The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Heart On My Sleeve

Excavated from the 'treasure vault' i.e. my hard drive, another BBC Shakespeare review from 2006.


Top phrases coinage : 'Beast with two backs', 'Wore his heart on his sleeve'. 'Green-eyed monster', 'Tis neither here nor there', 'Foregone conclusion', 'Thereby hangs a tale' and 'Pomp and circumstance'.

Top word coinage; Squabble.

Summary: It's good, but not perfect. In terms of creating a grand emotional sweep, it's sublime. But, as a story, it's wobbly.

The problem with the plot, essentially, lies with the character of Emilia, Iago's missus. Just how much does she know, and how much is she overlooking? Even bearing in mind that the play is about where naivety meets wilful blindness, her behaviour is, well, illogical. She has been asked repeatedly by her husband to steal Desdemona's handkerchief - and, indeed, when Desdemona accidentally leaves it on the floor, she picks it up and hands it over to her husband - but she sees nothing suspicious in this. And when she is comforting Desdemona who has just been given a slap by jealous Othello, she still doesn't cotton on (or maybe she does but chooses to do nothing about it - is her line about 'some eternal villain' directed at Iago or not?). Only when Desdemona lies dead does Emilia finally put two and two together and, appalled by her husband's actions, she finally informs against him. Please note: no pun intended, 'cottoning on' to the handkerchief.

That's my frustration with this play. Emilia is stupid. And one of the odd things about fiction is that it doesn't have stupid people in it. It has uninformed people, who make mistakes with the best of intentions but even with the most literal-minded idiot there is a form of logic. Emilia, however, defies explanation. Any attempt to rationalise her behaviour will fall down - has she been taken in, or is she in denial, or is she a weak-willed woman who has been coerced - because there is no clarity as to where she is coming from or why. Now, I realise this is, in a way, quite realistic, because people do stupid things in real life, and people do fail to see things that are staring them in the face, but it is one of those peculiar conceits of drama that we expect logic of our fictional constructs.

So that's the first challenge that any aspiring director has to face. He has to solve the problem of Emilia having been hit with the idiot stick.

The second challenge is that the plot revolves around a handkerchief. In particular, a bit of business in Act III Scene 3 where Othello is suffering from a headache. Desdemona offers to soothe him using her handkerchief - it's a very distinctive handkerchief, it has a strawberry pattern on it - and Othello refuses her, causing Desdemona to drop the handkerchief without realising it (even though it is her most treasured possession). This is so that Emilia can nip in and pick it up. But this scene also has to be performed so that Othello doesn't see the distinctive handkerchief with the strawberry pattern because later on in the same scene Iago has to convince Othello that he has seen Cassio using said hanky to wipe his beard having already been given it as a gift from Desdemona, the wanton hussy.

I would contend that this is pretty much an unstage-able scene, as it requires both Othello and Desdemona to be oblivious to the presence of a handkerchief whilst Desdemona is simultaneously using that handkerchief to bind Othello's head and Othello is refusing it because it isn't big enough. And the problem is the whole plot hinges on this scene and it's a pretty squeaky and daft old hinge.

I blame the Shake. Surely there was something else he could have used as a McGuffin? The whole business with the handkerchief is almost operatic in its absurdity. Even though it's a very valuable handkerchief, it is a literally very flimsy thing to hang a story on. And it's that contradiction - that something so valuable can be so carelessly discarded - which creates difficulties for me, because that one moment of contrivance makes Othello and Desdemona look like nincompoops, when the power of the play relies on them not being nincompoopy.

The only way to deal with it is to expect the audience to go along with it, to go 'Okay, it's a McGuffin, it's a plot device, it's not supposed to be taken literally'. Oh, and if anyone's not sure what a McGuffin is, then the best example of one I can give you is, a McGuffin is the handkerchief in Othello.

Two more difficulties that directors face. Firstly, there's Act I, which, according to some commentators, is superfluous. I wouldn't go that far. Certainly it's an oddity, as it seems to be from a different play altogether, and it is either a deliberate or accidental piece of misdirection as to what the focus of the ensuing play will be. It also seems rather to have been appended onto the beginning of the story, as its function is not to initiate plot or grab audience, but to provide backstory to the action and to prologue some of the themes.

I wouldn't dispense with it, though. It's got the line about the beast with two backs, for a start, and it is pretty much the only Act in which we are given any detail as to quite why Iago hates Othello so much (there are odd lines later on, but they seem to be more about Iago rationalising a pre-extant hatred rather than exploring its source). We are introduced to Roderigo, who is a lot of fun - he's kind of a Lord Percy Percy type of figure, instead of the Hero's Mate Who Is A Bit Stupid And Who Talks Shit All The Time now we have the Villain's Mate Who Is A Bit Stupid And Who Talks Shit All The Time. And there's a lovely old speech from Othello where he mentions 'the Anthropophagi, and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders' which I am convinced is a famous bit but which no-one else seems to have heard of.

On the other hand, Act I does have the problem that its second scene is set in the Incident Room of the Doges Palace, Venice - there are flashing computer displays with maps of the Laguna - because the Duke and the Senators have been called together to discuss an imminent invasion of Cyprus by the Turks. It's all very intense, all very West Wing, all very 'this play is going to be about a war’.

Then all discussion of invasion is halted to talk about Othello, who has just married Desdemona, daughter of the Senator Brabianto. This leads the Duke to ask Othello how he won her over, at which Othello recounts - at great length - the story of his life (including the bit with the Anthropophagi). It's a lovely story, but it does rather undermine the seriousness with which they are taking the imminent Turkish threat. But anyway, Brabianto reluctantly decides to drop his complaint of 'witchcraft' against his new son-in-law and Othello - who is Venice's top soldier, by the way - is despatched to the war.

Whilst I'm on it, what else happens in this act? We learn that Iago hates Othello for two main reasons. Firstly, because Othello has married Desdemona, who Iago loves. Which is kind of odd, bearing in mind that Iago is already married at this point, to Emilia, so I'm unsure how he thinks that Othello has somehow 'usurped' him. Admittedly, Emilia is not altogether attractive, talks without engaging brain and - as I've already mention - is as thick as the proverbial reduced-length plank double-pack, but even so, it would seem that Iago had already forfeited any claim to Desdemona. But nevertheless, love her he does, and he thinks she could have done better than to marry Othello.

We also learn Iago's other reason for hating Othello; that is, after years of loyal service to Othello, Othello has passed over him for promotion and instead has made a Florentine, Michael Cassio, his lieutenant in his place. Even though he had promised the job to Iago (or so Iago had been led to believe, of which, more later). Iago hates Cassio, and hates the thought of him being made lieutenant. Cassio is a pen-pusher from city hall, he's never got his hands dirty out in the field, he's never walked the mean streets, he's never pulled a pint in his life. Cassio is a college boy, he's wet behind the ears, he talks hoity-toity, airy-fairy, minding all his p's and q', and that really, really gets Iago's back up.

In fact, we are told that Cassio is a great arithmetician. Which I suppose makes him a Cassio calculator.

I feel certain I am probably the four-thousandth person to have made that joke.

Oh ho, I said 'of which, more later'. One of the questions the play poses is how, exactly, is Othello flawed? Because he doesn't start out jealous, not at all. If anything, is problem is that he doesn't realise that he inadvertently causes offence, he is too trusting, too face-value, too well-meaning. He assumes everyone shares his high motives. Because his mistake, his fundamental fatal-flaw f*ck-up, is not realising that passing Iago over for promotion will seriously cheese him off. And that bitter cheese of resentment will fester until it comes back to haunt him.

Maybe that's one of the important lessons of this play. Try not to arouse envy in others, because it will come and bite you on the bum.

The other problem directors have is, does Othello have to be played by a black actor? And this is an important point because race has virtually nothing to do with this play at all. It's not like the anti-Semitism in Merchant. Othello's colour is barely relevant. It's only brought up in Act I - with regard to 'witchcraft' - and a couple of references to 'thick lips' and being black like the devil (black being the old red). But, to be honest, after that it's hardly mentioned at all. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Iago's motivation. It has nothing to do with Desdemona's attraction for him. And it has nothing to do with Othello's behaviour, his gullibility, his jealousy or his quickness to temper. Compare him with Aaron in Titus who can't stop going on about how black he is all the time, or Rosalind in Love's Labour’s Lost.

But, Othello, no. There is no need for him to be black.

I'm not saying he shouldn't be black. It doesn't matter one way or another. Iago could be black as well for all the difference it could make, Othello could be white. This is not a play about racism. It gives no insight into that at all. It is like Darius, colour-blind.

But of course the audience are expecting a black man, and a black man they should get.

Now, to go off on a short tangent, I saw Othello on telly a few years ago. It was fantastic, mind-blowing, and completely won me over to the play's qualities, it's ability to create a huge, gut-churn of horror and heartbreak. Ian McKellen was Iago, Imogen Stubbs was Desdemona and a chap called Willard White was Othello. I can't recommend it too highly, check it out if you can.

The BBC production, though. Oh dear. Now, clearly they rate this play highly because they're throwing acting talent at it. Which is why there's hardly anyone in it who has been in Doctor Who - Penelope Wilton as Desdemona and Arabella Weir, if she counts, as a lady in waiting, and that's it. In terms of proper actors, there's David Yelland as Cassio, Bob Hoskins as Iago and John Barron who didn't where he is today without knowing a Doge of Venice when he sees one.

But as Othello? Anthony Hopkins.


So not only is Othello black, but he’s Welsh as well.

I have no problem with Anthony Hopkins. Except... the make-up. He looks almost exactly like you might expect a black person to look like if you had never seen a black person before. Covered in boot polish and with an absurd afro wig... he resembles a surprised gollywog.

I'm sorry, but I found that distracting. It just took me out of the drama. It is the sort of thing that gives Shakespeare a bad name. No matter how good Tony Hopkins was - and he was good - I kept on expecting him to get out a banjo and start singing Old Man River. And do that funny shaky thing with his hands.

That puts me in mind of being taken to see Bridgwater Carnival in the early 80's, and the carnival floats featuring Young Farmers blacked-up and miming along to those evergreen minstrel ballads, 'Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da' and 'I'm The Urban Spaceman'.

I'm not quite convinced by Penelope Wilton as Desdemona either. The keynote for Desdemona is vulnerability; she is a fluffy, silly, trusting girl, loving, doting and affectionate, and she should have the word 'VICTIM' stamped across her forehead in big friendly letters. Imogen Stubbs has that, but Penelope is a little too hard-edged. Plus I keep on expecting her to disapprovingly say 'Oh, Martin'.

Back to the play. I forgot to mention the last bit of Act I where Othello chats with Rodrigo. Rodrigo is also in love with Desdemona, and Iago says that he will arrange for her to become available to him, in return for several brown envelopes of cash. Clearly Iago has no intention of helping Rodrigo out; I'm not even sure he wants the money. He just takes pleasure in getting one over on people, even his friends.

Act II sees us arriving in Cyprus, the much-ballyhoo-ed war now over. Iago and Desdemona arrive, and Cassio greets Desdemona a little too enthusiastically - kissing her intimately on the ring.

However, a plan is hatching in Iago's head like a very small baby chicken coming out of an egg. He tells Rodrigo that when Cassio kissed Desdemona, that meant he loved her... and Rodrigo swallows the story whole (not even requiring a glass of water), and agrees to help Iago bring about Cassio's downfall. Iago will get Cassio tiddly, and Cassio will pick a fight with him and run off - and Iago will arrange for Montano, the governor, to be nearby, so Cassio will pick a fight with him instead.

The plan works a dream, of course. There's a very funny scene where Iago talks Cassio into drinking too much, even though Cassio is a complete lightweight, a Niles Crane. And when Othello discovers Cassio drunkenly brawling with Montano, he tells Cassio 'Never more be officer of mine'. Which leads to another lovely bit at the end of the act where Cassio asks Iago for advice on how to get Othello to give him his job back and Iago tells him that the real power lies with Desdemona, and if he makes his case to her, then she can persuade Othello...

Now this illustrates a couple of things that are great about this play. The way Iago works recalls Richard III, as once again he makes the audience confidantes. I'm thinking in particular of 'And what's he then that says I play the villain?', a lovely, clever speech where he tells the audience to stop boo-ing, because he is actually giving Cassio good advice - albeit for his own evil ends bwahahaha.

It's also like Richard III in that - the drinking scene being a good example - Iago is very funny, and is at his funniest when he’s at his evilest. He's everyone's mate, and he uses humour to get their confidence and to make them do the wrong thing without suspecting.

Finally, one of the great structural things about this play is that Iago doesn't launch into a fully-formed plan against Othello. Rather, throughout act II you can see the plan coalescing in Iago's mind, as he realises what he has to do - and in some ways his 'framing' of Cassio and the way he makes Rodrigo believe that Desdemona is shagging Cassio are both run-throughs for his main plan; he's testing the ground, working out his story, finding out what works. You can see him incorporating new information as it becomes available. And the fact that the audience is 'in' on the plan-making makes us feel uncomfortably more complicit, because as the plan forms in his mind, it also (fearfully) forms in the minds of the audience.

Act III is all about Iago sowing the seeds of doubt in Othello's mind. Cassio has come to Othello's house to make his case to Desdemona but he runs off when he sees Othello approach, which naturally makes Othello a little suspish.

We then hit Act III scene 3, which - business with the handkerchief aside - might just be the best scene in all of Shakespeare. It's extremely tightly written, and very clever, as, step by step, Iago leads Othello by the nose into the land of jealousy. But he doesn't prompt Othello, cajole or push him. Rather, he presses Othello's psychological buttons, by dropping 'inadvertent' hints about Cassio and Desdemona - and denying he meant anything by it, and that he is sure there is nothing going on and all the rumours are untrue. And this just arouses Othello's interest more - 'What do you mean you're sure there is nothing going on? What rumours are untrue?'. And so by making Othello work hard to get the information, Iago makes sure that Othello will believe it all the more.

It's a 12" extended version of 'But Brutus is an honourable man' from Julius Caesar. Iago is saying one thing, but meaning another, and the more he advises Othello against suspecting Desdemona of infidelity, he knows the greater Othello's doubt will become. So, for example, Iago stands up for Cassio, 'For Michael Cassio - I dare be sworn, I think that he is honest.' Othello agrees - and then Iago goes on to say 'Men should be what they /seem/' He's shit-stirring like REDACTED basically, and using Cassio's most positive attribute - how nice he is - against him. No-one can be that nice without being secretly nasty underneath, can they? He's over-compensating, so he must be up to something.

Its also interesting that the famous speech warning of jealousy being the 'green-eyed monster' is delivered by Iago, and that whilst it is a warning against jealousy, in the play it is being said by Iago as a way of making Othello's suspicions worse. This is because nobody likes being told that their suspicions are merely them being jealous and Othello's reaction is, of course, to go 'No, I'm not being jealous... this is real'. It's all part of convincing Othello that the conclusions he's leaping to are rational conclusions, watertight and like the teeth in that advert where Keith Allen is playing a tooth fairy, rock solid.

By protesting Cassio's honesty, and going on about how he really can't believe that he would be seeing Desdemona, Iago makes Othello believe it - because, after all, if his trustworthy friend Iago who thinks the best of people has reason to doubt, then there must be some pretty hard evidence.

Othello pootles offstage for a waz, Iago meets his spouse, Emilia, who has (as discussed earlier) purloined Desdemona's hanky with the strawberry motif. And so the final jigsaw piece falls into place in Iago's big jigsaw of evil. So when Othello returns Iago gives him the final nudge.

Now, if Othello was in a rational frame of mind, he would realise that Iago's story doesn't add up. Ten minutes ago Iago was saying he had no reason to suspect Cassio - but now Iago’s saying he's heard Cassio shouting out Desdemona's name whilst having a midnight wank. Admittedly it's circumstantial evidence, but as Iago says, 'This may help thicken other proofs that do demonstrate thinly'.


And then Iago delivers his bombshell. When Cassio was having a wank - he was doing it into a handkerchief with a strawberry motif.

This act - Act III, if you're not keeping track - ends with Othello confronting Desdemona. He starts off subtly; 'I feel a bit of a cold coming on, you wouldn't happen to have that hanky I gave you, would you?' Desdemona says she doesn't have it with her. Othello then explains that it was a valuable hanky, it belonged to his dear old mother, and could well have magical properties. So what has she done with it?

And, heartbreakingly, Desdemona lies. She hasn't got it, but she says she hasn't lost it. And the fact that she lies to him confirms every black thought in Othello's paranoid noggin.

Meanwhile, Cassio has found a handkerchief that someone has inadvertently left in his bed...

Act IV is, it has to be said, more of the same. Iago arranges for Othello to overhear a conversation between himself (Iago) and Cassio. Iago sets it up so that they are talking about Bianca (Cassio's real girlfriend) but, in one of those conveniences of farce plotting, Cassio never uses her name whilst talking about her so Othello can get hold of the wrong end of the stick and beat about the bush with it.

The reason why Othello is so emotionally affecting, more than the other tragedies, is because it takes place on a domestic scale. There are very few characters - only half a dozen of any significance - and the events are played out on an everyday level; this is not a play about castles, kings, witches and pixies, it is just about a husband abusing his loving wife and her being unable to understand why.

The small cast is reflected in how much each of them is given to do; both Othello and Iago are given more than an act's worth of dialogue each, and Cassio, Emilia, and Desdemona account for another act between them. And this is probably the play with the strongest and most well-drawn female parts; so far, at least. Shakey was definitely improving in that area; possibly it reflects the talent of the female impersonators in his acting troupe, that they could handle not merely playing women, but playing three-dimensionally drawn women.

Othello's problem is possibly that he loves Desdemona too much; the thought of losing her is unthinkable, and when he imagines a world in which she is unfaithful to him it is a 'nothing to lose' scenario. I think the lesson to be learned here is not that loving too much is a bad thing, but making love conditional upon total infallibility in all things is perhaps asking for trouble. And maybe their marriage was always destined for trouble sans Iago - after all, their relationship was built on a lie, and they are both willing to lie to the other in order to maintain a pretence of happiness. There were already cracks there, I think, even before Iago came along and stuck his big crowbar in.

Act IV is quite hard to watch, as much of it concerns Othello being awful to Desdemona - he gives her a slap at one point and remains unmoved by her 'crocodile' tears, and calls her every name under the sun. It's heartbreaking stuff - I don't think the BBC production is quite full-on enough, Othello should be knocking over furniture and putting his hand through glass windows and stuff.

(Though it is perhaps one of Shakey's weaknesses that even at the most moving moments he can't resist slipping in some pun wordplay. 'abhor' and 'whore'. Oh dear.)

Anyway, Othello eventually storms offstage, leaving Iago and Emilia to comfort Desdemona (this is where the 'some eternal villain' bit comes in) and we switch, oddly, to comedy, as Rodrigo turns up. It transpires that Rodrigo has given Iago an awful lot of money in expectation of getting Desdemona into the sack... Iago reassures him that all is going to scheme.

Last scene of this act is Desdemona and Emilia having a heart-to-heart (and a sing-song, come to that). Desdemona just can't understand why Othello hates her and Emilia (as I mentioned earlier) either doesn't realise or doesn't want to say. Interestingly, this scene hints pretty strongly that Emilia has been unfaithful to Iago in the past, 'a small vice' - though this idea isn't really developed.

The thing about these tragedies is that part of their power comes from the sense of inevitability; and it is my only frustration with Othello that occasionally these wheels of its engine are a little wobbly so the tragedy feels more the result of deliberate stupidity rather than unavoidable things-running-downhill-fast-out-of-control predestination. But does this really matter? It's something for the director to fix during rehearsals.

Speaking of which, if I were to do this one, I'd probably remove Emilia from the play entirely and make Iago a construct of Othello's imagination. Wouldn't that be more fun? I'd have to think it through, of course, and I haven't done that yet, but anyway...

Act V, and Iago has arranged to Cassio to be silenced - permanently. He sets up Rodrigo to assassinate him, reasoning that whichever one of them dies, it suits his purposes, and if they both end up dead, so much the better. However, this is where Iago's schemes start to unravel; Rodrigo doesn't manage to kill Cassio and Cassio doesn't manage to kill Rodrigo. A cock-up on the whole assassination front. It's left to Iago to despatch Rodrigo (his funny mate, remember) as Cassio is rescued by Gratiano, a senator newly-arrived from Venice. (This is almost certainly not the same Gratiano as appeared in Merchant though it would be fun if it was).

And then the action switches to the bedchamber of the Othello's... and you know what's coming. After a long discussion with her about the various pro's and con's, Othello smothers Desdemona with a pillow. Poor Desdemona, even right to the end she never knew what it was she was supposed to have done wrong, and Othello never took the trouble to tell her so that she might’ve been able to correct his misapprehensions. It's awful and tragic, but...

...Desdemona doesn't die. She's a groaner. You think she's dead, but then ten minutes later its 'A guiltless death I die'. Though, in a hugely moving moment, when she is asked who has killed her, she doesn't name Othello - instead, she says 'nobody; I myself'. Even to the end, despite everything Othello had done to her, she still loves him, and assumes the fault, whatever it was, must have been hers. Aw.

Like I said, 'VICTIM', forehead, big friendly letters.

Now, at last, Emilia puts two and two together and leaps around the room screaming out 'FOUR! FOUR! FOUR!'. The cops arrive, along with Gratiano and Iago, and Emilia accuses her husband of being responsible for Desdemona's death.

Iago has a choice. Either he can try to bluff his way out, or... nah, sod it. He stabs his wife to death. Though she too takes an unusually long time to die. I've noticed that deaths are taking longer and longer in Shakespeare. I'm not looking forward to Cleopatra, I can tell you. It really is the 'I'm not quite dead... I'm getting better' school. kind of like Hancock's death of Old Joshua Merryweather in The Bowmans. Though Emilia kind of tops that, by going out with a song a la Ethel Merman caterwauling her way through There's no business like show business.

Enter Cassio (carried in a chair) and more cops, and Iago and Othello are arrested. Othello and Cassio spend five minutes explaining what has happened re: the misappropriation of strawberry-patterned handkerchiefs and slapping their foreheads going 'D'oh! How could I have been so stupid' whilst Iago manically chuckles bwahHAHAHAHAHAHAhahahahahahA!

And that's it, pretty much. Othello has one last speech to deliver - knocking down the fourth wall, he addresses the audience directly, 'When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am, nothing extenuate. Nor set down aught in malice; then must you speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well.' Then he kills himself, of course, tidy-minded, public-spirited fellow that he is, and dies kissing Desdemona one last time.

'OTHELLO - LOVED NOT WISELY, BUT TOO WELL' mugs, t-shirts and gift bags are available in the foyer.

Sorry, not many jokes in the write-up this week. It's rather warm. Anyway, next up, the last of the comedies: All's Well That Ends Well


  1. This is the version of Othello were given to watch during our English A-Level at school via a ropey off-air copy that missed the first half an hour. It's on the list of ten reason why I failed my English A-Level along with the weather and playing Head Over Heels too much when I should have been revising.

  2. My English A-level is a similar tale of woe.

    Some of the BBC Shakespeares seem to have been deliberately made to put people off Shakespeare for life - particularly Romeo & Juliet and (spoilers) Jacobi's Hamlet.