First Othello Lecture
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The Tragedy of Othello the Moor of Venice First lecture
The Renaissance Studies major • An interdisciplinary major for students interested in the literature, art, history, music of the 15th, 16th, 17th centuries. See • We’ll have the occasional visit of other Early Modern faculty for mini-lectures. • Prof. Jon Snyder (Italian) will talk about the image of Venice in the early 1600s (next Thursday). • Prof. McGee (History) will talk about kingship and King James while we’re discussing Macbeth. • Prof. Fumerton (English) will talk about ballads in the context of The Winter’s Tale. • And if anyone is interested in learning to sing 17th cent. Ballads, check out Music A 70B being taught this quarter (Tues-Thurs, 4-5:20 in Music 2224) by Revell Carr, the Music Specialist for the Pepys Ballad Archive.
The tragedy’s particular character • The most painful of Shakespeare’s four “great” tragedies? • Like the mythical old lady in the theater, we want to shout, “Stop, you fool! She’s innocent!” • The fastest moving of the tragedies. • With a single line of action – no subplot, no distractions. • And no comedy (except the opening of Act III, scene 1; is this a bit lame? Would we advise Sh. to cut this?) • And a compressed time scheme – sometimes referred to as a “double time scheme.”
Dating, text, leading actor • Perhaps written as early as 1603, but certainly by autumn of 1604 (November), when it was performed at court. • But not printed until 1622 – in quarto -- six years after Shakespeare’s death). • Then a text that differs somewhat from the quarto was published in the First Folio of 1624. • Folio is the better text; Pelican text is edited from the Folio. See “base Judean” (F) against “base Indian” (Q) in O’s final speech. • Role of Othello was written for Richard Burbage, the most powerful actor of the King’s Men, and the greatest tragedian of his day. • Burbage had played Hamlet and other leading roles for the King’s Men.
Source • Shakespeare got the story from a collection of Italian stories, the Hecatommithi (One Hundred Tales) of Giradi Cinthio (1565). • Which had not been translated into English by 1603. • So it seems Shakespeare could read Italian. Did he travel to Italy in the 1580s? • In G.C., the valiant Moor is not named. Sh. Invented the name Othello. • And “Iago” (also not named in G.C.) has motivation for his actions: he had been in love with Disdemona, but was rejected by her. His plot is his vengeance. • And Disdemona’s death happens differently: in collusion with the Moor, “Iago” beats her with a sand-filled stocking, then he and the Moor make it appear that the ceiling has fallen on her. • The time scheme is less compressed in G.C. • It takes a while before the truth of the murder comes out.
The Moor • “The Moor”: scholars have gone around and around about what this means. • But it seems clear that a Moor was someone from North Africa. • And the play makes clear his racial difference: he is “black Othello.” • Iago calls him “an old black ram” (I, 1, 97), Roderigo refers to him as “the thick lips” (I, 1, 65), and Iago as “a Barbary horse” (I, 1, 110). • Brabantio refers to “the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou art” (I, 3, 70-71). • Moors were not a part of the London population, but Londoners had seen them in the embassies of N. African nations. • Moors were exotic, strange, were Muslim in religion. • And so racially and religiously “Other” from white, Christian Europeans.
Othello the Moor • But Othello has converted to Christianity. • And devoted himself to the service of Venice. • I’m reminded of a Borges story, “The warrior and the captive,” where he tells of Droctulft, a Lombard warrior, who during the siege of Ravenna in the 6th or 8th century, went over to the Roman side. • Droctulft left his own companions, who were attacking the city, and joined the defense of Ravenna – converted by the beauty and symmetry of the Roman city. (Labyrinths, p. 128) • Can we similarly imagine Othello, also an outsider, the Other, converted by the beauty and the civility of Venice, and so “converted” in every sense to what it represents? • Like Droctulft for Ravenna, Othello seems to have a special reverence for Venice.
Othello the Moor • Portrayed in entirely negative terms in the first scene: • He’s foolish, Iago suggests, • having chosen Cassio, “a great arithmetician,” as his officer instead of the more experienced Iago. • And both Iago and Roderigo cover him with racially charged epithets. • Which is tinged with a sense of sexual distaste – or envy? • Desdemona has been brought “to the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor” (Roderigo). • “Your daughter and the Moor are making the beast with two backs” (Iago). • We’re led to believe that a monstrous black man has stolen a beautiful white girl.
And Othello’s actual appearance . . • In I, 1? • Quiet, confident, assured of his position with the signiory of Venice. • Revealing his own aristocratic background (“I fetch my life and being/ From men of royal siege, and my demerits/ May speak unbonneted . . . ) • He has married Desdemona only because of his love for her. • His calm in the face of the armed crew that Brabantio brings. • “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” • His courtesy to Brabantio. • How does he handle the racial animus against him?
The “Othello music” • Phrase comes from a famous essay by G. Wilson Knight. • I, 3, 81-82: “Rude am I in speech/ And little blessed with the soft phrase of peace . . .” • He’s a military man, not a poet or scholar. • But is his speech really “rude” (meaning unpolished, ineloquent), is he really “little blessed with the soft phrase”? • He seems to relish words, perhaps giving the impression of someone who has learned the language and loves its nuances. • “the cannibals that each other eat,/ The anthropophogi.” • His speech to the signiory: I,3,128ff. • Duke: “I think this tale would win my daughter too.” • See his love aria to Desdemona when they meet on Cyprus: II, 1, 182ff. • And Iago’s reply: “But I’ll set down the pegs that make this music.” • Othello’s farewell to his profession: III, 3, 347ff. The poetry of his soldiering. • Or 453, where the beauty of the lines gives a kind of horror to his vow of constancy in his “bloody thoughts.” • Why give Othello such eloquence? • And what happens to the “Othello music” at IV, 1, 35ff?
Othello and Des • • • • • •
• • • • •
What to make of their love/marriage? “She loved me for the dangers I had passed.” “And I loved her that she did pity them.” And what she says at I, 3, 248-254. “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind.” Doesn’t cancel out the sexual attraction, but does it make it more complex, more brainy? Do we ever doubt the potent character of their love? Her boldness in eloping with him is clearly a factor in our judgment of their love. She’s taking an immense chance; clearly no meek little Venetian girl. Each of these elements is challenged by Iago’s formulations. So how do we judge the matter?