Welcome back, Reader!
Call me crazy, but to me, one of the greatest joys of being back in Grad School is getting together with some friends, drinking some wine, eating copious amounts of chocolate, and watching film adaptations of the texts we’re studying. On last night’s agenda: Oliver Parker’s 1995 adaptation of Othello, starring Laurence Fishbourne (The Matrix, CSI) as the Moor, Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet, Much Ado, Henry V) as Iago, and a lovely little cameo by my crush du jour: Michael Sheen as Desdemona’s cousin Lodovico.
Looking through past blog posts, I’ve realized that Why I Love Shakespeare is developing into a thought-provoking conversation about the virtues and drawbacks of conveying Shakespeare’s works onto stage and screen, which is something I’d like to continue working through today. I think that Parker does a fantastic job of bringing certain verbally constructed images prevalent in the text to the visual fore. The visual image that drew my attention most was the contrast between skin colours when certain characters’ hands touched.
Othello is a play that calls to question the Elizabethan preconception that white was ‘good’ and black was ‘bad.’ That’s not to say that Shakespeare ‘solves’ this issue through his text, but he certainly provokes his readers/viewers to re-think the issue. At the beginning of the first act, Brabantio is told of his daughter’s elopement in a most vulgar way: Iago, cowering behind Roderigo, shouts out that “a old black ram / Is tupping (making dirty animal sex) your white ewe!” (I.i.87-8). After storming the Senate to tell the Duke, the Venetian leader tells the racist Brabantio to get with the progressive times and see past his new son-in-law’s colour: “If virtue no delighted beauty lack / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (I.iii.290-1). Parker shows how the senator relents, symbolically putting his daughter’s white hand into Othello’s black one. They sail off to smite some Turks, and arrive in Cyprus victorious. This seems like the newlyweds are off to a great start but don’t get too comfortable: any time that a Shakespeare play begins at peacetime, get ready for a tragedy!
Iago, who thought he was front runner for in the race to be Othello’s ensign, his ‘Number 1,’ is livid because he has lost the title to the younger, less experienced, Michael Cassio. In revenge against Cassio, Othello, and Desdemona (he doesn’t discriminate against race or sex! Nice guy!), Iago concocts a plot. He tells Othello that Desdemona is having an affair with Michael, and Othello’s jealousy begins to bubble up. What’s problematic here is how Shakespeare writes Othello as a character whose black skin implies an innately savage nature. His peers respect Othello because he has repressed this savage nature in favour of Christianity, leading the Venetian army, and the love of one virtuous woman. He tells Desdemona: “I do love thee! and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (III.iii.92). As his jealousy arises, so does his repressed nature. What remains is a man struggling with this internal chaos: a cognitive dissonance. Parker depicts Othello having nightmares about Desdemona’s milky white hand entwined in Cassio’s as they make love on the white sheets of Othello’s martial bed.
In Othello’s rage, he refuses to listen to his wife’s reasoning, preferring to listen to the oft-named “honest Iago.” When demanding proof of her infidelity, Iago ‘confides’ to Othello that Cassio has been sleep talking about a secret relationship with Desdemona; genius, if you ask me, because Cassio can’t disprove him! Othello gets so angry that he gets down on a knee and vows to avenge this infidelity. Iago offers his assistance in this “bloody business” (III.iii.472), and Parker shows the two engaging in a blood bond, a continuation and departure from that sealing of hands in the wedding scene at the beginning of the play.
And this is where it gets tough: Othello eventually goes so mad that, upon Iago’s advice, he smothers Desdemona in “the bed she hath [supposedly] contaminated” (IV.i.205). In a show of her infinite selflessness (that sickens me – I prefer the outspoken sort of female protagonist, more along the lines of Emilia), Desdemona’s white hand, the one thing not submerged under the white pillow, strokes Othello’s tearful face until she is subsumed into a downy death.
In the last scene, the classic ‘discover-a-pile-of-dead-bodies on stage’ scene, Cassio finally tells Othello that he “never gave [Othello] cause” to doubt his loyalty (V.ii.296) and in a final attempt at regaining his Christian composure, Othello apologizes to Michael, blaming “that demi-devil” (298) Iago. This is the image that Shakespeare brings forth to make his readers rethink the black-white dichotomy. The black can strive for good (although perhaps the times weren’t ready for a black character that could live a successful life without the assumption that he repressed a savage inner nature), and the white has the potential to be downright evil. In Othello’s last moments, Cassio shakes his hand, a sign of forgiveness but also a sign of kindness in slipping the Moor a knife with which he can end his almost irredeemable life. See? Black and white playing nice, showing each other mercy, mending ties, seeing beyond colour in the eternal struggle between good and evil.
So all and all, I think that Oliver Parker does a fantastic job of illuminating this balancing act of black and white, good and evil. It’s an issue that’s apparent in the play but you know what? It’s okay to make it obvious through visual aids! Let everyone understand that this is one of the key themes of Othello. The joy of Shakespearean imagery is not a secret that’s meant to be kept: it’s meant to be shared! There’s room enough for everyone on the couches of Shakespeare movie nights!