Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Change of Heart

Right after I wrote that I wasn't enjoying Othello very much, I started enjoying it immensely. I often have to be careful of what I say aloud, because my outspoken opinions often get the best of me. Perhaps it is my nature of always defending the underdog.
Anyhow, I finished the play last weekend, and then started reading some critical literature about it. I read the synopsis of the story by Cinthio from his Hecatommithi, which is the primary source for Othello. While it is true that Shakespeare changed a lot of details (in most cases probably so it would work on stage,) the story is almost identical in plot. One of the differences is how Desdemona (Disdemona in Cinthio) dies. In the Hecatommithi, Iago and Othello beat her, and then arrange that part of the ceiling falls on her, so as to cover up the murder. Now, surely Shakespeare changed this because this would not work well on stage, but something I wondered while reading the play is why did Othello choose to smother her? He first talks of poison, and then Iago says that no, it should be done by smothering. Somehow, Othello thinks this is more just. I found this rather confusing until, in The Friendly Shakespeare by Norrie Epstein, I read that this serves symbolic purposes. The play that seems a bit unfocused in the first scene, telescopes into a suffocating, oppressive thing by the end.
There were lots of other things that bothered me in the beginning too, like why is Othello so gullible? But now I realize that this probably has to do with how the Moors were viewed in England at the time. It is also possible that it just serves the plot to characterize him has being naive. However I still am annoyed by the character Emelia. Why did she just give Iago Desdemona's handkerchief with barely a question? She is obviously a woman of the world, as is evidenced by act 4, scene 3. So why is she so dim when it concerns her husband? I think this is where Shakespeare's alteration of Cinthio's story is weak. Emelia is Shakespeare's character, not Cinthio's. In the original story Iago steals the handkerchief himself, by distracting Disdemona with his three year old daughter. Granted, having a young child wouldn't have worked in 17th century England, but couldn't he have written something more believable?
Overall, the strong points of Othello are the language, but I maintain that it doesn't hold a candle to Hamlet.

***Update. I am now not annoyed with Emelia, since I saw the movie. I simply love this play now; I have seen the light.

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