Saturday, June 18, 2005

Much Ado About a Handkerchief

As best I remember, I haven't read Othello since I was a teenager, but over the past few weeks I've watched two movie versions and listened to an audio version several times. (I like to listen to audio books as I do housework or sew.) The movies were the 1995 Othello, starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, and Orson Welles' 1950s version. I didn't watch the 1995 one back in the '90s because I hadn't seen a trailer and feared it would be a mishmash of political correctness; to my pleasure, it wasn't . The script seemed to be trimmed pretty close to the bone, but it made a good movie, and the actors, scenery, and costumes were good. I especially liked Branagh's performance as Iago. Orson Welles' version, which was extensively restored in the '90s, is very interesting visually; it looks and sounds something like a horror film--not inappropriate considering what happens in the story is rather horrific.

Some random thoughts about the movies and the play itself:

* Some years ago I tried to watch Laurence Olivier's Othello, but I couldn't get past his blackface. Orson Welles looks boyish at times, but his blackface is much better than Olivier's.

* I don't know if it's a good idea to cast a handsome man like Laurence Fishburne as Othello. His appearance contributes to the erotic appeal of the DVD cover, but it makes all those "why would she choose him" comments hard to understand. Of course, I'm looking at this with 21st century American eyes, not the eyes of an early 17th century English audience, most of whom had likely never seen a black man; perhaps any black man would look odd to them. Still I think I would have chosen a man who's a bit older and less attractive than Fishburne to emphasize the differences between Othello and Desdemona.

* Branagh's Iago is somewhat more convincing that that of MacLiammoir in Welles' film. I can't fault the latter's acting; it's just that it's easier to imagine Othello--or anyone else--trusting the good-looking Branagh than the slimy, devious-looking Wellesian Iago.

* Iago's speeches are textbook studies of how to convince someone of malicious slanders: act very reluctant to cast aspersions, hint more than you say, suggest there may be nothing in it, etc. The same things that worked in Shakespeare's day work today.

* It is hard to like Othello, because jealousy is so unattractive. Still, I think Othello may be, by nature, no more jealous than the average person. His real fault seems to be that he is too willing to trust what others say. Iago says as much when he's planning his revenge. The hell of this is that, once his jealousy is aroused, his trusting nature doesn't extend to trusting Desdemona.

* Some people suggest Othello and Desdemona never consummated their marriage, because of the short time they had together on their wedding night, Iago's later comment that O hadn't yet made sport with D, and D asking Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed the night she was murdered (the usual rationale given is "who'd want to put the wedding sheets--presumably blood-stained--back on the bed?"). Both of these movies assume the marriage was consummated. I certainly hope so. The story is too terrible as it is, without thinking they never got to enjoy the physical side of their marriage before it was destroyed.

* Does no one just die in this play, or do they all keep talking after you think they're dead?

* I like the way Othello, before he murders her, tells D that if she can remember any sins she's never repented of, to pray forgiveness of them now, because he doesn't want to kill her soul. In this story it makes the murder all the more poignant to know how much he loves her and doesn't want to kill her, but I like the worldview that allows people (okay, fictional characters) to think of this when they have time before they kill. You used to see it in some older stories or movies. For example in The Cowboys, where even the bad guys allow Roscoe Lee Brown's character to make his peace with God before they string him up. (OTOH, one of them had earlier shot John Wayne in the back. It's a situational thing.) No one in movies does this any more, probably because we're more brutal and because the audience is less likely to understand the gesture.

* This is a very single-minded plot. The military thing is quickly resolved with no trouble to anyone, by an act of God. Who cares what happens to Cassio, except as it impacts O & D? The only other thing resembling a subplot is Iago's exploitation of Roderigo, and that never really amounts to much. Everything is driving toward making Othello jealous enough to punish Desdemona with death. It's very focused. But, now I think about it, is it really more focused than the other tragedies or does it just seem so because of the smallness of its outward action (everything hangs on one small handkerchief)? I'll have to think about this some more.

* Does Iago really think Othello cheated with Emilia? It sounds like mere excuse when he says it himself, but we later hear Emilia allude to Iago having accused her of that. (Also Iago's "It is a common thing" sounds like a slur on Emilia's virtue to me, but once again we're talking my 20th-century bred ears; it could just be a general insult.) The 1995 film suggests it is true, by having Branagh and Fishburne exchange significant looks when Iago says at the end "What you know, you know." I can't decide.


atheling2 said...

"Of course, I'm looking at this with 21st century American eyes, not the eyes of an early 17th century English audience, most of whom had likely never seen a black man; perhaps any black man would look odd to them."

I think many of that time had seen black men! Slavery had not been banned in England till the early 18th century and many "Moors" had traversed the Continent and made it to the British Isles.

I had watched an interesting documentary on Shakespeare and the researchers had discovered that there were actual marriage records in the 17th century which were between black men and white (English) women! Not something you hear about too often...

Suzanne said...

I didn't think the British brought many black slaves into the British isles. I admit I don't know much about the slave trade, though.

That about the marriage records is interesting and new to me. I assume these were free black men?

I've often wondered--but not enough to bother researching it--if Londoners of Shakespeare's day might have seen black men working on the ships that came up the Thames.