UE to my littlest sister being in town, I haven’t had much time to blog. Playing at tour guide actually takes a reasonable amount of time. But I’ve managed to make myself really rather sick (it’s really cold in Sydney right now) so we’re playing at home today. We saw ‘Othello’ at the Opera House last night. Lil sis is studying drama in Adelaide, so I figured this was a good plan, and as it turned out, it was. I find Othello an intriguing play because race plays out in it so strongly and yet often in ways quite different to the ways it would now. It’s completely tragic, and even though Iago, the biggest baddie ever writ, so they say, is caught in the end, the horror he’s caused makes the idea of even his death seem not enough of a punishment. (Indeed, Othello says something about this at the end: that he doesn’t want to kill him because he wants him to live with it. Unfortunately for Othello, Iago really doesn’t seem to mind…)
Othello is, in the play’s terms, a Moor. Though this figure is clearly racialised, it’s not altogether clear which threads of historical racialisation it picks up on: the ‘Sparknotes’ synopsis I read before I went (not trusting my Shakespearean ear to carry me alone) says that the usual contemporary understanding of ‘Moor’ as the Islamic Arabian people from northern Africa who invaded Spain is probably more specific than in Shakespeare’s time. In the version we saw, Othello was played by Wayne Blair, an indigenous actor recognisable from a fair few Australian TV shows (and the film Mullet), amongst a range of other plays and performances. It was an intriguing choice (Marion Potts is a pretty famous director), as was the way Blair played him: the physicality he brought to the stage was different to the others. Even the steps he took across the stage expressed it; he raised his leg higher, and put each foot down with such slow deliberateness it seemed like he was pushing down through the air from about 8 inches above the floor. This cautiousness was combined with abrupt shifts in direction, sudden turns towards and away from other characters. Whilst at first it was a little jarring (probably combined with the fact that one of the minor characters was played by a stand-in who carried his script onstage!), I think it was intended to express something of the uncertain place Othello holds in his context.
Othello is a general in the Venetian war against the Turks (who are threatening to take over Cyprus and then, of course, the rest of the Christian world), and as such he is respected and trusted. He’s an open, likeable man, and seems to trust to the goodness of human nature, at least up until Iago plays his game. Yet his status is clearly a tenuous position, and the continual marking of Othello as only mostly civilised, with an underlying viscerality and passion demonstrates this. Blair’s movements on stage expressed this ambiguity.
Iago, played by Marcus Graham, who has a long list of TV and film performances and managed the character with extraordinary ease, is one of the few almost incomprehensibly evil characters in the Shakespeare I know. The only motive he seems to have, really, is hatred; it’s unclear whether he really just hates everyone and so is keen to see them hurt, or absolutely abhors Othello, and counts whatever means towards the end of undoing Othello as a-OK. I suspect, though, that it is partly Othello’s race which makes Iago’s motivations more believable. Simply evil characters are difficult to believe, if they gain little from their evil; but with Othello marked as racialised, Iago’s hatred gains an uncomfortable veracity, a ‘justification’ that’s never really pointed out clearly.
But the nastiness of Iago lies in the fact that he appears, the whole time, to be on everyone’s side. When Cassio loses his position as Othello’s second (through Iago’s concealed intervention), Iago recommends that he approach the sympathetic Desdamona, Othello’s wife. When Roderigo loses Desdamona, who he loves, to Othello, Iago appears helpful, sympathetic. Even Iago’s interactions with Othello are painfully generous, only ever looking out for his general. It’s the worst kind of treachery to watch, because you can see how utterly believable and loyal Iago manages to appear to each and every pawn in his game. The fact that almost all of them wind up dead reminds of how lacking the supposed ‘protection’ of law-based justice is; his arrest is emotionally and ethically unsatisfying, because he has manipulated the loyalty and passion of Desdamona, Emilia, Roderigo and even Othello to such awful ends. Is it racism that motivates this? I think that, as concealed as it is, it is equal to the task; and Iago’s arrest then feels like law protecting its own, rather than the law intervening to counter aggression.
Race and class, though, are played out together in interesting ways. Iago is clearly—all the way down to the messy way he wears his uniform and his free movements (at least when he’s alone)—of a different class to Cassio and Othello. This is drawn attention to most explicitly by Emilia, Iago’s wife and Desdamona’s maid. Desdamona, chafing at the accusations Othello is leveling against her, says that she would not cheat on her husband, “not for all the world!” Emilia responds with deceptive cheerfulness that she would absolutely cheat, “if it would make of my husband a monarch.” Desdamona is horrified, in a proper upper-class way, but Emilia is pragmatic. Later, after Iago’s plot is exposed, though, she refuses to shut up as he tells her to and in passionate despair admits how he had manipulated her to undo Othello’s marriage and position. He kills her, though it’s unclear if this is for disloyalty to him (and loyalty to (her position as maid to?) Desdamona) or just… well, just to add another body to the count now that he’s been arrested. At the beginning of the play, too, Iago voices his disapproval of Othello picking Cassio over him for promotion, suggesting that Cassio is far too bookish, and has little experience in the field. And thus Cassio’s class enabled his promotion. It would seem, then, that while part of Iago’s hatred of Othello is premised upon race, this cannot be unbound from a sense of class resentment: despite his race, Othello has achieved a status Iago longs for and is denied based on class. Or perhaps more strongly: I wonder how much Iago’s hatred of Othello arises because Othello accepts his status, and despite the difficulties he faces being marked as other, upholds the class system. Perhaps, in Iago’s eyes, he has few excuses for lacking awareness of the privilege and possibilities of his position…