Three Green-Eyed Monsters: Acting as Applied Criticism in Shakespeare's 'Othello.' (Play by Elizabethan Dramatist William Shakespeare)

By Bent, Geoffrey | The Antioch Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Three Green-Eyed Monsters: Acting as Applied Criticism in Shakespeare's 'Othello.' (Play by Elizabethan Dramatist William Shakespeare)


Bent, Geoffrey, The Antioch Review


"O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!"

Although the end result of an actor's labor is called an "interpretation," the scholarly dimensions of that word are rarely intended. If someone wants to know what a Shakespearean play is "about," they turn to heavily footnoted dissertations in university journals. Scholars seem sage, while actors are compromised by their greasepaint and fright wigs.

But, as a hermeneutic, acting shares many of the virtues of scholarship and even adds a few to the pile. While the academic critic can occasionally bolster an outlandish interpretation with a few quotes taken out of context, an actor is forced to make his case to a live audience through the bulk of the text. While illuminating a work as clearly as any scholar, the actor also transcends this ancillary function: a play can easily do without critics, but a play without actors is incomplete, a blueprint lacking plaster and lumber. The cohesiveness and consistency of an actor's interpretation must sway the audience; it must edify as well as clarify. This is particularly true with the theatrical texts of Shakespeare, who never collected his plays in his lifetime and rarely included stage directions. One could make a case from this that the Bard of Avon viewed his plays as experiences restricted to the domain of performance.

If, then, the actor has the job of critically interpreting a text (and the tougher the text, the greater the interpretive challenge), there can be no greater challenge than Shakespeare's Othello. Of all his tragedies, Othello is Shakespeare's most relentless and excruciating, in part because the focus is the most narrow and sustained. King Lear leaves the entire world in ashes; Othello, on the other hand, concentrates on the systematic immolation of one man. Iago attaches himself to his general with the single-mindedness of a lamprey. Even at the very end when the truth is finally revealed, Iago can't resist stoking his victim's pain with frustrating silence: "Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I never will speak word." At some deep level, Shakespeare seemed to recognize that torture is essential to the play because jealously is a very sado-masochistic emotion. In contrast to Macbeth, where the witches directly influence their prey only in two brief scenes, Iago is constantly at Othello's side, unsettling him with his hints and barbs. Even after the general has resolved to kill his wife, his tormentor can't resist the coy flippancy of describing Cassio lying "with her, on her; what you will," as if Desdemona's infidelity has been so broad as to cover any specific. The overall language of the play is unusually coarse, both in its racial slurs and salacious euphemisms, which adds to the general discomfort. The audience partakes of this masochistic dynamic as if it is helplessly watching some protracted nature special that shows a lion killing a water buffalo for hours.

Othello is as unorthodox as it is elemental. Like a great general who defies strategic convention, Shakespeare populates his play with not one but two main characters, thus running the risk of confusing the allegiance of the audience. Richmond is as distinctly secondary in a play about a villain as Claudius is in a play about a tragic hero. When the character with the most lines in Othello isn't Othello but Iago, the latter can easily dominate the play. Conversely, an Othello who spends most of the play as Iago's dupe could end with the pity of Aristotle's famous recipe, but none of the terror. To switch the focus from Iago to Othello in the brief span of a few hours is dangerous unless the two are clearly linked, and Shakespeare does this by presenting them as cause and effect. …

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