Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Othello by William Shakespeare

IAGO: Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many—either to have it sterile with idleness, or manured with industry—why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

Reading my review of Othello from years ago, I'm amazed at some of the things I said: I failed to see, for instance, that Iago's many rationalizations for his hatred of Othello are far less than the sum of their parts.  Or how highly I thought of Othello himself, who now seems, though noble and capable, short-sighted and overconfident in not just his powers but the very stability of his nature.  Like Julius Caesar who calls himself the "North Star" because he doesn't change, Othello's belief in his own stability (and Iago's) becomes dangerous.  It's Iago who doesn't change, because what he is is a nullity, a living paradox: "I am not what I am."  He's so theatrical that I begin to wonder if there is anything beneath his playacting, if even his hatred for Othello is not another kind of act.

I admit that Othello is not my favorite of the tragedies.  It doesn't have the scope of Hamlet or King Lear, or the sheer poetry of Macbeth.  For that reason, I'm really excited to teach it, which I never have before--I think it'll force me to find new things to admire about it.  It's got a few really nice moments: Iago's salesman-like manipulation of Roderigo with the simple phrase, "put money in your purse"; Desdemona's mind-boggling shock at the idea that Iago's wife Emilia considers herself to be sometimes motivated by lust, like men are.  I have always felt that the best lines are Othello's final speech, which seem like a desperate attempt to manage his own legacy, or perhaps his conception of himself:

Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

"Speak of me as I am," says Othello--but what is that?  Iago has reduced him to almost nothing; and these last words give the impression of a man who knows that his words are all that is left of him.  He is reduced, at last, to this final speech.  He tells a story about killing a Turk, but he's really talking about himself.  Is he the noble Venetian or the traitorous foreigner?  When nothing's left of him but these words, in a way, he can be both.

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