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Topical... which is why Shakespeare endures...
on 17 June 2015
Admittedly, perhaps like most people, I have not read Shakespeare since high school, lo' those many decades ago. I've recently decided to remediate this major deficiency in my reading, and have re-read some of the classics from school, such as Hamlet (Wordsworth Classics) and Macbeth. And it is so much more a pleasure now that a "grade" is not hanging in the balance, with the principle concentration being on figuring out what the teacher wants. For "Othello," this read was for the first time, and I was impressed how many of the issues which were raised then, reverberate today.
True, Venice is no longer a major world power. But the principle geo-political concern in Othello is the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, an event which reoccurred since my high school days. The political leadership in Venice recruited Othello, a dark-skinned Muslim, to defend their interests in Cyprus, and defeat the Turks. Nature proves to be the best ally of Venice, and a Mediterranean storm sinks most of the Turkish fleet. Thus, there are no scenes of combat. The real combat is much closer to home - as it so often is - and involves those who portray themselves as your friend.
Religion, per se, is not an issue. So, there is no Christian-Muslim conflict portrayed. But skin color is very much an issue. As topical as today's headlines concerning a white woman passing for black, and being an official in a predominately black organization. Othello marries Desdemona, a white woman. The father, Brabantio, feels betrayed, in part because he did not know his daughter's plans. He plants a seed in Othello's mind, that another will nurture, and it will bear awful fruit. Brabantio says: "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see; She has deceiv'd her father, and may thee." Further, he issues an admonishment: "Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds."
The nurturer of this seed is Iago. He is the master villain and manipulator. He is a key component in almost all large organizations. He is the individual who connives to gain your trust, in order to bury the knife in your back. His motivation, in part, as he says: "Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe." I consider Shakespeare's portrayal of Iago absolutely brilliant. The "dropped handkerchief" is a key tool that Iago deliberately uses to turn Othello first against his lieutenant, Cassio, and then against his wife, the actually faithful, Desdemona.
As in much of Shakespeare, there are the side currents, and the development of subsidiary themes. Certainly there is another key one, the relationship between men and women, and Emilia, wife of Iago, is the spokesperson for some remarkably modern views on the subject; in ways she is a Hedda Gabler, centuries earlier. In her own words: "'Tis not a year or two shows us a man; They are all but stomachs and we all but food; They eat us hungrily, and when they are full; They belch us." Later, Emilia delivers a classic soliloquy of the relationship of husbands and wives, in part saying: "Let husbands know Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell and have their palates both for sweet and sour, as husbands have. What is it that they do When they change us for others? Is it sport?... And have not we affections, Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?"
As in all of Shakespeare, there are numerous other worthwhile quotes, for example from Roderigo: "...for your words and performances are no kin together." And the master villain himself proclaims: "Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit and lost without deserving; you have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser." 5-stars.