Having an abundance of time, 24 hours every day just like everyone else, it seems an appropriate time to explore Shakespeare in greater depth. With videos it is easier than with straight text to dive deep into the Bard without drowning. There are many ways of interpreting and expatiating what was and what wasn’t written, and there is no doubt that some things seen and heard in the Globe by Shakespeare himself will never be known. That’s inevitable, but quibbles aside there is much to be learned about individual human options of personal action by watching modern Shakespeare and his infamous honest man Iago.
It is reported there are 410 feature-length video recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, and I have no intention of watching them all, but I do plan to watch as many as possible, especially the reportedly good productions. The general procedure is to first read the scholarly quick introduction of a soon-to-be-viewed play in The Complete Works of Shakespeare by Hardin Craig.
This week I and my spouse watched six productions of Othello.
1. The Shakespeare Series version available on Amazon Instant Video, which was unsatisfying because it was hard to hear the dialogue and the background mood music was far too loud.
2. Orson Welles’s rendition is fantastic, which some critics claim to like, but it cut so much of Shakespeare’s dialogue that it was incomprehensible. Iago is shown as evil from the beginning and not as an honest man turned bad by circumstance.
3. Laurence Olivier as Othello is wonderful but partially ruined by excessive blackface, and too truncated
4. Lawrence Fishburne as a perfect puppet Othello, Kenneth Branagh as a manipulative Iago plotting, and manipulating a perfect Desdemona Othello’s absolutely loyal-unto-death wife, Irene Jacob.
5. Anthony Hopkins as naïve Othello and Bob Hoskins as honest Iago. Behind the view of the puppet victims, but exposed to the audience, is Iago plotting Othello’s suffering and death. In the final scene we see the captured villain Iago laughing at Othello’s suicide. This was for me the best adaptation because the director understood what Shakespeare intended and didn’t cut out essential dialogue.
6. Otello – by Verdi with Placido Domingo directed by Zeffirelli on Netflix streaming had superb production values, but being in Italian with clipped English subtitles it was painful to watch. The title “Ot(h)ello” was truncated, as was the content of the story.
All of these renditions of Othello have positive things to be said about them, but to my eye the Anthony Hopkins and Bob Hoskins version gave the most believable exploration of human motivations and emotions. Every one of the characters behaves within the realm of reasonable human behaviors, given their immediate situations. The entire play pivots around the paragon of all virtues, Iago, and his being passed over for advancement by the Venetian authorities. This rendition is careful to demonstrate early in the play that Iago is intelligent, hard-working, sane, forethought-full, diligent and honest and therefore deserving of command of the Venetian forces. Instead the Doge of Venice chooses Othello, a direct and dedicated soldier, as the army’s commander. The Doge inadvertently rubs the perceived snub even further into Iago’s delicate gall by choosing Cassio, a handsome armchair soldier, as second in command, leaving the deserving Iago as a high level lackey.
In the first scenes Iago is observed laying out his plans to destroy these two soldiers who have been promoted ahead of him. His problem is that to cover his plans for destroying Othello he must maintain the appearance of absolute honesty and dedication. Throughout the play he does appear to support the well-being of each of the other characters, at least to the characters themselves. When properly directed this play emphasized this apparent honesty by having Iago consistently giving really good advice to the others who are having problems, and their accepting it, and even praising him for it. However, in every scene he steps away from his interlocutor and facing the camera and thinks out-loud the details for enhancing naive Othello’s suspicions of his own wife.
Iago intentionally betrays himself, and screws up his own courage by fantasizing a romantic affair between his own wife Emilia and Othello. Also, he generates a believable affair between Cassio and Othello’s wife Desdemona. But, Othello demands proof of their betrayal and Iago creates proof in the form of a handkerchief given to Othello by his mother, which he passed on to his wife as a sacred first gift. Iago gets his own wife to steal the handkerchief and he sneaks it into Cassio’s bed. When Cassio finds it he thinks it came from his own mistress Bianca and gives it back to her. When Othello sees the handkerchief in Cassio’s hand he becomes convinced of his own wife’s and Cassio’s infidelity to him and sets out to murder them both.
All is working to Iago’s benefit until after Othello murders his own faithful wife Desdemona. Seeing the murder Iago’s wife, hearing the reason for it was the handkerchief, betrays Iago by telling everyone she gave it to Iago. It becomes obvious to everyone he was the one who put the handkerchief into Cassio’s bed to frame him. If Iago’s wife had stayed silent Iago would have been promoted to the head of the army and no doubt would have become a great general. But his evil deeds are exposed to the Venetian authorities and Iago is condemned to torture and death. This BBC production was relatively low budget, but was shot in a beautiful location, and being the closest to the original script was the purest Shakespeare.
I suspect that Shakespeare would have preferred the Bob Hoskins rendition.