Thursday, September 29, 2005
Hatred. To truly hate someone is much like truly loving someone. We can become blind with hatred. We can even hate so much that we forget why we hated in the first place. Such is the case with Iago, arguably William Shakespeare’s most complex and inscrutable villain. In Othello, Iago’s reasons shift from scene to scene and act to act; we never get a definitive idea of why he wants to destroy the play’s hero.
This weekend PacRep opens Othello at the Outdoor Forest Theater with much of the same cast and crew that produced the excellent Beard of Avon, which is still running at the Circle Theatre. Ken Kelleher directed both plays.
“Hatred is a very illogical and irrational emotion, and it’s hard to justify it rationally,” Kelleher says. “It’s about the blind pursuit of something. The whole play revolves around Iago’s hatred for Othello. Yet it’s not clear why he hates Othello.”
Stepping into the role of Iago, Michael Jacobs quickly discovered that he couldn’t decipher his character’s emotions either.
“Why does he do what he does? That’s the basic question,” Jacobs says. “Ken and I decided that there is no reason. He gave me indications that the character is working from instinct rather than by motivation. He’s making manipulative decisions on the fly—he reads and controls the other characters’ emotions moment by moment. Nowadays, we’d call someone like Iago psychotic or a sociopath.”
Jacobs and Kelleher feel that, ultimately, Shakespeare didn’t want to define Iago’s motivations—he wanted to leave that interpretation up to the audience.
Kelleher says this results from Shakespeare’s embrace of “the psychology of humanity.”
“There isn’t a clearly defined reason for everything we do in life,” Kelleher says. “That’s certainly no clearer than in a play like Othello. Iago is the one we know the least about. We don’t understand his pathology. Othello we understand, yet at the end of the play Iago remains a cipher. Shakespeare embraces the unknown in the human.”
In the first scene, Iago claims to be angry at Othello for having passed him over for the position of lieutenant. At the end of the third scene, Iago says he thinks Othello may have slept with his wife, Emilia (“It is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He has done my office”). And Iago mentions this suspicion again at the end of Act II, Scene One, explaining that he lusts after Desdemona because he wants to get even with Othello “wife for wife.”
Iago is often funny, especially in his scenes with the young, rich and foolish Roderigo, in which he seems to be almost winking at the audience and celebrating his own cleverness. But he is also a coward, which is evidenced in the fact that he kills his own wife—a fact which has inspired some critics to theorize that Iago is a misogynist or even a homosexual whose unrequited love for Othello is the motivation behind his attempts to destroy him.
A common explanation for Iago’s deep hatred of Othello is racism—Othello is a “Moor,” a black man in 16th century Venice. But Kelleher rejects this analysis, however. He says that although Othello is seen as an outsider, he is not hated because of the color of his skin.
“Shakespeare was very interested in how society accepts or rejects the ‘other’ in society,” Kelleher says. “There’s always been a sense of oppressed segment of society, even in Elizabethan England, yet we look at the issue very differently today than they did because of our history of racism here in America.”
In the end, Kelleher says, Othello is singled out by Iago, but racism is never the primary reason. “He just hates the Moor,” Kelleher says.
Actor Jonathan Peck, who plays the character of Othello, disagrees, and believes that racism is a major theme of the play.
“Directors like to push it into the background. [Othello] becomes the outsider and foreigner, not just black,” Peck says. “But it’s so obvious if you read the script.
“Othello is lionized by the Venetian state as a hero, and that’s why he’s tolerated. However, like Colin Powell, it’s only because he’s useful at the time. If Colin Powell’s not Colin Powell, then he has the same problems I do when I walk into a store.”
Perhaps, then, racism is the purest form of hatred; a hatred unbiased by details; a blind hatred that only sees color. Racism makes no rational sense, much in the same way that Iago’s cruel agenda makes no sense, which seems a good argument that Iago’s motivations are indeed racial.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to Iago. His lack of motivation—or perhaps his inability or unwillingness to express his true motivation—makes his actions all the more terrifying. Yet it’s precisely this type of psychological complexity that makes Shakespeare’s work eternally rich and Othello such a rewarding theater experience.
OTHELLO OPENS SATURDAY AT 7:30PM AND CONTINUES FRIDAY THROUGH SUNDAY EVENINGS AT 7:30PM, WITH AN ADDITIONAL PERFORMANCE ON THURSDAY, OCT. 13 AT 7:30PM AT OUTDOOR FOREST THEATER, MOUNTAIN VIEW AND SANTA RITA, CARMEL. $22-$36/GENERAL; DISCOUNTS AVAILABLE. 622-0100 OR WWW.PACREP.ORG.