Ask Philippa: Othello

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Philippa giving a grove talk
Philippa Kelly giving a Grove Talk; photo by Jay Yamada

Ask Philippa: Othello

On October 13, Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly began a second round of Shakespeare In-Depth with Othello. Exploring what it meant to be Black in Shakespeare’s time and what it means to read the play today, the class lead to a vibrant conversation between participants, as well. Below Philippa answers some of the questions from that session. Othello continues this week and lectures on Romeo & Juliet begin October 27 followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream on November 10. Learn more and register here!

Q: Why did Othello need Cassio to woo Desdemona if she was already falling in love with him?

Philippa: This was the norm amongst upper-class people at that time – have someone woo in your place so as to speak well of you. (Much as we might do in introducing people today – a friend tells you how amazing a person is who wants to be well-represented). Also, think of Othello’s final speech “Speak of me as I am – nothing extenuate,” (V,ii) – we are asked to question the whole idea of how we represent people as being who they “are”. This is so integral to the play – eg. Cassio thinking he is destroyed with the destruction of his reputation; Othello thinking that he has lost himself “Othello’s occupation’s gone…” (III,iii)

Q: An interesting question for me is what is the tragic flaw of the society that produces this tragedy. One flaw or trigger is the tendency to see women as inherently deceitful, which is raised in the opening scene, when Brabantio says she has deceived her father.   Othello can imagine Desdemona as deceitful but never suspects Iago. Another is the framing of Othello as an outsider or Other.  Do you think this context mitigates Othello’s culpability somewhat or makes him seem less flawed? 

Philippa: I love this question. Wow, what a beauty! Yes, men of this time were predisposed to be mistrustful of women because of the fact that they may sleep with another man and have his child, pretending it was the husband’s. So because fidelity was so tied up with money, this made mistrust of women a vital part of society.

Q: What was the intended effect of the use of prose rather than verse in Othello?
Philippa: Much of the play is written in blank verse. Also, just so you have a sense of how this works: The high moral points of the play are all spoken in rhythmic verse. For example, in Act II.i, Cassio speaks a prayer for Othello’s safety which  is in iambic pentameter:
“Great Jove, Othello guard,
And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath,

That he may bless this bay with his tall ship…” 

Q: In 1995, African-American novelist Julius Lester published a novel of “Othello” in which Iago is also black and sees Othello as having become too culturally white. It seems you would have to cut some of Iago’s dialogue to do this, but could you stage Shakespeare’s play this way? 

Philippa: This was done by the RSC a few years ago – – When Roderigo, in the opening episode (set in a gondola), refers to Othello as “the thick-lips,” we saw Iago freeze and then decide to joke with Roderigo to make light of it. So in this production, the racism was felt as an undercurrent that Iago is trying to deal with in regard to himself as well as Othello. So powerful!

Q: Do you think that Othello and Desdemona actually consummated their marriage?  Seems like they got interrupted… then Desdemona asked that her “wedding sheets” be put on their bed, before Othello murdered her. Foreshadowing of a shroud?

Philippa: This (is Othello married?) is a question that Shakespeare leaves deliberately open – Iago asks Othello, “are you fast married?” I think one of the questions here is: “What does it mean to be married?” Is it a rite? And what might this mean? Many people in Shakespeare’s time were betrothed before marriage, which stood in place of actual marriage – and so it is plausible for Iago to think that Othello and Desdemona may have entered this kind of pre-marital contract. But the whole issue of what “married” and “fast married” means is so important in terms of the vulnerability that Iago intends to provoke in Othello. What can Othello rely on? How can or should he feel in terms of a true, firm, reliable identity?

Q: Philippa, have you considered reframing Othello as an imposter syndrome, and Iago as a predator?
Philippa: I think this is a wonderful thought – also, are we all imposters, playing ourselves as well as we can?
Q: Likewise, might jealousy be Othello’s shadow self?  I am sure this must have been considered before.
Philippa: Yes, and I think jealousy is everyone’s shadow self. Jealousy is the part of us that is vulnerable, riven, incredibly interrogative. 

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