Thoughts on “Othello,” and Iago

 

Iron County's first temple
The new Cedar City Utah Temple by night, a reminder of a hope and of a better order of things    (LDS Media Library)

 

On Saturday afternoon, we attended a solid performance of Shakespeare’s Othello.  It’s a very great play that I never miss when I get a chance to see it, and I hate it.  I find watching it excruciating.  Iago is one of the most remarkable characters in all of literature — a consummate villain, a monster of remorseless and pitiless evil.  He is cunning and malignant, and I hate to watch him scheme and plot throughout the play, knowing that he will succeed and that innocent people will suffer and die because of his seething hatred.

 

I once thought that such persistent malevolence, such enduring personal hatred, was absurdly unrealistic.

 

I no longer think so, because I’ve observed it.  Not commonly, I’m happy to say.  But false friendship, betrayal, subtle treachery, and vicious spite do occur, as does implacable hatred.

 

There’s much to be learned from Othello, and from Iago.

 

***

 

Thirty years after first seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s 1986 film version of Verdi’s opera Otello, I still vividly remember the chilling scene in which Iago sings his very Darwinian creed:

 

I believe in a cruel God

who created me in his image

and who in fury I name.

From the very vileness of a germ

or an atom, vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

and I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes! This is my creed!

I believe with a heart as steadfast

as that of the widow in church,

that the evil I think

and that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

I believe the just man to be a mocking actor

in face and heart;

that all his being is a lie,

tear, kiss, glance,

sacrifice and honour.

And I believe man the sport of evil fate

from the germ of the cradle

to the worm of the grave.

After all this mockery then comes Death.

And then? . . .  And then?

Death is nothingness,

heaven an old wives’ tale.

 

***

 

The full name of Shakespeare’s play is The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.  So, Othello is a Moor.  But what does that word mean?

 

It’s the fashion, and has been for quite some time, to play Othello as black.  And the text of the play certainly describes him (and some characters in the play deride him) as dark.  But is he really “black” in the modern American sense of the term?

 

Possibly.  But possibly not.

 

The English term Moor derives from the Greek word μαυρο (mauro or, in modern Greek, mavro) which literally means “black, blackened or charred.”  But it doesn’t define a distinct people.  It has no clear ethnic meaning.  Medieval and early modern Europeans applied the word to Arabs, North African Berbers, and even Muslim Europeans, and sometimes to Muslims generally.

 

So there was some irony, to me anyway, in the casting for Othello this afternoon.

 

The eponymous character himself was played, and played well, by Wayne T. Carr.  Meanwhile, the role of Montano, governor of Cyprus — who referred several times to Othello as “the Moor” — was assumed by Jamil Zraikat, whose name is plainly an Arab one and, from its form, very likely from the Maghrib (Morocco or, in earlier eras, perhaps Tunisia or Algeria), the homeland of the actual Moors.  In The Merchant of Venice, the night before, he had actually played the Prince of Morocco.

 

Posted from Cedar City, Utah

 

 

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