“Chaos is come again”: “Othello” at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon

The following is a not really a review – I don’t really do reviews, as such! – it’s more an attempt to make sense of various thoughts that struck me on seeing The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Othello from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, directed by Iqbal Khan. I saw it as a live cinema broadcast on August 26th, 2015.

Not being a very frequent theatre-goer, I cannot claim to be in any way an authority on interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays in performance, and of how these interpretations have changed over time, but I do get the distinct impression that depictions both of Othello the play, and of Othello the character, have changed quite significantly: they have both become much harsher than they used to be. Not that interpretations used to be all sweetness and light: that is hardly possible in a play in which the titular character ends up murdering his innocent and helpless wife onstage; but actors and directors are, it seems to me, less inclined nowadays to portray Othello as an essentially noble figure. Some forty or fifty years ago, judging by the audio recordings that still survive from that era, and remembering also what I can of a wonderful performance I had attended in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre back in 1979 (with Donald Sinden a quite magnificent Othello), performances emphasised a certain nobility, a certain majesty, in Othello’s character: indeed, it was because he was so grand and so noble a figure that his transformation into a murderous beast seemed so particularly horrible. Actors found in his lines a solemnity and grandeur that, even at the height of his homicidal rage, seemed to foreshadow the sublimity and magnificence of Milton:

Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea,
Whose icy current and compulsive course
Ne’er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due on
To the Propontic and the Hellespont,
Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,
Shall ne’er look back, ne’er ebb to humble love,
Till that a capable and wide revenge
Swallow them up.

But more recent Othellos tend to eschew this kind of approach: instead of the sonorous grandeur that actors of a previous generation had found, modern Othellos tend to break these lines up into shorter units, preferring staccato rhythms to long legato lines. The effect is to diminish, or even to deny altogether, the sense of nobility in the character. I suppose this reflects in part a modern sensibility that is sceptical of the very idea of nobility or of sweetness: actors do not generally depict Hamlet as a “sweet prince” either these days. But I wonder to what extent this harsher, and, some would say, less sentimental view of Othello – both of character and of play – is informed by the well-known 1952 essay by F. R. Leavis, “Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero” (included in this collection), in which it is argued with considerable vigour that Othello, far from being the noble and dignified protagonist that A. C. Bradley had described in his famous study, is actually a most ignoble and, indeed, shallow personage, vain and self-dramatising, unworthy of Desdemona, and unable, given his shortness of vision and triviality of mind, even to come close to appreciating her worth.

Bradley is very much Leavis’ target in this essay, and in every way, Leavis seems Bradley’s opposite: where Bradley is gentlemanly and charming, Leavis is abrasive, relishing a trenchant and quite wicked vituperative wit. And where Bradley tries to find the best he can in the characters, Leavis only sees characters who are morally short-sighted, blinkered, self-serving, and most ignoble.

There are two main points in which Leavis takes issue with Bradley: firstly, he rubbishes Bradley’s contention that it is really Iago who is at the centre of the play; and secondly, he rips to shreds – with some gusto – the idea that Othello possesses even the slightest hint of nobility or of dignity. On the first point, I agree with Leavis whole-heartedly: Iago certainly has more lines than Othello, but this hollow, pathetic shell of a man, lacking as he does anything of Macbeth’s pained consciousness of the damnation of his soul – lacking consciousness even of the existence of a soul that may be damned – simply does not have enough substance to hold the centre of so immense a tragic work. But Leavis’ second point – that Othello is similarly hollow – I find more troubling. If the drama is essentially that of an empty eggshell cracked open revealed its emptiness, then why does it grip so powerfully? Why is it that by the end of a reading, or of a good performance, we feel that we have glimpsed into the very depths of the human soul?

Leavis certainly does not see the play in such grand terms: at the end of his essay, he writes:

It is a marvellously sure and adroit piece of workmanship; though closely related to that judgement is the further one that, with all its brilliance and poignancy, it comes below Shakespeare’s supreme – his very greatest – works.

I couldn’t help feeling when I first read this essay that, given Leavis’ view of the character of Othello, his judgement on the play could not be otherwise – that the mere cracking open of an empty shell to display the emptiness is not and cannot be the stuff of supreme masterpieces. But since it does seem to me self-evidently a supreme masterpiece, it must surely follow that there are flaws in Leavis’ arguments. However, what is remarkable is that even when Othello is played as Leavis had seen him (Antony Hopkins’ interpretation in the 1981 BBC production strikes me as very Leavisite in conception), the drama retains still its extraordinary power. In other words, Leavis’ conclusion is not inevitable, even if we were to accept his arguments: Othello himself can be hollow and empty, lacking in nobility or in majesty, but the tragic power of the drama, even from this Leavisite perspective, somehow remains undiminished. And it is worth investigating where this tragic power lies: if it is not in the depiction of the great fall of a great man – since Othello is not great here to begin with – where is it?

My own view of the play – an interpretation that for many years has satisfied me, and which continues, despite Leavis, to satisfy – I tried to describe here, and there’s little point my repeating it; however, Leavis’ view is certainly worth considering, not merely because he was among the most perceptive of literary critics both of his or of any other generation, but also because his interpretation is coherent, and entirely consistent with Shakespeare’s text. But it does leave us with an enigma: a drama that, on the surface, should really be quite trivial – the exposure of a hollow man as but a hollow man – turns out to be gut-wrenchingly intense. How can this be?

This latest RSC production is Leavisite in many ways. Othello, played by Hugh Quarshie, is allowed little of the nobility and majesty that I remember from Donald Sinden’s performance of the late 70s, or is apparent in the thrilling performance by Richard Johnson in an audio recording from the 60s. This lack of nobility is clearly a conscious decision, since Quarshie, given his stage presence and charisma, his superb verse-speaking, and, not least, his imposing and sonorous voice, is certainly more than capable of depicting nobility had he so wanted. But this Othello is far from noble: we see him happy to oversee torture of prisoners as a routine part of his job; and, right from the start, he seems to express little sense of wonder that Desdemona had chosen him: he takes it all in his stride, as if all this were no more than his due. He is a supremely confident man, well aware that he can flout the authority even of a Venetian senator with impunity, and unsurprised that so valuable a prize as Desdemona – for prize is how he seems to consider her – could fall to him.

“Prize” is also the word Iago uses to describe Desdemona:

Faith, he to-night hath boarded a land carack:
If it prove lawful prize, he’s made for ever.

And in the next act, even as Othello expresses his love for Desdemona, he does so very disconcertingly in terms borrowed from the world of commerce, as if his union with Desdemona were no more than a financial contract:

Come, my dear love,
The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue;
That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you.

All this is in Shakespeare’s text: seeing Othello in such Leavisite terms is a valid interpretation of the text, and not an imposition. And, somewhat unexpectedly and very disconcertingly, it seems to point to certain parallels between Othello and Iago. These parallels are reinforced in this adaptation, as Iago here is also played by a black actor – Lucian Msamati. This casting removes – to a certain extent, at least – racism from Iago’s motivation, but what it substitutes in its place is most disturbing: for if it is true that Iago manages to bring down Othello to his own bestial level, the journey Othello makes is not a very long one; the implication seems inescapable that Othello, even from the start, is no stranger to Iago’s mindset.

Not that they are identical, of course: the differences are as important as the similarities. But the similarities are worthy of notice, for only when we are aware of these similarities do we realise the significance of the differences. Both Othello and Iago are aware, I think, that they are missing something in their lives – something vitally important. Iago, in a deeply significant aside, says of Cassio:

He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly

And Othello, in parallel, knows that were he not to love Desdemona, his very soul would be lost, and his entire world collapse into chaos:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul,
But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.

The use of the word “again” seems to imply that Othello is no stranger to “chaos”: for all his seeming confidence in the affairs of men, in other matters, he knows how precariously balanced his soul is between redemption and perdition.

But there, where I have garner’d up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up…

And here, I think, we see a very significant difference between the two – a difference that Leavis does not comment upon: where Iago wishes to destroy that quality which he knows he lacks – that “daily beauty” – Othello craves it, for he sees it as a path towards redemption. And this, I think, is what gives the play its gut-wrenching tragic power: even if Othello were to be everything Leavis claims he is, he seeks redemption: Iago doesn’t. Iago, working by “wit and not by witchcraft”, cannot bring himself even to believe in such a thing.

If I am on the right track on this, the tragedy lies not in Othello’s fall from a great height, but in his failure to reach that height in the first place. That height may be but vaguely glimpsed, but Othello, unlike Iago, is capable of glimpsing it, however vaguely, and the entire play seems suffused with a terror of that chaos that lies just under the surface of our lives – a chaos that prevents us from attaining those vaguely glimpsed heights, and which instead hurls our very souls from heaven.

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in “Othello”. Image courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago in “Othello”. Image courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company

This latest RSC production certainly captures that sense of terror. Othello as a play is curiously paced: the tempo seems quite slow for the first half, and, given that the play is most famous for its depiction of jealousy, Othello doesn’t even start to be jealous till after the half-way mark. But once it starts to grip – somewhere in the middle of Act 3, as Iago starts applying his poison – it doesn’t let go: even the “Willow song” scene, as Emilia prepares Desdemona for bed (IV,iii), where Shakespeare gives us something of a calm before the final storm, the air is thick with menace and with forebodings of impending doom. Perhaps no other play by Shakespeare, not even King Lear, leaves us quite so emotionally drained as does this.

It is Iago rather than Othello who commands centre stage for most of that first half, and Lucian Msamati gives a quite extraordinary performance here of a man who is, psychologically, deeply damaged. Some actors present Iago as a sort of likable villain, but Msamati’s Iago is, from the beginning, a dangerous sociopath. There is a powerful scene in the fourth act in which Desdemona, in her innocence and naivety, turns to Iago for help; and in this production, she kisses Iago in gratitude for what she thinks is his good advice. The sheer sense of physical revulsion with which Iago reacts to this kiss is startling. This is a man who finds the whole of humanity disgusting – he is obsessively cleaning up after everyone, as if the very physical presence of others is to him an abomination.

In the text, we clearly see Iago making up his plot as he is going along, and I have long thought that Iago engineers the destruction of Othello and of Desdemona only because, having underestimated the violence of Othello’s reaction, he is forced into doing so; but here, Iago wills the destruction from the start: it is merely the mechanism of his plot rather than its end that he has to improvise. Far from being a likable villain, this is an Iago whose very presence makes one’s skin crawl.

Quarshie’s Othello, as we first see him, is a man who is, seemingly, supremely confident. But Iago understands his weakness. He may not understand what Othello is aspiring towards, or why, but he is as aware as Othello is of the chaos that lies just below the surface, and he is aware of it because, in this, Othello resembles himself. And Othello’s surface cracks very quickly indeed. When Othello exits some half way through III,iii – the great scene in which Iago starts to apply his poison – he is perturbed, yes, but still in control of himself; but when he re-appears later in the scene, he is a raging maniac. This bipolar nature is, admittedly, written into the text itself, but I don’t think I’ve seen any actor emphasise this to the extent that Quarshie does.

Desdemona is one of Shakespeare’s most thankless roles. I think Shakespeare did depict a real flesh-and-blood woman rather than merely a symbol, but there seems little for the actress to do other than display vulnerability and bewilderment. By the end, of course, she proves herself saintly, as she miraculously forgives Othello seemingly from beyond death itself, but on the path to that ending there seems little scope for the actor playing Desdemona to make her mark. Joanna Vanderham does a fine job – at times going so far as to display resentment – but in terms of stage presence, Othello and Iago are too powerful to be easily removed from the centre. The “Willow song” scene – that calm before the storm that is nonetheless saturated with such deep foreboding – is particularly effective, with Ayesha Dharker a most effective Emilia.

Not that the production is beyond criticism. I regretted in particular the excision of Iago’s improvised cynical rhymes in II,i: presumably they were removed because they show Iago as too sociable a figure, but it would have been interesting to see how they might have fitted with Lucian Msamati’s interpretation. But the biggest misjudgement came, I think, in the later scene in which Cassio becomes drunk while on guard duty. Here. Iago’s song is replaced with a sort of karaoke scene, in which the soldiers improvise rhymes to each other. While most productions can get away with a bit of judicious cutting, it is never advisable to add lines to Shakespeare’s text, as the added lines are bound to suffer in comparison with what is around it. This is especially the case when the added lines are merely trivial doggerel, as they are here. Further, these lines indicate racial tensions amongst the soldiers, and there seems little point introducing such a theme in a play that gives no scope to develop it. The audience is simply left wondering what purpose this scene serves.

When, shortly afterwards, we see Othello supervising the torture of a prisoner, hooded and terrified, that seemed to me at first also to be a misjudgement – a fashionable reference to current world events that does little to advance the drama. But I was mistaken in this: this torture scene does actually fit into the overall concept of this production: such torture does take place in military bases, after all, and, since this Othello is not the majestic and noble figure that Bradley had envisaged, it is not amiss to see something of the brutal world with which he is so familiar. And in any case, torture is central to the play: Iago tortures Othello; Othello, in turn, tortures Desdemona (and, one may argue, himself); and at the end, once Iago’s villainies are exposed, Iago is threatened with actual physical torture. When Othello re-emerges in III,iii, raving like a maniac, he ties Iago to a chair that had previously been used for torture, and threatens to torture Iago physically even as Iago continues to torture him mentally: it is a scene of powerful theatricality. The only point that I’d take issue with is the appearance of Desdemona on stage even as the torture victim is still present. Now, given the conventions of the theatre, it is entirely possible for two people to be on stage together, and yet be in different places, so it is not necessarily the case that Desdemona sees the torture victim, or even that she is aware of the torture; but having them both on stage at the same time does inevitably implicate Desdemona in the torture, and that is surely a mistake.

So it’s not a flawless production by any means; but once it starts to exert its grip, it doesn’t falter. It demonstrates once again that a Leavisite view of Othello does not diminish the tragic greatness of the drama, but merely shifts its focus: the awe and the terror we experience are not occasioned by the fall of a Great Man, but springs, rather, from an awareness of the horror and of the chaos that lie immediately below the seemingly civilised surfaces of our human lives. However we view Othello, however we view its central character (who is most certainly Othello himself, and not Iago, as some still continue to insist), there is no other drama, except perhaps Sophocles’ Oedipus, that is quite so gut-wrenching in its effect.


3 responses to this post.

  1. An insightful piece. I can imagine Quarshie doing a fine job; I wish I could see it.


  2. Thanks. Anton Lesser, too; must be good.


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