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Deathless brilliance
Categories: Film, Utrinque Paratus

Latest ‘Othello’ steeped in ‘double knavery’

By Leigh E. Rich

After enduring 400 years punctuated by the collapse of empires, the advent of motion picture technology, and the avocado-green kitchens of the ’70s, Shakespeare has earned the appellation quintessential artist and sage of humanity. His plays, often adapta tions of stories popular during his generation, still deliciously unveil the pith of mankind. And Oliver Parker’s latest film version of “Othello” corroborates the Bard’s timelessness.

A tale of love, lust and revenge, Parker’s rendition of Othello’s tragic demise isn’t the first on-screen adaptation. Movie icons like Orson Wells (1951), Laurence Olivier (directed by Stuart Burge in 1965) and Anthony Hopkins (in a more recent BBC production) have all portrayed the Moor of Venice. Parker’s “Othello”, however, is of a different color—the Moor is no longer played in blackface. Laurence Fishburne (“Boyz N the Hood,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”) merits acclaim beside these Hollywood veterans. His engrossing and riveting Othello is riddled with all the charms and conjurations with which he is accused of beguiling the senator’s daughter, Desdemona.

Although it is a story about the desires and afflictions of men, “Othello” depicts one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters: Desdemona. Played by French actress Irene Jacob, the educated and adventurous daughter of Brabantio falls in love with the Moor and his tales of battles, bravery and escapes. She loves him for who and what he is, not for “what she feared to look on.”

Jacob embodies Desdemona’s fresh but determined gracefulness so admired by some of her contemporaries. As Cassio states, “She is indeed perfection.” Her male counterparts, including her husband Othello, however, fail to see that her strength lies in her h onesty and purity (unlike theirs, which is grounded in military prowess and social power). And she brazenly confronts her father and his Venetian colleagues who look upon the newly wedded and mismatched couple with disdain.

Othello, in service in the Venetian military, is summoned to Cyprus to deal with the Turks on the night of his marriage. Desdemona accompanies her husband to the island, and the action is geographically moved (a common trend in Shakespeare) to an “uncivil ized” world surrounded by water—a symbol for the unconscious. Othello appoints Cassio, likely the only respectable male in the play, his right-hand man, thus provoking the jealous and completely wicked Iago to orchestrate the characters’ downfalls.

Iago preys upon the carnal and jealous nature of men and successfully persuades the Moor that Desdemona and Cassio have cuckolded him. He is a genius of “double knavery,” convincing others of his righteousness and creating “the net which shall enmesh them all.” It is through Shakespeare’s understanding of male sexual jealousy that Iago’s villainy triumphs. Woman is seen as weak, frail and insatiable, causing Othello to “honorably” strangle his faithful bride “else she betray more men.”

Parker douses his “Othello” with a sexuality that is both gentle and callous. Othello and Desdemona’s passionate consummation lacks naiveté, while Iago’s brisk relations with his wife lack tenderness. Parker’s dark cinematography through which Iago slithers, matched with Shakespeare’s repeated references to drowning, displays the human capability for malevolence.

The infallible Kenneth Branagh is uncomfortably impressive as Iago, a man who would drown cats and blind puppies as well as stab everyone in the back for his “sport and profit.” With his steel blue eyes and thin-lipped smile, Branagh’s devil is angelically sinister—so much so that no one heeds Iago’s many confessions of his true nature. He even informs his puppets, “But I am much to blame.”

The genius of Branagh and the medium of film are perhaps two of the greatest extensions of Shakespeare’s deathless brilliance, although Parker proves equally up to the task. Competing with four other Shakespeare adaptations in Hollywood this year including Ian McKellan’s “Richard III,” set in 1930s Germany, and Branagh’s “Hamlet”—Parker and his talented cast “bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” and reify that “there’s magic in the web of it.” 

Rich, L.E. (1996, February 1). Deathless brilliance: Latest ‘Othello’ steeped in ‘double knavery.’ Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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