Wednesday, June 18


This time I'm serious. I just spent a month and a half getting the runaround from a faithful reader who claimed they would read all of Shakespeare's plays with me if only we could start in a few days. A few days passed, and then they needed a week.

Friends, I fell for this for a month and a half.

So, for real this time, this is the thread where I'll be posting notes as I read Othello. Here's the permanent address of this post:

As before, you can either bookmark it or subscribe to the post's RSS feed. If you'd like to read along and join the discussion, you'll find the reading schedule I'll be following in the first comment of this thread, as well as links to the text. We start Friday.


Johnny said...

I'm doing an act a day for five days.

June 20: Act I
June 21: Act II
June 22: Act III
June 23: Act IV
June 24: Act V

What an awesome way to ruin a weekend!

You can find the text on Wikisource or on Project Gutenberg.

Johnny said...

Yes, yes, yes...the "black ram tupping your white ewe" gag. Thanks, high school English teachers, for ruining all the jokes in these plays. But, hey, you guys were right: reading IS a great adventure!

In this scene, Othello says "Holla!" (Heh.)

A group of Venice's leaders gather in the middle of the night to discuss a grave state of emergency: the hated Turks are sending a fleet towards Cypress! Something must be done immediately. The war hero Othello shows up, ready for action, and nothing can dissuade the elders from their purpose.

Only immediate action will stop the Turks in time.

I leave immediately, my lord.

Fly, Othello!

Wait! Don't leave yet!

This is of top importance, Brabantio.

No, listen, this is just as important.

I really can't imagine it is, actually.

No wait, I'm serious-

Brabantio, the entire Turkish fleet is headed towards Cyprus, I really can't think of a possible-


Well, geez, why didn't you just say so? Hold up a minute there, Othello...

So then everyone basically stops in their tracks to make sure that Desdemona really wanted to marry Othella and wasn't ensnared BY VOODOO MAGIC.

Othello tells them how he wooed Desdemona: by telling her passionate stories of his violent and adventurous life. After he relates his life story to the senator, and tells of how enraptured Desdemona was of his stories, there's a pause, and the Duke wisely declares:

"I think this tale would win my daughter too."


This act ends with Iago voicing a truly badass line, calling on infernal help in destroying Othello:

"Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light"


It reminds me a little of a great line from "I Got The Blues So Bad" by Victoria Spivey:

"Well, I tried to play love fair, but Vick ‘s been cheated everywhere. / And now I got me a devil plan, I’m out for anybody’s man."

I Got Me A Devil Plan would SUCH a great title!

Johnny said...

Of course, a BIG DEAL is made by scholars and critics about Othello's race. However, two acts in, I'm fascinated by how little is made by the characters about it. His blackness is referred to, yes, and there are often mocking jokes made about it (mostly by the villain, it should be pointed out), but it's not as though his race has hindered him: he's a general, a thoroughly-feared badass, and he's married to a rich and beautiful woman.

Even when the elders freak out about Desdemona marrying him, it seems to be more about whether she was seduced through supernatural means or not. Then again, I guess witchcraft was a bigger issue in Elizabethan England than race relations.


One thing that's often remarked upon is how Iago goes about his villainy without any clear reason for doing it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge described it as "motiveless malignity," Which is gonna be a Baby Ruthless tagline pretty much immediately.

As I read this play, I've been following along with Isaac Asimov's excellent Guide To Shakespeare. Though he mostly writes about historical settings and explains allusions in the text, he makes a really good point about Iago: he's not necessarily without a motive...maybe he just likes fucking with people. For some, that's motive enough.


One motive that Iago claims is that he thinks Othello has slept with his wife. It's clearly a ridiculous charge, but the psychosexual aspects of it are fascinating. Iago keeps repeating it, and every time he has to bring up Othello's race.

These days, there would be websites for him to go to...


A few great lines:

-"[I]in terms like bride and groom devesting them for bed." In other words, as happy as two newlyweds taking off their clothes on their honeymoon.

-Speaking of honeymoons, Othello describes his as "balmy slumbers" which is also pretty good.

-"My blood begins my safer guides to rule." Or, I'm about to lose my patience. (Another great tagline!)

-On wine: "O God, that men should put an enemy in their mouths to steal away their brains!"


Finally, Iago on reputation: "Reputation is an idle and most false
imposition: oft got without merit, and lost without deserving: you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser."

The first part is a good point, of course: people often don't deserve their reputations, good or bad. The second point is a lot weirder, though. Iago says that you only lose your reputation if you think you have. That is, your reputation is in your mind, not other's...which is, of course, the OPPOSITE of the accepted definition of reputation.

Johnny said...

One neat aspect of the play that Asimov points out is how the plays "zooms in," or grows increasingly claustrophobic: we begin in the great Venice city-state, then move to the island of Cyprus, then the governor's quarters, then Othello's rooms, then finally his bed chambers.


More grist for my "Iago's cuckold fetish" theory: in this act Iago suggests Cassio slept with his wife, too. And then later, he seems to get a real thrill out of describing her wanton nature to Othello: "One may smell in such a will most rank, foul disproportion thoughts unnatural."

Also, Iago is explicitly identified as being a Florentine in this act. That would have had a major resonance with the Elizabethan audience, who associated those from Florence with trickery and cunning. (Famous Florentine: Machiavelli.) In fact, I wonder if this origin would have been enough of a motive for them. "Eh, he's from Florence. Makes sense to me..."


Othello to Desdemona: "When I love thee not, Chaos is come again."


Here's an interesting reversal, and great evidence of Iago's true nature. He ended last chapter mocking the very idea of reputation. Now, when the situation calls for it, he waxes piously about how important one's good name is:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.


So I guess this play is where the old "green-eyed monster" line comes from. What's interesting, though, is that by repeating it over the centuries, we've forgotten the actual analogy. Iago says: "O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." He's not calling jealousy a monster, he's comparing it to a cat batting around the mouse before finally killing it.

The rest of the speech is pretty great, too. Iago tells Othello that it's better to know that a stranger is sleeping with his wife than to suspect his best friend: "That cuckold lives in bliss who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; but, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!"

And then: "Poor and content is rich and rich enough, but riches [end]less is as poor as winter to him that ever fears he shall be poor."


"Their best conscience is not to leave't undone, but keep't unknown."


Othello on being older, and something I'll be quoting until the day I die: "I am declined into the vale of years."

When I ran across that line, it occurred to me that I hear people say "vale of tears" all the time--quoting, whether they know it or not, the Catholic prayer Salve Regina--yet I wasn't 100% sure what a 'vale' was. Well,duh: it's a valley. Did you know that already? I guess I didn't, 'cause that changes my concept of the phrase.

Oh, and we'll cover the related phrase "mortal coil" when I get around to Hamlet. Shakespeare invented that, too.


"O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites!"

The rest of the speech is good, too: "I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than [reserve] a corner [of] the thing I love for others' uses."

A super-rude joke. Keep in mind that "thing" was a slang term for vagina, and "common" meant both "familiar" and "Used by many":

Emilia: Do not you chide; I have a thing for you.
Iago: A thing for me? it is a common thing--
Emilia: [WTF?]
Iago: [Wait for it, wait for it...] --to have a foolish wife.


Othello has decided to kill Desdemona, and he rages awesomely:

All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven.
'Tis gone.
Arise, black vengeance, from thy hollow cell!
Yield up, O love, thy crown and hearted throne
To tyrannous hate! Swell, bosom, with thy fraught,
For 'tis of aspics' tongues!


This act ends with an utterly chilling exchange. At the beginning of the play, Iago told us that he hated Othello because he passed him over and promoted Cassio to lieutenant instead. By the end of Act Three, Iago has been successful in not only replacing Cassio as lieutenant, but far more: Cassio is marked for murder, and Othello has sworn to kill his wife. Iago, in a disarmingly human moment, is taken aback at first when Othello suggests killing her. Then, recovering himself, he throws away the last of his humanity and suggests that instead of poisoning her, he should strangle her in her bed. Then, the two of them coiled together in dark hatred, Othello promotes Iago:

Othello: Now art thou my lieutenant.
Iago: I am your own for ever.

Johnny said...

"There's many a beast then in a populous city,
And many a civil monster."


In this act, Iago comes up with a clever plan for Othello to overhear Cassio as he brags about having slept with a woman. Cassio's talking about his courtesan, but Iago has devised a way for Othello to think he's actually talking about Desdemona.

Cassio, when talking about his mistress, is dismissive and crude. (Though a prostitute, she's fallen hard in love with him because "'tis the strumpet's plague to beguile many and be beguiled by one.") This, I think, is Iago's worst bit of villainy: not only does he make Othello think his wife cheated on her, but he makes him think that her lover is disdainful of her, that he doesn't appreciate her in the least.


"My heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand."


"I will chop her into messes!"


This act ends with a ridiculously precise conversation about whether you should cheat on your husband to gain the world. Here is a line-by-line translation of the exchange.

DESDEMONA: Do you really think there are women who cheat on their husbands?
EMILIA: Uh, yeah. No question.
DESDEMONA: Would you do such a thing for all the world?
EMILIA: Why, wouldn't you?
DESDEMONA: Oh my god, no way! I swear by the light of heaven!
EMILIA: Well, I wouldn't do it by the light of heaven'd be a lot easier in the dark.
DESDEMONA: Would you really cheat on your husband for all the world?
EMILIA: The world's pretty big. That's a ;ot to get for such a small sin.
DESDEMONA: I swear, I don't think I would.
EMILIA: Eh, I think I would. Then, when I had the world, I'd undo it. I wouldn't do it for jewelry or property or fancy clothes...but for the whole world? Who wouldn't cheat on her husband if it made him a king? I'd risk Purgatory for it.
DESDEMONA: I swear, I wouldn't do it for the whole world.
EMILIA: Yeah, but cheating on your husband is only wrong in THIS world. So if you did it, and gained the world, you could just change the world to make it right...


Johnny said...

The scene description at the beginning of this act is totally haunting, knowing what's coming: "A bedchamber in the castle: Desdemona in bed asleep; a light burning."


Desdemona's dying words are so human and pitiful it's hard to read them

DESDEMONA: O, banish me, my lord, but kill me not!
OTHELLO: Down, strumpet!
DESDEMONA: Kill me to-morrow: let me live to-night!
OTHELLO: Nay, if you strive--
DESDEMONA: But half an hour!
OTHELLO: Being done, there is no pause.
DESDEMONA: But while I say one prayer!
OTHELLO: It is too late.

[He suffocates her. Almost immediately, he is interrupted by her lady-in-waiting. Desdemona, though fatally wounded, tries to defend her husband one last time.]

DESDEMONA: A guiltless death I die.
EMILIA: O, who hath done this deed?
DESDEMONA: Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!


All this time I've been talking about Iago's lack of a motive as though it were a fault of Shakespeare's, or at least a difference between his time and ours. But then, with Iago's (kickass) final lines, I see that this "motiveless malignity" was very much an intentional move on the artist's part:

"Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word."

And then he's led off to be tortured to death. Top that, Alan Rickman!


Finally, there's this great bit from Othello's final speech: "I pray you, in your letters, when you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am."


Wow, I *really* enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would, and now I'm totally excited to read the rest. I think I'm gonna do a tragedy, a comedy, and a history every time, then read some other book or two before returning to Shakespeare.

One down, thirty-five to go!