in Shylock or Lady Macbeth, both of whom evoke pity. There is nothing remotely sympathetic in the portrayal of Iago. We can understand to some extent what motivates Shylock and Lady Macbeth, but it seems that, just as Antonio in Merchant of Venice was by nature melancholic, Iago is essentially evil and consumed by envy - there is no external cause; he is just made that way. It is frightening to think that there are people out there just like him. Perhaps that is why we are reluctant to see him as believable - it is just too disturbing. it is not unusual in the world of business to find the “Second in Command” being the biggest betrayer. The world of Vice Presidents and Deputy Managing Directors is populated by people who think they are capable of being the top dog and rail at the system and those that they think are preventing them from getting that top job. It creates a jealousy that festers and can be eventually triggered by the smallest perceived slight. Of course, as the problem becomes noticeable there is less and less chance of a promotion and a spiral of jealousy and blaming of others leading to a justification of any type of behaviour as what is essentially a madness takes over. The interesting point is that the type of person that rises to second in command in many cases does so because they have an ingratiating manipulative personality to begin with “Beware of the trusted servant” why do you think the police always ask for the names of the key holders when a break in or fraud happens.


As a side note, I have been wondering about the name Iago. How do we know for sure the first letter was pronounce 'I' and not 'J' ? The play, shown here, with the title 'The Jew of Malta' clearly has an 'I' and not a 'J'. Could Iago really have been Jago? Jago is a dashing alternative to overused favorite Jacob.
Gender: M Pronunciation: jay-go or yay-go
Meaning of Jago: "supplanter"
Origin of Jago: Spanish and Cornish variation of Jacob.
This would presumably change his religion though.



An interesting note as well is when "Iago scornfully calls Cassio a Florentine". I think it's because at that time Italy contained many smaller kingdoms which rivalled each other for the Pope's favor. And it was well known there that Florentines were very proud, so I think that's why the ironic, scornful note by Iago.  I've read somewhere else where it was mentioned Shakespeare's clown, Will Kempe's Morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Daies Wonder in 1600. It's a wonderful renaissance music and some interesting info about that time family life and of some interesting instruments. Don't forget that the Christian world was very anti-Semite, then, because of a theory by which looked the Jews as sinners for crucifying Jesus Christ. And Venezia built the first ghetto where the Jews could had lived, and what was locked at night for banning the out- or incoming.

NB: All pictures taken from my Rowse.

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