Sunday Pages: "Othello"
A play by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare helped invent modern English. The prolific wordsmith coined some 1,700 words, including assassination, zany, bloody, dishearten, obscene, majestic, lonely, and my personal favorite, countless. As a poet, he is without parallel in the language. I’ve written before about Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, but the dude just cranked out top-shelf material, like the rest of us mortals exhale carbon dioxide. There are clunkers for sure, but at his best, Shakespeare is as good as English verse gets.
The plays, though? They’re usually, let’s face it, kind of dull. Why five acts, Billy? Can’t you distill it to three? I’m sure the audiences of 1603 were content to take in four-hour theatrical productions, but in 2023, we’re busy. We have Be Real to update and Wordle to puzzle over and Netflix to binge. Do we really need two parts of Henry IV? And the plots aren’t particularly applicable to modern times. The characters may be universal, behaving in the flawed, self-sabotaging way humans always have, but most of us don’t have to fret over how exactly to take out the uncle who is sleeping with our mother to avenge our father’s murder, or whack a king to fulfill the prophesy of some witches, or survive being shipwrecked on a mad sorcerer’s island, or tame a shrew.
The exception, it occurred to me this week, is Othello. I remember reading it in high school or early college and thinking, “This plot is nuts. This would never happen. No one would be this horrible. I don’t believe this at all.” Not only that, I was convinced that Shakespeare himself agreed with me. The reason Iago goes silent at the end, I theorized, is because, despite the arsenal of 1,700 new words at his disposal, the Bard simply could not figure out what to make his villain say to sufficiently explain his heinous actions.
But that was before social media.
Othello, I now realize, applies perfectly to the current moment. Animating all the action is white male grievance about something dumb—in Iago’s case, being passed over for a promotion—and the violent, petty, heartless lengths to which aggrieved white men will go, to avenge these perceived slights.
There is racism. “I hate the Moor,” Iago says, on more than one occasion. Exchange the M-word for the N-word, and you have the simple, benighted, ugly motive of the Trump rally-goer who hasn’t gotten over the fact that Barack Obama was president.
There is fear of being made a cuckold—in MAGA parlance, a “cuck.” Early in the play, Iago tells us of his suspicion that his boss, the titular Othello, banged his wife, Emilia:
And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets
He has done my office. I know not if ’t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.
In other words, Iago’s going to assume this happened, even though he himself doesn’t actually believe it. That his wife has maybe, possibly, but probably not actually dallied with a Moor—that introduces a racial element to the dynamic. This is an Elizabethan antecedent to the vile “lusty Black men are coming for our white women” trope disseminated by the KKK and other racists in the Reconstruction period and beyond.
And, finally: Iago is a troll. The entire plot involves a nasty disinformation campaign he runs against his boss. Othello is a play about an op!
Iago convinces Othello that his newlywed wife, the much-desired Desdemona—who he himself likes, both as a friend and object of desire—is having an affair with Michael Cassio, the younger colleague who got the promotion Iago had sought. He does this despite recognizing that Othello has a “constant, loving, noble nature” and is an upstanding, decent human. As he tells us,
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.
He explains the mechanics of the op in Act Two:
That Cassio loves her, I do well believe it;
That she loves him, ’tis apt, and of great credit:
The Moor, howbeit that I endure him not,
Is of a constant, loving, noble nature;
And, I dare think, he’ll prove to Desdemona
A most dear husband. Now, I do love her too,
Not out of absolute lust (though peradventure
I stand accountant for as great a sin)
But partly led to diet my revenge,
For that I do suspect the lusty Moor
Hath leap’d into my seat. The thought whereof
Doth, like a poisonous mineral, gnaw my inwards,
And nothing can or shall content my soul
Till I am even’d with him, wife for wife,
Or, failing so, yet that I put the Moor
At least into a jealousy so strong
That judgment cannot cure.
The intent of the plot against Othello, Iago continues, is to
Make the Moor thank me, love me, and reward me
For making him egregiously an ass
And practicing upon his peace and quiet
Even to madness. ’Tis here, but yet confus’d.
Knavery’s plain face is never seen till us’d.
And who pays the ultimate price? The woman, of course. It’s always the women who suffer the most, when aggrieved white men lash out. Iago is a master troll, a malignant narcissistic sociopath, entirely devoid of empathy—the sort of toxic individual who, 420 years after Othello was written, is all too recognizable. He’s a liar, a fabulist, a racist, a misogynist, so full of hate, so incapable of grace, that he is compelled to ruin innocent lives for sport. This is a familiar character these days, alas.
Iago runs the op to perfection. Othello is so convinced of Desdemona’s infidelity—how else to explain her handkerchief being in Cassio’s possession?—that he throttles her to death. The strangulation of this innocent, gentle, loving woman is, I believe, the most violent act shown onstage in any Shakespeare play. I mean, it’s really jarring, the raw brutality of the murder magnified by the lack of props. He kills her with his bare hands!
In Act Five, after the murder is acted out and the op exposed, the remaining characters struggle to express just how shitty, how heinous, how evil this all is. Words seem to fail the playwright. When Emilia—who is also Desdemona’s nurse and friend—discovers that Iago is the author of all this woe, she is so bowled over that she keeps repeating: “My husband? My husband?” And when Iago appears, she cries:
Villainy, villainy, villainy!
I think upon’t, I think I smell’t; O villainy!
I thought so then. I’ll kill myself for grief.
O villainy, villainy!
The greatest wordsmith the language has ever produced, and all he can think to do is have the character shout “villainy” six times. After she explains her unknowing role in the op to the assembled others—Emilia is a “useful idiot” in the scheme—Iago, enraged by his inability to control his wife, vexed by her perceived disobedience, fatally stabs her. Othello, for his part, struggles to conceive of what he’s done:
This wretch hath part confess’d his villainy.
Did you and he consent in Cassio’s death?
Dear general, I never gave you cause.
I do believe it, and I ask your pardon.
Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnar’d my soul and body?
Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.
From this time forth I never will speak word.
Whereupon the villain is brought offstage to be tortured until he confesses, and Othello kills himself.
When I first read Othello, as mentioned, I thought the ending was a cop-out. I thought Shakespeare couldn’t explain why Iago did what he did, so he decided not to bother trying. But now I see that Iago’s vow of silence is perfectly in character, and exactly what a noxious sociopath would do, because shutting up causes the maximum amount of agony. It’s the ultimate troll.
In 2023, we should be so lucky. Our Iagos are never silent. We de-platform them, only for Elon Musk to empower them anew. We expose them as charlatans, liars, and chaos agents, only for credulous journalists and mendacious podcasters to use them as sources. (As Shakespeare might have put it, “When Nazis swear that they are made of truth / I do believe them, though I know they lie.”) They never go away, our Iagos; they just shape-shift, hoping that some sucker will buy what they’re selling, even as they continue to hurt innocent people—and women especially. They understand, as Iago did, that reputations can always be restored: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation at all, unless you repute yourself such a loser.”
They never, ever think of themselves that way, of course. But we know that a loser is a loser.
On The Five 8 this week, Stephanie Koff returned after a week away, and we welcomed the brilliant Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland and Evil Geniuses:
My wife, the very talented Stephanie St. John, this week released her earworm of a new single, “It Could Have Been OK.”
The first line in the song perfectly captures the spirit of the post-pandemic period: “Lately…lately I don’t want to go.”
Give it a spin:
Photo credit: New York Public Library. Posterization of theatrical poster of Othello, 1803.
O who ?