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Saturday, January 17, 2015

GREAT BOOKS IN WINE COUNTRY REPORT

October 4, 2014 or October 5, 2015

We had a great time with Othello this weekend.  A large group on Saturday and a smaller one on Sunday with both providing stimulating, insightful discussions.  In this report I usually gloss over the weekend with comments on the weather, facilities, Calistoga and the wine, but we were fortunate to have Jim Baird at the Sunday event and he was kind enough to provide an excellent review of the discussion, a list of the parts we performed from the play (And, I do mean performed; we had some excellent character portrayals by participants.  Plays, like poetry, need to be heard.), and a review of the movie.  If you haven't seen it, do so.  It is unlike any other production of Othello I have ever seen.  I have added some pics of various actors playing Othello in films over the years.  ---Jim Hall

 
Sunday Morning
by Jim Baird

Laurence Fishburne
My experience with Othello, up until reading the play for Great Books this September, was limited to seeing a performance at San Diego’s Old Globe Theater in 1967, and a speed-reading of the play for a
college class some time later. Along with some famous lines (“Green-eyed monster” and “Loved not wisely but too well”), here’s all I remembered:

A Moorish general in 17th Century Venice, after a brief courtship, marries the teenage daughter of a prominent citizen. She’s the perfect wife for him, and he’s the ideal husband for her. They have no hidden faults, no sordid secrets. They are, in fact, good people. But within days both of them are dead in a murder/suicide. A scheming character named Iago is responsible for the tragedy.

Not a bad summary, but Othello is much greater than its plot. I was pleasantly surprised—as always happens during Shared Inquiry—to see themes I hadn’t even suspected before. At Calistoga, Jim Hall made that happen with his careful selection of passages for us to read aloud. Those scenes, with commentary, are listed below in the order we read them, with line references to the 2009 Folger paperback edition.

Act 1  Scene 3                Lines 353 to 387
IAGO   O, Villainous! I have looked upon the world for
            Four times seven years.

Iago is very good at misdirection, in this instance winning Rodrigo over by stating the reasons against what he wants Rodrigo to do. By the time Iago is finished, he’s got Rodrigo ready to cash in everything to pursue Desdemona, who will never have him. Iago’s a sharp guy who could do very well for himself, but Venice is a class-conscious city where a soldier like himself, recently passed over for promotion by Othello, has to play confidence man to get what he deserves.

Act 1  Scene 1                Lines 43 to 71
RODERIGO            I would not follow him, then.
 IAGO                          O, sir, content you.

Right from the first we see the basics of Iago’s plot against Othello. We also begin to see something of his motives. There’s certainly some kind of love/hate going on between the two men. Later in this scene he feeds Rodrigo lines to roust Desdemona’s dad in the middle of the night with news of her marriage. The old man, a ranking citizen, isn’t pleased with the news. Iago’s revenge has started.

Anthony Hopkins
Act 1  Scene 3                Lines 282 to 300
DUKE: What would you, Desdemona?
DESDEMONA:
            That I did love the Moor to live with him
            My downright violence and storm of fortunes.

Desdemona offers a candid description of how marriage binds husband and wife, and thus why she should accompany Othello to war with the Turks. Her comment in the last four lines about how, if he goes to Cyprus alone, “the rites for why I love him are bereft me,” is about consummating her marriage, a taboo subject for a woman of status in 1604 Venice. Othello, though, downplays this enticement with “Nor to comply with heat, (the young affects/In me defunct).” He seems less than enthusiastic.

Act 2  Scene 1                Lines 139 to 179
DESDEMONA:            Come, how wouldst thou praise me?
IAGO               I am about it, but indeed my invention comes.

This is a kind of verbal tennis match between Iago and Desdemona, with the results a draw. He has a proverb for every occasion, and she keeps up with his razzle dazzle easily. This scene brings much-needed humor to the play, while revealing still more about the characters. Desdemona proves she can hold her own and more against Iago’s rather bawdy wit.

Act 3  Scene 3                Lines 182 to 201
IAGO   Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
            is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Misdirection again: By making Othello pull the “truth” out of him, Iago makes the lie about Desdemona’s infidelity with Cassio all the more believable. In fact, Iago’s advice to beware the “green-eyed monster” is absolutely correct, but is a disguised invitation to jealousy rather than a warning against it. In Othello’s eyes, Iago is just being diplomatic. Why else would he say, “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty” (line 299) after Iago’s exit from the scene?

Act 4  Scene 3                Lines 85 to 117
EMILIA                                                            Who
            Would not make her husband a cuckold t’ make
            him a monarch?

The female characters in this drama (Desdemona, Emilia, Bianca) are all women of their times. Status came through the men they marry or, in Bianca’s case, sleep with. Emilia in this passage sees nothing wrong with such a “business” arrangement. Venice, after all, is a commercial powerhouse. But Emilia’s advice may not be as useful as it seems, since Cassio calls Bianca a “strumpet,” something she’s not, and Othello does the same to Desdemona just before he smothers her.

Laurence Olivier
Act 5  Scene 2                Lines 397 to 412
OTHELLO:            Soft you. A word or two before you go.
                        I have done the state some service, and they
                        know ‘t

Sorry, Othello, but I think if anyone “loved not wisely” it was Desdemona. On the other hand, the one you loved “too well” was really Iago. When you see the destruction you’ve caused, you realize the betrayal by your “friend.” Your greatness on the battlefield definitely didn’t prepare you for civilian life.

In summary, Othello is a contemporary play, in spite of its age. We recognize the characters onstage as people we know, and their tragedy is as relevant to us as today’s news.

Othello is an outsider in Shakespeare’s Venice: he’s a black soldier from North Africa who has spent his life outdoors, earning the respect of his men, and rising in the ranks. When he finds himself married into Venetian high society, he turns to Iago, his trusted comrade in arms to help him navigate this unfamiliar world. Like someone who doesn’t speak a language, Othello believes everything Iago tells him about what’s going on. All’s well until Othello blunders, in his soldier’s way, by promoting Cassio to a post Iago deserved. Iago turns on a dime.

Iago is a clever politician, someone who hears the rumors and knows the gossip, so he’s valuable for a novice like Othello. But Iago knows he’s the smartest man in Venice; he could have been the most trusted counselor, the best friend, the wisest sage. Instead, he’s insulted that this bumpkin passed him over, so from now on Iago becomes a destroyer. Half-truths are his weapon, and he’s good with them.

In Othello’s Venice, women are barred from power, yet the play depends on them. Look at the contrasts between Othello and Iago on the one hand, with Desdemona and Emilia on the other. When the men are on stage, the dynamic is deception, exploiting weaknesses, violence. When the women have scenes together, they speak forthrightly about the turmoil around them, providing moments of sanity and common sense. When they are overwhelmed by tragedy, we in the audience are, too.

My thanks to Jim Hall for making actors out of us, and to the other Sunday Morning Shakespearians:  Lindy, Janet, Sherry, Joe, and Melodie.
 
Sunday Morning Reading Selections

[Lines numbers are from the Folger edition. Additional line numbers mean indicate a break in text.]

Carlo Rota
Act 1  Scene 3
IAGO:  O, villainous! I have looked upon the world for                                            353
            Four times seven years, and since I could distin-
            guish betwixt a benefit and an injury, I never found
            man that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say
            I would drown myself for the love of a guinea hen, I
            would change my humanity with a baboon.
RODERIGO            What should I do? I confess it is my shame
            to be so fond, but it is not in my virtue to amend it.
IAGO            Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or
            Thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our
            wills are gardeners. So that if we will plant nettles
            or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme,
            supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it
            with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or
            manured with industry, why the power and corrigi-
            ble authority of this lies in our wills [. . .]
            whereof I take this that you call love to be a sect, or                                   374
            scion.
RODERIGO            It cannot be
IAGO   It is merely a lust of the blood and a permission
            of the will. Come, be a man! Drown thyself? Drown
            cats and blind puppies. I have professed me thy
            friend, and I confess me knit to thy deserving
            with cables of perdurable toughness. I could never
            better stead thee than now. Put money in thy purse [. . .]                 387

Act 1  Scene 1
RODERIGO: I would not follow him, then.                                                   43
IAGO:                          O, sir, content you.
            I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
            We cannot all be masters, or all masters
            Cannot be truly followed [. . . ]
            It is as sure as you are Roderigo,                                                                        62
            Were I the Moor I would not be Iago.
            In following him, I follow but myself
            Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
            But seeming so for my peculiar end.
            For when my outward action doth demonstrate
            The native act and figure of my heart
            In compliment extern, ‘tis not long after
            But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
            For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.                                                      71


Act 1  Scene 3
DUKE: What would you, Desdemona?                                                             282
DESDEMONA:
            That I did love the Moor to live with him
            My downright violence and storm of fortunes
            May trumpet to the world. My heart’s subdued
Paul Robeson
            Even to the very quality of my lord.
            I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,
            And to his honors and his valiant parts
            Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.
            So that, dear lords, if I be left behind
            A moth of peace, and he go to the war,
            The rites for why I love him are bereft me
            And I a heavy interim shall support
            By his dear absence. Let me go with him.
OTHELLO:            Let her have your voice.
            Vouch with me, heaven, I therefore beg it not
            To please the palate of my appetite,
            Nor to comply with the heat (the young affects
            In (me) defunct) and proper satisfaction.
            But to be free and bounteous to her mind.                                           300

Act 2  Scene 1
DESDEMONA: Come, how wouldst thou praise me?                                         139
IAGO: I am about it, but indeed my invention comes
            From my pate as birdlime does from frieze: it
            Plucks out brains and all. But my muse labors, and
            Thus she is delivered.
            If she be fair and wise, fairness and wit,
            The one’s for use, the other useth it.
DESDEMONA: Well praised! How if she be black and witty?
IAGO:  If she be black, and thereto have a wit,
            She’ll find a white that shall her blackness hit.
DESDEMONA: Worse and worse
EMILIA                                    How if fair and foolish?
IAGO
            She never yet was foolish that was fair,
            For even her folly helped her to an heir.
DESDEMONA:             These are old fond paradoxes to make
                        fools laugh I’ th’ alehouse. What miserable praise
                        hast thou for her that’s foul and foolish?
IAGO:
            There’s none so foul and foolish thereunto,
            But does foul pranks which fair and wise ones do [. . . ]
DESDEMONA:            O, most lame and impotent conclusion!                                       176
                        --Do not learn of him, Emilia, though he by thy
                        Husband. --How say you, Cassio? Is he not a most
                        Profane and liberal counselor?                                                    179
Act 3  Scene 3
IAGO: 
            Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,                                     182
            Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
            Who steals my purse steals trash. Tis something,
            nothing;
            ‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been sleve to
            thousands.
            But he that filches from me my good name
            Robes me of that which not enriches him
            And makes me poor indeed.
OTHELLO:      (By heaven,) I’ll know thy thoughts.
IAGO
            You cannot, if my heart were in your hand,
            Nor shall not, whilst ‘tis in my custody.
OTHELLO:            Ha?
IAGO: O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
            It is the green-eyed monster which doth mick
            The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss
            Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;
            But Oh what dam ned minutes tells her ‘oer
            Who dotes, yet doubts,  suspects yet strongly loves.                          201
OTHELLO:            Oh, Misery.

Sergei Bondarchuk in 1955 Russian film
Act 4  Scene 3
EMILIA:                                                                       Who                                        85
            would not make her husband a cuckold t make
            him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for ‘t.
DESDEMONA: Beshrew me if I sould do such a wrong
            Fot the whole world!
EMILIA: Why, the wrong is but a wrong I’ th’ world;
            and, having the word for your labor, ‘tis a wrong in
            your own world, and you might quickly make it right [. . . ]
                                                            What is it that they do                               108
            When they change us for others? Is it sport?
            I think it is. And doth affection breed it?
            I think it doth. Is ‘t frailty that thus errs?
            It is so too. And have not we affection,
            Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?
            Then let them use us well. Else let them know,
            The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.
DESDEMONA
            Good night, good night. (God) me such uses send,
            Not to pick bad from bad, but by bad mend.                                     117

Act 5  Scene 2
OTHELLO:
            Soft you. A word or two before you go.                                               397
            I have done the state some service, and they
            know ‘t.
            No more of that. I pray you in your letters,
            When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
            Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate.
            Nor set down aught in malice. Then you must speak
            Of one who loved not wisely, but too well;
            Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
            Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,
            Like the base Judean, threw a pearl away
            Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued
            eyes,
            Albeit unused to the melting mood,
            Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees
            Their medicinable gum. . .                                                           412
 
Othello, Starring Orson Welles

Sunday Afternoon
by Jim Baird

 Seven Reasons to Watch this Movie
 
Orson Welles
1.    The Opening 4 ½ Minutes
The film opens with a view of a man laid out for a funeral, shown from just above his head. He’s lifted and carried by hooded monks. We see two other caskets, each with woman’s body, draped in black lace.

Religious imagery is everywhere: crosses, a bishop in cope and miter, men making the sign of the cross. People’s clothes appear medieval. The bodies are carried through a crowd, in a castle courtyard, apparently to be taken aboard
 a ship. A man, under custody of armed guards, is pushed and shoved in the opposite direction. He’s locked into a square iron cage which is suspended from a chain and winched upward, suspended next to the castle wall. Throughout there is eerie music and unintelligible chanting.



The scene concludes with a title card and a brief spoken introduction, then we’re taken to Venice, and the story begins.



2.    Welles the Director

Everything we expect from an Orson Welles-directed movie is in that first scene:

            Unusual camera placements and close ups

            Quick cuts from one face to another

            A moving camera that follows the actors through doors and into rooms

            Crowd scenes with lots of people

            Sharp black & white cinematography

            Time-shifting, from now to then and back



3.    The Cast

Welles assembled a British Isles cast (English and Irish) along with one Canadian and one American. Most

notable, other than Welles himself, are Michael MacLiammoir as Iago and Robert Coote (Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady) as Roderigo. Detroit native Doris Dowling (from Lost Weekend) plays Bianca, and she’s a hoot. Fay Compton, a BBC-TV veteran, is appropriately in-your-face as Iago’s wife Emilia.



Plus, Did anyone ever have a more perfect movie voice than Orson Welles? With him in the lead, along with his veteran British cast, Shakespeare’s words sound marvelous.



4.    Desdemona

Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier is just perfect in this role. Though not in her late teens, Desdemona’s age in the play, she projects, flawlessly, strong-willed innocence and devotion to her husband. Also, the camera really likes her. A lot.

Mario Caserini in a 1906 silent film adaptation of
Verdi's opera "Othello"considered the earliest
film version of the play.


5.    Welles the Actor

Filming began in 1948, so we see the Big Guy at his best, powerful and larger-than-life. His makeup is convincing, as is his physical presence: He looks and moves like a soldier.



6.    The Locales

Morocco, Venice, Tuscany, Rome. The scenery, especially the Moroccan seaside castle, is like an additional character in the drama.



7.    It’s on YouTube.

It clocks in at just 91 minutes. Search “Welles Othello” to find it.



Reviewer’s Note: Welles assumes that his audience already knows the basic story and characters of Othello, so don’t expect any on-screen help (like “Venice, 1604” or “Cyprus, After the Storm”).




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