Last night I started reading Othello at about 8 p.m. I probably have twenty editions in my library, if you count the big “complete William Shakespeare” anthologies, but I chose my college text, edited by Lawrence J. Ross. It reminds me of my great Shakespeare professor from the University of Minnesota, Thomas Clayton. The binding has held up pretty well considering. I read the first act, then brought up the Laurence Fishburne-Kenneth Branagh-Irene Jacob version on Amazon prime, and wound up watching all of it. But first back to the text. All my pathetic college marginal notes are there, causing me to blush forty years later. In my blue ballpoint pen phase, such deep insights as “Brabantio’s point is well taken,” and “Othello is already called cuckold.” Ah well, we all start somewhere. My favorite of all time was in my freshman anthology of drama. “Hamlet = depressed.” Well, indeed.
At one time I knew as much about Shakespeare as I now know about Thomas Jefferson or Lewis & Clark. During one term at Oxford, paired with an edgy British youth named Colin Hughes, I read through all of Shakespeare in eight weeks, supervised by our tutor Julia Briggs. While at Oxford I saw 34 of the 37 Shakespeare plays, including Hamlet nine times, most of them starring Michael Pennington.
The Fishburne Othello is good, not great. Branagh is always interesting. He’s perhaps a bit too jocular for Iago, but he carries the film. Irene Jacob is a magnificent study in innocence—you just cannot stop gazing at her open face. Fishburne has his moments as Othello, but he is too grim and violent for my taste. The best of the film is the scene in which Iago plants the seed of jealousy in Othello. It’s brilliantly achieved here. Michael Maloney is a superb Roderigo—much less the usual Shakespearean gull than you’d expect, surprisingly spirited and lethal. But it is Anna Patrick who steals the ending of the film. She plays Iago’s wife Emilia. Her face is so compelling, with its subtlety of expression, and her growing realization that the whole tragic farce has been engineered by her husband, that everything else in the ending of the film pales by comparison.
I hated the ending. Too many bodies in the bed. Too much muted eroticism in Othello’s murder of Desdemona. Desdemona fights for her life as Othello smothers her in a way that somehow ruins the sacrament of murder.
No single Shakespeare film is ever adequate. I suppose it is all about taste and preference. I like this and that about this version, that and this about another. Oliver Parker’s Othello has some great moments which I intend to use at the retreat, but I won’t show it in its entirety. It really bugs me that the film swallows two of the great lines of the play. First, Othello is far too violent to pull off the magnificent early line, “Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them.” The stage direction is embedded in the line. Othello is too confident, majestic, and untouchable to get involved in a street brawl. His detractors’ swords mean nothing to him. – And in the murder scene, as Othello smothers the candles before smothering his wife, Shakespeare gives him the perfect line: “Put out the light and then put out the light.” Fishburne swallows both of these great moments—for no good reason.
In the next six months I will watch 25 or more film versions of Shakespeare. Next up, the Al Pacino-Jeremy Irons Merchant of Venice. If you want to follow along, and post your own comments, let me know. Those who say “Shakespeare is just too hard,” have not made the attempt lately.