Welcome back to DIRECTOR’S NOTES – a project built around a new production of Shakespeare’s Othello containing two concurrent strands of programming: first, a series of written articles detailing the creative process of editing and creating a new performance text, and second, a staged reading of the resulting text, which will be open to all of you to see.
These articles are an invitation to TBD’s entire audience to feed into this creation process that is authentic to the way I like to work. That’s the aspiration, at least. You can engage with us either in the comments here on this post, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by filling out our DIRECTOR’S NOTES Feedback Form. I look forward to hearing from everyone!
Missed the first installment of DIRECTOR’S NOTES? Check it out here!
My impulse is always to go straight to the play with scissors in hand, ready to start cutting it to shreds. But there are yet a few steps to go before we can get there. Ultimately the edit we’re left with is going to be a version of Othello designed to realize a certain vision of that play. So, before you can cut a word, you need a handle on what that vision is going to be – or at least, a motivating idea on which the vision can be built. That motivating idea is often referred to as the “seed,” and identifying a juicy one is critical to a successful production. This isn’t THE SEED for ALL productions of Othello; this is about our seed, specific to this production.
Before we go any further, let’s have a brief synopsis of Othello. On his marriage night, Othello the moor is dispatched by Venice to defeat the Turks. After his victory, Othello, his wife, and his captains govern in Cyprus, where one such captain, Iago, conspires against his general, poisons his mind against his new wife, and ultimately convinces him to kill her. This captain’s plots are revealed – though too late for Desdemona – and Othello kills himself. Torments are promised for Iago.
Thematically, jealousy – especially sexual jealously – looms large in Othello. The characters’ also share a heavy investment in personal reputation. The play is also shot through with a certain racial tension, though I don’t believe Shakespeare wrote this play specifically about race or racism. I will avoid the fallacy of ascribing any beliefs voiced by his characters as Shakespeare’s beliefs, and instead suggest Shakespeare uses certain race-driven themes and racist language to heighten and underline a broader central conflict to Othello.
A lot of criticism of Othello – and a criticism that would cripple the play in performance – has to do with Iago’s capacity to dupe Othello, and his reasons for doing so. It is difficult to grasp in the abstract: what kind of person – besides “the devil,” which is one school of thought about Iago’s character – can behave this way? And how can Othello believe it? We have to find the way to unlock these parts of the play – for surely they are close to the “heart” that Peter Brook believes exists in all of Shakespeare’s plays.
Iago, some twenty times called “honest,” finds initial success in nearly all of his lies. I say nearly all because he fails three times with the same, crucial lie: no one believes him when he suggests that Desdemona is unfaithful. No one, that is, except Othello. Roderigo’s response to Iago’s suspicion of Desdemona with Cassio? “With him? Why, ‘tis not possible,” and “I cannot believe that in her; she’s full of most blessed condition.” When Iago sounds Cassio about her eye being a “parley of provocation,” Cassio demurs: “An inviting eye, and yet methinks right modest.” And of course, his final failure is with his own wife, Emilia. When Othello says he learned of Desdemona’s infidelity from “honest, honest Iago,” she says, “If he say so, may his pernicious soul / Rot half a grain a day! He lies to the heart.” So, what’s different about Othello?
I found an answer in literary critic Kenneth Burke’s remarkable essay Othello: An Essay to Illustrate a Method. He describes “property” as a triune force between possessor (the owner of the property), possession (the property itself), and estrangement (the fear of loss). The very idea of property contains the fear of losing that property. Why claim that something is “mine” if I don’t have to fend others off from it? Iago, Burke posits, is the very manifestation of estrangement, working on Othello – the possessor – to inflame his fear of loss of Desdemona – the possession. Now apply this to our observations, above: the reason Othello can believe Iago is because his lies confirm the suspicion inherent to Othello’s claim of “ownership” of Desdemona. Take Othello’s private aside as Iago’s lies work upon him: “O curse of marriage, / That we can call these delicate creatures ours / And not their appetites!” Othello demonstrates the psychoses – believing things that aren’t there – of possession.
Othello possesses something else quite dear to him – a reputation. “Yet ’tis the plague of great ones,” he says, by way of finding justification for his hardship. Othello “owns” a certain vision of himself, which comes with the same inherent fear of loss. He cannot square Desdemona’s infidelity with his own vision of himself – and so he acts to preserve his reputation through her murder. “For naught I did in hate,” he says. “But all in honor.” Othello has become possessed with maintaining his possessions; it consumes his worldview, obscures his humanity, and results in tragedy.
In fact, all of Othello’s characters fall victim to the dehumanizing effect of a society predicated on the accumulation of status and possessions. Who at the top of this world hasn’t compromised their humanity, or isn’t willing to do so with the promise of advancement? What extraordinary price might have Othello paid – as an outsider, a Moor among white Venetians – to achieve his social status? What extraordinary price might he be willing to pay to maintain it? I don’t find such a society so difficult to imagine. And I find it helps me grasp the most difficult aspects of this play. I can see how such a society might breed Iago’s kind of malevolence, or enable Othello’s actions. I think we may have our seed: I want to tell the story of Othello, the tragedy of possession.
There’s so much more to be said, addressed, and discovered here. My mind is on overdrive just thinking of it! How about Cassio, who so earnestly – and tragically – pursues his own reputation’s repair? Oh, what about that much-maligned piece of accident Shakespeare includes at the heart of his plot – the loss of a simple handkerchief? That so small a possession could serve as index to so large a fault in Othello’s mind! I’m excited to find out more. I’d love to hear your initial reactions to this brief, general analysis – are there any moments of the play you’re curious about fitting into this view?
I think the next post will be about editing Act I – this will take us inside the text itself (finally) and give us some opportunities to explore this seed in action.