Tag Archives: Jealousy

Othello – William Shakespeare

Plot Summary – Othello is a black Moor who has converted to Christianity and fought for Venice against the Ottoman Turks for well over thirty years. At the beginning of the play, he has eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, Othello’s ensign, is at the same time angry that he has been passed over for promotion by Othello for the young and less experienced Cassio and plots to destroy Othello. Manipulated by Iago, Othello ends by suffocating Desdemona, believing her to be unfaithful to him.

Generally, when I have heard or read “Othello” discussed, professors and critics are primarily fascinated with the character of Iago, the villain who manipulates and destroys Othello. He often becomes, for these people, the main character, the one who drives the plot and possesses the most modern sensibilities with his cynicism, wit and amorality. The other characters are obsessed with virtue, personal honor, loyalty and military glory.

However, one of the aspects of the play that fascinated me is not so much Iago’s great genius – something that gets covered a lot – but Iago’s hypocrisy. Iago, a deeply twisted soul, has acquired the reputation of a good and honest man who tells it like it is. The kind of man everyone trusts and confides in. Even strangers confide in him and trust him.

Othello: “This fellow’s of exceeding honesty, And knows all qualities, with a learned spirit of human dealings.”

We tend to think of hypocrites as being like Tartuffe or Elmer Gantry. Often religious hypocrites, often gratuitous. Tartuffe is so obviously a hypocrite that nearly every character – except the one who matters – sees through him. But Iago is so successful and subtle a hypocrite that it is almost never remarked on, even by critics.

Iago: “In following him, I follow but myself. Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end; For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In complement extern, tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at; I am not what I am.”

But his chief weapon is not his genius for understanding character’s weaknesses and exploiting them (though he does have a genius for this), but for being believed by those characters. It wouldn’t have mattered how well he understood their weaknesses if no one trusted him. He is able to plant little poisonous seeds into so many characters precisely because everyone expects him to speak the truth, no matter how painful it supposedly is for him to do so. As Othello says after Iago begins his campaign by implying that Cassio and Desdemona are in love:

“This honest creature doubtless Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.”

Paul Robeson as Othello

Half Iago’s proof is his own word. The further “proofs” that Iago contrives are pretty flimsy, but he only needs a little something to seem to concur with his own word. Thus his scheme of stealing Desdemona’s handkerchief and planting it with Cassio. Not overwhelming proof. As the Doge  of Venice says at the beginning of the play when Desdemona’s father asserts that Othello must have used dark arts to captivate her, “To vouch this is no proof.”

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that there is a dichotomy in the play between Venice (law and order) and the Turks (uncivilized barbarians). Most of the play is set on Cyprus, an outpost for Venice, somewhat far away from the reassuring law of Venice. In Venice, everyone, including Desdemona, is allowed to state their case when her father complains to the Doge. In Cyprus, Othello does not investigate the matter, but merely believes.

Emilia, Desdemona’s maid and Iago’s wife, speaks in defense of Desdemona and shrewdly divines that someone must be playing on Othello’s jealousy, but is discounted by Othello as “a simple bawd.” He does not believe Desdemona, either. He only trusts Iago, his ensign.

In some ways, Othello shares some parallels with General Ulysses S. Grant. Both great generals, saviors of the country they serve, but both indiscriminately trusting. Iago knows that “The Moor is of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem to be so.” This can serve one well as a general, who must trust his men, but is deadly in politics and relationships. Grant’s presidency was wracked with corruption and he lost his fortune near the end of his life because he trusted the wrong people. This trust in his soldiers, however, leads Othello to mistrust the words of others, especially those of the women.

The racial aspect of the play was less prominent than I expected. Othello is indeed an outsider, which makes him vulnerable, but although Iago makes a number of gross racial comments, most characters hold him in esteem and admire him. Desdemona says that “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind, And to his honors and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” In fact, Desdemona goes so far as to say – after hearing his stories of all that he had suffered and done – that she wished she could have been “such a man.” His reputation is one of greatness and dignity and his fall is mourned. He’s a bit like a colossus from Greek times – a man known for thirty years of upright implacability and honor, brought low by petty human jealousy.


Posted by on July 5, 2017 in Books


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Rebecca (1938) – by Daphne du Maurier

Rebecca (1940)Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Manderley, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

A somewhat forgotten book today, it was interesting for me to discover that Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, was one of the most successful books of the twentieth century, has been translated into many languages and has never been out of print. It has also been adapted into three film versions, most famously in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 version, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson – a film version that du Maurier reportedly liked. She wrote many other books, several of which were also adapted into movies, but she would always be associated with Rebecca.

However, I might not have heard of Rebecca if I hadn’t watched the movie. I saw the Masterpiece Theater version from 1997 with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox and then I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s version, which I especially have grown to appreciate. It might possibly be my favorite Hitchcock and it is not a typical Hitchcock film. The accuracy is mostly owing to producer David O. Selznick, who believed that if a book were good, it ought to be adapted faithfully. Hitchcock, however, did not like to adhere to his source material; he preferred to use a book or short story as an inspirational spring board for his own vision. He did that with du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn in 1939 and du Maurier was not pleased. But when I began reading Rebecca, I was amazed at how closely the movie follows the book, in spirit, character, events and dialogue.

Of course, the first thing that happened when I sat down and opened the book was that I could hear Joan Fontaine’s voice narrating the opening words, just as she did at the opening of the film, and I could see Hitchcock’s opening scene and it took me forever to get off the first page because I was so busy seeing and hearing the movie. However, once I got going, my reading was much smoother.

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

Daphne du Maurier in boat at her home

Daphne du Maurier in boat at her home

The book is narrated in the first person. We never find out the narrator’s first name or maiden name, but know her only as “I,” and Mrs. de Winter. But she is actually the second Mrs. de Winter. The first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, was drowned ten months earlier.

She meets Maxim de Winter at a resort in Monte Carlo, where she is a paid companion to a Mrs. Van Hopper. She falls completely and rather desperately in love with him and, like a fairytale, is amazed when he asks her to marry him. But she is not sure if he loves her. She has heard repeatedly about his first wife, Rebecca de Winter, who he is said to have adored.

And when she comes to Manderley, she instantly feels how inadequate she is to the task of being mistress of the house. She feels that people are comparing her to Rebecca and she can see all around her evidence of Rebecca, at her desk, in the west wing of the house that has been shut up. People mention Rebecca frequently, except Maxim, and she hears about her from both the servants and the neighbors; how beautiful Rebecca was, how accomplished she was at all things. Rebecca becomes a constant ghost in the house that the narrator is comparing herself to and she believes Maxim is comparing them, too.

One of the great characters in the book is Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. She was played in Hitchcock’s movie by Judith Anderson, who also would be known for playing Lady Macbeth several times, which gives one an idea of what kind of a person Mrs. Danvers is. She is part malign and chilling presence, always prepared to cow Mrs. de Winter and demonstrate how little she has a place in Manderley, and part tragic and pathetic figure who worshipped Rebecca and has been devastated by her loss. She is, from the beginning, an implacable enemy to Mrs. de Winter.

Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers

Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter and Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers

The book is an interesting combination of genres. It is part ghost story, part gothic romance and part psychological study of insecurity and jealousy. Her son, Christian, has said that du Maurier maintained that she was not writing a romance novel, but “a study in jealousy.” The ghost element comes in how Rebecca is, essentially, haunting the house, but she is haunting it in people’s memories and in their minds. The new Mrs. de Winter becomes so obsessed with Rebecca that at one point it completely skews how she is understanding the behavior of others, especially her husband. She becomes convinced that he regrets marrying her and is still grieving for Rebecca.

It is gothic in the mystery regarding Maxim and Rebecca and in the suspense and setting at Manderley, with the sea and the dark woods and the fog and rain and storms. Maxim also strikes me as a classic gothic hero; elegant, impatient, masterful in his treatment of people, and brooding.

But as Daphne du Maurier maintained, it was mostly about jealousy. I think that is a significant reason why the book has an enduring appeal; it taps into something that all people understand. We all know what it’s like to look at another person and think how inadequate we are in comparison to them. It is a story about insecurity and the narrator blames herself, several times, for her own timidity. It prevents her from understanding, both because she is too timid to ask and because her insecurity is distorting her understanding of things.

Daphne du Maurier does a remarkable job of portraying the inner life of Mrs. de Winter. Many people believe that it was partially autobiographical, but whatever the reason, it is almost painful to read at times, because the emotions are very recognizable: the shyness, awkwardness, discomfort with people and the role that she is expected to play as mistress of Manderley. There is the mortification she feels when she accidentally breaks a china cupid and, like a guilty child, tries to hide it only to have Mrs. Danvers accuse another servant so that Mrs. de Winter has to confess it. She is clumsy, her clothes are not chic, her manner shrinking and all the while the servants are looking on. And like many shy people who think inside themselves a lot, she has a tremendous imagination. She is constantly imagining how something is going to turn out or what a group of people are talking about and she draws on experience, expectation and the things she’s read to fill out her inner fantasy. When she believes that Maxim is going to jail, her imagination kicks into gear and she has it all figured out from when they take him away to the last time she will see him before he is executed. The irony is that her flights of imagination are almost always wrong.

Menabilly, the estate that Manderley was based on

Menabilly, the estate that Manderley was based on

Although du Maurier called it a study of jealousy, the book is also an expression of du Maurier’s own love affair with one particular estate called Menabilly, in Cornwall. She first had a sight of it while she was vacationing with her sister and would frequently come back to trespass on the land, once even slipping through a window to wander around the now shut-up house. Later, she received permission to walk on the land and even later rented the place.

Her love of the place is very central to the book. Maxim loves his home and lovingly describes the various scents of the flowers and the gardens and one particular valley and his love plays a central role in his story and is the cause of several of his decisions, unwise ones, that drive the plot.

It’s an interesting book in that a character who is dead should play such an important part of the story. In fact, much of the story is past by the time the book begins. Rebecca was never much admired by the critics, but du Maurier felt that they had missed the point. They took it at face value and didn’t look at it more closely. Most books celebrate, or at least are about, bold and impetuous characters and I’ve never particularly identified with them. Rebecca goes a little farther. It gives a wonderful portrayal of the inner life of a shy and insecure person and how they view the world.


Posted by on October 6, 2014 in Fiction


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