Re-reading Shakespeare: Othello

(1) We all know about goats and monkeys. But what about wolves? Iago throws them in too, talking of lovers who are “as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, / As salt as wolves in pride.”

I had forgotten all about the wolves, and not without reason. I think in a lot of productions they get dropped. I was recently watching the 1951 and 1995 film versions and both leave that line out. The meaning is the same as for the goats and monkeys, but I don’t think the particular usage was ever common. “Salt” for lecherous seems to have been known, but there aren’t many instances of “in pride” being used to mean “in heat.” Today, of course, I think it’s a line that doesn’t register at all, which is why it’s usually cut.

(2) Iago is so good at what he does. He is the arch seducer, which means that he understands that people only ever seduce (or fool, or deceive) themselves. You just have to give them a bit of a nudge, or tug, and they’ll do all the work.

And you don’t even have to be dishonest – just selective in your telling of the truth, and the timing of it. This is the point Iago makes when, after leading Cassio on, he says to us

And what’s he then that says I play the villain?
When this advice is free I give, and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor gain?

In much the same way, it’s because Iago is a jealous man himself that he can be so earnest and convincing in warning Othello of the green-eyed monster. Who can play an honest man so well as someone who is being honest?

(3) I find Emilia to be one of the most frustratingly short-changed characters in Shakespeare. The text gives a great deal of leeway in interpreting how she is to be played. Is she just a silly tool of Iago? She suggests as much when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief and remarks that she’ll have the work taken out and give it to her husband. Then, “what he will do with it / Heaven knows, not I: / I nothing but to please his fantasy.” I suspect we’re supposed to read this ironically. Emilia isn’t as innocent. If she were she wouldn’t express herself in such a way.

But how much is she aware of? Is she like Carmela in The Sopranos or Skyler in Breaking Bad: an enabling wife who chooses to look the other way when it comes to her husband’s villainy? She does get one big speech at the end of Act IV, but this is usually just read for its declaration of a feminist principle akin to Shylock’s defence of Jews. Men should be aware that women have feelings too, and that “their ills instruct” women on how to be bad. I think what’s more telling, however, is the earlier part of that speech, which reveals a certain level of cynicism, bitterness, ambition, and duplicity that give us some idea of what Iago might have seen in her. She definitely has a rough edge, and she knows her husband. She’s mad at him at the end because he went too far and wrecked the good thing they had going.

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