can be said to be more complete, and Macbeth
more interesting, Othello
is the most psychologically compelling
of the great Shakespearean tragedies
. It is an unguarded study in malice and benevolence
, strength and weakness, which does not easily lend itself to the intellectual and minute examination
of the modern viewer.
The play is almost impossible to stage or film successfully. Shakespeare was not writing for a post-freudean audience, one which can quickly enter into the intricacies of a character's motivations. His characterisation is instinctive and capricious, enough so to make it extremely difficult for a modern method actor to compile a succinct and coherent character. It can best be directed and acted on a scene to scene basis, which unfortunately does not make for very cohesive viewing. Nevertheless the text itself is fascinating, lending itself to almost endless interpretation and re-reading.
As a narrative, Othello is extremely lacking; it is almost like the Bard was writing a saga of some sort and decided to stage, at random, a snippet. The plot between Roderigo and Iago, as well as the love affair between Othello and Desdemona, begin off stage and out of play time, and while final denouement occurs on stage, the ultimate punishment of the guilty, that post-tragic element which is supposed to restore to the audience a feeling of cosmic order and justice - namely, Iago's death - does not. The play both begins and ends in an external universe of its own, and this lack of narrative structure is in part what makes it so difficult for us to process.
It is also, of course, laden with melodrama which to the modern viewer is distasetful, almost grotesque. The murder scene of Desdemona is one of those often caricatured drawn out affairs, and the interactions between Iago and almost anyone are simply too ridiculous to be believed when put in living, breathing form. It is only the in the silent text that we can glimpse the true psychological genius of the writer, the fine attention to detail and dialogue and the truly titanic power he can invest in his language.
Every one of the main characters has their tragic flaw. Othello's is obvious - drunk with the power and glory of a victorious hero, he is arrogant and self assured (yet not so much so that he cannot be hurt on his weakest point - his relationship with women as incaranted by Desdemona - a very modern reflection on men in general). Iago is likewise arrogant and conceited, trusting to his allpowerful smarts to get him out of any situation. To see Desdemona's failing we must look back to a less liberated society, however; she had married without her family's consent and "outside the clan", following her heart rather than her duty. Some readings suggest that it was this act of willfullness that, paradoxically, first planted the seed of doubt in her husband's heart. And yet at the end of the play we are still left dissatisfied. We are not convinced that the figures in the play deserved their fates. Othello and Desdemona certainly did not deserve to have their happinness and lives cut short in so brutal a fashion, but more importantly, Iago does not deserve to have succeeded. And suceed he did.
For me the power of the play has always been in the picture of indifferent, almost casual malice that is encompassed in the character of Iago. His effortless intrigue overpowers the intellect and power of Othello, who is emphatically set up to be a shrewd, brave and capable man from the start. It triumphs over the ultimate force of good - Desdemona's virginal innocence (a careful reading of the play reveals that her marriage had probably not been consummated). Reading it reminds me that any unkind deed, any thoughtless harm, can grow and lead to that elusive "evil" which a secular society perforce battles with the definition of, and as an incarnation of which Iago's character is usually seen.