Thursday, April 12, 2012

Othello! Othello! What Othello?

Like the old plate spinners I used to watch on Ed Sullivan, many of Shakespeare’s plays run back and forth between several plotlines to keep them all moving. The Merchant of Venice, for instance, shows us the adventures of three young couples in love, a puzzle involving suitors who must choose correctly among three metal chests, and the story of the contract between Shylock and Antonio with its famous clause involving a pound of flesh. To mention just one more example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has the marriage of Oberon and Titania, Puck’s impish pranks, and the craftsmen preparing their play-within-a-play. Unlike most of the other plays, though, Othello starts out with Iago expressing his anger at Othello, and the rest of the play pursues his scheme of revenge as relentlessly as Iago does himself.

The plot moves so steadily perhaps because Othello so readily starts to listen to Iago’s accusations and insinuations. The standard explanation for Othello’s deathly course is his possession of a tragic flaw: green-eyed jealousy. And that explanation clearly lies in the text of the play: jealousy is mentioned several times, and characters twice mention that it has green eyes. But I think Othello’s problem goes back even farther, to an improper view of Desdemona. I’m tempted to say that he thinks of her only as a beautiful body, except that his soliloquy at the climax shows that he recognizes the divine spark of life that animates her. So it’s better to say that Othello thinks of Desdemona primarily as a physical body with a removable mechanism of life rather than as a person consisting of soul and body intertwined.

Just before Othello smothers Desdemona, he speaks the soliloquy beginning, “It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul.” In these lines he admires the color and texture of Desdemona’s skin, the sweet smell of her breath, and the pleasure of kissing her lips – only qualities that he can perceive with the senses. He mentions the light within her and compares it to the flame of the candle nearby. But while he ponders snuffing both lights, he calls the candle a “flaming minister,” a biblical reference that gives the candle heavenly connotations, where he calls Desdemona only a “pattern of excelling nature,” a compliment indeed, although a very earthy one. He even talks about kissing her (or more – yuck) after killing her. What is this “her” that he would be kissing? Not a living soul, to be sure.

Often, as Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and Othello certainly fits the pattern. After he kills Desdemona, he suddenly realizes that Desdemona herself, no longer just a mechanism with a magic battery, is no more. When Emilia knocks on the door, Othello ponders aloud what to do:
If she come in, she'll sure speak to my wife.
My wife! my wife! what wife? I have no wife.
O insupportable! O heavy hour!
He doesn’t say his wife is dead, which he might say if he still thinks of her only as a body. He says he has no wife. And only then does he acknowledge the “insupportable” burden he has taken on.

But Shakespeare (brilliant!) doesn’t stop Othello there and just have him commit suicide out of a sense of guilt. Othello has one more realization to make. In doing what he thought of at first as merely snuffing a light, he has put an end not just to one person, but to two. Rushing in with other characters who come to see what’s happened, Lodovico asks, “Where is this rash and most unfortunate man?” Othello answers, “That's he that was Othello: here I am.” He that was Othello. By giving himself over to his passions and committing the heinous sin, Othello has brought death upon himself. And that’s the story of the world.

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