Director's Thoughts on Othello

"I am not what I am."

Othello was the last of Shakespeare's great tragedies that I had not yet directed, and it was not until a few years ago that I added it to my director's wish list. The others called out to me sooner, perhaps because they spoke of things I was dealing with in my own life. My interest in Othello derived more from a frustration of never having seen a production that aroused my emotions in the way the play did when I read it, and I have, over the past few years, spent some time pondering the reasons why. And so, I embarked on this project with a singular goal: to tell the tale in a way that would move you. It's been a tough self-assignment, for though many scholars maintain that it's Shakespeare's "most perfect play," they are claiming that from a dramaturgical point of view. It is in the actual playing of it that its difficulties bubble to the surface like a messy cauldron.

As I joked to my cast, on the first day of rehearsal, if one had to distill the play down to one sentence, one could say it's a tale about the downside of trust. And while that is true, it is, as all Shakespeare's plays are, about much, much more. I do want to say what I think it is not. I do not feel it's a play about racism. It is no more about racism than Romeo and Juliet is about street gangs. Racism is there, it's inherent in the plot, just as the warring gangs of young men are inherent to the plot of Romeo and Juliet. But Romeo and Juliet is, at its core, a play about love and hate, and Othello is, at its core, is a play about jealousy, trust and betrayal, and those things are explored with agonizing profundity in Othello.

I am mystified as to why, for four centuries, people keep referring to the jealous Moor. It is not Othello who is the jealous creature of this story. It is Iago. He is chronically jealous; it is his constant state of being. He is jealous of many people and many things, and he knows the emotion like the back of his hand. He has, by the time we meet him, embraced his jealousy, and because he is so intimate with the "green-eyed monster," he has learned to make it his brilliant, insinuating weapon of destruction. Othello, on the other hand, is a man of trust - to a mortal fault. His one and only bout of jealousy, induced and provoked by Iago, proves fatal. Indeed all of Iago's "targets" are creatures of great trust, and their Achilles heel proves to be, in almost every case, their innocence or naiveté.

In our first conversation about the play, Bob Cuccioli said to me that he felt like Iago was an "emotional pyromaniac." It is an apt and astute label. Iago contructs pyres from half-truths and careful manipulations, and then ignites emotional conflagrations that he watches from "behind the yellow tape" like a turned-on arsonist. In the final scenes of the play, we watch horrified as his "flames" consume everyone in their path.

The questions the play provokes are vast. Is Iago innately evil or just a very, very bad man who has become that way because of circumstance? What are those circumstances, and are they also his motives? Is Iago amoral or immoral? Is this Iago's play or Othello's? Is it Iago's play but Othello's tragedy? Is the "blindness" that Othello exhibits tenable? Why are all these characters so gullible and easily manipulated by Iago? The answers are as varied and debatable as anything in Shakespeare's most complex works, but as one discusses the profusion of issues and themes in the play — appearance versus reality, society's treatment of outsiders, racial prejudice, the nature of evil, the importance of reputation and honor, and the treatment of women, the nature of jealousy, class/status bigotry, the art of deception, sexual and identity insecurity, etc., etc. — one starts to glean answers. And in the end, out of all of Shakespeare's great epic tragedies, I think this one is the closest to our everyday understanding, and therefore, our hearts. It is, essentially, a domestic tragedy. The character's foibles and strengths are those we all share and understand. Their dilemmas and fears not far from our own. None of us gets through life without having been a victim, at some time or other, of a master manipulator. And those who manipulate, rarely, like Iago, seem to have a single, tangible goal. Yes, they may be bilking us for money or using us for concrete gains, but there often seems to be a secondary "pay-off" for them — one far more mysterious to us, unsettling in its obscurity, and chilling in its visceral nature.

"I think you think I love you."

Anyone who has felt jealousy in its most potent form understands this play. It is, according to most, the worst emotion — many a man or woman has shut down emotionally rather than ever risk experiencing it again. But what tales the "green-eyed monster has inspired! And this is the best of them.
Bonnie J. Monte

"Men should be what they seem."

"I think this play is racist, and I think it is not. But Othello's example shows me that if I insist on resolving the contradiction, I will forge only lies and distortion. As this exploration of texts has shown, the discourse of racial difference is inescapably embedded in the play just as it was embedded in Shakespeare's culture and our own. To be totally free of racism, one would have to invent a new language with no loaded words, no color discriminations, and no associations of blackness with evil, whiteness with good. White and black are opposed in the play's language – in what we hear – and in what we see during performance. When Shakespeare tackled Cinthio's tale of a Moor and his ancient, he had no choice but to use this discourse. Shakespeare, and we, are necessarily implicated in its tangled web.

The wonder of Othello is that Shakespeare was able to exploit the full complexity of that discourse, showing expectations gone topsy-turvy with a white villain opposed to a black man of heroic proportion. Even though the predominant typology of white over black is only temporarily subverted in fits and starts within the play, that subversion is itself an incredible artistic triumph."
--Virginia Mason Vaughan


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