Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Je M'Accuse Week: Post 4: I Am a Bad Critical Exegete

At last: Othello!

Which I have not gone out and re-read especially for this post, or anything like that, by the way, because I'm lazy and it's not, last time I checked, 2011 yet. It's been at least a decade and a half, I guess, since I last read Othello but I've read it numerous times already and actually saw the play performed on Broadway back in the '80s, I guess, with James Earl Jones as Othello1, Christopher Plummer as Iago, and a Young Upstart Actor by the name of Kelsey Grammer as Cassio.

Plummer was widely praised for his performance as Iago, which is typical — the White Man getting all the praise in a play about the travails of a Brother!1! people key on Iago because he's THE truly great example of a character of pure evil2 — but the fact is that actors love to play Iago, because doing so is relatively easy, because it's like playing JR in Dallas: You just get to go to town with your evil self and everyone loves to hate you and, from an actorly standpoint, it really isn't that hard to play Iago well.

The tough role is that of Othello because if you don't manage to make this guy, who eventually is fooled into murdering his own wife, into a sympathetic character then the play as a whole fails. And that is not easy to do because, well, the guy smothers his own innocent wife and we, the audience, know the whole time that she's innocent and we know who's manipulating Othello and at times it's almost impossible not to think, You idiot! Stop listening to Iago, already! Can't you see that he's evil?

But the whole point is, no he can't see that. Nobody (in the play) can. Because Iago has everybody fooled: Othello, Cassio, his own wife ... just everybody. (I never counted how many times Iago is described as "honest Iago" by the other characters, but it's a lot of times. Because it's almost as though no other character can say the name "Iago" without preceding it with the adjective "honest". Because that's how they all see him.) And Shakespeare goes to great length's to show you this because it's important that you not see Othello as this idiot who's easily manipulated. He is manipulated, but by someone who is portrayed as a master manipulator of everyone, not just of Othello.

And I'm belaboring this point because when I was a kid in graduate school back in the '80s3, I took this Shakespeare course with this prof who was really funny and really interesting and his intro to his lecture on Othello basically went: "Othello is a play that, at the beginning, goes to great lengths to set up every stereotype about blacks only to knock each and every one of them down by showing that Othello is in fact smart, brave, noble, articulate, militarily brilliant, a natural leader, etc. All those things the supposedly 'inferior' black man could never be. Then, after knocking all those stereotypes down, the rest of the play is kinda dedicated to setting them right back up again as thick old Othello is easily manipulated into believing his wife is cheating on him and, from there, to murdering her, which is exactly how a racist would expect a black man to behave."

And this was the prof's intro to Othello the class before we were actually gonna discuss the play, and I missed the next class for some reason, which I always regretted, because I would have liked to hear this lecture even though I think it gets things exactly wrong, because if the point of the play is that Othello Is Just Another Stoopud Knee-Grow, well, then, the secondary point of the play must necessarily be So Is Nearly Everyone Else In The Play, Including Teh Caw-Kayshin Karacters.

And so I always thought that particular interpretation was kinda reductive and just wrong but I really would have liked to hear it adduced and defended because sometimes wrong-headed interpretations are more helpful in clarifying your own thoughts than "right-headed" ones are because you're forced to make your case for your counter-interpretation at the most elemental level; e.g., you may never have thought you'd have to make an argument as to why Othello is not a veiled racist tract, but, uh, here you are in the face of this (mis)interpretation having to do just that, which is kinda like finding yourself actually having to explain to Glenn Beck and the idiots who listen to him why, No, GB himself is not the fulfillment and embodiment of the sentiments ML King expressed in his "I Have A Dream" speech because Beck's just a shill for the Republican Party which is the party that fought tooth-and-nail against the Civil Rights Act and tries, even now, to ensure that minorities are thrown off voting rolls on the flimsiest of pretexts; sentiments any thinking person would agree are kinda at odds with what Martin Luther King believed and fought for.

In any case, what we have in Othello is, on one level, a play embodying the typical Shakespearean theme of reality v. appearances. In fact, there are a lot of dualities in Othello, the most prominent, after the aforementioned reality versus appearances duality, being the light versus dark duality, which is just everywhere in Othello. In fact, duality is so firmly woven into Othello's architectonics that the play famously features a double time-scheme wherein, at times, in the play, it is said (or implied) that Othello and his fellow soldiers have been in Cyprus for less than a day, while at other times it is said (or implied) that they have been there for weeks. You don't notice this while seeing the play performed and probably not even while reading it, at least not the first time, but it's there. There is also, in Othello, the second-most frequent occurrence of the rhetorical trope hendiadys, which is kinda this form of rhetorical doubling; e.g., in Virgil's Aeneid, the first line is usually translated as hendiadys: "Of arms and the man I sing" ... instead of "I sing of the armed man".

And with the exception of Hamlet, no other Shakespeare play embodies more instances of hendiadys than Othello. (The number in Hamlet is just ridiculous because there's doubling going on in just about every part of that play, to the point that there is even a double of the play's own plot itself in the play — in the famous "play within the play" (III ii).)

Wow. I've kinda let myself ramble, here, and even though I have more to say about Othello, I'm gonna stop now because this is getting kinda long (that's what Desdemona said!1!)

Because what I say above is trite and makes absolutely no sense, therefore, Je M'Accuse:

I Am a Bad Critical Exegete.
1 Which I was glad about because there's like this whole embarrassing and offensive tradition of white actors taking on the role of Othello and wearing black-face to do so (as Sir Larry does, here), and there's a real minstrel show stank about such productions that I think would have distracted me from actually enjoying the play.

2 The text strongly suggests that Iago may well be the devil himself. Just before Othello, finally realizing how he's been played by Iago, stabs Iago, Othello says:

I look down towards his feet; but that's a fable.
If that thou be'st a devil, I cannot kill thee.

[Othello is alluding to the "fable' that the devil has cloven hooves for feet.]

Yeah, so military veteran Othello, who has killed many men, stabs Iago with the intent of killing him, but, as Iago obligingly points out a couple lines later:

I bleed, sir, but not kill'd.

So what the fuck? Is he the devil? Because at the end of the play, Iago is led away to be tortured, but he's still very much alive, and you'd be hard-pressed to name another Shxpr tragedy in which "the bad guy" is not killed at or near the end.

And please, nobody be stupid enough to suggest Hamlet, even as a joke, because that gorefest is so over the top that there have been adaptations of it over the years in which it was re-named Everybody Dies. And 90% of that "Everybody" is in the last scene; because in Hamlet, the stage is just strewn with dead bodies at the end and so the remaining living characters have to be really careful about hitting their marks lest they trip over a corpse2a.

2a Which by the way (I'm talking Hamlet, here), in the Shakespeare canon, is just nothing , really NOTHING, in terms of blood, dismemberment and gore compared to Shxpr's Titus Andronicus, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is just one big fucking hot mess of a play. Because it's evidently written in the Senecan style and Seneca was this Roman Philosopher and Playwright whose revenge tragedies were apparently just bloody, body-strewn travesties. And Titus Andronicus is like that, too, only possibly even worse.

Because (and here the more assiduous among you might want to fact-check what follows because I've only ever read TA once, long ago, and what I'm about to say comes from memory and I'm sure to get certain particulars outright wrong) at one point in the play there are more body parts on the stage than there are still-attached limbs to carry them off and one of the characters, Lavinia, is forced to carry a dismembered hand offstage in her mouth; and you might well ask, Ummmm ... why in her mouth? Which is a fair question, and so but here's why, wiseguy: Because at this point in the play, Lavinia herself has no hands because these dudes who raped her didn't want her telling Titus who did it, so, after raping her, they cut off both her hands and ripped out her tongue so she couldn't narc on them by speaking or writing about who did this to her because in Shakespeare's day there was no Rohypnol and also rapists were just fucking stupid. And I myself am glad they didn't have roofies in those days because this led directly to Teh Greatest Shakespearean Stage Direction Of All Times (yes, even better than A Winter's Tale's infamous {Exit, pursued by a Bear} s.d.], viz., { Enter DEMETRIUS and CHIRON with LAVINIA, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out}. (Later, Lavinia manages to tell on her rapists anyway by using a stick, her mouth, and her stumps; and no, I'm not making that up: "Marcus gives her a stick to hold with her mouth and stumps and she writes the names of her attackers in the dirt". And that alone should give you some idea about what kind of experience reading Titus Andronicus is.)

As a matter of fact, TA is soooo over-the-top that, relatively recently, the theory has arisen that it is not really Shakespeare's attempt to write a revenge play in the Senecan style, but is actually his attempt to parody that stupidly bloodthirsty sub-genre of tragedy; because, c'mon, this here is Shakespeare we're talking about, and there's just no way he could have written something this bad without intending it to be bad. Which is interesting and perhaps even correct but there's no way of knowing for sure and this hypothesis blatantly invokes the Intentional Fallacy as "proof" of what it contends to be the case, which is doubly irrelevant because we have no evidence re: What Teh Bard Intended, and, even if we did, his alleged intention proves nothing. There is at least as much evidence to suggest that TA is so bad because, in terms of writing good tragedies, Shakespeare was not quite, you know SHAKESPEARE yet and this play was just an earnest, though bad, early attempt to write one and was just slavishly derivative of the style that "inspired" it.

We just don't know.

But the real reason TA is relevant in the context of a discussion of Othello is Titus Andonicus has a character, Aaron, who is like a prototype for Iago because he's the closest thing to Pure Evil in all of Shakespeare ... excepting Iago himself. But even Aaron has the good taste to die2a1 at the end of Titus. And Aaron is a Moor, like Othello.


Hahahaha! Just kidding! He doesn't die. But is sentenced to death by starvation.


3 That'd be the 1980s, not the 1880s, wiseass.


  1. Exegete has four of the same vowel, each pronounced differently. So does the name Derek Jeter. I hate both today (go Twins!)

  2. @SteveQ - See, now that is more interesting (and certainly pithier) than all of what I say above combined.

    Too bad NO ONE will ever read this far down and see it!


  3. Yeah, well I just posted my own eyeball-glazer.

  4. I read this far down. Just because I fixed a flat tire and I'm waiting to see if it goes soft again.

  5. ex·e·gete (ks-jt) also ex·e·ge·tist (ks-jtst)
    A person skilled in exegesis.

    Helpful. Thank you,


    I will be back, when I have time to read and look up each esoteric term twice.

  6. If you can stomach opera, I highly recommend Verdi's "Othello."

    A couple of good recordings: 1961 with Renata Tebaldi and Mario Del Monaco; also 1978 with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo.

    On DVD I have a performance with Renee Fleming as Desdemona, not sure of the year.

  7. I'm rather a MacBeth fan myself, if for no other reason than to know that the Bard had it in him to write the character Lady MacBeth as just the biggest BE-OTCH of 'em all (at least for the first half of the play, before she gets all maudlin and stereotypically wussy with the washin' of the hands and the jumpin' out a window in hysterical guilt and all), but when she belittles MacBeth into killing the king by calling into question his very manhood...I'm thinking "yeah...that chicks got some N*ts*ck...or however you spell that).

  8. Titus Andronicus is very funny in a dark way and I think it may be Shakespeare's sole attempt at satire. Or it may be like Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" - intentionally awful and meant only to fulfil a contractual obligation.

    Or maybe it just blows.

    "Nobody outcrazies Desdemona!" - Lisa Simpson.

  9. @SteveQ - "Nobody out-crazies Ophelia!"

    Desdemona doesn't go crazy. She just goes dead.

    But Ophelia goes both, which I think proves Lisa's point.

    But don't feel bad because I think what Lisa meant to say is "None is out-crazies Opehlia!" because that's the form that is grammatically correct.

    Point is, you're both wrong ... just in different ways.

  10. @Beth - Please tell me you mean "with" in a hawt, Sapphic sense! Because if you do, the joke's on you cos RBR's a dude! So hahahahahaha! You just had an accidental heterosexual encounter!

    Ewww! GROSS!1!

  11. I've had a bad track record this week with mistakes. I think I was stuck wondering why "fulfil" doesn't look like it's spelled correctly and thus mistook Shakespeare's hawt bitches.