Over the weekend, husband and I headed to Bloomington for the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of Othello. Thankfully, there was a wonderful break in the heat that night, so we were able to enjoy ourselves. Seriously, I don’t know how the actors managed it this summer in the heat, but I’m so glad they do what they do because these performances are one of the highlights of my summer.
Othello is a play I had never seen, but I’ve heard it quoted time and time again, and I already knew the plot and the ending going in–this is a good opportunity to say that there are spoilers ahead and read at your own risk–so while I knew what to expect, I was most interested in how Shakespeare was going to get there.
At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare makes clear that Othello and Desdemona are smitten with each other. After those initial joyous scenes, I found myself thinking that the bard has an uphill battle ahead of him to convince me that by the end of the play, Othello was going to kill his beloved wife. Did I mention the spoilers? When you’re writing a character, there is the expectation on the part of the audience that that character is going to act and react in a manner consistent with his or her personality and experience, and that when a character changes and breaks from this mold, it is a true and believable progression that brings him to it. Othello is an honorable, loving person. He should not become a jealous madman overnight.
He doesn’t. And Shakespeare pulls it off beautifully.
It starts with a deception that I didn’t even realize would figure into the rest of the plot. Desdemona and Othello have eloped, meaning that Desdemona’s father had no idea of their marriage until afterward. Even though Othello was also guilty of the deception, it’s something Iago can use to point out to Othello that his wife is at least capable of deception, and if she is willing to deceive her father, why not him? Also, there’s the issue of trust. Othello trusts Iago completely, and so do most of the other characters in the play. You could make a drinking game out of all the times the other characters call him “honest Iago.” And Iago presents his accusations about Desdemona’s affair with Cassio with such seeming anguish–words dropped here and there, all very calculated, yet it still seems that Othello has to drag the words from him at sword point. And though Othello demands “the ocular proof” from Iago, the seed of Othello’s downfall has already been planted.
Once that seed gets in Othello’s head, it works on him like the worst poison. All credit to the actors portraying Othello and Iago in the scenes where Othello is physically overcome by the imagined horror of his wife’s unfaithfulness. At this point, no words of Iago’s are as effective as Othello’s thoughts. And the truly scary part is, haven’t we all been there at one time or another? I’m not talking specifically about infidelity; I’m speaking in a broader sense of that little seed of doubt and fear that exists in all of our minds, that weakness or sore spot we all have that can be exacerbated when we least expect it, whether as a result of rumor, gossip, an insult real or perceived, a setback, a mistake–some event that causes us to doubt ourselves despite everything we know to the contrary.
We’ve all been in that place and recognize its worst extreme in Othello, so that by the time he gets his “proof” of Desdemona’s guilt, I’m just waiting for him to pick the time and place of her death. It’s tragic and disturbing and at the same time I’m sitting in the audience thinking, damn, Shakespeare pulled it off again. He made me believe. If, as a writer, you can get people to believe in that kind of character transformation, you have my respect.