The Stratford Files: Othello

Othello | On the Stage | Stratford Festival
Othello tells a brutal story of jealousy, prejudice and betrayal. Despite its name, Othello really has three main characters. The first and most obvious is Othello himself. Othello is one of the most powerful generals of Venice. However, he is an outsider to their society being foreign, a former slave, and black. He is admired within Venice because, besides his skills in war, he is extremely eloquent and noble. The play takes place shortly after he has married one of the other main characters, Desdemona. Desdemona is the daughter of a prominent noble and is noted for her sweet and very pure personality. Her marriage to Othello is very unusual for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that of race, but also because it wasn’t a marriage arranged by her parents and was for love. The final main character is Iago, one of Shakespeare’s most diabolical villains. He hates Othello, for passing him over for a promotion instead giving the position to another friend named Cassio, who is better known for number crunching than military tactics. Employing every bit of his cunning and his poisonous tongue, Iago seeks to turn Othello and Desdemona’s pure love into unbridled hatred and jealousy. The play is absolutely brilliant in its writing and its dialogue. The dialogue is not all surprising, of course, since poetic and beautiful sounding wordplay is rather common in a Shakespeare play. One thing that is surprising is how it twists common tropes and themes from its time. For example, in Shakespeare’s day solders who didn’t work for an enemy nation were almost always portrayed as heroic and honest, a far cry from the subtle and treacherous Iago. Another common element in plays of the time was a comic misunderstanding involving a lady’s handkerchief. Here, the theft of Desdemona’s handkerchief is the linchpin of Iago’s plan and Othello’s reaction is anything but comic.
One of the strongest elements of this particular play is the characters. One of the most surprising things about the play is the mere fact of Othello’s ethnicity. Having a sympathetic black main character was absolutely unheard of at the time. Admittedly, it was a black character was very much a tragic hero who gave in to his flaws and was played by a white man in blackface, but it should be noted that a tragic hero’s demise in Shakespeare’s time was described as “the downfall of a great man” and that even having a black main character at all was incredibly progressive, particularly because in the original version of the play the character of Othello didn’t even have a name and was portrayed in an entirely negative light.
The characters drawn in Othello are some of the best in any Shakespeare play. Othello’s eloquence and loving nature (along with his nobility) make him extremely admirable and his speeches early in the play are absolutely beautiful. This makes his tragic downfall brought about by both his jealousy and his inability to judge people all the more tragic.
The play is all about how you can never truly know anyone. For example, the pure and loyal Desdemona is seen by her husband as an adulterer, while the cold and deceitful Iago is considered honest and loyal. Given Othello’s inexperience in Venetian society, the fact that he would make these mistakes and react in an extreme manner isn’t surprising. Iago uses these facts to his advantage. Iago is one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. His web of lies and deceit is incredible, especially since no one besides his wife has any idea what he is. His lies even stretch into his soliloquies, in which he offers several different reasons for why he hates Othello and they all differ. Is he angry that he was passed over for a promotion? Does he think that his wife is committing adultery with Othello? Is he the devil? Is he just doing this for the pure joy of it? All of these possible motivations are either directly stated or can be inferred in the play but since they conflict it makes Iago all the more terrifying. Iago is completely empty inside, filled with nothing but hatred and ego. He is even aware of this, telling his dimwitted lackey Rodrigo, “I am not what I am.” This line, to modern audiences, seems to imply that he is not what he appears to be, and that is certainly a part of what he is saying. However, in the Elizabethan era, evil was not seen as a force unto itself but as the absence of goodness, or more specifically, God. By saying that he is not what he is he is, he`s saying that he is nothing, and therefore completely empty and evil. He only is able to interpret Othello and Desdemona love for each other as mere lust because it’s all he himself is capable of.
Despite all of these traits, Iago actually brings most of the comic relief to the story. Unlike many Shakespeare plays, there is no character that has comedy as their main role. Although Rodrigo is certainly played for comedy in this particular production, most of the jokes focuses on Iago, his twisted insights into the other characters, his dark sense of humor, and the dramatic irony that all the other characters believe in his honesty. Another great character is Emilia, Iago’s wife, whose mix of cynicism and kindness makes her very interesting. The truth about her character is that the audience’s perception of her is actually manipulated. The character is truly very honorable, loyal, and kind, but since for the first half of the play (depending on the production) the audience’s are often led to believe that she is a much more treacherous character than she is. Since she steals the handkerchief and we only have her character described by Iago, it’s easy to fall into this trap and not see her nobler acts coming. In a way she’s almost as tragic as Othello since if she had been married to anyone else she probably would have lived a happy life, but being married to Iago, she lived a very unhappy life and died by her husband’s sword.
The set of the play is absolutely fantastic. It appears as a giant chess board, giving us a glimpse into Iago’s twisted view of the world. Further cementing this is the lighting, which during Iago’s soliloquies and asides, goes completely dark aside from a single spotlight focusing on him. It only does this for him, showing just how much control he has over everyone in the play. Whenever a scene changes, the board turns around, something that looks really impressive every time it happens. Dion Johnston does a great job portraying Othello, showing him both as the loving, passionate, but poetic warrior and the incensed madman Iago turns him into by the end of the play. Graham Abby gives a terrifying performance as Iago. He has all the charm and charisma necessary to fool everyone, but where he really shines is in his soliloquies and asides, where we can see every bit of hatred and malice radiating off of him and hear it infused into his words. A particularly chilling scene that shows how good he is at disguising his true self is seen early in the play. During the scene, Iago turns to the audience and looks at us for an extended period of time. We can see him becoming increasingly enraged, but the minute he turns back to Othello, he is all charm and modesty. He is also extremely disturbing in the final scene when his mask comes off in the other characters see him for the person that we always knew he was. Bethany Jillard is great at getting across the kind and sympathetic nature of Desdemona while making the perhaps overly-perfect character seem real. Deborah Hay as Emilia showcases her character’s cynicism and sadness and her kindness and love for her mistress in others. The scene between her and Desdemona before Othello bursts in for the final time is both touching and beautiful. Mike Shara is very funny as Rodrigo, making the character’s foolishness very clear while also showing the romantic nature that got him into this mess. It’s hard not to feel for him in this version; after all, if Iago wasn’t there to gode him into various acts, he’d probably have found happiness with another woman. In fact, this is common theme. If it wasn’t for Iago’s perfidious influence, many of the characters would have been happy in the end.
Othello is a dark look at how no one is truly exactly who we think they are and how treachery can come from even the most unlikely places. It is highly recommended.

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