In 2002 , I used to work for a small electronics company in Ohio . The president of the company was a loudmouth transplant from Philly and liked to hear himself speak. He was giving us one of his rah rah speeches and he wanted to tell us little people that he had problems similar to everybody else and could empathize with us . He listed out a litany of problems in his family including one that took me completely by surprise , having a bi-racial couple in the family .Until that day , I was not aware that this was a problem!!
But interestingly ‘Un Capitano Moro’ written by Cinthio over 5 centuries earlier seems to ignore it . And it must have fascinated Shakespeare because he used that plot for Othello , changing minor details . Personally I think Othello the moor could have been replaced by a white man and we could still have a story rife with intrigue and drama and tragedy . The racial tones provides for extra drama such as Desdemona being scared of Othello to begin with and eventually in stark contrast ends up falling in love and marrying him.
The plot is simple and plays upon men’s fear of being cuckolded and though the play is called Othello , the most fascinating character is Othello’s lieutenant , Iago . Iago controls the downward spiral in the play , he is responsible for Othello’s friend Cassio falling out of favor with Othello , he encourages Cassio to ask Desdemona to request that he be put back into the Moor’s good graces , he conspires with Roderigo who is in love with Desdemona , he has his wife Emilia steal the prized handkerchief that Othello has given Desdemona and plants it in Cassio’s apartment , he attempts to have Roderigo kill Cassio and eventually kills his own wife Emilia when she tells the truth to the Moor and of course poisoning the ears of the Moor and inciting jealousy in his unsuspecting heart. But Iago as knavish as he is, he is being tormented by the same emotions that he is exploiting in Othello. Iago is convinced that he has been cuckolded.Another reason seems to be his resentment at being passed over for promotion. But to me, losing a promotion hardly seems to be cause enough to warrant the kind of havoc that he brings about.
The backdrop in the play is the Ottomans attacking Venice and Othello being in charge of repelling the attack . That earns him favors from the nobility of Venice and also their support for his marriage.
There is a long entertaining monologue from Iago where he chides Roderigo for wanting to kill himself out of disappointment and he keeps repeating the phrase “Put money in thy purse” . Iago is convinced (or convincing Roderigo) that given enough money , Roderigo would be able to snatch Desdemona from Othello. Shakespeare (or Cinthio) gives us fascinating character sketches for these very different human perspectives . Othello is a remarkable man but when clouded by emotions of jealousy, he is unable to think normally. Sometime back , I read that the human brain is actually 3 different brains , the lizard brain or the amygdala is responsible for controlling emotions , the mammalian brain and finally the cerebral cortex which is in charge of rational thought . In terms of speed ,the amygdala functions in milliseconds , whereas the cortex takes up to 30 seconds to process the same information so if you see a tiger , your amygdala tells you to flee but rational thought takes longer to process the same information and in 30 seconds one could end up as the main course for the tiger. On the other hand when Othello is plagued by jealousy , his normal cognitive powers are no longer evident , having been hijacked by emotions and he is doomed to make disastrous decisions . Shakespeare displayed shrewd insight into human psychology 400 years prior to us finding the actual reasons. Also the term ‘Green eyed monster’ seems to have its origins here in this play.
Another one of my favorite passages was from Desdemona .
Men’s natures wrangle with inferior things,
Though great ones are their object. ‘Tis even so;
As expected in a tragedy , the main characters Othello and Desdemona lie dead . Today we would blandly call it a murder suicide . Iago is in chains and taken off to be tried .
If there is a lesson to be learned from Othello , it is that Hasty Othello should have been more patient before strangling Desdemona . He certainly needed to understand whom he could and could not trust
Haste hath no redemption in Shakespeare’s world … or ours.